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At three a.m. on a windy late-November night, Jenny Walker woke in her historic house in an historic New England town, and sensed from the slope of the mattress and the chill of the flowered percale sheets that Wilkie Walker, the world-famous writer and naturalist, was not in bed beside her.
Often now Jenny woke to this absence. The first time, after lying half awake for twenty minutes, she tiptoed downstairs and found her husband sitting in the kitchen with a mug of tea. Wilkie smiled briefly and replied to her questions that of course he was all right, that everything was all right. "Go back to bed, darling," he told her, and Jenny followed his instructions, just as she had done for a quarter century.
After that night she didn't go to look for him, but now and then she would mention his absence the next morning. Wilkie would say that he'd had a little indigestion and needed a glass of soda water, or wanted to write down an idea. There was no reason to be concerned about him, his tone implied. Indeed her concern was unwelcome, possibly even irritating.
But since the day they met, Jenny had been more concerned about Wilkie Walker than anyone or anything in the world. He had come into the University Housing Office at UCLA where she was working after graduation while she waited to see what would happen next in her life. It was a misty, hot summer morning when Wilkie appeared: the most interesting-looking older man Jenny had ever seen, with his broad height, his full explorer's mustache; his shock of blond-brown hair, steel-blue eyes, and sudden dazzling smile. Dazzled, she heard him ask about sabbatical sublets for the fall. He wanted somewhere quiet with a garden—he liked to work out of doors if he could, he explained—but he also hoped to be within a half-hour's walk of the university. Which no doubt wasn't possible, he added with another radiant smile.
But Jenny was able to assure him that she knew just the place. And two days later, while she was still dreaming of Wilkie's visit and wondering if she could get leave to audit his lectures, he reappeared to thank her and ask her to have lunch with him.
It was only later that Jenny realized how unusual that had been, because at the time Wilkie Walker was extremely wary of all women. He had been married twice, both times briefly and disastrously ("I get on well with most mammals, but I seem to have difficulty with our species"). First to a sweet and graceful but totally impractical girl whom he compared to a highbred Persian cat ("all cashmere fur and huge sky-blue eyes and special diet, but she always had a slight cold, couldn't hike more than a mile without collapsing, and was terrified of most other animals").
Then, on the rebound, he had married a young woman who was equally good looking and much more competent and robust ("strong and healthy as an Alaskan husky"), but who turned out to be deeply hostile to men and especially to Wilkie. For example, when at a time of crisis he asked her to retype one of his articles, the husky not only growled at him but dropped his manuscript into the kitchen wastebasket, among eggshells and wet grapefruit rinds and crusts of rye toast.
At that first lunch Jenny knew that Wilkie Walker was someone she could, even should, devote her life to. And as she came to know him better she was almost shocked to discover how badly he needed this devotion; how much of his own life was wasted on inessentials. How often he had to set his work aside for tasks someone else (Jenny, for instance) could do for him much faster and more easily, for Wilkie had no natural aptitude for shopping or household repairs or balancing a checkbook.
And after they were married she did all these things and much more: happily, gratefully. Soon she became able to help Wilkie in many other ways: not only typing and proofreading his books and articles, but accompanying him on field trips, making notes, and taking photographs. At home she helped with library research, copying and faxing, finding illustrations (often her own photos), and creating tables and graphs. As Wilkie became ever busier and more famous, she kept his schedule of lectures and interviews and meetings, arranged airline tickets and hotel reservations, took phone and E-mail messages, and corresponded in his name with agents and editors and fans.
Usually now, when Jenny woke at night and found herself alone, she sighed, turned over, and slid back into oblivion. But tonight sleep didn't come. She lay in the antique four-poster bed listening to the windy scrape of bare twigs against glass, thinking that everything was not all right and neither was Wilkie. For months—since he retired last spring, really—his nights had been wakeful, and more and more often he seemed restless or weary during the day. Moreover, none of the things that he used to enjoy so fully seemed to please him now. For the first time since she'd known him, Wilkie had to be urged to attend concerts, lectures, or films. He didn't read most of the books and articles on nature and the environment that crowded into the mailbox, often accompanied by letters of gratitude and appreciation. More and more often he declined to serve on committees and boards, and he delayed returning telephone calls, even after Jenny had gently reminded him several times.
More worrying still, Wilkie hadn't finished his important new book, The Copper Beech. This, perhaps the culminating work of his life, was the portrait in depth of a great tree on the Convers College campus; it would bring together all his interests: botany, climatology, ecology, entomology, geology, history, soil science, and zoology. Wilkie's agent and editor were excited about The Copper Beech, and it had already been announced in his publisher's catalogue. Every day Jenny expected her husband to give her the final chapter to type into the computer, and every day she was disappointed.
Besides this, and almost worst of all, Wilkie seemed to be losing interest in his friends and family. For over a month he hadn't been to the faculty club, and he wouldn't let her ask anyone to dinner. Last week when the children were home for Thanksgiving he had had little to say to them. He had less and less to say to Jenny too; also, for nearly a month he had not suggested making love.
Clearly something was wrong. And that being so, it was Jenny's responsibility to correct it. Perhaps, she had thought at first, her husband was ill but didn't realize this, because he had hardly been sick a day in his life. He had always refused, for instance, to acknowledge colds: when one showed signs of wanting to attach itself to him he ignored it until, defeated, it slunk away.
A month ago Jenny had persuaded Wilkie to have a medical checkup—first on general principles, then resorting at last to her usual last resort: the claim that it would make her feel better. Grumbling about the waste of time, reiterating his belief that people who weren't ill should stay away from doctors, Wilkie accompanied her to Dr. Felch's office and was pronounced to be in excellent health for a man of his age. Prompted by Jenny, he admitted that he occasionally got up at night, but declared that he saw nothing wrong with this; he refused to accept the term "insomnia."
Like almost everyone in Convers, Dr. Felch was somewhat in awe of Wilkie Walker, the town's most famous citizen. More for Jenny's sake than his patient's, perhaps, he wrote a prescription for what he called a "muscle relaxant," which Wilkie afterward refused to take. The trouble with most people today, he told his wife, was that their muscles were too relaxed, not to say atrophied.
Though Wilkie seemed to have forgotten the whole episode, one phrase Dr. Felch had used kept running through Jenny's head: "a man of his age." Wilkie's age was now seventy. Not for the first time, she recalled the uncomfortable conversation she had had when she first brought him home to meet her parents. Wilkie clearly hadn't noticed the slight hesitation in their welcome, and would have been surprised to hear what was said when his wife-to-be confronted her mother later in the kitchen.
"Darling, I do like him," Jenny's mother had insisted. "And of course I realize he's brilliant. He was wonderfully interesting about those South American bats. And I can see he really loves you. But—" She turned on the water in the sink, sloshing away the rest of the sentence, if any.
"Well. He has been married twice before, that always ... Under Jenny's hurt, resentful stare, her voice faltered. "And then ... the age difference. You're barely twenty-one, and Wilkie Walker is forty-six, almost my age. I always think of what my mother said once: If you marry someone much older, you don't ever quite grow up. And when you're forty-six, Wilkie will be seventy. An old man."
Jenny refused to listen. Wilkie Walker was not like other people, she declared. He had more energy and endurance and enthusiasm than most of her college friends.
Her mother, for whom tact was almost a religion, never brought up the subject again. But her comments continued to swim in the weedy depths of Jenny's mind, occasionally surfacing in a sharklike manner. "You see, you were quite wrong," she had felt like telling her mother on several occasions, the latest being her own forty-sixth birthday last spring. "Wilkie hasn't become an old man at all. When we were on that walking tour in Greece last month nobody could keep up with him except the tour guide." She did not say this only because, though her mother was still in excellent health, her father was now, after two heart attacks, all too evidently an old man at seventy-four: stoop-shouldered and short of breath, slow-speaking and slow-moving.
Remembering all this, Jenny lay listening to the wind scratch at the glass, recalling recent conversations with her two grown children over Thanksgiving vacation.
"I tell you what it is, Mom," Ellen had said as they were washing the dishes. "I think Dad has got a clinical depression."
Since her daughter was now a medical student, and like many such students given to scattershot diagnoses, Jenny both believed her and did not believe her. "Oh, darling," she temporized. "I don't know."
"That's what I think," Ellen repeated. "I'm surprised his doctor isn't more concerned."
"Dr. Felch is concerned. He admires Wilkie very much."
"Everyone admires him very much," Ellen said. "That's not the point."
Billy (Wilkie Walker Jr.) was as usual less definite, but no more reassuring. "Yeah, I sort of agree with Ellen," he admitted the next day in answer to his mother's question. "Something's wrong. Dad seems to be moving around less, you know? Like he wouldn't come for a walk yesterday because it was too cold? I never heard that before; he was always dragging us out in the goddamnedest freezing snowstorms. Maybe you should go somewhere warmer this winter."
"Like, I don't know. Florida, for instance."
"Oh, darling. Your father would hate Florida." A glaring panorama of pink beach hotels and condominiums trimmed in neon and surrounded by artificial neon-green turf rose in Jenny's mind.
"I know, Mom. But you could try Key West. It's different from the rest of Florida. Sort of like Cape Cod with palms, that's what my roommate said when we were there on spring break last year. And there's supposed to be lots of writers and artists around that Dad could talk to."
Jenny lay in bed rehearing these voices, wondering if she ought to go downstairs, fearing that if she did Wilkie would not be pleased to see her. For a while she distracted herself from this anxiety with familiar, less pressing anxieties about her two beautiful and brilliant children. She pictured Ellen, who so much resembled Wilkie: tall, ruddy, and broad-shouldered—and also, since early childhood, always so sure of herself. Sometimes lately Jenny was almost frightened of her daughter. I wouldn't like to be Ellen's patient when she becomes a doctor, she thought: she'd be so sure she knew what was wrong with me. Then in the dark she blushed, ashamed of this disloyalty.
She imagined Billy, who had been such a beautiful, affectionate little boy, and now seemed somehow subdued and uncertain. Both of them were doing well professionally, but Jenny sometimes worried that Billy, isolated in the nearly all-male world of computer hardware, would never meet a nice young woman, and that Ellen would scare nice young men off. Then they would never marry and have children Jenny could love.
Jenny marveled at people who desired expensive manufactured objects like an indoor swimming pool or a Mercedes. She already had too many such objects to take care of. What she longed for no money could buy: at least one grandchild. And now, for Wilkie to be himself again.
Downstairs a thin, icy wind rattled the antique bubbled panes of the windows and sliced its way into the family room, but Wilkie Walker did not adjust the thermostat. He remained huddled in his forest-green L.L. Bean bathrobe in a corner of the sofa, watching the weather channel with the sound turned off and thinking about death.
Death was what Wilkie thought about most of the time these days. The death, over the past few years, of two close friends and colleagues; the slow, lingering death of the natural environment. The progressive destruction of the ozone layer, the slashing and burning of tropical forests, the poisoning of oceans, wars and assassinations in Africa and Asia, terrorist bombings, drug wars in great cities, the scummy sulfurous yellow-gray foam on Baird Creek behind his house, the raccoon he saw smashed on the road as he was driving home yesterday afternoon, and his own regress toward extinction.
If they could have heard his thoughts, Wilkie's thousands of fans and many of his remaining friends and colleagues would no doubt have shared his shock and sorrow, except for the last item. What was he complaining about, for God's sake? they might have said. For a seventy-year-old man he was in good shape. He was also a famous, perhaps the most famous popular naturalist of his generation: the most eloquent among those who had called public attention to our wanton destruction of the earth and its flora and fauna. His best-known and best-loved book, The Last Salt Marsh Mouse, had never been out of print, and there was hardly a schoolchild in America who had not read its famous first paragraph:
It is the year 2000. In the Zoological Gardens of a great city, a small furry pale-brown, bright-eyed creature clings to a dry stalk in a clump of artificial reeds and stares at the passing humans. A sign stapled to the other side of the wire identifies him as
Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse,
Salty is alone in his cage, though once he shared it with his parents and four older siblings. As far as anyone knows, he is the last of his family, the last of his race: the sole surviving salt marsh mouse on this earth.
More than anything else, it was this book and this passage that had made Wilkie Walker famous. The Last Salt Marsh Mouse, unlike its namesake, had thrived and reproduced profusely over the last quarter century; it had given birth to paperback editions, translations into sixteen foreign languages, innumerable excerpts in anthologies and condensations, and simplifications for the juvenile market. There had been documentary film, television, and cartoon versions, sometimes with a tacked-on happy ending. "Salty" posters and T-shirts were available in science museums everywhere, and toy salt marsh mice, some moderately authentic as to size, color, and shape, and others distorted in a Disney manner, were widely sold. "Salty" had become a cuddly shorthand symbol for the threatened extinction of North American mammalian species. He had made Wilkie's fortune, and his name a household word.
But now, whenever Wilkie recalled this endangered rodent, he felt a shudder of self-hatred and despair. In spite of the hundreds of thousands of copies they had sold, his books had in some ways done more harm than good. Many salt marsh mice had been illegally kidnapped for sale as pets; others had been acquired by zoos that wanted to display this now-famous mammal. As a result, just as in Wilkie's worse-case scenario, Salty was now nearing extinction in the wild, and the world was going to hell in a nonbiodegradable plastic handbasket.
Last week, against his better judgment, he had given yet another interview to a student from the local high school newspaper.
"How many species do you figure you have helped to preserve, Professor Walker?" the child, a pimply girl, had inquired.
Excerpted from The Last Resort by Alison Lurie. Copyright © 1998 Alison Lurie. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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