Section 1 Summary
The story’s main character, an unnamed, thrice-divorced elderly man, learns that he has to have an operation to insert yet another stent into one of his arteries. He has had so many surgeries that he has begun to think of himself as “a storehouse for man-made contraptions designed to fend off collapse.”
The night before the operation, he lies in his bed thinking about his previous operations and the different women who had been there with him when he awakened. He is particularly focusing on the memory of a private nurse named Maureen Mrazek, who helped him recover from quintuple bypass surgery.
That had been sixteen years ago. He had participated in an affair with Maureen that infuriated his third wife. He had recently tried to contact Maureen, hoping that she could once again be his private nurse after this operation, but was unable to find her.
Then the man begins thinking about an earlier hernia surgery he had at age nine. He remembers how he tried to hide the swelling in his groin for months, hoping it would just go away, until he finally had to reveal it to his parents.
In his hospital room, there had been another boy in the other bed who had had stomach surgery. In the middle of the night before his hernia surgery, he sees nurses and doctors attending to the boy. The next day, when he is awakened for his operation, he sees that he boy is gone and believes that he died in the night.
The next day this man undergoes the surgery to insert the stent. While under sedation, he has a heart attack and dies on the table.
A number of mourners are present at his funeral. These mourners include the former private nurse Maureen, his two sons, daughter, brother, sister-in-law, some residents from the retirement village in which he lived, several colleagues from the advertising firm for which he worked prior to his retirement, and Phoebe, one of his three ex-wives.
The sons are there “out of duty and nothing more.” They are the offspring of his first marriage, a marriage that ended badly. Their relationship with their father was strained, mostly because of the influence of their mother, his first wife.
Phoebe, his second wife and the only ex-wife in attendance, tells the group that she keeps thinking of him “swimming the bay—that’s all. I just keep thinking of him swimming the bay.”
The main character’s daughter Nancy then explains...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
Section 2 Summary
At the age of thirty-four, the unnamed main character goes on a month-long vacation by the sea with his girlfriend, a woman named Phoebe, who will later become his second wife. He enjoys their time together at the ocean as much if not more than any other period in his life.
He lives with Phoebe in a sparse beach shack. They spend their time swimming in the bay, lying in the dunes, and walking along the shore. This marks the first time in their relationship that they have actually lived together, and he regards it as an indication that they are well suited for each other.
Phoebe is the woman with whom he had the affair that broke up his unhappy first marriage. His life with his first wife, Cecilia, had become a “prison cell” on which he finally gave up, deciding that he would “tunnel his way out” of the dysfunctional marriage. In so doing, he irrevocably damages his relationship with his two young sons, who, under their mother’s influence, see him as the villain in the scenario.
Although he loves the time he spends with Phoebe at the ocean, he finds that his thoughts inexplicably turn to death, or “oblivion” as thinks of it, when he walks with Phoebe beside the ocean at night:
The dark sea rolling in with its momentous thud and the sky lavish with stars made Phoebe rapturous but frightened him. The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die, and the thunder of the sea only yards away—and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water—made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, under-furnished house.
Then, several days after returning home, he falls mysteriously ill. For weeks he feels weak and unable to focus on work. His psychoanalyst believes he is suffering the physical manifestations of envy over a coworker’s promotion to vice-president. His doctor can find nothing wrong with him. Finally he tells his doctor, “Admit me to the hospital. I feel like I’m dying.”
When the surgeon examines him he determines that he is suffering from appendicitis. Later that day, he is operated on and spends 30 days in the hospital recovering from the appendicitis and peritonitis.
Phoebe visits him every night after work. She is such a comfort that “he couldn’t imagine what being needy and infirm like this and facing the uncanny nature of...
(The entire section is 726 words.)
Section 3 Summary
The main character is at home following his heart surgery. Olive Parrot is the main character’s night nurse. When he cannot sleep, she relaxes him with stories about her life in Jamaica on her father’s avocado farm.
Maureen is his day nurse. She is a redhead who cheers him with her arrival each morning. His wife is not happy that his nursing care has been arranged without her input.
It takes several weeks for him to begin to recover his strength. The easiest activities such as eating and shaving exhaust him. He finds that Maureen lifts his spirits but makes his wife jealous.
When his father dies, Maureen drives him to New Jersey and helps Howie make funeral arrangements. His father, it turns out, had become more pious in his final years and wanted his funeral conducted in Hebrew. This doesn’t mean much to the main character, who has repudiated religion:
Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness—the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers.
He does not believe in God or heaven, and he sees himself as a “male body” that will one day cease to be.
He finds the funeral emotionally difficult and thinks about his father’s life. His father had somehow managed to start a successful jewelry business in the midst of the depression in working-class Elizabeth. His father considered a diamond to be something important to the working people because it gave them beauty and status and was “imperishable.”
The cemetery, which is also where the main character will be buried in the future, is crumbling and not well maintained. Two shovels stand in the dirt piled at his father’s graveside. After the ceremony, the men shovel the dirt into the grave, covering the coffin, then filling the hole.
The main character does not have the strength to use a shovel and can only throw some handfuls of dirt into the grave. At the end, he tells his daughter Nancy, “Now I know what it means to be buried. I didn’t till today.”
Nine years later, he is found to have an obstruction of his renal artery, which requires a surgery called a “renal artery angioplasty.” Now he is retired and living at the Starfish Beach retirement village, to which...
(The entire section is 516 words.)
Section 4 Summary
Now his hospitalizations become more frequent. In fact, it has reached the point that “eluding death seemed to have become the central business of life and bodily decay his entire story.”
It is discovered that he actually had a “silent heart attack” previously, which now requires the insertion of a stent in his left anterior descending artery. The next year, another stent is placed in one of the grafts and a year later, three stents are needed.
During these procedures, to keep himself calm and occupied, he thinks about his father’s jewelry business—specifically, the watches and clocks that were sold in the store.
The next year, to deal with the possibility of cardiac arrhythmia, a defibrillator is inserted just under the skin in his chest. This procedure upsets his daughter Nancy:
She was pale with helplessness and couldn’t stop the tears from running down her face: she wanted her father to be the way he was when she was ten and eleven and twelve and thirteen, without impediment or incapacity—and so did he.
He thinks about what a good daughter Nancy has turned out to be, particularly in contrast to his two sons, who have never forgiven him for marring their childhood with the divorce from their mother. He remembers when Nancy was a teenager, a thirteen-year-old track star. One day while running, she collapsed when a piece of bone had pulled away from her hip. This had effectively ended her track career at her young age. Unfortunately this occurred during the same year that he divorced her mother and his second wife, Phoebe.
The recurring health troubles are taking their toll on him psychologically. He is now a
decidedly lonelier, less confident man than he’d been during the first year of retirement . . . and he was hounded by the sense that he was headed for the end.
To combat this, he begins conducting painting classes in his apartment for other residents of Starfish Beach. The classes are generally successful in that they bring the residents together for an enjoyable period of time, although most of the students do not demonstrate much talent. Many of the class sessions include conversations about the various students’ health conditions. Although he is not able to make accomplished artists out of the residents, he encourages them to be creative and express themselves...
(The entire section is 610 words.)
Section 5 Summary
One of the reasons that he decided to move to the shore when he retired was because he would be only an hour away from Nancy. She calls him every morning before she goes to work. He rarely calls either of his two sons because when he does, “he always felt saddened afterward, saddened and beaten.”
He chooses not tell his sons about his medical problems and believes that they will be happy when he dies. He believes that his sons and his second wife, Phoebe, regard him as an “imposter” because of his first two failed marriages. He thinks that in the eyes of his now adult sons, he will never be able to overcome the stigma of the broken family he forced upon them.
When he wonders if his life would be less lonely if he had done things differently, he has to admit that it would. Finally, he tells himself that there really is no other way to look at his life, because, “This is the man I have made. This is what I did to get here, and there’s nothing more to be said!”
Over the years, his telephone conversations with his brother Howie become less and less frequent. He knows why he has become hesitant to talk to Howie: “He hated Howie because of his robust good health.” Even into his seventies, Howie is still working for a Boston buyout firm, traveling the world in search of potential buyouts. He resents the fact that Howie has never needed surgery and that his wife and sons still love him.
He has become bored with painting. When he was still working for the advertising agency, he had looked forward to years of painting in his retirement, but now, after painting every day for a while, he finds that “the urgent demand to paint had lifted, the enterprise designed to fill the rest of his life had fizzled out.”
He believes that his loss of interest in painting is an indication that everything in life “comes with a risk” and is likely to “backfire.”
Nancy tries to reassure him that he will soon begin painting again, but he disagrees. She tells him that he’s just “frustrated” right now and that she is proud of the work he has done. While they are talking, he laments the fact that he had emotionally wounded her mother, his second wife Phoebe, with his unfaithfulness.
He reminisces to himself about his first affair during his marriage with Phoebe. It was with a nineteen-year-old secretary. They conducted their affair on a daily basis on the floor...
(The entire section is 579 words.)
Section 6 Summary
Returning to the Paris hotel after spending time with Merete, he receives a message from Phoebe that reads, “Contact me immediately. Your mother gravely ill.”
When he returns Phoebe’s call, Phoebe makes it clear that she knows about the affair. He tries to bluff his way out of it, but Phoebe is convinced that she is right.
His mother dies shortly before he arrives at the hospital.
Phoebe reveals that she knew about his previous affair with the secretary. “Yes, you wounded me with the secretary, but I kept my mouth shut.” For Phoebe, it is not the physical aspect of his affair that hurts her so much but the fact that he has destroyed the trust that existed between them with his lying:
You can weather anything. Even if the trust is violated, if it’s owned up to . . . but lying, lying is cheap contemptible control over the other person acting on incomplete information—in other words, humiliating herself.
Phoebe goes on to explain that she can understand how affairs happen—people lose their physical passion for each other and wives often ignore the infidelity because it is enough to have a partner in her life. She says that because he just could not live without that physical passion, he is “going to live without now, Mister. You’re going to find out what living without is all about.”
The next night Phoebe makes him leave the house. Three months later, he marries Merete.
His marriage to Merete reveals what kind of problems Merete has in her life—problems that he had not known about during their affair. She has a fear of aging and illness, she has had years of tax problems with the IRS, she is unable to handle the stress of dealing with what life presents. Her only strength is that of eroticism—she is only able to assert herself in a sensual setting. Thus, with Phoebe gone and Merete requiring constant maintenance, he finds that he had “replaced the most helpful wife imaginable with a wife who went to pieces under the slightest pressure. But in the aftermath, marrying her had seemed the simplest way to cover up his crime.”
Now that he had given up painting, he found it a challenge to fill his days. He spent a lot of time at the beach, watching the ocean and the tides. It threw his mind back to his childhood, where he had spent so much happy time on this very stretch of beach, riding the waves....
(The entire section is 753 words.)
Section 7 Summary
The day after visiting Phoebe in the hospital, he receives news about three colleagues who have fallen ill or died. One is his boss, Clarence Spraco, who passed away from a myocardial infarction. He calls Spraco’s wife, Gwen, to express his condolences, and they reminisce together.
He tells Gwen that Clarence had a “wonderful ability to recognize the value of the people who worked with him,” and how he had made him feel special and valuable as a member of the agency. Then he relates a story about how they worked hard and late for several weeks on the Mercedes-Benz pitch. When it was over, Clarence told him to take Phoebe to London for an extended weekend, a weekend that Clarence paid for, even though they did not win the account.
Gwen tells him that for Clarence, “it was a good end” because it came quickly, without any extended hospital stay or the difficulties caused by what would have turned out to be a fatal condition.
Next he calls Brad Karr’s wife. Karr has been “hospitalized for suicidal depression.” Karr’s wife gives him the phone number to Brad’s room. During the call, they exchange a few pleasantries and memories of their time working together. Brad doesn’t tell him the truth about several things—for example, the fact that he has been there before and that this stay has been a month long. They do not discuss the nature of his depression or any specifics. After the call, he cannot imagine that Brad will ever be able to leave the hospital.
His final call is to Ezra Pollock, who has terminal prostate cancer. He is surprised that Ezra sounds so upbeat despite his condition. Ezra has been writing his memoirs and is very focused. “I’m all concentration. I see through everything now. I’ve stripped away my bullshit and I’m getting down to brass tacks at last.”
However, he and Ezra do not discuss those “brass tacks.” Instead, they speak as though Ezra is not terminal, discussing his treatment and remembering some key events from their days together as colleagues at the ad agency.
After the phone calls, he wishes he could call his mother and father. When he thinks of the effects of old age on the people he knows, of how they have lost everything that was once theirs, he thinks of it this way: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”
At his next annual physical the doctors discover that the second carotid now...
(The entire section is 682 words.)
Section 8 Summary
He finds himself thinking about what his life has turned into. He has been holding out hope that his life will improve, but at nearly 75 years of age, he now has to face the reality that his previous life, filled with activity and female companionship and the close relationship with his brother, is undeniably over. Now he has to face the fact that “[t]he man who swam the bay with Nancy’s mother had arrived at where he’d never dreamed of being. It was time to worry about oblivion.”
Now, he finds himself bereft of the independence with which he had always conducted his life. At the same time, he also finds himself with fewer and fewer people to lean on and comfort him in his annual medical crises.
About a week before his surgery, he dreams that he is in bed next to Millicent Kramer’s corpse. The dream upsets him so much that he cannot get back to sleep without turning on the lights and walking around the apartment, thinking about Millicent’s suicide, wondering how she had felt after taking the pills, before she died.
He wonders how he would react if he decided to attempt suicide. Could he do it “calmly”? He wonders how he could ever leave his daughter behind—could she live without his protection?
One day, on his way to New York, he remembers that the cemetery in which his parents are buried is just off the highway. He pulls into the cemetery, noting that it is in an extremely ramshackle, unkempt condition. At his father's funeral he had not noticed how poorly it was maintained, but now it is obvious.
He thinks about the caskets in which his parents are buried, noting mentally that although they now hold nothing more than bones, “their bones were his bones.” As he stands there he is overwhelmed by the thought of those bones; he listens to them, he talks to them. He feels that he has a stronger interaction with the bones of his parents than with those still living:
The bones were the only solace there was to one who put no stock in an afterlife and knew without a doubt that God was a fiction and this was the only life he’d have.
Walking out of the cemetery, he sees a black man digging a grave. He stops and talks to the man, telling him that he wants to know how he digs the graves. The gravedigger describes the process to him. He says he doesn’t use a machine, preferring to dig by hand because it allows him to...
(The entire section is 691 words.)