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Every Last One

This is my life: The alarm goes off at five-thirty with the
murmuring of a public-radio announcer, telling me that there has
been a coup in Chad, a tornado in Texas. My husband stirs briefly
next to me, turns over, blinks, and falls back to sleep for another
hour. My robe lies at the foot of the bed, printed cotton in the
summer, tufted chenille for the cold. The coffeemaker comes on in
the kitchen below as I leave the bathroom, go downstairs in bare
feet, pause to put away a pair of boots left splayed in the
downstairs back hallway and to lift the newspaper from the back
step. The umber quarry tiles in the kitchen were a bad choice; they
are always cold. I let the dog out of her kennel and put a cup of
kibble in her bowl. I hate the early mornings, the suspended
animation of the world outside, the veil of black and then the
oppressive gray of the horizon along the hills outside the French
doors. But it is the only time I can rest without sleeping, think
without deciding, speak and hear my own voice. It is the only time
I can be alone. Slightly less than an hour each weekday when no one
makes demands.

Our bedroom is at the end of the hall, and sometimes as I pass I
can hear the children breathing, each of them at rest as specific
as they are awake. Alex inhales and exhales methodically, evenly,
as though he were deep under the blanket of sleep even though he
always kicks his covers askew, leaving one long leg, with its faint
surgical scars, exposed to the night air. Across the room Max
sputters, mutters, turns, and growls out a series of nonsense
syllables. For more than a year when he was eleven, Max had a
problem with sleepwalking. I would find him washing his hands at
the bathroom sink or down in the kitchen, blinking blindly into the
open refrigerator. But he stopped after his first summer at
sleepaway camp.

Ruby croons, one high strangled note with each exhale. When she
was younger, I worried that she had asthma. She sleeps on her back
most of the time, the covers tucked securely across her chest, her
hair fanned out on the pillows. It should be easy for her to slip
from beneath the blanket and make her bed, but she never bothers
unless I hector her.

I sit downstairs with coffee and the paper, staring out the
window as my mind whirrs. At six-thirty I hear the shower come on
in the master bath. Glen is awake and getting ready for work. At
six-forty-five I pull the duvet off Ruby, who snatches it back and
curls herself into it, larval, and says, “Ten more
minutes.” At seven I lean over, first Alex, then Max, and
bury my nose into their necks, beginning to smell the slightly
pungent scent of male beneath the sweetness of child. “Okay,
okay,” Alex says irritably. Max says nothing, just lurches
from bed and begins to pull off an oversized T-shirt as he stumbles
into the bathroom.

There is a line painted down the center of their room. Two years
ago they came to me, at a loose end on a June afternoon, and
demanded the right to choose their own colors. I was distracted,
and I agreed. They did a neat job, measured carefully, put a tarp
on the floor. Alex painted his side light blue, Max lime green. The
other mothers say, “You won’t believe what
Jonathan” --- or Andrew or Peter --- “told me about the
twins’ room.” Maybe if the boys had been my first
children I would have thought it was insane, too, but Ruby broke me
in. She has a tower of soda cans against one wall of her bedroom.
It is either an environmental statement or just one of those things
you do when you are fifteen. Now that she is seventeen she has
outgrown it, almost forgotten it, but because I made the mistake of
asking early on when she would take it down she never has.

I open Ruby’s door, and although it doesn’t make a
sound --- she has oiled the hinges, I think, probably with baby oil
or bath oil or something else nonsensically inappropriate, so we
will not hear it creak in the nighttime --- she says,
“I’m up.” I stand there waiting, because if I
take her word for it she will wrap herself in warmth again and fall
into the long tunnel of sleep that only teenagers inhabit, halfway
to coma or unconsciousness. “Mom, I’m up,” she
shouts, and throws the bedclothes aside and begins to bundle her
long wavy hair atop her head. “Can I get dressed in peace,
please? For a change?” She makes it sound as though I
constantly let a bleacher full of spectators gawk as she prepares
to meet the day.

Only Glen emerges in the least bit cheerful, his suit jacket
over one arm. He keeps his white coats at the office. They are
professionally cleaned and pressed and smell lovely, like the
cleanest of clean laundry. “Doctor Latham” is
embroidered in blue script above his heart. From upstairs I can
hear the clatter of the cereal into his bowl. He eats the same
thing every morning, leaves for work at the same time. He wears
either a blue or a yellow shirt, with either a striped tie or one
with a small repeating pattern. Occasionally, a grateful patient
gives him a tie as a gift, printed with tiny pairs of glasses, an
eye chart, or even eyes themselves. He thanks these people
sincerely but never wears them.

He is not tidy, but he knows where everything is: on which chair
he left his briefcase, in what area of the kitchen counter he
tossed his wallet. He does something with the corners of his mouth
when things are not as they should be --- when the dog is on the
furniture, when the children and their friends make too much noise
too late at night, when the red-wine glasses are in the white-wine
glass rack. It has now pressed itself permanently into his
expression, like the opposite of dimples.

“Please. Spare me,” says my friend Nancy, her eyes
rolling. “If that’s the worst you can say about him,
then you have absolutely no right to complain.” Nancy says
her husband, Bill, a tall gangly scarecrow of a guy, leaves a trail
of clothing as he undresses, like fairy-tale breadcrumbs. He once
asked her where the washing machine was. “I thought it was a
miracle that he wanted to know,” she says when she tells this
story, and she does, often. “It turned out the repairman was
at the door and Bill didn’t know where to tell him to

Our washer is in the mudroom, off the kitchen. There is a chute
from above that is designed to bring the dirty things downstairs.
Over the years, our children have used the chute for backpacks,
soccer balls, drumsticks. Slam. Slam. Slam. “It is a laundry
chute,” I cry. “Laundry. Laundry.”

Laundry is my life, and meals, and school meetings and games and
recitals. I choose a cardigan sweater and put it on the chest at
the foot of the bed. It is late April, nominally spring, but the
weather is as wild as an adolescent mood, sun into clouds into
showers into storms into sun again.

“You smell,” I hear Alex say to Max from the
hallway. Max refuses to reply. “You smell like shit,”
Alex says. “Language!” I cry.

“I didn’t say a word,” Ruby shouts from behind
the door of her room. Hangers slide along the rack in her closet,
with a sound like one of those tribal musical instruments. Three
thumps --- shoes, I imagine. Her room always looks as though it has
been ransacked. Her father averts his head from the closed door, as
though he is imagining what lies within. Her brothers are strictly
forbidden to go in there, and, honestly, are not interested. Piles
of books, random sweaters, an upended shoulder bag, even the lace
panties, given that they belong to their sister --- who cares? I am
tolerated because I deliver stacks of clean clothes. “Put
those away in your drawers,” I always say, and she never
does. It would be so much easier for me to do it myself, but this
standoff has become a part of our relationship, my attempt to teach
Ruby responsibility, her attempt to exhibit independence. And so
much of our lives together consists of rubbing along, saying things
we know will be ignored yet continuing to say them, like background

Somehow Ruby emerges every morning from the disorder of her room
looking beautiful and distinctive: a pair of old Capri pants, a
ruffled blouse I bought in college, a long cashmere cardigan with a
moth hole in the sleeve, a ribbon tied around her hair. Ruby never
looks like anyone else. I admire this and am a little intimidated
by it, as though I had discovered we had incompatible blood

Alex wears a T-shirt and jeans. Max wears a T-shirt and jeans.
Max stops to rub the dog’s belly when he gets to the kitchen.
She narrows her eyes in ecstasy. Her name is Virginia, and she is
nine years old. She came as a puppy when the twins were five and
Ruby was eight. “Ginger” says the name on the
terra-cotta bowl we bought on her first Christmas. Max scratches
the base of Ginger’s tail. “Now you’ll smell like
dog,” says Alex. The toaster pops with a sound like a toy
gun. The refrigerator door closes. I need more toothpaste. Ruby has
taken my toothpaste. “I’m going,” she yells from
the back door. She has not eaten breakfast. She and her friends
Rachel and Sarah will stop at the doughnut shop and get iced coffee
and jelly doughnuts. Sarah swims competitively and can eat
anything. “The metabolism of a hummingbird,” says my
friend Nancy, who is Sarah’s mother, which is convenient for
us both. Nancy is a biologist, a professor at the university, so I
suppose she should know about metabolism. Rachel is a year older
than the other two, and drives them to school. The three of them
swear that Rachel drives safely and slowly. I know this isn’t
true. I picture Rachel, moaning again about some boy she really,
really likes but who is insensible to her attentions, steering with
one hand, a doughnut in the other, taking a curve with a shrieking
sound. Caution and nutrition are for adults. They are young,

“The bus!” Alex yells, and finally Max speaks. This
is one of the headlines of our family life: Max speaks.
“I’m coming,” he mumbles. “Take a
sweatshirt,” I call. Either they don’t hear or they
don’t care. I can see them with their backpacks getting on
the middle-school bus. Alex always goes first.

“Do we have any jelly?” Glen asks. He knows where
his own things are, but he has amnesia when it comes to community
property. “It’s where it’s always been,” I
say. “Open your eyes and look.” Then I take two jars of
jelly off the shelf inside the refrigerator door and thump them on
the table in front of him. I can manage only one morning manner, so
I treat my husband like one of the children. He doesn’t seem
to mind or even notice. He likes this moment, when the children
have been there but are suddenly gone. The dog comes back into the
room, her claws clicking on the tiled floor. “Don’t
feed her,” I say, as I do every morning. In a few minutes, I
hear the messy chewing sounds as Ginger eats a crust of English
muffin. She makes a circuit of the house, then falls heavily at my

After he has read the paper, Glen leaves for the office. He has
early appointments one day a week and late ones three evenings, for
schoolchildren and people with inflexible jobs. His office is in a
small house a block from the hospital. He pulls his car out of the
driveway and turns right onto our street every single morning. One
day he turned left, and I almost ran out to call to him. I did open
the front door, and discovered that a neighbor was retarring the
driveway and a steamroller was blocking the road to the right. The
neighbor waved. “Sorry for the inconvenience,” he
called. I waved back.

Excerpted from EVERY LAST ONE © Copyright 2011 by Anna
Quindlen. Reprinted with permission by Random House. All rights

Every Last One
by by Anna Quindlen

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 299 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400065747
  • ISBN-13: 9781400065745