The streetcar couldn't have been speeding all that fast, if traffic was clogged, but nobody pointed that out. Mrs. Brunek gave a sympathetic murmur. Carl or Paul or Peter said, "Can I go, Mama? Can I? Can I go watch the parade?"
"I just thought we should try and support our boys," Pauline told Michael.
He swallowed again. He said, "Well, of course."
"You're not going to help our boys any knocking yourself silly," the girl with the handkerchief said. From her tolerant tone, you could see that she and Pauline were friends, although she was less attractivea brown-haired girl with a calm expression and eyebrows so long and level that she seemed lacking in emotion.
"We think she hit her head against a lamppost," Wanda said, "but nobody could be sure in all the fuss. She landed in our laps, just about, with Anna here a ways behind her. I said, 'Jeepers! Are you okay?' Well, somebody had to do something; we couldn't just let her bleed to death. Don't you people have Band-Aids?"
"This place is not a pharmacy," Mrs. Anton said. And then, pursuing an obvious connection, "Whatever got into Nick Sweda? He must be thirty-five if he's a day!" Michael, meanwhile, had turned away from Pauline to join his mother behind the counterthe shorter, end section of the counter where the cash register stood. He bent down, briefly disappeared, and emerged with a cigar box. "Bandages," he explained.
Not Band-Aids, but old-fashioned cotton batting rolled in dark-blue tissue the exact shade of Pauline's eyes, and a spool of white adhesive tape, and an oxblood-colored bottle of iodine. Wanda stepped forward to take them; but no, Michael unrolled the cotton himself and tore a wad from one corner. He soaked the wad with iodine and came back to stand in front of Pauline. "Let me see," he said.
There was a reverent, alert silence, as if everyone understood that this moment was significanteven the girl with the handkerchief, the one Wanda had called Anna, although Anna could not have known that Michael Anton was ordinarily the most reserved boy in the parish. She removed the handkerchief from Pauline's temple. Michael pried away a petal of Pauline's hair and started dabbing with the cotton wad. Pauline held very still.
The wound, it seemed, was a two-inch red line, long but not deep, already closing. "Ah," Mrs. Brunek said. "No need for stitches."
"We can't be sure of that!" Wanda cried, unwilling to let go of the drama.
But Michael said, "She'll be fine," and he tore off a new wad of cotton. He plastered it to Pauline's temple with a crisscross of adhesive tape.
Now she looked like a fight victim in a comic strip. As if she knew that, she laughed. It turned out she had a dimple in each cheek. "Thanks very much," she told him. "Come and watch the parade with us."
He said, "All right."
Just that easily.
"Can I come too?" the Brunek boy asked. "Can I, Mama? Please?"
Mrs. Brunek said, "Ssh."
"But who will help with the store?" Mrs. Anton asked Michael.
As if he hadn't heard her, he turned to take his jacket from the coat tree in the corner. It was a schoolboy kind of jacketa big, rough plaid in shades of gray and charcoal. He shrugged himself into it, leaving it unbuttoned. "Ready?" he asked the girls.
The others watched after himhis mother and Mrs. Brunek, and Carl or Paul or Peter, and little old Miss Pelowski, who chanced to be approaching just as Michael and the four girls came barreling out the door. "What . . . ?" Miss Pelowski asked. "What on earth . . . ? Where . . . ?"
Michael didn't even slow down. He was halfway up the block now, with three girls trailing him and a fourth one at his side. She clung to the crook of his left arm and skimmed along next to him in her brilliant red coat.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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