Excerpt from Ordinary Life by Elizabeth Berg, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Ordinary Life

Stories

By Elizabeth Berg

Ordinary Life
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2002,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2003,
    304 pages.

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She can't, of course, the phone is too far away, but Al doesn't know that. His hearing is starting to go, hers has thus far remained the same, so as far as Al is concerned, Mavis's hearing is suddenly extraordinarily acute.

"And come back after that," Mavis says. "I want to talk to you."

"The hell I will," Al says. "I'm going out."

"Where to?"

"The straitjacket store, that's where."

Big Boy, Mavis thinks. Well, good. When he comes back he'll be in a better mood. He'll get beef because she's not around to tell him not to, probably a cream pie for dessert, too. Fine. Then she'll be able to talk to him. Maybe he'll feel a little guilty about what he ate. That will work entirely to her benefit as well.

She slips off her shoes, climbs into the bathtub, lies back against the pillows. It's really not bad. For once in her life, she is happy she's so short. She wiggles her toes inside her nylons. She should have dressed more casually. She undoes the button on her skirt, then unzips it slightly. There is a tan-colored stain on her blouse between the second and third button. Coffee? She wets her finger, rubs at it. Well, she'll soak it later. It's convenient being in here. She closes her eyes. She's really very comfortable, could probably take a nap right now. But then it will be hard to sleep later on tonight.

She arranges the pillows to act as a backrest and climbs out of the tub to get a magazine. She feels the mean pull of arthritis in her knees. She selects a Good Housekeeping, climbs back in the tub, starts flipping through the pages, and realizes she's already looked at this one--there's the place where she tore out the recipe for low-fat lemon chicken.

Mavis used to give all her old magazines to her sister, Eileen, but her sister died last year. Breast cancer. She closes her eyes, lets herself hurt for a moment. The pain has not yet dulled, nor does she expect it to or even want it to.

Mavis and Eileen slept in the same bed as children; until she was eight, Mavis's preamble to sleep was to wrap Eileen's long hair around her fingers, then suck her thumb dreamily while drifting off. She had to make sure Eileen was sleeping first; Eileen got mad if she caught Mavis messing with her hair. Mavis had once tried wrapping her fingers in the folds of a satin doll dress her mother had given her for her birthday, but it wouldn't do--she needed the weighty, coarse silkiness of Eileen's hair. She liked the heat from Eileen's scalp at one end, reminding her of the thrilling fact of life; and the cool and bristly bluntness at the other end was wonderful to twitch your fingers over rapidly. It was worth getting caught every now and then for all that pleasure. The worst that ever happened was the night Mavis didn't wait long enough, and Eileen reared up like a ghost in her white nightgown and socked Mavis three times in the stomach. Otherwise any attack was a sleepy and halfhearted thing that barely hurt, a dull nudge in the rib, a smack on her leg that was off the mark and carried no more weight than a falling towel. And of course, she usually didn't get caught at all.

Mavis had gotten married first, and when Eileen asked her for certain essential details, Mavis had said, "Now, you might want to cry out. But don't." Oh, she missed her. Missed her. The conversations at the kitchen table, their elbows on the embroidered tablecloth, the steam from their coffee cups rising up. They would talk far into the night when they got together every week for dinner, and Al and Big Jim would get so impatient. They were all right as long as the fights were on, or some other sports event, but then the minute that was over, they wanted to go, one or the other of them, back home. When they were at Eileen's house, Al would come to stand at Mavis's shoulder, and she ignored him as long as she was able to. When they were at Mavis's, Big Jim would eventually sit down heavily at the table with them, simultaneously irritated and interested in what could possibly keep them here for so long, what could be so important that they hadn't even taken their aprons off from doing dishes before they sat down. They had just talked yesterday, hadn't they? Hell, they talked every day, didn't they?

Excerpted from Ordinary Life by Elizabeth Berg Copyright 2002 by Elizabeth Berg. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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