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Authors: Maggie Shipstead

Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Family Life

Seating Arrangements

BOOK: Seating Arrangements
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Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Shipstead
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Faber and Faber Limited for permission to reprint an excerpt from “The Waste Land” from
Collected Poems 1909–1962
by T. S. Eliot, copyright © 1948 by Faber and Faber Ltd.
Reprinted by permission of Faber and Faber Limited, London.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Shipstead, Maggie.
Seating arrangements / Maggie Shipstead.—1st ed.
p. cm.
“This is a Borzoi Book.”
eISBN: 978-0-307-95857-0
1. Weddings—Fiction.  I. Title.
PS3619.H586S43 2012
813′.6—dc23          2012005049

Jacket design by Elena Giavaldi


To my parents, Patrick and Susan
pillars of everything
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed
And their friends, the loitering heirs of City directors;
Departed, have left no addresses
, “The Waste Land”


Title Page


The Castle of the Maidens

The Water Bearer

Seating Arrangements

Twenty Lobsters

The White Stone House

Your Shadow at Evening

The Serpent in the Laundry

A Party Ends


Snakes and Ladders

More than One Fish, More than One Sea

Flesh Wounds

Fortunate Son

A Centaur

The Sun Goes over the Yardarm

Raise Your Glass

A Weather Vane

The Maimed King


The Ouroboros

A Note About the Author
Reading Group Guide


One · The Castle of the Maidens

y Sunday the wedding would be over, and for that Winn Van Meter was grateful. It was Thursday. He woke early, alone in his Connecticut house, a few late stars still burning above the treetops. His wife and two daughters were already on Waskeke, in the island house, and as he came swimming up out of sleep, he thought of them in their beds there: Biddy keeping to her side, his daughters’ hair fanned over their pillows. But first he thought of a different girl (or barely thought of her—she was a bubble bursting on the surface of a dream) who was also asleep on Waskeke. She would be in one of the brass guest beds up on the third floor, under the eaves; she was one of his daughter’s bridesmaids.

Most mornings, Winn’s entries into the waking world were prompt, his torso canting up from the sheets like the mast of a righted sailboat, but on this day he turned off his alarm clock before it could ring and stretched his limbs out to the bed’s four corners. The room was silent, purple, and dim. By nature, he disapproved of lying around. Lost time could not be regained nor missed mornings stored up for later use. Each day was a platform for accomplishment. Up with the sun, he had told his daughters when they were children, whipping off their covers with a flourish and exposing them lying curled like shrimp on their mattresses. Now Daphne was a bride (a pregnant bride, no point in pretending otherwise) and Livia, her younger sister, the maid of honor. The girls and their mother were spending the whole week on the island with an ever-multiplying bunch of bridesmaids and relatives
and future in-laws, but he had decided he could not manage so much time away from work. Which was true enough. A whole week on the matrimonial front lines would be intolerable, and furthermore, he had no wish to confirm that the bank would rumble on without him, his absence scarcely noticed except by the pin-striped young sharks who had begun circling his desk with growing determination.

He switched on the lamp. The windows went black, the room yellow. His jaundiced reflection erased the stars and trees, and he felt a twinge of regret at how lamplight obliterated the predawn world, turning it not into day but night. Still, he prided himself on being a practical person, not a poetic soul vulnerable to starlight and sleep fuzz, and he reached for his glasses and swung his feet to the floor. Before going to bed he had laid out his traveling clothes, and when he emerged from the shower, freshly shaven and smelling of bay rum, he dressed efficiently and trotted downstairs, flipping on more lights as he went. He had packed Biddy’s Grand Cherokee the night before, fitting everything together with geometric precision: all the items forgotten and requested by the women, plus bags and boxes of groceries, clothes for himself, and sundry wedding odds and ends. While the coffee brewed, he went outside with the inventory he was keeping on a yellow legal pad and began his final check. He rifled through a row of grocery bags in the backseat and opened the driver’s door to check for his phone charger, his road atlas—even though he could drive the route with his eyes closed—and a roll of quarters, crossing each off the list in turn. Garment bags and duffels stuffed to fatness made a bulwark in the back, and he had to stand on tiptoe and lean into the narrow pocket of air between them and the roof to confirm the presence in the middle of it all of a glossy white box the size of a child’s coffin that held Daphne’s wedding dress.

“Don’t forget the dress, Daddy,” the answering machine had warned in his daughter’s voice the previous night. “Here, Mom wants to say something.”

“Don’t forget the dress, Winn,” said Biddy.

“I won’t forget the damn dress,” Winn had told the plastic box.

He crossed “Dress” off the list and slammed the back hatch. Birds
were calling, and yellow light bled through the morning haze, touching the grassy undulations and low stone wall of his neighbor’s estate. Strolling down the driveway to retrieve his newspaper from a puddle, he noticed a few stones that had fallen from the wall onto the shoulder of the road, and he crossed over to restore them, shaking droplets from the
’s plastic sack as he went. The hollow sound of stone on stone was pleasant, and when the repair was done, he stood for a minute stretching his back and admiring the neat Yankee face of his house. Nothing flashy and new would ever tempt him away from this quiet neighborhood inhabited by quality people; the houses might be large, but they were tastefully shrouded by trees, and many, like his, were full of thin carpets and creaking, aristocratic floors.

His Connecticut house was home, and his house on Waskeke was also home but a home that was familiar without losing its novelty, the way he imagined he might feel about a long-term mistress. Waskeke was the great refuge of his life, where his family was most sturdy and harmonious. To have all these people, these wedding guests, invading his private domain rankled him, though he could scarcely have forbidden Daphne from marrying on the island. She would have argued that the island was her island, too, and she would have said Waskeke’s pleasures should be shared. He wished that the ferry could take him back into a world where the girls were still children and just the four of them would be on Waskeke. The problem was not that he wasn’t pleased for Daphne (he was) or that he did not appreciate the ceremonial importance of handing her into another man’s keeping (he did). He would carry out his role gladly, but the weekend, now surveyed from its near edge, felt daunting, not a straightforward exercise in familial peacekeeping and obligatory cheer but a treacherous puzzle, full of opportunities for the wrong thing to be said or done.

along leafy roads, past brick and clapboard towns stacked on hillsides above crowded harbors. The morning was bright and yellow, the car scented with coffee and a trace of Biddy’s perfume. Freight trains slid across trestle bridges; distant jetties
reached like arms into the sea. Pale rainbows of sunlight turned circles across the windshield. For Winn, the difficulty of reaching Waskeke was part of its appeal. Unless forced by pressures of time or family, he never flew. The slowness of the drive and ferry crossing made the journey more meaningful, the island more remote. Back when the girls were young and querulous and prone to carsickness, the drive was an annual catastrophe, beset by traffic jams, mix-ups about ferry reservations, malevolent highway patrolmen, and Biddy’s inevitable realization after hours on the road that she had forgotten the keys to the house or medication for one of the girls or Winn’s tennis racquet. Winn had glowered and barked and driven with the grim urgency of a mad coachman galloping them all to hell, all the while knowing that the misery of the trip would sweeten the moment of arrival, that when he crossed the threshold of his house, he would be as grateful as a pilgrim passing through the gates of the Celestial City.

Arriving at the ferry dock an hour early, exactly as planned, he waited in a line of cars at a gangway that led to nothing: open water and Waskeke somewhere over the horizon. Idly, he rolled down the window and watched gulls promenade on the wharves. The harbor had a carnival smell of popcorn and fried clams. When he was a child, for a week in the summer his father would leave the chauffeur at home in Boston and drive Winn down to the Cape himself (such a novelty to see his father behind the wheel of a car). The ferry back then was the old-fashioned, open-decked kind that you had to drive onto backward, and Winn had thrilled at the precarious process even though his father, who might have played up the drama, reversed the car up the narrow ramp with indifferent expertise. They had owned a small place on Waskeke, nothing grand like the Boston house, just a cottage on the edge of a marsh where the fishing was good. But the cottage had been sold when Winn was at Harvard and torn down sometime later to make room for a big new house that belonged to someone else.

The ferry docked with loud clanging and winching and off-loaded a flood of people and vehicles. Some were islanders on mainland shopping expeditions, but most were tourists headed home. Winn was
pleased to see them go even if more were always arriving. A worker in navy blue coveralls waved him up the gangway into the briny, iron-smelling hold, and another pointed him into a narrow alley between two lumber trucks. He checked twice to be sure the Cherokee was locked and then climbed to the top deck to observe the leaving, which was as it always was—first the ship’s whistle and then the slow recession of the harbor’s jumbled, shingled buildings and the boat basin’s forest of naked masts. Birds and their shadows skimmed the whitecaps. Though he never wished to indulge in nostalgia, Winn would not have been surprised to see shades of himself stretching down the railing: the boy beside his father, the collegian nipping from a flask passed among his friends, the bachelor with a series of dimly recalled women, the honeymooner, the young father holding one small girl and then two. He had been eight when his father first brought him across, and now he was fifty-nine. A phantom armada of memory ships chugged around him, crewed by his outgrown selves. But the water, as he stared down over the rail, looked like all other water; he might have been anywhere, on the Bering Strait or the river Styx. Without fail, every time he was out on the ocean, the same vision came to him: of himself lost overboard, floundering at the top of that unholy depth.

BOOK: Seating Arrangements
13.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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