Section 1 Summary

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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 to the mourners that the cemetery was established by her great-grandfather in 1888 so that the Jewish members of the community could be buried according to Jewish custom. She notes that although it has fallen into disrepair, she has decided to bury her father here so that he will be close to his family members.

Next, his seventy-seven-year-old brother Howie tells a few stories about the deceased’s childhood, focusing on how he loved to work in their father’s jewelry store, in which he was trusted with valuable diamonds at a very young age.

The funeral ends as the mourners walk past the grave, dropping handfuls of dirt onto the coffin.

Section 2 Summary

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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,...

(This entire section contains 726 words.)

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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 illness would have been like without her.”

His older brother Howie also comes to see him, which lifts his spirits greatly. He is always positively affected by Howie’s vitality and love for him. Although Howie is older, he has never been sick and keeps up a work schedule that would exhaust most men.

Howie is impressed with Phoebe, especially in light of how she compares to the main character’s first wife Cecilia. When Howie leaves the hospital to return home, he says, “You’ve got a good girl this time. Don’t screw it up. Don’t let her go.”

For the following twenty-two years, he enjoys “excellent health and the boundless self-assurance that flows from being fit.” However, during this time his marriage to Phoebe fails and he marries his third wife Merete, a younger woman who had been a model on one of the advertising projects. Merete is nothing like Phoebe but is fully incapable of handling adversity and responsibility. She is “nothing short of a hazard in an emergency.”

One day after visiting his dying father in New Jersey, he finds himself exhausted and out of breath while taking his evening swim at the City Athletic Club. An EKG shows that he has a “severe occlusion of his major coronary arteries.” After the operation, the doctor, observing Merete’s ineffectuality, refuses to release him from the hospital until he has arranged for home nursing care.

Howie, who spends the week traveling back and forth between his father’s bedside and the main character’s, handles the arrangements for this, hiring a day nurse and a night nurse. He even insists on paying for the nurses himself.

When Howie leaves the hospital for the last time, he expresses his feelings to the main character, “Losing Mom and Dad I have to accept. I could never accept losing you.”

Section 3 Summary

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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 he moved shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York.

He creates an artist’s studio in his apartment. He thinks about his daughter Nancy and her young twins, wishing she could move closer to him. He imagines what life would be like with them nearby, and feels that they would be safer “away from the threat of Al Qaeda."

A year later he is found to have an obstruction of his left carotid artery. The surgery for this is considered relatively routine, so he does not tell anyone about it. The next day, when he returns home from the operation, he sits down at his easel and cries.

Section 4 Summary

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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 on the canvas.

One student in particular stands out: Millicent Kramer. Millicent shows some artistic potential and pays close attention to his instruction. But she also has a very painful back condition that often flares up and forces her to lie down and rest. Her painkillers are only marginally effective. He talks to Millicent at length about her pain and her late husband, Gerald. Millicent tells him that the only thing that would really help her deal with the pain would be the presence of Gerald, who had been such a strong and determined man while he was alive, until he was overcome by brain cancer. When Millicent says that she feels ashamed about what the pain has done to her, he tells her that it is nothing to be ashamed of.

She disagrees and says:

You’re wrong. You don’t know. The dependence, the helplessness, the isolation, the dread—it’s all so ghastly and shameful. The pain makes you frightened of yourself. The utter otherness of it is awful.

Less than two weeks after their conversation, Millicent commits suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Although he still has many students who wish to continue with the painting course, he tells them that he will not be able to resume until the following fall.

Section 5 Summary

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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 of his office.

Then his mind ran to the affair that actually wrecked his marriage to Phoebe. It was with a twenty-four-year-old model named Merete. They met while working on an ad for a towel company in Grenada. When they returned to New York, the affair continued. The danger of this affair made him reckless, and he understood that “[t]his was the wildest venture of his life, the one, as he was only faintly beginning to understand, that could wipe out everything.”

He and Merete continued their affair in Paris. He lied to Phoebe about the purpose of the trip, telling her that he had to go for a photo shoot. While there, he bought Merete an expensive necklace. They seemed to have gotten away with their deception, but when bad weather caused his flight home to be canceled, the lie fell apart.

Section 6 Summary

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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.

At night he tries to read from his art books. These are books that he has had for years, but now when he looks at them they seem to be a party to the “delusion” to “which he had dedicated his retirement.” Painting and studying art were supposed to be final pursuits of his life, but he simply cannot do them.

He finds that “[n]othing any longer kindled his curiosity or answered his needs . . . except the young women who jogged by him on the boardwalk in the morning.”

One day he stops a young woman whom he has watched jog by him several times recently. As he tries to make conversation, he feels anxious. Gone is the confidence he used to have in his pursuit of women. When he offers his phone number and she accepts it, he feels a “sharp sense of individualization, of sublime singularity, that marks a fresh sexual encounter or love affair and that is the opposite of the deadening depersonalization of serious illness.”

But she never calls him, and he never sees her jogging again.

Now he begins to consider moving from Starfish Beach back to New York. He hopes to convince his daughter Nancy to move in with him with her twins.

On the day he plans to begin apartment hunting, he receives a call from Nancy. She tells him that Phoebe has suffered a stroke and is in the hospital, partially paralyzed. The stroke has apparently been caused by the medication she has been taking for her debilitating migraines—the only medicine that has ever worked, freeing her, finally, from the pain that has marred her life. Her doctor believes she will make a full recovery, but the main character is doubtful when he visits her. She just seems too weak and frail.

During his visit, he recalls Phoebe in her youth, as they were getting to know each other. “He remembered how everything about this candid, unaffected woman was so unpredictably exciting.”

Section 7 Summary

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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 requires surgery. He tells himself that the procedure is nothing to worry about. In fact, he does not even tell his daughter about it. He does, however, try to contact his former nurse, Maureen Mrazek, but is unsuccessful.

He thinks about his brother and how Howie has always been there for him. He thinks about how he has injured this relationship by his own actions. He thinks also about the family relationships he has destroyed with his poor decisions, and thereby also the childhoods of his sons and daughter:

At the realization of all he’d wiped out, on his own and for seemingly no good reason, and what was still worse, against his every intention, against his will—of his harshness toward a brother who had never once been harsh to him, who’d never failed to soothe him and come to his aid, of the effect his leaving their households had had on his children—at the humiliating realization that not only physically had he now diminished into someone he did not want to be, he began striking his chest with his fist, striking in cadence with his self-admonition, and missing by mere inches his defibrillator.

When he finally calls Howie, Howie’s son answers and tells him that Howie and his wife are vacationing in Tibet. He is suspicious that Howie might really be there and just not want to speak to him. He briefly speaks with the son, then hangs up without leaving any kind of message about his upcoming surgery. 

Section 8 Summary

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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 do a neater job. He says that sometimes his son helps him dig, especially the harder parts. It gives him a chance to talk about life with his son and spend some time with him. The gravedigger tells him that he has been doing the job for 34 years and that it is good, peaceful work that gives him time to think.

He is impressed with how careful the gravedigger is about doing a good job and being respectful to the dead and their families. He shows the digger his parents' graves and asks him if he dug them, and the digger says yes. Then he thanks him for explaining the process to him so clearly, and for doing such a good, conscientious job, and gives him two 50-dollar bills.

When he goes home, he thinks of his parents often and the conversation he had with their bones in the cemetery. It has made him feel better: “The words spoken by the bones made him feel buoyant and indestructible. So did the subjugation of his darkest thoughts.”

And he no longer feels overcome by his medical problems and his physical deterioration. As he reports to the hospital for his surgery, the story comes to an end:

He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing it. Just as he’d feared from the start.