Excerpt of After This by Alice McDermott
(Page 3 of 4)
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She ordered a sandwich from the waitress, whose pretty youth was still
evident in the doughy folds of her weary and aging face, and a cup of tea. And
then she held her hands over the steaming water for a few seconds. Thin hands,
long fingers, with a kind of transparency to the chapped skin. Her mothers gold
ring, inset with a silver Miraculous Medal, on her right hand. The man beside
her rubbed his cigarette into the plate, then stood, swinging away from her on
the stool and causing a slight ripple through the customers all along the other
side of him. He took his overcoat from the hat rack and put it on standing just
behind her, and then leaned across his empty stool, brushing her arm, to leave a
few coins under his plate.
Overcoats in April, he said. Some crazy weather.
She turned to him, out of politeness, the habit of it. Ive never seen such
wind, she said.
He was handsome enoughdark eyes and a nice chin, though his hair was
thinning. He wore a dark overcoat and a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie, and
there was the worn shine of a brass belt buckle as he reached for his wallet.
Reminds me of some days we had overseas, he said, taking a bill from his
She frowned, reflexively. Where were you?
He shook his head, smiled at her. Something in his manner seemed to indicate
that they knew each other, that theyd had such conversations before. In
another life, he said and snapped the bill and slapped the wallet and returned
it to his pocket with a wink that said, But all thats behind us now, isnt it?
He was thin and his stomach was taut and his starched white shirt was smooth
against his chest and belly. The brass belt buckle, marked with decorative
lines, a circled initial at its center, was worn to a warm gold. Once more into
the breach, he said, turning up his collar. Wish me luck.
For an odd second, she thought he might lean down and kiss her cheek.
Good luck, she said. Over her shoulder, she watched him walk away. A slight
limp, a favoring, perhaps, of his left leg. A flaw that would, she knew,
diminish him in some womens eyes. Even if hed been wounded in the war, there
would be, she knew, for some women, the diminished appeal of a man who had
suffered something over which hed had no control. Who had suffered
She turned back to her sandwich. And here, of all things, was desire again.
(She could have put the palm of her hand to the front of his white shirt.) Here
was her chicken sandwich and her tea and the waitress with a hard life in her
eyes and a pretty face disappearing into pale flesh asking if theres anything
else for now, dear. Here was the boudoir air of respectable Schraffts with its
marble counters and pretty lamps and lunchtime bustle (ten minutes until she
should be back at her desk), perfume and smoke, with the war over and another
life begun and mad April whipping through the streets again. And here she was at
thirty, just out of church (a candle lit every lunch hour, still, although the
war was over), and yearning now with every inch of herself to put her hand to
the worn buckle at a strangers waist, a palm to his smooth belly. A man shed
never see again. Good luck.
She sipped her tea. Once, ten years ago, at a Sunday-afternoon party in some
apartment that she remembered now as being labyrinthine, although it probably
had only four bedrooms, as opposed to the place she shared with her brother and
her father that had two, Mike Shea had seized her by the wrist and pulled her
into a dim room and plastered his mouth against hers before she could catch her
breath. She had known him since high school, he was part of the crowd she went
with then, and he had kissed her once or twice beforeshe remembered
specifically the train station at Fishkill, on a snowy night when they were all
coming back from a sledding partybut this was passionate and desperate, he was
very drunk, and rough enough to make her push him off if he had not, in the
first moment she had come up for air, gently taken off his glasses and placed
them on a doilied dresser beside them, and then, in what seemed the same
movement, reached behind her to lock the door. It was the odd, drunken
gentleness of it, not to mention the snapping hint of danger from the lock, that
changed her mind. And after two or three rebukes when he tried to get at the
buttons that ran up the back of her dress, she thought, Why not, and although
her acquiescence seemed to slow him down a bit, as if he was uncertain of the
next step, she was enjoying herself enough by then to undo the last button
without prompting and then to pull her bare shoulder and arm up out of the
dressfirst one then the otherand to pull dress and slip (she didnt wear a
bra, no need) down to her waist in a single gesture. And thenwas it just the
pleasure of the material against her bare flesh, his shirt front, her wool?she
slowly pushed dress and slip and garter belt and stockings down over her narrow
hips until they fell to her feet. And then she stepped out of her shoes. (Even
the shoes? the priest had whispered in the confessional the following Saturday,
as if it was more than he could bear, or imagineas if, she thought later, he
was ready to send her to perdition or ask her for a date.)
Excerpted from After This by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2006 by Alice
McDermott. Published in September 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All