Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 181
(The entire section contains 791 words.)
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
“Pet Milk” is told from the perspective of a young man as he recalls his youth in an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago and the course of his relationship with his girlfriend in the year after they graduated from college. The story begins with the narrator musing in midwinter about the patterns made by the addition of Pet evaporated milk to a cup of coffee. The swirls of the mixture lead through a series of associations to the thought that evaporated milk is an emblem of an earlier time in his life when a first-generation family had to find an adequate substitute—Pet milk for fresh cream—to compensate for the limits imposed by their economic condition.
Images from his grandmother’s home establish something of the ethos of an urban community in which “all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together” and then lead toward a more recent time when the swirl in a liqueur glass in a Czech restaurant connects the past to the recent present when the narrator and his girlfriend, Kate, have begun to spend time together for drinks after work. The restaurant has been designed to give the residents of the neighborhood a touch of their origins in Europe, and an older waiter’s continental charm encourages the romantic aura that is gradually enveloping the young couple.
The story shifts at this point to the immediate present on the narrator’s twenty-second birthday, a warm spring day in May. To celebrate, he orders champagne and oysters, a conspicuously upscale and flamboyant choice in contrast to the standard fare—sausage and potatoes—on the menu at the Pilsen. The spirit of the occasion arouses the emotions of the couple, and instead of ordering dinner, they leave the premises to find a suitable location for a more intensely intimate evening. Because the narrator shares an apartment and Kate lives in a suburb north of the city, they head toward a local park, but when they discover that the gate is locked, they board the last express train to Evanston. There are no seats available, and the couple, finding the conductor’s compartment empty, enter the small enclosure and shut the door.
As the train rushes through the city, the couple embrace, their bodies moving in a rhythm that is accentuated by the motion of the train. An aura of eros envelops them, and the powerful emotional reaction of the narrator is conveyed through a series of familiar landmarks that he recognizes from many previous rides along this track. Past experience and a vision of a possible future blend in a moment of heightened awareness.
In the aftermath of the passionate encounter, the narrator begins to notice the faces of passengers on the platform as the express train slows down while passing through local stations. His senses sharpened by his involvement with Kate, he has a moment of brief and temporary insight about the character of the people he sees. In particular, his attention is caught by a sixteen-year-old high school boy, who grins when he sees the couple and starts to wave at them. The narrator falls into a comfortable reverie in which all the images of the ride blend and blur into a mood of lassitude, but the image of “that arrested wave” stays with him. It induces a reflective recapitulation of his life through the past half-dozen years, and as the story concludes, the narrator remembers how he stood on the station in similar fashion, his life and future open but uncertain, eager for some sign of life’s bounty. His last thought is that he would “have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.”