My father smelled, always, of fresh newsprint and cigarettes, of the alcohol in his faded cologne. I caught my chin on his buttons as he lowered me to the ground. A brief, painful scrape that upset my glasses and made my eyes water. I walked the last few paces home balanced on his shoes. We climbed the steps together and into the fragrant vestibulefragrant with the onion odor of cooked dinners and the brownstone scent of old woodand up the narrow stairs and into the apartment, where my mother was in the kitchen and my brother at the dining-room table with his books.
The apartment we lived in was long and narrow, with windows in the front and in the back. The back caught the morning light and the front the slow, orange hours of the afternoon and evening. Even at this cool hour in late spring, it was a dusty, city light. It fell on paint-polished window seats and pink carpet roses. It stamped the looming plaster walls with shadowed crossbars, long rectangles; it fit itself through the bedroom door, crossed the living room, climbed the sturdy legs of the formidable dining-room chairs, and was laid out now on the dining-room table where the clothstarched linen expertly decorated with my mother's meticulous cross-stitchhad been carefully folded back along the whole length so that Gabe could place his school blotter and his books on the smooth wood.
It was the first light my poor eyes ever knew. Recalling it, I sometimes wonder if all the faith and all the fancy, all the fear, the speculation, all the wild imaginings that go into the study of heaven and hell, don't shortchange, after all, that other, earlier uncertainty: the darkness before the slow coming to awareness of the first light.
* * *
I followed my father to the narrow closet and held the newspaper for him while he hung up his overcoat and placed his hat on the shelf. He went to the couch in the living room and I went with him, fitting myself into his side, leaning heavily against his arm"like a barnacle," he saidas he read the evening paper.
The slipcover, also my mother's handiwork, was a paradise of hummingbirds and vines and deep-throated flowers, the colors, if not the images, subdued by the thick brocade. Sinking into my father's side, slipping under his arm as he patiently lifted the open paper to accommodate me, I entered that paradise via my tracing fingertip and squinted eyes, until he said, "Marie," patiently, and asked me to sit up a bit.
He kept a long key chain attached to his belt, and perhaps to keep my bony weight from putting his arm to sleep, he pulled the keys at the end of it out of his pocket and placed them in my hands. There were two keys, small but heavy, and the metal disks with his embossed name and number from his time in the army, as well as a small St. Joseph medal tinged with green. I turned them over as he read, traced them with my fingers, tested the weight and the jingle of them. I wondered if Bill Corrigan, who had been gassed in the war, carried something of the same in his pocket.
When my mother called to me to get up and set the table, my father put his hand to the top of my head.
* * *
Slipping out of that first darkness, into the dusty, city light of these rooms, I met the blurred faces of the parents I'd been givengiven through no merit of my ownfaces that even to my defective eyes, ill-formed, you might say, in the hours of that first darkness, were astonished by love.
* * *
We gathered for dinner, a piece of oilcloth spread across the table now, on an ordinary nightthe last concession to my sloppy childhood, because in another few weeks, after my First Communion, we would abandon the oilcloth cover at meals and once again dine on starched linen, like civilized people, as my father put it. Mashed potatoes and slices of beef tongue and carrots boiled with sugar. Canned peaches with a tablespoon of heavy cream. Then the cloth was folded back again, and once again my brother spread his blotter and his books across the cleared end of the long table.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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