A Bottle of Milk for Mother Summary
by Nelson Algren

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A Bottle of Milk for Mother Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Bottle of Milk for Mother” is an interrogation story that pits a young Polish hoodlum against an experienced, cynical police captain. From the time that he is brought into the interrogation room until he is led to his cell, Bruno struggles to maintain his composure, to use his street knowledge of law, and to avoid implicating his friend and accomplice Benkowski. Unfortunately for Bruno, while he succeeds in shielding Benkowski, his case is “well disposed of,” and he is left to tell himself, “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.”

Rather than have his men tell their story about the robbery and shooting of the drunk, Kozak insists on Bruno telling his own story. From the start, Kozak assumes Bruno’s guilt, as well as Benkowski’s, and Bruno is quickly reduced from denying knowledge of the drunk to explaining how the one shot must have “bounced.” Kozak dismisses out of hand the “just getting a bottle of milk for Mother” explanation, and then he attacks Bruno’s ego. First, Kozak breaks Bruno’s valuable spring-blade knife, a symbol of his manhood, and Bruno winces “as though he himself had received the blow.” Then Kozak calls Bruno “Lefty,” thereby appealing to his vanity, for he is proud of his pitching prowess, but also encouraging him to talk. Just as the appeal to motherhood fails, so do his appeals to identification (“I’m just a neighborhood kid”), to political interference (he “innocently” refers to his ties to the “alderman,” Kozak’s brother), to ethnicity (he claims that he spoke Polish to the drunk and tried to make him a better Polish “citizen”), and even to patriotism (his gang is not the Warriors but the “Baldhead True American Social ’n Athletic Club”).

As Bruno continues his story, Kozak abruptly intervenes with questions that assume Bruno’s guilt. When Bruno talks about his pitching arm, Kozak interjects, “So you kept the rod in your left hand?” When Bruno inadvertently mentions that “we” saw the drunk, Kozak notes the reference and asks, “Who’s ’we,’ Left-hander?” When Bruno declares that he does not know Benkowski very well, Kozak catches him in the lie. By the time that Bruno finishes his rambling story about what “possessed” the gang to shave their heads, there is no question about his guilt. After he refuses to implicate Benkowski, only the sentencing remains, and he receives no mercy.

Perhaps because Benkowski has advised him, Bruno assumes that he will be able to escape relatively unscathed. He considers acting “screwy,” weighs the chances of having a conviction overturned because of the newspaperman’s presence, figures that the “bouncing bullet” will mean manslaughter instead of murder, and believes that because “this is a first offense ’n self-defense,” he will receive only “one to fourteen” years as a sentence. Kozak asks, “Who give you that idea?” He appears to know that Bruno has been counseled, probably by Benkowski, and when Bruno again fails to cooperate, he explains...

(The entire section is 785 words.)