Excerpt from While I Was Gone by Sue Miller, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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While I Was Gone

by Sue Miller

While I Was Gone
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  • First Published:
    Feb 1999, 265 pages
    Feb 2000, 265 pages

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Or at home, setting the table, sitting down with my husband to another meal, beginning our friendly evening conversation about the day--the house quiet around us, the old dogs dozing under the table or occasionally nuzzling our feet. A sense suddenly of being utterly present and also, simultaneously, far, far away.

Now I stirred, shifted my weight. My husband turned, no aspect of his face not dear to me. "Hurting?" he asked.

And with that, as quickly as it had come over me, the moment ended. I was back, solidly in time, exactly where we were. It was getting chilly. I had been lying in the wooden boat for several hours now, and even though I had the pillows under me, I was stiff. I had a bad hip. Replacement had been discussed, though everyone said I was young for it. I liked only that part of the problem, being too young for something.

"A little," I said.

"We'll head back."

"Are you sure?"

"I've got two reasonable ones. I'm a happy man." He began to reel his line in.

I turned and stretched. "How nice, to be a happy man," I said.

He looked over his shoulder at me, to get my tone. "It is nice," he said.

"And I meant it," I answered.

As we rowed back, as we drove home, I found myself wanting to tell my husband about my feeling, but then not knowing what to call it. The shadow of it lingered with me, but I didn't say anything to Daniel. He would hear it as a want, a need. He would feel called upon to offer comfort. Daniel is a minister, a preacher, a pastor. His business is the care of his flock, his medium is words--thrilling words, admonishing or consoling words. I knew he could console me, but consolation wasn't what I felt I wanted. And so we drove along in silence, too, and I looked out the window at the back roads that sometimes seemed utterly rural, part of the nineteenth century, and sometimes seemed abruptly the worst of contemporary suburban life: the sere, beautiful old fields carved up to accommodate the too-wide circular asphalt driveways, the too-grand fake-garrison-colonial houses.

We lived in the center of town, an old, old town--Adams Mills, the Adamses long dead, the mills long burned down. Our house was a simple square farmhouse, added on to repeatedly at the back of the first floor over the years, as was the custom then with these old New England homes. We had an unpainted barn behind it, and behind that was a small meadow that turned to pine woods at the far edge, woods that hid our neighbors to the rear, though in the summer we could hear them fighting, calling each other things that used to make the girls laugh with joy. "You fat-ass pig!" they'd imitate. "You stupid shithead!"--which for some years they had, uncorrected, as "shiphead."

We used the barn as a garage now, and Daniel had his study out there, in a small heated room at the back. When we'd moved in, it was still full of rusting old tools and implements, the kinds of things people clean up and hang on their walls as folk art. There were still mason jars of unidentifiable fruits and vegetables in the old root cellar, a dark earthen space you entered by lifting a sort of trapdoor in the kitchen yard. Because of all this, we felt connected to the house's life as part of a farm.

Yet at the front of the house we were townsfolk, connected to the village. Our view was across the old common to the big Congregational church. Not Daniel's church, it's true, and we looked at its back side--its rump, the girls had called it--but it was a splendid civic vista nonetheless. Beyond the church, we could see the row of grand Georgian houses lined up face-to-face with its front.

Along one side of the green was an inn, where we could get a fancy and tasteless meal in the main dining room, or a beer and a good hamburger in the bar, with its large-screen TV always tuned to the sports network. Along the other side of the green there were shops: a small, expensive grocery, a video store, a store with high-quality kitsch--stoneware, cute gardening tools, stationery, rubber stamps, coffee-table books, Venetian-glass paperweights. Everything in town was clapboard, painted white with green or black trim. If you tried another color, the historical commission descended on you and made you very, very sorry you had.

Excerpted from While I Was Gone by Sue Miller. Copyright© 1999 by Sue Miller. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, 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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