The Beginner's Goodbye(6)


by Anne Tyler

I held still and listened for her, but all I heard was another creak. This would not have been her satchel, though. She was too far away for that. It was probably a hall floorboard, I decided.

I stretched out on the rumpled sheets and stared at the ceiling. There wasn’t a chance on earth I could sleep. I realized that now. I had slept all afternoon. What I should do was go out to the kitchen and start cooking something good-smelling, something that would lure Dorothy from the sunporch. How about hamburgers? I knew we had a pound of—

Creak! An even louder one. Or not a creak after all, but a crash, because the creak lasted too long and then it swelled into a slam! with smaller slams following it, and stray tinkles and crackles and thumps. My first thought (I know this was ludicrous) was that Dorothy must be much more miffed than I had supposed. But even as I was thinking it, I had to admit that she was not the type to throw tantrums. I sat straight up and my heart began hammering. I called, “Dorothy?” I stumbled off the bed. “Dorothy! What was that?”

I made it to the door in my stocking feet, and then I remembered my brace. I could walk without it, in a fashion, but it would be slow going. Turn back and strap it on? No; no time for that. And where had I put my cane? That was anybody’s guess. I flung open the bedroom door.

It seemed I was on the edge of a forest.

The hall was a mass of twigs and leaves and bits of bark. Even the air was filled with bark—dry bark chips floating in a dusty haze, and a small bird or a very large insect suddenly whizzing up out of nowhere. Isolated pings! and ticks! and pops! rang out as different objects settled—a pane of glass falling from a window, something wooden landing on the wooden floor. I grabbed on to a broken-off branch and used it for support as I worked my way around it. It wasn’t clear to me yet what had happened. I was in a daze, maybe even in shock, and there was a lag in my comprehension. All I knew was that this forest was thicker in the living room, and that Dorothy was beyond that, in the sunporch, where I could see nothing but leaves, leaves, leaves, and branches as thick as my torso.

“Dorothy!”

No answer.

I was standing near the coffee table. I could make out one corner of it, the egg-and-dart molding around the rim, and wasn’t it interesting that the phrase “egg-and-dart” should come to me so handily. I looked toward the sunporch again and saw that I could never fight my way through that jungle, so I turned back, planning to go out the front door and around to the side of the house, to the outside entrance of the sunporch. On my way toward the hall, though, I passed the lamp table next to the sofa (the sofa invisible now), where the cordless telephone lay, littered with more bits of bark. I picked it up and pressed Talk. Miraculously, I heard a dial tone. I tried to punch in 911, but my hand was shaking so that I kept hitting the pound sign by accident. I had to redial twice before I finally connected. I put the phone to my ear.

A woman said, “Please file an ambulance.”

“What?”

“Please file an ambulance.”

“What?”

“Police?” she said in a weary tone. “Fire? Or ambulance.”

“Oh, pol—pol—or—I don’t know! Fire! No, ambulance! Ambulance!”

“What is the problem, sir,” she said.

“A t-t-t-tree fell!” I said, and that was the first moment when I seemed to understand what had happened. “A tree fell on my house!”

She took down my information so slowly that her slowness seemed meant to be instructive, an example of how to behave. But I had things to do! I couldn’t stand here all day! I had read that 911 operators could detect a caller’s address with special equipment, and I failed to see why she was asking me all these questions she must already know the answers to. I said, “I have to go! I have to go!” which reminded me, absurdly, of a child needing to pee, and all at once it seemed to me that I did need to pee, and I wondered how long it would be before I could attend again to such a mundane task.

I heard a siren from far away. I still don’t know if it was my phone call that brought it. In any case, I dropped the phone without saying goodbye and staggered toward the hall.

When I opened the front door, I found more tree outside. I had somehow expected that once I left the house I would be free and clear. I batted away branches, spat out gnats and grit. The siren was so loud that it felt like a knife in my ears. Then it stopped, and I saw the fire truck as I stepped out from the last of the tree: a beautiful, shiny red, with an ambulance pulling up behind it. A man in full firefighting regalia—but why?—jumped down from the truck and shouted, “Don’t move! Stay there! They’ll bring a stretcher!”

I kept walking, because how would they know where to bring it if I didn’t show them? “Stop!” he shouted, and an ambulance man—not with a stretcher; no sign of a stretcher—ran up and wrapped his arms around me like a straitjacket. “Wait here. Don’t try to walk,” he said. His breath smelled of chili.

“I can walk fine,” I told him.

“J.B.! Bring the stretcher!”

They thought I was the one who was injured, I guess. I mean, recently injured. I fought him off. I said, “My wife! Around—around—around—”

“All right, buddy. Calm down.”

“Where is she?” a fireman asked.

“Around the—”

I waved my arm. Then I turned toward where I was waving—the north side of the house—and found that it no longer existed. All I saw was tree and more tree.

The fireman said, “Oh, man.”

I knew that tree. It was a white oak. It had stood in our backyard forever, probably since long before our house was built, and it was enormous, a good foot and a half in diameter at the base, with such a pronounced tilt in the direction of our roof that I had it inspected every September, when the tree men came to prune. But they always assured me it was healthy. Old, yes, and perhaps not putting out quite as many leaves as it used to, but healthy. “And besides,” the foreman had told me, “if it ever was to fall, it’s standing so close to the house that it wouldn’t do much damage. It would only, more like, lean onto the house. It doesn’t have enough room to gather any speed.”

But he had been wrong. First of all, the tree had obviously not been healthy. It had fallen on a day without a breath of wind, without so much as a breeze. And second, it had done a lot of damage. It had leaned at the start, granted (that must have been the first creak I heard), but then it went on to buckle the roof from the center all the way to one end. And it had smashed the sunporch absolutely flat.