"Where's Richard?" Sam asked her politely, his mouth full.
Sam was the oldest, and could ask these questions of grown-ups. I would never have dared: Ree-ard was a comical figure to us, and I could not have discussed him with a grown-up. There were things that we talked about only among ourselves, and that was our true worldwhere we said the things we meant, and where we spoke freely and directly. Then there were the things we said to adults, and those were often false, or constrained and mannered. You had to be careful in talking to grown-ups, it was like talking to foreigners. They expected to hear certain things; they didn't always understand you.
I myself had little practice in talking to grown-ups. I was the youngest, and was seldom asked my opinion. I did not understand how to blend the two ways of talking, or how to bridge the gap that lay between them. I knew that if I asked about Ree-ard I would be scolded for being fresh. But Sam could do it with impunity, his face and voice ingenuous. He asked as though it were a serious question, as though we thought Richard were a serious person.
"Oh, Richard," Molly said, hissing the word, sounding bad-tempered at once. "Where is Richard," she repeated rhetorically, and shook her head. She set the lid on a pot and wiped her hands on her apron, and we said no more about Richard.
Besides Richard, Molly had a daughter named Margaret. We seldom saw Margaret, she didn't live at Weldonmere. She didn't even live in the Park. She lived somewhere else, in an apartment, and she worked in an office, for a married man. My father worked in an office, and he was a married man, but somehow these things set Margaret in a mysterious region, exotic and sinister.
In the car, my father had spoken to my mother in a voice slightly lower, more private, than the one he used for the whole car. It made me alert at once, and I leaned forward, listening. My father said to my mother, "Margaret's going to be there."
My mother looked at him and said, "And?"
My father, not looking at her, said, "I suppose so."
My mother turned away and said, "Poor thing."
I was listening to them as I always listened to my parents, in order to understand the world, though what they said often made things more confusing. The tone of voice my parents used about Margaret meant, I knew, that they would not answer my questions about her. If I asked my mother what she had meant by "Poor thing," or why it was so serious and important that the man Margaret worked for was married, she would smile at me and make her voice louder and more public and say, "Oh, it's just a conversation I'm having with your father, that's all." She would tell me nothing. I knew that this language I was trying to learn could not be learned directly, that it was something that had to be absorbed blindly and obliquely. I knew that we were to have no help with it. We would have to learn it through signs, inflections, looks and sighs and tones of voice.
Sitting at the kitchen table, I watched Abby eating. If I didn't eat fast enough, or if I didn't eat the vegetables, she might tell on me, if she were in a spiteful mood. Now she was pretending to ignore me, but I watched her anyway, as I ate. I ate the soft pillowy lima beans one by one, watching Abby's fork across the table. I looked at her face when I was halfway through and saw that she was watching something behind me. She picked up her milk glass and drank, still watching, her eyes intent. I turned around.
Excerpted from A Perfect Stranger by Roxana Robinson Copyright © 2005 by Roxana Robinson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, 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
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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