The Beginner's Goodbye(16)


by Anne Tyler

“And you have one?” she asked.

“Of course.”

She looked unconvinced.

I said, “His name is …” Then I started over again, like someone retracing his steps to take a long, running jump. “His name is … Gil Bryan.”

It was the image of the shining skin beneath his eyes that brought it forth, finally. I said, “I’ll just give him a call today to let him know about the hall ceiling.”

“Well,” Nandina said. “All right, I guess.”

She seemed almost disappointed.

We drove downtown in separate cars, at my insistence. I said, “Who knows? We might want to leave at different times.”

“I don’t mind adjusting my schedule.”

“But also,” I said, “I may run by the house after work for a few of my things.”

“You want me to come with you?”

“No.”

In fact, I had no intention of going to my house. I had cased the bureau and the closet in my old room and found more than enough clothes to suit my purposes, provided I wasn’t too picky: stretched-out, kiddie-looking underpants, and jeans that fit fine although they seemed a bit high in the waist, and a button-down oxford shirt that I remembered from eighth grade. You would think oxford shirts would be timeless, but this one was kind of spindly in the collar. Well, never mind. For shaving, I’d made do with a disposable plastic razor I found among Nandina’s backup supplies in the bathroom. I use an electric shaver, as a rule. I made a mental note to buy a new one on my lunch break.

That was the first time I admitted to myself that I couldn’t face the sight of my house: when I realized I was willing to spring for a new electric shaver rather than retrieve my old one from my medicine cabinet.

So, as soon as I reached work, I shut myself in my office and started making phone calls. First I left a message on the answering machine at my insurance company—just the company in general, because I had no recollection as to who my personal agent was, never having had to use him. Then I searched the Internet for gil bryan contractor baltimore. No Gil to be found, but there was a Bryan Bros. General Contracting Co. I tried that number, and this time I reached an actual human being. “Hell-o,” a man said, too loudly.

“Bryan Brothers?”

“Yep.”

“Gil Bryan?”

“Nope.”

“But you have a Gil Bryan.”

“Yep.”

“Could I speak to him, please?”

“He’s out.”

“Could I leave him a message?”

“Let me give you his cell.”

I wrote the number down, but I didn’t try it right away. The conversation with the first guy had worn me out.

How about if I just sold my house? Put it on the market as a “fixer-upper.” (I’ll say!) Paid somebody to pack my belongings so I wouldn’t have to set foot in the place ever again. Surely there were people you could hire to do that. I would rent a little apartment, fully furnished. If anything happened to that one, I’d rent another.

The birdwatching book had gone off to Irene, and I was working on one of our vanity titles: George S. Hogan, Sr.’s My War. In the office, we referred to it as War Thirteen. Why was it that so many men viewed their military service as the defining event of their lives? They could have lived ninety years or more, they could have had several marriages and half a dozen children and outstandingly successful careers, but still, if they chose one experience to sum them up, it would be Vietnam, or Korea, or the Normandy invasion. It was especially hard to fathom in the case of Mr. Hogan, because his own particular war sounded downright dull. My best buddy in the barracks was Cy Helm. He was a really fine fellow. You couldn’t ask for a finer fellow than old Helm I always tell folks.

Apart from inserting a comma after old Helm, I left the text alone. That was our policy with the vanity manuscripts. (Some people didn’t even want the commas added.) I waded through another three pages, and then I rubbed my eyes and stretched and got up to fetch a cup of coffee.

Charles was playing FreeCell on his computer. He was a stocky, rumpled man with a perennially red face, slightly older than the rest of us, and he had his own mysterious schedule that none of us interfered with. Irene seemed to be out of the office, and Peggy was refilling the cream pitcher. “Oh, poor Aaron,” she said when she saw me. “I heard about your ceiling.”

I sent a malevolent glare toward Nandina’s office door.

“Who are you hiring to fix it?” she asked.

“Just this guy.”

“Because I know a good—”

“Never mind; it’s all seen to,” I said.

Then I added, “Thanks anyhow,” because I might have sounded a little abrupt.

Peggy didn’t seem to take offense. She passed me the cream pitcher, handle first, and asked, “How’s Mr. Hogan’s book coming along?”

“He’s got this really fine buddy I’m reading about,” I told her. “Really fine. You know: just a really, really fine buddy.”

Peggy smiled at me. She was one of those people without any sense of irony. (Well, unless you counted her Little Miss Muffet clothing style, which I sometimes suspected you could count.) Still, it seemed I had to go on now that I was wound up. “It could be worse, I suppose,” I said. “It could be My Years with the City Council. That’s my gold standard.”

Then Charles weighed in, from his desk across the room. “I’d vote for The Life of an Estate Lawyer, myself,” he called, without taking his gaze from the computer screen.

“Oh, good point. How could I have overlooked that one?”

“Remember The Beginner’s Book of Kitchen Remodeling?” Peggy asked me.

“Ye-e-es,” I said. It hadn’t stuck in my mind, especially.

“I was thinking you might find that helpful when you’re dealing with your house repairs.”

“Whoa!” I said. “Actually consult one of our books?”

She nodded, solemnly.

“Good heavens,” I said. “Those books are not meant to be used.”

“They’re not?”

“Well, not in any serious way. They’re more like … gestures. Things you give to other people.”

“But in Kitchen Remodeling they talk about what you should settle with the contractor first, before he starts work. I was thinking that would be good to know.”