Now, however, away and on my own, seduced and salted by brown sauce, I felt myself thinning and alive. The Asian owners let me linger over my books and stay as long as I wanted to: Take your tie! No lush! they said kindly as they sprayed the neighboring tables with disinfectant. I ate mango and papaya and nudged the stringy parts out of my teeth with a cinnamon toothpick. I had one elegantly folded cookiea short paper nerve baked in an ear. I had a handleless cup of hot, stale tea, poured and reheated from a pail stored in the restaurants walk-in refrigerator.
I would tug the paper slip from the stiff clutches of the cookie and save it for a bookmark. All my books had fortunes protruding like tiny tails from their pages. You are the crispy noodle in the salad of life. You are the master of your own destiny. Murph had always added the phrase in bed to any fortune cookie fortune, so in my mind I read them that way, too: You are the master of your own destiny. In bed. Well, that was true. Debt is a seductive liar. In bed. Or the less-well-translated Your fate will blossom like a bloom.
Or the sly, wise guy: A refreshing change is in your future.
Sometimes, as a better joke, I added though NOT in bed.
You will soon make money. Or: Wealth is a wise womans man.
Though NOT in bed.
And so I needed a job. I had donated my plasma several times for cash, but the last time I had tried the clinic had turned me away, saying my plasma was cloudy from my having eaten cheese the night before. Cloudy Plasma! I would be the bass guitarist! It was so hard not to eat cheese! Even the whipped and spreadable kind we derisively called cram cheese (because it could be used for sealing windows and caulking tile) had a certain soothing allure. I looked daily at the employment listings. Childcare was in demand: I turned in my final papers and answered the ads.
One forty-ish pregnant woman after another hung up my coat, sat me in her living room, then waddled out to the kitchen, got my tea, and waddled back in, clutching her back, slopping tea onto the saucer, and asking me questions. What would you do if our little baby started crying and wouldnt stop? Are you available evenings? What do you think of as a useful educational activity for a small child? I had no idea. I had never seen so many pregnant women in such a short period of timefive in all. It alarmed me. They did not look radiant. They looked reddened with high blood pressure and frightened. I would put him in a stroller and take him for a walk, I said. I knew my own mother had never asked such questions of anyone. Dolly, she said to me once, as long as the place was moderately fire resistant, Id deposit you anywhere.
Moderately? I queried. She rarely called me by my name, Tassie. She called me Doll, Dolly, Dollylah, or Tassalah.
I wasnt going to worry and interfere with you. She was the only Jewish woman Id ever known who felt like that. But she was a Jewish woman married to a Lutheran farmer named Bo and perhaps because of that had the same indifferent reserve the mothers of my friends had. Halfway through my childhood I came to guess that she was practically blind as well. It was the only explanation for the thick glasses she failed often even to find. Or for the kaleidoscope of blood vessels burst, petunia-like, in her eyes, scarlet blasting into the white from mere eyestrain, or a careless swipe with her hand. It explained the strange way she never quite looked at me when we were speaking, staring at a table or down at a tile of a floor, as if halfheartedly plotting its disinfection while my scarcely controlled rage flew from my mouth in sentences I hoped would be, perhaps not then but perhaps later, like knives to her brain.
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
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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