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Authors: Anne Tyler

Celestial Navigation

BOOK: Celestial Navigation
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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





If Morning Ever Comes
The Tin Can Tree
A Slipping-Down Life
The Clock Winder
Celestial Navigation
Searching for Caleb
Earthly Possessions
Morgan’s Passing
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
The Accidental Tourist
Breathing Lessons
Saint Maybe
Ladder of Years
A Patchwork Planet
Back When We Were Grownups
The Amateur Marriage
Digging to America



A Fawcett Book
Published by The Random House Publishing Group
Copyright © 1974 by Anne Tyler Modarressi

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Fawcett 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.

Fawcett Books and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-96701

eISBN: 978-0-307-78827-6

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



Fall, 1960: Amanda

My brother Jeremy is a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who never did leave home. Long ago we gave up expecting very much of him, but still he is the last man in our family and you would think that in time of tragedy he might pull himself together and take over a few of the responsibilities. Well, he didn’t. He telephoned my sister and me in Richmond, where we have a little apartment together. If memory serves me it was the first time in his life he had ever placed a call to us; can you imagine? Ordinarily we phoned Mother every Sunday evening when the rates were down and then she would put Jeremy on the line to say hello. Which was about all he did say: “Hello,” and “Fine, thank you,” and then a long breathing pause and, “Well, goodbye now.” So when I heard his voice that night I had trouble placing it for a moment. “Amanda?” he said, and I said, “Yes? Who is it?”

“I wanted to tell you about Mama,” Jeremy said.

That’s what he calls her still: Mama. Laura and I switched to Mother when we were grown but Jeremy didn’t.

I said, “Jeremy? Is something wrong?”

“Mama has passed on,” he told me.

And I said, “Oh, dear Lord in heaven.”

Then Laura and I had to make all the arrangements by long distance, had to call the doctor for the death certificate and track down the minister, had to help Jeremy find a funeral parlor. (It seems he had never learned how to work the yellow pages.) Had to catch a train to Baltimore the next day and locate a taxi that would carry us from the station. It didn’t occur to Jeremy that at a time like this we might like to be met. What would he have met us
, anyway; he had no notion of how to drive. But some men can take things in hand even arriving by city bus, hailing another bus home again and seeing to it their sisters have seats and keeping watch over their bags. Not Jeremy. Laura and I walked out of the station on a rainy cold November noon and found not a single familiar face, not even a redcap in sight, no taxis waiting at the curb. We had to sit shivering on our suitcases with our feet tucked under us and plastic rainscarves over our hats. “Oh, Amanda,” Laura said, “that cold of yours will go straight to your chest.” For I had been ill for two weeks before this, just barely managing to continue with my classes, as I distrust substitute teachers. I shouldn’t have been out at all. And now Laura looked as if
were coming down with something. Folding and refolding a flowered handkerchief, blowing into it and then wiping the tip of her nose. She wore her maroon knit, which was supposed to slim her some but didn’t. Bulges showed in the gape of her coat. I was in my good black wool with the rhinestone buttons, and my squirrel-collar coat and my gray bird-wing hat that exactly matches my hair. But I might as well not have bothered. The plastic scarf and the Rain Dears spoiled the effect. Wouldn’t you
think that Jeremy would at least know how to dial a taxi and have it waiting at the station?

Then when we finally did find a cab there was some confusion about where we wanted to go. Laura said straight to the funeral parlor. She was always closer to Mother than I was and had acted much more emotional about her passing, sat up most of the night before crying and carrying on. Well, Lord knows it was a shock to me as well but I am the oldest—forty-six, though people tell me I don’t look it—and I have always been the sensible one. I said we would have to drop our suitcases, wouldn’t we? And surely Jeremy would be seeing to things at the funeral parlor. He could manage
much, couldn’t he? Laura said, “Oh, well, I don’t know, Amanda.” So in the end I told her we would go on to the funeral parlor but just stop off first at the house, leave our suitcases and make sure where Jeremy was. The driver said,
can we get going?” A put-upon type. But at least he kept quiet, once we were out in traffic. I despise how some taxi drivers will just talk on and on in that tough way they have, giving out their opinions on politics and the cost of living and crime in the streets and other matters I have no interest in.

Our mother’s house was smack in the middle of the city on a narrow busy street, one of those thin dark three-storey Baltimore rowhouses. A clutter of leaded panes and straggly ivy and grayish lace curtains dragging their bottoms behind the black screens. The sidewalk leading up to it could break a person’s ankle, and yellowy-brown weeds were growing in the cracks. A stained cardboard sign reading “ROOMS TO LET” was propped in the parlor window. The neighborhood was running down, had been for years. Most places had split into apartments and gone over to colored and beatniks, and a few were even boarded up, with city notices plastered across the doors. I told Mother time and time again that she
should move but she never got up the energy. She was a
kind of person. I hate to say it now she’s gone but there you are. She didn’t even notice what the neighborhood had turned into. She hardly ever left the house. And over the years all her possessions had piled around her so, her knickknacks and photographs and her shoeboxes full of bits of string. It would have taken three vans just to move her. When we drew up in front of the door I could see the beginnings of her clutter already: the little scrap of a front yard packed with weeds and spiny shrubs and one great long dead rambling rosebush that had woven itself into everything. That will tell you a good deal about the way she looked at things. She caused no changes; that was Mother for you. She hadn’t the courage. If she saw that crack snaking through the mortar or the grillwork fence slowly leaning toward the ground, all she thought was, well, but who am I to alter it? I have no patience with people like that.

We climbed the front steps and went into the vestibule, where we found a flowerpot containing a dead twig in a hunk of dry earth. I remembered it from the
time we were home, Easter Sunday, and it was dead then. We rang the bell but no one answered. There was a cavelike echo behind the door that gave me a chill. I said, “Evidently Jeremy is out,” and Laura said, “Out? Out where?”

“Why, at the funeral parlor, I should hope,” I said.

So we left our suitcases in the vestibule—we hadn’t a house key—and went back to the cab. I told the driver the name of the funeral parlor. He said, “Oh, yes, I know it well. They buried my sister from there.” Well, I didn’t like the sound of
. Just what had Jeremy got us into, anyway? “They do good work,” the driver said. Laura and I only looked at each other. We didn’t say a thing.

Then when we got there—another rowhouse, but some
ten blocks away—and had split the fare between us and decided on the size of the tip, I saw I was right to have worried. There was a neon sign in the yard, blinking on and off and crackling. The windows were sooty and a torn awning dripped rainwater down our necks as we bent to take our galoshes off. And inside! I never saw a place so gloomy. It smelled of dusty radiators. The ceilings were high and flaky, the walls that shade you see in hospitals—either a faded yellow or a yellowed white, you never can be sure. The carpet was worn bald. An usher made his way across it with his run-down loafers dragging. “We are Mrs. Pauling’s daughters,” I told him. He nodded and turned to lead us down a corridor, past a string of rooms where people were standing around looking unsure of what to do next. Laura hung onto my arm. I could feel her trembling. Well, I was quite a bit shaky myself, I admit it. It seemed to me that Mother had allowed herself to slip down yet another rung, continuing even after death and ending up in a place that had decayed even worse than her own. All that sustained me was that Jeremy would be waiting for us—a man, at least, whatever you might say, and our last blood relation, someone to share our trouble. But when we reached the end of the corridor, what did we find? An empty room, a casket sitting unattended. Bleak white light slanting through an uncurtained window. “Where’s—” I said. But the usher had gone already. They have no sense of how to do things in these places.

They had laid Mother out in a brass-handled casket, a wooden one. Mahogany, I believe. Her head was on a satin pillow. Her hair, which had stayed light brown but grown thin and dull, was set into little crimps, and for once she wore no net on it. She always used to—a light brown cobweb that I itched to snatch off her. A cobweb and a wispy dress with all the life gone out of it and chintz mules that
whispered when she walked. Well, now they had put her into the navy wool that I sent her for her last birthday. “Thank you so much for my pretty new suit,” she wrote when she received it, “though as you know I don’t go out much and will probably have no occasion to wear it.” Her face was set in a faint, sweet smile, with her withered cheeks sagging back toward the pillow and her eyelids puckery. You hear people say, at funerals, “How natural she looks! As though she were asleep.” And most of the time they are telling a falsehood, but in Mother’s case it was absolutely true. Of
she looked natural; why not, when she went through life looking dead? Even her hands were right: crossed on her chest, blue-white, waxy at the fingertips. She always did have poor circulation. She always did keep her hands folded in that meek and retiring way, never so much as fidgeting, boneless and nerveless as some floppy cloth doll. On her left hand was a white gold wedding ring, which any woman of spirit would have thrown away years ago but not, of course, our mother. She kept it on. Inertia. She probably forgot it was there. Now for some reason my eyes got fixed on it, and I stared and failed to realize that Laura was crying until I heard her sniffle. I turned and saw her face curling in upon itself while the tears rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, Amanda,” she said, “how will we ever manage now that Mother’s gone?”

BOOK: Celestial Navigation
12.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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