On a breezy October afternoon in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, Helen Farber Burgess was packing for vacation. A big blue suitcase lay open on the bed, and clothes her husband had chosen the night before were folded and stacked on the lounge chair nearby. Sunlight kept springing into the room from the shifting clouds outside, making the brass knobs on the bed shine brightly and the suitcase become very blue. Helen was walking back and forth between the dressing roomwith its enormous mirrors and white horsehair wallpaper, the dark woodwork around the long windowwalking between that and the bedroom, which had French doors that were closed right now, but in warmer weather opened onto a deck that looked out over the garden. Helen was experiencing a kind of mental paralysis that occurred when she packed for a trip, so the abrupt ringing of the telephone brought relief. When she saw the word private, she knew it was either the wife of one of her husband's law partnersthey were a prestigious firm of famous lawyersor else her brother-in-law, Bob, who'd had an unlisted number for years but was not, and never would be, famous at all.
"I'm glad it's you," she said, pulling a colorful scarf from the bureau drawer, holding it up, dropping it on the bed.
"You are?" Bob's voice sounded surprised.
"I was afraid it would be Dorothy." Walking to the window, Helen peered out at the garden. The plum tree was bending in the wind, and yellow leaves from the bittersweet swirled across the ground.
"Why didn't you want it to be Dorothy?"
"She tires me right now," said Helen.
"You're about to go away with them for a week."
"Ten days. I know."
A short pause, and then Bob said, "Yeah," his voice dropping into an understanding so quick and entireit was his strong point, Helen thought, his odd ability to fall feetfirst into the little pocket of someone else's world for those few seconds. It should have made him a good husband but apparently it hadn't: Bob's wife had left him years ago.
"We've gone away with them before," Helen reminded him. "It'll be fine. Alan's an awfully nice fellow. Dull."
"And managing partner of the firm," Bob said.
"That too." Helen sang the words playfully. "A little difficult to say, 'Oh, we'd rather go alone on this trip.' Jim says their older girl is really messing up right nowshe's in high schooland the family therapist suggested that Dorothy and Alan get away. I don't know why you 'get away' if your kid's messing up, but there we are."
"I don't know either," Bob said sincerely. Then: "Helen, this thing just happened."
She listened, folding a pair of linen slacks. "Come on over," she interrupted. "We'll go across the street for dinner when Jim gets home."
After that she was able to pack with authority. The colorful scarf was included with three white linen blouses and black ballet flats and the coral necklace Jim had bought her last year. Over a whiskey sour with Dorothy on the terrace, while they waited for the men to shower from golf, Helen would say, "Bob's an interesting fellow." She might even mention the accidenthow it was Bob, four years old, who'd been playing with the gears that caused the car to roll over their father and kill him; the man had walked down the hill of the driveway to fix something about the mailbox, leaving all three young kids in the car. A perfectly awful thing. And never mentioned. Jim had told her once in thirty years. But Bob was an anxious man, Helen liked to watch out for him.
"You're rather a saint," Dorothy might say, sitting back, her eyes blocked by huge sunglasses.
Helen would shake her head. "Just a person who needs to be needed. And with the children grown" No, she'd not mention the children. Not if the Anglins' daughter was flunking courses, staying out until dawn. How would they spend ten days together and not mention the children? She'd ask Jim.
Excerpted from The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Strout. 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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