The Beginner's Goodbye(10)

by Anne Tyler

In my great-grandfather’s time the company called itself a “gentleman’s publisher,” which was their euphemism for “vanity press.” Even now we were sort of mealy-mouthed about it, although the word “gentleman’s” had been replaced in modern times by “private.” Still, the principle was the same. The majority of our authors paid us, and most did not welcome my editing advice, although, believe me, they could have used it.

In fact, once those print-on-demand outfits started popping up on the Internet, I might very well have found myself out of a job if not for Charles. Charles was our sales rep, and he dreamed up, single-handedly, the concept of the Beginner’s series. The Beginner’s Wine Guide, The Beginner’s Monthly Budget, The Beginner’s Book of Dog Training. These were something on the order of the Dummies books, but without the cheerleader tone of voice—more dignified. And far more classily designed, with deckle-edged pages and uniform hard-backed bindings wrapped in expensive, glossy covers. Also, we were more focused—sometimes absurdly so, if you asked me. (Witness The Beginner’s Spice Cabinet.) Anything is manageable if it’s divided into small enough increments, was the theory; even life’s most complicated lessons. Not The Beginner’s Cookbook but The Beginner’s Soups, The Beginner’s Desserts, and The Beginner’s Dinner Party, which led the reader through one perfect company meal from start to finish, including grocery list. Not The Beginner’s Child Care but The Beginner’s Colicky Baby—our best-seller, in its modest way, and continually in print since the day it first appeared.

I was in sole charge of editing these, and Irene oversaw the design—even if she did call them “giftie books.” Then Charles ran around marketing them like a man possessed. He was convinced that sooner or later the series would make us all rich, although so far it hadn’t happened.

People often referred to us as The Beginner’s Press, but that was most definitely not our name; good Lord, no. It would hardly have inspired confidence. We were Woolcott Publishing, the words spelled out in tall, slim, sans-serif lettering, all lowercase, considered very modern once upon a time. (But printed only on the front of the Beginner’s books, of course, since the spines were far too narrow.)

In the first weeks after Dorothy died, I happened to be working on The Beginner’s Book of Birdwatching. As usual, an expert had been employed to supply the raw material, an ornithologist from the University of Maryland, and the result was an incoherent overload of information that I was struggling to whip into shape—also as usual.

It was my practice to settle upon a mental image of one individual reader, the way public speakers are told to direct their words toward one individual listener. I had decided that our reader in this case was a young woman who had been invited to go birdwatching with a young man she secretly fancied. It would be their very first date. She would certainly not be expected to know the Latin names of the birds she saw (although my expert was chomping at the bit to provide them), but she needed help in her choices of what clothes to wear, what equipment to bring, and what questions to ask. Or should she stay totally silent? Predictably, my expert had not thought to address this issue. I phoned him for a consultation, several times over. I made handwritten notes in the margins. I crossed out, crossed out, crossed out. I was left with a book that was too slender, and I phoned him yet again.

At the end of every day I put everything away in my desk, reached for my cane, rose to my feet, and approached my office door. There I squared my shoulders and assumed what I hoped was a cheerful, oblivious expression. Then I opened the door and strode out.

“Aaron! Calling it quits?”

“How’re the birds going, Aaron?”

“Would you feel like coming home with me for a bite of supper?”

This last would be Nandina, who had her own private office, much bigger than mine, but somehow contrived, these days, to be standing in the outer room every evening as I walked through. “Oh,” I’d tell her, “I guess I’ll just head back to my place. But thanks.” Peggy would be twisting a lace-edged handkerchief as she gazed at me. Charles would be staring fixedly at his computer, his face a mottled red with embarrassment. Irene would sit back in her chair with her head cocked, gauging the extent of the damage.

“Night, all!” I would say.

And out the heavy oak door and into the street, safe at last.

Back home, I’d find offerings of food waiting on my front stoop. I believe my neighbors had arranged some sort of rotation system amongst themselves, although they were clearly overestimating my daily intake. There were foil baking tins and Styrofoam take-out boxes and CorningWare casserole dishes (which unfortunately would need washing and returning), all lined up in a row and plastered with strips of adhesive tape letting me know whom to thank. Thinking of you! The Ushers. And Bake uncovered at 350° till brown and bubbling, Mimi. I would unlock the front door and bend to maneuver it all inside. From there I conveyed the items one by one to the kitchen, leaving my cane behind whenever I needed both hands for something spillable. I set everything next to the sink before I began adding to the list I kept on the counter. A column of previous offerings nearly filled the page: Sue Borden—deviled eggs. Jan Miller—some kind of curry. The earliest names were crossed out to show I’d already sent thank-you notes to them.

I must remember to buy more stamps. I was using a good many, these days.

After I’d recorded each dish, I dumped it in the garbage. I hated to waste food, but my refrigerator was packed to the gills and I didn’t know what else to do. So the chicken salad, the ziti casserole, the tomatoes with pesto—dump, dump, dump. You could think of it as eliminating the middleman: straight from stoop to trash bin, without the intermediate pause on the kitchen table. Occasionally, abstractedly, I would intercept a drumstick or a sparerib and gnaw on it as I went about my work. While I rinsed out a Pyrex baking dish, I made my way through a cheesecake parked beside the sink, although I didn’t much like cheesecake and this one was getting slimier every time I reached for a chunk with my wet fingers. And then, all at once, I was stuffed and my teeth had that furred feel from eating too much sugar, even though I hadn’t sat down to an actual meal.

I dried the baking dish and set it out on the stoop with a Post-it attached: MIMI. Outside it was barely twilight, that transparent green kind of twilight you see at the end of a summer day, and I could hear children calling and a wisp of music from a passing car radio. I stepped back into the hall and closed the door.