Pegeen Chehab walked up from the subway in the evening light. Her good spring coat was powder blue; her shoes were black and covered the insteps of her long feet. Her hat was beige with something dark along the crown, a brown feather or two. There was a certain asymmetry to her shoulders. She had a loping, hunchbacked walk. She had, always, a bit of black hair along her cheek, straggling to her shoulder, her bun coming undone. She carried her purse in the lightest clasp of her fingers, down along the side of her leg, which made her seem listless and weary even as she covered the distance quickly enough, the gray sidewalk from subway to parlor floor and basement of the house next door.
I was on the stoop of my own house, waiting for my father. Pegeen paused to say hello.
She was not a pretty girl particularly; there was a narrowness to her eyes and a wideness to her jaw, crooked teeth, wild eyebrows, and a faint mustache. She had her Syrian father's thick dark hair, but also the permanent scattered flush, just under the fair skin, of her Irish mother's broad cheeks. She had a job in lower Manhattan in this, her first year out of Manual Training, and, she said, she didn't like the people there. She didn't like a single one of them. She ran a bare hand along the stone balustrade above my head. The other, which lightly held the strap of her purse, wore a dove-gray glove. She'd lost its partner somewhere, she said. And laughed with her crooked teeth. Fourth pair this month, she said.
And left the library book she was reading on the subway yesterday.
And look, tore her stocking on something.
She lifted her black shoe to the step where I sat and pulled back the long coat and the skirt. I saw the laddered run, the flesh of Pegeen's thin and dark-haired calf pressing through between each rung. The nail of the finger Pegeen ran over its length was bitten down to nothing, but the movement of her hand along the tear was gentle and conciliatory. A kind of sympathy for her own flesh, which I imitated, brushing my own hand along the unbroken silk of Pegeen's stocking, and then over the torn threads of the run.
"Amadan," Pegeen said. "That's me. That's what I am."
She pulled the leg away. The skirt and the blue coat fell into place again. Across the back hem and up the left side of Pegeen's good spring coat there was a long smudge of soot that I impulsively reached out to brush away. "You've got some dirt," I said.
Pegeen turned, twisted her chin around, arm and elbow raised, trying to see what she couldn't see because it was behind her. "Where?" she said.
"Here." I batted at the dirt until Pegeen threw back her head in elaborate frustration, pulling the coat forward, winding it around her like a cloak. "I'll be happy," she said, slapping at her hip, "to stop going to that filthy place." Meaning lower Manhattan, where she worked.
She paused, put her nose to the air in mock confidence. "I'll get a boyfriend," she said. She batted her eyelashes and drew out a sly smile. They were great kidders, the Chehabs, and no boyfriends, it seemed, had yet called for Pegeen. "I'll get myself married," she said, and then licked all at once the four tall fingers of the gloveless hand and swatted them against the dirty cloth.
"Amadan," she said again. Which, she explained, was her mother's word for fool.
And then she released the skirt of her long coat and, dipping her shoulders, shook herself back into it again. She reminded me of a bird taking a sand bath. "I fell down," she announced. She said it in the same fond and impatient tone she had used to describe the lost glove, the forgotten library book. "On the subway." It was the tone a mother might use, speaking about a favorite, unruly child.
Pegeen blew some exasperated air through her pooched-out lower lip. "I don't know what the blazes makes me fall," she said impatiently. "I do it all the time." She suddenly squinted and the flush just under her downy skin rose to a deep maroon. She lowered her face to mine. "Don't you dare tell my mother," she said.
Excerpted from Someone by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 2013 by Alice McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 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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