Death enters your life. A telephone ringing.
And maybe you're still waiting for Adam Berendt to call. And maybe
you're confused, your heart already pumping absurdly, when a
stranger's voice utters the name Adam Berendt and you answer
"Yes? I'm Marina Troy. What -- what is it?"
That instant before fear strikes. Fear like a sliver of ice
entering the heart.
Thwaite was the bearer of Adam Berendt's death. She would
An ugly name, isn't it? Though the child's name, Samantha, is
It was Thwaite that would stick in Marina's brain like a burr.
Thwaite that became her obsession, she who would have defined
herself as a woman free of obsession. A reasonable intelligent
unemotional woman yet how Thwaite lodged in her brain as
suffocation, choking, tar-tasting death. Thwaite Thwaite in her
miserable sleep those nights following Adam's death. Sobbing aloud,
furious: "If I'd been there with him on the boat, I wouldn't have
let Adam die."
In the derangement of grief Marina Troy quickly came to believe
Local TV News! How Adam would have been embarrassed, if, just
maybe, secretly proud.
Good Samaritan. Adam Berendt. Resident of Salthill-on-Hudson. July
Fourth accident. Hudson River. Rescue of eight-year-old. Adam's
face on the glassy screen: squinting his blind eye, smiling. That
big head like something sculpted of coarse clay. A mere moment on
the TV screen. Swift cut to the much younger Thwaites, parents of
the rescued child. Thwaite. Harold and Janice. Jones Point
residents. Devastated by. Tragic episode. So very sorry. So very
grateful. Courageous man sacrificing his life for our daughter. Our
Samantha. Our prayers will be with Adam Berendt. We are hoping to
make contact with his family, his survivors. Oh, we hope ... Marina
switched off the TV in disgust.
How could she bear it, the banality of Adam as a "Good Samaritan."
The banality of the Thwaites' emotion, how disappointingly ordinary
they were, and young, stammering into microphones thrust into their
"Well. I must learn to bear it. And more."
She was an adult woman, she knew of loss, death. She was not a
naive, self-pitying person.
Her mother was chronically ill, and her father had died three years
ago at the age of seventy-nine, so Marina knew, Marina knew what to
expect from life, every chiché becomes painfully true in time,
yet you survive until it's your turn: you don't become middle-aged
without learning such primitive wisdom. Yet, when Marina's father
had died, Marina had not been taken by surprise. That death had
been not only expected, but "merciful." After cancer operations,
and months of chemotherapy, the fading of Marina's father's life
had been a slow fading of light into dusk and finally into dark.
And there you are: death.
Not like Adam's death.
"Adam, God damn you. Why."
She was desperate to recall the last time they'd spoken. She shut
her eyes, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands: Adam's
A doctor at the Jones Point Medical Center had prescribed a
sedative for Marina Troy. (Did that mean she'd become hysterical?
She'd lost all dignity, and collapsed?) Next morning staggering
from her bed that was like a grave, at the top of her house on
North Pearl Street. Her storybook house, as Adam had called it
fondly. As Marina Troy was a storybook creature to be rescued. (By
him?) In sweat-smelling nightclothes, a strap slipping off her
shoulder, tugging at a window to raise it higher must breath!
must breath! There was some fact that plagued her with its
cruelty, its injustice: what? The last time we spoke, I didn't
know. If I had known. The ceiling careened over her head with an
air of drunken levity. Lilac fleur-de-lis wallpaper of subtly
mocking prettiness. Thwaite mixed with the church bells. Thwaite
Thwaite clamoring jeering in her head.
Marina's bedroom was a small charming room with small charming
windows of aged glass, dating to the mid-1800s, windowpanes badly
in need of caulking, overlooking St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church
with its heraldic spire floating in the night sky, and its ancient
bumpy churchyard. (In which Adam Berendt would certainly not be
buried. Adam had been pagan, not Catholic; and Adam had wanted to
be "burnt to a crisp" when he died.) North Pearl Street was one of
Salthill's oldest streets, hilly and very narrow, and it dead-ended
with three charming woodframe houses, one of which was Marina
Somehow it had happened (when, exactly?) she'd become thirty-eight
Young enough to be his daughter, Adam Berendt used to joke.
Don't be ridiculous! You're, what? -- fifty? Fifty-two?
Marina, to be perfectly frank, I've lost count.
She removed her sweat-soaked nylon nightgown and wadded it into a
ball to toss onto the floor. She'd have liked to peel off her
sticky itchy skin and do the same. In the silence following the
church bells came the echo Thwaite! Thwaite. The sound of death,
those hateful people, negligent parents, youngish, scared, reading
off prepared statements to TV reporters, uncertain whether they
should smile, or not smile, but one should always smile on TV, yes?
-- if only fleetingly, sadly? In truth, Marina didn't detest these
people. It was Thwaite that had insinuated itself into her head.
Thwaite snarled like her long crimped dark-red hair, which by day
she wore plaited and twined about her head ("like Elizabeth I") but
by night it snagged and snarled, snaky tendrils trailing across her
mouth. Thwaite a mass of such snarls no hairbrush could be dragged
through. Thwaite that was the fairy-tale riddle: what is my name,
my name is a secret, my name is your death, can you guess my name?
Thwaite the helpless tenderness she'd long felt for Adam Berendt,
who had been neither her husband nor her lover. Thwaite powerful as
no other emotion Marina had ever felt for another
Excerpted from MIDDLE AGE © Copyright 2001 by Joyce Carol
Oates. Reprinted with permission by Ecco, an imprint of
HarperCollins. All rights reserved.