She ordered a sandwich from the waitress, whose pretty youth was still evident in the doughy folds of her weary and aging face, and a cup of tea. And then she held her hands over the steaming water for a few seconds. Thin hands, long fingers, with a kind of transparency to the chapped skin. Her mothers gold ring, inset with a silver Miraculous Medal, on her right hand. The man beside her rubbed his cigarette into the plate, then stood, swinging away from her on the stool and causing a slight ripple through the customers all along the other side of him. He took his overcoat from the hat rack and put it on standing just behind her, and then leaned across his empty stool, brushing her arm, to leave a few coins under his plate.
Overcoats in April, he said. Some crazy weather.
She turned to him, out of politeness, the habit of it. Ive never seen such wind, she said.
He was handsome enoughdark eyes and a nice chin, though his hair was thinning. He wore a dark overcoat and a dark suit, a white shirt and a tie, and there was the worn shine of a brass belt buckle as he reached for his wallet. Reminds me of some days we had overseas, he said, taking a bill from his billfold.
She frowned, reflexively. Where were you?
He shook his head, smiled at her. Something in his manner seemed to indicate that they knew each other, that theyd had such conversations before. In another life, he said and snapped the bill and slapped the wallet and returned it to his pocket with a wink that said, But all thats behind us now, isnt it? He was thin and his stomach was taut and his starched white shirt was smooth against his chest and belly. The brass belt buckle, marked with decorative lines, a circled initial at its center, was worn to a warm gold. Once more into the breach, he said, turning up his collar. Wish me luck.
For an odd second, she thought he might lean down and kiss her cheek.
Good luck, she said. Over her shoulder, she watched him walk away. A slight limp, a favoring, perhaps, of his left leg. A flaw that would, she knew, diminish him in some womens eyes. Even if hed been wounded in the war, there would be, she knew, for some women, the diminished appeal of a man who had suffered something over which hed had no control. Who had suffered disappointment.
She turned back to her sandwich. And here, of all things, was desire again. (She could have put the palm of her hand to the front of his white shirt.) Here was her chicken sandwich and her tea and the waitress with a hard life in her eyes and a pretty face disappearing into pale flesh asking if theres anything else for now, dear. Here was the boudoir air of respectable Schraffts with its marble counters and pretty lamps and lunchtime bustle (ten minutes until she should be back at her desk), perfume and smoke, with the war over and another life begun and mad April whipping through the streets again. And here she was at thirty, just out of church (a candle lit every lunch hour, still, although the war was over), and yearning now with every inch of herself to put her hand to the worn buckle at a strangers waist, a palm to his smooth belly. A man shed never see again. Good luck.
She sipped her tea. Once, ten years ago, at a Sunday-afternoon party in some apartment that she remembered now as being labyrinthine, although it probably had only four bedrooms, as opposed to the place she shared with her brother and her father that had two, Mike Shea had seized her by the wrist and pulled her into a dim room and plastered his mouth against hers before she could catch her breath. She had known him since high school, he was part of the crowd she went with then, and he had kissed her once or twice beforeshe remembered specifically the train station at Fishkill, on a snowy night when they were all coming back from a sledding partybut this was passionate and desperate, he was very drunk, and rough enough to make her push him off if he had not, in the first moment she had come up for air, gently taken off his glasses and placed them on a doilied dresser beside them, and then, in what seemed the same movement, reached behind her to lock the door. It was the odd, drunken gentleness of it, not to mention the snapping hint of danger from the lock, that changed her mind. And after two or three rebukes when he tried to get at the buttons that ran up the back of her dress, she thought, Why not, and although her acquiescence seemed to slow him down a bit, as if he was uncertain of the next step, she was enjoying herself enough by then to undo the last button without prompting and then to pull her bare shoulder and arm up out of the dressfirst one then the otherand to pull dress and slip (she didnt wear a bra, no need) down to her waist in a single gesture. And thenwas it just the pleasure of the material against her bare flesh, his shirt front, her wool?she slowly pushed dress and slip and garter belt and stockings down over her narrow hips until they fell to her feet. And then she stepped out of her shoes. (Even the shoes? the priest had whispered in the confessional the following Saturday, as if it was more than he could bear, or imagineas if, she thought later, he was ready to send her to perdition or ask her for 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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