Читать книгу After This - Alice McDermott


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Страница 1

Alice McDermott

After This

For Mildred

I

Leaving the church, she felt the wind rise, felt the pinprick of pebble and grit against her stockings and her cheeks-the slivered shards of mad sunlight in her eyes. She paused, still on the granite steps, touched the brim of her hat and the flying hem of her skirt-felt the wind rush up her cuffs and rattle her sleeves.

And all before her, the lunch-hour crowd bent under the April sun and into the bitter April wind, jackets flapping and eyes squinting, or else skirts pressed to the backs of legs and jacket hems pressed to bottoms. And trailing them, outrunning them, skittering along the gutter and the sidewalk and the low gray steps of the church, banging into ankles and knees and one another, scraps of paper, newspapers, candy wrappers, what else?-office memos? shopping lists? The paper detritus that she had somewhere read, or had heard it said, trails armies, or was it (she had seen a photograph) the scraps of letters and wrappers and snapshots that blow across battlefields after all but the dead have fled?

She squinted against the sunlight on taxi hoods and bus windows, heard the rushing now of air and of taxis, wheezing buses, and underneath it all something banging-a loosened street sign, a trapped can, a distant hammer-rhythmic and methodical. The march of time.

And then George approaching, his hand stuck to his hat and the hat bent into the onslaught. She went down the steps just in front of him, drawn more by forward momentum than by any desire to meet up with, or to avoid, her brother’s latest best pal.

The cold wind made it difficult to breathe, as if it could snatch your next breath before you had time to swallow it, and she bent her head, too, hand to her hat, submerged in wind and beginning to imagine herself slowly losing ground with each step forward, slowly beginning to stall, and then to sail backward-a quick scramble to regain ground and then another sailing backward. In church she had prayed for contentment. She was thirty, with no husband in sight. A good job, an aging father, a bachelor brother, a few nice friends. At least, she had asked-so humbly, so earnestly, so seriously-let me be content.

And now a slapstick windstorm fit for Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton.

It was either God’s reply or just April again, in the wind tunnel that was midtown Manhattan. The scent of it, the Easter scent of April in the city, all around her, in the cold air itself as well as on the shoulders of the crowd; the smell of sunlight and dirt, something warming at the heart of it all.

And then she felt his hand on her shoulder and he shouted, “Mary Rose,” which bound him forever to her brother and her father and her life at home since nowhere else did she tolerate the double name. His head was still lowered, his hand still on his hat-he might have been waiting for the right opportunity to doff it-and he peered around at her from under its brim as if from under the rock of another life.

And she, her hand on the back of her own hat, did the same.

“Hello, George,” she said. She could feel the crunch of city grit between her back teeth.

“Some wind,” he said. He had one eye closed against it, the other was watery.

“You’re-telling me,” she said.

They walked together to the corner and as they stepped off the curb, he suddenly reached up and took her raised elbow-the one that led to the hand she held against her hat-and kept it between his fingers as they crossed. She thought he must look like a man attached to a subway strap. At the next corner, he did the same; a gesture that was either brotherly or proprietary, but awkward either way, as if one of them were blind or doddering, or as if both were involved in some odd, raised-elbow folk dance. At Forty-sixth, the light was against them and the wind paused enough for her to take her hand off her hat while they waited with the crowd.

She turned to him-was he going to speak? His eyes were teary from the wind, red-rimmed and bloodshot. His nose was running and there were tears on his windblown cheeks. She clicked open the purse that hung on her arm and found her handkerchief, but he refused it, reaching into his overcoat for his own. He mopped his face and blew his nose before the crowd got them moving again and as they got to the curb, she placed her left hand on her hat so he could reach her elbow at a more convenient angle-which he did, guiding her across the street as if she were a novice pedestrian, and this time, perhaps, putting a little more pressure behind the fingertips that held her.

“Where are you headed, George?” she asked him. He shouted something unintelligible into the wind.

“Have you eaten yet?” she asked, because it was only polite. And then the wind paused completely, as it will in April, a sudden silence and maybe even the hint of warmth from the sun, so that he replied with odd gentleness, “Yeah, I had my lunch.”

They were at the door of the restaurant. The wind was picking up again. “Would you like some coffee?” she asked.

He shook his head and she could not deny her own relief. “I’m out of time,” he said. And then added, “What about dinner?”

“Lamb chops,” she told him. “You coming over?” Anticipating already a stop at the butcher’s to pick up two or three more.

He shook his head. There was another tear streaming down his windblown cheek and as he replied she lifted the handkerchief in her hand and wiped it away, feeling the not unpleasant pull of his beard against the thin cotton.

He said, “I mean, what about us having dinner?”

The wind puffed up again and they both put their hands to their hats. “Where?” she said, rudely, she realized later. But it was like having a passing stranger suddenly turn to sing you an aria. Anyone would have a second or two of not quite knowing what was really going on.

“Out,” he told her. He was a broad-faced man who looked good in hats. Who looked better now than he did at home, where he had been thus far only the unremarkable source of her brother Jimmy’s unpredictable enthusiasms. “At a restaurant,” he said. And then to make himself clearer, “The two of us.”

“Tonight?” she said, and then they both turned away for a moment from the peppered wind. When they turned back, he said, “Why not?” but without conviction, confirming for them both that this was a sudden impulse that most likely would not last out the afternoon. “What if I come by at seven?” he said.

She paused, squinting, not for the chance to see him better but for him to see her. “I’ll have to cook those lamb chops anyway,” she said. “Or else Jimmy and my father will be gnawing the table legs by the time I get home.”

He smiled a little, unable to disguise what she was sure was a bit of confusion about his own impulse. He said again, “I’ll come by at seven,” and then turned back into the wind.

She pushed open the door to the restaurant. More lunchtime bustle, mostly women in hats with their coats thrown over the backs of chairs, the satiny linings and the fur collars and cuffs, the perfume and the elegant curves of the women’s backs as they leaned forward across the small tables, all giving the hint of a boudoir to the busy place. She found a seat at the counter, wiggled her way into it. Saw the man beside her who was finishing a cigarette give her a quick up and down from over his shoulder and then turn back to flick an ash onto the remains of his sandwich. She imagined returning his dismissive stare, and then maybe even letting her eyes linger distastefully on the crust of bread and the bitten dill pickle and the cigarette debris on his plate. She could slide the ashtray that was right there between them a little closer to his elbow-hint, hint. Emboldened, perhaps-was she?-by the fact that she’d just been asked out on a date.

She ordered a sandwich from the waitress, whose pretty youth was still evident in the doughy folds of her weary and aging face, and a cup of tea. And then she held her hands over the steaming water for a few seconds. Thin hands, long fingers, with a kind of transparency to the chapped skin. Her mother’s gold ring, inset with a silver Miraculous Medal, on her right hand. The man beside her rubbed his cigarette into the plate, then stood, swinging away from her on the stool and causing a slight ripple through the customers all along the other side of him. He took his overcoat from the hat rack and put it on standing just behind her, and then leaned across his empty stool, brushing her arm, to leave a few coins under his plate.

“Overcoats in April,” he said. “Some crazy weather.”

She turned to him, out of politeness, the habit of it. “I’ve never seen such wind,” she said.

He was handsome enough-dark eyes and a nice chin, though his hair was thinning. He wore a dark overcoat and a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie, and there was the worn shine of a brass belt buckle as he reached for his wallet. “Reminds me of some days we had overseas,” he said, taking a bill from his billfold.

She frowned, reflexively. “Where were you?”

He shook his head, smiled at her. Something in his manner seemed to indicate that they knew each other, that they’d had such conversations before. “In another life,” he said and snapped the bill and slapped the wallet and returned it to his pocket with a wink that said, But all that’s behind us now, isn’t it? He was thin and his stomach was taut and his starched white shirt was smooth against his chest and belly. The brass belt buckle,

. . .
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