The Beginner's Goodbye(9)


by Anne Tyler

In the bottom of the sink sat a mug, the interior glazed with dried honey and stippled with bark dust, a teaspoon slanting out of it.

Sometimes the most recent moments can seem so long, long ago.

I walked back through the hall to check the guest room, the bathroom, and our bedroom. All fine. Maybe I could turn the guest room into a makeshift living room while I was having repairs done. In the shower stall I found a grasshopper. I let it stay where it was. In the bedroom I was tempted to lie down and simply crash—not so much sleep as tumble into unconsciousness—but I didn’t give in. I had an assignment to complete. I went to Dorothy’s side of the bed and pulled open the drawer of her nightstand. My fear was that she had taken her address book to the sunporch, which sometimes happened; but no, there it lay, underneath an issue of Radiology Management.

Her family’s name was Rosales. (It was her name, too. She hadn’t changed it when we married.) There were several Rosaleses in the address book, all written in Dorothy’s jagged, awkward hand, but the one I settled on was Tyrone, her oldest brother. He’d become head of the family after her father died, and I figured that if I phoned him I wouldn’t have to phone the others. I also figured that, with luck, I might get Tyrone’s wife instead, since in Texas it was barely past midday and Tyrone himself would most likely be at work. I had never met Tyrone or his wife, either one—or anybody else in the family, for that matter—but it seemed to me that a mere sister-in-law would be less subject to some sort of emotional reaction. I was very concerned about the possibility of an emotional reaction. Really I didn’t want to make this call at all. Couldn’t we just go on as if nothing had happened, since Dorothy never saw her family anyhow? Who would be the wiser? But Nandina had told me I had to do it.

The phone at the other end rang three times, which was long enough for me to start hoping for an answering machine. (Although I knew full well that it would be wrong to leave a mere message.) Then a sharp click. “Hello?” A man’s voice, low and growly.

“Tyrone Rosales?”

“Who’s this?”

“This is—this is—”

Of all times, of all impermissible times, I was going to have my speech problem. I made myself go quiet. I took a deep breath. “Aaron,” I said very slowly. I have more success with A words, as long as I slide into them without any hard-edged beginning. “Woolcott” felt as if it might present difficulties, though, so I said, “Your b-b-broth—”

“Aaron, Dorothy’s husband?” he asked.

“Mmhmm.”

“What’s up?”

I took another breath.

“Is something wrong with her?” he asked.

I said, “A t-t-t—a tree fell on the house.”

Silence.

“A tree fell on the house,” I said again.

“Is she okay?”

I said, “No.”

“Is she dead?”

I said, “Yes.”

“Oh,” Tyrone said. “Good God.”

I waited for him to absorb it. Besides, it felt restful, not talking.

Finally he said, “When’s the service?”

“There won’t—won’t—no service.”

Nandina and I had already decided. And no burial, either; just cremation. I thought Dorothy would prefer that.

Tyrone said, “No service.”

A pause.

“She was raised religious,” he said.

“Yes, but—”

It seemed best to leave it at that: Yes, but.

“Well,” Tyrone said after a minute, “anyhow, it wouldn’t’ve been so easy for us to leave the animals.”

“Right.”

“Did she suffer?”

“No!”

I took another breath.

“No,” I said, “she did not suffer.”

“She always was real spunky. Real mind of her own.”

“It’s true.”

“I remember once, when we were kids, me and the others were chewing soft tar from the road on this really hot day and Dorothy comes along and we say, ‘Here, Dorothy, try some.’ She says, ‘Are you kidding?’ Says, ‘Why would I want to eat a highway?’ ”

That sounded like Dorothy, all right. I could hear her saying it. Dorothy as a child had always seemed unimaginable, but now I could imagine her clearly.

“She was named for the girl in The Wizard of Oz,” Tyrone said. “I guess she mentioned that.”

“Oh. No, she didn’t.”

“That was our grandpa’s idea. He was the one who named all of us. He wanted to make sure we sounded American.”

“I see.”

“So,” he said. “Anyhow. Thanks for the phone call. Sorry for your loss.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I told him.

After that, there was nothing more for us to say. Although I felt this odd reluctance to let him hang up. For a while there, while he was talking, Dorothy had been her old self again: strong-willed and sturdy and stubborn. Not the passive victim she had become in her final days.

It was a good thing I had a job to go to. My job was my salvation.

I went in early, took no breaks, didn’t stop for lunch. The only drawback was my co-workers, so long-faced and solicitous. Well, except for Irene. Nobody would ever accuse Irene of solicitude. But I was avoiding Irene, because, I don’t know, I guess over the years I’d had a little crush on her, and now that seemed obscene. All at once I didn’t even like her.

So I made sure to arrive before any of the others, and I’d hurry straight to my office and close the door behind me. Later I’d hear Nandina come in, or I could assume it was Nandina since she was our early bird as a rule. Then, after that, Charles and Peggy, and finally Irene. I’d hear murmurs in the outer room and laughter and the ringing of a phone. Eventually, Peggy would tap on my door with just the tips of her fingers. “Aaron? Are you in there?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Coffee’s made. Shall I bring you some?”

“No, thanks.”

A hesitation. Then the sound of her soft-soled shoes padding away again.

It had never been my plan to go into the family business. I attended college at Stanford, on the other side of the continent, and I’d expected to remain out there and make my own way in the world. But my father had his first heart attack right about the time I graduated, and he asked me to come home and run things while he convalesced. Now that I look back, I see how I let myself be bamboozled. Nandina, it turned out, was running things just fine. I guess I just liked to think that someone needed me. Besides which, I’d had nothing more specific in mind, having majored in English.