The three children of an Irish-American family in Long Island are witnesses to the cycles of dissatisfaction, bitterness and recurring affection that make up the lives of their extended family. A tender, sad and funny book from the author of the National Book Award-nominated That Night and Charming Billy
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|File size:||475 KB|
About the Author
Alice McDermott is the author of six novels. Her articles, reviews and stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Redbook and elsewhere.
Alice McDermott is the author of several novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; and At Weddings and Wakes, all published by FSG. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. McDermott lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.
Date of Birth:June 27, 1953
Place of Birth:Brooklyn, New York
Education:B.A., State University of New York-Oswego, 1975; M.A., University of New Hampshire, 1978
Read an Excerpt
TWICE A WEEK in every week of summer except the last in July and the first in August, their mother shut the front door, the white, eight-panel door that served as backdrop for every Easter, First Holy Communion, confirmation, and graduation photo in the family album, and with the flimsy screen leaning against her shoulder turned the key in the black lock, gripped the curve of the elaborate wrought-iron handle that had been sculpted to resemble a black vine curled into a question mark, and in what seemed a brief but accurate imitation of a desperate housebreaker, wrung the door on its hinges until, well satisfied, she turned, slipped away from the screen as if she were throwing a cloak from her shoulders, and said, “Let’s go.”
Down the steps the three children went before her (the screen door behind them easing itself closed with what sounded like three short, sorrowful expirations of breath), the two girls in summer dresses and white sandals, the boy in long khaki pants and a thin white shirt, button-down collar and short sleeves. She herself wore a cotton shirtwaist and short white gloves and heels that clicked against the concrete of the driveway and the sidewalk and sent word across the damp morning lawns that the Daileys (Lucy and the three children) were once again on their way to the city.
The neighborhood at this hour was still and fresh and full of birdsong and the children marked the ten shady blocks to the bus with three landmarks. The first was the ragged hedge of the Lynches’ corner lot where lived, in a dirty house made ramshackle by four separate, slapdash additions, ten children, three grandparents, a mother, a father, and a bachelor uncle who was responsible, no doubt, for the shattered brown bottle that lay on the edge of the driveway. The second was a slate path that intersected a neat green lawn, each piece of slate the exact smooth color, either lavender or gray or pale yellow, of a Necco candy wafer. Third was the steel eight-foot fence at the edge of the paved playground of the school they had all attended until June and would attend again in September, although it appeared to them as they passed it now as something forlorn and defeated, something that the wind might take away—something that could rumble with footsteps and shriek with bells and hold them in its belly for six hours each day only in the wildest, the most terrible, the most unimaginable (and, indeed, not one of the three even imagined it as they passed) of dreams.
At the bus stop, the tall white sign with its odd, flat, perforated pole drew them like magnets. They touched it, towing the pebbles at its base. They jumped up to slap its face. They held it in one hand and leaned out into the road looking for the first glint of sun against the white crown and wide black windshield of the bus that would take them to the avenue.
Their mother smoked a cigarette on the sidewalk behind them, as she did on each of these mornings, her pocketbook hung in the crook of her arm, the white gloves she would pull on as soon as the bus appeared squeezed together in her free hand. The sun at nine-fifteen had already begun to push its heat through the soles of her stockings and beneath the fabric-covered cardboard of her belt. She touched the silver metal of its buckle, breathed in to gain a moment’s space between fabric and flesh. Across the street a deli and a bar and a podiatrist’s office shared a squat brick building that was shaded by trees. Beyond it a steeple rose—the gray steeple of the Presbyterian church—into a sky that was blue and cloudless. Swinging from the bus-stop sign, the children failed to imagine for their mother, just as they had failed to imagine for the building where they went to school, any other life but the still and predictable one she presented on those mornings, although even as she dropped her cigarette to her side and stepped on the butt with her first step toward them (it was a woman’s subtle, sneaky way of finishing a smoke) she was aware of the stunned hopelessness with which she moved. Of time draining itself from the scene in a slow leak.
Briefly terrified, the younger girl took her mother’s hand as the bus wheezed toward the curb.
Even the swift, gritty breeze that rushed through the slices of open window seemed at this hour to be losing the freshness of morning—some cool air clung to it, but in patches and tatters, as if the coming heat of the afternoon had already begun to wear through.
The children squinted their eyes against it and shook back their hair. Watching the houses go by, they were grateful that theirs was not one of them to be left, after each stop, in the expelled gray exhaust, and as the bus moved past the cemetery they felt—all unconsciously—the eternal disappointment of the people whose markers lay so near the road. Who saw (because they imagined the dead to be at eye level with the ground, the grass pulled like a blanket up to their noses) the walking living through the black stakes of the iron fence and the filtered refuse of what seemed many summers—ice-cream wrappers, soda cans, cigarette butts, and yellowed athletic socks—that had gathered at its base.
Where the cemetery ended, the stonecutter’s yard began, a jumble of unmarked and broken tombstones that parodied the order of the real graves and seemed in its chaos to indicate a backlog of orders, a hectic rate of demand. (Their father’s joke, no matter how many times they drove this way: “People are dying to get in there.”) Then, at the entrance to the yard, a showroom—it looked for all the world like a car showroom—that displayed behind its tall plate glass huge marble monuments and elaborate crypts and the slithering reflected body of their bus, their own white faces at three windows.
They passed another church, a synagogue, and then a last ramshackle yard where chickens pecked at the dirt in speckled sunlight and what the children understood to be a contraption in which wine was made (although they couldn’t say how they knew this) hulked among the vines and the shadows, through which they also glimpsed, passing by, a toothless Italian man named (and they could not say how they knew this, either) Mr. Hootchie-Koo, as he shuffled through the dirt in baggy pants and bedroom slippers.
Now the large suburban trees fell away. There was another church and then on both sides of the road a wide expanse of shadeless parking lot, the backs of stores, traffic. Their mother raised her hand to pull the cord that rang the buzzer and then waited in the aisle for them to go before her toward the front, hand over hand like experienced seamen between the silver edges of the seats. Their first sight as they touched the ground was always the identical Chinese couple in the narrow laundry, looking up through the glass door from their eternal white and pale blue pile.
As they stood on the corner the bus they had just deserted, suddenly grown taller and louder and far more dangerous, passed before their noses, spilling its heat on their thin shoes.
When the light changed they crossed. Here the sidewalk was wider, twice as wide as it was where they lived, and they began to catch a whiff, a sense, of their destination, the way some sailors, hundreds of miles out, are said to catch the first scent of land. There was a bar—a saloon was how the children thought of it—with a stuccoed front and a single mysterious brown window, a rounded doorway like the entrance to a cave that breathed a sharp and darkly shining breath upon them, a distillation of night and starlight and Scotch. Two black men passed by. In a dark and narrow candy store that smelled exotically of newsprint and bubble gum they were each allowed to choose one comic book from the wooden rack and their mother gathered these in her gloved hand, placed them, a copy of the Daily News, and a pack of butterscotch Life Savers on the narrow shelf beside the register, and paid with a single bill.
Outside, she redistributed the comics and placed a piece of candy on each tongue, fortifying the children, or so it seemed, for the next half of their journey. She herded them into the shaded entry of a clothing store, another cave formed by two deep windows that paralleled each other and contained, it seemed, a single example of every item sold by the store, most of which was worn by pale mannequins with painted hair and chipped fingers or mere pieces of mannequins: head, torso, foot. The store was closed at this hour and the aisles were lined with piles of thin gray cardboard boxes that sank into one another and overflowed with navy-blue socks or white underpants as if these items had somehow multiplied themselves throughout the night.
When the bus appeared it was as if from the next storefront and they ran across the wide sidewalk to meet it, their mother pausing behind them to step on another cigarette. She offered the driver the four slim transfers while the children picked their way down the aisle. There was not the luxury of empty seats there had been on the first bus and so they squeezed together three to a narrow seat, their mother standing in the aisle beside them, her dress, her substantial thigh and belly underneath blue-and-white cotton, blocking them, shielding them, all unaware, from the drunks and the gamblers and the various tardy (and so clearly dissipated) businessmen who rode this bus though never the first because this was the one that both passed the racetrack and crossed the city line.
All unaware, noses in their comics, her three children leaned together in what might have been her shadow, had the light been right, but was in reality merely the length that the warmth of her body and the odor of her talc extended.
At the subway, the very breath of their destination rose to meet them in the constant underground breeze that began to whip the girls’ dresses as soon as they descended the first of the long set of dirty stairs. (“No spitting” a sign above their heads read, proving to them that they were entering an exotic and dangerous realm where people might, at any given moment, begin spitting.) The long corridors echoed with their mother’s footsteps and roared distantly with the comings and goings of the trains. There were ads along the walls, not as large or as high as billboards but somehow just as compelling, and if it had not been for their mother’s sudden haste, for she had begun rushing as soon as they left the bus, they would have lingered to read them more carefully, to study their bold messages and larger-than-life faces and garish cartoons, to absorb more fully what appeared to them to be a vivid, still-life bazaar.
And then bars, prison bars, a wall of bars, and, even more fantastically, a wall of revolving doors all made of black iron bars. Their mother passed another bill through the tiny halfmoon aperture in what otherwise seemed a solid box lit green from within and received, in reply to her shouted “Four, please,” a sliding handful of tokens and coins.
They were each given their own, given only the time it took to cross the dim expanse from token booth to turnstile to feel between their fingers the three opened spaces in the center of the embossed coin (a tactile memory that would return to them years later when they drew their first peace symbols) before they slipped it into the eternity of the machine and pressed with hands or waist or heart the single wooden paddle that clicked, gave way, and admitted them.
Now they were running, their mother calling, although she was running too, “Stay together, stay together, it’s all right if we miss it,” down another flight of stairs and then, hearts pounding, in through the metal doors of the subway car, one, two, three, four. The white pole at the center of the car was cool against their palms and their foreheads. After the first jolt of the train’s forward movement, after they had recovered their breath and their balance, they began, without a word, to cross the length of the cars. The boy, the oldest, was in the lead and he yanked open each door and faced the rush of heat and sound with a determined nonchalance that might have served him well in war had he ever been asked to serve. His sister followed, crossing the jiggling space between the cars, the moving, goose-bumped metal of the jarring platform, the swinging, waist-high chain that seemed neither thick enough to hold the cars together nor to hold her in should she be tossed against it, with her breath stopped, her arms extended like a tightrope walker’s.
Then the youngest child, her hand held high above her head in her mother’s gloved one, her eyes wide enough to reflect the occasional spark against steel, the occasional white tunnel light. Rushing through Queens, closing in on Brooklyn, her mother moved across that loud and dark and precarious distance between the subway cars with a surefootedness she could never master in the suburbs, and only the desperate, painful and much-welcomed tightening of her grip on her daughter’s hand whenever a spark rose or the cars banged violently together betrayed the fact that she was a city girl no longer.
Inside the brightly lit cars, on yellow cane or red plastic seats, under slow-spinning ceiling fans, their fellow passengers turned at the burst of sound that came from the opened door at the back of the car. Turned and saw first a thin boy of ten or twelve, his dark hair cut close, his jaw set, his Catholic school shirt and pale skin and large dark eyes making them think of altar boys and angels. And following right behind him a girl, not tall but becoming increasingly lanky, it was clear, with dark red hair that curled at her shoulders. A beauty, perhaps, when her teeth were straightened and those bones took on some flesh. And then, nearly dangling from her mother’s arm, another in the same white eyelet dress. No beauty here, what with the freckles on the moon face and those small green eyes, but it was she they smiled at, those who smiled, she who drew them to smile up at the mother (the door sliding shut behind her, cutting off the noise), whose face brought to mind not only the map of Ireland but the name of two or three other women they knew who looked just or something like her.
The children and their mother walked through the last car, to the door beside the motorman, whose glass looked out (if they cupped their fingers to their eyes) into the long, dark tunnel that lay all before them in twists and turns and an occasional patch of green or red or yellow light. This had been the purpose of their trek and when she had reached between them to make sure the door was shut tightly (as, some weeks before, the conductor himself had done, filling her with gratitude at his thoughtfulness and shame that she in the sure-footed confidence she felt whenever she crossed back over the city line had not even imagined the tragedy of the door falling open and spilling one or all of her children out into the screeching darkness), she took the nearest seat and opened her paper, glancing as she skimmed each piece at the swaying rumps of her three as they cupped their fingers to their eyes and pressed their noses to the glass—they’d be smudged with dirt when they turned around—and tried to determine where the dark tunnel, which now passed under the width of the river, was leading.
On the platform again, making, as she called it, the connection, her children spun the knobs and pulled the levers on the candy machines fastened to every other steel beam, until she gave them each a nickel for Chiclets—two rattling like loose teeth in a tiny cardboard pack. When the next train pulled into the station they took seats immediately because the ride was too short for the race to the front. The older boy and girl sat on the red seat facing front and she and her younger daughter on the cane one that faced the door, the straw pricking at the backs of the little girl’s bare knees. The children’s mouths were going, the beige slip of minty gum occasionally showing itself under the fine clamp of their front teeth.
They studied the other passengers. In their experience, the subway offered so wide a variety of people that they would not have been surprised to learn that the trains garnered their passengers from the dark tunnels and the damp tiled walls as well as from the people in the street and that any number of them, although they boarded the train at one station and got off at the next, never rose back up through the revolving bars and into the light.
They had once seen four midgets, and a man with his sleeve pinned to his shoulder. A woman whose skin was as splotched as a leopard’s. They had seen a grown man sound asleep with his head thrown back and his large yellow teeth fallen a good half inch away from his gums. They had seen another grown man throw up in a wastebasket (they had thought until then that only children threw up). They had seen a girl, a woman really, with large breasts and hairy legs, dressed in a pinafore and anklet socks and black patent-leather shoes and sitting on her mother’s lap, just the way, as it so happened, the younger girl, in much the same shoes, sat on hers. (“She’s retarded, dear,” their mother had whispered when they stopped at the station, but the news did nothing to alleviate the child’s sense that she was somehow being made fun of.)
They’d had blind people slide their canes against their toes and deaf people, smiling wildly, place cards that illustrated the sign-language alphabet on their knees. They’d seen men with long beards and women who were not nuns in robes and veils. They’d had their heads patted by toothless old crones straight out of nightmares, women with claws for hands and mournful, repetitive coos for speech.
In the time it took to go the four stops on the second train, they watched the doors and their fellow passengers carefully, their noses smudged, their gum shifting quickly between their teeth, until they saw their mother gather her purse and tug at her gloves and knew it was time to place their feet firmly on the ground, to tuck their gum deep into their jaws, roll their comic books, and make whatever other preparation they would need to be fully ready to pounce at the train’s next full instant of stillness toward the gaping doors.
Up now, another flight of dirty stairs toward the hot, noisy, pigeon-spattered light of Brooklyn in summer. Though they still chewed their gum, it cracked now with the fine black (or so they imagined the color) pieces of grit that the subway’s constant underground breeze had slipped between their lips, and when, at another corner, their mother held out a tissue and her cupped palm they placed the small flavorless pebbles of gum in it without protest.
What greeted them first, despite the noise and the grit and the heat of the sun, was olfactory: diesel fuel and cooking grease and foreign spices, tar and asphalt and the limp, dirty, metallic smell of the train that followed beneath their feet as they walked, blowing itself across their ankles at every subway grate. Then the sounds: language too quick to be sensible speech, so quick that those who spoke it, women and children and men, Puerto Ricans and Lebanese and Russians, perspired heavily with the effort. The traffic, of course, trucks and cabs and horns and somewhere at the soft bottom of these their mother’s heels against the sidewalk. Then whatever their eyes could take in as they walked quickly along: fat women sitting on crates, talking and sweating, smiling as they passed, a policeman on a horse, a man with an apron pushing a silver cart full of bottles topped with green nipples and filled with bright red or orange or turquoise-blue water—pushing it in what seemed slow motion as he pulled his feet from the quicksand of the road and, lifting his knees high, placed each foot, toes first, heavily back down again.
They hurried down three stone steps, following her into a narrow cavern with a sinking wooden floor and walls that seemed to be covered with flour. Here the light came from two narrow basement windows, and the heat—it was hotter than anyplace they’d ever been—from the huge brown stove between them, but once again it was the smell that first overtook the three: the warm, prickly rough-textured smell of the loaves of flatbread that the baker, who knew their mother by name, had known her it seemed in some secret lifetime, shoveled hot into a brown paper bag.
On the street she broke three pieces in the bag and handed it to them warm and floury, the inside full of stalactites of dough and air pockets like baked bubbles. “This is the kind of bread,” she said, “that Christ ate at the Last Supper.” And then finished the loaf herself, her gloves off, and her pace slowed just that much to tell them that she was home after all and as happy—she allowed them to walk a few paces ahead of her—as she’d ever be.
At the apartment the boy was sent up the wide steep stone steps to ring the bell until her sister’s face appeared in a top-floor window. There was the flutter of the lace curtain, the two long, pale hands trying the sash, and then, palms turned toward them, the glass itself, until the window slid open just the two inches required to fit between it and the sill the single key in the thin white handkerchief. The children struggled to watch it the four stories it fell and then raced (the boy having returned from the door and the doorbell at a wide-legged run) to be the first to retrieve it from the courtyard or the basement stairs, from among the garbage cans and the baby carriages covered with old shower curtains and planks of wood.
Key in hand, they climbed the steps again and let themselves in through the double glass door framed in heavy wood, across a tiled vestibule that held the cool stone smell of a church, and then into the dim hallway where the air was brown with the reflection of the dark wooden floor and the staircase, with the odor of stewing beef and boiled onions. And yet it was cooler here, cooler than the last part of the morning that they had left on the sidewalk. They climbed the stairs behind their mother—following her example without being told to do so by holding their bare hands as she held her gloved one, just two inches above the wide dusty rail of the banister. One flight and across a narrow hallway with silent doors on either end, another flight, their mother’s shoes tapping on each tread and the dull yellow light now passing through an opaque lozenge of white skylight. An identical hallway (voices from behind the far door, again those rushed incomprehensible syllables struck throughout with startling exclamations), another flight, the light growing stronger until it spread itself like a blurred hand over the tops of each of the children’s smooth heads. Here on the fourth floor under the dulled and hazy light there was only a single door and the hallway on either side of it was filled with a clutch of cardboard boxes and paper bags. Boxes filled with shoes and Christmas decorations and scraps of material, bags stuffed with magazines and old hats, a clutter of stored and discarded knickknacks and bric-bracs (or so their mother called it) that drew the children to imagine every time some impossible rainy day when their shy request to go inspect the boxes in the hall would be met with something more benign than their mother’s or their aunts’ appalled consternation.
The single door gave off the purr and rattle that made it seem thick and animate to the children, with an internal life all its own. There was the scratch of the delicate chain, the metallic slither of its bolts, the tumble and click of its lock, and then, slowly, the creak of its hinges.
The face that appeared between the door and its frame was thinner than their mother’s and so, for the children, offered no resemblance—despite the same pale blue eyes and light skin and narrow mouth that was, as was their mother’s, fighting to resist a grin.
“Well, well,” Aunt May said, as if she truly had not expected to see them there. “Here you are!” She smelled like a nun, had been one in fact, and although she wore a shirtwaist dress like their mother’s (hers a darker print, small pink roses in lined rows against a navy background) she held herself like a nun as she bent to kiss them—held her bodice with the back of her hand as if to keep a crucifix from swinging into their heads, held back her skirt with the other as if, like a nun, she had veil and sleeve and bib and scapular and long skirt to keep from coming between them.
The children kissed her with the same perfunctory air with which they wiped their feet at the door or genuflected in church, and were delighted, always surprised and delighted, to hear her laugh as soon as the last of them had gone past her, to hear her laugh and hit her palms together and shudder for just one second with her pleasure, with what they easily recognized as her pleasure at seeing them.
Although their mother made these journeys to determine her own fate, to resolve each time her own unhappiness or indecision, they had also heard her say to their father as he drove them home (the decision, for that day at least, made once again), “I go there as much for May as for Momma.”
Knowing the routine, the children passed through the narrow living room, across a narrow hallway that after their trek through the length of the subway train seemed cool and surprisingly steady, into, as if it were another subway car, the dining room with its imposing, romantic, highly polished table and eight regal chairs, and there, at the end of the room, before a window that looked out onto the back of identical buildings and a dazzling white line of sun-drenched sheets, in a large soft chair that was covered with terry-cloth but that somehow managed to overwhelm the authority of even the wide-armed end chairs and the broad glass bosom of the hutch, was Momma.
Even the children, whose idea of pretty involved curly ponytails and bangs and puffy silver-pink dresses, recognized that she was beautiful. White face and soft white hair as wide and imposing as a cloud, and eyes so dark they seemed to be made of some element that had nothing to do with any of the familiar elements that made up flesh and bone, lip and skin. Her eyes didn’t change to see them, only her mouth smiled. They each kissed her soft, cold cheek and their mother, kissing her, too, offered the bag of Syrian bread so shyly that the children forgot instantly the confident way she had turned into the bakery and greeted the baker by name and ordered the very freshest bread he had—the way she had broken the bread inside the bag and told them, distributing it, This is the bread that Christ ate.
Aunt May was suddenly behind them. “Let me make some sandwiches with it while it’s still warm.”
Knowing the routine, the children followed her into the narrow kitchen and watched without a word as she took butter and ham from the refrigerator and then a large glass bottle of Coke. She poured the Coke into three tumblers and then placed one tumbler before each of them at the white metal table. Putting it down softly so there would be no click of glass and steel, glancing toward the door as she carefully restopped the bottle, and warning them, every time, with her fingers to her lips, to do the same.
They understood, and savored the soda because of it, that it was not their mother she was afraid of.
From the dining room came their mother’s voice embarked, already, on its lament. They understood only that it involved the course of their parents’ snagged and unsuitable happiness and that the day would be long. They ate their sandwiches, thick with butter, on a linen tablecloth in the dining room while Aunt May, keeping an eye on them, talked about the weather and the news.
When they were excused they took their comics from the coffee table in the living room, and passing through another narrow vestibule (there was a mouse hole in the corner of the woodwork in this one and a thin cupboard covered with a long piece of chintz), they entered the bright front bedroom, where the older boy and girl took each of the two window seats, the window in one still open the inch or so Aunt May had needed to slip the key underneath. The smallest child sat for a moment before the three mirrors at the dressing table, trying to gauge the distance between herself and the smallest, farthest reflection of a dark-haired little girl.
Inside, their mother had begun again to speak in the stifled and frustrated tone she used only here. The youngest child and her endless reflections got up from the chair, walked to the door beside the night table, and pressed her ear against it, then walked to the double bed (her sister watching her carefully) and, without removing her shoes, stretched out on the chenille spread.
Aunt May spoke and their mother said, “I’m not expecting wine and roses.”
In a photograph on the tall dresser at the foot of the bed her mother stood on the stone steps they had climbed just an hour ago, with Momma and Aunt May (a nun then) on one side of her, Aunt Agnes and Aunt Veronica on the other. She was in her wedding dress, a tall veil and a white scoop of neckline, and an armload of long, white flowers crushed around her. Through the bedroom wall behind her the child imagined she could hear Aunt Veronica stirring in her small room, a room the girl had seen only once or twice despite the many hours she had spent in this apartment, a room, she recalled, with fabric walls and pillowed floors and dim light reflected off a glass dressing table covered with jewels, a draped bed, a draped chair, a smell of perfume and the starry-night pinch of alcohol. She listened but suspected the sounds she heard were imaginary, a product of her own wishfulness, for if the day was ever to move forward at any pace at all, Aunt Veronica would have to appear.
At their windows her brother and her sister peered down into the street, to the shadowed door of the candy store they might get Aunt May to take them to, to the deserted playground of another elementary school that was closed for the summer where they might run, shoot imaginary baskets, hop through the painted squares for potsy which were now burning white in the city sun. There was another row of stores beyond the school’s back fence, signless, mostly nondescript storefronts where, they had been told at various times, mattresses were made, ladies’ lace collars, bow ties, church bulletins.
Once, sitting here, they had passed an hour watching bales of something, paper or cotton, being pulled hand over hand, one bale after the other, up from the street and into a third-story window. And once, their chins buried into their chests and their foreheads flat against the glass, they had watched a man in broad daylight walk on wobbly rubber legs from one edge of the sidewalk below them to another until he fell, all in a heap, between the fenders of two cars, and then, after some minutes, pulled himself up, peered over his forearm and the trunk of the first car like a man at the edge of a pool, and then righted himself and began his snaking progress all over again.
But today there was no such luck and when they had watched long enough for it they returned once again to the comics on their knees.
In the dining room their mother said, “But who thinks of me?” Aunt May’s reply was too soft for them to understand. “A little happiness,” their mother said, and then said again, “I don’t know. Some peace before I die. I don’t know.”
She didn’t know. The children understood this much about her discontent, if nothing more. She didn’t know its source or its rationale, and although she brought it here to Brooklyn twice a week in every week of summer and laid it like the puzzling pieces of a broken clock there on the dining-room table before them, she didn’t know what it was she wanted them to do for her. She was feeling unhappy, she was feeling her life passing by. She hated seeing her children grow up. She hated being exiled from the place she had grown up in. She feared the future and its inevitable share of sorrow.
“The good things,” they heard Aunt May tell her, and their mother replied that she’d counted the good things until she was blue in the face. Against the silence they heard the teacups being gathered and children shouting in the playground across the street.
Knowing the routine, they knew that when Aunt May next came into the room, holding her wrists in her hands although she no longer hid them under a nun’s sleeves, it would be to tell them that Momma was coming in for her nap now, if they would please. And sure enough, just as the game outside was getting interesting, there she was with the old woman behind her, as white and broad as a god.
She was not their natural mother but the sister of the woman who had borne them and who had died with Veronica, the last. Momma had married the girls’ father when Agnes, the oldest, was seven. He had died within that same year and so there had been no chance, the three children understood in their own adulthood, for any of the halfhearted and reluctant emotion that stepmothers are said to inspire to form between them: within the same year as her arrival she quickly became not merely a stranger to resent and accommodate but the only living adult to whom they were of any value.
The children stood as Momma moved into the room. She was a short woman but serious and erect and wide-bosomed and it wasn’t until the very last month of her life that any sense of fragility entered her old age, and even then it entered so swiftly and with such force, her flesh falling away from her bones in three quick weeks, that it hardly seemed appropriate to call the result of such a ravaging fragile. (Seeing her sunk into her coffin, the cartilage of her nose and the bones of her cheeks and wrists pressing into her skin, the three children, teenagers by then, would each be struck with a shocking, a terrifying notion: she had not wanted to die; she had, even at ninety, fought furiously against it.)
They passed her one by one as she stood between the dresser and the foot of the bedstead, the same small smile she had worn when she greeted them still on her lips. When they were gone Aunt May quietly closed the door.
The living room was a narrow and windowless pass-through, a large green horsehair couch on one side and a sealed white fireplace on the other, before which stood the coffee table with its lace doily and ceramic basket of waxed flowers. There was another ancient, overstuffed chair in the corner beside it and a large brass bucket filled with magazines, which the children, in their routine, next went to. They were Aunt Agnes’s magazines, just as every book and newspaper and record album in the place belonged to Agnes. They were the singularly most uninteresting magazines the children had ever seen: New Yorkers with more print than pictures and cartoons that were not funny. Atlantic Monthlys without even the nonsensical cartoons, Fortune, Harper’s. There were a handful of Playbills and these the older girl took to read once again (she had read them last week) the biographies of the actors and actresses, and two National Geographics for the boy, and, finally, a single limp copy of Life magazine that featured on its cover a formal portrait of President Kennedy edged in black and inside (the younger girl found the place immediately) a full-page photograph of Mrs. Kennedy in her black veil, a dark madonna that the younger girl studied carefully on the worn Oriental rug.
“I know you children are going to put all these magazines back,” Aunt May said as she passed through to rejoin their mother in the kitchen.
“Yes,” they said and watched her pick her way through the slick magazines, her pale thin legs in the same thick stockings Momma wore, her feet in the same brown oxfords. In their secret hearts they wished to see her slip on one of the magazines, see her rise for one second into the air like a levitated woman (garters and bloomers showing) and then fall crashing back, their mother running in from the kitchen, Momma pulling open the bedroom door—the noise, the excitement, the drama swallowing up at least one long half hour of the long and endless afternoon.
She safely reached the end of the room and then turned to say, in a whisper, “How about in a minute or two we go across the street for a treat?”
And so they got their easy half hour, anyway. They thundered ahead of her down the stairs (“Careful, careful,” she whispered, but smiling, admiring how many steps they could leap at each landing) and crossed with her, her hand on the two girls’ shoulders, between two parked cars. They chose bags of pistachio nuts from the candy store that seemed to them to be the authentic version of the one in their own neighborhood where they had bought their comics that morning. Here the man who took their money had only two fingers on his left hand and a four-digit number burned into his arm and the accent with which he spoke was to the children a Brooklyn accent, a city accent, as were the accents of all the people on the street and most of the grandparents of their friends, as was Momma’s brogue.
In the street again, Aunt May let them sit on the low wall of the schoolyard that was once again deserted as they ate their pistachios and tossed the bright red shells into the street. She was, the children understood, cracking and tossing and leaning back against the fence to stay in the school’s shade, the one of their mother’s sisters most determined to be happy and, although she treated joy as a kind of contraband, sneaking them glasses of Coke, bags of pistachios, folded dollar bills, showing the great pleasure she took in their company at brief moments when no one else was looking (as she was doing now, holding her pale face and flashing glasses to the sun, swinging her legs against the wall like a girl), she was for the most part successful.
Her fifteen years in the convent had included some part of each of the children’s lives and each, even the youngest, had some memory of her in her wimple and veil and long robes, robes that she seemed to use like a magician’s cape, pulling from them as if from thin air the prettiest gifts: gilt-edged holy cards, miniature glass rosaries, a ceramic baby Jesus that the younger girl could cup in her palm. Each had some memory of her small face smiling at them from the circle of her habit as she slipped them these gifts; each at some point had had the impression that the habit was a kind of disguise, something she used only to gain access to the places where these lovely things were kept—only so she could swipe them and hide them in her robes and then, smiling, present them to her sister’s children when no one else was looking.
And then, some years ago, Momma had spent the night in their parents’ room (their parents moving into the girls’ room, the girls into their brother’s, their brother to the couch, in what was an illogical but equitable arrangement sure to guarantee each member of the family equal discomfort). In the morning their father drove them all to a convent, a lovely old white house surrounded by gardens and woods. It was a beautiful day in late spring and the air there smelled of the sea. There were white garden swings, freshly painted, here and there throughout the woods and most of the paths led to small grottoes where the ceramic face of the Sacred Heart or the Blessed Mother, Saint Francis and Saint Anthony, hung from the trunk of a tree. The children rocked the swings and ran down the paths and once or twice with elaborate ceremony knelt down to pray while their father read the newspaper in the car and Momma and their mother visited inside the convent.
Just as they were growing tired, even of that holy, enchanted place, and had begun to look around for something else, they saw Momma and their mother and Aunt May coming down the white steps of the house. They didn’t recognize her at first, her hair was curly and short, pale red, and she wore a loose black suit that they knew had belonged to their mother, but then the sun caught her glasses as she glanced up at the sky.
The three women were halfway to the car before their father saw them and then he hurried to put the paper down and get out to open the back door. When the three women had slid in, he shut the door with great gentleness and then, with some sudden impatience, called to the three children. They rode all the way to Brooklyn squeezed beside him in the front seat and only got out to rearrange themselves when they got to Momma’s street. Aunt May touched their hair before she and Momma climbed the steps to the door, to what would become the rest of her life. She touched their hair and brushed their cheeks and pressed into the hands of each a damp dollar bill folded to the size of a Chiclet.
When they’d finished the nuts they crumbled the stiff plastic bags and then walked with her to the corner to throw them into the wastebasket there. The mailman was just passing by and he tipped his hat and called her Miss Towne. She called him Fred and touched the children on the shoulders as she introduced them. “My sister Lucy’s children,” she said, standing behind them. She spread her arms out as if to take them into her embrace, as if he had offered to take a snapshot.
“Aren’t they handsome?” he said. He was a thin man with a long face. He wore his blue-gray hat at a jaunty angle. “And don’t they resemble their aunt—the little one especially.”
“Oh my,” Aunt May said. “Don’t wish it on her.”
They crossed again to the other side of the street and walked in the cooler shade of the buildings back to Momma’s. Upstairs again, she gave them tall glasses of ice water and, from the top drawer of the server, three brand-new ball-point pens marked IBM in gold letters. She sat with their mother at the window beside Momma’s empty chair.
“He’s not the man I married,” their mother soon said, and Aunt May replied, “This is the worst part of the day’s heat.”
At the dining-room table, drawing battleships and submarines or houses and flowers on white paper napkins, the children recognized the tenor of this code and so made no attempt to crack it for its meaning.
“A different person entirely,” their mother said.
“How a man treats his children is what would be important to me.”
“The children won’t always be there. I have to think about me.”
“None of us will always be here,” Aunt May said.
Their mother stood and leaned out the window to feel the white sheets on the line. “You don’t have to tell me,” she said. “These are long dry.”
As they drew at the table the children were aware only of the squeal of the clothesline pulley and the snap of the sheets. They didn’t look up to see the elegant coordination the two women fell into as they spread out each sheet between them in that narrow space between the dining-room table and Momma’s chair, snapped it in wide arms, folded edge to edge, moved together, lifted, snapped, together again, smoothing, one more fold, just as Momma had shown them in their childhood, just as they had been doing since then.
“Don’t they smell wonderful?” Aunt May said, putting her face to the neat, square pile of sheets.
“I’m not having the kind of life I wanted,” their mother said.
Aunt May told her, “Just smell these.”
And then the door to Momma’s bedroom opened, and hearing the shuffle of feet against the bare floor between the bedroom and the living room, the children raised their heads.
Oblivious to both the hour and the season, Aunt Veronica stood in the doorway of the dining room in a brown velvet robe and black velvet slippers, a black band holding back her thick auburn hair. “Hello, all,” she said. (So she had been in there, the youngest child thought, there in the room just beyond Momma’s, and so thinking began to learn a lifelong lesson in anticipation and longing.) Aunt Veronica’s face was as pale as putty; her skin, like a putty that had been pressed and re-formed again and again, was pockmarked and dimpled, with white scars the size of thumbnails and a puffiness that even the children saw was somehow the result of her own mishandling.
She might have been beautiful; at least her hair and dark eyes, her slim waist and the lovely slope of her neck and her wide shoulders promised a somehow unachieved beauty. She stood in the doorway, the fingers of one hand on the delicate silver edge of the cocktail cart that was placed between the two rooms, the other, fingers and flat palm, bearing her weight on the doorframe. She smiled at them, surveying the room but not quite—even the children noticed—bringing it into focus.
One by one the children put down their pens and got up to kiss her—she held the cart even as she bent to each—and then she said she would just have a quick bath before dinner and stepped carefully around the cart and into the bathroom, which was just the other side of the hallway.
Now the afternoon began to move, nudged, it seemed, by the sound of the running water in the bath, by the quick glances their mother and Aunt May exchanged, the wafting odor of bath soaps.
Momma reappeared just as Aunt Veronica, in a burst of steam and roses, opened the bathroom door and with her pale skin further pitted by water beads and wet strands of hair, walked, no longer shuffling, through the living room and back through Momma’s bedroom.
The two hadn’t exchanged a word when they crossed in the living room but as she headed for the kitchen Momma was nodding as if Aunt Veronica had just confirmed something for her. Momma now wore a thin net over her hair and if she had slept at all during her nap there was no sign of it in her face or her step. She didn’t shuffle but passed quickly through the dining room and into the kitchen, where she took a white apron from the handle of the refrigerator door and slipped it over her head. Their mother and Aunt May, like acolytes following a cardinal, moved into the small room behind her, bending beside her to reach the potatoes in the bin by the sink, bowing into the refrigerator for the pork chops and the green beans. Momma tossed flour like holy water, kneading the biscuit dough, dredging the meat.
At the small tin table the children snapped the ends of the green beans and tossed them into a steel colander. The curtain at the window stirred but the breeze that moved it was a hot city breeze as unnatural, as unrefreshing as the wind that coursed through the subway tunnels. They were all perspiring. Before they could finish with the beans, Momma turned, lifted the colander, shook it, chin raised, took assessment, and then set it down again and told them to break all the beans in half as well. She put the pot of dirty potatoes on the table and sat with them. She peeled expertly, dropping the tan peel onto a piece of newspaper, dirtying her hands and each white skinless potato so that by the time she was finished she looked as if she herself had plucked them from the field. She handed the pot to Aunt May, who rinsed them at the sink and then put them on to boil. Their mother fanned herself with a wet dish towel. Aunt May’s glasses were rimmed with dots of perspiration that looked under the thick lenses like caught tears.
Momma got up to sprinkle some more flour and cut out the biscuits with a tumbler, when the front door opened and closed. “There’s Agnes,” May said just as another door, the one off the living room, opened and closed again.
“At last,” their mother said and left the room.
When she returned she held a silver ice bucket with a hinged handle and a silver set of tongs. She set them in the sink and then went to the refrigerator and withdrew two trays of ice from its small steaming box of a freezer. She brought these to the sink and banged and cracked and muttered under her breath until she had the bucket filled. She ran water into the trays and carefully returned them to the freezer while Aunt May filled the kettle and put it on the stove.
The end of this long dull day was not yet near but it was at last a possibility and the children sat up a little as they snapped the remaining beans in half and tossed them with some finality into the colander.
Their mother lifted the silver ice bucket. Aunt May lifted her glasses and wiped a Kleenex across her eyes. In single file the children followed the two women into the living room, where the lights seemed to go up by themselves.
The tableau was familiar and enchanting and would be remembered by the children for the rest of their lives with the same nostalgia and bitterness with which they recalled the Latin Mass. Their mother placed the ice bucket on the lacquered surface of the delicate cart as Aunt May moved past her to take the huge green chair in the corner. A door off the living room opened and Aunt Agnes emerged, broad and tall and severe, in a slim black skirt and pale silk blouse, stockings, and flat black slippers embroidered with red and gold. She accepted a kiss from each of the children (her perfume thick and mellow, the perfume that filled theater lobbies and office buildings) and then moved to the silver cart, where she slid open a small door and one by one took out three stubby glasses etched with white lilies. She dropped two pieces of ice into each and then from the crowd of elegant bottles, square and round and dimpled, plucked one that was dark green, with a red-and-silver stopper. She poured ginger ale into each of the three glasses and then handed them one at a time to the children. They took them to the couch just as Aunt Veronica entered the room from Momma’s bedroom door. She was dressed now, in a shiny cotton dress of pale beige with small, windblown sailboats circling its wide hem. With some makeup on and the sunlight behind her, her face seemed less abused and her smile for a moment disguised both the scars and the puffiness and made her seem young and fresh and pretty.
She went to the couch and taking the younger girl on her lap spoke warmly to her three sisters, the vibration of her deep voice, the press of her soft breasts, even the beating of her heart, making themselves felt through the material of the girl’s thin summer dress and all along her spine.
This was the aunt she loved most. Her sister preferred Agnes and was watching her now with great care, memorizing the way she poured the liquor into the tall pitcher of ice, stirred it with a glass rod, poured it again through a silver strainer and into each delicately stemmed glass. Her brother preferred May and so it might only have been by default that the youngest one offered her loyalty to Veronica, but once offered, it had stuck fast. Veronica, after all, was the youngest one, too—the youngest child of the dead mother who had lived only a few days after she’d been born. She had no profession like Agnes, no history like May’s. She lived, as far as the children understood, in the small dark room off Momma’s bedroom, and although they knew she ventured out, she spoke of shopping downtown, of meeting old friends on the subway, of taking in a show, they had never been with her when she’d done so.
Veronica was unfortunate. It was the single word that seemed to follow any mention of her name. Unfortunate to have never known her mother or her father. Unfortunate to have such poor skin. Unfortunate never to have married. She had once worked for a man who had left her some money (“a small fortune, in those days,” it was said), but even this, somehow, had proved unfortunate. Unfortunate. The word alone could elicit a knowing sigh whenever her name was mentioned, although it seemed to the youngest child, who had given her her loyalty, that it implied something the other sisters lacked, and that was a fortune that might have been found. Unfortunate had, at least, the fortune, if only a small fortune, somewhere in it and the youngest child imagined that it was lost in that dark room, somewhere among the cottons and the silks that draped the bed and the floor and the embroidered chair and the glass-topped dressing table. Lost but existent nevertheless, a fortune some inches away, just under the sand, just under her sleeping hand.
Now Aunt Agnes carried the thin-stemmed glasses with their amber drinks and single round red-cherry eyes around the room, over to Aunt May in the green chair, to their mother as she leaned in the doorway, to Veronica on the couch. She returned the tray to the cart and lifted her own drink. Holding it in the air she asked, “Now, where’s Momma?” and all four of them looked to the dining room to the empty chair at its far end.
May was the first to go (it was always the same) and when she returned from the kitchen she had a cup of tea in her hands. Momma was behind her, tucking her white hair into her net. She sat on the chair where May had sat and seemed in her irritation to transform it into a chair in another woman’s rooms, rooms that did not quite meet with her approval. She took her tea and sipped it even before May had retrieved her own glass and Agnes had raised hers to say, “Good luck.”
The ginger ale was watery from the melting ice and the water from the glass ran down the children’s hands. From where they sat they could see through the dining-room window that only the shadows had changed, not the heat or the light, and even the shadows seemed to be not so much spots of shade as dark shells, dark skins that the heat itself had shed as over the course of the afternoon it had worked itself through the brick of the building and across the walls.
The children put the cool glasses to their lips, their wrists, their throats, while the women fanned themselves and sipped their drinks that had only been touched with ice and spoke, for now, about a show Aunt Agnes had just seen, a trend in fashion toward shorter skirts, the coming marriage of one of their neighbor’s daughters.
For now. When Momma finished her tea she put the cup on its saucer and, with Aunt May’s help, slowly stood. “Just fifteen more minutes,” she said and the children saw their mother glance at her slim watch, the tiny chain of its safety latch swinging.
When she had gone Aunt Agnes raised the glass pitcher and carried it from chair to chair, refilling each offered glass (no cherry this time, the children noticed: the older girl marking that this was how it was done, the boy and the younger girl marveling at adult restraint). “Should I?” Aunt Agnes would ask their mother, touching the green bottle of ginger ale, and she would say yes or no, depending on her mood.
“You’re only young once,” she would say. “They might as well enjoy it.” Or, “I can’t have them with rotting teeth if I’m going to end up on my own.”
They would then either sip more warm ginger ale or chew the small shards of melting ice cubes. The heat would wave through the walls, and try as hard as they could to attend, they could not mark the moment when the fighting began.
“Don’t talk to me about vows,” their mother would say to May, and the children would feel themselves jump as if they’d just come awake.
Or Agnes’s palm would suddenly slap itself against the black lacquer surface of the cart. “Who has ever thought about me?” she would say. Or, “I pay my own way. I certainly pay my own way.”
Veronica would pull the younger girl more tightly to her waist, as if she planned any moment to make a break for it with the child as her shield. Her voice would be loud and trembling in the child’s ear: “That again? Are we rehashing that again?”
Their father had a song that began “Mrs. McCarthy, hale and hearty, well she held a birthday party,” and included a verse that listed the schedule of events: at nine o’clock they all sat down to supper, at ten they cleared the floor to have a dance … at twelve o’clock the fighting it began, and it seemed to the children that the only way they could clearly account for the sudden anger that struck the four sisters at this time of day was that it was somehow prescribed, part of the daily and necessary schedule, merely the routine.
By the time Momma began to carry the hot food out to the table the sisters were finishing their drinks in short draughts and looking in four different directions.
The food itself was a discouragement—a bowl of steaming mashed potatoes, a platter of browned pork chops trimmed with yellow fat, the hot green beans, hot biscuits, a bowl of Momma’s thick applesauce, cool, at least, and full of sugar and cinnamon, so that the children told themselves as they climbed into their chairs, at least there was that, I can always eat that.
The milk in their glasses was lukewarm. The food was passed and before each plate was filled the children began to feel the beads of perspiration running down their spines, down their calves from behind their knees. Even the silverware felt warm, the heavy food on the end of their forks weighing against the thick, elaborate handles.
Whatever argument had arisen at the cocktail hour, whatever affront had been made, carried over now into either the silence of the dinner table or the urging by aunts on all sides to take a little more, eat a little more, drink up their milk, sit straighter now, use your napkin, finish everything if you want dessert.
Momma said, “The heat was like this the night your mother died. We were afraid we’d all suffocate. Your father slept on the chair in there and it was the first night of all the nights we’d been here that he finally agreed to take off his collar and untie his shoes. He was such a formal man.
“I slept on the couch with Mrs. Power from downstairs. Head to foot. We must have been exhausted, or else I don’t see how we could have slept, it was so hot.”
The children ran the prongs of their forks through the mashed potatoes, through the applesauce, around the fried bits of flour and pork grease. They wished for ice cream and tall glasses of ice water.
Quietly, Aunt May and Aunt Agnes rose to clear the table, and their mother whispered that they could go sit inside.
They walked through to Momma’s bedroom and once again took their places at the window—the two girls sharing one this time—to watch the way the sun, turning orange now and reaching only the top floor of the building across the schoolyard, set brief flames in the windows of buildings far beyond them. There were more cars going by in the street, some taxis even, and a few more people walked along the sidewalk, each with a newspaper or a long loaf of bread or a grocery bag under an arm.
It was not yet time for him to arrive but they imagined anyway seeing their father’s car come down the street. They wouldn’t wait to see him park but run out to the dining room to say he was here, could they go out and meet him—and what with their mother’s hesitation and their own struggle with the many locks on the door, they would get out of the apartment just as the buzzer downstairs rang or, if he came in through the downstairs door with some neighbor who knew him, just as his brown felt hat appeared between the balusters at the top of the stairs. They would run across the darkened landing full of shadows and treasure and meet his arms just as he ascended.
Someone in the room behind them was crying. There was the clink of glass against ice cubes but even from here the children knew that one sound was indifferent to the other and each came from a separate part of the room. There was a murmur that seemed to poke occasionally at the weeping, to press into it the way a finger presses into something soft yet unyielding.
When the room was silent again their mother came to the door—they could not tell if she had been the one—and said, “Come out and have some ice cream.”
It was the kind that Momma made herself and it was so cool and sweet, so festive with its shreds of fresh peaches or shards of strawberry and blueberry, that it seemed to indicate some joy that lay buried in the old lady’s personality—something girlish, something celebratory. After the hot meal and amid the silent aftermath of the fight it seemed to the children a moment, a wink, of relief. It was served in soup bowls on the linen tablecloth and only their mother ate with them. Momma was in her chair again by the window and Aunt May was in the kitchen. Veronica sat at the end of the table with another brown drink. Aunt Agnes had disappeared.
Now the conversation limped back to where it had been at the beginning of the cocktail hour. Wearily and with little enthusiasm, with little attempt to hide the effort they were making to hide what they really felt, their mother and her sister spoke about ordinary things, calling out to May to ask how much she was paying for ice cream at the A&P or what was the name of the principal at Saint Peter’s. Coming always at the end of each effort at bright discussion to a silent place that made them sigh and quietly close their eyes, as if in despair over the futility of ordinary things to relieve them of the burden of their sadness, their unhappiness: and then—“Has anyone heard from Joan Lombardi lately?”—going on.
The footstep on the stair was a fabulous promise three seconds long that burst into miraculous fulfillment with their father’s familiar rap at the door. The children were there first and their mother had to reach over their heads to get the lock unfastened. “You should always ask who it is,” Aunt May was saying behind them, drying her hands on a dish towel, but already the door was flung open and they were in the dull and stifling hallway touching the light wool of his suit, pulling his hands, his arms, delivered, delivered. They led him into the living room, took his brown felt hat. Delivered. He greeted May and Veronica and leaned carefully to kiss their mother’s cheek (she, coy after the day’s long lament, blushed, they could see it, and turned her head away to avoid a smile).
Knowing the routine, he followed the women into the dining room, where he greeted Momma (he called her Mrs. Towne), and listened to how she was feeling with such solicitousness a stranger might have thought he’d been called in to offer a cure. With that same solicitousness he lifted the broken table fan from the windowsill or examined the frayed wire of an iron or sat at the table with the series of letters she had gotten from Blue Cross or Social Security while Aunt May put on coffee and the children, the end in sight, kicked their heels against the rungs of the dining-room chairs, waiting.
It would be growing dark by the time they finally stood together at the door, their mother once again with her pocketbook in the crook of her arm and a shopping bag now (always) resting against it. A bag filled with a loaf of soda bread or a tin of butter cookies, a blouse Agnes had bought that proved the wrong color for her, or a little something, a game, a book, two dresses and a plaid shirt, that May had picked up for the children—a bag filled with something, anything it seemed, that their mother was required each time to bring home with her from here and seemed, to the children at least, to ensure her return.
The children themselves carried the small folded squares of dollar bills that Aunt May had pushed into their palms. They were buoyant, jubilant in their goodbyes, jiggling and waving and calling, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” across the landing and down the first flight of brown stairs. Aunt May would be at the window when they hit the street, sometimes Veronica or Agnes as well, and the children would wave wildly to them in the still and humid air. “See you later, alligator. After a while, crocodile.” Delivered.
Their parents wouldn’t exchange a word as they walked to where their father had parked the car, but their mother, for all her lamentations, had redone her makeup and brushed back her hair. They could smell her talc again amid the early-evening city smells of garbage and cooling spices and exhaust.
The steel-blue car squeezed front to back between two dark strangers in the pale halo of a city streetlight might have leapt like a dog at their approach.
Familiar click of its lock, familiar summer feel of its thin terry-cloth seat cover, familiar snap of the thin strip of elastic that held it across the back of the front seat.
Now another journey not unlike their headlong rush through the subway tunnels, but this one, now that their father was with them, made in the soft capsule of the pale blue car as it drove slowly through the darkened streets. Each at a window, the children heard their own voices saying, See you later, alligator, as they passed men in shirtsleeves sitting on stone steps in front of apartment houses, passed dark children calling madly after the one on a noisy scooter (the noise like machine-gun fire driven into the sidewalk) made of fruit boxes and rollerskate wheels. See you later, alligator, to the hole of subway steps with its everlasting wind, to the stores now covered with grates and grilles in preparation for the dangerous night. To choked intersections, hot brick, sidewalk.
In full darkness now past dimly lit side streets that showed themselves and their rows of steps, their shadows of moving figures each for just one second as they were passed. Along, for a while, the dark columns of the El and the occasional thud of the invisible train it carried. Gashes of light, the glow of a clock in a tower, yellow as the summer moon. The mark of letters against a black sky: EAST RIVER SAVINGS BANK in white; in blue and white and red, HOME OF EX-LAX. Windows of light where a man stood before a fan, a woman leaned on her elbows or reached up for a shade, where a pale curtain waved like a ghost in the cool currents of an electric fan. Glimpses of someone at a table, someone before the blue light of a TV—each with a life span of just a second or two, no more, as they drove past, the younger girl tormenting herself with this notion: What if you were suddenly left here, what if you found yourself there on that dark street, alone. And imagined herself stepping through the darkness there, down that black street or that one, stepping between those patches of light and hearing at her feet the rattle of bones.
She turned her head into her mother’s firm shoulder, the car moving faster now, adding its own light to what seemed a general flight from the city. At their windows the other two made out the hillside of gray monuments that seemed to rise up from under the highway they were on as if it were an outcropping of the city itself, a vestige of the land the brownstones and the factories and the tall buildings had first been placed on.
And then the land flattened black and through the cracks in their windows they could smell the air’s first change: the smell of swamp, bilge, salt ocean. It touched their skin with a damp coolness that seemed at once to gather the city’s soot into rings at their necks and wrists and in the creases behind their elbows. They searched the darkness and made out the distant lights and then saw the darkness slowly form itself into houses and trees and schoolyards lit by pale lamps. The road became smooth beneath the tires, their eyes felt heavy. In the stirring silence of the car’s first pause they heard crickets, the watery rustle of leaves, of thick trees touching one another just above their heads. Now the ride was slow and silent and easy, the turns feeling each time like those final turns, slow and arbitrary and without destination, that their minds took in the moments before sleep.
The air at last cooling, the day’s long wait nearly over. At a final stoplight their father said into the silence, into the aimless turns their thoughts were taking: “You know, people are dying to get in there.”
And they smiled, vague in everything but their comfort and their weariness. Only vaguely aware (they heard their mother gathering up her pocketbook and her shopping bag) that for now they have left the dead behind them.
AT WEDDINGS AND WAKES. Copyright © 1992 by Alice McDermott. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Reading Group Guide
1. Alice McDermott's prose has been praised for the sheer precision of its imagery, such as the subway journey in the opening sequence that recalls long-gone wicker seats and tokens embossed with a figure reminiscent of a peace sign. Did the book inspire vivid memories of your own past? Which precise images evoke long-lost worlds?
2. What is the effect of the children's point of view in At Weddings and Wakes? What matters to children versus to adults? What do Lucy's children comprehend better than the grown-ups do?
3. What does Momma teach her stepdaughters about the role of women in the world? What did it take to be considered a successful woman among other women of her generation?
4. What do the scenes of Catholic school, such as Margaret's bringing cemetery flowers to Sister Joan, indicate about a young child's needs in the classroom? What were Sister Miriam Joseph's aspirations in becoming a nun? Do those dreams seem fulfilled by her work as a teacher?
5. In what way did the two settingssuburbia and cityserve as a metaphor for other divisions within the novel? Would you have sided with the characters who decried the new suburbs? How does Lucy's suburban life compare to her Brooklyn home?
6. How does Lucy's husband cope with his memories of serving as a soldier in Europe? How did he reconcile the terror of the German pilot with the difficulties of civilian life after the war?
7. What traits does Fred share with May? In what way do their family experiences give them a means for understanding one another?
8. How did Momma adapt to her role as stepparent? How does her approach to parenting compare to Lucy's?
9. How would you characterize the interactions of Bobby, Margaret, and Maryanne? How do these siblings grow and change throughout the novel, particularly as spring sets in and Margaret embarks on an early-morning Lenten ritual with Bobby?
10. Who has the happiest relationships in the novel? Is fate or temperament the bigger factor in whether the characters experience bitterness?
11. The book's title is referred to when Rosemary asks, "Aren't you glad that you only have to see your relatives at weddings and wakes?" What determines which relatives we remain close to, and which ones we scorn or avoid? To what extent is allegiance or estrangement permanent across generations?
12. We are told that Veronica was named "for the saint who the nuns said was without vanity, who touched the bloodied face of Christ with her veil." Did Veronica fulfill the legacy of her namesake?
13. What accounts for Agnes's approach to living? Is she simply materialistic, or does she see herself as upholding a necessary standard? Did she and May have an advantage, having known their parents for an albeit brief span of time in their childhood?
14. What led May from the convent to the secular world, and ultimately to marriage? Was she a better candidate for marriage than her sisters were?
15. What distinguishes the family depicted in this novel from others appearing in Alice McDermott's work? In what way does At Weddings and Wakes add new facets of love and fate to her storytelling?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good book, a must read if you liked A Tree Grows In Brooklyn