The Beginner's Goodbye(14)


by Anne Tyler

“We should do this again!” Nate said as we were parting, and Luke said, “Yes! Make a regular thing of it!”

Oh, or else not. But I nodded enthusiastically, and shook both their hands, and thanked Luke for the meal, which he had refused to let us pay for.

I didn’t thank either one of them for the event itself—for the act of getting together. That would have implied that it had been a charitable gesture of some sort, and I most certainly was not in need of charity.

So I turned up my collar, and gave both of them a jaunty wave of my cane, and set off through the downpour as cocky as you please.

Though I’d have to say that I felt a little, maybe, woebegone as I drove home alone.

The outside light was supposed to come on automatically at dusk, but the bulb must have burned out. A damned nuisance in the rain. I stepped in a couple of puddles as I was walking up the sidewalk to my house, and my trouser cuffs were already wet enough as it was. I unlocked the door and reached inside to turn the hall light on, but that was burned out, too. And when I pushed the door wider open, I met with some kind of resistance. A gravelly sound startled me. I peered down at the dark hall floor and made out several white and irregular objects. I nudged them with my foot. Rocks? No, plaster, chips of plaster. I pushed the door harder and it opened a few more inches. My eyes had adjusted by now. Against the black of the floor I saw scatterings of white and then a mound of white—pebbles and clods and sheets of white. And now that I thought about it, the air I was breathing was full of dust. I could feel an urge to cough pressing my throat. And I heard a loud, steady dripping from somewhere inside the house.

I closed the door again. I went back to my car, stepping in the same two puddles on the way, and got behind the steering wheel, where I spent several minutes collecting my thoughts. Then I drew a deep, shaky breath and fitted my key into the ignition.

And that is how it happened that I went to live with my sister.

4

Nandina lived in the house we’d grown up in, a brown-shingled foursquare north of Wyndhurst. Even in the rain, it was only a five-minute drive. I almost wished it were longer. When I got there I parked out front, but then I stayed in the car a minute, debating how I should word this. I didn’t want to confess the true state of my house, because Nandina had been nagging me for weeks now to get started on the repairs. But if I just showed up with no explanation and asked for my old room back, she would think I was having a nervous breakdown or something. She would turn all motherly and there-there. She would be thrilled.

Well. As sometimes happens, she surprised me. She opened the front door when I rang and she sized up the situation—my slicked hair, damp clothes, the flecks of white plaster clinging to my trouser cuffs—and then she said, “Come in and stand on the mat while I fetch a towel.”

“I’ve got—got a little water in my front hall,” I told her.

She was heading toward the kitchen now, but she called back, “Take your shoes off and leave them there.”

“I was thinking maybe, just for tonight—”

But she had disappeared. I stood dripping on the mat, breathing in the smells of my childhood—Johnson’s paste wax and musty wallpaper. Even in the daytime the house was dark, with its small, oddly placed windows and heavy fabrics, and tonight it looked so dim that I kept feeling the need to blink to clear my vision.

“Your shoes, Aaron. Take off your shoes,” Nandina said, returning. She had a faded dishtowel with her. She waited while I shucked my shoes off and removed my brace, and then she handed me the towel. It was one of those calendar towels our mother used to hang above the kitchen table. 1975, it said. I mopped my face and then my hair. Nandina said, “Where’s your cane?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you leave it in the car?”

“Maybe.”

“Did you bring any clothes with you?”

“No.”

She stepped a bit closer, although she knew better than to offer an arm, and we made our way into the living room. She smelled of shampoo. She was wearing a gingham housecoat. (My sister was one of the last remaining women in America who changed into a housecoat at the end of every workday.) She waited for me to get settled on the couch, and then she said, “I’m going to see if you have any slippers here.”

I probably did. I had plenty of other stuff. Our mother had never cleared my room out after I left home.

While Nandina was upstairs, I slumped back on the couch and gazed up at the ceiling. It was a really solid ceiling, the old-fashioned, cream plaster kind with a medallion in the center, not so much as a hairline crack anywhere in view.

I thought about the car my college roommate used to drive, a rusty heap of a Chevy that kept sputtering out for no reason. One day it died altogether, and he got out and unscrewed the license plate and walked away from it; never looked back. I wished I could do that with my house. I wouldn’t miss a single thing about it. Let it vanish from the face of the earth. It wouldn’t bother me in the least.

Nandina came back with a pair of corduroy moccasins that I’d completely forgotten. Then she brought me my brace, which I strapped on before I fitted my feet into the moccasins. “Now,” Nandina said. “Have you had supper?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Aaron,” she said.

“What?”

“Tell the truth, now.”

“I’ve had half a dozen raw oysters, a crab cake, garlic mashed potatoes, a Green Goddess salad, a seven-apple tart à la mode, and two glasses of wine.”

“Goodness,” Nandina said.

I tried not to look smug.

“And what, exactly,” she asked, “is the current state of your house?”

“Ah.” I considered. “Well, at the moment my hall ceiling seems to have taken on a bit of water.”

“I see.”

“It could happen to anyone,” I told her. “It rained all last night, remember, and all today.”

Nandina said, “It seems to me—”

“But we can t-t-talk about that to-tomorrow,” I told her. “Meanwhile, I am beat. Are there sheets on my old bed?”

“Of course.”

Yes, of course; why did I bother asking? I stood up and made a big show of yawning and stretching. “Guess I’ll toddle off, then,” I said. “Thanks for taking me in on such short notice. I promise I won’t be in your hair more than a night or two.”