Anyone in the neighborhood could tell you how Michael and Pauline first met.
It happened on a Monday afternoon early in December of 1941. St. Cassian was its usual poky self that daya street of narrow East Baltimore row houses, carefully kept little homes intermingled with shops no bigger than small parlors. The Golka twins, identically kerchiefed, compared cake rouges through the window of Sweda's Drugs. Mrs. Pozniak stepped out of the hardware store with a tiny brown paper bag that jingled. Mr. Kostka's Model-B Ford puttered past, followed by a stranger's sleekly swishing Chrysler Airstream and then by Ernie Moskowicz on the butcher's battered delivery bike.
In Anton's Grocerya dim, cram-packed cubbyhole with an L-shaped wooden counter and shelves that reached the low ceilingMichael's mother wrapped two tins of peas for Mrs. Brunek. She tied them up tightly and handed them over without a smile, without a "Come back soon" or a "Nice to see you." (Mrs. Anton had had a hard life.) One of Mrs. Brunek's boysCarl? Paul? Peter? they all looked so much alikepressed his nose to the glass of the penny-candy display. A floorboard creaked near the cereals, but that was just the bones of the elderly building settling deeper into the ground.
Michael was shelving Woodbury's soap bars behind the longer, left-hand section of the counter. He was twenty at the time, a tall young man in ill-fitting clothes, his hair very black and cut too short, his face a shade too thin, with that dark kind of whiskers that always showed no matter how often he shaved. He was stacking the soap in a pyramid, a base of five topped by four, topped by three . . . although his mother had announced, more than once, that she preferred a more compact, less creative arrangement.
Then, tinkle, tinkle! and wham! and what seemed at first glance a torrent of young women exploded through the door. They brought a gust of cold air with them and the smell of auto exhaust. "Help us!" Wanda Bryk shrilled. Her best friend, Katie Vilna, had her arm around an unfamiliar girl in a red coat, and another girl pressed a handkerchief to the red-coated girl's right temple. "She's been hurt! She needs first aid!" Wanda cried.
Michael stopped his shelving. Mrs. Brunek clapped a hand to her cheek, and Carl or Paul or Peter drew in a whistle of a breath. But Mrs. Anton did not so much as blink. "Why bring her here?" she asked. "Take her to the drugstore."
"The drugstore's closed," Katie told her.
"It says so on the door. Mr. Sweda's joined the Coast Guard."
"He's done what?"
The girl in the red coat was very pretty, despite the trickle of blood running past one ear. She was taller than the two neighborhood girls but slender, more slightly built, with a leafy cap of dark-blond hair and an upper lip that rose in two little points so sharp they might have been drawn with a pen. Michael came out from behind the counter to take a closer look at her. "What happened?" he asked heronly her, gazing at her intently.
"Get her a Band-Aid! Get iodine!" Wanda Bryk commanded. She had gone through grade school with Michael. She seemed to feel she could boss him around.
The girl said, "I jumped off a streetcar."
Her voice was low and husky, a shock after Wanda's thin violin notes. Her eyes were the purple-blue color of pansies. Michael swallowed.
"A parade's begun on Dubrowski Street," Katie was telling the others. "All six of the Szapp boys are enlisting, haven't you heard? And a couple of their friends besides. They've got this banner'Watch out, Japs! Here come the Szapps!'and everyone's seeing them off. They've gathered such a crowd that the traffic can't hardly get through. So Pauline hereshe was heading home from work; places are closing earlywhat does she do? Jumps off a speeding streetcar to join in."
Excerpted from The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler Copyright © 2004 by Anne Tyler. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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