I climbed onto the flowered sofa next to Grandmère. I loved the way she smelled, powdery and soft, and I loved her silvery curled hair. She smiled at me and patted my hand. "Sit here with me, Joanna," she said, though I already was. Grown-ups were like this, awkward in their speech, saying things you already knew, or things you couldn't understand. I smiled back at her and put my hands in my lap. She put her arm around me, and I leaned against her and gazed into the fire, and waited for it to be Christmas morning.
My father was talking about his work. I don't know when exactly I began to hear the noise from the kitchen. I looked across at Sam, who was leaning against my father's chair. He looked back at me, and we both listened. No one else seemed to hear it, they were all listening to my father's story.
"It's hard to get people from below the poverty level involved with community projects," he was saying. "We try to encourage anyone who's willing. We try to make it easy for them, and whatever they want to do, we try to help. Well, there's a single mother, with two children, pretty far below the poverty level. She had volunteered once or twice at school, and then she told the counselors she wanted to set up a kids' summer program."
In the kitchen, something was happening. I could hear muffled noises, bumps and crashing sounds, and then voices, but they were indistinct. It was hard to imagine anything boisterous going on in Molly's kitchen. Unlessit was too much to hope forTweenie had attacked someone?
"We told her we'd advise her, and we helped her set it up, but she was a dynamo, and she really did it all herself. And she paid for everything, supplies, and refreshments, whatever her costs were. She took eight children, five days a week for two months, and she charged nothing." My father paused and took a sip from his coffee cup. He was sitting in an armchair across from Grandpère. "Well, I knew she couldn't afford it, and I heard afterward she'd done a very good job. In the fall I wrote a report on the program and applied to the state for a small grant. Just a few hundred dollars, to cover her costs for the season and start her off for the next, if she wanted to go on."
I heard a real crash, now, in the kitchen. Sam and I looked at each other.
"Tell about going to see her," my mother said. She was holding her cup and saucer in her lap and watching my father.
"She lives way outside town, and doesn't have a telephone, so I couldn't let her know I was coming," my father said. "I got directions and drove out there. She has a trailer by the road, at the edge of a big field. I knocked on the door, and after a minute she opened it. She's in her thirties, overweight, with a pretty face. She seemed a bit wary, but she invited me in and offered me some coffee. The trailer was pretty crowded. There were plants everywhere, in jars and coffee cans, standing under the windows, lined up on the floor."
There was more noise from the kitchen, a sort of subdued shout. I looked again at my mother, but she was smiling at my father.
"I thanked her for setting up the program and congratulated her on how well she'd done it. She looked at me for a moment, and then she thanked me, but she didn't smile. Then I told her about the grant; I was very pleased about it. I watched her face, waiting for it to change, but it didn't. When I finished, she didn't say anything, she just sat there. I thought she hadn't understood me, so I explained it again. She had small, very bright blue eyes, very steady. She sat with her hands tucked tightly between her legs. When I finished the second time, she still didn't answer for a moment. Finally she said, 'I don't want the money.' "
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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