The Beginner's Goodbye(5)


by Anne Tyler

When I woke, the front door was opening. I figured Peggy was leaving. But then I heard the jingle of keys landing in the porcelain bowl in the hall. I called, “Dorothy?”

“Hmm?”

She came through the archway reading something, a postcard she must have found on the floor beneath the mail slot. When she glanced up, she said, “Oh. Are you sick?”

“Just a little sniffly.” I struggled to a sitting position and looked at my watch. “It’s five o’clock!”

She misunderstood; she said, “I had a cancellation.”

“I’ve been asleep all afternoon!”

“You didn’t go in to work?” she asked.

“I did, but Irene sent me home.”

Dorothy gave a snort of amusement. (She knew how Irene could be.)

“And then Peggy stopped by with soup.”

Another snort; she knew Peggy, too. She tossed the mail on the coffee table and removed her satchel from her shoulder. Dorothy didn’t hold with purses. She carried her satchel everywhere—a scuffed brown leather affair with the bellows stretched to the breaking point, the kind that belonged to spies in old black-and-white movies. Her doctor coat, which she was shrugging off now, had a dingy diagonal mark across the chest from the strap. People often mistook Dorothy for some sort of restaurant employee—and not the head chef, either. Sometimes I found that amusing, although other times I didn’t.

When she went out to the kitchen, I knew she would be getting her Triscuits. That was what she had for her snack at the end of every workday: six Triscuits exactly, because six was the “serving size” listed on the box. She showed a slavish devotion to the concept of a recommended serving size, even when it was half a cupcake (which was more often the case than you might suppose).

Except that the Triscuits were missing, that day. She called from the kitchen, “Have you seen the Triscuits?”

“What? No,” I said. I had swung my feet to the floor and was folding the afghan.

“I can’t find them. They’re not on the counter.”

I said nothing, since I had no answer. A moment later, she appeared in the dining-room doorway. “Did you clean up out there?” she asked.

“Who, me?”

“There’s nothing on the counters at all. I can’t find anything.”

I grimaced and said, “That would be Peggy’s doing, I guess.”

“I wish she’d left well enough alone. Where could she have put the Triscuits?”

“I have no idea.”

“I looked in the cupboards, I looked in the pantry …”

“I’m sure they’ll show up by and by,” I said.

“But what’ll I eat in the meantime?”

“Wheat Thins?” I suggested.

“I don’t like Wheat Thins,” Dorothy said. “I like Triscuits.”

I tipped my head back against the sofa. I was getting a little tired of the subject, to be honest.

Unfortunately, she noticed. “This may not be important to you,” she said, “but I haven’t had a thing to eat all day. All I’ve had is coffee! I’m famished.”

“Well, whose fault is that?” I asked her. (We’d been through this discussion before.)

“You know I’m too busy to eat.”

“Dorothy,” I said. “From the time you wake up in the morning till the time you get home in the evening, you’re living on coffee and sugar and cream. Mostly sugar and cream. And you call yourself a doctor!”

“I am a doctor,” she said. “A very hardworking doctor. I don’t have any free time.”

“Neither does the rest of the world, but somehow they manage to fit in a meal now and then.”

“Well, maybe the rest of the world is not so conscientious,” she said.

She had her fists on her hips now. She looked a little bit like a bulldog. I’d never realized that before.

Oh, why, why, why did I have to realize on that particular afternoon? Why could I not have said, “Look. Clearly you’re half starved, and it seems to be making you fractious. Let’s go out to the kitchen and find you something to eat”?

I’ll tell you why: it’s because next she said, “But what would you know about it? You with your nursemaids rushing around brewing your homemade soup.”

“It wasn’t homemade; it was canned,” I said. “And I didn’t ask for soup. I didn’t even eat it. I told Peggy I didn’t want it.”

“How come she was in the kitchen, then?”

“She was making me some tea.”

“Tea!” Dorothy echoed. I might as well have said opium. “She made you tea?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“You don’t even like tea!”

“This was medicinal tea, for my throat.”

“Oh, for your throat,” Dorothy said, with exaggerated sympathy.

“I had a sore throat, Dorothy.”

“An ordinary sore throat, and everyone comes running. Why does that always happen? Throngs of devoted attendants falling all over themselves to take care of you.”

“Well, some—some—somebody had to do it,” I said. “I don’t see you taking care of me.”

Dorothy was quiet a moment. Then she dropped her fists from her hips and walked over to her satchel. She picked it up and went into the sunporch. I heard the leathery creak as she set her satchel on the desk, and then the squeak of the swivel chair.

Stupid argument. We had them, now and then. What couple doesn’t? We weren’t living in a fairy tale. Still, this particular argument seemed unusually pointless. In actual fact I hated being taken care of, and had deliberately chosen a non-caretaker for my wife. And Dorothy wouldn’t mind at all if somebody made me tea. Most likely she’d be relieved. This was just one of those silly spats about something neither one of us gave a damn about, but now we were backed in our corners and didn’t know how to get out of them.

I heaved myself from the sofa and crossed the hall to the bedroom. I closed the door soundlessly and sat down on the edge of the bed, where I took off my shoes and my brace. (I wear a polypropylene brace to correct a foot-drop.) The Velcro straps made a ripping sound as I undid them—batch! batch!—and I winced, because I didn’t want Dorothy guessing what I was up to. I wanted her to wonder, a little bit.