The emotionally powerful story of young love set in suburban Long Island in the 60s.
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ALICE McDERMOTT is the author of six previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the National Book Award; and At Weddings and Wakes. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. McDermott lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
ONEThat night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands. Even the men from our neighborhood, in Bermuda shorts or chinos, white T-shirts and gray suit pants, with baseball bats and snow shovels held before them like rifles, even they paused in their rush to protect her: the good and the bad--the black-jacketed boys and the fathers in their light summer clothes--startled for that one moment before the fighting began by the terrible, piercing sound of his call.This is serious, my own father remembered thinking at that moment. This is insane.I remember only that my ten-year-old heart was stopped by the beauty of it all.Sheryl was her name, but he cried, "Sherry," drawingout the word, keening it, his voice both strong and desperate. There was a history of dark nights in the sound, something lovely, something dangerous.One of the children had already begun to cry.It was high summer, the early 1960s. The sky was a bright navy above the pitched roofs and the thick suburban trees. I hesitate to say that only Venus was bright, but there it was. I had noticed it earlier, when the three cars that were now in Sheryl's driveway and up on her lawn had made their first pass through our neighborhood. Add a thin, rising moon if the symbolism troubles you: Venus was there.Across the street, a sprinkler shot weak sprays of water, white in the growing darkness. Behind the idling motors of the boys' cars you could still hear the collective gurgle of filters in backyard pools. Sheryl's mother had already been pulled from the house, and she crouched on the grass by the front steps saying over and over again, "She's not here. She's gone." The odor of their engines was like a gash across the ordinary summer air.He called her again, doubled over now, crying, I think. Then he pitched forward, his boot slipping on the grass, so it seemed for a second he'd be frustrated even in this, and once again ran toward the house. Sheryl's mother cowered. The men and the boys met awkwardly on the square lawn.Until then, I had thought all violence was swift and surefooted, somehow sleek, even elegant. I was surprised to see how poor it really was, how laborious and hulking. I saw one of the men bend under the blow of what seemed a slow-moving chain, and then, just as gracelessly, swing his son's baseball bat into a teenager's ear. I saw the men and the boys leap on one another like obese, short-legged children, sliding and falling, raising chains that seemed to crumblebackward onto their shoulders, moving bats and hoes and wide rakes that seemed as unwieldy as trees. There were no clever D'Artagnan mid-air meetings of chain and snow shovel, no eye-to-eye throat grippings, no witty retorts and well-timed dodges, no winners. Only, in the growing darkness, a hundred dumb, unrhythmical movements, only blow after artless blow.I was standing in the road before our neighbor's house, frozen, as were all the other children scattered across the road and the sidewalk and the curbs as if in some wide-ranging game of statues. I was certain, as were all the others, that my father would die.Behind us, one of the mothers began to call her husband's name, and then the others, touching their throats or their thighs, one by one began to follow. Their thin voices were plaintive, even angry, as if this clumsy battle were the last disappointment they would bear, or as if, it seems to me now, they had begun to echo, even take up, that lovesick boy's bitter cry.
They had first appeared just after dinner. Three cars--hot rods, we were still calling them then (not one of us imagining the phrase to be more than descriptive, never considering it somewhat obscene)--turning onto the north end of our block, moving slowly, steadily. I had just joined my parents on the front porch. I saw my mother raise her chin to look over the wrought-iron railing and the rhododendron bush as each car stopped at our corner, one waiting patiently for the next, like cars carrying beauty queens in a stalled parade, and then, just as slowly, carefully, they turned to the right.We could see they were full of teenagers; there was animpression of black leather elbows at each window, black hair, sunglasses. No radios were playing and so only the sound of the straining, impatient motors seemed threatening. Like a big man snoring, I thought, or a dog growling in his sleep. I can't recall at all the cars' colors or their makes. A Chevy of some sort, no doubt, say turquoise or sky blue, then a dark one, say a dark green Ford with tinted windows (and the tinted windows must be true because Sheryl's boyfriend was in that second car, pressed into the back seat between two others, and none of us saw him until the cars, after who knows how many slow circuits of our street, suddenly turned with a sound like an explosion and drove onto her driveway and up over her lawn), the third perhaps a white Buick with one long red stripe that ended in a pitchfork or maybe a devil's tail.When they approached a second time, about ten minutes later, again turning onto the far end of our street and still maintaining that patient, creeping speed, my mother said, "Uh-oh."As the last car once again rounded our corner, making a left this time, I saw Sheryl's neighbor, Mr. Rossi, standing at his front door. He wore a T-shirt and suit trousers and held a folded newspaper in one hand. His short, thick arms were both stained with darkening tatoos. He turned away only when the low rumble of their engines, which did not change even after they'd left our block, had faded completely.I once thought they had been wise to maintain this slow speed even after they'd left our street, to slowly cruise a dozen blocks, to spread suspicion up and down the neighborhood, dissipating it, but now I wonder if they would have avoided suspicion altogether if they'd taken off, backfired, burned rubber.This was not an especially rough town, but by then its residents must have simply resigned themselves to hoods and gangs and hot rodders, to teenagers in trouble, the way the first frontierspeople must have resigned themselves to an occasional Indian raid, an occasional outlaw who shoots up the saloon. At that time, in our town at least, it was a given that hoods bombed around, intimidated the band members who tried to get past them into the pizza parlor, drank beer. Word was that some of them poured gasoline over stray cats and set them on fire, screamed "Fung-goola" into old ladies' bedroom windows in the middle of the night, smoked reefer--that one had pulled and used a knife on a geography teacher (something I recalled only years later, when our university announced it was cutting the entire geography department), that another had run his car into the dry cleaner's window, but essentially, they were innocents. When they got out of hand the police could be called and, without nightsticks or tear gas, scatter them.On the night he came for her, it was the uncharacteristic speed, the calm, that made us take notice. It was their order, their odd control (they all sat still inside their cars, looking straight ahead) that made my mother say as they passed a third time, "This is ominous."My father looked over his newspaper.Next door, Mrs. Evers had brought her garbage to the curb (her husband would later carry the lid like a shield into the battle) and now stood with her hands on her hips, watching the cars as they passed, one, two, three, through the stop sign and, this time, down the next street.She turned, saw my parents, and slowly climbed our steps. She was a big woman, freckled, pot-bellied, her belly split like a backside by her caesarean scars. She was famously homely around our neighborhood, not so much because ofher looks, which were plain enough, but because of her husband's. Mr. Evers was exquisite, handsome in that chiseled Hollywood way that could make even the oldest mother suddenly shy, and it was the speculation regarding why a man who looked like that would have married a woman who looked like this that had transformed poor Mrs. Evers from not good-looking to our very code word for ugly.She had four sons, one my age, the others younger, all of whom later swelled into monstrous adolescence, went on to become bouncers and third-rank football players and, my brother sometimes said, retaining walls. It was Georgie, her oldest, who had cried so terribly beside me as the fighting began.She had dark hair and a wide, pitted face. It amazes me to think she was only about thirty then."What are those kids up to?" she asked us.My mother shrugged. "They just keep driving past.""Joyriding," my father said, his tone indicating that it would be silly to make any more of it. Once, in order to illustrate how one bad habit can completely destroy your good name, he had told me how he had happened to see Mrs. Evers push her fingernail up into her nose, examine it, and then put it into her mouth. I myself had already seen her do this any number of times--stretched in her chaise by their aluminum pool, reading the newspaper with one hand--but now the gesture took on the significance of his moral and I could no longer look at the woman without disapproval.Mrs. Evers stared at the street as if the three cars were passing once more, although--and I had begun listening for them now--they were nowhere near."They're going so slow," she said."Maybe they're teaching each other to drive," I offered. I used my father's "Why worry?" tone, hoping he'd catch my disdain.I suppose they ignored me....
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