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
    Paperback:
    Feb 2000, 265 pages

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We turned into our drive now and pulled up next to the horse chestnut that shaded the dooryard. It dropped its leaves early every year. They littered the yard now, and our feet made a crunching noise on them as we crossed to the back door. The nearly bare ancient branches, twisted blackly above us in the dusky light, made me think of winter. When we opened the door, the house was silent. Daniel began to put his gear away in the spare room off the hall, speaking loudly as he clattered around. "Boy, it is sure nice to have dogs! Dogs are so great, how they come running to greet you when you get home, how they make you feel like you count, even when you don't." This was a familiar riff, and as I headed to the john, I threw back my contribution: "Dogs! Dogs! Man's best friend!"

When I came out, a few minutes later, all three dogs had finally bestirred themselves from wherever they'd been nesting and were whacking their happy tails around the kitchen. Daniel was cleaning his fish at the sink--the smell already suffused the air--and there was hope of food for them. Nothing excited them more. They barely greeted me.

The answering machine was blinking. I turned it on. There were three messages, all for Daniel, which was the way it usually went, except when I was on call. I'm a veterinarian, and the crises among animals are less complex, more manageable, than those of humans--actually very much a part of my choice of profession.

Daniel had turned slightly from the counter to listen to the calls, and I watched his face as he took them in--one about relocating a confirmation class because of a scheduling conflict; one from Mortie, his assistant pastor, reporting on the worsening state of a dying parishioner Daniel was very fond of, a young mother with cancer; one from another minister, suggesting he and Daniel try to "pull something together" among their colleagues about some racial incidents in the three closely adjoining towns around us. Daniel's face was thin and sharp and intelligent, his eyes a pale gray-blue, his skin white and taut. I'd always loved looking at him. He registered everything quickly, transparently--with these calls first annoyance, then the sag of sorrow, then a nod of judicious agreement--but there was something finally self-contained about him, too. I'd often thought this was what made him so good at what he did, that he held on to some part of himself through everything. That he could hear three calls like this and be utterly responsive to each of them, and then turn back and finish cleaning his trout. As he did now.

"Will you go and visit Amy?" I asked.

His plaid shirt pulled and puckered across his shoulder blades with his motion. His head was bent in concentration. "I don't know," he said without looking at me. "I'll call Mortie back and see when I'm done here."

I refilled the dogs' bowl with water and poured some more dry food for them. Daniel worked silently at the sink, his thoughts elsewhere. I went out the front door and got the mail from the box at the road. The air was getting chilly, darkness was gathering around the house. I turned on the living room lights and sat down. I sorted through the circulars, the bills; I threw away the junk. While I was working, I heard Daniel leave the kitchen, headed across the yard to his office in the barn to make his calls.


With the closing of the door I felt released from the awareness of his sorrow that had held me in his orbit. I began to roam the house, with the dogs as my entourage, feeling restless, a feeling that seemed connected, somehow, to that moment in the boat, and maybe also to Daniel's sad news. I went up the steep, narrow stairs to the second floor, where the girls' rooms were.

All the doors were shut up there, and I opened them, standing in each doorway in turn. The sloped-ceiling rooms were deeply shadowed. Light from the hall fell in long rectangles on the old painted pine floors. In the older girls' rooms the beds were made, the junk was gone--boxed in the attic or thrown away forever. Only Sadie's room still spoke of her. One wall was completely covered with pictures she'd cut out of magazines. There were stark photos of dancers in radical poses, of nearly naked models in perfume or liquor ads, engaged in moments of stylized passion; there were romantic and soft-focus views of places she dreamed of going to--Cuzco, Venice, Zanzibar. There were guys: Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt. In the corner of the room where the ceiling sloped nearly to the floor, all the stuffed animals and dolls she'd ever owned were standing wide-eyed in rows by height, like some bizarre crowd in the bleachers at a high-school event.

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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