Out of the Woodwork
Edward Schuyler was ironing his oldest blue oxford shirtin the living room on a Saturday afternoon when the first telephone call came.He'd taken up ironing a few months before, not long after his wife, Bee, haddied. That happened in early summer, when school was out, and he couldn'tconcentrate on anything besides his grief and longing. At first, he onlypressed things of hers that he'd found in a basket of tangled clean clothing inthe laundry room. He had thought of it then as a way of reconnecting with herwhen she was so irrevocably gone, when he couldn't even will her into hisdreams.
And she did come back in a rush of disordered memories ashe stood at the ironing board. But he had no control over what he remembered,sometimes seeing her when they first met, or years later in her flowered chintzchair across the room, talking on the telephone and kneading the dog's bellywith her bare feet-Bee called it multitasking-or in the last days of her life,pausing so long between breaths that he found himself holding his own breathuntil she began again.
Still, this random collage of their days together wasbetter than nothing, and it was oddly comforting to smooth the wrinkles out ofher blouses, to restore their collapsed bosoms and sleeves and hang them in hercloset, where they looked orderly, expectant. And he liked the hiss of steam inthe quiet house and the yeasty smell of the scorched cloth.
Now he lay the iron down on the trivet and, with Bingo,the elderly dog, padding right behind him, went into the kitchen to answer thephone. Without his reading glasses, which didn't appear to be anywhere, Edward couldn'tmake out the caller I.D. But when he said hello there was no reply, and heassumed he'd hear one of those recorded messages from someone running forsomething. It was late October, after all. Half his mail these days wascomposed of political flyers, the other half divided between bills and belatednotes of sympathy. He was about to hang up when a woman's voice said, "Ed?Is that you?"
No one he knew called him Ed, or Eddie. Sometimes atelemarketer made a stab at sudden intimacy that way, but he was not a man whoinvited the casual use of nicknames. Even Bee, who knew him as well as anyone,and loved him, had always called him Edward. Her two grown children still kepttheir childhood names for him-Nick addressing him as "Schuyler" or"Professor," and Julie as "Poppy." Nick's bride, Amanda,said "Dad," a little self-consciously, while reserving the title"Daddy," as Julie did, for her own father.
"This is Edward, yes," he said into the phone."Who is this?" and the woman said, "You don't know me, Ed, butwe have a good friend in common."
He didn't say anything and she continued. "My nameis Dorothy Clark, Dodie to you. Joy Feldman and I went to schooltogether."
Edward tried to imagine sweet, matronly Joy as aschoolgirl, but all he could think of was the Tuna Surprise casserole she'dslid into his freezer right after the funeral, and that days later he'd found asingle hair at its defrosted center. Bee might have said, Ah, the surprise! Hehad a chilly premonition that this woman was going to try to sell him somethingdeath-related, like perpetual grave care, or hit him up for a contribution tosome obscure charity in Bee's memory.
But her voice seemed to deepen a little with emotion asshe said, in response to his silence, "You and I are in the same boat, Ed.I mean I'm recently widowed, too, and Joy thought . . . well,that we should probably get to know each other."
He wondered why Joy would have ever thought that, andthen he understood, with a little shock of revulsion and amusement, not unlikethe way he'd felt when he discovered the hair in the casserole. "Isee," Edward said. "That was kind of her, but I'm afraid she wasmistaken. I'm not really looking for . . . for any new friends at themoment." At the bird feeder tray right outside the window, a fewchickadees settled and pecked.
"Oh, of course," Dorothy Clark said in abrighter tone. "Everyone has their own timetable for grieving. But whenyou're ready, why don't you give me a ring. I live in Tenafly, we'repractically neighbors. I'll give you my number." There was a flurry at thebird feeder as a jay arrived, scattering seed and the chickadees.
"All right," Edward said resignedly, politely.He was polite to telemarketers, too, even those who took liberties with hisname.
She was suspicious, though. "Do you have apencil?" she asked. If he had a pencil, he might have noted the chickadeesand the jay in his neglected birding journal, or tapped on the window with itto interrupt the bullying. But he said, "Sure, go ahead," and sherecited the number slowly, twice. At least she didn't ask him to read it backto her.
He returned to the living room, but the glide of the ironover the worn blue field of his shirt was no longer soothing. His lonelinesshad been disturbed, and he wanted it back.
One evening near the end, he was reading at Bee'sbedside, his free hand resting lightly on her arm; she seemed to be asleep.Then she opened her glazed eyes and said, "Look at you. They'll becrawling out of the woodwork."
"What will, sweetheart?" he'd asked, but sheshut her eyes and didn't answer.
She had said many strange things during those last nightsand days. "Oh, what will I do without you?" she'd cried out once, asif he were the one dying and leaving her behind. And there were drug-inducedhallucinations, of small children standing at the foot of her bed, and micescrambling in the bathtub. Maybe there were more vermin waiting in the woodworkof her fevered dream.
It wasn't until the second phone call, a few days afterthe one from Dorothy Clark, that he finally got Bee's meaning. This time thecaller introduced herself as Madge Miller, a vaguely familiar name. She and Beehad been in the same book club a while back and she'd heard the sad newsthrough a grapevine of mutual friends. She was just calling to commiserate, shesaid-what a terrible shame, what a beautiful, bright woman in the prime of herlife. And maybe he'd like some company soon, for lunch or a drink.
Later that afternoon, Edward went into the kitchen andrummaged in what one of the children, in childhood, had aptly dubbed "thecrazy drawer." Among the loose batteries and spare shoelaces, the expiredsupermarket coupons and the keys that didn't open any known doors, he found thechain that had briefly kept Bee's reading glasses conveniently dangling fromher neck, until she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and declared thatshe'd rather go blind.
Now Edward untangled the chain and attached it to hisglasses, carefully avoiding his reflection, which he imagined bore anunfortunate resemblance to his third-grade teacher, Miss
Du Pont. His own students would have a field day. Buthe'd only use the chain at home, where he often mislaid his glasses, and atleast he'd be prepared to screen any future phone calls from strangers.
For a very long time, following a disastrous affair,Edward believed he would never marry. He had gone out with many women, but likehis father he'd fallen in love-in what promised to be a fatal and final way-withonly one of them. Her name was Laurel Ann Arquette, and she'd taught Frenchjust down the hall from his lab at Fenton Day, a private school on the UpperWest Side of Manhattan. Another teacher had introduced them at lunch onLaurel's first day.
He stood and said, "Hello, and welcome to perdition."The spoon he'd been stirring his coffee with clanged to the floor, making herlaugh, a bell that chimed from the top of his head to the pit of his belly. Herabundant hair was prematurely white, silver really, and her face was actually heart-shaped.She was as slender as a schoolgirl, for whom she might be mistaken, if not forthat hair and her knowing presence. "Edward," she said in return, asif she were naming or anointing him, and she let her hand be swallowed by his.
It was 1974. They were both in their mid-twenties thenand each school day became an agony of hours until they could meet at hisapartment in Hell's Kitchen and make raw and exhausting love. They were veryprudent at Fenton, though, sitting discreetly apart in the faculty room, nevereven accidentally touching in the corridors, and resisting the temptation toexchange loaded glances.
But everyone, from the overstimulated students to theamused lunch ladies, knew anyway, somehow. One morning, he confiscated a notebetween two seventh-graders in his homeroom: "Does Dr. S. couche avecMademoiselle A.?" Oui! Yes, he did, every chance he could, and he might aswell have worn a sandwich board advertising his ardor. Even ripping up thatsilly note and frowning severely at the giggling transgressors didn't quelltheir excitement.
But once Edward and Laurel announced their engagement,right after their second spring break together, they became as boring to thestudents as their own parents, and somewhat less interesting to everyone else.Still, the engaged couple were consumed by their new status, and began to makewedding plans. He'd hoped for something simple, but Laurel wanted the wholeshow, in an almost unconscious act of defiance against her divorced parents,who had eloped to Maryland with Laurel already on board.
Edward thought she was conflating the lavishness of areception with the success of a marriage, but he went along with her. She'dbeen such a miserable child, passed back and forth between her depressed motherand angry father like a hand grenade that might suddenly go off. Once, she toldEdward, her parents had an argument that threatened to become physical, andLaurel, stepping between them, was accidentally knocked to the ground. Sheclaimed her hair had turned white as a result of all that early tension."You can't imagine," she said, and he couldn't.
His own parents had stuck it out, their early passionhaving metamorphosed into something lower-key but lasting, a soufflé collapsedinto a comforting soup of days. They were as dazzled as Edward was by Laurel,and would have remortgaged their house in Elmont to buy her happiness, andthereby their son's. As it turned out, they only had to dig into theirretirement fund to come up with the lion's share of the wedding expenses.
Edward swore that he would pay them back someday. Therewas nothing offered from the bride's side; money, squandered and lost, was oneof the many contentions between the still-contentious elder Arquettes. Laurelhad been estranged from both of them, and only after Edward urged her did shesend them invitations.
Edward didn't want a church service-he wavered betweenatheism and agnosticism, between science and the unknown. But Laurel, anonbeliever herself, insisted that they had to hedge their bets. When thearrangements began to get out of hand, they quarreled. "You don't carewhat I want," she accused him, unfairly, in the sweetly suffocating,refrigerated breath of the florist's shop.
She wanted a couturier gown and fountains of Cristal. Shewanted to have tiny, speckled yellow orchids that might have been plucked fromsome mossy jungle placed at every table in the Rainbow Room, and there were toomany tables. How could she complain about feelings of isolation and still listmore than 150 friends who had to be invited? He'd only met a few of them.
He came back at her with, "You don't even know whatyou really want." But he gave in, finally, to everything, perverselypleased that she seemed more outraged than hurt by his resistance. She'd beenhurt enough in her life. He wanted to protect and defend her, even before theirofficial vows, to make up for her stolen happiness. And although he knew better-biologywas his subject, after all-the heat between them seemed as if it might neverdie.
A week before the wedding, they lay in their usual post-sexualstupor. Edward was still marveling at her body, the bold and innovative waysshe used it, the way she looked-those small breasts, as tender as if they'donly recently budded; the springy, surprisingly dark hair of her bush. Wordsfrom Human Anatomy 101 struck him with new poignancy. Scapular. Clavicle. Sheextricated herself, turning away from him, and, instead of her usual, throatilywhispered "Je t'aime," or "Again, please," she said,"I almost got married once before, you know."
He hadn't known; she'd never mentioned it. His heart wasjust slowing, and he hoped she couldn't feel the way it began to leap againstthe curve of her spine. "To David?" he asked, as casually as hecould. David had been her previous boyfriend. She and Edward, after they'ddeclared their love for each other, had exchanged romantic histories-it was aritual of intimacy that was painful but necessary; Laurel said so. And everyonein her past, as in his, seemed ephemeral, anyway, like people encountered in adream.
"No," she said, her voice slightly muffled byher pillow. "It was Joe."
"Joe? Who's Joe?" Edward said.
"This guy, Joe Ettlinger. Before I was withDavid."
"Are you making this up?" he asked.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I should have toldyou."
"Yes," he agreed. "You should have."
"I'm sorry," she said again, less distinctly.
"What happened?" he asked.
"We fell out."
"Over what?" Edward said, imagining rareorchids and sparkling Cristal at the heart of the story.
"This and that, I don't really remember. We justfell out of love."
He couldn't picture that kind of falling, a plunge out oflove, like a film about diving played in reverse. "For good?" hesaid.
"Yes, of course," she answered, after a lengthypause. "I'm almost asleep," she said then. "Let's stop talkingnow, okay?"
Despite that cautionary conversation, he was still takenby surprise when she didn't show up at the church the following Saturday. Hewaited for her in the vestry for what seemed like years, but was actually lessthan two hours. Mysteriously, she had decided to spend the previous night inher mother's apartment, which Edward had taken as a good omen. Peace on earth,goodwill toward everyone!
And there were her mother and his sitting in front rowson opposite sides of the satin-swathed aisle, the two of them looking sisterlyin their elaborate hats, their long gloves and trembling corsages. But Mrs.Arquette said, when asked about it later, that she hadn't seen or spoken toLaurel in weeks.
Excerpted from An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer. Copyright © 2012 by Hilma Wolitzer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.