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Wish You Were Here

by Stewart O'Nan

Paperback, 517 pages, Pgw, List Price: $14 |


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Stewart O'Nan

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Book Summary

A year after the death of her husband, Emily Maxwell summons her family to their vacation house on Lake Chautauqua in western New York state, bringing together three generations for one last reunion before selling the home.

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What It's Like To Be An Elderly Widow, All 'Alone'

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The Joy Of The Mundane In 'Emily, Alone'

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Wish You Were Here

Chapter OneThey took Arlene's car because it had air-conditioning and Emily wasn't sure the Olds would make it. That and Arlene's was bigger, a wagon, better for bringing things back. Emily knew she wouldn't be able to resist. She'd never learned to take even the smallest loss gracefully-a glass cracked in the dishwasher, a sweater shrunk by the dryer. She'd stuff the Taurus full of junk she didn't have room for at home. All of it would end up down in the basement, moldering next to the extra fridge still filled to clinking with Henry's Iron Citys. She didn't drink beer, and she couldn't bring herself to twist them open one by one and tip them foaming down the sink, so they stayed there, the crimped edges of the bottle caps going rusty, giving her vegetables a steely tinge. She would save what she could, she knew, though Henry himself would have shaken his head at the mess. It would be the last time she made the trip up, the last time she saw the cottage. The closing would be handled by her attorney-Henry's, really. She'd only spoken with him once in person, last fall, numbly going over the estate. Everything else was done by phone, or Federal Express, an expense she considered extravagant and feared she was paying for, but Henry had used Barney Pontzer for thirty years, and she trusted Henry's judgment, in this case more than her own. The cottage was three hours from the house, depending on 79. Saturdays could be bad. She wanted to leave around nine so they'd be there by lunchtime, but Arlene was late and then gave her a hard time about Rufus, ceremoniously laying a faded Steelers towel over the backseat. Emily assured her that he hadn't been fed this morning, but Arlene kept tucking the towel into the crack. They'd had the exact same argument over Christmas, visiting Kenneth. It was so pointless. The car stunk of her Luckies and always would. "He's fine," Emily insisted. "Better safe." "He's good about it now." "I was thinking more for the hair." "Oh please," Emily said, trying to laugh, "a towel's not going to do anything. I'll vacuum it when we get there." "Someone will have to." "I will." These everlasting battles, Emily thought. Couldn't Arlene see this trip was different? Henry attributed his sister's obtuseness to her school teacher's practicality, but Emily thought it was more ingrained than willful. Arlene seemed constantly on guard, afraid of somehow being cheated. It made sense: Henry had been the baby, their parents' favorite, an engineer like his father. Her entire life Arlene had had to fight for the least bit of attention. But they were all gone, Emily wanted to say. She could stop now. Rufus had hip trouble, and she had to help him in. Arlene said nothing while she rearranged the towel. Truthfully, Rufus still got carsick, though no longer to the point of upchucking. Over the years he'd learned to keep his head down so the endless carousel of trees and fields no longer dizzied him, but he still hitched and hiccupped as if he was going to let loose. Instead he drooled, long gelatinous strings depending from his jowls, catching in his coat like spiderwebs. And all right, he was shedding heavily. It had been a beastly summer. The baseboards in the bedroom were drifted with dark clumps of fur that scattered at the approach of the vacuum, but that was natural for a springer spaniel. Could she or Arlene say they'd aged more gracefully? Rufus was fourteen and had spent his every summer at the cottage. He deserved a last romp with the grandchildren, a last swim off the dock, a last snooze on the cool slab of the screenporch. She would Hoover Arlene's seats if it came to that. The house was locked, the windows closed, the machine on. She'd stopped the mail and cleaned out the hydrator. The Olds was purposely low, in case anyone broke into the garage with an idea of stealing it. Marcia next door had a key and the number up at Chautauqua. If she'd forgotten anything, she couldn't think of it. "And they're off," Emily said, turning her wrist over to check Henry's Hamilton. Arlene drove slowly, cozied up to the wheel, peering over her hands like the pilot of a ship in fog. It was already hot and the air-conditioning was heavenly. Shadows of trees fell sharply across the empty sidewalks. In yards browned with drought, sprinklers whisked and tilted. It felt good to be moving, leaving the still city, as if they were escaping a great palace while everyone slept. Traffic was surprisingly light on the Boulevard of the Allies, the Monongahela brown and sluggish below, a coal train crawling along the far shore. The mile-long mills were gone, nothing but graded fields protected by chain-link fences. Downtown, the glittering new buildings rose behind them as they crossed the green Allegheny, the fountain at the Point spraying perfect white arcs, a barge pushing upriver beneath them, all of it like a postcard. In a week she would be back and it would seem hateful to her, she knew-or just discouraging, a reminder of what she'd given up and how little there was left. Time, that was the difficulty now (it always was, only now she had no one to help her through it, someone besides herself to concentrate on). Mornings in her garden, afternoons at the Edgewood Club pool, nights reading while the radio played Brahms. She'd found her own quiet way of getting through the days, biding her time, trying not to badger Kenneth or Margaret to visit with the children. And it was right that she should still feel Henry, it was not so long that she shouldn't miss him. Winter had been a trial, with the dark coming down early, but there were always those hardy perennials-British mysteries from the library, the new PBS special, lunch with Louise Pickering. She had her health, her teeth, her memory. She refused to become one of those old ladies who did nothing but moon aloud about the old days, speaking of their dead husbands as if they were just drinking in the next room. She'd never considered it a possibility before Henry got sick. Now she feared it had already happened, that transformation, as if-like Henry-she'd discovered the disease only well after it had ravaged her. Far below, to their left, the Ohio started, the Allegheny and the Mon blending, the surface swirled like a stirred can of paint, lapping furrows covering the heavy undertow. She imagined following the water, driving all night through the little river towns with their brick taverns and row houses and rusting pickup trucks, the railroad tracing the oxbows and eddies downstream, pushing on for Cairo, St. Louis, New Orleans. She'd lived in Pittsburgh more than forty years; now, suddenly, there was nothing keeping her here. "The new stadium's almost done," Arlene nodded at the far shore, and it was true, they were even working weekends, the scaffolds around the facade dotted with hard hats, an orange crane draped with a huge Steelers banner. "They're playing someone today," Emily said. "It's barely August." "Buffalo." "Oh great, we're headed straight into enemy territory." "Maybe I'll finally buy that T-shirt," Arlene said. It was an old joke. The Bills trained at Fredonia, so the grocery stores were filled with Bills merchandise, the seasonal aisle a party of hats and glasses and beer cozies, lamps and license plates and chip-n-dip trays. Fans showed up in Winnebagos painted the team colors, and some of their neighbors at Chautauqua flew blue-and-red flags. Strange how things changed. When she was a teenager growing up in Kersey, in the wooded hills of central Pennsylvania, her friends all saw Buffalo and Pittsburgh as their deliverance, the only way out of their small town. Of the two, Pittsburgh was the more glamorous, a notion that now struck her as sad in its innocence. She'd been such a hick; Henry never tired of reminding her. The two cities had seemed magical back then, home to radio stations she struggled to bring in on her father's console. Both were famous for hard work. Now they seemed like relics, lost and emptied, the heavy industry fled or extinct. She and Henry had honeymooned, like everyone else, at Niagara Falls. They'd had their picture taken in slickers on the Maid of the Mist. She remembered kissing him, how the water ran down their faces like a shower. She hadn't been to Buffalo in years, would probably never go again. "Were there any bills in Buffalo?" Emily asked. "Were there any pirates in Pittsburgh?" "Besides Andy Carnegie and Mr. Frick." "How's Rufus doing?" "He's fine," Emily said, before turning to check. Rufus lay with his head resting on his crossed paws, looking up at her guiltily. At each corner his rubbery lips held a gluey drop of slobber. "He's a good boy." "Rufus the Doofus." It was the children's nickname, but coming from Arlene it didn't sound loving. "Be nice." "I am being. As long as he's on the towel." "He is." Arlene lighted up a Lucky, and Emily flicked down her window. The air rushed in with the sound of a blowtorch. It did nothing to clear the smoke, if anything pushed more in her direction. "Shoot," Arlene said, and smacked the wheel. "What?" "I forgot to bring film. I wanted to take pictures of the house." For old times' sake, Emily thought. "You can get some there." "I know, but ... I bought some special. I know right where it is, it's sitting on the kitchen table." "You can borrow some from me, I've got extra." Emily hadn't thought of taking pictures of the cottage, just of Kenneth and Margaret and the children. When Mrs. Klinginsmith, the realtor, had asked for a recent photo, Emily couldn't find one. Mrs. Klinginsmith said it was okay, she'd take one, and produced on the spot a digital camera from her massive bag. Emily and Henry had taken hundreds of shots of the house, but always in the background. They had hours of videos-Sam and Ella playing croquet, Sarah and Justin shooing a younger Rufus away from the doomed geraniums. She'd watched some this winter, trying to catch a glimpse of Henry, but he was behind the camera, at best a shadow on the screenporch, tipped back in his chair. The only good one she found was of him playing wiffle ball with Sam and Ella. Kenneth must have taken it from behind home plate, because there was Lisa on first and Henry wearing his Pirates cap sideways, pitching behind his back and through his legs, doing a goofy windmilling windup only to deliver a soft lob that Ella smacked past him. And then the scene changed to Ella's seventh birthday, and Emily could tell Henry was shooting because Lisa was bringing in the lit cake and Emily herself was standing beside Sam's chair, singing, her hair a mess from swimming, and she stopped the tape and rewound it. "Here comes the old radio ball," Henry joked. "You can hear it but you can't see it." She'd only watched the scene a few times, the last standing right by the set as if she could get closer to him that way. They'd relied on the video when the grandchildren were little, made an event of sitting around the Zenith watching themselves, but since last fall she couldn't remember using it once. For Christmas she was at Kenneth and Lisa's, Easter at Margaret's (Jeff had showed up perfunctorily for the egg hunt but had other dinner plans). Today, like then, it had never crossed her mind to bring the camera, and now she was sorry. She looked out at the grassy embankment rising beside the highway, pink with mountain laurel despite the drought, a rock wash laid neatly down one manicured flank. The trees were bright, the darkness beneath absolute. She wondered how far back they ran, and what lived in them, but without any real interest, just something to look at, to stop her from chewing on things she could do nothing about. It wasn't just riding in the car that sent her off like this. Watching Tv or reading, she found her mind wrapping itself around the irreducible new facts of her life, like Rufus winding his chain around the sycamore out back. Like him, she only managed to tear off more bark, leave even more raw scars. To soothe them, she remembered, and the remembering became a full world, a dream she could walk through. It felt real, and then it went away and she was left with the kitchen, the garbage can nearly full, the fly that wandered the downstairs, knocking into screens, making her chase it with a magazine. Arlene had gotten them behind a silver tank truck. A stream of cars passed them on the left while Arlene darted her head at her mirrors and over her shoulder. A space opened in the chain. At the last second Arlene said, "I can't make it," and backed off. She waited until everyone had overtaken them, then signaled primly and swung around the truck, their reflection dimpling as they passed. A green sign on the side said corrosive. Another diamond beside it showed a test tube dripping liquid on a disembodied hand spiced with cartoon shock marks. "Lovely." "What's lovely?" Arlene asked, concentrating on her lane. Emily explained. "What do you think it is?" "Some sort of industrial acid, I imagine." It was an answer Henry would have given, noncommittal but promising. Emily had no idea what might be in the truck and didn't care. Some chemical. The driver would deliver it to some factory, and they would make something people would buy and put in their homes and use until whatever it was broke or was relegated to the attic or a tag sale, then eventually thrown away, left to rust in some dump or to rot under tons of garbage at a landfill while more trucks rolled past day and night. A dead deer slid by on their right. It was a spotted fawn, its neck bent back unnaturally, black blood coating the nose, staining the pavement. Arlene obviously saw it but said nothing-to spare her feelings, Emily supposed. She wanted to respond, to remind Arlene that she was a country girl from a family of dedicated hunters, intimate with back roads littered spring and fall with fat, soggy possums and capsized raccoons. And really, she'd gotten used to death. There were as many dead things as living in the world. More. Everywhere you looked there was a cemetery, a dried leaf, a husk of a fly. And yet the world rolled on, green and busy as ever. The thing that secretly moved her to tears now was not death but parting. Watching TV, she would be reduced to sniffling and wiping her eyes by soldiers waving from trains, mothers putting children onto school buses, confetti snowing over the decks of cruise ships. It didn't have to be some sweeping movie she was caught up in. A long-distance commercial could do it. And the quality didn't matter-it could be the most obvious, manipulative, sepia-toned slow motion, it still hit her like a brick.