Authors: Alice McDermott
Table of Contents
egeen 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.
I was seven years old. I spoke mostly to my parents. To my brother. To my teachers when I had to. I gave some whispered response to Father Quinn or to Mr. Lee at the candy store when my mother poked me in the ribs. I could not imagine having a conversation with Mrs. Chehab, who was red-haired and very tall. Still, I promised. I would say nothing.
Pegeen shook herself again, standing back and lifting her shoulders inside the pale blue coat. “But there’s always someone nice,” she said, her voice suddenly gone singsong. “Someone always helps me up.” She struck another pose, coy and haughty, as
before, her chin in the air. She touched the feather in her hat. “Today a very handsome man gave me his hand. He asked if I was all right. A real Prince Charming.” She smiled again and looked around. Just a few doors down, the older boys were playing stickball in the street. There was a knot of younger ones on the curb, watching. Bill Corrigan was in his chair on the sidewalk just behind them.
Pegeen leaned forward once more. “Tomorrow,” she said breathlessly, whispering now, “I’m going to look for him again. If I see him, I’m going to get real close.” She leaned down, her hand on the banister above my head. “I’m going to
to fall, see? Right next to him. And he’ll catch me and say, ‘Is it you again?’”
All human eyes are beautiful, but Pegeen’s were very black and heavily lashed and gorgeous now, with the sparkle of her joke, or her plan, or, perhaps, her vision of some impossible future.
She straightened up. “We’ll see what happens then,” she said, sly and confident, her thick eyebrows raised. She swung her purse slowly, turned to move on. “That will be something to see,” she said.
At her own house, Pegeen didn’t use the basement door, as usual. She climbed the stone steps, taking them one at a time, like a small child. At the top, she paused again to swat at the back of her coat, only touching the dirt with her wrist. It was early evening. Spring. I could see Pegeen’s reflection in the oval glass of the outer door—or at least the blue heart of the reflection, which was both the reflection of her good spring coat and the evening light on her flushed face. Pegeen pulled open the door and the thin image in the glass shuddered like a flame.
I turned back to the vigil I was keeping on the stone steps. Vigil for my father, who had not yet come up from the subway.
From the far corner, the neighborhood’s men and working women were coming home. Everyone wore hats. Everyone wore
trim dark shoes, which was where my eyes fell when any of them said, “Hello, Marie,” passing by.
At seven, I was a shy child, and comical-looking, with a round flat face and black slits for eyes, thick glasses, black bangs, a straight and serious mouth—a little girl cartoon.
With my heart pinned to my father’s sleeve in those days.
The boys were playing stickball down the street. Always at this time of day. Some of them friends of Gabe, my brother, although he, young scholar, remained inside at his books. The younger boys were lined at the curb, watching the game, Walter Hartnett among them. He had his cap turned backward and the leg with the built-up shoe extended before him. Blind Bill Corrigan, who had been gassed in the war, was on the sidewalk just behind Walter, sitting in the painted kitchen chair that his mother set out for him every morning when the weather was fine.
Bill Corrigan wore a business suit and polished shoes, and although there was a glitch in the skin around his eyes, a scarred shine in the satiny folds of his eyelids, although he was brought to the kitchen chair every afternoon when the weather was fine by his mother, whose arm he held the way a bride holds the arm of a groom, it was to him that the boys in the street appealed whenever a dropped ball or an untimely tag sent both teams, howling and cawing, to his side of the street. They were there now: shouting into one another’s face, throwing their caps on the ground, and begging Bill Corrigan to make the call. He raised one of his big, pale hands, and suddenly half the boys spun around, the other half cheered. Walter Hartnett rocked backward in despair, raising his good foot into the air.
I pushed my glasses back on my nose. Small city birds the color of ashes rose and fell along the rooftops. In the fading evening light, the stoop beneath my thighs, as warm as breath when I first sat down, now exhaled a shallow chill. Mr. Chehab walked by with a brown bag from the bakery in his hand. He had his white
apron balled up beneath his arm, the ties trailing. There was the scent of new-baked bread as he passed. Big Lucy, a girl I feared, pushed a scooter along the opposite sidewalk. Two Sisters of Charity from the convent down the street passed by, smiling from inside their bonnets. I turned my head to watch their backs, wondering always why their long hems never caught at their heels. At the end of the block, the Sisters paused to greet a heavy woman with thick, pale legs and a dark apron under her coat. She said something to them that made them nod. Then the three turned the corner together. The game paused again, and the boys parted reluctantly as a black car drove by.
I shivered and waited, little Marie. Sole survivor, now, of that street scene. Waited for the first sighting of my father, coming up from the subway in his hat and coat, most beloved among all those ghosts.
Once, I stepped up to the glass case in the delicatessen in Rego Park, ready to call out my order. I was pregnant with my first child, hungry, a little light-headed. In a few months’ time, I would be at death’s door, last rites and all—my mother swinging her purse at the head of the priest who came to deliver them—but on this day there was only a sudden rupture behind my eyes. I fell without knowing I fell, like a sack of potatoes. And then I was faceup on the wooden floor. My legs were turned beneath me. There was an ache along the fleshy edge of my palm. Faces above me. More pain dawning, in my ankle, at the back of my skull. There was tuna salad on my hand and on my elbow and on the edge of my spring coat, where I had caught somebody’s order going down. I saw only the aproned bosom of the owner’s wife as I was lifted and led to a chair in the back room. There was sawdust on the floor and brown towers of damp cardboard boxes along one wall. A strong smell of salami. They sat me down in a metal folding chair that was the same color as the cardboard
boxes, before a flimsy card table scored with tape. There was the slow reconstruction of what had happened. A policeman appeared, offered a trip to the emergency room, although the consensus among the other women crowded into the narrow doorway was that the slow sipping from a warm bottle of Coke would revive me. Which it did. And then the roast beef on rye I had been about to order, which the owner’s German wife watched me eat in the crowded back room—the meat piled thickly and as tender as butter—until the women were satisfied enough to declare, No harm done. The owner’s wife gave me a container of chicken soup and a quart of rice pudding to take home. She was a broad, solid woman with thick arms and legs. She swiped vigorously at the stain on my coat with a wad of dampened paper towel, and I remembered Pegeen then: There’s always someone nice.
My father appeared at the corner. Paused for his evening paper. Topcoat and hat to mark him as a clerk, not a laborer. I only raised my head above my knees when I saw him—although surely something, some sinewy energy, some delight, tensed and trembled itself through my thin back and shoulders as I gazed down the sloping street. The boys playing stickball parted once again for a passing car: it was the ebb and flow of their game. I turned away from them, raised a hand to the balustrade to get ready to spring. My father was a thin, slight man in a long coat. His step was quick and jaunty. He, too, wore shoes with a high shine.
I waited until he was halfway toward home. And then I flew, across the sidewalk and into the air as he lifted me—the newspaper held tightly under his arm the only impediment, it seemed, to an ascent that I saw in my own imagination as equivalent, somehow, to the caps the boys had thrown into the air when Bill Corrigan made his call. I would not have been surprised to hear them cheer.
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 vestibule—fragrant with the onion odor of cooked dinners and the brownstone scent of old wood—and 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.