In this superb collection of short stories, Elizabeth Berg takes us into remarkable moments in the lives of women, when memories and events come together to create a sense of coherence, understanding, and change. In "Ordinary Life," Mavis McPherson locks herself in the bathroom for a week, shutting out her husband and the realities of their life together--and, no, she isn't contemplating a divorce. She just needs some time to think, to take stock of her life, and to arrive, finally, at a surprising conclusion.
In "White Dwarf" and "Martin's Letter to Nan," the secrets of a marriage are revealed with the sensitivity and "brilliant insights about the human condition" (Detroit Free Press) that have become a trademark of Berg's writing. The Charlotte Observer has said, "Berg captures the way women think as well as any writer." Those qualities of wisdom and insight are everywhere present in Ordinary Life.
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May 13, 2003
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Excerpt from Ordinary Life by Elizabeth Berg
Ordinary Life: A Love Story
Mavis McPherson is locked in the bathroom and will not come out. The tub is lined with pillows and blankets. Under the sink, next to the extra toilet paper, there is an economy-sized box of Wheat Thins, a bowl of apples, and a six-pack of Heath bars. Against the wall, under the towel rack, is a case of Orangina, and next to that is a neat pile of magazines and three library books. A spiral-bound notebook and pen lie on top of the toilet tank. Hanging from the hook on the back of the door are several changes of underwear.
Mavis is on retreat, she tells her husband through the crack in the door when he comes home that evening. Al volunteers at St. Mary's Hospital, dividing his time between delivering newspapers to patients and helping maintenance fix faulty equipment, though this is a secret from the administration-volunteers aren't supposed to do that. Al's mechanical skills are legendary, but he is not known for his sense of humor. "Come on, Mavis," he sighs. "What's for dinner?"
"You might as well go on over to Big Boy," Mavis tells him. "I'm not cooking dinner. I'm not coming out for a week or so. It's nothing personal." She leans her ear against the crack in the door, listening for his response.
She hears only the wheezy sounds of him breathing in and out. She's afraid Al has emphysema, but he won't go to a doctor. "See 'em enough at the hospital," he always says. "Stuffy little bastards." She tries to look through the crack in the door, sees a tiny slice of Al's blue shirt, a piece of his ear. "Let me in, Mavis," he finally says, rattling the doorknob. "I gotta use the can."
"You know perfectly well we have another bathroom. You'll have to use that."
"I don't like that one. And it doesn't have a bathtub."
"Well, I know that."
"So how am I supposed to shower?" Al likes to shower in the evening, a characteristic Mavis has never liked, finding it somehow effeminate. Overall, though, she has few complaints. She loves Al dearly.
"You'll have to ask the neighbors," Mavis says. "Or maybe the Y. I'll bet the Y would let you shower there."
Silence. Then Al says, "What is this, Mavis, a fight? Is it a fight?"
She steps back, fingers the ruffled collar of her white blouse. "Why, no," she says, a little surprised. "I just got an idea that I really want some time completely to myself. And I'm taking it. I don't see the point in running off somewhere. We can't afford it anyway. Can we?"
"So," she says, "I'll stay right here. I don't need anything but some quiet. I want to be in a small room, alone, to just . . . relax, and not do anything else. I was thinking of the ocean, but this is fine."
"Oh, boy. I'm calling the kids," Al says. "And I'm calling Dr. Edelson or Edelman or whoever that robber is that you go to every twenty minutes. You've gone around the bend this time, Mavis. What have you got in there, Alzheimer's? Is that it?" He knocks loudly at the door. "Mavis, have you lost your goddamn mind?"
Mavis goes to the mirror to look at herself, tightens one of her pearl studs that has loosened, then walks back to the door. "I am seventy-nine years old, Al," she says softly, into the crack.
"I say I'm seventy-nine years old," she says, louder.
He inhales sharply. "Aw, jeez. This is about my missing your birthday?"
"It's not my birthday for five months, Al. Remember? I was born in December. In a blizzard. Remember?"
"Well, I'm calling the kids," Al says. "Yes sir. All three of them. Right now." She hears his voice moving down the hall. "And your doctor, too."
"That's not necessary," Mavis calls out. And then, yelling, "Al? I'm not going crazy. I'm just thinking. I was going to tell you about this, but you . . ."
He can't hear her. She sits down on the closed seat of the toilet, peels the wrapper off a candy bar. "I am seventy-nine years old," she says aloud, and takes a bite. This is the beginning of what she wanted to say. Truthfully, she wasn't sure what would come next; she figured it would just happen, naturally. She examines the candy bar as she chews. She has always liked this, looking at food while she eats it. Makes it taste better. She wonders how they get that curly little swirl on the top of every candy bar. It's a nice touch, even though some machine did it and it is therefore not sincere. She crosses her legs, gently swings the top one, then leans over to the side to inspect it. She used to have great legs. "Oh, honey," Al had said the first time he undid her garters and pulled her nylons off. "Look at these gams." He had kissed her thighs, and she blushed so furiously she thought surely he'd see it in the dark. They were on their honeymoon, in a cottage in the Adirondacks. Her hair had been long and honey blonde, pulled back at the sides by two tortoiseshell combs, curled under at the bottom in a pageboy. The Andrews Sisters were on the radio at the moment she lost her virginity, her white negligee raised high over her breasts, one comb fallen off and digging into her shoulder, though not unpleasantly. She shook so hard when Al entered her he wanted to stop, but she wouldn't let him. "It's fine, honey," she said. "It just hurts." Her fingers were balled into fists against his back and she uncurled them, tried to relax. She looked for a place on the ceiling to focus on. She'd concentrate on that, take her mind off things.
"I can wait," Al had said. "Why don't I wait?" He'd raised himself up, tried to look into her face. But she hid herself in his shoulder, embarrassed and silent, then giggling.
"I don't think that helps, waiting," she'd finally said. "You just go on ahead. It's all right."