"I filled every pot, every pan, every jar, glass, and vase, and I set them all out on the edge of the deck. And as soon as he fired it up--"
"I did. I doused the grill, and when he cursed me out, I doused him. He just stood there a second, and then you know what? He laughed! He said, 'Rita, you are a pisser.' He liked it!"
We talk a minute more; I laugh and say good-bye, step outside onto the wooden stairs. I snap open the umbrella and remember the last time I visited Veronica. She served me brownies in pink wrapping paper, fancy cheese, and sliced fruit she was too sick to eat. I said, "I don't think you love yourself. You need to learn to love yourself."
Veronica was silent for a long moment. Then she said, "I think love is overrated. My parents loved me. And it didn't do any good."
My street is all functional apartment buildings set back from the sidewalk. White plus a few black people live here. Two blocks down, it's semifunctional buildings and Mexicans. Turn the corner and it's warehouses, auto-body repair shops, and a bar with music coming out of it at 8:00 in the morning. Blunt, faceless buildings that are too much trouble to tear down. Grass and weeds and little bushes silently press up between the buildings and through every crack in the concrete. At the end of the street is a four-lane highway that you can walk along. Big businesses live here--car dealerships, computer stores, office retail--and things I can't identify, even though I walk by them almost every day, because the bigness makes me feel mute. The mute feeling isn't bad. It's like being a grain of dirt in the ground, with growth and death all around. A grain or a grass or a stone, a tiny thing that knows everything but can't say anything. It isn't just the bigness of the businesses. It's the highway, too, all the hundreds of cars roaring in the opposite direction I'm walking, the hundreds of heads blurrily showing through hundreds of windshields.
This happens sometimes when I walk along here; my focus slips and goes funny. I think it's something to do with walking at a slow pace against the speeding traffic, and today the rain blurs everything even more. It's like I get sucked out of normal life into a place where the order of things is changed; it's still my life and I recognize it, but the people and places in it are sliding around indiscriminately.
A fat white man pedals gravely past on a green bicycle, one hand guiding the bike, the other holding a small half-broken umbrella over his head. He examines me; there's a bolt of life from his hazel eyes and then he's gone.
A dream from last night: Someone is chasing me, and in order to reach safety, I have to run through my past and all the people in it. But the past is jumbled, not sequential, and all the people are mixed up. A nameless old woman who used to live next door is reaching out to me, her large brown eyes brimming with tenderness and tears--but my mother is lost in a crowd scene. My father is barely visible--I see him by himself in the shadows of the living room, dreamily eating a salted nut--while a loud demented stranger pops right up in my face, yelling about what I must do to save myself now.
Meanwhile, a middle-aged Mexican woman is kneeling on the sidewalk, patiently replacing the clothes that apparently spilled out when her big red suitcase broke open. She has no umbrella and her hair and clothes are plastered to her body. I stop and crouch, trying to help her. With an impersonal half glance, she shakes her head no. I straighten and pause and then stand there, holding my umbrella over both of us. She looks up, smiling; I'm invoking civility on this concrete strip between roaring and hugeness, and she appreciates it. Her smile is like an open door, and I enter for a second. She goes back to her nimble packing. She picks freshly wet little blouses, underwear, baby clothes, and socks up off the sidewalk. She retrieves a clear plastic bag of half-burned candles and a T-shirt that says 16 MAGAZINE! on it. She shakes out each thing and refolds it.
Excerpted from Veronica by Mary Gaitskill Copyright © 2005 by Mary Gaitskill. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, 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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