Earthly possessions, p.1
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       Earthly Possessions, p.1

           Anne Tyler
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Earthly Possessions

  Praise for Anne Tyler

  “One of the most beguiling and mesmerizing writers in America.”

  —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

  “Not merely good … She is wickedly good!”

  —John Updike

  “A novelist who knows what a proper story is … A very funny writer … Not only a good and artful writer, but a wise one as well.”


  “Tyler’s characters have character: quirks, odd angles of vision, colorful mean streaks, and harmonic longings.”


  “Her people are triumphantly alive.”

  —The New York Times

  By Anne Tyler


















  A Fawcett Book

  Published by The Random House Publishing Group

  Copyright © 1977 by Anne Tyler Modarressi

  All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-96691

  eISBN: 978-0-307-78839-9

  This edition published in arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.




  By Anne Tyler

  Title Page


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  About the Author


  The marriage wasn’t going well and I decided to leave my husband. I went to the bank to get cash for the trip. This was on a Wednesday, a rainy afternoon in March. The streets were nearly empty and the bank had just a few customers, none of them familiar to me.

  Time was when I knew everybody in Clarion, but then they opened the lipstick factory and strangers started moving in. I was glad. I have lived in this town all my life, thirty-five years, forever. I liked having new people around. I liked standing in that bank feeling anonymous, with some business-suited stranger ahead of me in line and someone behind me wearing a slithery-sounding, city-type nylon jacket. I didn’t know the teller either. Though she might have been one of the Benedict girls, just grown up a little. She had that Benedict voice that turned off and on in the middle of words. “How would you like that, sir?” she asked the man ahead of me.

  “Fives and ones,” he said.

  She counted out the fives, then reached into some inconvenient place and came up with a couple of stacks of ones in brown paper bellybands. Just at that moment, the nylon jacket started up behind me. Somebody pushed me, somebody stumbled. There was this sudden flurry all around. A nylon sleeve swooped over my shoulder. A hand fastened on the stacks of bills. I was extremely irritated. Now look, I wanted to say, don’t be so grabby; I was here before you were. But then the teller gave a squawk and the man ahead of me spun in my direction, unbuttoning his suit coat. One of those plumpish men, puffy-faced as if continually, just barely, holding in his anger. He fumbled at his chest and pulled out something stubby. He pointed it at the nylon jacket. Which was black—the sleeve, at any rate. The sleeve darted back (the hand clutching money) and circled my neck. For a moment I was almost flattered. I curved to make way for the object pressing into my ribs. I smelled the foggy smell of new dollars.

  “Anybody move and I’ll kill her,” said the nylon jacket.

  It was me he meant.

  We backed out, with his sneakers squeaking on the marble floor. Like a camera zooming away I saw first a few people and then more and more, all their faces very still and turned on me. My view grew even wider, took in the whole gloomy, paneled interior of the Maryland Safety Savings Bank. We lurched backward out the door.

  “Run,” he told me.

  He gripped my sleeve and we ran together, down slick wet sidewalks. We passed a man with a dog, one of the Elliott children, a woman pushing a stroller. You’d think they would look up, but they didn’t. I considered stopping very suddenly, asking someone strong for help. (The woman with the stroller is who I’d have chosen.) But how could I visit this affliction on them? I was in quarantine, Typhoid Mary. I didn’t stop.

  In fact for a while there I imagined I might outdistance him, but his hold on me was very tight and he stayed beside me. His feet slapped the pavement steadily, unhurried. While I myself was gasping for air, my handbag thumping against my hipbone, loafers squelching water, and by the third block it seemed that some sharp-edged mainspring had snapped loose inside my chest. I slowed down.

  “Keep going,” he said.

  “I can’t.”

  We were in front of Forman’s Grocery, comfortable Forman’s Grocery with its tissue-wrapped pears. I stopped and turned to him. It was a shock. I had been building this picture of him in my mind, somebody evil-faced, but he was just ordinary, calm-looking, with a tousle of oily black hair and black-rimmed, pale gray eyes. His eyes were level with mine; he was short, for a man. No taller than I was. And much younger. I took heart.

  “Well,” I said, panting, “this is where I get off, I guess.” Something clicked on his gun.

  We ran on.

  Down Edmonds Street, past old Mr. Linthicum, who’d been placed on his stoop as always, rain or shine, by his daughter-in-law. But Mr. Linthicum only smiled, and had long ago stopped talking anyway, so there was no hope there. Down Trapp Street, past my aunt’s brown duplex with the wooden eyelet lace dripping from all the eaves. Only she would be inside now, watching “Days of Our Lives.” A sharp left down an alley I hadn’t known existed, then left again, dodging under somebody’s stilt-legged porch, where once, I believe, I played as a child, with a girl called Sis or Sissy, but I hadn’t thought of her in years. Then across the gravel road by the lumberyard—does it have a name?—and up another alley. In the alleys it was raining, though elsewhere the rain had stopped. We were traveling a corridor of private weather. I had lost all feeling and seemed to be running motionless, the way you do in dreams.

  Then, “Here,” he said.

  We were facing the rear of a low, dingy building, buckling clapboard in a sea of weeds and potato chip cartons. Not a place I liked the looks of. “Head around front,” he told me.


  “Do like I say.”

  I tripped over a mustard jar big enough to pickle a baby in.

  Then think how I felt when we reached the front and I saw that it was Libby’s Grill—only Libby’s. Which was also the local pinball joint and bus depot. It’s true that I wasn’t exactly known there (I couldn’t afford to eat out, didn’t play pinball, never traveled), but at least it was public, and there was a good chance someone inside might recognize me. I walked in the door as straight as possible. I looked all around the room. But there was ju
st a stranger drinking coffee at the counter, and the waitress was nobody I’d seen before.

  “When’s the bus leave?” the bank robber asked her.

  “What bus?”

  “Next one.”

  She looked at a wristwatch that was safety-pinned to her bosom. “Five minutes back,” she said. “He’s late as ever.”

  “Well, me and her want two tickets to the end of the line.”

  “Round trip?”

  “One way.”

  She went over to a drawer, pulled out two ribbons of tickets, and started whacking at them with a set of rubber stamps that stood beside the percolator. Now, surely people didn’t come in every day asking for tickets to the end of the line, wherever it was, on the next bus going out. And surely she didn’t often see a woman draggly-haired, out of breath, about to collapse from running too hard, accompanied by a stranger all in black. (For even his jeans were black, I saw now, even his sneakers—everything but his startling, white, out-of-place shirt.) Wouldn’t you think she would give us at least a glance? But no, she kept her eyes down, her chin tucked into her other chins, even when accepting the money he laid on the pads of her palm. Before we were halfway out the door, I believe, she had forgotten we existed.

  And then the bus had to wheeze up the moment we arrived at the curb, not giving me two seconds to look around for someone familiar. Though I was calmer now. It didn’t seem so likely he would shoot me with people around—even these numb, dumb people lining the bus, half of them asleep with their mouths open, old lady talking to herself, soldier with a transistor radio pressed to the side of his head. Dolly Parton was singing “My Life Is Like Unto a Bargain Store.” The vanity case on the old lady’s lap was meowing. I decided there was hope. I sank into a seat and felt suddenly light-hearted, as if I were expecting something. As if I were going on a trip, really. Then the bank robber sat down beside me. “You keep on behaving and you’re going to be fine,” he whispered. (He was a little out of breath himself, I saw.) He reached over, palm down. His hand was square and dark. What did he want? I shrank away, but he just took hold of my purse. “I’ll be needing that,” he said.

  I disentangled the strap from my shoulder and gave it to him. He held it loosely, between his knees. I looked away. Outside my window was Libby’s Grill, the bus driver joking with the waitress on the stoop, a child mailing a letter. What about my children, would they wonder where I was?

  “I have to get off,” I told the bank robber.

  He blinked.

  “I’ve got children, I didn’t make arrangements yet for after school. I have to get off.”

  “What you expect me to do?” he said. “Look, lady, if it was up to me we’d be twenty miles apart by now. You think I planned this? How was I to know some clown would pull a gun?” He swung his eyes around, checking out the sleeping faces. “Nowadays just anybody’s got them, people without a lick of sense. I could be clean free and you safe home with your kids by now if it wasn’t for him. Guy like that ought to be locked up.”

  “But we’re out. You’ve escaped,” I told him.

  I felt embarrassed; it seemed tactless to discuss the situation so openly. But he didn’t take offense.

  “Wait and see,” was all he said.

  “Wait for what?”

  “See if they can say who I was. If they can’t I won’t need you. I’ll let you go. Right?”

  He gave me a sudden smile he didn’t mean—short, even teeth, surprisingly white. Stubby black lashes veiling whatever look was in his eyes. I didn’t smile back.

  The driver climbed on, a man so heavy that we felt the tilt when he landed. He pulled the door shut and ground the motor. Libby’s Grill slipped away like something underwater. The child at the mailbox vanished. Then the laundromat, the hardware, the vacant lot, and finally the pharmacy with its mechanical lady lounging in the window, raising her arm to rub Coppertone on it and dropping it and raising it again, eternally laughing her faded laugh inside her dusty glass box.


  I was born right here in Clarion; I grew up in that big brown turreted house next to Percy’s Texaco. My mother was a fat lady who used to teach first grade. Her maiden name was Lacey Debney.

  Notice that I mention her fatness first. You couldn’t overlook fatness like my mother’s. It defined her, it radiated out from her, it filled any room she walked into. She was a mushroom-shaped woman with wispy blond hair you could see through, a pink face, and no neck; just a jaw sloping wider and wider till it turned into shoulders. All year round she wore sleeveless flowered shifts—a mistake. Her feet were the smallest I have ever seen on a grownup, and she owned a gigantic collection of tiny, elegant shoes.

  When she was in her mid-thirties—still a maiden lady teaching school, living in her dead father’s house beside the Texaco station—a traveling photographer named Murray Ames came to take her students’ pictures. A stooped, bald, meek-looking man with a mustache like a soft black mouse. What did he see in her? Did he like her little feet, her fancy shoes? At any rate, they married. He moved into her dead father’s house and turned the library into a portrait studio—an L-shaped room with an outside entrance and a bay window facing the street. You can still see his huge old complicated camera there on its stand beside the fireplace. Also his painted backdrop—blue, blue sky and one broken-off Ionic column—which so many schoolchildren used to stand in front of so long ago.

  She had to quit teaching; he didn’t want a wife who worked. (He was given to fits of cold, black moodiness that scared her to death, that made her flutter all around him wondering what she’d done wrong.) She sat home and ate chocolate caramels and made things—pincushions, Kleenex-box covers, Modess-pad lady-dolls to stand on bureau tops. This went on for years. Every year she got fatter and fatter, and had more trouble moving around. She tilted at each step, holding herself carefully like a very full jug of water. She grew listless, developed indigestion, felt short of breath, and started going through the Change. She was certain she had a tumor but would not see a doctor; only took Carter’s Little Liver Pills, her remedy for everything.

  One night she woke up with abdominal spasms and became convinced that the tumor (which she seemed to picture as a sort of overripe grapefruit) had split open and was trying to pass. All around her the bed was hot and wet. She woke her husband, who stumbled into his trousers and drove her to the hospital. Half an hour later, she gave birth to a six-pound baby girl.

  I know all this because my mother told me, a thousand times. I was her only audience. In some way, she’d grown separate from the rest of the town—had no friends whatsoever. She lived her life alone behind her gauzy curtains. Yet I believe that once my mother’s family was very social, and filled that house with dances and dinner parties. (My grandfather was involved in politics somehow, something to do with the governor.) There are pictures of my mother in a pink tulle evening gown, looking like a giant hollyhock, playing hostess in the period after my grandmother’s death. In all the pictures she is smiling, and has her hands linked across her stomach as if hugging herself for joy.

  But my grandfather was the only man who ever totally approved of her (he called her his biscuit, he loved her dimples, he was glad she wasn’t all skin and bones, he said) and once he had died, her social life began to thin out. Pretty soon only her father’s oldest, kindest friends asked her places, only to dull family dinners where there was no need to pair people; and then they died, too, and her one lone brother was married to a woman who didn’t like her; and the other teachers were so young and vivacious, they filled her with despair. Also, she got the feeling sometimes that the children at school were laughing at her. While they were her pupils they just loved her, oh, they loved to be rocked by her when they fell off the jungle gym and to smell the velvet rose fastened to her bosom, with its drop of L’Heure Bleu she put on a single petal every morning. But a year or two later, when they had passed on to other grades—well, several times she had noticed things. Little snickers, traded glances, rude l
imericks she wouldn’t lower herself to repeat.

  Then after she was married there was a brief flurry of invitations, as if she had suddenly been declared alive after a long misunderstanding. But … what was the trouble, exactly? She couldn’t say. Couldn’t put her finger on it. Her husband just never had learned to fit in, maybe that was it. He wasn’t outgoing enough. He acted so glum, wouldn’t raise his eyes when spoken to and hardly spoke at all himself. Hung about as if he didn’t own his body—shoulders sagging, middle caved in; he looked like an empty suit of clothes. No wonder their life had shrunk and dwindled so!

  Yes, I wanted to say, but what about Alberta, the lady next door? Her husband was no good whatsoever, and still she had more friends than I could count.

  I entered school, a whole new world. I hadn’t had any idea that people could be so light-hearted. I stood on the edge of the playground watching how the girls would gather in clumps, how they giggled over nothing at all and told colorful stories of family life: visits to circuses, fights with brothers. They didn’t like me. They said I smelled. I knew they were right because now when I walked into my house I could smell the smell too: stale, dark, ancient air, in which nothing had moved for a very long time. I began to see how strange my mother was. I noticed that her dresses were like enormous flowered undershirts. I wondered why she didn’t go out more; then once, from a distance, I watched her slow progress toward the corner grocery and I wished she wouldn’t go out at all.

  I wondered why my father had so few customers, most of them soldiers or other transients, and why he had to talk to them in that mumbling, hangdog way that tore at my heart. I worried that he and my mother didn’t love each other and would separate, fly apart, forgetting me in the flurry. Why couldn’t they be like Ardle Leigh’s parents? The Leighs held hands every place they went, but my parents never touched at all. I seldom saw them look at each other. They seemed to be staring inward, like people cheated or disappointed somehow. And though they slept in the same great wooden bed, the middle of it stayed perfectly neat—a median strip unrumpled, undisturbed. Or sometimes they quarreled (irritable lashings-out, no issue you could name, exactly) and my father spent the night in his studio. Then I felt dislocated and sick to my stomach. I loved my father more than I loved my mother. My father believed I was really their true daughter. My mother didn’t.

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