The Beginner's Goodbye(4)


by Anne Tyler

It was my intention to proceed directly to the sunporch and get some work done. I had brought a manuscript home with me for editing. Halfway through the living room, though, I found myself making a detour to the sofa. I sank onto it and groaned again, and then I let my papers drop to the floor and stretched out full-length.

But you know how a cold reacts to a horizontal position. Immediately, I stopped being able to breathe. My head felt like a cannonball. I was hoping to sleep, but I seemed to be filled all at once with a brittle, edgy alertness. I found the normal clutter of our living room intensely irritating—the apple core browning on the coffee table, the unsorted laundry heaped in an armchair, the newspapers on the sofa interfering with the placement of my feet. One part of my mind grew suddenly ambitious, and I imagined springing up and whipping things into shape. Dragging out the vacuum cleaner, even. Doing something about that stain on the carpet in front of the fireplace. My body went on lying there, dull and achy, while my mind performed over and over the same frenetic chores. It was exhausting.

Time must have passed somehow or other, though, because when the doorbell rang, I checked my watch and found that it was past noon. I got up with a sigh and went out to the front hall to open the door. Our secretary was standing there with a grocery bag on her hip. “Feeling any better?” she asked me.

“Oh, yes.”

“Well, I’ve brought you some soup,” she said. “We all just knew you wouldn’t be fixing yourself any lunch.”

“Thanks, but I’m not—”

“Feed a cold, starve a fever!” she caroled. She nudged the door wider open with her elbow and stepped inside. “People always wonder which it is,” she said. “ ‘Feed a cold and starve a fever,’ or ‘Starve a cold and feed a fever.’ But what they don’t realize is, it’s an ‘If, then’ construction. So in that case either one will work, because if you feed a cold then you’ll be starving a fever, which you most certainly do want to do, and if you starve a cold then you’ll be feeding a nasty old fever.”

By now, she was walking right past me down the hall—one of those women who feel sure they know what’s best for you in all situations. Not unlike my sister, in fact. Except where Nandina was long and gawky, Peggy was soft and dimpled—a pink-and-gold person with a cloud of airy blond curls and a fondness for thrift-store outfits involving too many bits of lace. I liked Peggy just fine (we’d gone through grade school together, which may have been what led my father to hire her), but the softness was misleading. She held our entire office together; she was way, way more than a secretary. Any time she took a day off, the rest of us fell apart—couldn’t even find the stapler. Now she headed unerringly toward the kitchen, pad-pad in her Chinese silk slippers, although as far as I could recall she had never been in our kitchen. I trailed after her, saying, “Really, I’m not hungry. I’m really not hungry. All I want to do is—”

“Just a little soup?” she asked. “Cream of tomato? Chicken noodle?”

“Neither.”

“Deether,” it sounded like. I could have been in a nose-spray commercial.

She said, “The cream of tomato was Nandina’s idea, but I thought chicken noodle for protein.”

“Deether!” I told her.

“Okay, then, just tea. My special magic tea for sore throats.”

She set the grocery bag on the counter and pulled out a box of Constant Comment. “I brought decaf,” she said, “so it won’t interfere with your sleep. Because sleep, you know, is the very best cure-all.” Next came a lemon and a bottle of honey. “You should get back on the couch.”

“But I don’t—”

“Don’t” was “dote.” Peggy heard, finally. She turned from the sink, where she’d started filling the kettle. “Listen to you!” she said. “Should I phone Dorothy?”

“No!” Doe.

“I could just leave a message with her office. I wouldn’t have to interrupt her.”

“Doe.”

“Well, suit yourself,” she said, and she set the kettle on the burner. Our stove was so old-fashioned that you had to light it by hand, which she somehow knew ahead of time, because she reached for the matchbox without even seeming to look for it. I sat down on one of the kitchen chairs. I watched her slice the lemon in half and squeeze it into a mug while she discussed the proven powers of fruit pectin in bolstering the immune system. “That’s why the Constant Comment,” she said, “on account of the orange peels in it,” and then she said that when she got a cold, which wasn’t all that often because somehow she just seemed to have this natural, inborn resistance to colds …

Talk about Constant Comment.

She poured a huge amount of honey on top of the lemon. I swear she poured a quarter of a cup. I didn’t see how there’d be any room for the water. Then she plopped in two teabags, draping the strings over the rim of the mug with her little finger prinked out in a lady-of-the-manor style that must have been meant as a joke, because next she said, in a fake English accent, “This will be veddy, veddy tasty, old chap.”

I realized all at once that I had a really bad headache, and I was fairly certain that I hadn’t had it before she got there.

While we waited for the tea to steep, she went off to fetch an afghan. We didn’t own an afghan, to the best of my knowledge, but I failed to tell her so because I welcomed the peace and quiet. Then she came back, still talking. She said when her father had had a cold he used to eat an onion. “Ate it raw,” she said, “like an apple.” She was carrying an afghan made of stitched-together hexagons. Possibly she had found it in the linen closet off our bedroom, and I knew we’d left the bedroom a mess. Well, that was what people had to expect when they barged in uninvited. She draped the afghan around my shoulders and tucked it under my chin as if I were a two-year-old, while I shrank inward as much as possible. “Once, when my mom had a cold, Daddy got her to eat an onion,” she said. “She instantly threw it up again, though.” My ears were a little clogged, and her voice had a muffled, distant sound like something you’d hear in a dream.

But the tea, when it was ready, did soothe my throat. The vapors helped my breathing some, too. I drank it in slow sips, huddled under my afghan. Peggy said that, in her opinion, her father should have cooked the onion. “Maybe simmered it with honey,” she said, “because you know how honey has antibacterial properties.” She was wiping all the counters now. I didn’t try to stop her. What good would it have done? I polished off the last of the tea—the dregs tooth-achingly sweet—and then without a word I set down the mug and went back to the living room. The afghan trailed behind me with a ssh-ing sound, picking up stray bits of lint and crumbs along the way. I collapsed on the sofa. I curled up in a fetal position so as to avoid the newspapers, and I fell into a deep sleep.