A spool of blue thread, p.14
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       A Spool of Blue Thread, p.14

           Anne Tyler
 

  “Take Heidi to the kitchen, Petey,” Abby said. “Yes,” she told Merrick, “they’ve moved in to help out; isn’t that nice?”

  “Help out with what?”

  “Well, just … you know. We’re getting older!”

  “I’m getting older too, but I haven’t turned my house into a commune.”

  “To each his own, I guess!” Abby sang out merrily.

  “Wait,” Merrick said. “Is there something someone’s not telling me? Has one of you been diagnosed with some terminal disease?”

  “No, but after Red’s heart attack—”

  “Red had a heart attack?”

  “You knew that. You sent him a fruit basket in the hospital.”

  “Oh,” Merrick said. “Yes, maybe I did.”

  “And I’m not so spry either, lately.”

  “This is ridiculous,” Merrick said. “Two people get a bit wobbly and their entire family moves in with them? I never heard of such a thing.”

  Denny cleared his throat. “Actually,” he said, “Stem is not here on a permanent basis.”

  “Well, thank heaven.”

  “I am.”

  Merrick looked at him, waiting for him to go on. The others stared down at their laps.

  “I’m the one who’s staying,” Denny said.

  Stem said, “Well, not—”

  “Oh, for God’s sake, why is anyone staying?” Merrick asked. “If your parents are really so decrepit—and I must say I find that hard to believe; they’re barely in their seventies—they should move to a retirement community. That’s what other people do.”

  “We’re too independent for a retirement community,” Red told her.

  “Independent? Bosh. That’s just another word for selfish. It’s stiff-backed people like you who end up being the biggest burdens.”

  Stem rose to his feet. “Well,” he said, “I guess Nora must be fretting about her supper getting cold,” and he stood waiting in the center of the room.

  Everyone looked at him in surprise. Finally Merrick said, “Oh, I see. Clear that tiresome woman out of here; she tells too many home truths.” But she was standing up as she spoke, draining the last of her drink as she moved toward the front hall. “I know, I know,” she said. “I see how it is.”

  The others rose to follow her. “Here,” Merrick said at the door, and she thrust her empty glass at Abby. “And by the way,” she told Denny. “You’re supposed to have a life by now. You’re only putting things off, scurrying back home on the slightest excuse.”

  She left, clicking across the porch with a brisk, energetic stride, like someone triumphant in the knowledge that she had set everybody straight.

  “What is she talking about?” Denny asked after a moment.

  Abby said, “Oh, you know how she is.”

  “I can’t abide that woman.”

  Ordinarily Abby would have tut-tutted, but now she just sighed and headed for the kitchen.

  The men went into the dining room and settled at the table, none of them speaking, although Red did say, as he dropped onto his chair, “Ah, me.” They waited in a kind of drained silence. From the kitchen they could hear the burble of the little boys’ voices and a clatter of utensils. Then Nora emerged through the swinging door, carrying a casserole. Abby came behind with a salad. “You should see Merrick’s leftovers,” she told the men. “A smidgen of store-bought pasta sauce in the bottom of a jar. A wedge of Brie completely hollowed out inside the rind. And … what else, Nora?” she asked.

  “A cold broiled lamb chop,” Nora said, setting the casserole on the table.

  “A lamb chop, yes, and a Chinese take-out carton of rice, and one single, solitary pickle in a bottle of scummy brine.”

  “We should put her in touch with Hugh,” Denny said.

  “Hugh?” Abby asked.

  “Amanda’s Hugh. Do Not Pass Go. She could call him before every trip.”

  “Oh, you’re right,” Abby said. “They’re made for each other!”

  “He’d tell her he knows a soup kitchen that’s dying to have her leftovers, and he’d come by her house and collect them and take them off to the trash.”

  This made the others laugh—even Nora, a little. Red said, “Oh, now. You folks,” but he was laughing too.

  “What?” Tommy asked. He’d cracked open the door from the kitchen. “What’s so funny?”

  None of them wanted to say; they just smiled and shook their heads. To a child, they must have looked like some happy, cozy club that only grown-ups could belong to.

  It took a total of five vehicles to carry them all to the beach. They could have managed with fewer, but Red insisted, as usual, on driving his pickup. How else could they bring everything they needed, he always asked—the rafts and boogie boards, the sand toys for the children, the kites and the paddle-ball racquets and the giant canvas shade canopy with its collapsible metal frame? (In the old days, before computers, he used to include the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica.) So he and Abby made the three-hour trip in the pickup, while Denny drove Abby’s car with Susan in the passenger seat and the food hampers in the rear. Stem and Nora and the three little boys came in Nora’s car, and Jeannie and Jeannie’s Hugh started out separately from their own house with their two children, though not with Hugh’s mother, who always spent the beach week visiting Hugh’s sister in California.

  Amanda and Amanda’s Hugh and Elise traveled on a whole different day—Saturday morning instead of Friday afternoon, since Amanda always had trouble getting away from her law office—and they stayed in a different cottage, because Amanda’s Hugh couldn’t tolerate what he called the hurly-burly.

  None of the dogs came. They were all boarding at Penpals.

  The house the Whitshanks rented every summer stood right on the beach—a comparatively uncrowded stretch of the Delaware coast—but it wasn’t what you’d call luxurious. The walls were tongue-and-groove, painted a depressing pea-soup green; the floorboards were so splintery no one dared go barefoot; the kitchen dated from the 1940s. But it was big enough for all of them, and far homier than the glittering new mansions with giant Palladian windows that had popped up elsewhere along the shore. Besides, Red could always use a few fix-it jobs to keep him occupied. (He wasn’t a natural vacationer.) Even before Abby and Nora had unpacked the food, he had happily catalogued half a dozen minor household emergencies. “Will you look at this outlet!” he said. “Practically dangling by a thread!” And off he went to the truck for his tools, with Jeannie’s Hugh not far behind.

  “The next-door people are back,” Jeannie called, stepping in from the screen porch.

  Next door was almost the only house as unassuming as theirs was, and the people she was referring to had been renting it for at least as long as the Whitshanks had been renting theirs. Oddly enough, though, the two families never socialized. They smiled at each other if they happened to be out on the beach at the same time, but they didn’t speak. And although Abby had once or twice debated inviting them over for drinks, Red always voted her down. Leave things as they were, he told her: less chance of any unwelcome intrusions in the future. Even Amanda and Jeannie, on the lookout during the early days for playmates, had hung back shyly, because the next-door people’s two daughters always brought friends of their own, and besides, they were slightly older.

  So for all these years—thirty-six, now—the Whitshanks had watched from a distance while the slender young parents next door grew thicker through the middle and their hair turned gray, and their daughters changed from children to young women. One summer in the late nineties, when the daughters were still in their teens, it was noticed that the father of the family never once went down to the water, spending the week instead lying under a blanket in a chaise longue on their deck, and the summer after that, he was no longer with them. A muted, sad little group the next-door people had been that year, when always before they had seemed to enjoy themselves so; but they did come, and they continued to come, the mother taking her early-morning
walks along the beach alone now, the daughters in the company of boyfriends who metamorphosed into husbands, by and by, and then a little boy appearing and later a little girl.

  “The grandson has brought a friend this year,” Jeannie reported. “Oh, that makes me want to cry.”

  “Cry! What for?” Hugh asked her.

  “It’s the … circularity, I guess. When we first saw the next-door people the daughters were the ones bringing friends, and now the grandson is, and it starts all over again.”

  “You sure have given these folks a lot of thought,” Hugh said.

  “Well, they’re us, in a way,” Jeannie said.

  But you could see Hugh found that hard to understand.

  On the Friday that the Whitshanks arrived, only the men and the children went down to the water. The women were busy unpacking and making beds and organizing supper. But by Saturday, when Amanda and her family showed up, they’d all settled into their routine of a full morning on the beach, and lunch at the house in their sandy swimsuits, and then afternoon on the beach again. The canvas canopy sheltered the white-skinned Whitshank grown-ups, but the in-laws sat brazenly in the sun. Stem’s three little boys challenged the breakers to bowl them over but then ran away at the last minute, shrieking with laughter, while Stem stood guard at the water’s edge with his arms folded. Amanda’s Elise, storky and pale in a tutu-like swimsuit, stayed high and dry on a corner of the blanket underneath the canopy, but Susan and Deb spent most of their time diving through the waves. Susan was fourteen this summer—Elise’s age, but she seemed to have more in common with thirteen-year-old Deb. Both she and Deb were children still, although Deb was a skinny little thing while Susan was more solidly built, waistless and nearly flat-chested but with something almost voluptuous about her full lips and her large brown eyes. The two of them had a bedroom to themselves this year. Elise used to bunk with them rather than in her parents’ cottage, but not any longer. (She’d gotten stuck up, Deb and Susan claimed.) Alexander was mostly on his own as well—too young for the girls and too sedentary for Stem’s boys. Mostly he stayed seated at the water’s edge, letting the surf froth up and then ebb around his soft white legs, except for when his father coaxed him into a game of paddle ball or a ride on a raft.

  Elsewhere on the beach, teenagers built giant sand castles, and mothers dipped their babies’ bare feet in the foam, and fathers threw Frisbees to their children. Seagulls screamed overhead, and a little plane flew up and down the coastline, trailing a banner that advertised all-you-can-eat crabs.

  Amanda and Amanda’s Hugh didn’t seem to be getting along. Or Amanda wasn’t getting along; Hugh appeared cheerfully unaware. Anything he said to her she answered shortly, and when he invited her to take a walk on the beach, she said, “No, thanks,” and turned the corners of her mouth down as she watched him set off on his own.

  Abby, sitting next to Amanda but outside the canopy, under the sun, said, “Oh, poor Hugh! Don’t you think you should go with him?” (She was eternally monitoring her daughters’ marriages.) But Amanda didn’t answer, and Abby gave up and went back to her reading. A stack of trashy magazines had been discovered beneath the TV, no doubt left behind by a previous renter, and they had passed through the hands of her granddaughters and then her daughters and ended up with Abby herself, who was leafing through one now and tsk-ing over the silliness. “All this excitement about could so-and-so be pregnant,” she told her daughters, “and I don’t even know who so-and-so is! I’ve never heard of her.” In her skirted pinkswimsuit, her plump shoulders glistening with suntan lotion and her legs lightly dusted with sand, she looked something like a cupcake. She hadn’t ventured into the water at all so far, and neither had Red. In fact, Red was wearing his work shoes and dark socks. Evidently this was the year when the two of them were declaring themselves to be officially old.

  “I remember when I first met him, I thought he was a jerk,” Amanda told Denny. She must have been referring to Hugh. “I had that apartment on Chase Street with a garbage chute at the end of the hall, and I kept finding bags of garbage just sitting on the floor around the chute, not sent down the way they should have been. And poking out of the bag I’d see beer bottles and chili cans, things that should have been put in the recycling bin. It made me furious! So one day I taped a sign to a bag: WHOEVER DID THIS IS A PIG.”

  “Oh, Amanda! Honestly,” Abby said, but Amanda didn’t seem to hear her. “I don’t know how he knew it was me,” she told Denny, “but he must have. He knocked on my door and he was holding my sign. ‘Did you write this?’ he said, and I said, ‘I most certainly did.’ Well, he put on this big charm act. Said he was terribly sorry, it wouldn’t happen again, he didn’t know the recycling rules and he hadn’t sent the bag down the chute because it wouldn’t fit, blah blah—as if that were any excuse. But I admit, he won me over. You know what, though? I should have paid attention. There it was, all spelled out for me from the beginning: This is a man who thinks he’s the only person on the planet. How much clearer could it have been?”

  “So, now does he recycle?” Denny asked.

  “You’re missing the point,” Amanda said. “I’m talking about his nature, the very nature of the man. It’s all about what’s expedient, for him. He’s just arranged to sell the restaurant to someone for next to nothing, for a song, merely because he’s bored and he wants to go into something new. Can you believe it?”

  “I thought you approved of the something new,” Denny said. “I thought you said it was brilliant.”

  “Oh, I was just being supportive. Besides, it’s not the something new I mind; it’s the way he goes about getting rid of the old. He didn’t even consult me! Just took the very first offer he got, because he wants what he wants when he wants it.”

  Abby touched Amanda’s arm. She sent a meaningful glance toward Elise, but Amanda said, “What,” and turned away again. And Elise just then stood up in one long graceful movement and began walking toward the water, as if nothing the grown-ups said could have anything to do with her.

  “I didn’t know that was how you met,” Abby said. “That’s kind of like a movie! Like a Rock Hudson–Doris Day movie where they start out hating each other. I thought you met in the elevator or something.”

  “The man is impossible,” Amanda said, as if Abby hadn’t spoken.

  “You can see why he’d jump at the chance to sell, though,” Denny said. “I don’t guess it’s easy unloading a place that serves nothing but turkey.”

  “Well, it’s not married to turkey. It could serve other things. And it’s got tons of equipment, ovens and such, that are worth a lot of money.”

  “Oh,” Abby said, “poor Hugh. Men don’t handle failure well at all.”

  “Mom. Please. Enough with the ‘poor Hugh.’ ”

  “Want to take a walk, Ab?” Red asked suddenly. It wasn’t clear whether he’d been listening to what was being said. Maybe he really did feel like a walk just then. At any rate, he heaved himself to his feet and stepped over to give Abby a hand up. She was still shaking her head as they started off down the beach.

  “Now they’ll have a long talk about what a bad wife I am,” Amanda said, watching them go.

  “Dad walks so slowly these days,” Jeannie said. “Look at him. He’s so stiff.”

  “How does he manage at work?” Denny asked her.

  “I don’t notice it so much at work. It’s not as if he does anything physically demanding there anymore.”

  They watched their parents meet up with Nora, who was returning from a walk of her own. She exchanged a few words with them and then continued toward Stem and her children, floating ethereally through a group of teenage boys tossing a football at the water’s edge. A black tie-on skirt fluttered and parted over her modest one-piece swimsuit, and her dark hair lifted from her shoulders in the breeze. The teenage boys halted their game to follow her with their eyes, one of them cradling the football under his arm.

  “The unwitting femme fatale,” Denny murmur
ed, and Amanda gave a little hiss of amusement.

  “Is Elise having any fun?” Jeannie asked Amanda. “It doesn’t seem she’s joining in much this year.”

  “I have no idea,” Amanda said. “I’m only her mother.”

  “I guess ballet has kind of taken her away from things.”

  Amanda didn’t answer. The three of them were silent a moment, their gazes fixed on a nearby toddler in a swim diaper who was pursuing a committee of gulls. The gulls strutted ahead of him at a dignified pace, gradually speeding up although they pretended not to notice him.

  “How about Susan?” Jeannie asked Denny. “Is she having a good time?”

  “She’s having a great time,” he said. “She really likes coming here. These are the only cousins she’s got.”

  “Oh, does Carla not have any siblings?”

  “Just an unmarried brother.”

  Jeannie and Amanda raised their eyebrows at each other.

  “How is Carla these days?” Amanda asked after a moment.

  “Fine as far as I know.”

  “Do you see much of her?”

  “No.”

  “Do you see anybody?”

  “Do I see anybody?”

  “You know what I mean. Any women.”

  “Not really,” Denny said. And then, just when it seemed the conversation was finished, he added, “Face it, I’m hardly a catch.”

  “Why not?” Jeannie asked.

  “Well, I kind of come across as a deadbeat. I mean, it’s not as if I’ve been blazing an impressive career path all these years.”

  “Oh, that’s ridiculous. Lots of women would fall for you.”

  “No,” Denny said, “when you think about it, things haven’t changed much since the days when parents were trying to marry their daughters off to guys with titles and estates. Women still want to know what you do when they meet you. It’s the first question out of their mouths.”

  “So? You’re a teacher! Or a substitute teacher, at least.”

  “Right,” Denny said.

  A little girl ran past them toward the water—the granddaughter of the next-door people. Reflexively, Denny and his sisters half turned to watch the next-door people threading from their house to the beach, carrying towels and folding chairs and a Styrofoam cooler. They arrived at a spot some twenty feet distant from the Whitshanks. The grown-ups unfolded their chairs and settled in a straight row facing the ocean, while the grandson and his friend went down to where the little girl was bounding into the surf.

 
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