My brother ran his hands over his thick hair and then rested them both on the back of the chair that was before him. He lifted his eyes to the wall just above my father's head. He was a handsome boy with narrow shoulders and fair hair and large brown eyes. He flushed easily. "'The Seven Ages of Man,'" he said clearly, gripping the chair. "By William Shakespeare."
He began. As Gabe recited, I watched my father vaguely shape his mouth around the words, unconsciously moving his lips in much the same way he had done when I turned the sugar cube on my tongue.
My mother kept her head bowed, studying her red hands in her lap while the poem wound on, looking like a woman at prayer, or hunched beside a radio.
I lowered my chin toward the table, raised my cup only briefly from its saucer. What tea was left was growing cold, but that was how I liked it. I took a small sip and then replaced the cup with more noise than was polite, which would have earned me a sharp look from my mother had the sound not coincided with the end of the poem and my parents' gentle applause.
"Some Shelley," my father said.
My friend Gerty Hanson was made to say the Rosary with her family every night after dinner, her mother and father and all three of her big brothers kneeling on the floor around the parents' bed. I had joined them once or twice, a ritual no less tedious than this, although Gerty, at least, was given the chance to lead the prayer every fifth decade, the chance to speak out into an attentive silencewhereas here I was meant only to listen to my brother, who had won the elocution medal at his school for what seemed to me more years than I could number.
Gabe raised his eyes and directed his voice to the simple chandelier above our heads. It was new to my ears, his voice, both deeper and somehow less certain than it had been just days ago. I watched the protruding Adam's apple bob in his pale throat. "'Ode to the West Wind,'" he said. "By Percy Blithe Shelley."
My parents might have seen the priest in him then, the way he stood at the end of the table, offered up the lovely words.
I saw only, in my mind's eye, a picture book illustration I had found somewhere, of a cruel face in the clouds, bloated cheeks and pursed lips that blew down upon the huddled figure of a man in a great dark overcoat.
"'Oh, hear!'" my brother said, reciting, and then hesitated for a moment before he abruptly lifted a palm to the ceilinga gesture he might have been instructed to make, at school, perhaps, although it did not suit him or his steady voice.
Without raising my chin, I looked around. Gabe had left half the cake on his plate. I knew he would eat it in a single, triumphant bite when he returned to his chair. My father's slice was already gone. As was my mother's. I looked at my own plate again, knowing full well I hadn't left a crumb, and was surprised to discover there, in its center, another white sugar cube. I looked to my father, who only shifted his eyes briefly and briefly smiled. I looked to my mother, who was still studying the ruddy hands cupped in her lap, the thin gold band of her wedding ring. I snatched up the cube of sugar and quickly dropped it into the cooling dregs of my tea. My father whispered the last words of the poem as my brother recited them, and then, once more, my parents were quietly applauding.
My brother said, "'Ozymandias,'" as I lifted my teacup again. I felt my mother's finger against my thigh, a quick poke to remind me to listen.
I listened, my eye on the lovely, tea-soaked dregs of sugar at the bottom of the china cup. I imagined it was the very same sweet, silver sand mentioned in the poem, desert sand, sand of Syria and Mount Lebanon. I watched with one eye squinted as the lovely stuff moved slowly across the ivory light, advanced sluggishly toward my tongue, and then, when it was too slow, the tip of my finger. I was thinking of a baby wrapped in sparkling clothes, being pushed slowly in a white carriage, slowly through the city of light, toward Brooklyn, when I felt the sting of a slap against the back of my head and then its quick echo of pain. I pulled my finger from the cup. My mother hadn't raised her eyes from her lap.
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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