Out of the Woodwork
Edward Schuyler was ironing his oldest blue oxford shirt in the living room on a Saturday afternoon when the ﬁrst telephone call came. He'd taken up ironing a few months before, not long after his wife, Bee, had died. That happened in early summer, when school was out, and he couldn't concentrate on anything besides his grief and longing. At ﬁrst, he only pressed things of hers that he'd found in a basket of tangled clean clothing in the laundry room. He had thought of it then as a way of reconnecting with her when she was so irrevocably gone, when he couldn't even will her into his dreams.
And she did come back in a rush of disordered memories as he stood at the ironing board. But he had no control over what he remembered, sometimes seeing her when they ﬁrst met, or years later in her ﬂowered chintz chair across the room, talking on the telephone and kneading the dog's belly with her bare feet — Bee called it multitasking — or in the last days of her life, pausing so long between breaths that he found himself holding his own breath until she began again.
Still, this random collage of their days together was better than nothing, and it was oddly comforting to smooth the wrinkles out of her blouses, to restore their collapsed bosoms and sleeves and hang them in her closet, where they looked orderly, expectant. And he liked the hiss of steam in the quiet house and the yeasty smell of the scorched cloth.
Now he lay the iron down on the trivet and, with Bingo, the elderly dog, padding right behind him, went into the kitchen to answer the phone. Without his reading glasses, which didn't appear to be anywhere, Edward couldn't make out the caller I.D. But when he said hello there was no reply, and he assumed he'd hear one of those recorded messages from someone running for something. It was late October, after all. Half his mail these days was composed of political ﬂyers, the other half divided between bills and belated notes of sympathy. He was about to hang up when a woman's voice said, "Ed? Is that you?"
No one he knew called him Ed, or Eddie. Sometimes a telemarketer made a stab at sudden intimacy that way, but he was not a man who invited the casual use of nicknames. Even Bee, who knew him as well as anyone, and loved him, had always called him Edward. Her two grown children still kept their childhood names for him — Nick addressing him as "Schuyler" or "Professor," and Julie as "Poppy." Nick's bride, Amanda, said "Dad," a little self- consciously, while reserving the title "Daddy," as Julie did, for her own father.
"This is Edward, yes," he said into the phone. "Who is this?" and the woman said, "You don't know me, Ed, but we have a good friend in common."
He didn't say anything and she continued. "My name is Dorothy Clark, Dodie to you. Joy Feldman and I went to school together."
Edward tried to imagine sweet, matronly Joy as a schoolgirl, but all he could think of was the Tuna Surprise casserole she'd slid into his freezer right after the funeral, and that days later he'd found a single hair at its defrosted center. Bee might have said, Ah, the surprise! He had a chilly premonition that this woman was going to try to sell him something death-related, like perpetual grave care, or hit him up for a contribution to some obscure charity in Bee's memory.
But her voice seemed to deepen a little with emotion as she said, in response to his silence, "You and I are in the same boat, Ed. I mean I'm recently widowed, too, and Joy thought ... well, that we should probably get to know each other."
He wondered why Joy would have ever thought that, and then he understood, with a little shock of revulsion and amusement, not unlike the way he'd felt when he discovered the hair in the casserole. "I see," Edward said. "That was kind of her, but I'm afraid she was mistaken. I'm not really looking for ... for any new friends at the moment." At the bird feeder tray right outside the window, a few chickadees settled and pecked.
"Oh, of course," Dorothy Clark said in a brighter tone. "Everyone has their own timetable for grieving. But when you're ready, why don't you give me a ring. I live in Tenaﬂy, we're practically neighbors. I'll give you my number." There was a ﬂ urry at the bird feeder as a jay arrived, scattering seed and the chickadees.
"All right," Edward said resignedly, politely. He was polite to telemarketers, too, even those who took liberties with his name.
She was suspicious, though. "Do you have a pencil?" she asked. If he had a pencil, he might have noted the chickadees and the jay in his neglected birding journal, or tapped on the window with it to interrupt the bullying. But he said, "Sure, go ahead," and she recited the number slowly, twice. At least she didn't ask him to read it back to her.
He returned to the living room, but the glide of the iron over the worn blue ﬁeld of his shirt was no longer soothing. His loneliness had been disturbed, and he wanted it back.
One evening near the end, he was reading at Bee's bedside, his free hand resting lightly on her arm; she seemed to be asleep. Then she opened her glazed eyes and said, "Look at you. They'll be crawling out of the woodwork."
"What will, sweetheart?" he'd asked, but she shut her eyes and didn't answer.
She had said many strange things during those last nights and days. "Oh, what will I do without you?" she'd cried out once, as if he were the one dying and leaving her behind. And there were drug-induced hallucinations, of small children standing at the foot of her bed, and mice scrambling in the bathtub. Maybe there were more vermin waiting in the woodwork of her fevered dream.
It wasn't until the second phone call, a few days after the one from Dorothy Clark, that he ﬁnally got Bee's meaning. This time the caller introduced herself as Madge Miller, a vaguely familiar name. She and Bee had been in the same book club a while back and she'd heard the sad news through a grapevine of mutual friends. She was just calling to commiserate, she said — what a terrible shame, what a beautiful, bright woman in the prime of her life. And maybe he'd like some company soon, for lunch or a drink.
Later that afternoon, Edward went into the kitchen and rummaged in what one of the children, in childhood, had aptly dubbed "the crazy drawer." Among the loose batteries and spare shoelaces, the expired supermarket coupons and the keys that didn't open any known doors, he found the chain that had brieﬂy kept Bee's reading glasses conveniently dangling from her neck, until she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and declared that she'd rather go blind.
Now Edward untangled the chain and attached it to his glasses, carefully avoiding his reﬂection, which he imagined bore an unfortunate resemblance to his third-grade teacher, Miss Du Pont. His own students would have a ﬁeld day. But he'd only use the chain at home, where he often mislaid his glasses, and at least he'd be prepared to screen any future phone calls from strangers.
From An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright 2012 by Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.