Will you be in town for Christmas break? the mothers asked.
I sipped at the tea. No, Im going home. But I will be back in January.
When in January?
I gave them my references and a written summary of my experience. My experience was not all that muchjust the Pitskys and the Schultzes back home. But as experience, too, I had once, as part of a class project on human reproduction, carried around for an entire week a sack of flour the exact weight and feel of an infant. Id swaddled it and cuddled it and placed it in safe, cushioned places for naps, but once, when no one was looking, I stuffed it in my backpack with a lot of sharp pens, and it got stabbed. My books, powdery white the rest of the term, became a joke in the class. I left this out of my résumé, however.
But the rest Id typed up. To gild the lily-livered, as my dad sometimes said, I was wearing what the department stores called a career jacket, and perhaps the women liked the profession?alism of that. They were professionals themselves. Two were lawyers, one was a journalist, one was a doctor, one a high school teacher. Where were the husbands? Oh, at work, the women all said vaguely. All except the journalist, who said, Good question!
The last house was a gray stucco prairie house with a chimney cloaked in dead ivy. I had passed the house earlier in the weekit was on a corner lot and Id seen so many birds there. Now there was just a flat expanse of white. Around the whiteness was a low wood Qual Line fence, and when I pushed open its gate it slipped a little; one of its hinges was loose and missing a nail. I had to lift the gate to relatch it. This maneuver, one Id performed any number of times in my life, gave me a certain satisfactionof tidiness, of restoration, of magic me!when in fact it should have communicated itself as something else: someones ill-disguised decrepitude, items not cared for properly but fixed repeatedly in a make-do fashion, needful things having gotten away from their caregiver. Soon the entire gate would have to be held together with a bungee cord, the way my father once fixed a door in our barn.
Two slate steps led, in an odd mismatch of rock, downward to a flagstone walk, all of which, as well as the grass, wore a light dusting of snowI laid the first footprints of the day; perhaps the front door was seldom used. Some desiccated mums were still in pots on the porch. Ice frosted the crisp heads of the flowers. Leaning against the house were a shovel and a rake, and shoved into the corner two phone books still in shrink-wrap.
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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