Something, again, in the kitchen. I looked at Sam. His face was solemn.
"She said, 'I started this program, and it feels like it's mine. But if I take money from the state, it will be the state's program. I'll start worrying if I'm doing it right, or if I should ask someone how to do it, and I'll worry that someone will come in and start telling me how to run it. So I don't want the money. I'd rather do it on my own.' "
Grandpère was watching my father. He was sitting in a high-backed wing chair facing the fire, and I could see the firelight on his face. "And what did you say to her?" he asked. His face looked warm, as though he were about to smile, and it made me feel safe, watching my grandfather look that way at my father.
My father shook his head, rueful, smiling slightly. "There was nothing to say. It was her program. I wanted her to have the money, but I couldn't make her take it. And I admired her for refusing it. When I was thanking her and congratulating her she hadn't said anything, she'd just looked at me. It had made me uncomfortable at the time, and afterward I'd wondered if I hadn't been doing, myself, just what she was talking about, trying to intrude onto something that belonged to her and the children she'd helped, instead of being helpful." My father shrugged his shoulders. "There was really nothing I could do. I told her I understood her position, and that if she wanted help we'd give it to her in any way we could. I thanked her for the coffee and left. She was a very impressive woman."
"My goodness," said Grandmère, smiling. She shook her head. "A lady of principle." She looked at me and patted my hand. I smiled back at her.
Now the noise seemed too loud and too persistent to ignore. My father said to Grandpère, "Do you hear something in the kitchen?"
Grandpère's face had changed; he looked serious. He set his glass down on the little table next to the sofa. "I wonder what's going on in there," he said. "Sometimes Bud outdoes himself at Christmas revelry." He stood up.
I looked at Sam: Bud! The fabled Bud!
"I'll come with you," my father said and stood up. Sam stood up too, but my mother shook her head.
"I think you children should stay in here with us," she said.
The two men walked through the big arch into the dining room, toward the long portrait of Grandpère in his "pink" hunting coat. They pushed open the pantry door, and as it swung wide we could hear a voice, suddenly loud; then as it swung shut the voice was muffled again.
Grandmère and my mother looked at each other. Grandmère looked worried; her mouth had lost its smile. "I hope Bud isn't making trouble again," she said, "it's so hard on Molly when he does that." She didn't move. The living room was quiet. The fire hissed and murmured, and its light flickered on the silver ashtrays. On the mantel was a round clock with a white face, with a black sphinx lying on either side of it. In the silence we could hear its steady ticks. The Christmas tree towered, glittering, in the corner. My arm was getting hot from the fire, and I moved closer to Grandmère. She patted my shoulder, pulling me toward her.
There was a roar from the kitchen. "You think I don't know that?" It was a man, shouting, wild. Sam and I looked at each other. We heard Molly's voice.
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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