HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Ken Grimwood
All right reserved.ISBN: 068816112X
Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.
"We need — " she'd said, and he never heard her say just what it was they needed, because something heavy seemed to slam against his chest, crushing the breath out of him. The phone fell from his hand and cracked the glass paperweight on his desk.
Just the week before, she'd said something similar, had said, "Do you know what we need, Jeff?" and there'd been a pause — not infinite, not final, like this mortal pause, but a palpable interim nonetheless. He'd been sitting at the kitchen table, in what Linda liked to call the "breakfast nook," although it wasn't really a separate space at all, just a little formica table with two chairs placed awkwardly between the left side of the refrigerator and the front of the clothes drier. Linda had been chopping onions at the counter when she said it, and maybe the tears at the corner of her eyes were what had set him thinking, had lent her question more import than she'd intended.
"Do you know what we need, Jeff?"
And he was supposed to say, "What's that, hon?" was supposed to say it distractedly and without interest as he read Hugh Sidey's column about the presidency in Time. But Jeff wasn't distracted; he didn't give a damn about Sidey's ramblings. He was in fact more focused and aware than he had been in a long, long time. So he didn't say anything at all for several moments; he just stared at the false tears in Linda's eyes and thought about the things they needed, he and she.
They needed to get away, for starters, needed to get on a plane going someplace warm and lush — Jamaica, perhaps, or Barbados. They hadn't had a real vacation since that long-planned but somehow disappointing tour of Europe five years ago. Jeff didn't count their annual Florida trips to see his parents in Orlando and Linda's family in Boca Raton; those were visits to an ever-receding past, nothing more. No, what they needed was a week, a month, on some decadently foreign island: making love on endless empty beaches, and at night the sound of reggae music in the air like the smell of hot red flowers.
A decent house would be nice, too, maybe one of those stately old homes on Upper Mountain Road in Montclair that they'd driven past so many wistful Sundays. Or a place in White Plains, a twelve-room Tudor on Ridgeway Avenue near the golf courses. Not that he'd want to take up golf; it just seemed that all those lazy expanses of green, with names like Maple Moor and Westchester Hills, would make for more pleasant surroundings than did the on ramps to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the glide path into LaGuardia.
They also needed a child, though Linda probably felt that lack more urgently than he. Jeff always pictured their never-born child as being eight years old, having skipped all the demands of infancy and not yet having reached the torments of puberty. A good kid, not overly cute or precocious. Boy, girl, it didn't matter; just a child, her child and his, who'd ask funny questions and sit too close to the TV set and show the spark of his or her own developing individuality.
There'd be no child, though; they'd known that was impossible for years, since Linda had gone through the ectopic pregnancy in 1975. And there wouldn't be any house in Montclair or White Plains, either; Jeff's position as news director of New York's WFYI all-news radio sounded more prestigious, more lucrative, than it actually was. Maybe he'd still make the jump to television; but at forty-three, that was growing increasingly unlikely.
We need, we need... to talk, he thought. To look each other straight in the eye and just say: It didn't work. None of it, not the romance or the passion or the glorious plans. It all went flat, and there's nobody to blame. That's simply the way it happened.
But of course they'd never do that. That was the main part of the failure, the fact that they seldom spoke of deeper needs, never broached the tearing sense of incompletion that stood always between them.
Linda wiped a meaningless, onion-induced tear away with the back of her hand. "Did you hear me, Jeff?"
"Yes. I heard you."
"What we need," she said, looking in his direction but not quite at him, "is a new shower curtain."
In all likelihood, that was the level of need she'd been about to express over the phone before he began to die. " — a dozen eggs," her sentence probably would have ended, or " — a box of coffee filters."
But why was he thinking all this? he wondered. He was dying, for Christ's sake; shouldn't his final thoughts be of something deeper, more philosophical? Or maybe a fast-speed replay of the highlights of his life, forty-three years on Betascan. That was what people went through when they drowned, wasn't it?
This felt like drowning, he thought as the expanded seconds passed: the awful pressure, the hopeless struggle for breath, the sticky wetness that soaked his body, as salt sweat streamed down his forehead and stung his eyes.
Drowning. Dying. No, shit, no, that was an unreal word, applicable to flowers or pets or other people. Old people, sick people. Unlucky people.
His face dropped to the desk, right cheek pressing flat against the file folder he'd been about to study when Linda called. The crack in the paperweight was cavernous before his one open eye: a split in the world itself, a jagged mirror of the ripping agony inside him. Through the broken glass he could see the glowing red numerals on the digital clock atop his bookshelf:
1:06 PM Oct 18 88
And then there was nothing more to avoid thinking about, because the process of thought had ceased.