* * *
When the dishes were put away, my father went to the narrow closet for his hat and said, "Let's take a stroll."
We went down the stairs together. Shined black tips of his neat shoes and perfect fall of his trouser cuffs over the smooth laces. A lilt in the tap of his step on the uncarpeted stair, the tap of our steps. Out through the vestibule and onto the sidewalk again. We were in front of the Chehabs' building when he dropped my hand and paused to light a cigarette, the smoke rising white from under the bowed brim of his hat. And then he threw his head back with the pleasure of that first exhalation of smoke. Made me look up as well to see the stars. A thin handsome man, forty years old.
It was one of his shanty cousins, the McGeevers, who would later say that a body so thin was nothing more than a walking invitation to misfortune.
* * *
He took my hand again. There was the sure familiarity of his grip, warm and firm, the palm broad against my small fingers. We walked to the other corner, away from the subway, although there was still the sound of it somewhere beneath our feet. There was as well the sound of a trolley on another street, the sound of someone calling to a child, someone shouting inside a building. Lights at windows were growing brighter, growing warmer, it seemed, as the air grew cold. There was the scent of metal, whiff of tar, of stone, of dog droppings left beside the wrought-iron cage that surrounded a scrawny tree. The soft gabardine of my father's suit jacket against the back of my hand. At the corner, we turned and he tossed the glowing cigarette into the street.
"I'll be only a minute," he said. He put his two hands on my shoulders, as if to place me more securely on the sidewalk before another stoop, and then turned to push through a narrow iron fence that led down a dim alley. The air was black, but the lights in the buildings were warm and golden. Only a few people went by, their coats drawn around them. One man touched his hand to the brim of his hat as he passed and I dropped my chin shyly. And then rose up on my toes after he'd gone, putting my face to the streetlight as if to a warm sun. I squinted, and the light burst and stretched itself yellow and white into the darkness. I heard the squeal of the iron gate and my father was beside me again, the sharp smell of the drink he'd just had in the air about him. He held out his hand. In the center of his palm there was a white cube of sugar, sparkling in the light. I plucked it up and slipped it into my mouth. I turned it with my tongue. Watching, my father pursed his lips and shifted his jaw, as if he, too, felt the sugar on his teeth. Then he took my hand again.
* * *
We passed the Chehabs' parlor window, where there was a lamp and a chair and the back of Mr. Chehab's dark head and broad shoulders as he smoked a cigar and read the evening news.
* * *
In the vestibule, my father shot back his cuffs and put his warm palms to my face. He studied me seriously, smiling only a littleI was a round-faced, narrow-eyed, homely, comical little thinguntil my cheeks were warm enough, he said, to pass muster with my mother. And we climbed the stairs once more.
There was tea, with a slice of plain cake, while my mother, with one of his schoolbooks in her lap, put my brother through his paces: catechism questions, Latin declensions, history's dates and names. He answered all without hesitation, breaking off pieces of the cake only after he had finished a round. And then, with a jagged line of cake still left on his plate and half his milky tea still in his cup, he pushed back his chair and walked slowly to the far end of the table.
My father, at the opposite end, moved his own cup aside and leaned forward. I could see the reflection of his pale throat and chin in the table's dark wood, like a face just beginning to appear in a still pool of black water. Or disappear. "What will we have tonight?" he 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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