First Read: 'The Beginner's Goodbye' By Anne Tyler

The Beginner's Goodbye

by Anne Tyler

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The Beginner's Goodbye
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The following is an exclusive first look at Chapter 2 of Anne Tyler's new book, which will be published on April 3. The novel tells the story of a widower who is comforted by his wife's visits from beyond the grave. Lynn Neary's profile of Tyler airs on Morning Edition March 30.


Here is how she died.

Anne Tyler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America and 17 other novels. She lives in Baltimore. i i

Anne Tyler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America and 17 other novels. She lives in Baltimore. Courtesy Knopf hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Knopf
Anne Tyler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America and 17 other novels. She lives in Baltimore.

Anne Tyler is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Accidental Tourist, Digging to America and 17 other novels. She lives in Baltimore.

Courtesy Knopf

It was August. Early August of 2007, oppressively hot and muggy. I happened to have a cold. Summer is the very worst time for a cold, I always think. You can't just pile on the blankets and sweat it out the way you would in winter. You're already sweating, only not in any way that's beneficial.

I went in to work as usual, but the air conditioning made my teeth start chattering as soon as I got settled. I hunched over my desk shivering and shaking, sneezing and coughing and blowing my nose and heaping used tissues in my wastebasket, till Irene ordered me home. That was Irene for you. She claimed I was contaminating the office. The others—Nandina and the rest—had been urging me to leave for my own sake. "You look miserable, poor thing," our secretary said. But Irene took a more self-centered approach. "I refuse to sacrifice my health to your misguided work ethic," she told me.

So I said, "Fine. I'll go." Since she put it that way.

Nandina said, "Shall I drive you?" but I said, "I'm still able to function, thank you very much." Then I gathered my things and stalked out, mad at all of them and madder still at myself, for falling ill in the first place. I hate to look like an invalid.

Alone in the car, though, I allowed myself some moaning and groaning. I sneezed and gave a long drawn-out "Aaah," as if I were a good deal sicker than I was. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw that my eyes were streaming with tears. My face was flushed and my hair had a damp and matted look.

We lived just off Cold Spring Lane, in an unkempt, wooded area a few minutes' drive from downtown. Our house was a little white bungalow. Not what you would call fancy, but then, neither Dorothy nor I was the Better Homes and Gardens type. The place suited us just fine: all on one floor, with a light-filled sunporch tacked onto the living room where we could stash the computer and Dorothy's medical journals.

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.

* * * * *

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.

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 re-dial 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 that 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 fire-fighting 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 sun porch absolutely flat.

I said, "Get her out! Get her out! Get her out!"

The man who was holding me said, "Okay, brother, hang on." By now he was holding me up, really. Somehow my knees had given way. He backed me toward a wrought-iron lawn chair that we never sat in and helped me sit. "Any pain?" he asked me, and I said "No! Get her out!"

I wished I did have pain. I hated my body. I hated sitting there like a dummy while stronger, abler men fought to rescue my wife.

They called for work crews and chain saws and axes, and police cars to block off the street and a crane to raise the largest section of the tree trunk. They shouted over their radios and they crackled through the branches. This all must have taken some time, but I can't tell you how much. Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered, our neighbors and stray passersby. Old Mimi King from across the alley brought me a glass of iced tea. (I took a token sip, to be nice.) Jim Rust laid a pink knit crib blanket over my shoulders. It must have been eighty-some degrees and I was streaming sweat, but I thanked him. "She's going to be just fine," I told him, because he hadn't said it himself, and I thought somebody ought to.

He said, "I certainly hope so, Aaron."

It bothered me that he spoke my name like that. I was the only person listening. He didn't need to specify whom he was addressing, for God's sake.

Two men staggered out of the branches with a big heavy pile of old clothes. They laid the pile on a stretcher and my heart lurched. I said, "What—?" I struggled up from my chair and nearly crumpled to the ground. I grabbed on to Jim for support. He called out to them, "Is she alive?" and I thought, He has no business! That's MY question to ask! But a fireman said, "She's got a pulse," and then I felt so grateful to Jim that tears came to my eyes. I clutched his arm tighter and said, "Take me—take—" and he understood and led me closer.

Her face was the same moon shape, round-cheeked and smooth, eyes closed, but she was filthy dirty. And the mound of her bosom was more of a . . . cave. But that was understandable! She was lying on her back! You know how a woman's breasts go flat when she's lying on her . . .

"At least there's no blood," I told Jim. "I don't see a bit of blood."

"No, Aaron," he said.

I wished he'd stop saying my name.

* * * * *

I wanted to ride with her in the ambulance, but too many people were working on her. They told me to meet them at the hospital instead. By that time we had been joined by Jim's wife, Mary-Clyde, and she said she and Jim would drive me. Mary-Clyde was a schoolteacher, full of crisp authority. When I told her I could drive myself, she said, "Of course you can, but then you'd have to park and such, so we'll just do it this way, shall we." I said, meekly, "Okay." Then she asked where she could find my shoes. Jim said, "Oh, Mary-Clyde, he doesn't care about his shoes at a time like this." But in fact I did care; I'm sorry, but I did; and I told her where they were and asked her to bring my brace as well.

They took Dorothy to Johns Hopkins. Hopkins was the very highest-tech, the most advanced and cutting-edge, so that was good. But on the other hand, it was the place that any Baltimorean with a grain of sense knew to avoid except in the direst circumstances—a gigantic, unfeeling, Dickensian labyrinth where patients could languish forgotten for hours in peeling basement corridors, and so that was very bad. Oh, welcome to the world of the Next of Kin: good news, bad news, up, down, up, and down again, over days that lasted forever. The surgery was successful but then it was not, and she had to be rushed back to the operating room. She was "stabilized," whatever that meant, but then all her machines went crazy. It got so, every time a doctor peeked into the waiting room, I would ostentatiously look in the other direction, like a prisoner trying to pretend that my torturer couldn't faze me. Other people—the strangers camped in their own cozy groups all around me—glanced up eagerly, but not me.

I was allowed to see her just briefly, at wide intervals. I don't know that you could really call it seeing her, though. Her face was completely obscured by tubes and cords and hoses. One hand lay outside the sheet, one of her chubby tan hands with the darker knuckles, but it was punctured by another tube and thickly adhesive-taped so that I couldn't hold it. And her fingers were flaccid, like clay. It was obvious that she wouldn't have been aware of my touch, in any event.

"Guess what, Dorothy," I said to her motionless form. "You know that oak tree I used to worry about?"

There was so much I wanted to tell her. Not just about the oak tree; forget the oak tree. I don't know why I even mentioned the oak tree. I wanted to say, "Dorothy, if I could press Rewind right now and send us back to our little house, I would never shut myself away in a separate room. I would follow you into the sunporch. I would come up behind where you were sitting at your desk and lay my cheek on top of your warm head till you turned around."

She would have given one of her snorts, if she had heard that.

I would have snorted myself, once upon a time.

Here is something funny: I'd lost my cold. I don't mean I got over it; I mean it just disappeared, at some point between when I drank that tea and when I walked into the waiting room. I'm guessing it was while they were trying to rescue Dorothy. I remember sitting under Jim Rust's pink blanket, and I wasn't sneezing then or blowing my nose. Maybe a cold could be shaken out of a person by the slam of a tree trunk, or by psychic trauma. Or a combination of the two.

They kept urging me to go home for a spell and get some rest. Go to Nandina's, was what they meant, since everybody felt my own house was uninhabitable. Jim and Mary-Clyde urged it, and all the people from work, and various stray acquaintances. (My oak tree had been mentioned in the paper, evidently.) They came with their wrapped sandwiches and their covered containers of salad that I couldn't bear to look at, let alone eat; even Irene arrived with a box of gourmet chocolates; and they promised to hold down the fort while I grabbed a little break. But I refused to leave. I suspect I may have thought I was keeping Dorothy alive somehow. (Don't laugh.) I didn't even go home to change. I stayed in my same dingy clothes, and my face grew stubbled and itchy.

After Mary-Clyde located my cane, though, I did start taking brief walks up and down the corridor. This was not because I wanted to, but because my leg had started seizing up from lack of use. I fell down once when I was heading toward the restroom. So I would choose a time just after my allotted few minutes with Dorothy, and I would let the staff know exactly where I would be and when I was coming back. "Fine," they would say, hardly listening. I would go into a flurry of parting instructions—"You might want to check if she's warm enough; I've been thinking she's not quite—"

"Yes, we'll see to it; run along."

What I really wanted to say was, "This is a specific person, do you understand? Not just some patient. I want to make sure you realize that."

"Mmhmm," they'd have murmured.

I walked up and down the corridors with a sense of something stretching thin, fragile elastic threads stretching between me and Dorothy, and I saw sights I tried to forget. I saw huge-eyed children without any hair, and skeletal men struggling for breath, and old people lying on gurneys with so many bags and tubes attached that they'd stopped being human beings. I looked away. I couldn't look. I turned and went back to my torturers.

* * * * *

The shoes arrived in front of me on a Wednesday afternoon. I knew it was a Wednesday because the newspaper on the chair beside mine had a color photo of a disgusting seafood lasagna. (Wednesday always seems to be food day, for newspapers.) The shoes were clogs. Black leather clogs. That's what the hospital staff tended to wear, I'd observed. Very unprofessional-looking. I raised my eyes. It was a male nurse; I knew him. Or recognized him, I mean. From other occasions. He'd been one of the kind ones. He said, "Mr. Woolcott?"

"Yes."

"Why don't you come with me."

I stood up and reached for my cane. I followed him through the door and into the ICU. It wasn't time for a visit yet. I had just had my visit, not half an hour before. I felt singled out and privileged, but then also a little, I don't know, apprehensive.

The cords and hoses had been removed and she lay uncannily still. I had thought she was still before, but I had had no idea. I had been so ignorant.

Reprinted by permission of HSG Agency as agents for the author. Copyright (c) 2012 by Anne Tyler.

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