From the shore, a ride into the city

August 03, 2004|By Anne Tyler

As visitors descend on Baltimore during the summer tourism season, staff writer Larry Bingham offers an occasional look at how the city has been portrayed by writers over the years. Today, an excerpt from Anne Tyler's novel Ladder of Years, copyright1995, originally published by Alfred A. Knopf. Pulitzer Prize-winning Tyler lives in the city and sets many of her novels here.

"The passing houses looked arbitrarily plunked down, like Monopoly houses. The smaller the house, it seemed, the more birdbaths and plaster deer in the yard, the tidier the flower beds, the larger the dish antenna out back. A brown pond slid by, choked with grappling tree trunks. Then more woods. In Delia's girlhood, the very word `woods' had had an improper ring to it. `So-and-so went to the woods with So-and-so' was the most scandalous thing you could say, and even now the sight of winding, leafy paths conjured up an image of ... Well.

"She forced her thoughts back to Mr. Lamb. He seemed to be talking about dogs. He said that after he and Belle were married they might just get themselves one, and then he went into a discourse on the various breeds. Golden retrievers were sweet-natured but sort of dumb, he said, and Labs had that tendency to whap a person's knickknacks with their tails all the time, and as for German shepherds, why ...

"Gradually the scenery began to have a different feel to it. Around Easton she started noticing bookstores and European-car dealers, neither of which existed in Bay Borough, and by the time they hit Grasonville, the road had widened to six lanes that whizzed past gigantic condominiums, flashy gift shops, marinas bristling with masts.

"Mr. Lamb settled finally on a collie. He said he might name it Pinocchio if it had one of those long, thin noses. They crossed the Kent Narrows bridge, high above the grassy marshland. Delia could remember when crossing the Kent Narrows could use up the better part of an hour - long enough to get out of your car and stretch your legs and buy a watermelon, if you wanted - but that was in the days of that cranky old drawbridge. Now they were beyond the narrows in no time flat and speeding through a jungle of factory outlet stores, strip malls, raw new housing developments with MODELS NOW OPEN! DESIGNER TOUCHES! And then here came the lovely, fragile twin spans of the Bay Bridge, shimmering in the distance like something out of a dream, while Mr. Lamb decided that he might let Pinocchio have one little batch of puppies before they got her fixed.

"The countryside seemed so green, so lush, after the scoured pallor of the Eastern Shore. Delia was surprised when they turned onto Highway 97 - a road she'd never heard of - but then she relaxed in the glide of brand-new pavement not yet bordered with commercial claptrap. ...

On the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the lanes were so crowded that she gathered herself inward, as if that would help their car slip through more easily. She looked ahead and saw the Baltimore skyline - smokestacks, a spaghetti of ramps and overpasses, monster storage tanks. They began to pass gray-windowed factories and corrugated-metal warehouses. Everything seemed so industrial - even the new ballpark, with its geometric strutwork and its skeletons of lights."

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