"What," said Amy, looking up, although her head was still bent forward over her plate, a piece of toast, the inner edge soggy and bloodied with meat, about to go into her mouth. Isabelle shook her head and gazed past her at the white curtain that billowed slightly in the window. It was like a car accident, she thought. How afterward you kept saying to yourself, If only the truck had already gone through the intersection by the time I got there. If only Mr. Robertson had passed through town before Amy got to high school. But you get into your car, your mind on other things, and all the while the truck is rumbling off the exit ramp, pulling into town, and you are pulling into town. And then it's over and your life will never be the same.
Isabelle rubbed crumbs from her fingertips. Already it seemed hard to remember what their lives had been like before this summer. There had been anxieties-Isabelle could certainly remember that. There was never enough money, and it seemed she always had a run in her stocking (Isabelle never wore stockings that had a run, except when she lied about it and said it had just happened), and Amy had school projects due, some foolish relief map requiring clay and foam rubber, a sewing project in home ec class-those things cost money too. But now, eating her hamburger and toast across from her daughter (this stranger) while the hazy early evening sunlight fell against the stove and across the floor, Isabelle was filled with longing for those days, for the privilege of worrying about ordinary things.
She said, because the silence of their eating was oppressive, and because she did not dare, somehow, return to the subject of Stacy, "That Bev. She really smokes too much. And she eats too much too."
"I know," Amy answered.
"Use your napkin, please." She couldn't help it: the sight of Amy licking ketchup from her fingers made her almost insane. Just like that, anger reared its ready head and filled Isabelle's voice with coldness. Only there might have been more than coldness, to be honest. To be really honest, you might say there had been the edge of hatred in her voice. And now Isabelle hated herself as well. She would take the remark back if she could, except it was too late, and poking at a sliced beet with her fork, she saw how Amy rolled her paper napkin beneath her palm, then put it on her plate.
"She's nice, though," Amy said. "I think Fat Bev is nice."
"No one said she wasn't nice."
The evening stretched before them interminably; the hazy, muted sunlight had barely moved across the floor. Amy sat with her hands in her lap, her neck thrust forward like one of those foolish toy dogs you could sometimes see in the back of a car, whose head wagged back and forth at stop signs. "Oh, sit up straight," Isabelle wanted to say, but instead she said wearily, "You may be excused. I'll do the dishes tonight."
Amy seemed to hesitate.
In the olden days one would not leave the table until the other one was through. This practice, this courtesy, dated back to when Amy was a toddler, a slow eater always, perched on top of two Sears catalogues placed on her chair, her skinny legs dangling down. "Mommy," she would say anxiously, seeing that Isabelle was done with her meal, "will you still sit with me?" And Isabelle always sat. Many nights Isabelle was tired and restless, and frankly, she would have preferred to spend the time flipping through a magazine to relax, or at least to get up and get started on the dishes. And yet she would not tell the child to hurry, she did not want to upset that small digestive tract. It was their time together. She sat.
Those days Amy had stayed at Esther Hatch's house while Isabelle was at work. An awful place, that Hatch house was-a run-down farmhouse on the outskirts of town, filled with babies and cats and the smell of cat urine. But it was the only arrangement Isabelle could afford. What was she supposed to do? She hated leaving Amy there, though, hated how Amy never said good-bye, how she would go immediately to the front window instead, climbing up on the couch to watch her mother drive away. Sometimes Isabelle would wave without looking as she backed down the driveway, because she couldn't bear to look. It was like something had been pushed down her throat to see Amy at the window like that, with her pale, unsmiling face. Esther Hatch said she never cried.
Excerpted from Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout. Copyright© 1999 by Elizabeth Strout. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted 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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