Average Waves in Unprotected Waters Summary

Anne Tyler

Average Waves in Unprotected Waters

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Average Waves in Unprotected Waters Summary

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“Average Waves in Unprotected Waters” is a short story by Anne Tyler, first published in 1977. The story examines the life of a woman with a severely mentally handicapped son through the lens of 1970s-era narcissism.

The story begins with Bet Blevins waking up in her small, dingy one-room apartment. She wakes her son, Arnold, and dresses him, then sits him at the table and tries to get him to eat cereal. He refuses, staring off into a corner, and Bet thinks he can sense that something is different. When she tries to dress Arnold in a newer, expensive coat, he begins to rock and moan in protest—he wants his older coat despite the new one’s advantages. As she struggles to dress him, she realizes he is growing bigger and getting stronger. She has no help and soon he will be too large for her to handle in these situations.

As they leave, they are met by an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Puckett, who often babysat Arnold. Mrs. Puckett has brought Arnold cookies. Bet wishes that Arnold would show some sign of recognition or affection for the old woman, but the boy acts as if he does not recognize her and runs off, leaving Mrs. Puckett in tears.

Arnold initially thinks she is taking him to her job, and becomes excited, but she manages to move him past the store where she works. At the train station, she buys tickets and a pack of gum for Arnold. When the train begins to move, Arnold becomes agitated, and she gives him gum to keep him calm. She reflects on his existence; when he was a baby, she and her husband Avery noticed his strange habits, and after the doctor explained to them how different he was, Avery refused to interact with his son at all, and soon leaves them both. She reflects on marrying Avery against her parents’ wishes, when they were too young, and her childhood, spent with her parents in Salt Spray, Maryland by the ocean. Her father would check the marine forecast every day to find out the height of average waves in unprotected waters so he could plan his day. Her father loved the ocean and swam or fished every day of his life, which was why his days revolved around the weather reports. He tried to teach her how to surf but she just stood in the water and let the waves crash against her, enduring.

She thinks of Avery again, thinking she would never have left him even though part of her irrationally blamed him for how Arnold turned out. She would have stayed forever.

Arnold becomes increasingly agitated, and Bet worries how she will handle him, but there is a confrontation between the conductor and an old woman; the conductor accuses her of hiding in the bathroom to beat the fare, and she angrily denies it, and an argument breaks out. This amuses Arnold, and she relaxes as Arnold chuckles over the encounter the same way he laughs over television programs.

They take a taxi to the hospital. Arnold wants a cookie, but Bet worries that he will smear it all over himself and make her look bad when she arrives, but relents. At the hospital, he doesn’t look too messy, and Bet asks the driver to wait for her. Bet is admitting Arnold because she can no longer handle him. The nurse informs her that usually they ask family to stay away for six months, and that she should say goodbye.

Bet has a surge of worry. She frets over ensuring the staff know about his special blanket and other preferences and requirements. She leaves Arnold behind and gets back into the cab, telling the driver she has just fifteen minutes to get to the station. She has timed her trip so that she will have no delay in getting back to the apartment. But when she arrives at the station, she learns that the train is delayed by twenty minutes.

Bet is horrified, and begins to cry. She has no idea what she will do with the twenty minutes she now has on her hands, and sits down on a bench, confused and disconcerted. Just then a group of men with audio equipment enter the station and set up a lectern and microphones. The mayor of the town enters, and begins giving a speech regarding the recent expansion of the train station, specifically stating that he will take up twenty minutes of everyone’s time. Bet visibly perks up. She dries her eyes and straightens up, thinking that the mayor and his group of people have come for her—simply to entertain her. Bet thinks happily that this is how her life will be from that point on—she will be able to simply relax and watch, enduring.