That Tuesday, the seventh, was one of the coldest in years. Bundled to the eyeballs, people waded against the wind, which seemed to converge from three sides. The few cabs in service crawled ahead at foot speed, unable to stop short on the packed ice. I gave up trying to flag one and walked to Lathon's, ducking into doorways to catch my breath.
In his office, Lathon was apologetic. He'd seesawed all day about canceling the session, but was loath to, given the density of his schedule. At last, he'd called each of the members at work and presented them with the option. None, however, wanted to wait the two weeks, and so, for better or worse, we were on.
It was warm, even sultry, in the larger of the two rooms, as the old radiator hissed like a samovar. The light from the sconces was dialed down, conferring a soft, benedictory glow. In the slim kitchenette, a pot of water was brewing. Grouped beside it sat a cluster of whimsical mugs, each festooned with the caricature of a genius--Michelangelo woozy on his Sistine scaffold, having bumped his head on the ceiling; Thomas Edison, fright-wigged and medium crisp, after sticking his finger in a socket. The inscription below each was identical: no pain, no gain: dull planet.
"They were given me by a former patient," said Lathon. "A very sweet woman, but she made pottery out of all my pet phrases. Nearly put me off of pet phrases forever."
I took my tea in a van Gogh and sat in the chair set apart for me; presently, the wall phone buzzed. Lina and Peter were the first arrivals, entering within moments of each other. Beet-faced and dazed from the assaultive cold, they hung their coats on the rack in the foyer, and warily introduced themselves.
"My God, that wind, it's like a tornado," said Lina, rubbing her arms for warmth. "I was afraid it was going to pick me up and throw me across the street. I'm just glad I ate a heavy lunch today."
This last was uttered with an anxious laugh that sounded rather more like a sob, and which quickly established itself as Lina's signature, punctuating much of what she said. She was a tall, gaunt woman with slightly bowed shoulders, as if she had walked a far distance carrying suitcases. Her handsome face had Hellenic lines--
a long, thin nose and elliptical mouth, and nut-brown eyes of
great expression. Beneath those eyes, though, were the markers of suffering--plump, dark circles that conveyed exhaustion and a surplus of stored-up sadness. She was somberly dressed in a black suit and pale blouse, and wore, by way of adornment, only a plain strap watch.
As would be her way for the next several months, Lina took the chair directly across from Lathon, where she was at all times within his sightline. Peter, on the other hand, chose the seat most obscure to him, two over on the right-hand side. (Tonight, the "circle" of chairs was shaped more like a diamond, with Lathon at home plate along the left-hand wall, and Peter down the line at first base.) Within moments of settling in and shaking off the chill, Peter began to perspire. He dabbed self-consciously at his neck and temples, and wiped both palms on his pant legs. Embarrassed to be seen at it, he stuffed his hands under his thighs, and adopted a queasy smile.
He had a sweet, solicitous face of the sort not seen much in these parts--earnest green eyes; soft, fair cheeks; and a gently rounded forehead that suggested charity. His gray suit and tie seemed deliberately bland, chosen for their indistinguishability from the thousands just like them on Broad Street. So, too, with his glasses, whose thin steel rims shrugged off any pretensions to style. The only trace of vanity could be seen on top of his head, where he'd composed what remained of his baby-fine hair in a plane as thin as spring ice.
At twenty to seven, three of the other members showed up, in more or less lockstep procession. Sara, the former model turned magazine editor, blew in all out of breath but looking radiant. Dressed in a gray cable-knit over velvet stretch pants, she had the sort of effortless, tossed-together glamour of a woman who'd grown up skiing the Alps. She wore no makeup beside a flicker of lip gloss, and had her black hair tied in a knot. And though she'd filled out becomingly since her days in front of the camera, her face had held on to its Modigliani beauty, all length and shadow and oblique angles.
Reprinted from GROUP by Paul Solotaroff by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Paul Solotaroff. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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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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