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Excerpt: 'That Night'

Book Cover: 'That Night'

That 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," drawing out 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 crumble backward 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.

Excerpt from That Night by Alice McDermott. Copyright © 1987 by Alice McDermott. Used by permission of Alice McDermott.

Jacket design by Rita Marshall from That Night by Alice McDermott. Jacket design © 1987 by Rita Marshall. Jacket illustration by Etienne Delessert. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Alice McDermott