The Accidental - Anne Tyler
They were supposed to stay at the beach for a week, but neither of them had the heart for it and they decided to come back early. Macon drove. Sarah sat next to him, leaning her head against the side window.
Macon wore a summer suit, his traveling suit — much more sensible for traveling than jeans, he always said. Sarah wore a beach dress. Her skin was brown from the sun but Macon was Mill pale. He was a tall, gray-eyed man, with short fair hair, and the kind of skin that easily burns.
Soon the sky grew' black and several enormous raindrops hit the roof of the car. Sarah sat up straight.
'Let's hope it doesn't rain,' she said.
I don't mind a little rain,' Macon said.
A wind blew' up and the rain got heavier. Macon pulled out to pass a coach whose wheels were throwing up huge sprays of water from the road, and there was a moment of watery blindness until the coach was left behind.
'I don't know how you can see to drive,' Sarah said.
'Maybe you should put on your glasses.'
'Putting on my glasses would help you to see?'
'Not me; you,' Macon said.
Sarah's hands were holding the edge of her seat very tightly. 'We could stop for a bit,' she said. 'Wait till the rain passes.'
'Sarah, if we were in any danger, I'd have stopped long ago.' They passed a Held where the rain seemed to fall in sheets.
Water ran in rivers across the road, and Sarah had to raise her voice above the noise of the rain on the car roof.
'I don't think you really care that much,' she said. 'The other day I said to you, «Now that Ethan's dead sometimes wonder if there's any point to life.» Do you remember what you said?'
'Well, not exactly,' Macon said.
'You said, «Honey, to tell the truth, it never seemed to me there was much point to begin with.» Those were your words.'
'You're not a comfort, Macon,' Sarah said.
'Honey, I'm trying to be.'
'You just go on your same old way like before. Your little routines and habits, day after day. No comfort at all. This rain, for example. You know it makes me nervous. What harm would it do to stop a while, show your concern for me?'
Macon stared ahead at the road. 'I drive according to a system, Sarah. You know that. Also, if you don't see any point to life, I can't see why a rainstorm would make you nervous.'
Sarah turned her head away. 'Macon, I want a divorce.'
Macon braked and looked at her. 'What?' he said. He had to look back at the road again. 'What did I say?' he asked.
'I just can't live with you anymore,' Sarah said.
Macon's face seemed thinner and paler. He cleared his throat. 'Honey. Listen. We've had a hard time. People who lose a child often feel this way. Everybody says that a marriage -'
'I'd like to find a place of my own as soon as we get back,' Sarah said. You can keep the house. You never did like moving.'
Macon pulled over and stopped the car. He turned off the engine and sat rubbing his knees with his hands. Sarah stared out of the window. The only sound was the drumming of the rain.
Alter his wife left him, Macon had thought the house would seem larger. Instead, he felt more crowded. The windows got smaller, the ceilings lowered, the furniture seemed bigger.
The house itself was very ordinary, standing on a street of similar houses in an older part of Baltimore. The rooms were square and dark, shaded from the hot summer sun by tall trees outside. Their son Ethan's old room was very neat, as tidy and ordered as a room in a Holiday Inn.
Sarah's personal things like clothes were all gone, of course, but it seemed that other things could be personal too. Her sun hair, for example. Macon looked at it, and wondered how an empty space could be so full of a person. He could almost smell her sun oil, and see the reflections in her dark glasses.
Well, you have to carry on. You have to carry on. It was a chance to reorganize, he told himself. You had to have some kind of system to run a house, and Sarah had never understood that. She was the sort of woman who put plates of different sizes in one pile, and who ran the dishwasher with only five forks in it.
He started keeping the kitchen sink full of water at all times. As he finished using each dish, he put it in the sink. Every other day he let the water out, and put in very hot water. Then he put the clean dishes in the dishwasher, using it as a cupboard.
He found a way of doing his laundry that saved water. He look his shower in the evening, and put the day's dirty clothes underfoot, walking up and down on them in the water from the shower. He sewed sheets together to make what he called body bags, which made it quicker and easier to make the bed.
Sometimes he wondered if he was going too far. He imagined Sarah watching him, with a smile in her eyes. He tried to remember the early years, the good times, but it all came back to that last miserable year together, when everything they said was wrong. They were like people running to meet, holding out their arms, but they miss; they pass each other and keep running.
Most of his work was done at home, which was why the house systems were important to him. He wrote guidebooks for people forced to travel on business. Ridiculous, when you thought about it. Macon hated travel. He hurried through foreign countries, with his eyes shut, holding his breath, till he was safely back home, w here with a happy sigh he would get on with producing his next passport-sized paperback. Accidental Tourist in France. Accidental Tourist Germany. In Belgium.
He only w rote about cities in these guides, as people taking business trips flew' into cities and out again, and their main concern was how' to pretend they had never left home. What hotels in Madrid had American-style beds? What restaurants in Tokyo offered American food? Did Amsterdam, Rome, Mexico City have a McDonalds?
Although Macon hated the travel, he loved the writing — the delight of organizing a disorganized country, putting down in short neat paragraphs just the essential information. He spent pleasurable hours over the right choice of words, the correct use of a comma. I am happy to say, he would type, frowning in concentration, that it's possible now to buy Kentucky Tried Chicken in Stockholm.
'But why didn't you tell us?' his sister said on the phone. 'Sarah's been gone three weeks, and I only hear about it today!'
'The last thing I need,' Macon said, 'is my family around me saying, «Oh, poor Macon, how could Sarah do this to you- Why would I say that?' Rose asked. 'Everybody knows the Leary men are difficult to live with.'
'Oh,' Macon said.
'Where is she?'
'She's got an apartment downtown,' he said. 'And look, there's no need to go asking her to dinner or anything like that.' VC hen Charles's wife got her divorce,' Rose said, 'we went on having her to dinner every Christmas, just like always.'
'Yes, I remember,' Macon said wearily. Charles was their oldest brother. 'But she's been remarried quite a while now.'
'Yes. Well,' Rose said. 'Has Sarah been in touch since she left?' Once. She came by to pick up a favorite pan, but we didn't talk. I just gave her the pan.'
'Oh, Macon. You should have asked her in.'
'I was scared she'd say no,' he said.
There was a silence. 'Well. Anyhow,' Rose said finally.
'But I'm getting along fine!'
'Yes, of course you are,' she told him. Then she said she had something cooking and hung up.
Macon didn't eat real meals anymore. When he was hungry, he drank a glass of milk, or ate some ice cream from the fridge. Then he began to notice that shirt collars felt looser round his neck and the lines on his face seemed deeper. So every morning he cooked two eggs and made fresh, hot coffee. Oh, he was managing fine, just fine. All things considered.
But his nights were terrible.
They began all right. He would get into bed, and move the cat over. The dog, Edward, was small with very short legs, and had to be helped onto the bed. Edward then lay at his feet, while the cat lay next to his back.
Macon would sleep for a hour or two and then wake up. Little worries ran round and round his mind. Had he left the back door unlocked? Forgotten to put the milk away? Paid the gas bill?
The worries changed, grew' deeper. He wondered what had gone wrong with his marriage. They were such different people — Sarah changeable and disorganized, he systematic and fixed in his routines. And when Ethan was born, he only brought out more of their differences. Pictures from Ethan's life floated past Macon's eyes like a film on the ceiling. At twelve he'd been a tall, fair-haired boy with an open, friendly face, and a lovable habit of jumping up and down when he was nervous.
Don't think about it.
He was murdered in a burger bar his second night at summer camp in Virginia. It was one of those deaths that make no sense the kind where the gunman has collected his money and is free in go but decides, instead, to shoot each and every person through the back of the head.
Blame the burger bar, blame the director of the camp, blame Sarah for allowing him to leave home, blame Macon for agreeing, blame Ethan for wanting to go, for not running, for...
Don't think about it.
In the end, Macon would get out of bed, drink a glass of milk, and turn on the TV. The cat would sit on his knees, and the dog usuall came and lay on his feet. ''It's just you and me, old I Mends,' Macon would tell them.
When Sarah phoned, asking if she could have the small rug from the dining room, Macon agreed. She would come to get it, and he would invite her in, offer her a glass of wine...
'I thought I'd drop over Saturday morning,' Sarah said, 'if that's convenient.'
But he wouldn't be here then. 'I leave for England tomorrow,' In said. 'I have to start the new English guidebook.'
'Oh. Well, never mind. I've got a house key; I'll just let myself in on Saturday.'
'Maybe I could bring the rug over,' Macon said. 'That way I could see your apartment. I've never been inside.'
'No, it's not fixed up yet.'
'I' don't care if it's not fixed up.'
'It's a disaster. Nothing's been done. No curtains, nothing.'
'Nothing? You've been living there over a month.'
'Well, I'm not so wonderfully efficient as you are, Macon. Some days,' Sarah said, 'I can't even make it out of my bathrobe.'
Macon was silent.
»I wake up in the morning,' she went on, 'and think, «Why bother getting up? Why bother eating? Why bother breathing?»'
'Me too, sweetheart,' Macon said.
'Macon, do you suppose that person has any idea? I want to go and see him in prison, Macon. I want to sit opposite him and I'll say, «Look at me. Look. You didn't kill just the people you shot; you killed other people as well. What you did goes on forever. You didn't just kill my son; you killed me; you killed my husband. Do you understand what you did?» Then when I'm sure he does understand, that he really does realize, I'm going to pull out a gun and shoot him between the eyes.'
'Sarah, it's bad for you to talk like this.'
'Oh? How am I supposed to talk?'
'You'll… you'll burn up. It's not productive.'
'Oh, productive! Well, goodness, no, let's not spend our time on anything unproductive.'
Macon rubbed his forehead. 'Sarah, I just feel we can't afford to have these thoughts.'
'Just walk away, Macon. Just pretend it never happened. Go rearrange your tools, why don't you; line them up from biggest to smallest instead of from smallest to biggest; that's always fun.'
'Goddammit, Sarah -'
'Don't you curse at me, Macon Leary!'
Sarah said, 'Well, anyhow.'
'So I guess you'll come by while I'm gone,' Macon said.
'If that's all right.'
'Yes, certainly,' he said.
For his trip to England, Macon dressed in his most comfortable suit. Once suit is plenty, he advised in his guidebooks. It should be medium gray, which not only hides the dirt but can be worn on any occasion, business or social.
He packed a small bag and took a last look round, not wanting to leave the safe routines of his house. Then he whistled for the dog and stepped out the front door into the midday heat.
He was taking the dog to the Veterinary Hospital while he was away. Edward did not like staying there, and when they arrived, he began to make little moaning noises and would not get out of the car. Macon had to pull him all the way into the building.
The girl behind the desk asked for Macon's name and gave him a printed form and a pencil. Edward was now standing on his back legs and holding on to Macon's leg.
Leary. Leary.' The girl pulled a card out of a box, frowning. 'Whoa,' she said. 'Is that Edward? On Rayford Road?'
'We can't accept him. Says here he bit an attendant. Says, «Barry in the ankle, do not re-admit.'»
'What? Nobody told me that when I collected him in June.'
'Well, they should have.'
'Look,' Macon said. 'I'm on my way to the airport, right this minute. I've got a plane to catch.'
But the girl was not interested in Macon's problems, and he went back to the car with Edward. What now? He didn't think his sister would want Edward either, and he certainly wasn't going to ask Sarah for help.
He drove toward home, wondering if he could leave Edward m the house the way he left the cat, with plenty of food and water. Then across the street he saw a sign: MEOVC-BOW ANIMAL HOSPITAL. He braked, and made a left turn into the entrance.
Behind the desk in the waiting room stood a thin young woman, with frizzy black hair that came down to her shoulders like a small tent. 'Hi there,' she said to Macon.
Macon said, 'Do you take dogs? I need to leave Edward somewhere for a week.'
She leaned over the desk to look at Edward. Her eyes were very small, like little brown buttons, and her face was sharp and colorless. Edward looked up at her cheerfully.
'You need to have a reservation in the summer,' she said.
'Please,' Macon said. 'I have to catch a plane in an hour, and I don't have anybody to look after him. I'm desperate.'
She seemed surprised. 'Can't you leave him with your wife?'
'If I could do that,' he said, 'why would I be standing here?'
'Oh,' she said. 'You're not married?'
'Well, I am, but she's… living somewhere else.'
'Oh.' She came out from behind the desk. She was wearing very short red shorts; her legs were like sticks. 'I'm divorced myself,' she said. 'I know what you're going through.'
'The place I usually take him,' Macon said, 'won't take him again. They say he bit an attendant.'
'Edward? Do you bite?' the woman said. 'How could you do such a thing?' Edward looked up at her happily, and put his ears back, inviting a pat. She bent and stroked his head.
Macon realized he should not have mentioned the biting, but the woman didn't seem to mind.
'So will you keep him?' he asked.
'Oh, I guess,' she said. 'If you're desperate.'
She gave Macon some forms to fill in. 'I'll most likely see you again when you come to pick him up,' she said. 'My name's Muriel. Muriel Pritchett.'
Macon Hew to New York, then hoarded his flight to London. The woman in the seat next to him looked the talkative type, and Macon quickly took out his hook and began reading.
The hook was called Miss Maclntosh and it was 1,198 pages long. He'd been carrying it around with him for years. He wasn't quite sure what the story was about, but it was always interesting to read a chapter or two.
(Always bring a hook, as protection against, advised the Accidental Tourist. Magazines don't last. Newspapers from home will make you homesick, and newspapers from other places will remind you that you don't belong.)
When he arrived in London, he went straight to his hotel, changed his clothes, then went out for breakfast. He walked to the Yankee Delight, where he ordered eggs and coffee. The service here was excellent, and the coffee was good, but the eggs were tasteless. He opened his guidebook and made a few notes.
Then he went down the street to the New' America, where he ordered more eggs and more coffee. His third stop was a place called the U.S. Open, which had thin and watery coffee.
In the afternoon, he visited hotels. He spoke with the managers, tested the beds, checked the bathrooms, tried the showers, and made notes in his book.
By the fourth day, he was ready to go home. There was no more to do here, he told himself. Lie had done everything that he needed to. Well, be honest. At home, it was Saturday morning, and Sarah would be collecting the rug. Would she walk round the house, remembering happy times, wishing she still lived there?
He couldn't get an earlier flight, and had to take the flight home he was booked on. Once, Sarah had come to meet him in New York as a surprise. He remembered that meeting so clearly. But this time she didn't even meet him in Baltimore.
He collected his car and drove into the city. Could she be waiting at home? He tried not to let himself hope. He stopped in buy milk and then drove to the Meow-Bow to collect Edward, arriving minutes before closing time.
The woman with frizzy black hair was at the desk. This evening she wore a V-necked black dress with big pink flowers on ii, and ridiculously high-heeled shoes.
«Well, hi there!' she said brightly. 'How was your trip?'
'Oh, it was… Is Edward all right?'
'Sure, lie's all right. He was so good and sweet and friendly!'
'Well, fine,' Macon said. 'Wonderful.' He cleared his throat. 'So could I have him back, please?'
The woman went out the door for a moment, then came back in. Caroline will bring him,' she said.
There was a silence. The woman waited, smiling at Macon.
'Um,' Macon said finally. 'Maybe I could pay.'
'Oh, yes. That'll be forty-two dollars,' she said. 'And did I mention before that I train dogs? My specialty is dogs that bite.
'That must be a dangerous job,' Macon said politely.
'Oh, not for me! I'm not scared of a thing in this world,' the woman said. 'I studied with a man who used to train police dogs. Edward wouldn't bite me, of course. He just fell in love with me.'
'I'm glad to hear it,' Macon said.
Bui I could train him not to bite other people. You think it over and call me. Muriel, remember? Muriel Pritchett.'
She gave Macon her business card. A girl came in with Edward, who went mad with delight at seeing Macon.
'Well, I'll remember that,' Macon said. 'Thank you.'
'Or just call for no reason! Call and talk.'
'Sure! Talk about Edward, his problems, talk about anything!
He thanked her, and moved his wrist away as soon as possible. Sarah had often told him he didn't need other human beings. She was very fond of parties, or had been, until Ethan died.
He and she had met at a party. They'd been seventeen years old, and Sarah had been the bright, sociable one, surrounded by boys, popular with everyone. She had liked Macon, she told him later, because he'd been mysterious and silent, and always wore black (he'd been planning to be a poet at the time).
They married when they both finished college. It was seven years before Ethan was born, and by that time Sarah was no longer calling Macon 'mysterious'.
Didn't she believe he still loved her? Macon wondered if he was cold and unfeeling. But he missed her, he really did, and he did not understand why she had gone away and left him.
Some woman phoned and said 'Macon?' It wasn't Sarah; this voice was different. It's Muriel. Muriel Pritchett,' she said.
'Ah, yes,' he said, but he had no idea who she was.
'From the vet's,' she said. 'You remember? I was just wondering how Edward was.'
Macon looked at Edward, who was lying flat on his stomach with his legs straight out behind him.
'He looks all right to me,' Macon said.
'I mean, is he biting? He ought to be trained, you know.'
'Well, he's four and a half now -'
'That's not too old! Maybe I could just come around for a drink or something, and we could discuss Edward's problems.'
'Oh… I think, um, for now I'll try and manage on my own.'
'Well, I can understand that,' she said. 'I'll wait for you to get in touch, then. You still have my card, don't you?'
Macon said he did, though he didn't know where it was. He hung up and went back to his guidebook. Generally, food in England is not as bad as some people say it is. Nice cooked vegetables...
By September lie had only written a few pages of Ins guidebook, mil he began to feel he was falling apart. In the basement the laundry took days to dry on the line, and one morning he decided to re-connect the exhaust tube of the clothes dryer. Better to use a little more electricity than to get depressed over wet laundry.
He put some of the wet clothes into the dryer and turned it on. At the top of the stairs, Edward was complaining. He was hungry, but not brave enough to come down the stairs on his own. Macon went up and carried him down.
He was near the bottom of the stairs when a sudden, awful howl rose from… where? Edward jumped out of Macon's arms into the remaining wet laundry on the line, which knocked him back against Macon's chest. Macon stepped blindly sideways, put one foot in his wheeled clothes basket, and went crashing to the floor, with his left leg bent double beneath him.
The cat, used to coming in through the hole in the window, had met a hot, wet, whistling wind, but was determinedly trying to limb into the exhaust tube, howling desperately all the time.
'Wouldn't you think,' Macon said to Edward, on the floor next to him, 'that fool cat would know the dryer was running?'
In spite of the pain in his leg, he managed to turn off the dryer and watch the cat escape safely, before beginning the long hard trip up the stairs for help.
Back with family
Oh, I've done wrong and I've told lies,' Macon's sister sang in the kitchen. 'I've been foolish and unwise...'
Macon lay on the daybed in his grandparents' sun porch, and listened to Rose singing as she got the breakfast. She had a high, shaky voice that sounded like an old lady's, though she was the youngest of the four Leary children. She had never left home because there had always been someone she had to take care of. Their grandparents had got old and ill, one after the other, and then it was her brothers. First Charles, the oldest, and then Porter, the next brother, had failed in their marriages and come back home. And now Macon had come as well, to lie there with his broken left leg in plaster and be looked after by Rose.
She was pretty in a quiet, serious kind of way, and ran the house efficiently, being as neat and organized as all the Leary family. Everything in her kitchen cupboards was arranged m perfect alphabetical order- rice, salt, soup dish), soup (tomato), soup (vegetable), sugar, tea...
Charles and Porter managed the business that Grandfather Leary had begun in 1915, a factory making bottle caps. All four of them had spent most of their childhood with their grand-parents as their father, Grandfather Leary's only son, hail been killed in World War II. For a while they had lived with their mother Alicia in California, but she was a bright, irresponsible young widow, full of wild enthusiasms and sudden changes of life plan. The Leary children rarely shared her enthusiasms, and they were quite happy when she sent them to live with their dull, safe, serious grandparents in Baltimore, while she traveled round the world with her latest husband.
As he sat in front of his typewriter in the dining room, Macon felt strangely at peace with the world. No one else had any idea where he was — not Julian, not Sarah, not anyone. Macon liked that, and had said to Rose, 'I wish things could stay this way.'
'Why can't they?' Rose said. 'We don't need to answer the phone if anyone calls. We'll just let it go on ringing.'
However, that afternoon the doorbell rang and it was Garner Bolt, a neighbor from home, complaining that everyone in the street was worried that Macon had died, seeing all the mail piled up inside the door, not knowing what to think.
'So I brought your mail around to your sister's, to ask if she knew where you were. I promised your friend I'd find out.'
'What friend?' Macon asked.
'Thin little lady with a lot of hair. Saw her standing on your porch, knocking at the door. Pointy high-heeled shoes.'
Macon thought for a moment. 'The dog lady,' he said. 'Jesus.'
Garner finally left, having told Macon how to get back with Sarah and save his marriage. Macon made no reply to any of this advice. He'd noticed lately that he had stopped missing Sarah. He began to wonder what had happened to the twenty years of his marriage, and that evening, as he sat at the table with his sister and brothers, he had a sudden cold shock of fear. Here they all were, playing the same old card game they had played as children. Had anything really changed in thirty years?
'Help! Help! Call off your dog!'
Macon stopped typing and listened. He could hear barking and the voice sounded very close. He didn't think it could be Edward because Edward was taking a walk with Porter. But Edward had been behaving strangely for a while, barking and showing his teeth when anyone came to the house, or tried to leave it.
Macon got up, and made his way on his crutches to the porch. Sure enough, it was Edward. He was jumping up and barking madly at the foot of the big tree in the front yard. With some difficulty, Macon went down the steps and caught the end of Edward's leash. He looked up into the leafy shadows of the tree. 'Is there someone there? Who is it?' he asked.
'This is your employer, Macon.'
Julian climbed down the tree. There was dirt on his trousers and his usually neat dark hair was sticking out in all directions. 'Macon,' he said, 'I really hate a man with a horrible dog.'
'Well, I'm sorry. I thought he was off on a walk.'
'By himself?' Julian brushed some leaves off his jacket. 'What happened to your leg? And where's the book? You said you'd finish it in September, and it's now October.'
'It's kind of hard to explain,' Macon said. 'How did you find me, anyway?' He led the way into the house.
'Your neighbor told me where you were.'
They went into the living room. Julian chose the most comfortable chair and sat down. 'Where's Sarah?' he asked. 'Who?'
'Your wife, Macon.'
'Oh. Um. She and I are...' He found he could not say the word 'separated'. It was something that happened to other people. 'She's got an apartment downtown.'
'Jesus. What went wrong?' Julian asked.
'Nothing!' Macon said, a little too loudly. He lowered his voice. I mean, that's not something I can answer.'
The front door hanged and Edward ran into the hall, harking noisily. Rose and Charles came in, carrying groceries in brown paper bags, and came into the living room. Macon had to introduce everybody. Julian seemed fascinated.
'Macon Leary with a sister! And a brother too! Who would have guessed it! Macon Leary with a family!'
Rose gave him a polite, puzzled smile, and Macon suggested that she and Charles went to put the groceries away, rather than standing there and holding them. He was afraid that Julian was about to go into his 'Macon Leary' routine. Ever since they had first met, Julian seemed to think Macon was an amusing oddity, someone who was not quite in touch with the modern world.
They had met about twelve years ago, when Macon, wanting to escape from the boredom of the bottle-cap factory, was trying to become a journalist. He wrote a piece for a local newspaper about a trip to Washington, telling readers how foreign the city seemed, and how to make themselves feel they were back home m Baltimore. Julian had called him the next day, with the plan for the Accidental Tourist guidebooks — guidebooks for people who would rather be at home in their own living rooms.
Macon went to get the work he had done on the new guide for England. 'It's nearly finished,' he told Julian. 'You can take all this and all send the last chapters as soon as I've finished.'
'Good. After this I want to start on the U.S. again.'
Macon sighed. 'So soon?' He thought wearily of yet more trips to Boston and Atlanta and Chicago...
'Things are changing every minute, Macon,' Julian said. 'And who wants to buy an out-of-date guidebook?'
Julian stood up to go, and Macon struggled on to his crutches. Edward, hearing sounds of departure, went mad, harking and running about in the doorway, trying to prevent anybody from leaving. 'Edward, stop it!' Macon shouted over the noise.
They moved toward the front door, and when Edward tried to block it, Macon bent down to pick up the end of the leash and pull Edward away. When Edward felt the leash, he growled fiercely, turned and buried his teeth in Macon's hand.
'Whoa, there!' Julian said. 'Macon? Did he get you?'
Macon looked down at his bleeding hand. 'I'm all right.'
'I wouldn't have a dog like that,' Julian said. 'I'd shoot him.' Edward was now sitting quietly, looking ashamed. 'Why don't you go now, Julian, while he's calm,' Macon said.
Julian slid through the door sideways, looking back at Edward. 'That is not a well dog,' he said as he disappeared.
Macon tapped his way on his crutches to the kitchen and found Rose and Charles there with Porter, who had now returned from his failed walk with Edward.
'Rose?' Macon said. 'Edward's given me a little sort of bite.' The three of them turned to look at Macon's hand, which was now hurting him quite a lot. 'Oh, Macon!' Rose cried.
'You need to get that properly cleaned,' Charles told him.
'You need to get rid of that dog,' Porter said.
'It was an accident,' Macon said. 'He didn't mean any harm.'
'Didn't mean any harm? Huh! You should get rid of him.'
'I can't,' Macon said.
'He's not a bad dog at heart,' Macon said. 'Just a bit excitable.' And he'd been Ethan's.
Ethan had brushed him, bathed him, rolled with him on the floor, played ball with him in the yard. When Edward fell over the ball in his enthusiasm, Ethan's laugh rang out so high and clear, such a joyful sound floating through the summer evening.
'I just can't,' Macon said.
There was a silence.
Rose was gently bandaging his hand. 'Maybe he should have some obedience training. How about that woman you told us about, at the Meow-Bow? Why don't you call her?'
'Maybe I will,' Macon said. He wouldn't, of course. The woman had seemed a bit strange to him.
On Sunday morning, Edward tried to attack a neighbor who'd stopped by to borrow a tool. On Sunday afternoon, he threw himself at Porter to stop him leaving the house. Porter had to slip out the back when Edward wasn't watching. On Monday, when Edward went for a walk with Rose, he attacked a passing runner and his leash pulled Rose off her feet.
She came home with a painful knee. 'Have you called the Meow-Bow yet?' she said.
'Not quite,' Macon said.
Rose looked at him in a strange way. Later, Macon realized it was a kind of pity.
'Meow-Bow Animal Hospital.'
'This is, ah, Macon Leary. Is Muriel there, please?'
'Oh, Macon! Hi there! How's Edward doing?'
'Well, he's getting worse. He's been attacking people, and growling and biting, chewing things...'
Muriel offered to come out five or six times a week to give training lessons at five dollars a lesson. 'That's a special fee for a friend,' she said. 'Mostly I charge ten dollars.'
The first lesson was about sitting. Edward met Muriel at the front door with his usual wild barking and jumping, bur Muriel more or less walked right through him and pointed at his lump and told him to sit. Edward stared at her. She then bent over and with a long pointed finger pushed his rump down.
'Now you kind of cluck your tongue,' she told Macon, doing n herself to show him. That means you're pleased with him. You have to praise them when they do things right. And when I hold mv hand out — see? That means he has to stay.'
Edward stayed, but gave a short bark every few seconds. Muriel didn't seem to hear, and began to talk about herself. Macon wondered how' long she expected Edward to sit there.
'When I was a little girl, I didn't like dogs at all, can you believe that? All I was interested in was how to change the way my hair looked. My natural hair is real straight and now look at it! I had it done and it made it so frizzy I can't even brush it.'
'Maybe you could just comb it,' Macon suggested.
Muriel shook her head. 'It's hard to pull a comb through it.' Shouldn't we let Edward up now?' Macon asked anxiously. Muriel snapped her fingers over Edward's head. 'Okay!' she said, and Edward jumped up, barking.
Edward learned to sit when Muriel pointed, and then it was Macon's turn. He pointed to Edward's rump. Edward stood fast. Macon frowned, and pointed more fiercely. He felt foolish.
'Push him down,' Muriel said.
Macon leaned one crutch against the wall, and bent stiffly to push Edward's rump with a finger. Edward sat. Macon clucked. Then he straightened and hacked away, holding out his hand, but instead of staying, Edward got up and followed him.
'Ssss,' Muriel said, between her teeth. Edward sat down at once. 'He doesn't take you seriously,' she said.
'Well, I know that,' Macon said crossly.
His broken leg was aching, but the lesson went on, and Muriel went on talking and asking questions. She told Macon how lucky he was to get to travel to all kinds of places, like Paris, how wonderful, and write guidebooks about them. She herself had never even been on an airplane, did he realize that?
When she had gone, leaving a new leash with a special training collar for Edward, Macon and Edward practiced for the rest of the day. By suppertime, Edward had learned to sit and stayed there, complaining and rolling his eyes, while Macon clucked in praise. A cluck was now part of the family language. Charles clucked over Rose's baked potatoes. Porter clucked when Macon dealt him a good hand of cards.
During the evening, Edward chewed a pencil to pieces, stole a bone from the kitchen, and was sick on the sun porch rug. But now that he could sit on command, everyone felt more hopeful.
'When I was in high school,' Muriel said, tapping her foot at Edward, 'my teachers told me I should go to college. But, well, I didn't. I hat was because of Norman, mostly. My ex-husband. He was just dying to marry me, you see, but we were awful young to get married. I was seventeen. He was eighteen.'
On the second lesson, they had done walking to heel, and now in the third lesson Edward was supposed to be learning to lie down and stay. It was not going well. Edward just looked away when Muriel gave the command, which was two taps of the foot. In between telling Macon about her ex-husband Norman. Norman's dog, Norman's mother, and Norman's mother's car, Muriel had to keep pulling Edward's front legs out from under him and forcing him to lie down.
When it was Macon's turn to do this, he had to use the hall table to pull himself back on his feet. 'This is very difficult. I don't oppose you ever broke a leg,' he said accusingly.
'I broke an arm once,' Muriel said.
'An arm is no comparison.'
'I did it training dogs, in fact. A big German guard dog. He knocked me off a porch, and then stood over me, showing all his teeth. But only one of you can be boss. So I tell him, „Absolutely not“, and hold out my left hand and stare into his eyes.'
'Jesus,' Macon said.
Muriel had lots of stories about her dog-training experiences. 'I've had no failures yet. And Edward's not about to be my first,' she told Macon. 'You keep practicing and I'll be back Saturday.'
All that afternoon Edward refused to lie down. Macon tried avoiding. Rose and the boys edged around the two of them, politely avoiding any involvement in this private argument.
The next morning Edward attacked the mailman. 'We're not solving the real problem,' Macon told Edward. He tapped his tool twice. Edward did not lie down.
In the afternoon Macon called the Meow-Bow. 'May I speak m Muriel, please?' he asked.
'She's not working today,' a girl said. 'Her little boy is sick.'
He hadn't known she had a little boy. It changed the way he thought of her; she was a different person from the one he'd imagined.
Rose was going downtown, and agreed to drop Macon off at Julian's office. He wanted to deliver the rest of his guidebook.
Julian greeted him cheerfully. 'Ah, here he is! Accidental Tourist on Crutches,' he said, enjoying his own joke.
They discussed the U.S. guides that Macon would soon be starting work on, and then Macon got up to go. 'My sister's picking me up outside,' he explained.
'Ah yes, the Macon Leary family,' Julian said. 'Why don't I step outside and wait with you. Say hi to your sister.'
Macon suspected Julian of hoping for more Leary oddities to laugh at. Today Rose was wearing an old hat that had been her grandmother's. Macon really didn't want Julian to see that hat.
'Well, I don't think so, really. We need to get home.'
Julian leaned back in his chair. 'Macon,' he said. 'Couldn't you just once invite me to a family dinner?'
Macon avoided answering this directly, and on the way home with Rose he decided that the trouble with Julian was that he had no children. People, who had no children, Macon felt, had never truly grown up. They weren't quite… real.
Unexpectedly, he thought of Muriel, lying with a broken arm and a German guard dog standing over her, its teeth at her throat. But she didn't give in. 'Absolutely not,' she said.
She arrived the next morning in high-heeled black boots and a raincoat. Edward danced around her. She pointed to his rump. He sat, and she bent to pick up his leash.
'Is your little boy better?' Macon asked her.
She looked at him for a moment. 'Who told you he was sick?'
'Someone at the Meow-Bow, when I phoned. Is he okay now?'
'Oh, yes. It was some little stomach thing. How- come you phoned?' she asked.
'I wanted to know why Edward wouldn't lie down. I tap my foot but he never obeys me,' Macon said. 'Something's wrong. I've been practicing two days now and -'
'What do you expect? You think I can do magic or something? Why blame me?'
'Oh, I'm not blaming-'
'You most certainly are. You tell me something's wrong, you call me on the phone -'
'I just wanted to -'
'You think it's strange I didn't mention Alexander, don't you? You think I'm some kind of unnatural mother.'
'What? No, wait a minute -'
'You're not going to give me another thought, are you, now you know I've got a kid. Oh no, I won't bother with her, you think. And you wonder why I didn't tell you about him before. Well, isn't it obvious? Don't you see what happens when I do?'
Muriel's voice got higher and higher, and Edward began to growl. Macon looked down at him and saw; the hair on the back of his neck standing up stiffly. A bad sign.
Muriel looked down too and stopped speaking. She tapped her foot twice, but Edward not only failed to lie down; he rose from his sitting position. Then with a howl, he jumped straight at Muriel's face.
At once Muriel raised the leash with both hands and lifted Edward completely off the floor. He hung by his collar, making little noises in his throat.
'He can't breathe,' Macon said. 'Stop it. It's enough!'
Still she let him hang. Macon shook Muriel's shoulder and then Muriel lowered Edward to the floor. He landed in a boneless heap. Macon knelt next to him. 'Oh, God, he's dead!'
Edward raised his head and licked his lips weakly.
'See that?' Muriel said cheerfully. 'When they lick their lips, it's a sign they're giving in.'
Macon stood up. He was shaking. 'Don't you ever, ever do that again. In fact, don't even bother coming again.'
There was a surprised silence.
'Well, fine,' Muriel said. 'You want a dog you can't control? If that's the way you feel, that's fine with me.'
'I'd rather have a harking dog than a damaged, scared dog.'
'You want a dog that bites all your friends and neighbors? A dog that hates the whole world? A mean, nasty, angry dog?' She stepped neatly around Edward and opened the front door, then turned back to look into Macon's face.
'Why, yes, I guess you do,' she said.
Macon continued practicing with Edward every day, and thought that Edward was slowly getting more obedient. His family was not so hopeful. 'What about when you start traveling again?' Hose asked. „You're not leaving him with me.'
It was hard for Macon to imagine starting his travels again. Sometimes he wished he could stay in his plaster. In fact, he wished it covered him from head to foot. People would knock on the plaster wall. 'Macon? You in there?' Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. No one would ever know.
One evening Julian stopped by with some papers for Macon's New York trip. Rose offered him some coffee, which he accepted eagerly, much to Macon's annoyance, who was sure Julian was hoping for some Leary oddities.
'What do you do for a living, Charles?' Julian asked, when they were all sitting down in the living room.
'I make bottle caps.'
'Bottle caps! Is that a fact! And Rose? Do you work?'
'Yes. I do,' Rose said, in her serious way. 'I work at home; keep house tor the boys.'
The telephone rang. Since Macon's return home, the Learys hid got into the habit of not answering the phone, but there was a chance this was Porter, who had gone out to buy a hammer and who often got lost, even in his ow n neighborhood.
They discussed it urgently.
'What do you think?'
'But he knows we wouldn't answer.'
'Yes, he'd surely call a neighbor instead.'
'On the other hand...'
It was Julian's fascinated expression that decided Macon. He picked up the receiver. 'Leary,' he said.
It was Sarah. 'I think we should talk,' she said to Macon.
They agreed to meet for supper in the Old Bay Restaurant the next evening. Macon wore his gray suit coat and gray trousers with one leg neatly cut off at the top of the plaster. Rose had cut his hair, and Porter had lent him his best tie.
He was the first to arrive, and when Sarah came in, she greeted him in a cool, distant sort of way, like neighbors meeting at a drinks party. They sat down and ordered their food.
'So, why are you living with your family?' Sarah asked. 'Well, because of my leg. I can't manage the steps at home.'
'And what happened to your hand?' she asked.
'Um, Edward bit it,' Macon said. 'He's getting kind of out of control, to tell the truth.' He told her about the trainer he had hired, and how cruel she had been when Edward tried to bite her.
'Ridiculous,' Sarah said. 'He was only frightened; that's why he attacked. There's no point in making him even more scared.' Macon felt a sudden rush of love.
Oh, he'd had moments when he'd almost hated her, but the fact was, she was his oldest friend. She was part of his life. It was much too late to cut her out.
'What Edward needs,' she was saying, 'is a sense of routine.'
'Sarah,' he said, 'it's been awful living apart. Hasn't it?'
Sarah looked at him. 'I asked you here for a reason, Macon.' He could tell it was something he didn't want to hear.
'I've been talking to a lawyer about our separation,' she said. Their food arrived, plates were put down, knives and forks arranged. Macon waved the waitress away.
'I think you ought to come home,' he said. 'Can't we try -' Tm trying to make a new life for myself,' she said. 'New directions, different. We didn't have much left, did we? When you broke your leg, who did you call for help? Your sister Rose!'
'If I'd called you, would you have come?'
'Well… but you didn't call me. You called your family, and that's where you're happiest, isn't it? The kind of family that always fastens their seat belts, that has to have a group discussion before they can decide whether to close the curtains. And the best house in the world might be for sale, but you can't buy it because you've ordered a thousand address labels for the old house, and you have to use them up before you move.'
'That wasn't me, it was Charles,' Macon said.
'Charles, you, it's all the same.' Her eyes were full of tears. 'Macon, I know you loved Ethan, but you're not so torn apart by his death as I am. You seem unfeeling, unchanged.'
'Sarah, I'm not unfeeling. I'm… just trying to survive.'
'Survive, yes. Survive unchanged by any experience, just like those silly travel books you write. You're empty, dried up, Macon, and nothing really touches you.'
She put her coat on, clumsily. 'So anyway,' she said. 'You'll get a letter from my lawyer.'
Then she stood up and walked out.
When the doctor removed the plaster, Macon's leg came out dead-white and ugly. He still limped a bit, but he now had no excuse for not getting on with the new U.S. guides that Julian wanted. The New York trip was the first one, and Rose drove him to the station to catch the train.
She was worried about Edward. 'I wish you weren't leaving him with me,' she said. 'You know how out of control he gets.'
'What could happen in such a short timer'' Macon said. 'I'll be home by tomorrow night. If worst comes to worst, you could lock him in the pantry till I get back.'
New York was a foreign city to Macon. He could never get used to the sense of purposefulness there — everyone was always rushing somewhere without a moment to look around them. He began his usual visits to hotels and restaurants, making notes in the old guidebook in his tiny, neat handwriting.
In the evening, Julian wanted him to try a new restaurant, which was on the top of an impossibly tall building. The cab-driver who took him there clearly thought it was a bad idea.
'Cup of coffee there will cost you five dollars,' he told Macon.
Most of the people in the restaurant were in evening dress and seemed to be celebrating something. Macon was given a table without a view, and after he had given his order, he took his drink over to one of the great black windows that encircled the room from floor to ceiling.
All of a sudden, he thought he had died.
He saw the city far below him like a shining golden ocean, the streets tiny lines of light, the sky a purple hollow that went on forever. It wasn't the height; it was the distance — his huge, lonely distance from everyone who mattered, Ethan, Sarah… He had gone too far, he would never, ever get back.
His heart began to beat twice as fast as normal and his hands shook. He dropped his glass, and ran clumsily across the room and out the door. In the corridor he found a telephone and called home, worrying that they would not answer. But Charles did.
'Charles? I'm on top of this building and… and a silly thing has happened. Listen — you've got to get me out of here.'
'You out! What are you talking about? You've got to get me out!' Charles sounded unusually excited.
'I'm shut in the pantry. Your dog won't let me out. It's lucky there's a phone in here. You have to come home right away.'
'But I'm in New York! I'm on top of this building and I can't get down!'
'Macon, do you hear that barking? That's Edward. Every time I open the door he attacks me. And now he's attacking the door.' Macon held the phone tightly. 'Charles, where's Rose?'
'She's out. Julian came to take her to dinner and -'
'Julian my boss?'
'Yes, and it's Porter's night for visiting his children. Macon, I can't just sit here waiting for Edward to break through.'
How Macon wished he was safe in the pantry, surrounded by all Rose's groceries lined up in alphabetical order!
'If you don't get me out of this, I'm going to call for the police to come shoot him,' Charles said.
'No! Don't do that! Listen. I'm going to… I'll phone Sarah. She'll come over and take charge of Edward. Just wait!'
He hung up and found Sarah's number with trembling hands.
But she didn't answer. What now? What on earth now?
He looked through the other numbers in his wallet and saw a name: Muriel Pritchett, animal trainer. She answered at once.
'Muriel?' he said. 'It's Macon Leary.'
'Oh! How're you doing?'
'I'm fine. Or, rather...' He tried to explain about Edward and Charles and being on top of a building in New York.
'Let's make sure I've got this right,' Muriel said. 'Edward's in your pantry -'
Macon tried again. 'Edward's outside the pantry. My brother's inside, and says he's going to call the police to come shoot Edward so I thought if you could go over and -'
'I'll go right away, and take Edward to the Meow-Bow.'
'Oh, wonderful. And there's something else… I'm having this kind of… See, I'm on top of this very tall building and I don't know what it is but something has scared the hell out of me.'
'Oh, I think people who go up those buildings are so brave.'
Macon gave a dry laugh, and held the phone more tightly.
'Yes, you ought to be feeling so proud of yourself, just being up there!' she said. 'And Macon, when you get back from your trip, we need to talk about Edward's training. Things just can't go on this way, can they? I mean, this is ridiculous.'
'Yes. Yes, you're absolutely right,' Macon said.
'See you, then. Bye.'
After Macon hung up, he went back into the restaurant and sat down at his table. He felt calm and tired and terribly hungry.
'I'll be honest,' Muriel said, 'my baby was not exactly planned for. If you want to know the truth, the baby was the reason I married Norman in the first place. But I didn't push him into it.'
She looked past Macon at Edward, who lay on the hall rug. He'd had to be pushed down, but at least he was staying there. Know I'm going to turn my back. You watch how he does.' She walked into the living room. Macon anxiously watched Ed ward, and Muriel went on talking. 'My folks didn't want me to get married. Norman and I were just kids, playing at marriage. It was pretend! And then it turned real, and now I've got this great big seven-year-old boy. What's Edward doing now?'
'He's still lying down,' Macon said.
'Maybe tomorrow he'll lie down on his own,' Muriel said.
'You think so?'
'If you practice. If you don't give in. If you don't go all soft-hearted.' She came close to Macon and touched his arm. 'Never mind,' she told him. 'I think softhearted men are sweet.' Macon backed away. He just missed stepping on Edward.
The lessons continued, as did the history of Muriel's marriage. She talked all the time, and sometimes Macon got the feeling that she used words as a sort of background music. But he couldn't help listening, and was quite shocked when he heard some of the unkind things that Norman's mother had said to Muriel.
'It was the baby that broke our marriage up,' Muriel said. 'Alexander was born early and spent months in the hospital, he was such a sick little baby. Norman wouldn't go near him and he didn't like me spending all my time at the hospital. In the end I took a cleaning job there, to help pay the medical bills, you should have seen them, thousands and thousands of dollars...' She and Macon were walking along the road with Edward, hoping to meet a biker. Edward was getting quite good at lying down and staying, but he still had to learn that he was not allowed to attack bikers.
'If he gives the smallest bark,' Muriel said, Tm going to pull his leash so hard he won't know what hit him. It's for his own good, and you've promised not to get upset, remember?'
'Yes, I'll try and remember,' Macon said.
Soon a biker came past, a girl with a tiny, serious face. Edward put his head up and looked, but marched calmly on. 'Oh, Edward, that was wonderful,' Macon told him.
Muriel just clucked, as though she had expected Edward to behave himself.
'So anyhow,' she said. 'They finally let Alexander come home, and a few weeks later Norman just walked out. Packed his clothes and went back to his mother. I knew I couldn't go back to my folks, so I just had to manage. I did all kinds of jobs, sometimes two or three at a time, but it wasn't easy.'
She slowed and then came to a stop. Edward, with a deep sigh, sat down at her left heel. 'Looking back, I almost missed the times in the hospital,' she said. 'The nurses talking and those rows of little babies sleeping. It was winter and sometimes I'd stand at a window, feeling warm and safe, and look down at the emergency room entrance and watch the ambulances coming in. You ever wonder what a Martian would think if he landed near an emergency room? He'd see everybody running out to meet the ambulance, pulling the doors open, hurrying to get the patient inside. “What kind and helpful creatures these are,'' a Martian would say. Don't you think so?'
She looked up at Macon then. Macon felt something turn over inside him. He felt there was something he needed to do, some connection he wanted to make, and when she raised her face, he bent and kissed her lips, though that wasn't the connection he had intended.
She went on looking up at him.
'Sorry,' he said.
Then they turned around and walked Edward home.
It was getting close to Thanksgiving and as usual the Learys were discussing Thanksgiving dinner. None of them liked turkey, but in the end they always decided to have it. Porter's three teenage children were coming to stay for Thanksgiving, and Rose thought she might invite Julian Edge too. Poor Julian, she said, was on his own and might enjoy a family dinner.
This alarmed Macon. Julian was often stopping by to take Rose this place or that, and Macon suspected him of amusing him self with another member of the peculiar Leary family. But Julian always behaved very politely with Rose, almost shy, and clumsy about opening doors. Macon hoped that Rose was not having any foolish thoughts about love, but she was so plain and sensible there was surely no need to worry.
On Thanksgiving morning, Macon came down to the kitchen where Rose was giving breakfast to Porter's children. He said, 'Rose, I thought I could smell turkey cooking in the night.'
'You could,' Rose said. 'I'm trying this new way of cooking meat. It saves electricity. You set the temperature extremely low and coo k the meat all night.'
'But it won't be properly cooked,' Macon said.
'It will murder us,' said Charles.
'You're both wrong,' Rose said. 'It's going to be delicious.'
Maybe it was, but it certainly didn't look it. By dinnertime the middle of the bird had fallen in and the skin was all dry and dull. Rose carried the bird in and put it on the table. 'Ah, look at that!' Julian said enthusiastically. He was the only person at the table who didn't know how the turkey had been cooked.
'Well, there may be a little problem,' Macon said.
Rose looked at him angrily.
'The vegetables are excellent,' he said. 'But the turkey...'
'Is just poison,' Danny finished for him. At sixteen, he was the oldest of Porter's children, and already as tall as Porter.
'It's been cooked at too low a temperature,' Macon explained.
'I think it looks delicious,' Julian said.
'Yes,' Porter told him. 'But you don't know about the other times — the chicken salad that was left out all night and...'
Rose sat down. Her eyes filled with tears. 'Oh,' she said, 'you're all so mean! You don't fool me for a moment. You're just trying to make me look bad in front of Julian. You know perfectly well there's nothing wrong with that turkey. You just don't want me to stop cooking for you and taking care of this house, you don't want Julian to fall in love with me.'
But she pushed her chair back and ran from the room. Julian sat there with his mouth open.
'Don't you dare laugh,' Macon told him. 'Don't even think about it.'
Julian swallowed. 'Do you think I should go after her?'
'No. She's fine. Now, who wants a baked potato?'
The three children all asked for baked potatoes with vegetables, and Macon then turned to Julian.
'I'll take the turkey,' Julian said firmly.
At that moment, Macon almost liked the man.
'You want your dog to obey you in every situation,' Muriel said. 'You want to leave him outside shops or any public place and come back and find him waiting. Right, here's a grocery store.'
They climbed out of Muriel's old gray car and went over to the grocery. Macon tapped his foot twice. Edward looked unhappy, but he lay down. Inside the store Macon and Muriel walked past the fruit and vegetables. Muriel picked up a banana and put it down again, ' l oo green,' she said. 'What are you doing for dinner tomorrow night? Come and eat at my house.'
'Come on. We'll have fun. Just you and me and Alexander. He needs to meet more men, it's good for him.'
'Um, I don't know if I'm free tomorrow...'
'Think it over. Six o'clock. Sixteen Singleton Street.'
They went outside. Edward was still there, but standing up and growling at a dog across the street. Muriel sighed.
They tried several more shops, with varying success, then Muriel parked in front of a building in Cold Spring Lane.
'One more test,' she said. 'I've got to pick up Alexander at the doctor's here. It won't take long. You come in with me.'
They left Edward lying down outside and went in.
'How old did you say Alexander was?' Macon asked.
'He's seven,' Muriel said.
Seven. Seven was when Ethan had learned to ride a bicycle.
Alexander was a small, white, sickly boy with short thin hair and light blue eyes behind large watery glasses. Macon shook hands with him. He felt there was nothing on earth he could talk about with this child.
Muriel drove Macon back to his house and as they pulled up outside she said, 'I'll see you tomorrow for dinner then.'
Macon didn't know how to tell her, but he knew he couldn't go to that dinner. He missed his wife. He missed his son. They were the only people who seemed real to him. There was no point looking for anyone to take their places.
Macon looked up the phone number in the book. It was nine in the evening, a good time to call. Alexander would have gone to bed. He picked up the phone.
But what would he say?
Muriel, last year my son died and… Muriel, this has nothing to do with you personally but… Muriel, I can't. I just can't.
He held the phone to his ear but his throat had closed up, his voice had disappeared. He had never actually said out loud that Ethan was dead. He hadn't needed to; it was in the newspapers, and then friends had told other friends.
He hung up.
He found some notepaper, sat down, took out his pen. Dear Muriel, he wrote. And stared at the page for a while.
Funny sort of name, Muriel. He examined his pen closely. How well made it was. He examined the notepaper.
Dear Muriel, l am very sorry, he wrote, but won't be able to have dinner with you after all. Something unexpected has happened. Yours, Macon.
He put the letter in his pocket and drove to the south of the city. He wondered how Muriel could feel safe living here, among these dark streets full of rubbish and young men drinking out of brown paper bags. He turned onto Singleton Street.
He found number 16, got out of the car and climbed the steps.
He opened the screen door and took the letter from his pocket.
'I've got a gun,' Muriel said from inside the house, 'and I'm aiming it exactly where your head is.'
His heart started beating very fast. Her voice sounded level and accurate — like her gun, he imagined. 'It's Macon,' he said.
'Macon?' The inner door opened a little. „Macon, what are you doing here?'
He gave her the letter.
She took it and opened it, using both hands. (There was no sign of a gun.) She read it and looked up at him.
He saw he had done it all wrong.
'Last year,' he said, 'I lost… I experienced a… loss, yes.' She went on looking into his face.
'I lost my son,' Macon said. 'He was… at a hamburger bar and then… someone came, a gunman, and shot him. I can't go to dinner with people! I can't talk to their little boys! I don't mean to hurt your feelings but I'm just not up to this, do you hear?'
She took one of his wrists very gently and she drew him into the house, still not fully opening the door, so that he had the sense of slipping through something, of narrowly avoiding something. She closed the door behind him. She put her arms around him and hugged him.
'Every day I tell myself it's time to be getting over this,' he said into the space above her head. 'I know that people expect it of me. They used to offer their sympathy but now they don't; they don't even mention his name. They think it's time my life moved on. The first year was like a bad dream — I was at his bedroom door in the morning before I remembered he wasn't there to be woken. But this second year is worse, it's real. I've stopped going to his door. I've sometimes let a whole day pass without thinking about him. And you'd suppose Sarah and I could comfort each other but no, we only do each other harm. I think this has only brought out the truth about us — how far apart we are. And now I'm far from everyone; I don't have any friends anymore and everyone looks silly and foolish and not related to me.'
She drew him through a living room, up a stairway and across a hall and into a bedroom.
'No,' he said, 'wait. This is not what I want.'
'Just sleep,' she told him. 'Lie down and sleep.'
That seemed reasonable.
She removed his coat and hung it in a closet. She knelt and untied his shoes. He stepped out of them obediently. She hung his trousers and shirt over a chair back. He dropped onto the bed in his underwear, and she drew the cover over him.
Next he heard her moving through the rest of the house, turning off lights, running water, saying something in another room. She returned to the bedroom. Her robe was old, made of silk, the color of red wine. Then she got into bed and lay close to him. 'I just want to sleep,' he told her. But there was this silk material next to him. He felt how cool and soft the silk was, cool silk over warm body.
In the night he heard a child cough, and he swam up through a sea of dreams to answer. But he was in a room with one tall blue window, and the child was not Ethan. He turned over and found Muriel. She sighed in her sleep, a soft sound full of remembered pain, which seemed to say to Macon, About your son… am wounded too. We're all wounded. You are not the only one.
Life on Singleton Street
'I don't understand you,' Rose told Macon. 'First you say you'll be here, and then you say you won't. How can I plan meals when you are so disorganized?'
'Sorry, Rose,' Macon said.
'Last night you weren't here to eat your supper. Three separate mornings these past two weeks I go to call you for breakfast and I find you haven't slept in your bed. Don't you think I worry?'
'Well, sometimes I don't realize how late it's getting and...'
'I'm not asking about your private life,' Rose said.
'I thought in a way you were.'
'I just need to know how many breakfasts to fix.'
'You think I don't notice what's going on? Whenever she's here giving Edward his lesson, everyone starts coming out of the woodwork. Porter, edging through the living room — “Just looking for a hammer! Don't mind me!» You, coming out to sweep the porch the minute we go outside...'
'Could I help it if the porch was dirty?'
'Well, I'll be here tomorrow night for supper. That's certain.' Although even as