From our perspective that semester, the events of Septemberwe did not yet call them 9/11seemed both near and far. Marching poli-sci majors chanted on the quads and the pedestrian malls, The chickens have come home to roost! The chickens have come home to roost! When I could contemplate them at allthe chickens, the roostingit was as if in a craning crowd, through glass, the way I knew (from Art History) people stared at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre: La Gioconda! its very name like a snake, its sly, tight smile encased at a distance but studied for portentous flickers. It was, like September itself, a cats mouth full of canaries. My roommate, Murpha nose-pierced, hinky-toothed blonde from Dubuque, who used black soap and black dental floss and whose quick opinions were impressively harsh (she pronounced Dubuque Du-ba-cue) and who once terrified her English teachers by saying the character she admired most in all of literature was Dick Hickock in In Cold Bloodhad met her boyfriend on September tenth and when she woke up at his place, shed phoned me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring. I know, I know, she said, her voice shrugging into the phone. It was a terrible price to pay for love, but it had to be done.
I raised my voice to a mock shout. You sick slut! People were killed. All you think about is your own pleasure. Then we fell into a kind of hysteriafrightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in women over thirty.
Well, I sighed, realizing I might not be seeing her all that much from then on in, I hope theres just hankyno panky.
Nah, she said. With panky theres always tears, and it ruins the hanky. I would miss her.
Though the movie theaters closed for two nights, and for a week even our yoga teacher put up an American flag and sat in front of it, in a lotus position, eyes closed, saying, Let us now breathe deeply in honor of our great country (I looked around frantically, never getting the breathing right), mostly our conversations slid back shockingly, resiliently, to other topics: backup singers for Aretha Franklin, or which Korean-owned restaurant had the best Chinese food. Before Id come to Troy, I had never had Chinese food. But now, two blocks from my apartment, next to a shoe repair shop, was a place called the Peking Café where I went as often as I could for the Buddhas Delight. At the cash register small boxes of broken fortune cookies were sold at discount. Only cookie broken, promised the sign, not fortune. I vowed to buy a box one day to see what guidanceobscure or mystical or mercenary but Confucian!might be had in bulk. Meanwhile, I collected them singly, one per every cookie that came at the end atop my check, briskly, efficiently, before Id even finished eating. Perhaps I ate too slowly. Id grown up on Friday fish fries and green beans in butter (for years, my mother had told me, mar- garine, considered a foreign food, could be purchased only across state lines, at oleo stands hastily erected along the highwaypark here for parkay read the signsjust past the Illinois governors welcome billboard, farmers muttering that only Jews bought there). And so now these odd Chinese vegetablesfungal and gnomic in their brown saucehad the power for me of an adventure or a rite, a statement to be savored. Back in Dellacrosse the dining was divided into Casual, which meant you ate it standing up or took it away, and the high end, which was called Sit-Down Dining. At the Wie Haus Family Restaurant, where we went for sit-down, the seats were red leatherette and the walls were gemütlichkeit and paneled, decorated with framed deep kitsch, wide-eyed shepherdesses and jesters. The breakfast menus read Guten Morgen. Sauces were called gravy. And the dinner menu featured cheese curd meatloaf and steak cooked to your likeness. On Fridays there were fish fries or boils for which they served lawyers (burbot or eelpout), so-called because their hearts were in their butts. (They were fished from the local lake where all the picnic spots had trash cans that read no fish guts.) On Sundays there was not only marshmallow and maraschino cherry salad and something called Grandma Jell-O, but prime rib with au jus, a precise knowledge of Frenchor English or even food coloringnot being the restaurants strong point. A la carte meant soup or salad; dinner meant soup and salad. The Roquefort on the salad was called by the waitstaff Rockford dressing. The house winered, white, or pinkall bore the requisite bouquet of rose, soap, and graphite, a whiff of hay, a hint of hooterville, though the menu remained mute about all this, sticking to straightforward declarations of hue. Light ale and dunkel were served. For dessert there was usually a gluckschmerz pie, with the fluffy look and heft of a small snowbank. After any meal, sleepiness ensued.
Excerpted from A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. Copyright © 2009 by Lorrie Moore. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, 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
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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