Alexandra Marshall



Tender Offer

Phoebe swam the way some women knitted, her body understanding the activity so well that it became a pulse, the rhythmic neutral against which what was happening happened. Left arm fanning over and right arm seeming to turn the head to open the mouth and breathe in the air it turns into more strokes, she became a windmill with two great sails that tumbled one after the other, working. She swam daily for an hour and used the pool as a patient uses the rectangle of ceiling right above the couch, in a therapy that was (as therapy can be) corrective and preventive both.

Having been an underachiever for her first thirty years, she had spent the past twenty compensating, working on material, as a terrier works on a pantleg, that some might abandon as impractical. Phoebe felt for the edge and somersaulted, pushing off from the balls of her feet and bringing her arm over and down again, rotating her head for air with a minimal motion in order not to let her body heel. Heeling made her think of sailboats, and sailboats, inevitably, of her son, Roger.

The trouble with Roger, she told herself again, was not that he didn't share her love of enterprise, but that he chose to indulge it in a leisure setting, sailing out of Antigua's English Harbour in the beauties owned by corporations like her own. He'd spend his summers cruising up and down the northeast corridor for contacts he could cash in on all winter, boats that until recently were total write-offs even if nobody came onboard for more than gin and tonics and an all-expense-paid tan. He had been trying to get Phoebe to buy Phoebe's Fudge and him a boat, but so far she'd declined to bring it up with her directors, telling Roger she did not believe in nepotism.

This was not the trouble with Roger. She made another turn and glided out more than a body length to do a relaxation lap of sidestroke. No, that wasn't it. He'd sent his wife and child back to the States as if they were Christmas presents that didn't fit, and that was it.

She turned onto her back and floated, arms outstretched. When Phoebe thought of Roger—and she had no choice a day before his visit—what she wondered was how to have made it different. Perhaps if she had remarried or tried harder to remain on speaking terms with Roger's father, Dwight. She wanted Roger to have learned success at family life, although maybe he never stood a chance since, for instance, she and Dwight were always weak on speaking terms.

"For God's sake, Phoebe," he'd said one day, "I just got through telling you. Dinah and I will be getting married just as soon as we can."

"But why, Dwight? You make it sound like she's pregnant."

Dwight didn't answer.

"Don't make me ask it as a question."

He shrugged.

"Jesus, Dwight, are you out of your mind?"

"If it's all the same to you I'd like to leave that part out of it."

"What part, your mind?"

He stared. "Look, Phoebe, I said I'm sorry."

"That's right, but I don't believe you are. I don't believe either word of it."

What a look he gave her. "Must you be abrasive?"

What a question. The answer was yes.

Phoebe stood in the shallow end and surveyed. She didn't remember the name of the vine that grew up and over the chain link fence that kept the pool away from unaccompanied children, but wasn't it growing quite well, that vine? Not a chain link was visible. And wasn't it instead with Roger that Phoebe wished he took an interest in Phoebe's Fudge? As a father he did pretty well, or so it seemed his son thought. Wasn't it that at this time each year as he prepared to leave for English Harbour, he made Phoebe wonder if (as he once said it wasn't) her life was worth living?

She plunged in again to sprint a few lengths and remind herself that her son was twenty-six and on his own, and that she was, perhaps, his Arizona and must let him go. And Alice too, while she was at it, Alice, who had no interest in business, period. Alice, who was twenty-eight and had a Ph.D. in English so she could teach English, not so she could run for president of her mother's business; but who was, however, at the moment pregnant by her much older, tenured, English-professor husband—Bob Ott—and unemployed.

As Phoebe gasped for breath she had to laugh. The trend was to move west where she'd come from, which showed how much she knew about the way to go. Besides, she always made by hand a slab of fudge for Roger's birthday, which was fun, and anyway his little boy would throw his arms around her knees and call her name a dozen times in his delight. Did it matter that his name, preposterously in her opinion, was Canada?

Phoebe came from the pool and stretched out face up on the warm flagstones, bending at the knee and the hip to press the small of her back to the heat. That vine, as was its purpose, gave the privacy she liked for lying naked when she had the time to close her eyes in the mid-afternoon and let go into sleep. She dropped her legs and they notched slightly open to expose what Phoebe called the fishbelly flesh of her upper inner thighs, the only skin she had, she said, that wasn't thick. ▣