She turned to himwas he going to speak? His eyes were teary from the wind, red-rimmed and bloodshot. His nose was running and there were tears on his windblown cheeks. She clicked open the purse that hung on her arm and found her handkerchief, but he refused it, reaching into his overcoat for his own. He mopped his face and blew his nose before the crowd got them moving again and as they got to the curb, she placed her left hand on her hat so he could reach her elbow at a more convenient anglewhich he did, guiding her across the street as if she were a novice pedestrian, and this time, perhaps, putting a little more pressure behind the fingertips that held her.
Where are you headed, George? she asked him. He shouted something unintelligible into the wind.
Have you eaten yet? she asked, because it was only polite. And then the wind paused completely, as it will in April, a sudden silence and maybe even the hint of warmth from the sun, so that he replied with odd gentleness, Yeah, I had my lunch.
They were at the door of the restaurant. The wind was picking up again. Would you like some coffee? she asked.
He shook his head and she could not deny her own relief. Im out of time, he said. And then added, What about dinner?
Lamb chops, she told him. You coming over? Anticipating already a stop at the butchers to pick up two or three more.
He shook his head. There was another tear streaming down his windblown cheek and as he replied she lifted the handkerchief in her hand and wiped it away, feeling the not unpleasant pull of his beard against the thin cotton.
He said, I mean, what about us having dinner?
The wind puffed up again and they both put their hands to their hats. Where? she said, rudely, she realized later. But it was like having a passing stranger suddenly turn to sing you an aria. Anyone would have a second or two of not quite knowing what was really going on.
Out, he told her. He was a broad-faced man who looked good in hats. Who looked better now than he did at home, where he had been thus far only the unremarkable source of her brother Jimmys unpredictable enthusiasms. At a restaurant, he said. And then to make himself clearer, The two of us.
Tonight? she said, and then they both turned away for a moment from the peppered wind. When they turned back, he said, Why not? but without conviction, confirming for them both that this was a sudden impulse that most likely would not last out the afternoon. What if I come by at seven? he said.
She paused, squinting, not for the chance to see him better but for him to see her. Ill have to cook those lamb chops anyway, she said. Or else Jimmy and my father will be gnawing the table legs by the time I get home.
He smiled a little, unable to disguise what she was sure was a bit of confusion about his own impulse. He said again, Ill come by at seven, and then turned back into the wind.
She pushed open the door to the restaurant. More lunchtime bustle, mostly women in hats with their coats thrown over the backs of chairs, the satiny linings and the fur collars and cuffs, the perfume and the elegant curves of the womens backs as they leaned forward across the small tables, all giving the hint of a boudoir to the busy place. She found a seat at the counter, wiggled her way into it. Saw the man beside her who was finishing a cigarette give her a quick up and down from over his shoulder and then turn back to flick an ash onto the remains of his sandwich. She imagined returning his dismissive stare, and then maybe even letting her eyes linger distastefully on the crust of bread and the bitten dill pickle and the cigarette debris on his plate. She could slide the ashtray that was right there between them a little closer to his elbowhint, hint. Emboldened, perhapswas she?by the fact that shed just been asked out on a date.
Excerpted from After This by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2006 by Alice McDermott. Published in September 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
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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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