A Ballantine Book
Published by The Random House Publishing Group
Copyright © 1982 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.
Ballantine Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-96729
This edition published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Something You Should Know
While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her. It twitched her lips and rustled her breath, and she felt her son lean forward from where he kept watch by her bed. “Get …” she told him. “You should have got …”
You should have got an extra mother, was what she meant to say, the way we started extra children after the first child fell so ill. Cody, that was; the older boy. Not Ezra here beside her bed but Cody the troublemaker — a difficult baby, born late in her life. They had decided on no more. Then he developed croup. This was in 1931, when croup was something serious. She’d been frantic. Over his crib she had draped a flannel sheet, and she set out skillets, saucepans, buckets full of water that she’d heated on the stove. She lifted the flannel sheet to catch the steam. The baby’s breathing was choked and rough, like something pulled through tightly packed gravel. His skin was blazing and his hair was plastered stiffly to his temples. Toward morning, he slept. Pearl’s head sagged in the rocking chair and she slept too, fingers still gripping the ivory metal crib rail. Beck was away on business — came home when the worst was over, Cody toddling around again with nothing more than a runny nose and a loose, unalarming cough that Beck didn’t even notice. “I want more children,” Pearl told him. He acted surprised, though pleased. He reminded her that she hadn’t felt she could face another delivery. But “I want some extra,” she said, for it had struck her during the croup: if Cody died, what would she have left? This little rented house, fixed up so carefully and pathetically; the nursery with its Mother Goose theme; and Beck, of course, but he was so busy with the Tanner Corporation, away from home more often than not, and even when home always fuming over business: who was on the rise and who was on the skids, who had spread damaging rumors behind his back, what chance he had of being let go now that times were so hard.
“I don’t know why I thought just one little boy would suffice,” said Pearl.
But it wasn’t as simple as she had supposed. The second child was Ezra, so sweet and clumsy it could break your heart. She was more endangered than ever. It would have been best to stop at Cody. She still hadn’t learned, though. After Ezra came Jenny, the girl — such fun to dress, to fix her hair in different styles. Girls were a kind of luxury, Pearl felt. But she couldn’t give Jenny up, either. What she had now was not one loss to fear but three. Still, she thought, it had seemed a good idea once upon a time: spare children, like spare tires, or those extra lisle stockings they used to package free with each pair.
“You should have arranged for a second-string mother, Ezra,” she said. Or she meant to say. “How shortsighted of you.” But evidently she failed to form the words, for she heard him sit back again without comment and turn a page of his magazine.
She had not seen Ezra clearly since the spring of ’75, four and a half years ago, when she first started losing her vision. She’d had a little trouble with blurring. She went to the doctor for glasses. It was arteries, he told her; something to do with her arteries. She was eighty-one years old, after all. But he was certain it could be treated. He sent her to a specialist, who sent her to someone else … well, to make a long story short, they found they couldn’t help her. Something had shriveled away behind her eyes. “I’m falling into disrepair,” she told the children. “I’ve outlived myself.” She gave a little laugh. To tell the truth, she hadn’t believed it. She had made the appropriate sounds of dismay, then acceptance, then plucky cheer; but inwardly, she’d determined not to allow it. She just wouldn’t hear of it, that was all. She had always been a strong-willed woman. Once, when Beck was away on business, she’d walked around with a broken arm for a day and a half till he could come stay with the babies. (It was just after one of his transfers. She was a stranger in town and had no one to turn to.) She didn’t even hold with aspirin; didn’t hold with depending, requesting. “The doctor says I’m going blind,” she told the children, but privately, she’d intended to do no such thing.
Yet every day, her sight had faded. The light, she felt, was somehow thinning and retreating. Her son Ezra, his calm face that she loved to linger on — he grew dim. Even in bright sunshine, now, she had difficulty making out his shape. She could barely discern his silhouette as he came near her — that large, sloping body settling into softness a bit in his middle age. She felt his flannel warmth when he sat next to her on the couch, describing what was on her TV or going through her drawer of snapshots the way she liked to have him do. “What’s that you’ve got, Ezra?” she would ask.
“It seems to be some people on a picnic,” he would say.
“Picnic? What kind of picnic?”
“White tablecloth in the grass. Wicker basket. Lady wearing a middy blouse.”
“Maybe that’s Aunt Bessie.”
“I’d recognize your Aunt Bessie, by now.”
“Or Cousin Elsa.
Ezra said, “I never knew you had a cousin.”
“Oh, I had cousins,” she said.
She tipped her head back and recollected cousins, aunts, uncles, a grandpa whose breath had smelled of mothballs. It was peculiar how her memory seemed to be going blind with the rest of her. She didn’t so much see their faces as hear their fluid voices, feel the crisp ruching of the ladies’ shirtwaists, smell their pomades and lavender water and the sharp-scented bottle of crystals that sickly Cousin Bertha had carried to ward off fainting spells.
“I had cousins aplenty,” she told Ezra.
They had thought she would be an old maid. They’d grown tactful — insultingly tactful. Talk of others’ weddings and confinements halted when Pearl stepped out on the porch. A college education was offered by Uncle Seward — at Meredith College, right there in Raleigh, so she wouldn’t have to leave home. No doubt he feared having to support her forever: a millstone, an orphaned spinster niece tying up his spare bedroom. But she told him she had no use for college. She felt that going to college would be an admission of defeat.
Oh, what was the trouble, exactly? She was not bad-looking. She was small and slender with fair skin and fair, piled hair, but the hair was growing dry as dust and the strain was beginning to show around the curled and mobile corners of her mouth. She’d had suitors in abundance, more than she could name; yet they never lasted, somehow. It seemed there was some magical word that everyone knew but Pearl — those streams of girls, years younger than she, effortlessly tumbling into marriage. Was she too serious? Should she unbend more? Lower herself to giggle like those mindless, silly Winston twins? Uncle Seward,