Excerpt from The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Pilot's Wife

by Anita Shreve

The Pilot's Wife
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  • First Published:
    Mar 1999, 293 pages
    Mar 1999, 293 pages

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"No comment," he said.

"No comment.

"No comment.

"No comment."

She watched him lay the receiver back on its cradle and massage his forehead with his fingers. He had thick fingers and large hands, hands that seemed too big for his body.

She looked at the man's shirt, a white oxford with a gray stripe, but all she could see was a fake plane in a fake sky blowing itself to bits in the distance.

She wanted the man from the union to turn around and tell her that he had made a mistake: He'd gotten the plane wrong; she was the wrong wife; it hadn't happened the way he said it had. She could almost feel the joy of that.

"Is there someone you want me to call?" he asked. "To be with you."

"No," she said. "Yes." She paused. "No."

She shook her head. She wasn't ready yet. She lowered her eyes and fixed them on the cabinet under the sink. What was in it? Cascade. Drano. Pine Sol. Jack's black shoe polish. She bit the inside of her cheek and looked around at the kitchen, at the cracked pine table, the stained hearth behind it, the milk-green Hoosier cabinet. Her husband had shined his shoes in this room not two days ago, his foot braced on a bread drawer he had pulled out for the task. It was often the last thing he did before he left for work. She would sit and watch him from the chair, and lately it had become a kind of ritual, a part of his leaving her.

It had always been hard for her, his leaving the house--no matter how much work she had to do, no matter how much she looked forward to having time to herself. And it wasn't that she had been afraid. She hadn't been in the habit of being fearful. Safer than driving a car, he'd always said, and he'd had an offhand confidence, as though his safety were not even worthy of a conversation. No, it wasn't exactly safety. It was the act of leaving itself, of Jack's removing himself from the house, that had always been difficult. She often felt, watching him walk out of the door with his thick, boxy flight bag in one hand and his overnight bag in the other, his uniform cap tucked under his arm, that he was, in some profound way, separating from her. And, of course, he was. He was leaving her in order to take a 170-ton airplane into the air and across the ocean to London or to Amsterdam or to Nairobi. It wasn't a particularly hard feeling to sort out, and within moments it would pass. Sometimes Kathryn would become so accustomed to his absence that she bristled at the change in her routines when he returned. And then, three or four days later, the cycle would begin again.

She didn't think Jack had ever felt the coming and going in quite the same way she had. To leave, after all, was not the same as being left.

I'm just a glorified bus driver, he used to say.

And not all that glorified, he would add.

Used to say. She tried to take it in. She tried to understand that Jack no longer existed. But all she could see were cartoon puffs of smoke, lines drawn outward in all directions. She let the image go as quickly as it had come.

"Mrs. Lyons? Is there a television in another room that I could keep half an eye on?" Robert Hart asked.

"In the front room," she said, pointing.

"I just need to hear what they're reporting now."

"It's fine," she said. "I'm fine."

He nodded, but he seemed reluctant. She watched him leave the room. She shut her eyes and thought: I absolutely cannot tell Mattie.

Already, she could imagine how it would be. She would open the door to Mattie's room, and on the wall there would be posters of Less Than Jake and extreme skiing in Colorado. On the floor would be two or three days' worth of inside-out clothes. Mattie's sports equipment would be propped up in a corner--her skis and poles, her snowboard, her field hockey and lacrosse sticks. Her bulletin board would be covered with cartoons and pictures of her friends: Taylor, Alyssa, and Kara, fifteen-year-old girls with ponytails and long hair wisps in the front. Mattie would be huddled under her blue-and-white comforter and would pretend not to hear her until Kathryn said her name for the third time. Then Mattie would bolt upright, at first irritated to be woken, thinking it was time for school and wondering why Kathryn had moved into the room. Mattie's hair, a sandy red with metallic threads, would be spread along the shoulders of a purple T-shirt that said "Ely Lacrosse" in white letters across her tiny breasts. She would put her hands behind her on the mattress and hold herself up.

© 1999 by Anita Shreve

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