A spool of blue thread, p.13
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       A Spool of Blue Thread, p.13

           Anne Tyler
 

  “There’s a reason for that,” Abby announced to the room at large. “Too many people are trying to help!”

  But she might as well have been a gnat. Neither one of them so much as glanced at her; they were too busy facing each other down.

  Supper that night was hamburgers and corn on the cob. Halfway through the meal, Denny asked, in a tone of detached curiosity, “Stem, did it ever occur to you that you may have married your mother?”

  “Married my mother?” Stem asked. “Which mother?”

  “They both claim to be oh so accommodating, but you notice how—” Denny broke off. “Huh?” he said. “Which mother!”

  He sat back and stared at Stem.

  Nora continued placidly spreading butter on her ear of corn. Stem said, “Nora is very accommodating. I’d like to know how many other women would be willing to pack up and leave their homes behind the way she has.”

  “Oh,” Abby wailed, “but we didn’t ask her to do that! We wouldn’t ask it of any of you!”

  Nora said, “Of course you wouldn’t, Mother Whitshank. We volunteered. We wanted to do it. Think of all Douglas owes you.”

  “Owes?” Abby said. She looked stung.

  All at once Red came alive at the head of the table and said, “What? What’s going on?” He glanced from face to face, but Abby made a dismissive downward gesture with one hand, so he didn’t pursue it.

  On Wednesday, Denny got up at ten thirty, so maybe he was inching into a halfway normal schedule. He vacuumed all the bedrooms and folded a load of laundry that Nora had put in the dryer, completely mixing up which clothes belonged to which person. Then he replaced a button on one of Abby’s blouses, leaving a spill of spools and crochet hooks on the shelf in the linen closet where Abby kept her sewing box. After that he played Crazy Eights with the little boys. When Abby told him she was heading off for her pottery class, he offered to drive her, but she said she always hitched a ride with Ree Bascomb. “Suit yourself,” Denny said, “but I’m just sitting here twiddling my thumbs; you might as well make use of me.”

  “You’re very useful, dear,” Abby said. “It’s just that Ree and I have been riding together forever. But I appreciate the thought.”

  “Can I borrow your computer while you’re gone?” Denny asked.

  “My computer,” Abby said. A panicked look crossed her face.

  “I’d like to get online.”

  “Well, you aren’t … you won’t read my e-mail or anything, will you?”

  “No, Mom. Who do you take me for?”

  She didn’t seem reassured.

  “I just wanted to connect to the outside world, for once,” Denny said. “I’m kind of isolated here.”

  “Oh, Denny, haven’t I been saying? You ought not to be here!”

  “How welcoming,” Denny said.

  “Oh, you know what I mean. I’m not an old lady, Denny. I don’t need to have my hand held. This is all so unnecessary!”

  “Is that so,” Denny said.

  And then, as if her words had jinxed things, that afternoon she had one of her blank spells.

  She had promised to be back from her pottery class around four. They didn’t start worrying till five. Red and Stem were home by then, and Red was the one who said, “Don’t you figure your mom should be here now? I know she and Ree get to talking, but still!”

  “Do you have Ree’s phone number?” Denny asked.

  “It’s on the speed dial. Maybe one of you all could call. I’m not so good on the phone these days.”

  All three men looked at Nora. “I’ll do it,” she said.

  She went to the phone in the sunroom, and Red tagged after her. Stem and Denny stayed seated in the living room. “Hello? Mrs. Bascomb?” they heard her say. “This is Nora, Abby Whitshank’s daughter-in-law. Do you happen to have her there with you?”

  There was a pause, and then she said, “I see. Well, thank you so much!… Yes, I’m sure she will. Goodbye.” The receiver clicked into its cradle. “They got back to Mrs. Bascomb’s an hour ago,” she said, “and Mother Whitshank set out for home straightaway.”

  “Damn! Sorry,” Red said. “I’ve told her and told her, I said, ‘Make Ree take you all the way to our door.’ She knows she’s not supposed to walk home by herself. Shoot, I bet she walked over there, too.”

  Stem and Denny exchanged glances. The distance was barely a block and a half; it was news to both of them that Abby couldn’t be trusted to manage it.

  “Maybe she stopped by a friend’s house on the way back,” Nora said.

  “Nora,” Red said. “People in this neighborhood do not stop by.”

  “I didn’t know that,” Nora said.

  They returned to the living room, and Denny stood up from his chair. “Okay,” he said. “Stem, you walk up Bouton toward Ree’s. I’ll head in the other direction in case she somehow bypassed the house.”

  “I’m coming too,” Red said.

  “Fine.”

  The three of them left. Nora stepped onto the porch to watch after them, her arms folded across her chest.

  Stem took off toward Ree Bascomb’s in his long, loping stride, while Red and Denny turned in the opposite direction. Red’s pace was more laborious. Always before, he’d been a man in a hurry; now he trudged. They hadn’t even reached the third house before they heard Stem call out, “Found her!” Or Denny heard. Red continued plodding on. Denny touched his sleeve. “He found her,” he said.

  “Eh?” Red turned.

  “Stem found her.”

  They started back, passing home. They could see Stem up at the far end of the block, facing the Lincolns’ house, but they couldn’t see Abby. Denny walked faster, letting Red drop behind.

  Abby was sitting on the brick steps leading to the Lincolns’ front walk, with a colorful pottery object resting on her lap. She seemed fine, but she was making no attempt to rise. “I’m so sorry!” she told Denny and Red when they reached her. “I don’t know how to explain it. I was just sitting here; that was the first thing I knew. I was sitting on these steps and I thought, ‘Am I coming, or am I going?’ I honestly couldn’t tell. It was so unsettling!”

  “But you had your pottery,” Stem pointed out.

  “My what?”

  She looked down at it—a charming little clay house, no bigger than a box of notecards. The exterior was a vivid yellow, and the roof was red. A snarl of green pottery tendrils spread across one end of the roof to give a suggestion of leafy boughs.

  “My pottery,” she said wonderingly.

  “So you must have been coming, right? Coming home from pottery class.”

  “Oh. Right,” Abby said. Then she cupped the house in both hands and held it up to them. “My very best work so far!” she said. “See?”

  “Good job, hon,” Red told her.

  And all three men nodded too vigorously, beaming too brightly, like parents admiring a piece of art that a child has brought home from nursery school.

  Because of the way the house on Bouton Road was designed, a person could stand at the upstairs hall railing and hear everything that was said in the entrance hall below. The Whitshank children—and sometimes Red as well—used to do this whenever the doorbell rang, lurking invisibly overhead until they could be certain that it wasn’t just one of Abby’s orphans.

  But Merrick, of course, had been a child in that house herself once upon a time, so when she dropped by on Thursday evening, she peered overhead the instant Abby let her in. “Who is that?” she called out. “I know you’re up there.”

  After a pause, Denny appeared at the top of the stairs. “Hi, Aunt Merrick,” he said.

  “Denny? What are you doing home? Hello, Redcliffe,” she added, because Red had stepped forward too now, his hair still damp from his after-work shower.

  “Hey there,” he said.

  Abby said, “How nice to see you, Merrick,” and gave her a peck on the cheek, craning around the cardboard carton in Merrick’s arms.

  “Abby,” Merr
ick said neutrally. Then, “Why, hello, cutie!” because Heidi had just bounded in, panting and grinning. Merrick was always much nicer to dogs than to humans. “Who is this sweetie pie?” she asked Abby.

  “That’s Heidi.”

  “Don’t tell me poor old Brenda finally died.”

  “No …” Abby said.

  “Well, how do you do, Miss Heidi?” Merrick said, and she shifted her carton to one hip in order to stroke Heidi’s long nose.

  Not counting the carton, Merrick was the picture of elegance—an angular, hatchet-faced woman, her too-black hair cut as short as a boy’s, wearing slim white pants and an Asian-looking tunic. “We’re about to leave for a cruise,” she told Abby, “and after that I’m going on to the Florida place, so I’ve brought you all the goodies from my fridge.”

  “Hmm,” Abby said. Merrick was forever foisting her dribs and drabs of leftovers on the family. She disapproved of waste. “Well, bring them in,” Abby said, and she led Merrick toward the kitchen. Red and Denny, who had made their way down the stairs as slowly as possible, trailed them at a distance.

  “How long are you here for?” Merrick asked Denny.

  “I’ve come to help out,” he said.

  This didn’t exactly answer her question, but before she could press him, Abby broke in to say, “What have you been up to, Merrick? We haven’t seen you all summer!”

  “You know I hate to come here in hot weather,” Merrick said. “It’s barbaric, not to have air conditioning in this day and age.” She set the carton on the kitchen table with a thump. “Why, Norma,” she said.

  Nora barely turned from the pot she was stirring. “Nora,” she said coolly.

  “Does this mean Stem is here, too?” Merrick asked Abby. “Stem and Denny, both at the same time?”

  “Yes, isn’t that lovely?” Abby said in a sort of cheerleader tone.

  “Wonders never cease.”

  “He’s upstairs showering just now. I’m sure he’ll be down in a minute.”

  “Why is he showering here?”

  Abby was saved from having to answer this by Red’s sudden “Excuse me?”

  “Why here, I said.”

  “Why what here?”

  “Honestly, Redcliffe. Give up and get a hearing aid.”

  “I have a hearing aid. I have two.”

  “Get some that work, then.”

  The three little boys arrived on the back porch, piling against a screen that was already starting to bulge. They yanked the door open and tumbled inside, breathless and overheated-looking. “Is it supper yet?” Petey asked.

  “Boys, you remember your Great-Aunt Merrick,” Abby said.

  “Hi,” Petey said uncertainly.

  “How do you do,” Merrick said, extending her hand. He studied it a moment and then raised his own hand to give her a high five, which didn’t quite work out. He ended up accidentally slapping the backs of her fingers. His brothers didn’t attempt even that much. “We’re hungry!” one of them said. “When’s supper?”

  “It’s all ready,” Nora told them. “Go wash up and we can sit down.”

  “What: now?” Merrick asked. “Don’t I get a drink?”

  Everyone looked at Abby. Abby said, “Oh. Would you like one?”

  “I don’t suppose you have any vodka,” Merrick said happily.

  There was a moment when it seemed that Abby might say no, but then some sort of hostess instinct must have kicked in, and she said, “Of course.” (They had it because of Merrick.) Red and Denny slumped. “Will you see to the drinks, dear?” Abby asked Denny. “Let’s the rest of us go to the living room.”

  As she and Red and Merrick left the kitchen, Petey was heard to say, “But we’re starving!” and Nora murmured something in reply.

  “I haven’t had a chance to sit down all day,” Merrick told Abby as they crossed the hall. “It’s exhausting, getting ready for a trip.”

  “Where are you off to?”

  “We’re taking a cruise down the Danube.”

  “How nice.”

  “Wouldn’t you know, Trey is being a bore about it. He’d rather go golfing somewhere. Oh! Brenda! There you are! God, she looks dead, the poor darling. What happened to Father’s clock?”

  Abby glanced from Brenda, stretched out on the cooling hearthstones, to the clock on the mantel above. A crack ran across the glass of its case. “There was a little mishap with a baseball,” she said. “Won’t you have a seat?”

  “Boys are so hard on houses,” Merrick said, folding herself into an armchair. She had been shadowed by Heidi, who settled expectantly at her knee. “And why are there so many of them? Did I count three?”

  “Oh, yes,” Abby said. “There are three, all right.”

  “Was the third one planned?” Merrick asked. “Oh. Stem. Hello. Had you planned on a third child?”

  “Not really,” Stem said cheerfully. He gave off the scent of Dial soap as he crossed the room to a chair. “How’re you doing, Aunt Merrick?”

  “I’m exhausted, I was just saying,” Merrick told him. “It seems preparing for a trip gets more tiring every year.”

  “Why not stay home, then?”

  “What!” she said in horror. Then she sat up straighter; Denny was bringing the drinks. In one hand he held a tumbler tinkling with ice and filled to the brim with vodka, and in the other a glass of white wine. Three cans of beer were tucked perilously under his left arm. “Here we go,” he said. He placed the tumbler on the lamp table next to her. He crossed to give Abby the wine and then handed a can of beer each to Red and Stem, after which he sat down on the couch with the third can and popped the tab. “Cheers,” he said.

  Merrick took a deep swig of her drink and breathed out a long “Ahh.” She asked Denny, “Is Sarah here too?”

  “Who’s Sarah?”

  “Sarah your daughter.”

  “Susan, you mean.”

  “Susan, Sarah … Is Susan here too?”

  “She’s coming down for the beach trip.”

  “Oh, God, not that everlasting beach trip,” Merrick said. “You’re like lemmings about that beach! Or spawning salmon, or something. Don’t you all ever think about vacationing any place else?”

  “We love the beach,” Abby told her.

  “Really,” Merrick said, and she drew her sharp purple fingernails languidly across the top of Heidi’s head. “Sometimes it amazes me that our ancestors had the gumption to make it to America,” she told Red.

  “Excuse me?”

  “America!” she shouted.

  Red looked confused.

  “Mother and Father never traveled at all, if you’ll remember,” she told him.

  “Well, you have certainly made up for that,” Red said. “You seem to need more than one house, even.”

  “What can I say? I hate winter.”

  “In my opinion,” Red said, “going to Florida for the winter is kind of like … not paying your dues. Not standing fast for the hard part.”

  “Are you calling Baltimore summers the easy part?” Merrick asked. Then, as if to prove her point, she said “Whew!” and left off petting Heidi to bat a hand in front of her face. “Can somebody turn that fan up a notch?”

  Stem rose and gave the fan cord a tug.

  “I can see why you might want two houses,” Denny spoke up. “Or even more than two. I get that. I bet sometimes when you wake in the morning you don’t know where you are for a moment, am I right? You’re completely disoriented.”

  “Well … I guess,” Merrick said.

  “Before you open your eyes you think, ‘Why does it feel like the light is coming from my left? I thought the window was on my right. Which house is this, anyway?’ Or you get out of bed at night to go pee and you walk into a wall. ‘Whoa!’ you say. ‘Where’s the bathroom gone?’ ”

  Merrick said, “Well …” and Abby took on a worried look. Evidently Denny was having one of his unexpectedly confiding moments.

  “I love that feeling,” he said. “You
don’t know your place in the world; you’re not pegged; you’re not nailed into this one single same old never-ending spot.”

  “I suppose,” Merrick said.

  “You think that might be the reason people travel?” he asked. “I’ll bet it could be. Is that why you travel?”

  “Oh, well, it’s more like I’m just trying to get as far as possible from Trey’s mother,” Merrick said. She swirled the ice in her glass. “The old bat just celebrated her ninety-ninth birthday,” she told Red. “Can you believe it? Queen Eula the Immortal. I swear, I think she’s staying alive just to spite me. It’s not only that she’s a pill herself; I blame her for making Trey such a pill. She spoiled that man rotten, I tell you. Gave him every little thing he ever wanted: the Prince of Roland Park.”

  Red put a hand to his forehead and said, “This is so eerie! Is it déjà vu? Why do I feel like I’ve heard this someplace before?”

  “And the older he gets, the worse he gets,” she went on obliviously. “Even when he was young he was a hopeless hypochondriac, but now! Believe me, it was a dark day in the universe when the Internet started letting people research their medical symptoms.”

  She might have gone on (she usually did), but at that moment Petey came into the room. “Grandma,” he said, “can we have the last of that fudge ripple?”

  “What: before supper?” Abby asked.

  “We’re already eating our supper.”

  “Yes, you can have it. And take Heidi when you go, will you? She’s sneezing again.”

  It was true that Heidi had started sneezing—a whole fit of sneezes, light but spattery. “Gesundheit,” Merrick told her. “What’s the trouble, honeybunch? Coming down with something?”

  “She does this all day long,” Abby said. “You wouldn’t suppose sneezing would be such an irritation, but it is.”

  Petey said, “Mom thinks it’s on account of she’s allergic to Grandma’s rugs.”

  “Well, I wouldn’t bring her to visit, then, poor baby,” Merrick said.

  “She’s got to visit. She lives here.”

  “Heidi lives here?”

  “She lives here with us.”

  “You live here?”

  “Yes, and Sammy’s allergic, too. All night he breathes dramatically.” Merrick looked at Abby.

 
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