My son likes to joke that I like "inaction movies." It's true: give me conversations over a chase scene any day. So it's no surprise that Alice McDermott's quietly radiant seventh novel, Someone, an extraordinary portrait of the life of an absolutely ordinary woman, is right up my alley. You may wonder what there is to discuss about a book that on the surface, at least is about nothing more momentous than the quotidian existence of an Irish American, born on the cusp of the Depression, who marries, bears four children, and loses her parents and then her husband and brother. Plenty, as it turns out....
We first meet McDermott's appealing narrator, Marie Commeford, as a seven-year-old waiting for her beloved father to return from work. While sitting on the stoop of the Brooklyn brownstone in which her Irish-born parents rent the top-floor apartment, little Marie has a conversation with a neighbor's awkward daughter, who's returning from her job in Lower Manhattan. Pegeen Chebab is wearing an outfit with which McDermott pinpoints the 1930s era without needing to specify a date: her powder blue "good spring coat," single dove-gray glove (she's lost its partner, her fourth pair in a month), hat adorned with "a brown feather or two," silk stockings marred by a laddered run. Pegeen confides that she's fallen again on the subway, and was helped by a handsome stranger whom she hopes to meet again.
All this would be eminently forgettable, except for the fact that Pegeen dies the very next day, after tumbling down her apartment house steps. Marie flashes on Pegeen's story at various points throughout her life, including years later when she faints in a deli during her first pregnancy. Kind strangers come to her rescue, "and I remembered Pegeen then: There's always someone nice."
As in McDermott's 1992 novel, At Weddings and Wakes, and her 1998 American Book Award winner, Charming Billy, death figures large. Marie's best friend's mother, as cozy as Marie's is stern, dies in childbirth when the girls are ten, and Marie's father succumbs to cancer when she's fourteen. Her first job out of high school, which she holds for ten years, until that first wobbly pregnancy, is at the local funeral home, as a hostess greeting mourners. Living into her eighties, she survives both her husband and brother. Yet, far from morbid, Someone celebrates life (and its sustaining relationships) at its most commonplace, which of course includes death.
Hardly rebellious by today's standards, young Marie earns the sobriquets "our little pagan" and "a bold piece" for her willful impertinences. She gets her mouth washed out with soap after calling her brother Amadan, the Irish word for fool learned from Pegeen during that fateful last conversation. She obstinately refuses to learn to cook, seeing "a lifetime in the kitchen bearing down on us all" and recognizing that "Once you learn to do it, you'll be expected to do it." Only later does the deeper reason for her resistance emerge: her fear that if she masters cooking, like her best friend Gertie, she too will lose her mother.
The characters in Someone each bear crosses. Marie's is poor sight ? both literal eye trouble and metaphorical difficulty seeing what's right before her, including the source of her pious, studious older brother Gabe's resignation from the priesthood after just one year at his first parish. Walter Hartnett, Marie's first boyfriend, who cruelly breaks off their engagement for a better physical and financial prospect, is driven by his determination to overcome his gimpy, shorter leg. Heartbroken Marie, feeling "unlovely and unloved," asks her quietly supportive brother, "Who's going to love me?" " 'Someone,' he told me. 'Someone will.' "
He's right. Tom Commeford, the father of her four children, is a good man, if insecure and overly loquacious. McDermott tips us off to his kind nature with a lovely scene in the hospital after Marie's late-midlife surgery for a retinal tear. Panicking during the enforced blindness during her recuperation, Marie calls out, "Is anyone here?... 'Me,' a voice said hoarsely. And then, after a shy clearing of the throat, 'I'm here.'?'Who is?' I said?. I knew him, of course, by his laughter. 'Tom,' he said. 'Who else?'
" True to the way memory works, Someone jumps around in time, fast-forwarding from Marie's girlhood to her mother's last days (when Gabe has to reassure her that she isn't "home," meaning back in the Ireland she fled forever) and later to Marie's eye surgeries. In a lesser writer's hands, this could be jarring or undercut suspense though suspense is pretty much beside the point here. McDermott's graceful narrative leaps highlight the connective tissue that holds a life together.
Time, mortality, vision, and even the role of gossip in this tight community could all fuel book group discussions. What does severely myopic Marie fail to see, not just about her pained, sexually repressed brother but about her own life? It could be argued that her blindness is sometimes deliberate, as when she returns late one night from a fun date to Gabe's anxious fears that in sinning she runs the risk of them not being together in eternity. She comments, "It was all a tangle, my brother's faith, his vocation, his vows, his failure, and it only made me impatient to think of it, after such a lovely night. I wished he could be a simpler kind of man." She turns away, having learned at her funeral home job "just how to hold myself aloof whenever someone else's sorrow threatened to send me sprawling" a useful life skill, if used sparingly.
Someone accrues its power line by line, through the subtle precision of its prose. When Marie's elder daughter, a lawyer, curses the surgeon who botches her octogenarian mother's cataract surgery and urges her to sue, Marie observes astutely, "I had long ago stopped reprimanding my children for their language?. The world was a cruder, more vulgar place than the one I had known. This was the language required to live in it, I supposed." That said, she responds, "I don't see the world the way you kids do." Her daughter replies, "Sometimes you don't see it at all," and Marie reflects with her characteristic self-awareness and good humor, "getting the last word. I had to laugh at that. She was my daughter, after all."
In addition to McDermott's earlier novels, readers in search of quietly resonant books about ordinary people might want to check out Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and Gilead, and Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups and The Amateur Marriage. Religious themes are more prominent in Robinson's lush prose, whereas Tyler's wry focus is the tug between domesticity and freedom, with characters whose lives turn out so differently than expected that they often obsess over the road not taken or wonder whether they're leading the wrong life. Not so the people McDermott introduces, whose lives are grounded by a comforting weight that feels like destiny.
Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.
Reviewer: Heller McAlpin
The New York Times - Janet Maslin
…quietly exquisite…This is a book so deft that even the damp shirts and school blouses on the clothesline have some import…Ms. McDermott brings supreme ease and economy to summoning young Marie's memories in detail…and staying within specific time periods in Marie's life…Someone is a wonderfully modest title for such a fine-tuned, beautiful book filled with so much universal experience, such haunting imagery, such urgent matters of life and death…Ms. McDermott is plain-spoken even at her most wrenching.
The New York Times Book Review - Leah Hager Cohen
…the novel looks back on [Marie's] lifefrom her childhood in prewar Brooklyn…through the years of her marriage on Long Island…to her dotage in a nursing home. As such, it has something of the quality of a slide show, but one that's a bit jumbled…Each slide, each scene, from the ostensibly inconsequential to the clearly momentous, is illuminated with equal care. The effect on the reader is of sitting alongside the narrator, sharing the task of sifting the salvaged fragments of her life, watching her puzzle over, rearrange and reconsider themand at last, but without any particular urgency or certitude, tilting herself in the direction of finally discerning their significance. This is a quiet business, but it's the sense-making we all engage in, the narrative work that allows us to construct a coherent framework for our everyday existence. It's also a serious business, the essential work of an examined life…McDermott's excellence is on ample display here.
From the Publisher
“A fine-tuned, beautiful book filled with so much universal experience, such haunting imagery, such urgent matters of life and death.” The New York Times
“A remarkable portrait of an unremarkable life.” The New Yorker
“Fear and vulnerability, joy and passion, the capacity for love and pain and grief: Those are common to us all. Those are the things that great novelists explore. And it's this exploration, made with tenderness, wisdom, and caritas, that's at the heart of Alice McDermott's masterpiece.” Roxana Robinson, The Washington Post
“Just as McDermott manages to write lyrically in plain language, she is able to find the drama in uninflected experience. This is the grand accomplishment of Someone.” Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times
“[McDermott's] sentences know themselves so beautifully: what each has to deliver and how best to do it, within a modicum of space, with minimal fuss...She understands that nothing is unalloyed, not kindness or cruelty, not gladness or despair. Here, in the most deceptively ordinary language, she evokes both the world of light and that of darkness...[Someone] has something of the quality of a slide show...Each slide, each scene, from the ostensibly inconsequential to the clearly momentous, is illuminated with equal care. The effect on the reader is of sitting alongside the narrator, sharing the task of sifting the salvaged fragments of her life, watching her puzzle over, rearrange and reconsider them--and at last, but without any particular urgency or certitude, tilting herself in the direction of finally discerning their significance. This is a quiet business, but it's the sense-making we all engage in, the narrative work that allows us to construct a coherent framework for our everyday existence. It's also a serious business, the essential work of an examined life...McDermott's excellence is on ample display here.” Leah Hager Cohen, The New York Times Book Review
“Few contemporary writers can bring a time and place to life as well as Alice McDermott...Beginning in post-World War I Brooklyn, N.Y., and ending up in the split-level suburbs, [Someone] works the subtle magic of all good art--its particulars yield a universal world...Exquisitely observed, the story takes liberties with time, juxtaposing Marie's past, present and future. The characters of her childhood continue to turn up, literally or in memory. Their secrets, their scandals and tragedies, color her adulthood...McDermott treats every character with unsentimental fondness. She never sets herself up to forgive or excuse; instead, she embraces each person with a kind of wonder and acceptance that becomes its own form of morality. A rare and lovely writer, she's given us another book brimming with earthly grace.” Tricia Springstubb, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“Novelist Alice McDermott, winner of the National Book Award and three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...does scene. And she's at her most brilliant doing it in Someone...Someone is ordinary Marie's scattered retellings of her ordinary life. In interviews, McDermott has discussed retelling--how it is not the same as what happened. Events take place, and then they are over. What we have to say about them afterward is colored or shaded. Memory transforms. As Marie is retelling, she jumps forward and back in time. Her nonlinear presentation, combined with her strangely faulty eyesight, keeps us fascinated.” Isabel Nathaniel, Dallas Morning News
“[Someone is] filled with subtle insights and abundant empathy and grace.” USA Today
“‘Ordinary' is a word that's used a lot to describe McDermott's characters, mostly Irish and working class, mostly un-heroic in any splashy way. McDermott's heroine is named Marie and in Someone, we readers hear, in a fragmented way, about the marathon span of her life...yet in McDermott's unsentimental rendering, Marie's ordinary life becomes one for the record books. That's the spectacular power of McDermott's writing: Without ever putting on literary airs, she reveals to us what's distinct about characters who don't have the ego or eloquence to make a case for themselves as being anything special...[McDermott is] a master of silence and gesture.” Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“A quiet tour de force of a story. McDermott writes in lyrical yet methodical prose about an ordinary woman living an ordinary life, a seemingly nonstory with heartache, joy, suffering and beauty all simmering beneath the scattered recollections that make up the novel...Marie narrates the novel in a voice that is both subdued and compelling. Her life is punctuated by astute observations of the people around her as she grows from child to adolescent to adult...So skillful, so controlled...Ordinary life is made extraordinary by McDermott's tender characterization of women, of husbands, of sons, of parents--a life that includes both the dark and the light within the simply ordinary.” Eliana Smith, The Kansas City Star
“In this deceptively simple tour de force, McDermott...lays bare the keenly observed life of Marie Commeford, an ordinary woman whose compromised eyesight makes her both figuratively and literally unable to see the world for what it is...We come to feel for this unremarkable woman, whose vulnerability makes her all the more winning--and makes her worthy of our attention. And that's why McDermott, a three-time Pulitzer nominee, is such an exceptional writer: in her hands, an uncomplicated life becomes singularly fascinating, revealing the heart of a woman whose defeats make us ache and whose triumphs we cheer. Marie's vision (and ours) eventually clears, and she comes to understand that what she so often failed to see lay right in front of her eyes.” Publishers Weekly (starred)
“One of the author's most trenchant explorations into the heart and soul of the 20th-century Irish-American family...Marie's straightforward narration is interrupted with occasional jumps back and forward in time that create both a sense of foreboding and continuity as well as a mediation on the nature of sorrow...Marie and Gabe are compelling in their basic goodness, as is McDermott's elegy to a vanished world.” Kirkus
“Readers who love refined, unhurried, emotionally fluent fiction will rejoice at National Book Award–winner McDermott's return. McDermott... is a master of hidden intensities, intricate textures, spiked dialogue, and sparkling wit. We first meet Marie at age seven, when she's sitting on the stoop in her tight-knit, Irish-Catholic Brooklyn neighborhood, waiting for her father to come home from work. Down the street, boys play stickball, consulting with dapper Billy, their blind umpire, an injured WWI vet. Tragedies and scandals surge through the enclave, providing rough initiations into sex and death . . . A marvel of subtle modulations, McDermott's keenly observed, fluently humane, quietly enthralling novel of conformity and selfhood, of ‘lace-curtain pretensions' as shield and camouflage, celebrates family, community, and ‘the grace of a shared past.'” Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred)
“[An] incantatory new novel, in which the landscape of memory is a chiaroscuro in motion and the sightlines are seldom entirely unobstructed...The maudlin and the twee that have tripped up so many others' attempts at Irish-American portraiture are no temptation for McDermott. She does not genuflect, nor does she cling to grievance. She looks with a sharp gaze and a generous spirit, finds multitudes even in a clan's closed air, and tells a clear-eyed, kinder tale.” Laura Collins-Hughes, The Boston Globe
“Stories of the ordinary become extraordinary...It's easy to understand why McDermott has been a National Book Award winner and Pulitzer finalist for several of her books. Her subtle push to the reader to rely on other senses is brilliant, as her protagonist must do the same. McDermott has a way of transporting a reader not only to see the sights of the city, but also to absorb its heat, smell its food and feel its loss.” Beth Golay, KMUW Wichita Public Radio
“Alice McDermott is such a pleasure to read. Her new novel, her seventh, extends her outstanding body of work and further cements her stature as one of our finer writers.” Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“By presenting Marie's life in gorgeously realized anecdotes, [Someone] makes you understand that you, too, are constantly writing your own life, just as Marie has written hers, and that you might be more ordinary than you usually like to think yourself...[It will] astonish you with its image of the infinite anxiety of the human condition, the precariousness of existence, the difficulty and necessity of loving, the epics and comedies and tragedies and elegies embedded in every mundane, pedestrian life.” Stephanie Bernhard, Full Stop
“Someone, by Alice McDermott, is a book you will be lost in while the leaves float and swirl about...McDermott is the National Book Award winning author of Charming Billy. This is her first book in seven years and absolutely worth the wait.” Cathy Daniels, The Lansing State Journal
“Prize-winning author Alice McDermott has two hallmarks as a novelist: First, she writes intimately and well about the Irish Catholic world in which she grew up. Secondly, she uses ordinary people and events to uncover the extraordinary nature of daily existence...In her latest novel, Someone, she flips the tables with an unlikely heroine who finds love despite herself...Someone: It's not just a title, but also a central theme of a novel that looks at the wonders of love and marriage with a discerning eye . . . The most salient quality of the book, and McDermott's work in general, is her ability to capture the spoken and unspoken richness of our most important relationships.” Ellen Emry Heltzel, The Seattle Times
“There is the temptation, after reading Alice McDermott, to read nothing else for the longest time--to hold every exquisite word of her most exquisite novels in your head...That she exercises patience, compassion and wisdom where others emphasize strut, that she trusts herself with the power of scenes over the inflated intricacies of complicated plot. There is the temptation to use the word 'genius' in association with McDermott's name.” Beth Kephart, The Baltimore Sun on Child of My Heart
“[A] wondrous new novel...Child of My Heart extends [McDermott's] artistic triumphs, and we should rejoyce.” Los Angeles Times Book Review on Child of My Heart
“A master...As good as any literary novelist writing today, and when I say that I include the big guns: Russell Banks, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison...All [McDermott's] books mirror the essential truths of existence so sure-handedly that they are neither comedies nor tragedies, but merely true.” Anna Quindlen on Child of My Heart
“Has something classic about it...[Its] craftsmanship and its moral intelligence are as one...Immaculate.” The New York Times Book Review on Child of My Heart
“Richly textured, intricately woven...A work not only of, but about, the imagination.” Margaret Atwood, The New York Review of Books on Child of My Heart
“In a league of her own.” People on Child of My Heart
“We have echoes and stirrings of Hardy, Shakespeare, Dickens, James, Beatrix Potter, Christina Rosetti...[Theresa] is a vessel containing a multitude of heroines, a transcendence of ethereal beauties who loved and live in the minds of their readers and inventors.” Chicago Tribune on Child of My Heart
“[A] quietly enchanting novel, graced by McDermott's well-calibrated writing and observant eye... Filled with subtle truths and hard-won wisdom.” The Charlotte Observer on Child of My Heart
Read an Excerpt
Pegeen Chehab walked up from the subway in the evening light. Her good spring coat was powder blue; her shoes were black and covered the insteps of her long feet. Her hat was beige with something dark along the crown, a brown feather or two. There was a certain asymmetry to her shoulders. She had a loping, hunchbacked walk. She had, always, a bit of black hair along her cheek, straggling to her shoulder, her bun coming undone. She carried her purse in the lightest clasp of her fingers, down along the side of her leg, which made her seem listless and weary even as she covered the distance quickly enough, the gray sidewalk from subway to parlor floor and basement of the house next door.
I was on the stoop of my own house, waiting for my father. Pegeen paused to say hello.
She was not a pretty girl particularly; there was a narrowness to her eyes and a wideness to her jaw, crooked teeth, wild eyebrows, and a faint mustache. She had her Syrian father’s thick dark hair, but also the permanent scattered flush, just under the fair skin, of her Irish mother’s broad cheeks. She had a job in lower Manhattan in this, her first year out of Manual Training, and, she said, she didn’t like the people there. She didn’t like a single one of them. She ran a bare hand along the stone balustrade above my head. The other, which lightly held the strap of her purse, wore a dove-gray glove. She’d lost its partner somewhere, she said. And laughed with her crooked teeth. Fourth pair this month, she said.
And left the library book she was reading on the subway yesterday.
And look, tore her stocking on something.
She lifted her black shoe to the step where I sat and pulled back the long coat and the skirt. I saw the laddered run, the flesh of Pegeen’s thin and dark-haired calf pressing through between each rung. The nail of the finger Pegeen ran over its length was bitten down to nothing, but the movement of her hand along the tear was gentle and conciliatory. A kind of sympathy for her own flesh, which I imitated, brushing my own hand along the unbroken silk of Pegeen’s stocking, and then over the torn threads of the run.
“Amadan,” Pegeen said. “That’s me. That’s what I am.”
She pulled the leg away. The skirt and the blue coat fell into place again. Across the back hem and up the left side of Pegeen’s good spring coat there was a long smudge of soot that I impulsively reached out to brush away. “You’ve got some dirt,” I said.
Pegeen turned, twisted her chin around, arm and elbow raised, trying to see what she couldn’t see because it was behind her. “Where?” she said.
“Here.” I batted at the dirt until Pegeen threw back her head in elaborate frustration, pulling the coat forward, winding it around her like a cloak. “I’ll be happy,” she said, slapping at her hip, “to stop going to that filthy place.” Meaning lower Manhattan, where she worked.
She paused, put her nose to the air in mock confidence. “I’ll get a boyfriend,” she said. She batted her eyelashes and drew out a sly smile. They were great kidders, the Chehabs, and no boyfriends, it seemed, had yet called for Pegeen. “I’ll get myself married,” she said, and then licked all at once the four tall fingers of the gloveless hand and swatted them against the dirty cloth.
“Amadan,” she said again. Which, she explained, was her mother’s word for fool.
And then she released the skirt of her long coat and, dipping her shoulders, shook herself back into it again. She reminded me of a bird taking a sand bath. “I fell down,” she announced. She said it in the same fond and impatient tone she had used to describe the lost glove, the forgotten library book. “On the subway.” It was the tone a mother might use, speaking about a favorite, unruly child.
Pegeen blew some exasperated air through her pooched-out lower lip. “I don’t know what the blazes makes me fall,” she said impatiently. “I do it all the time.” She suddenly squinted and the flush just under her downy skin rose to a deep maroon. She lowered her face to mine. “Don’t you dare tell my mother,” she said.
I was seven years old. I spoke mostly to my parents. To my brother. To my teachers when I had to. I gave some whispered response to Father Quinn or to Mr. Lee at the candy store when my mother poked me in the ribs. I could not imagine having a conversation with Mrs. Chehab, who was red-haired and very tall. Still, I promised. I would say nothing.
Pegeen shook herself again, standing back and lifting her shoulders inside the pale blue coat. “But there’s always someone nice,” she said, her voice suddenly gone singsong. “Someone always helps me up.” She struck another pose, coy and haughty, as before, her chin in the air. She touched the feather in her hat. “Today a very handsome man gave me his hand. He asked if I was all right. A real Prince Charming.” She smiled again and looked around. Just a few doors down, the older boys were playing stickball in the street. There was a knot of younger ones on the curb, watching. Bill Corrigan was in his chair on the sidewalk just behind them.
Pegeen leaned forward once more. “Tomorrow,” she said breathlessly, whispering now, “I’m going to look for him again. If I see him, I’m going to get real close.” She leaned down, her hand on the banister above my head. “I’m going to pretend to fall, see? Right next to him. And he’ll catch me and say, ‘Is it you again?’”
All human eyes are beautiful, but Pegeen’s were very black and heavily lashed and gorgeous now, with the sparkle of her joke, or her plan, or, perhaps, her vision of some impossible future.
She straightened up. “We’ll see what happens then,” she said, sly and confident, her thick eyebrows raised. She swung her purse slowly, turned to move on. “That will be something to see,” she said.
At her own house, Pegeen didn’t use the basement door, as usual. She climbed the stone steps, taking them one at a time, like a small child. At the top, she paused again to swat at the back of her coat, only touching the dirt with her wrist. It was early evening. Spring. I could see Pegeen’s reflection in the oval glass of the outer door—or at least the blue heart of the reflection, which was both the reflection of her good spring coat and the evening light on her flushed face. Pegeen pulled open the door and the thin image in the glass shuddered like a flame.
I turned back to the vigil I was keeping on the stone steps. Vigil for my father, who had not yet come up from the subway.
From the far corner, the neighborhood’s men and working women were coming home. Everyone wore hats. Everyone wore trim dark shoes, which was where my eyes fell when any of them said, “Hello, Marie,” passing by.
At seven, I was a shy child, and comical-looking, with a round flat face and black slits for eyes, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth—a little girl cartoon.
With my heart pinned to my father’s sleeve in those days.
The boys were playing stickball down the street. Always at this time of day. Some of them friends of Gabe, my brother, although he, young scholar, remained inside at his books. The younger boys were lined at the curb, watching the game, Walter Hartnett among them. He had his cap turned backward and the leg with the built-up shoe extended before him. Blind Bill Corrigan, who had been gassed in the war, was on the sidewalk just behind Walter, sitting in the painted kitchen chair that his mother set out for him every morning when the weather was fine.
Bill Corrigan wore a business suit and polished shoes, and although there was a glitch in the skin around his eyes, a scarred shine in the satiny folds of his eyelids, although he was brought to the kitchen chair every afternoon when the weather was fine by his mother, whose arm he held the way a bride holds the arm of a groom, it was to him that the boys in the street appealed whenever a dropped ball or an untimely tag sent both teams, howling and cawing, to his side of the street. They were there now: shouting into one another’s face, throwing their caps on the ground, and begging Bill Corrigan to make the call. He raised one of his big, pale hands, and suddenly half the boys spun around, the other half cheered. Walter Hartnett rocked backward in despair, raising his good foot into the air.
I pushed my glasses back on my nose. Small city birds the color of ashes rose and fell along the rooftops. In the fading evening light, the stoop beneath my thighs, as warm as breath when I first sat down, now exhaled a shallow chill. Mr. Chehab walked by with a brown bag from the bakery in his hand. He had his white apron balled up beneath his arm, the ties trailing. There was the scent of new-baked bread as he passed. Big Lucy, a girl I feared, pushed a scooter along the opposite sidewalk. Two Sisters of Charity from the convent down the street passed by, smiling from inside their bonnets. I turned my head to watch their backs, wondering always why their long hems never caught at their heels. At the end of the block, the Sisters paused to greet a heavy woman with thick, pale legs and a dark apron under her coat. She said something to them that made them nod. Then the three turned the corner together. The game paused again, and the boys parted reluctantly as a black car drove by.
I shivered and waited, little Marie. Sole survivor, now, of that street scene. Waited for the first sighting of my father, coming up from the subway in his hat and coat, most beloved among all those ghosts.
* * *
Once, I stepped up to the glass case in the delicatessen in Rego Park, ready to call out my order. I was pregnant with my first child, hungry, a little light-headed. In a few months’ time, I would be at death’s door, last rites and all—my mother swinging her purse at the head of the priest who came to deliver them—but on this day there was only a sudden rupture behind my eyes. I fell without knowing I fell, like a sack of potatoes. And then I was faceup on the wooden floor. My legs were turned beneath me. There was an ache along the fleshy edge of my palm. Faces above me. More pain dawning, in my ankle, at the back of my skull. There was tuna salad on my hand and on my elbow and on the edge of my spring coat, where I had caught somebody’s order going down. I saw only the aproned bosom of the owner’s wife as I was lifted and led to a chair in the back room. There was sawdust on the floor and brown towers of damp cardboard boxes along one wall. A strong smell of salami. They sat me down in a metal folding chair that was the same color as the cardboard boxes, before a flimsy card table scored with tape. There was the slow reconstruction of what had happened. A policeman appeared, offered a trip to the emergency room, although the consensus among the other women crowded into the narrow doorway was that the slow sipping from a warm bottle of Coke would revive me. Which it did. And then the roast beef on rye I had been about to order, which the owner’s German wife watched me eat in the crowded back room—the meat piled thickly and as tender as butter—until the women were satisfied enough to declare, No harm done. The owner’s wife gave me a container of chicken soup and a quart of rice pudding to take home. She was a broad, solid woman with thick arms and legs. She swiped vigorously at the stain on my coat with a wad of dampened paper towel, and I remembered Pegeen then: There’s always someone nice.
* * *
My father appeared at the corner. Paused for his evening paper. Topcoat and hat to mark him as a clerk, not a laborer. I only raised my head above my knees when I saw him—although surely something, some sinewy energy, some delight, tensed and trembled itself through my thin back and shoulders as I gazed down the sloping street. The boys playing stickball parted once again for a passing car: it was the ebb and flow of their game. I turned away from them, raised a hand to the balustrade to get ready to spring. My father was a thin, slight man in a long coat. His step was quick and jaunty. He, too, wore shoes with a high shine.
I waited until he was halfway toward home. And then I flew, across the sidewalk and into the air as he lifted me—the newspaper held tightly under his arm the only impediment, it seemed, to an ascent that I saw in my own imagination as equivalent, somehow, to the caps the boys had thrown into the air when Bill Corrigan made his call. I would not have been surprised to hear them cheer.
My father smelled, always, of fresh newsprint and cigarettes, of the alcohol in his faded cologne. I caught my chin on his buttons as he lowered me to the ground. A brief, painful scrape that upset my glasses and made my eyes water. I walked the last few paces home balanced on his shoes. We climbed the steps together and into the fragrant vestibule—fragrant with the onion odor of cooked dinners and the brownstone scent of old wood—and up the narrow stairs and into the apartment, where my mother was in the kitchen and my brother at the dining-room table with his books.
The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty, city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining-room table where the cloth—starched linen expertly decorated with my mother’s meticulous cross-stitch—had been carefully folded back along the whole length so that Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood.
It was the first light my poor eyes ever knew. Recalling it, I sometimes wonder if all the faith and all the fancy, all the fear, the speculation, all the wild imaginings that go into the study of heaven and hell, don’t shortchange, after all, that other, earlier uncertainty: the darkness before the slow coming to awareness of the first light.
* * *
I followed my father to the narrow closet and held the newspaper for him while he hung up his overcoat and placed his hat on the shelf. He went to the couch in the living room and I went with him, fitting myself into his side, leaning heavily against his arm—“like a barnacle,” he said—as he read the evening paper.
The slipcover, also my mother’s handiwork, was a paradise of hummingbirds and vines and deep-throated flowers, the colors, if not the images, subdued by the thick brocade. Sinking into my father’s side, slipping under his arm as he patiently lifted the open paper to accommodate me, I entered that paradise via my tracing fingertip and squinted eyes, until he said, “Marie,” patiently, and asked me to sit up a bit.
He kept a long key chain attached to his belt, and perhaps to keep my bony weight from putting his arm to sleep, he pulled the keys at the end of it out of his pocket and placed them in my hands. There were two keys, small but heavy, and the metal disks with his embossed name and number from his time in the army, as well as a small St. Joseph medal tinged with green. I turned them over as he read, traced them with my fingers, tested the weight and the jingle of them. I wondered if Bill Corrigan, who had been gassed in the war, carried something of the same in his pocket.
When my mother called to me to get up and set the table, my father put his hand to the top of my head.
* * *
Slipping out of that first darkness, into the dusty, city light of these rooms, I met the blurred faces of the parents I’d been given—given through no merit of my own—faces that even to my defective eyes, ill-formed, you might say, in the hours of that first darkness, were astonished by love.
* * *
We gathered for dinner, a piece of oilcloth spread across the table now, on an ordinary night—the last concession to my sloppy childhood, because in another few weeks, after my First Communion, we would abandon the oilcloth cover at meals and once again dine on starched linen, like civilized people, as my father put it. Mashed potatoes and slices of beef tongue and carrots boiled with sugar. Canned peaches with a tablespoon of heavy cream. Then the cloth was folded back again, and once again my brother spread his blotter and his books across the cleared end of the long table.
In the narrow kitchen, standing over the steaming sink, her hands red to the elbow, my mother was unconcerned. “Pegeen Chehab,” she said, “has big feet.” And girls that age, she said, were always tripping over themselves, looking for boys.
She handed me a wet saucer. I was not yet allowed to dry the dinner plates. The kitchen was warm and close, the one window was steamed, and the pleasant scent in the air was of soap and of the spring sunshine that had dried my mother’s apron.
For my mother, who loved romance—especially an American romance, which involved, for her, a miraculous commingling of lives across comically disparate portions of the globe—the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Chehab was a continual source of wonder and delight. She told the story again: The place where Mr. Chehab was born was called Mount Lebanon, in a country called Syria. A desert, she said. With a desperately hot sun and palm trees and dates and pineapples and sand and—she shrugged a little, her voice suddenly uncertain—a mount, apparently.
She handed me a small drinking glass and said, “Be sure you don’t put your hand inside, just the cloth.”
His own parents, she said, wrapped him in swaddling clothes and carried him away from that sunny place. They crossed over the Mediterranean Sea. They scaled Spain.
She squinted at the damp tiles above the sink as if a map were drawn there.
They climbed through France, reached Paris, which is called the City of Light, crossed the White Cliffs of Dover—there is a song—got to Liverpool, no doubt, to Dublin, found Cork, as she herself had done when she was seventeen, wearing three skirts and four blouses and carrying only a purse so her stepfather, a terrible man, would not know she was leaving home.
At the harbor, Mr. and Mrs. Chehab found a ship that brought them to Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, they put the baby into a cradle, in the cool corner of a basement bakery on Joralemon Street.
And all the while, my mother said—a trill of profound amusement rising into her voice—in County Clare, Mrs. Chehab—who was a McMahon then—was taking her own first breaths. And shivering, no doubt, in the eternal dampness of that bleak country’s bitter air.
My mother looked at me from over her shoulder, her hands still in the sink.
There’s a burned taste to the air at home, she said—not for the first time. A taste of wet ashes and doused fire. It can make you believe, she said, that you live in the permanent aftermath of some nearby sorrow. Somewhere in the vicinity, you’re always thinking, someone’s house has recently burned to the ground.
In that damp and dirty country, my mother said, Mrs. Chehab grew to be a tall girl, a girl who would have no trouble getting up the steep gangplank that led from the dock at Queenstown—a climb my mother herself had struggled with, she said, because of the rain that fell on the day she sailed, because she was alone, with no man’s arm to hold on to and none offered across the whole trip, not until my father gave her his on the steps at the Grand Army Plaza.
But Mrs. Chehab would have had no trouble keeping those long feet steady against the slick and pitching floor of the ship that carried her here. Where she stopped at the Syrian bakery one day and saw a small, dark-eyed man behind the counter.
I watched my mother move her hands through the water once more, searching for stray silverware, smiling her sly smile at the delightful oddity of it all. Then she pulled the stopper from the sink, and I closed my eyes and put my fingers in my ears to block out the terrible sound.
When I removed them and opened my eyes, my mother was swabbing the counter. “And after all that,” she said, “and after all that, along comes homely Pegeen, with her mother’s blotched skin and her father’s big nose and those great long feet, God help her.”
* * *
When the dishes were put away, my father went to the narrow closet for his hat and said, “Let’s take a stroll.”
We went down the stairs together. Shined black tips of his neat shoes and perfect fall of his trouser cuffs over the smooth laces. A lilt in the tap of his step on the uncarpeted stair, the tap of our steps. Out through the vestibule and onto the sidewalk again. We were in front of the Chehabs’ building when he dropped my hand and paused to light a cigarette, the smoke rising white from under the bowed brim of his hat. And then he threw his head back with the pleasure of that first exhalation of smoke. Made me look up as well to see the stars. A thin handsome man, forty years old.
It was one of his shanty cousins, the McGeevers, who would later say that a body so thin was nothing more than a walking invitation to misfortune.
* * *
He took my hand again. There was the sure familiarity of his grip, warm and firm, the palm broad against my small fingers. We walked to the other corner, away from the subway, although there was still the sound of it somewhere beneath our feet. There was as well the sound of a trolley on another street, the sound of someone calling to a child, someone shouting inside a building. Lights at windows were growing brighter, growing warmer, it seemed, as the air grew cold. There was the scent of metal, whiff of tar, of stone, of dog droppings left beside the wrought-iron cage that surrounded a scrawny tree. The soft gabardine of my father’s suit jacket against the back of my hand. At the corner, we turned and he tossed the glowing cigarette into the street.
“I’ll be only a minute,” he said. He put his two hands on my shoulders, as if to place me more securely on the sidewalk before another stoop, and then turned to push through a narrow iron fence that led down a dim alley. The air was black, but the lights in the buildings were warm and golden. Only a few people went by, their coats drawn around them. One man touched his hand to the brim of his hat as he passed and I dropped my chin shyly. And then rose up on my toes after he’d gone, putting my face to the streetlight as if to a warm sun. I squinted, and the light burst and stretched itself yellow and white into the darkness. I heard the squeal of the iron gate and my father was beside me again, the sharp smell of the drink he’d just had in the air about him. He held out his hand. In the center of his palm there was a white cube of sugar, sparkling in the light. I plucked it up and slipped it into my mouth. I turned it with my tongue. Watching, my father pursed his lips and shifted his jaw, as if he, too, felt the sugar on his teeth. Then he took my hand again.
* * *
We passed the Chehabs’ parlor window, where there was a lamp and a chair and the back of Mr. Chehab’s dark head and broad shoulders as he smoked a cigar and read the evening news.
* * *
In the vestibule, my father shot back his cuffs and put his warm palms to my face. He studied me seriously, smiling only a little—I was a round-faced, narrow-eyed, homely, comical little thing—until my cheeks were warm enough, he said, to pass muster with my mother. And we climbed the stairs once more.
There was tea, with a slice of plain cake, while my mother, with one of his schoolbooks in her lap, put my brother through his paces: catechism questions, Latin declensions, history’s dates and names. He answered all without hesitation, breaking off pieces of the cake only after he had finished a round. And then, with a jagged line of cake still left on his plate and half his milky tea still in his cup, he pushed back his chair and walked slowly to the far end of the table.
My father, at the opposite end, moved his own cup aside and leaned forward. I could see the reflection of his pale throat and chin in the table’s dark wood, like a face just beginning to appear in a still pool of black water. Or disappear. “What will we have tonight?” he said.
My brother ran his hands over his thick hair and then rested them both on the back of the chair that was before him. He lifted his eyes to the wall just above my father’s head. He was a handsome boy with narrow shoulders and fair hair and large brown eyes. He flushed easily. “‘The Seven Ages of Man,’” he said clearly, gripping the chair. “By William Shakespeare.”
He began. As Gabe recited, I watched my father vaguely shape his mouth around the words, unconsciously moving his lips in much the same way he had done when I turned the sugar cube on my tongue.
My mother kept her head bowed, studying her red hands in her lap while the poem wound on, looking like a woman at prayer, or hunched beside a radio.
I lowered my chin toward the table, raised my cup only briefly from its saucer. What tea was left was growing cold, but that was how I liked it. I took a small sip and then replaced the cup with more noise than was polite, which would have earned me a sharp look from my mother had the sound not coincided with the end of the poem and my parents’ gentle applause.
“Some Shelley,” my father said.
My friend Gerty Hanson was made to say the Rosary with her family every night after dinner, her mother and father and all three of her big brothers kneeling on the floor around the parents’ bed. I had joined them once or twice, a ritual no less tedious than this, although Gerty, at least, was given the chance to lead the prayer every fifth decade, the chance to speak out into an attentive silence—whereas here I was meant only to listen to my brother, who had won the elocution medal at his school for what seemed to me more years than I could number.
Gabe raised his eyes and directed his voice to the simple chandelier above our heads. It was new to my ears, his voice, both deeper and somehow less certain than it had been just days ago. I watched the protruding Adam’s apple bob in his pale throat. “‘Ode to the West Wind,’” he said. “By Percy Blithe Shelley.”
My parents might have seen the priest in him then, the way he stood at the end of the table, offered up the lovely words.
I saw only, in my mind’s eye, a picture book illustration I had found somewhere, of a cruel face in the clouds, bloated cheeks and pursed lips that blew down upon the huddled figure of a man in a great dark overcoat.
“‘Oh, hear!’” my brother said, reciting, and then hesitated for a moment before he abruptly lifted a palm to the ceiling—a gesture he might have been instructed to make, at school, perhaps, although it did not suit him or his steady voice.
Without raising my chin, I looked around. Gabe had left half the cake on his plate. I knew he would eat it in a single, triumphant bite when he returned to his chair. My father’s slice was already gone. As was my mother’s. I looked at my own plate again, knowing full well I hadn’t left a crumb, and was surprised to discover there, in its center, another white sugar cube. I looked to my father, who only shifted his eyes briefly and briefly smiled. I looked to my mother, who was still studying the ruddy hands cupped in her lap, the thin gold band of her wedding ring. I snatched up the cube of sugar and quickly dropped it into the cooling dregs of my tea. My father whispered the last words of the poem as my brother recited them, and then, once more, my parents were quietly applauding.
My brother said, “‘Ozymandias,’” as I lifted my teacup again. I felt my mother’s finger against my thigh, a quick poke to remind me to listen.
I listened, my eye on the lovely, tea-soaked dregs of sugar at the bottom of the china cup. I imagined it was the very same sweet, silver sand mentioned in the poem, desert sand, sand of Syria and Mount Lebanon. I watched with one eye squinted as the lovely stuff moved slowly across the ivory light, advanced sluggishly toward my tongue, and then, when it was too slow, the tip of my finger. I was thinking of a baby wrapped in sparkling clothes, being pushed slowly in a white carriage, slowly through the city of light, toward Brooklyn, when I felt the sting of a slap against the back of my head and then its quick echo of pain. I pulled my finger from the cup. My mother hadn’t raised her eyes from her lap.
Gabe finished the poem and returned to his place at the table to drink down the cold tea and devour whole the bit of cake, his face flushed with his triumph. Patiently, my mother turned to me to ask what would happen if a teacup shattered while my fingers were inside it.
Some neighbor or faceless relation was named, a silly girl who’d “sliced herself good” with her hand inside a glass while she was washing up. A suggested image of soapy dishwater darkened with blood following me to the bath, where I watched my mother’s blurred red hand as it tested the seamless stream of steaming water.
I deployed all my excuses in a rush: the water was too hot, the house too cold, I’d had a bath last week, I had a stomachache, I was sleepy. But my mother had a grip on my arm, and my thin legs were all obedience. They raised themselves against my will, up over the cold rim of the high tub and into the steaming water, where the pain from the heat became a chill in my spine and my thin body—bright red to my calves but pale white, nearly blue, through my chest and my arms—became no more than a scrap of cloth, a scrap of cloth caught and shaken and snapped by a sudden wind. I wanted to weep. I wanted to be sick. I saw for a terrible moment that my body was a scrap of cloth, that my bones were no more than porcelain, as were my rattling teeth and the china skull that contained them. I saw how a hoop of light, the water’s shifting reflection, swung up to the top of the tile wall, and then swung down again, carrying me with it, nauseous and full of despair. I sat. The warm water covered my arms and touched my chin. My mother let go of my forearm, although the imprint of her grip lingered.
There, she said. There now. After all your fussing. You just have to get used to it.
* * *
In those days I still slept in the crib that had been my brother’s, in a corner of the small room I shared with him. A peeling lamb painted on the headboard, a blurred line of grass and meadow flowers at the foot. Low light. Prayers. My parents’ dry lips to my forehead and some single, barely whispered word at the end of the day that told me I was cherished above all things by these indistinct and warm-breathed shadows, leaning over me at the end of the day.
Gabe came in sometime later. Another blur of darkness and light—dark clothes and fair hair—coming in to take the pajamas out from under his pillow. When he returned, he was a brighter blur because he was dressed in them. Through the bars of the crib, I watched him kneel to say his prayers and then pull down his covers and climb into bed. He slept on his back, a wrist over his eyes, like another picture book illustration I had seen, of a laborer resting in a field. The light stayed on most of the night, and this gesture, his wrist thrown over his eyes, was his silent accommodation to my fear of the dark.
I woke to find the light had been put out. There were only the soft-edged, geometric patches of streetlight on the ceiling, across one wall. I threw a leg over the side of the crib, fitting my toe into the space between the bars, and carefully—I was not an athletic child—leaned to bring the other over. I lowered myself to the cold floor and then crossed it on tiptoe. Gabe opened his blankets for me in the same way he did everything: quietly, methodically, with a good-natured but stoic acquiescence to duty. A dutiful child. Wakeful himself at that hour.
I told him I’d had a bad dream, making it up as I went along: a terrible, white-fisted giant with swollen cheeks had carried me to a high, precarious place I could not climb down from, and Gabe listened carefully, commiserating briefly, marveling appreciatively each time I whispered, “And then,” adding another horror. He said, I never dream. I never have a dream that I remember. His features were a blur, although our faces were only inches apart. And yet the handsome, high-colored, precisely featured boy who was my brother during the day, the brother I saw with my glasses on, was far less familiar to me than this one of uncertain edges and soft darkness, with a spark of wet light in his mouth or his eye when he said that if I was good and didn’t kick, I could stay. I made my promises, and he accepted them, but he moved anyway to the far side of the narrow bed, all the way up to the wall—the wall we shared with the Chehabs’ building—turning his back to me and putting his hand on the cool plaster. The soft sheets retained their odor of sunshine against the warmer, closer scent of my brother’s scalp and breath and skin. With his back turned, he told me to say a prayer to keep the nightmares away. He said if I prayed, the Blessed Mother would keep the nightmares away.
Slowly, I moved my hand under his pillow until I made warm contact with his own. He was holding his rosary. He moved his hand away until my fingertips touched only the cool beads.
He fell asleep in small starts, resisting it. As if, I imagined, the sandman had hold of his ankle and was slowly tugging him under, all against his will. As if he struggled to remain awake. I looked at the lozenges of light on the wall, one was a rectangle, one was a crucifix. I tried out a few prayers, but since the nightmare I had described was a lie, there was nothing, really, to ask protection from. I heard my brother’s knee or his hand or the ball of his foot strike the wall now and again as he was tugged under. A thump and then a thump, and then I knew he was sleeping.
Copyright © 2013 by Alice McDermott