Prickly, wry, resistant to change yet ruthlessly honest and deeply empathetic, Olive Kitteridge is "a compelling life force" ( San Francisco Chronicle ). The New Yorker has said that Elizabeth Strout "animates the ordinary with an astonishing force," and she has never done so more clearly than in these pages, where the iconic Olive struggles to understand not only herself and her own life but the lives of those around her in the town of Crosby, Maine. Whether with a teenager coming to terms with the loss of her father, a young woman about to give birth during a hilariously inopportune moment, a nurse who confesses a secret high school crush, or a lawyer who struggles with an inheritance she does not want to accept, the unforgettable Olive will continue to startle us, to move us, and to inspire moments of transcendent grace.
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Olive, Again is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2019 by Elizabeth Strout All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
RANDOM HOUSE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
“The Walk” was first published in Night Stories: Linden Frederick—Fifteen Paintings and the Stories They Inspired, copyright 2017 Forum Gallery, published by Glitterati Arts. It was also published previously in It Occurs to Me That I Am America, edited by Jonathan Santlofer (New York: Touchstone, 2018).
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA Names: Strout, Elizabeth, author.
Title: Olive, again / Elizabeth Strout.
Description: New York : Random House, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2019004792 | ISBN 9780812996548 | ISBN 9780812996555 (ebook) Classification: LCC PS3569.T736 O45 2019 | DDC 813/.54—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019004792
Ebook ISBN 9780812996555
Book design by Dana Leigh Blanchette, adapted for ebook Cover design: Greg Mollica
Cover art: Sarah Maycock
The End of the Civil War Days
By Elizabeth Strout
About the Author
In the early afternoon on a Saturday in June, Jack Kennison put on his sunglasses, got into his sports car with the top down, strapped the seatbelt over his shoulder and across his large stomach, and drove to Portland—almost an hour away—to buy a gallon of whiskey rather than bump into Olive Kitteridge at the grocery store here in Crosby, Maine. Or even that other woman he had seen twice in the store as he stood holding his whiskey while she talked about the weather. The weather. That woman—he could not remember her name—was a widow as well.
As he drove, an almost-calmness came to him, and once in Portland he parked and walked down by the water. Summer had opened itself, and while it was still chilly in mid-June, the sky was blue and the gulls were flying above the docks. There were people on the sidewalks, many were young people with kids or strollers, and they all seemed to be talking to one another. This fact impressed him. How easily they took this for granted, to be with one another, to be talking! No one seemed to even glance at him, and he realized what he had known before, only now it came to him differently: He was just an old man with a sloppy belly and not anyone worth noticing. Almost, this was freeing. There had been many years of his life when he was a tall, good-looking man, no gut, strolling about the campus at Harvard, and people did look at him then, for all those years, he would see students glance at him with deference, and also women, they looked at him. At department meetings he had been intimidating; this was told to him by colleagues, and he understood it to be true, for he had meant to be that way. Now he sauntered down one of the wharfs where condos were built, and he thought perhaps he should move here, water everywhere around him, and people too. He took from his pocket his cellphone, glanced at it, and returned it to his pocket. It was his daughter he wished to speak to.
A couple emerged from the door of one apartment; they were his age, the man also had a stomach, though not as big as Jack’s, and the woman looked worried, but the way they were together made him think they had been married for years. “It’s over now,” he heard the woman say, and the man said something, and the woman said, “No, it’s over.” They walked past him (not noticing him) and when he turned to glance at them a moment later, he was surprised—vaguely—to see that the woman had put her arm through the man’s, as they walked down the wharf toward the small city.
Jack stood at the end of the wharf and watched the ocean; he looked one way, then the other. Small whitecaps rolled up from a breeze that he felt only now. This is where the ferry came in from Nova Scotia, he and Betsy had taken it one day. They had stayed in Nova Scotia three nights. He tried to think if Betsy had put her arm through his; she may have. So now his mind carried an image of them walking off the ferry, his wife’s arm through his—
He turned to go.
“Knucklehead.” He said the word out loud and saw a young boy on the wharf close by turn to look at him, startled. This meant he was an old man who was talking to himself on a wharf in Portland, Maine, and he could not—Jack Kennison, with his two PhDs—he could not figure out how this had happened. “Wow.” He said that out loud as well, past the young boy by now. There were benches, and he sat down on an empty one. He took out his phone and called his daughter; it would not yet be noontime in San Francisco, where she lived. He was surprised when she answered.
“Dad?” she said. “Are you okay?”
He looked skyward. “Oh, Cassie,” he said, “I just wondered how you were doing.”
“I’m okay, Dad.”
“Okay, then. Good. That’s good to hear.”
There was silence for a moment, then she said, “Where are you?”
“Oh. I’m on the dock in Portland.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I just thought I’d come to Portland. You know, get out of the house.” Jack squinted out toward the water.
Another silence. Then she said, “Okay.”
“Listen, Cassie,” Jack said, “I just wanted to say I know I’m a shit. I know that. Just so you know. I know that I’m a shit.”
“Daddy,” she said. “Daddy, come on. What am I supposed to say?”
“Nothing,” he answered agreeably. “Nothing to say to that. But I just wanted you to know I know.”
There was another silence, longer this time, and he felt fear.
She said, “Is this because of how you’ve treated me, or because of your affair for all those years with Elaine Croft?”
He looked down at the planks of the wharf, saw his black old-man sneakers on the roughened boards. “Both,” he said. “Or you can take your pick.”
“Oh, Daddy,” she said. “Oh, Daddy, I don’t know what to do. What am I supposed to do for you?”
He shook his head. “Nothing, kid. You’re not supposed to do anything for me. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Dad, we were on our way out.”
“Yeah? Where’re you going?”
“The farmers market. It’s Saturday and we go to the farmers market on Saturdays.”
“Okay,” Jack said. “You get going. Don’t worry. I’ll talk to you again. Bye-bye now.”
He thought he could hear her sigh. “All right,” she said. “Goodbye.”
And that was that! That was that.
Jack sat on the bench a long time. People walked by, or perhaps no people walked by for a while, but he kept thinking of his wife, Betsy, and he wanted to howl. He understood only this: that he deserved all of it. He deserved the fact that right now he wore a pad in his underwear because of prostate surgery, he deserved it; he deserved his daughter not wanting to speak to him because for years he had not wanted to speak to her—she was gay; she was a gay woman, and this still made a small wave of uneasiness move through him. Betsy, though, did not deserve to be dead. He deserved to be dead, but Betsy did not deserve that status. And yet he felt a sudden fury at his wife—“Oh, Jesus Christ Almighty,” he muttered.
When his wife was dying, she was the one who was furious. She said, “I hate you.” And he said, “I don’t blame you.” She said, “Oh, stop it.” But he had meant it—how could he blame her? He could not blame her. And the last thing she said to him was: “I hate you because I’m going to die and you’re going to live.”
As he glanced up at a seagull, he thought, But I’m not living, Betsy. What a terrible joke it has been.
* * *
The bar at the Regency Hotel was in the basement, the walls were dark green and the windows looked out at the sidewalks, but the sidewalks were high up in the windows, and mostly he could just see legs going by. He sat at the bar and ordered one whiskey neat. The bartender was a pleasant fellow. “Good,” Jack said when the young man asked how he was today.
“Okay, then,” said the bartender; his eyes were small and dark beneath his longish dark hair. As he poured the drink, Jack noticed that he was older than he had first seemed, although Jack had a hard time these days figuring out the age of people, the young especially. And then Jack thought: What if I’d had a son? He had thought this so many times in his life it surprised him that he kept wondering. And what if he had not married Betsy on the rebound, as he had? He had been on the rebound, and she had been as well, from that fellow Tom Groger she’d loved so much in college. What then? Troubled but feeling better—he was in the presence of someone, the bartender—Jack laid these thoughts out before him like a large piece of cloth. He understood that he was a seventy-four-year-old man who looks back at life and marvels that it unfolded as it did, who feels unbearable regret for all the mistakes made.
And then he thought: How does one live an honest life?
This was not the first time he had wondered this, but it felt different today, he felt distant from it, and he truly wondered.
“So what brings you to Portland?” The bartender asked this as he wiped the bar with a cloth.
Jack said, “Nothing.”
The fellow glanced up at him, turning slightly to wipe the other part of the counter.
“I wanted to get out of the house,” Jack said. “I live in Crosby.”
“Nice town, Crosby.”
“Yes, it is.” Jack sipped his whiskey, put the glass down with care. “My wife died seven months ago,” he said.
Now the fellow looked at Jack again, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “Sorry? Did you say—?”
“I said my wife died seven months ago.”
“That’s too bad,” the fellow said. “That’s gotta be tough.”
“Well, it is. Yes, it is.”
The young man’s face didn’t change expression as he said, “My dad died a year ago and my mom’s been great, but I know it’s been hard on her.”
“Sure.” Jack hesitated, then he said, “How’s it been on you?”
“Oh, it’s sad. But he was sick a while. You know.”
Jack felt the inner slow burn that was familiar to him, which he felt when that widow talked about the weather in the grocery store. He wanted to say, Stop it! Tell me how it’s really been! He sat back, pushed his glass forward. It’s just the way it was, that’s all. People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something.
And this is why he missed Olive Kitteridge.
Okay, he said to himself. Okay now. Easy, boy.
* * *
With deliberation, he made his mind return to Betsy. And then he remembered something—how curious that he should remember this now: When he had gone in for surgery many years back, to have his gallbladder out, his wife had stood at his side in recovery, and when he woke again later a patient near him said, “Your wife was gazing at you with such love, I was struck at how she was looking at you so lovingly.” Jack had believed this; it had, he remembered, made him a tiny bit uneasy, and then—years later—during an argument he brought it up and Betsy said, “I was hoping you would die.”
Her directness had flabbergasted him. “You were hoping I would die?” In his memory he had opened his arms in astonishment as he asked her this.
And then she had said, looking uncomfortable, “It would have made things easier for me.”
So there was that.
Oh, Betsy! Betsy, Betsy, Betsy, we blew it—we blew our chance. He could not really pinpoint when, maybe because there had never been a chance. After all, she was she, and he was he. On their wedding night she had given herself, but not freely, as she had in the months before. He did, of course, always remember that. And she had never really given herself freely since that night, now forty-three years ago.
“How long have you lived in Crosby?” The bartender asked him this.
“Six years.” Jack switched his legs to the other side of the barstool. “I have now lived in Crosby, Maine, for six years.”
The bartender nodded. A couple came in and sat down at the far end of the bar; they were young, and the woman had long hair that she smoothed over one shoulder—a confident person. The bartender walked over to them.
Now Jack allowed his mind to go to Olive Kitteridge. Tall, big; God, she was a strange woman. He had liked her quite a bit, she had an honesty—was it an honesty?—she had something about her. A widow, she had—it felt to him—practically saved his life. They’d gone to dinner a few times, a concert; he had kissed her on the mouth. He could laugh out loud to think about this now. Her mouth. Olive Kitteridge. Like kissing a barnacle-covered whale. She had a grandson born a couple of years ago, Jack hadn’t especially cared, but she had cared because the kid was called Henry after his grandfather, Olive’s dead husband. Jack had suggested she go see the little fellow Henry in New York City and she had said, Well, she didn’t think so. Who knows why? Things were not good with her son, he knew that much. But things weren’t good with his daughter either. They had that in common. He remembered how Olive had told him right away that her father had killed himself when she was thirty. Shot himself in his kitchen. Maybe this had something to do with how she was; it must have. And then she had come over one morning and unexpectedly lain down next to him on the bed in the guest room. Boy, he had been relieved. Relief had just flowed through him when she’d put her head on his chest. “Stay,” he said finally, but she rose and said she had to get home. “I’d like it if you stayed,” he said, but she did not. And she never returned. When he tried calling her, she did not answer the telephone.
He had bumped into her in the grocery store only once—a few days after she had lain down with him; he’d been holding his jug of whiskey. “Olive!” he’d exclaimed. But she had been agitated: Her son, down in New York City, was going to have another baby any day! “I thought he just had a baby,” Jack said, and she said, Well, the woman was pregnant again and they hadn’t even told her until now! Olive had a grandson; why did they need more kids, there were already two the wife had brought into the marriage. Olive must have said that three times at least. He called her the next day, and the telephone just kept ringing, and he realized she didn’t have her answering machine turned on. Could that be true? Anything could be true with Olive. He assumed she had probably, finally, gone to New York to see this new grandchild, because when he called again the next day, there was no answer then either. He emailed her with the subject line ?????. And then no subject. She had not answered that either. More than three weeks ago that had been.
The bartender was back in front of Jack, making the couple’s drinks. Jack said, “And you? Did you grow up around here?”
“Nah,” the fellow said, “I grew up right outside of Boston. I’m here ’cause of my girlfriend. She lives here.” He tossed his head a bit, getting his dark hair out of his eyes.
Jack nodded, drank his whiskey. “For years my wife and I lived in Cambridge,” Jack said, “and then we came up here.”
He could have sworn he saw something on the bartender’s face, a smirk, before the fellow turned away and went to place the drinks before the couple.
When the fellow returned, he said to Jack, “A Harvard man? So you were a Harvard man.” He pulled a rack of clean glasses from below him, and began to put them—hanging them upside down—in the rack above him.
“I cleaned toilets there,” Jack said. And the idiot guy looked at him quickly, as though to see if he was joking. “No, I did not clean toilets. I taught there.”
“Great. You wanted to retire up here?”
Jack had never wanted to retire. “How much do I owe you?” he asked.
* * *
Driving back, he thought of Schroeder, what a goddamn ass that man was, what a shit of a dean. When Elaine filed the lawsuit, when she actually did that, citing sexual harassment as the reason she did not get tenure, Schroeder became a terrible man. He was outlandish, would not even let Jack speak to him. It’s in the hands of the lawyers, he said. And Jack was put on research leave. Three years it took for that thing to settle, for Elaine to get her significant chunk of change, and by that time Jack and Betsy had moved to Maine; Jack had retired. They came to Maine because Betsy wanted to—she wanted to get far away, and boy they did. Crosby was a pretty coastal town she had researched online, and it was about as far away as a person could get, even though it was just a few hours up the East Coast. They moved to the town without knowing one person there. But Betsy made friends; it was her nature to do so.
Pull your car over.
These words were said a few times before Jack paid attention to them; they were said through a bullhorn loudspeaker, and the different sound of them, different from just the tires rumbling over the pavement, puzzled Jack, and then he was amazed when he saw the lights flashing blue and the police car right on his tail. Pull your car over. “Jesus,” Jack said aloud, and he pulled his car over to the side of the highway. He turned the engine off and glanced down to the floor of the passenger seat at the plastic bag that had his whiskey in it, bought at a grocery store outside of Portland. He watched the young policeman who was walking over—what a puffed-up piece of crap the guy was, wearing his sunglasses—and Jack said, politely, “How may I help you?”
“Sir, your driver’s license and registration.”
Jack opened the glove compartment, finally found the registration, then pulled his license from his wallet and handed them to the policeman.
“Were you aware that you were going seventy in a fifty-five-mile zone?” The policeman asked him this rudely, Jack felt.
“Well, no, sir, I was not aware of that. And I’m very sorry.” Sarcasm was his weak point, Betsy had always said, but this policeman was beyond hearing that.
“Were you aware that your car is uninspected?”
“It was due for inspection in March.”
“Huh.” Jack looked around the front seat. “Well. Here’s what happened. Now that I think of it. My wife died, you see. She died.” Jack peered up at the police officer. “Dead.” Jack said this pointedly.
“Take your sunglasses off, sir.”
“I said, take your sunglasses off, sir. Now.”
Jack removed his sunglasses and smiled in an exaggerated way at the policeman. “Now you take yours off,” Jack said. “Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine.” He grinned up at the fellow.
After holding up Jack’s license and then looking at Jack, the policeman said, “Wait here while I run these.” And the policeman went back to his car, which still had the flashing blue lights zinging around. He spoke into his radio as he walked. Within moments another police car came driving up, also with blue lights flashing.
“You called for backup?” Jack yelled this after him. “Am I that dangerous?”
The second policeman got out of his car and walked up to Jack. This man was huge, and not young. He’d seen stuff, is what his walk said, what his eyes—expressionless, no sunglasses for him—said. “What’s that in the bag on the floor?” the huge man asked with his big voice.
“It’s liquor. Whiskey. Would you like to see?”
“Step out of the car.”
Jack peered up at him. “What?”
The huge man stepped back. “Step out of the car now.”
Jack got out of the car—slowly, because he felt winded. The huge man said, “Put your hands on the top of the car,” and this made Jack laugh. He said, “There is no top. See? This is called a convertible and there is no top to the car at the moment.”
The policeman said, “Put your hands on the top of the car now.”
“Like this?” Jack put his hands on the window frame.
“Stay there.” The man walked back to the car that had pulled Jack over and spoke to the other police officer, sitting in the front seat.
It came to Jack then how these days everything was videotaped from a policeman’s car—he had read this somewhere—and he suddenly gave the finger to the two cars behind him. Then he put his hand back on the window frame. “Horseshit,” he said.
Now the first policeman got out of his car and strode up to Jack, his holster strapped against his thigh. Jack, with his big belly hanging out and his hands ridiculously placed on the window frame, looked over at the guy and said, “Hey, you’re packed.”
“What did you say?” The policeman was pissed.
“I said nothing.”
“You want to be placed under arrest?” the policeman asked. “Would you like that?”
Jack started to laugh, then bit his lip. He shook his head, looking down at the ground. And what he saw were many ants. They had been interrupted by his car tracks, and he stared down at the tiny little ants who were making their way through a crack in the pavement, piece of sand by piece of sand from the place where his tire had crushed so many of them, to— Where? A new spot?
“Turn around and put your hands up,” the policeman directed, and so Jack, holding his hands up, turned around, and he was aware of the cars going by on the turnpike. What if someone recognized him? There was Jack Kennison holding his hands up like a criminal with two police cars and their flashing blue lights. “You listen to me,” the policeman said. He raised his sunglasses to rub one eye, and in that brief moment Jack saw the man’s eyes, and they were strange, like the eyes of a fish. The policeman pointed a finger at Jack. He kept pointing the finger but not saying anything, as though he couldn’t remember what he’d been going to say.
Jack cocked his head. “Listening,” he said. “All ears.” He said this with as much sarcasm as he could.
Fish-Eyes walked around to the other side of Jack’s car, opened the door, and brought out the bottle of whiskey in its plastic bag. “What’s this?” he asked, walking back toward Jack.
Jack put his arms down and said, “I told your friend, it’s whiskey. Come on, you can see that. For the love of Christ.”
Fish-Eyes stepped close to Jack then, and Jack backed away, except there was nowhere to go, his car was right there. “Now you tell me again what you just said,” Fish-Eyes directed.
“I said it’s whiskey, and you can see that. And then I said something about Christ. Something about Christ and love.”
“You’ve been drinking,” Fish-Eyes said. “You have been drinking, sir.” And his voice held something so ugly that Jack was sobered. Fish-Eyes dropped the bag with the whiskey onto the driver’s seat of Jack’s car.
“I have,” Jack said. “I had a drink at the Regency bar in Portland.”
From his back pocket Fish-Eyes brought something forward; it was small enough to be held in one hand, yet square-looking and gray, and Jack said, “Jesus, are you going to taser me?”
Fish-Eyes smiled, he smiled! He stepped toward Jack holding out the thing, and Jack said, “Please, come on.” He held his arms against his chest; he was really frightened.
“Breathe in this,” said Fish-Eyes, and a little hose appeared from the thing he was holding.
Jack put his mouth on the little hose and breathed.
“Again,” said Fish-Eyes, moving closer to Jack.
Jack took another breath, then took his mouth off the hose. Fish-Eyes looked at the thing closely and said, “Well, well, you are just under the legal limit.” He put the hose gadget back into his pocket and said to Jack, “He’s writing you up a ticket, and after he gives it to you, I suggest you get in your car and drive straight to a place that gets this car inspected, do you understand me, sir?”
Jack said, “Yes.” Then he said, “May I get back in my car now?”
Fish-Eyes leaned toward him. “Yes, you can get back in your car now.”
So Jack sat himself in the driver’s seat, which was low to the ground since it was a sports car, and put the whiskey onto the seat next to him, and waited for the huge man to bring him a ticket, but Fish-Eyes stood right there as though Jack might bolt.
And then—from the corner of his eye—Jack saw something he would never be sure about and would never forget. The policeman’s crotch was right at Jack’s eye level, and Jack thought—he thought but looked away quickly—that the guy might be getting a boner. There was a bulge there bigger than— Jack glanced up at the man’s face, and the guy was staring down at Jack with his sunglasses on.
The huge man came over and gave Jack the ticket, and Jack said, “Thank you very much, fellows. I’ll be off now.” And he drove slowly away. But Fish-Eyes followed him all the way down the turnpike until Jack came to the exit for Crosby, and when Jack took that exit the guy did not follow him but headed on straight up the turnpike. Jack let out a yell: “Get yourself some tighty-whities, like every other man in this state!”
Jack took a deep breath and said, “Okay. It’s okay. It’s over.” He drove the eight miles into Crosby, and on the way he said, “Betsy. Betsy! Wait until I tell you what happened to me. You’re not going to believe this one, Betts.” He allowed himself this, the conversation with her about what had just happened to him. “Thanks, Betsy,” he said, and what he meant was thanks for being so nice about the prostate surgery. Which she had been; there was no doubt about that. All his life Jack had been an undershorts man. Never for him those tighty-whities, but in Crosby, Maine, you couldn’t buy any undershorts. This had amazed him. And Betsy had gone to Freeport for him, and bought his undershorts there. Then his prostate surgery, almost one year ago, forced him to give up the undershorts. He needed a place to put the stupid pad. How he hated it! And right now, as though on cue, he felt a squirt—not a dribble—come from him. “Oh, for Christ’s sake,” he said out loud. The whole state, it seemed, wore tighty-whities; just recently Jack had gone to the Walmart on the outskirts of town to buy one more package of them, and he had noticed there were no undershorts there either. Just a slab of tighty-whities sized all the way to XXX-Large for all those poor fat men, huge men, in this state. But Betsy had gone to Freeport and found him undershorts there. Oh, Betsy! Betsy!
* * *
Home, Jack had trouble believing what had happened during the day, it all seemed ridiculous and somehow—almost—incidental. He sat for a long time in his big chair, looking at the living room; it was a spacious room with a low blue couch on metal legs that stretched along a few feet from the wall facing the television, then went at a right angle along the other area of the room, with a metal-legged glass coffee table in front. Then Jack turned in his chair and stared through the windows at the field of grass and the trees beyond, their leaves bright green. He and Betsy had agreed that they liked the view of this field more than any view of the water, and as he remembered this a warmth trembled through him. Finally he rose, poured himself some whiskey, and boiled four hot dogs on the stove. He kept shaking his head while he opened a can of baked beans. “Betsy,” he said out loud a few times. When he was through eating and had rinsed the dishes—he did not put them in the dishwasher, that seemed too much trouble—he had one more glass of whiskey and got to thinking of Betsy being so in love with that Tom Groger fellow. Oh, what a strange thing a life was—
But filled with a sense of goodwill—the day was almost over and the whiskey was working—Jack sat at his computer and googled the fellow, Tom Groger. He found the man; he was apparently still teaching at that private high school for girls in Connecticut; he’d be eight years younger than Jack. But only girls? Still? Jack scrolled through and saw they’d been accepting young men for about ten years. Then he found a small picture of Tom Groger; he had gray hair now, he was thin, you could see that in his face, which seemed pleasant enough, and very bland to Jack’s eyes. There was an email address for him attached to the school’s site. So Jack wrote to him. “My wife, Betsy (Arrow as you would have known her), died seven months ago, and I know she loved you very much in her youth. I thought you might want to know about her death.” He pressed SEND.
Jack sat back and looked at the light that was changing on the trees. These long, long evenings; they were so long and beautiful, it just killed him. The field was darkening, the trees behind it were like pieces of black canvas, but the sky still sent down the sun, which sliced gently across the grass on the far end of the field. His mind went back over the day and it seemed he could make no sense of it. Had that guy really had a boner? It seemed impossible, yet Jack knew—in a way, he knew—the feeling of anger and power that might have produced it. If the guy had even been getting one. And then Jack thought of the ants that were still going about trying to get their sand wherever they needed it to go. They seemed almost heartbreaking to him, in their tininess and their resilience.
Two hours later, Jack checked his email, hoping his daughter might have written and hoping as well that Olive Kitteridge might have reappeared in his life. After all, she had been the one who emailed him the first time, about her son, and he had answered about his daughter. He had even told Olive one day about his affair with Elaine Croft, and Olive had not seemed to judge him. She had spoken of a schoolteacher that she herself had fallen in love with years ago—an almost-affair, she called it—and the man had died in a car accident one night.
Now as he checked his email he saw that he had forgotten (forgotten!) about Tom Groger, but there was a reply from TGroger@Whiteschool.edu. Jack squinted through his reading glasses. “I know about the death of your wife. Betsy and I were in contact for many years. I don’t know if I should tell you this, or not, but she spoke to me of your own dalliance, and perhaps I should tell you—I don’t know, as I said, if I should tell you or not—but there was a period of time when Betsy and I met in a hotel in Boston, and also New York. Perhaps you already know that.”
Jack pushed back his chair from the desk; the wheels rumbled against the hardwood floor. He pulled the chair back in and read the message again. “Betsy,” he murmured, “why, you son of a gun.” He took his glasses off, wiped his arm across his face. “Holy shit,” he said. In a few minutes he put his glasses back on and read the email one more time. “Dalliance?” said Jack out loud. “Who uses the word ‘dalliance’? What are you, Groger, some faggot?” He pushed DELETE and the message disappeared.
Jack felt as sober as a churchmouse. He walked around his house, looking at the touches from his wife, the lamps that had that frill around the bottoms, the mahogany bowl she picked up somewhere that stayed on the glass coffee table and was now filled with junk: keys, an old phone that didn’t work, business cards, paper clips. He tried to think when his wife went to New York, and it was—he thought—not too far into their marriage. She had been a kindergarten teacher, and he remembered her speaking of meetings in New York she had to attend. He had paid no attention; he was busy getting tenure, and then he was just busy.
Jack sat down in his armchair and immediately stood up. He walked around the house again, stared out at the now darkened field, then went upstairs and walked around that too. His bed, their marriage bed, was unmade, as it was every day except when the cleaning woman came, and it seemed to him to be the mess that he was, or that they had been. “Betsy,” he said out loud, “Jesus Christ, Betsy.” He sat tentatively on the edge of the bed, his hand running up and down his neck. Maybe Groger was just yanking his chain, being mean for the fun of it. But no. Groger was not the sort; he was, Jack had always gathered, a serious man, he taught English, for the love of Christ, all those years at that school for little twats. Wait, was this why Betsy had said it would have “made things easier” if Jack had died during his gallbladder operation? That far back? How far back was that? Ten years into their marriage at least. “You were doing my wife?” Jack said aloud. “You little prick.” He stood up and resumed his walking through the upstairs. There was another bedroom, and then the room his wife had used as her study; Jack went into them both, turning around as though looking for something. Then he went back downstairs and walked through the two guest rooms, the one with the double bed and the one with the single bed. In the kitchen he poured himself another whiskey from the jug he had bought that day. It seemed days ago he had bought it.
His own affair with Elaine Croft had not started until he’d been married for twenty-five years. The urgency he and Elaine had felt; God, it was something. It was terrible. Had Betsy felt that? Not possible, Betsy was not an urgent woman. But how did he know what kind of woman she was?
“Hey, Cassie,” Jack said, “your mother was a slut.”
But he knew, even as he said this, that it was not true. Cassie’s mother had been— Well, she was kind of a slut, for Christ’s sake, if she was off doing Groger in a hotel in Boston and in New York and Cassie was just a little kid, but Betsy had been a wonderful mother, that was the truth. Jack shook his head. Now he suddenly felt drunk. He also knew he would never, ever tell Cassie, he would let her have her mother as she had been: a saint who put up with a homophobic father, a self-absorbed asshole.
“Okay,” said Jack. “Okay.”
He sat back at his computer. He retrieved the message from Trash, read it one more time, then wrote—being very careful of spelling so it would not sound drunk—Hello, Tom. Yes, I do know of your meetings with her. This is why I thought you would want to know of her death. He sent it, then he shut the computer off.
He stood up and went and sat in his armchair for a long time. He thought once again of the ants he had seen today while that awful Fish-Eyes man had him against the car, those ants. Just doing what they were meant to do, live until they died, so indiscriminately by Jack’s car. He really could not stop thinking of them. Jack Kennison, who had studied human behavior from the medieval times, then the Austro-Hungarian times of Archduke Franz Ferdinand being killed and everyone in Europe blowing each other up as a result—Jack was thinking about those ants.
Then he thought how tomorrow was Sunday and how long a day that would be.
And then he thought—as though a kaleidoscope of colors swam past him—about his own life, as it had been and as it was now, and he said out loud, “You’re not much, Jack Kennison.” This surprised him, but he felt it to be true. Who had just said that, about not being much? Olive Kitteridge. She had said it regarding some woman in town. “She’s not much,” Olive had said, and there was the woman, gone, dismissed.
Eventually Jack got out a piece of paper and wrote in pen, Dear Olive Kitteridge, I have missed you, and if you would see fit to call me or email me or see me, I would like that very much. He signed it and stuck it into an envelope. He didn’t lick it closed. He would decide in the morning whether to mail it or not.
Two days earlier, Olive Kitteridge had delivered a baby.
She had delivered the baby in the backseat of her car; her car had been parked on the front lawn of Marlene Bonney’s house. Marlene was having a baby shower for her daughter, and Olive had not wanted to park behind the other cars lined up on the dirt road. She had been afraid that someone might park behind her and she wouldn’t be able to get out; Olive liked to get out. So she had parked her car on the front lawn of the house, and a good thing she had, that foolish girl—her name was Ashley and she had bright blond hair, she was a friend of Marlene’s daughter—had gone into labor, and Olive knew it before anyone else did; they were all sitting around the living room on folding chairs and she had seen Ashley, who sat next to her, and who was enormously pregnant, wearing a red stretch top to accentuate this pregnancy, leave the room, and Olive just knew.
She’d gotten up and found the girl in the kitchen, leaning over the sink, saying, “Oh God, oh God,” and Olive had said to her, “You’re in labor,” and the idiot child had said, “I think I am. But I’m not due for another week.”
And a stupid baby shower. Olive, thinking of this as she sat in her own living room, looking out over the water, could not, even now, believe what a stupid baby shower that had been. She said out loud, “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” And then she got up and went into her kitchen and sat down there. “God,” she said.
She rocked her foot up and down.
The big wristwatch of her dead husband, Henry, which she wore, and had worn since his stroke four years ago, said it was four o’clock. “All right then,” she said. And she got her jacket—it was June, but not warm today—and her big black handbag and she went and got into her car—which had that gunky stuff still left on the backseat from that foolish girl, although Olive had tried to clean it as best she could—and she drove to Libby’s, where she bought a lobster roll, and then she drove down to the Point and sat in her car there and ate the lobster roll, looking out at Halfway Rock.
A man in a pickup truck was parked nearby, and Olive waved through her window to him but he did not wave back. “Phooey to you,” she said, and a small piece of lobster meat landed on her jacket. “Oh, hell’s bells,” she said, because the mayonnaise had gotten into the jacket—she could see a tiny dark spot—and would spoil the jacket if she didn’t get it to hot water fast. The jacket was new, she had made it yesterday, sewing the pieces of quilted blue-and-white swirling fabric on her old machine, being sure to make it long enough to go over her hind end.
Agitation ripped through her.
The man in the pickup truck was talking on a cellphone, and he suddenly laughed; she could see him throwing his head back, could even see his teeth as he opened his mouth in his laughter. Then he started his truck and backed it up, still talking on his cellphone, and Olive was alone with the bay spread out before her, the sunlight glinting over the water, the trees on the small island standing at attention; the rocks were wet, the tide was going out. She heard the small sounds of her chewing, and a loneliness that was profound assailed her.
It was Jack Kennison. She knew this is what she had been thinking of, that horrible old rich flub-dub of a man she had seen for a number of weeks this spring. She had liked him. She had even lain down on his bed with him one day, a month ago now, right next to him, could hear his heart beating as her head lay upon his chest. And she had felt such a rush of relief—and then fear had rumbled through her. Olive did not like fear.
And so after a while she had sat up and he had said, “Stay, Olive.” But she did not stay. “Call me,” he had said. “I would like it if you called me.” She had not called. He could call her if he wanted to. And he had not called. But she had bumped into him soon after, in the grocery store, and told him about her son who was going to have another baby any day down in New York City, and Jack had been nice about that, but he had not suggested she come see him again, and then she saw him later (he had not seen her) in the same store, talking to that stupid widow Bertha Babcock, who for all Olive knew was a Republican like Jack was, and maybe he preferred that stupid woman to Olive. Who knew? He had sent one email with a bunch of question marks in the subject line and nothing more. That was an email? Olive didn’t think so.
“Phooey to you,” she said now, and finished her lobster roll. She rolled up the paper it had come in and tossed it onto the backseat, where that mess still showed in a stain from that idiot girl.
* * *
“I delivered a baby today,” she had told her son on the telephone.
“Did you hear me?” Olive asked. “I said I delivered a baby today.”
“Where?” His voice sounded wary.
“In my car outside Marlene Bonney’s house. There was a girl—” And she told him the story.
“Huh. Well done, Mom.” Then in a sardonic tone he said, “You can come here and deliver your next grandchild. Ann’s having it in a pool.”
“A pool?” Olive could not understand what he was saying.
Christopher spoke in a muffled tone to someone near him.
“Ann’s pregnant again? Christopher, why didn’t you tell me?”
“She’s not pregnant yet. We’re trying. But she’ll get pregnant.”
Olive said, “What do you mean, she’s having it in a pool? A swimming pool?”
“Yeah. Sort of. A kiddie pool. The kind we had in the backyard. Only this one is bigger and obviously super clean.”
“Why? Because it’s more natural. The baby slides into the water. The midwife will be here. It’s safe. It’s better than safe, it’s the way babies should be born.”
“I see,” said Olive. She didn’t see at all. “When is she having this baby?”
“As soon as we know she’s pregnant, we’ll start counting. We’re not telling anyone that we’re even trying, because of what just happened to the last one. But I just told you. So there.”
“All right then,” Olive said. “Goodbye.”
Christopher—she was sure of this—had made a sound of disgust before he said, “Goodbye, Mom.”
* * *
Back home, Olive was pleased to see that the little spot of mayonnaise on her new jacket responded to the hot water and soap, and she hung it in the bathroom to let the spot dry. Then she went back and sat in the chair overlooking the bay. The sun slanted at an angle across it, nothing but sparkles at the moment, only a lobster buoy or two could be seen, the sun at this time of day was that bright as it cut right across the water. She could not stop thinking how stupid that baby shower had been. All women. Why only women at a baby shower? Did men have nothing to do with this business of babies? Olive thought she didn’t like women.
She liked men.
She had always liked men. She had wanted five sons. And she still wished she had had them, because Christopher was— Oh, Olive felt the weight of real sadness descend now, as it had been on her ever since Henry had his stroke, four years ago, and as it had been since his death, two years ago now, she could almost feel her chest becoming heavy with it. Christopher and Ann had called their first baby together Henry, after Chris’s father. Henry Kitteridge. What a wonderful name. A wonderful man. Olive had not met her grandson.
She shifted in her chair, putting her hand to her chin, and thought again about that baby shower. There had been a table with food; Olive had been able to see intermittently, from where she had sat, little sandwiches and deviled eggs and tiny pieces of cake. When Marlene’s pregnant daughter went by, Olive had tugged on her smock and said, “Would you bring me some of that food?” The girl looked surprised and then said, “Oh, of course, Mrs. Kitteridge.” But the girl was waylaid by her guests, and it took forever before Olive had on her lap a small paper plate with two deviled eggs and a piece of chocolate cake. No fork, no napkin, nothing. “Thank you,” Olive had said.
She stuck the piece of cake into her mouth in one bite, then tucked the plate with the deviled eggs far beneath her chair. Deviled eggs made her gag.
Marlene’s daughter sat down in a white wicker chair that had ribbons attached to the top, flowing down, like she was queen for a day. When everybody finally took a seat—no one took the seat next to Olive until that pregnant girl Ashley had to because there were no other seats left—when they were all seated, Olive saw the table piled high with presents, and it was then she realized: She had not brought a gift. A wave of horror passed through her.
Marlene Bonney, on her way to the front of the room, stopped and said quietly, “Olive, how is Christopher?”
Olive said, “His new baby died. Heartbeat stopped a few days before it was due. Ann had to push it out dead.”
“Olive!” Marlene’s pretty eyes filled with tears.
“No reason to cry about it,” Olive said. (Olive had cried. She had cried like a newborn baby when she hung up the phone from Christopher after he told her.)
“Oh, Olive, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Marlene turned her head, looking over the room in a glance, then said quietly, “Best not to tell anyone here, don’t you think?”
“Fine,” Olive said.
Marlene squeezed Olive’s hand and said, “Let me tend to these girls.” Marlene stepped into the center of the room, clapping her hands, and said, “Okay, shall we get started?”
Marlene picked up a gift from the table and handed it to her daughter, who read the card and said, “Oh, this is from Ashley,” and everyone turned to look at the blond pregnant girl next to Olive. Ashley gave a little wave, her face glowing. Marlene’s daughter unwrapped the gift; she took the ribbons and stuck them onto a paper plate with scotch tape. Then she finally produced a little box, and in the box was a tiny sweater. “Oh, look at this!” she said.
From the room came many sounds of appreciation. And then, to Olive’s dismay, the sweater was passed from person to person. When it reached her she said “Very nice” and handed it to Ashley, who said, “I’ve already seen it,” and people laughed, and Ashley handed it to the person on the other side of her, who said many things about the sweater, then turned to give it to the girl on her left. This all took a long time. One girl said, “You knit this yourself?” And Ashley said she had. Someone else said that her mother-in-law knit too, but nothing as nice as this sweater. Ashley seemed to stiffen and her eyes got big. “Oh, that’s nice,” she said.
Finally it was time for the next gift, and Marlene walked one over to her daughter. The daughter looked at the card and said, “From Marie.” A young woman waved a hand at everyone from the far end of the room. Marlene’s daughter took her time attaching the ribbons from the gift onto the paper plate with tape, and then Olive understood that this would happen with each gift and in the end there would be a plate of ribbons. This confused Olive. She sat and waited, and then Marlene’s daughter held up a set of plastic baby bottles with little leaves painted on them. This did not go over as well, Olive noticed. “Won’t you be breastfeeding?” someone asked, and Marlene’s daughter said, “Well, I’ll try—” And then she said, gaily, “But I’m sure these will come in handy.”
Marie said, “I just thought, you never know. So it’s best to have some bottles around even if you breastfeed.”
“Of course,” someone said, and the bottles were passed around too. Olive thought they would go around faster, but it seemed that every person who touched the bottles had a story to tell about breastfeeding. Olive had certainly not breastfed Christopher—back then, no one did, except people who thought they were superior.
A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait—wait—while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life.
Into her hands was placed a yellow pair of booties; she stared at them, then handed them to Ashley, who said, “These are gorgeous.”
And then Olive suddenly thought how she had not been happy even before Henry had his stroke. Why this clarity came to her at that point she did not know. Her knowledge of this unhappiness came to her at times, but usually when she was alone.
* * *
The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage—a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding—had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. In other words, something had come between them that seemed insurmountable. She could, on certain days, point out to herself the addition of a boulder here, a pile of rocks there (Christopher’s adolescence, her feelings for that Jim O’Casey fellow so long ago who had taught school with her, Henry’s ludicrous behavior with that Thibodeau girl, the horror of a crime she and Henry had endured together when, under the threat of death, unspeakable things were spoken; and there had been Christopher’s divorce, and his leaving town), but she still did not understand why they should walk into old age with this high and horrible wall between them. And it was her fault. Because as her heart became more constricted, Henry’s heart became needier, and when he walked up behind her in the house sometimes to slip his arms around her, it was all she could do to not visibly shudder. Stop!, she wanted to shout. (But why? What crime had he been committing, except to ask for her love?)
“It’s a breast pump,” Ashley said to her. Because Olive was holding a plastic contraption, turning it over, unable to figure out what it was. “Okay,” Olive said, and she handed it to Ashley. Olive looked at the table of gifts and thought that not even a dent had been made in them.
A pale green baby’s blanket came around. Olive liked the feel of it; she kept it on her lap, smoothing her hands over it. Someone said, “Mrs. Kitteridge, let’s share,” and Olive handed it to Ashley immediately. Ashley said, “Ooh, this is nice,” and that’s when Olive saw that Ashley had drops of sweat running down the side of her face. And then Olive thought—she was quite sure—she heard the girl whisper, “Oh God.” When the green blanket reached Marie at the far end of the room, Ashley stood and said, “Excuse me, bathroom break.” And Marlene said, “You know where it is, right?” And Ashley said that she did.
A set of baby bath towels came around, and Ashley’s chair was still empty. Olive handed them to the girl on the other side of the empty chair, and then she stood and said, “I’ll be back.” In the kitchen Olive found Ashley, bent over the sink, saying, “Oh God, oh God.”
“Are you all right?” Olive said loudly. The girl shook her head. “You’re in labor,” Olive said.
The girl looked at her then, her face was wet. “I think I am,” she said. “This morning I thought maybe I’d had a contraction, but then I didn’t have any more, and now— Oh God,” she said, and she bent over, clinging to the edge of the sink.
“Let’s get you to the hospital,” Olive said.
In a moment, Ashley stood straight, calmer. “I just don’t want to spoil this, it’s so important to her. You know”—she whispered this to Olive—“I don’t know if Rick is even going to marry her.”
“Who cares,” Olive said. “You’re about to have a baby. To hell with spoiling it for her. They won’t even notice you’re gone.”
“Yes, they will. And then the attention will be on me. And it should be on—” Ashley’s face wrinkled and she held the edge of the sink again. “Oh God, oh God,” she said.
“I’m getting my bag and driving you to the hospital right now,” Olive said, aware that she was using her schoolteacher’s voice. She walked back into the living room and retrieved her big black bag.
People were laughing at something; loud laughter poured into Olive’s ears. “Olive?” It was Marlene’s voice coming to her.
Olive raised a hand above her head and went back to the kitchen, where Ashley was panting. “Help me,” Ashley said; she was weeping.
“Come on,” Olive said, pushing the girl toward the door. “That’s my car right there, on the lawn. Get in it.”
Marlene appeared and said, “What’s happening?”
“She’s in labor,” Olive said, “and I’m taking her to the hospital.”
“But I didn’t want to spoil things,” Ashley said to Marlene; she stood there, confusion on her wet face.
“Now,” said Olive. “Right now. In my car. On the lawn.”
“Oh, Olive, let’s call an ambulance. What if she has the baby while you’re driving? Stay here, Olive. Let me call.” Marlene reached for the phone on the wall and it seemed to take forever for someone to answer.
Olive said, “Well, I’m taking her, so you can tell whoever you get what my car looks like and they can follow me if they want.”
“But what does your car look like?” Marlene seemed to wail this.
“Take a look at it,” Olive commanded. Ashley had already gone through the doorway and was getting into the backseat of Olive’s car. “Tell the ambulance driver to pull me over if he shows up.”
As she opened the back door of her car, Olive saw the girl’s face and realized: This is it. This girl was going to have her baby. “Take your pants off,” Olive said to her. “Now. Take them off.” Ashley tried, but she was writhing in pain, and Olive looked through her bag, her hands shaking, and found the shears she always carried with her. “Lie back.” Olive leaned into the car, but she was afraid she would poke the girl’s belly with the shears, so she went around to the door on the other side and opened that, and she was able to cut the pants successfully. Then she walked back around the car again and pulled the pants off the girl. “Stay lying back,” she said firmly, oh, she was a schoolteacher all right.
The girl spread her knees, and Olive stared. She was amazed. Pudendum went through her mind. She had never seen a young woman’s—pudendum. My word! The amount of hair—and it was—well, it was wide open! There was blood and gooey stuff coming out; what a thing! Ashley was making grunting sounds, and Olive said, “Okay, okay, stay calm.” She had absolutely no idea what she was supposed to do. “Stay calm!” She yelled this. She reached and touched Ashley’s knees, opening them more. In a few minutes—Olive had no idea how many minutes—Ashley let out a huge sound, a large groan and screech combined. And out slipped something.
Olive thought the girl had not delivered a baby at all, but rather some lumpish thing, almost like clay. Then Olive saw the face, the eyes, the arms— “Oh my goodness,” she said. “You have a baby.”
She was hardly aware of the man’s hand on her shoulder as he said, “All right then, let’s see what we have.” He was from the ambulance, she had not even heard it drive in. But when she turned and saw his face, so in charge, she felt a rush of love for him. Marlene stood on the lawn, tears streaming down her face. “Oh, Olive,” she said. “Oh, my word.”
* * *
Olive stood up now and walked through her house. It felt no longer a house but more a nest where a mouse lived. It had felt this way for a long time. She sat down in the small kitchen, then she got up and walked past “the bump-out room,” as she and Henry had called it, now with the purple quilt spread messily on the large window seat—this is where Olive had slept since her husband’s death—and then she went back to the living room, where pale water streaks from last winter’s snow showed on the wallpaper near the fireplace. She sat on the big chair by the window and rocked her foot up and down. The evenings were interminable these days, and she remembered when she had loved the long evenings. Across the bay the sun twinkled, now low in the sky. A shaft of light cut over the floorboards and onto the rug in the living room.
Olive’s unease grew; she could almost not stand it. She rocked her foot higher and higher, and then when the sky had just turned dark she said out loud, “Let’s get this over with.” She dialed Jack Kennison’s number. She had lain down beside the man almost a month ago; it still felt like she had dreamed it. Well, if Bertha Babcock answered the phone, Olive would just hang up. Or if any woman did.
Jack answered on the second ring. “Hello?” he said, sounding bored. “Is this Olive Kitteridge calling?”
“How did you know that?” she asked; a wave of terror went through her as though he could see her sitting in her house.
“Oh, I have a thing called caller ID, so I always know who’s calling. And this says—hold on, let me take another look—yes, this says ‘Henry Kitteridge.’ And we know it can’t be Henry. So I thought perhaps it was you. Hello, Olive. How are you tonight? I’m very glad you called. I was wondering if we’d ever speak again. I’ve missed you, Olive.”
“I delivered a baby two days ago.” Olive said this sitting on the edge of her chair, looking through the window at the darkened bay.
There was a moment before Jack said, “You did? You delivered a baby?”
She told him the story, leaning back a bit, holding the phone with one hand, then switching it to the other. Jack roared with laughter. “I love that, Olive. My God, you delivered a baby. That’s wonderful!”
“Well, when I called my son and told him, he didn’t think it was so wonderful. He sounded— I don’t know how he sounded. Just wanted to talk about himself.”
She felt she heard Jack considering this. Then he said, “Oh, Olive, that boy of yours is a great disappointment.”
“Yes, he is,” she said.
“Come over,” Jack told her. “Get in your car and come on over to see me.”
“Now? It’s dark out.”
“If you don’t drive in the dark, I’ll come pick you up,” he said.
“I still drive in the dark. I’ll see you soon. Goodbye,” she said, and hung up. She went and got her new jacket that was hanging in the bathroom, the spot was dry.
* * *
Jack was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, and his arms looked flabby. His stomach seemed huge beneath his shirt, but Olive’s stomach was big too; she knew this. At least her hind end was covered up. Jack’s blue eyes twinkled slightly as he bowed and ushered her inside. “Hello, Olive.”
Olive wished she had not come.
“May I take your jacket?” he asked, and she said, “Nope.” She added, “It’s part of my outfit.”
She saw him look at her jacket, and he said, “Very nice.”
“I made it yesterday,” she said, and Jack said, “You made that?”
“Well, I’m impressed. Have a seat.” And Jack brought her into the living room, where the windows were dark from the outside. He nodded to an armchair and sat down in the one opposite it. “You’re nervous,” he said. And just as she was about to answer him what in hell did she have to be nervous about, he said, “I am too.” Then he added, “But we’re grown-ups, and we’ll manage.”
“I suppose we will,” she said. She thought he could have been nicer about her new jacket. Looking around, she was disappointed at what she saw: a wooden carved duck, a lampshade with a ruffle—had this stuff been there all along? It must have been and she had not noticed it; how could she not have noticed such foolishness?
“My daughter’s upset with me,” Jack said. “I told you that she’s a lesbian.”
“Yes, you did. And I told you—”
“I know, Olive. You told me I was a beast to care. And I thought about it, and I decided you were right. So I called her a few days ago and I tried, I tried—in a goofy way—to tell her that I knew I was a shit. She’d have none of it. I suppose she thinks I’m just so lonely with her mother gone that now I’ve decided to accept her.” Jack sighed; he looked tired, and he put a hand over his thinning hair.
“Is that true?” Olive asked.
“Well, I wondered. I gave it some thought. And I don’t know. It could be true. But it’s also true that your response got me thinking.” Jack shook his head slowly, looking down at his socks, which made Olive look down at them as well, and she was surprised to see his toe sticking out of a hole in one. His toenail needed to be cut. “God, that’s unattractive,” he said. He covered his toe with his other foot briefly, then let it loose. “My point here is— Children. Your son. My daughter. They don’t like us, Olive.”
Olive considered this. “No,” she finally agreed. “I don’t think Christopher does like me. Why is that?”
Jack said, looking up at her, his head on one hand, “You were a crummy mother? Who knows, Olive? He could have just been born that way too.”
Olive sat and looked at her hands, which she held together on her lap.
Jack said, “Wait a minute. Didn’t he just have a new baby?”
“It died. She had to wait and push the baby out dead.”
“Oh, Olive, that’s awful. God, that’s an awful thing.” Now Jack sat up straight.
“Yup. It is.” Olive whisked some lint off the knee of her black pants.
“Well, maybe that’s why he didn’t want to hear you talking about how you delivered one.” Jack gave a shrug. “I’m just saying—”
“No. You’re right. Of course.” The thought had not occurred to her, and she felt her face grow warm. “Anyway, she’s trying to get pregnant again and this one will be born in a pool. A little kiddie swimming pool. That’s what he told me.”
Jack leaned his head back and laughed. Olive was surprised at the sound of his laughter—it was so genuine.
“Jack.” She spoke sharply.
“Yes, Olive?” He said this with dry humor.
“I have to tell you how stupid that baby shower was. Marlene’s daughter—well, the poor girl sat in a chair and put all her ribbons on a paper plate and then every single damned gift had to be passed around from one woman to the next. Every single gift! And everyone said, Oh, how lovely, and isn’t that nice, and honest to good God, Jack, I thought I would die.”
He watched her for a moment, then his eyes crinkled with mirth.
“Olive,” he finally said, “I don’t know where you’ve been. I tried calling you a few times, and I thought perhaps you’d gone to New York to see your grandson. You don’t have an answering machine? I could have sworn you did, I’ve left you messages on it before.”
“I’ve never seen my grandson,” Olive said. “And of course I have an answering machine.” Then Olive said, “Oh. I turned it off one day, someone kept calling me about a vacation I’d won. Maybe I never turned it back on.” She understood now that this was true; she had never turned the damned machine back on.
Jack was quiet; he studied his toenail. Then he looked up and said, “Well. Let’s get you a cellphone. I will buy it for you, and I will show you how to use it. Now, why haven’t you seen your grandson?”
A ripple of something went through Olive, almost a fleeting sense of unreality. This man, Jack Kennison, was going to buy her a cellphone! She said, “Because I haven’t been invited. I told you how badly things went when I went to New York before.”
“Yes, you did. Have you invited them to come see you?”
“No.” Olive looked at the lampshade with its ruffle around the bottom.
“Why don’t you do that?”
“Because they have those three kids, I told you—she had two different kids with two different men—and they have Little Henry now, and I’m sure they couldn’t make the trip.”
Jack opened a hand. “Maybe not. But I think it would be nice for you to invite them.”
“They don’t need to be invited, they can just come.” Olive put both hands on the armchair’s armrests, then put them back in her lap.
Jack leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. “Olive, sometimes people like to be invited. I, for example, would have loved to be invited to your house on many occasions, but you’ve not invited me except for that one time when I asked you to take me over. And so I have felt rebuffed. Do you see that?”
Olive exhaled loudly. “You could have called.”
“Olive, I just told you I did call. I called you a couple of times, and because you turned off your friggin’ answering machine, you didn’t know I called.” He sat back and wagged a finger at her. “Only pointing out here that people can’t read your mind. And I sent you an email as well.”
“Ay-yuh,” Olive said. “Well, I don’t call a bunch of question marks an email.”
“I like you, Olive.” Jack gave her half a smile, then shook his head slightly. “I’m not sure why, really. But I do.”
“Ay-yuh,” said Olive again, and her face felt warm again, but they talked then. They talked of their children, and after a while Jack told her about his day a few days ago, how he was stopped by the police for speeding.
“They were unbelievably rude to me, Olive. You would have thought I was wanted for murder, the way both of them spoke to me.” Jack opened his hand in dismay after he said this to her.
“Probably thought you were an out-of-stater.”
“I have Maine plates.”
Olive shrugged. “Still, you’re an old man running around in your zippy little sports car. They know an out-of-stater when they see one.” Olive raised her eyebrows. “I’m perfectly serious, Jack. They could smell you a mile away.” She glanced down at the huge watch of Henry’s she was wearing. “It’s late,” she said, and she stood up.
“Olive, would you stay here tonight?” Jack shifted in his chair. “No, no, just listen to me. Right now I am wearing a half-diaper because of prostate surgery I had right before Betsy was diagnosed.”
“What?” asked Olive.
“I’m just trying to reassure you. I’m not going to assault you. You do know what Depends are, right?”
“Depends?” asked Olive. “What do you mean—? Oh.” She realized she had seen them on television ads.
“I’m telling you that I’m wearing half a Depends, a thing for people who pee their pants. Men who pee after this surgery. They say it will get better, but it hasn’t yet. Olive, I’m only telling you this because—”
She waved her hand for him to stop. “Godfrey, Jack,” she said. “I’d say you’ve been through quite a lot.” But she was aware of feeling relief.
Jack said, “Why don’t you stay in the guest room, and I will stay in the guest room across the hall? I just want you here when I wake up, Olive.”
“Just when you wake up? Well, I’ll come back. I get up early.” When he didn’t answer, she added, “I don’t have my nightgown or my toothbrush. And I don’t think I’d sleep a wink.”
Jack nodded. “I get that. About the toothbrush—we have a few new unused toothbrushes, don’t ask me why. But Betsy always had extra on hand, and I can give you a T-shirt, if you care to wear it.”
They were silent, and Olive understood. He wanted her there for the whole night. What was she going to do? Go home to the rat’s nest she now lived in? Yes, she was. At the doorway, she turned. “Jack,” she said. “Listen to me.”
“I’m listening.” He had remained in his chair.
She stood there, staring at the ridiculous lampshade with its ruffled business going on. “I just don’t want to have to bump into you talking to that Bertha Babcock in the grocery store—”
“Bertha Babcock, that’s her name. God, I couldn’t remember her name.” He sat back and clapped his hands once. “She talks about the weather, Olive. The weather. Look, Olive, I’m just saying, I would like you to stay here tonight. I promise: You get your own room, and so do I.”
She came close. She did. But then she said, “I will see you in the morning, if you like.” It wasn’t until she had pulled open the door that Jack rose and went to the door as well.
He waved his hand. “Goodbye, then.”
“Good night, Jack.” She waved her hand over her head.
Outside, the evening air assaulted her with the smells of the field and she heard the peepers as she walked to her car. Reaching for the handle of her car door, she thought: Olive, you fool. She pictured herself at home, sleeping on the big window seat in “the bump-out room,” she thought how she would listen to the little transistor radio against her ear all night, as she had since Henry died.
She turned and walked back to Jack’s door. She rang the bell, and Jack answered the door almost immediately. “All right,” she said.
* * *
She used the new toothbrush that his poor dead wife had somehow bought (Olive didn’t have an extra toothbrush in her house), then she closed the door of the guest room with the double bed, and pulled on a huge T-shirt he had given her. The T-shirt smelled of fresh laundry and something else—vaguely cinnamon? It did not smell like Henry. She thought: This is the stupidest thing I have ever done. And then she thought: It’s no stupider than that stupid baby shower I went to. She folded her clothes and put them on the chair by the bed. She was not unhappy. Then she opened the door a crack. She could just see that he had settled himself into the single bed in the guest room across the hall. “Jack?” she called to him.
“Yes, Olive?” he called back.
“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” She didn’t know why she had said that.
“The stupidest thing you ever did was go to that baby shower,” he called back, and Olive felt stunned for a moment. “Except for the baby you delivered,” he called out.
She left the door partly open and got into bed and turned over on her side, away from the door. “Good night, Jack.” She practically yelled the words.
“Good night, Olive.”
* * *
It was as though waves swung her up and then down, tossing her high—high—and then the darkness came from below and she felt terror and struggled. Because she saw that her life—her life, what a silly foolish notion, her life—that her life was different, might possibly be very different or might not be different at all, and both ideas were unspeakably awful to her, except for when the waves took her high and she felt such gladness, but it did not last long, and she was down again, deep under the waves, and it was like that—back and forth, up and down, she was exhausted and could not sleep.
It was not until dawn broke that she drifted off.
“Good morning,” Jack said. He stood, his hair messy, in the doorway of her room. He wore a bathrobe that was navy blue and stopped halfway down his calves. He was unfamiliar; she felt put off.
Olive flapped a hand from the bed. “Go away,” she said. “I’m sleeping.”
He roared with laughter. And what a sound it was; Olive felt a physical sensation, a thrill. At the very same time she felt terror, as though a match had been lit on her and she had been soaked in oil. The terror, the thrill of his laughter—it was nightmarish, but also as though a huge can she had been stuffed into had just opened.
“I mean it,” Olive said. She turned over in the bed. “Right now. Go away, Jack,” she said. She squeezed her eyes shut. Please, she thought. But she did not know what she meant by that. Please, she thought again. Please.
Kayley Callaghan was a young girl in the eighth grade, and she lived in a small apartment with her mother on Dyer Road in the town of Crosby, Maine; her father had died two years earlier. Her mother was a petite, anxious woman, and because her mother had not wanted to rely on her three older daughters, all with families, she had sold the big house they had lived in on Maple Avenue to an out-of-state couple who found the price to be extremely cheap and who came up on weekends to renovate it. The house on Maple Avenue was near Kayley’s school, and every day she walked a block over so as to avoid going by the place where her father had died in the back room.
It was early March, and the day had been cloudy until just now; sunlight came through the windows of Kayley’s English classroom. Kayley, leaning her head on her hand, was thinking about her father; he was a man without higher education, but when she was small he had told her about the famine that took place in Ireland, and the Corn Laws that made bread too expensive to buy, he had told her many things; in her mind now she envisioned people on the streets of Ireland, dying, bodies falling on the side of the road.
Mrs. Ringrose was standing in front of the class with the vocabulary book, held with both hands, on top of her protruding chest. She said, “Use it three times and it’s yours,” which is what she always said when they were doing vocabulary words. Mrs. Ringrose was old, with white hair and glasses that wobbled on her nose; they were gold-rimmed.
“ ‘Obstreperous,’ ” Mrs. Ringrose said. She looked over the students seated at their desks, sunlight glinting off her glasses. “Christine?” And poor Christine Labbe could not come up with anything. “Um, I don’t know.” Mrs. Ringrose didn’t like that. “Kayley?” she asked.
Kayley sat up straight. “The dog was really obstreperous,” she said.
“All right,” Mrs. Ringrose said. “Two more.”
Kayley knew what most people in town knew about the Ringroses: At Thanksgiving they dressed up like Pilgrims and went around the schools in the state, giving talks on the first Thanksgivings in New England; Mrs. Ringrose always took two days off from teaching to do this, the only days she ever took off.
“The children playing were being really obstreperous,” said Kayley.
Mrs. Ringrose did not look pleased. “One more, Kayley, and it’s yours.”
Kayley also knew, because Mrs. Ringrose talked about this a lot, that one of Mrs. Ringrose’s ancestors had come over on the Mayflower ship from England many years ago.
Kayley closed her eyes briefly, then she finally said, “My father said the English people thought the Irish were obstreperous,” and Mrs. Ringrose glanced at the ceiling and snapped the vocabulary book shut. “Okay, I suppose that’s good enough. You now have the word, Kayley.”
Sitting in the classroom on the second floor while afternoon sun streamed through the windows, Kayley felt an emptiness in her stomach that was not hunger but a kind of vague nausea; the feeling—Kayley did not know why—had something to do with Mrs. Ringrose, whose first name was Doris.
Doris Ringrose, and her husband was named Phil. They had no children.
“See me after class,” Mrs. Ringrose said to Kayley.
* * *
A week earlier Kayley had come home from cleaning the house of Bertha Babcock—which she did every Wednesday after school—and heard her eldest sister, Brenda, speaking with their mother in the kitchen. Kayley had stood by the door in the darkened hallway, the staircase she had just come up was steep and wooden and lit by only one lightbulb, her backpack with her school books was unsteady on her shoulder, and she heard Brenda say, “But, Mom, he wants it all the time, and it’s kind of making me sick.” And her mother replied, “Brenda, he’s your husband, it’s what you have to do.”
Kayley hesitated, but they stopped talking then, and when she came in, Brenda stood up and said, “Hi, honey. What’ve you been up to?” Brenda was many years older than Kayley, and she used to be a pretty woman with her dark red hair and smooth complexion, but lately there were brown patches beneath her eyes and she had been gaining weight.
“Cleaning house for Bertha Babcock,” said Kayley, slipping her backpack off. “I can’t stand it.” She took her coat off and added, “I can’t stand her.”
Lighting a cigarette, Kayley’s mother said, “Well, she can’t stand you either, don’t think otherwise. You’re Irish, you’re just a servant to her.” She dropped the match into the saucer of her teacup and said, directing this to Brenda, “She’s a Congregationalist, Bertha Babcock,” and gave her a meaningful nod.
Brenda tugged on her blue cardigan, but it wouldn’t meet in the middle across her stomach. “Still, it’s a nice thing you’re doing it.” She winked at Kayley.
“Mrs. Ringrose is going to ask me to clean her house now too,” Kayley said. “Mrs. Babcock recommended me.”
“All right then,” her mother said, as though she didn’t care, and she may not have.
“Another Congregationalist?” Brenda asked this playfully, and Kayley said, “I think so.”
Kayley went into her bedroom; the old wooden door never closed all the way, and as Kayley listened to the women talking—now in muted tones—she understood that this was about sex, her sister didn’t want to have sex with Ed, and Kayley didn’t blame her. He was okay, her brother-in-law, but he was a small man, and had bad teeth, and it made Kayley feel queer in her stomach to think that he wanted it all the time. Kayley sat down on her bed and thought she would never—ever—marry someone like Ed.
And she would never get old like Bertha Babcock, who was a widow, and whose kitchen floor was in black and white tiles, which Mrs. Babcock made Kayley clean with a toothbrush between the tiles each week; Kayley could not stand it. The Babcock house seemed to stink with a loneliness there would be no cure for.
* * *
Brenda came to the door of Kayley’s bedroom; the room was small, and lit now by the overhead light that shone on Kayley’s pink quilt, which lay messily on her bed, and as Brenda slipped on her coat she said to Kayley, “I have to get going, honey, the kids will need their supper.” Brenda lived two towns away. Then she said, “Mom says you’re still not playing the piano.” Brenda asked, conspiratorially, quietly, “Should she sell it, honey?”
Kayley stood up to give her sister a hug goodbye. “No, please don’t let her sell it.” Kayley added, “I’ll play, I promise.”
It was their father who had played the piano, although after Kayley learned to play he said he would rather listen to Kayley. “I love you, and I love the piano, so the combination just sends me to heaven,” their father had said, standing in the doorway of their old living room. That night Kayley sat at the piano, which was an old black upright. But she played badly because she almost never played anymore, and even the simpler sonatas of Mozart were not as easy for her as they had once been. Kayley put the lid down over the keyboard. “I’ll play more,” she said to her mother, who was sitting in the corner smoking a cigarette near the window she had cracked partly open, and her mother did not answer.
Kayley spent the rest of the evening in her bedroom, watching on her computer Martin Luther King, Jr., giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. This was an assignment for Social Studies class, but her father had told her about that speech as well.
* * *
The Ringrose house also had a loneliness about it. But it was a different flavor than Bertha Babcock’s place, and the house was smaller—it was a Cape on River Road, and it had on the front of it a small board that said 1742—and also somehow cleaner; Kayley didn’t have to work so hard. The first day she was there, Mrs. Ringrose told her she was to clean the logs in the fireplace each week with a cleaning fluid that Kayley was to put in a pail of warm water; the logs were birch, and their bark was a whitish gray. And she was to clean the wooden floors on her hands and knees, Mrs. Ringrose said, and Kayley didn’t care; she was young, it wasn’t the endless kitchen of the Babcock home. In the living room on a table all by itself was a wooden model of the Mayflower. Kayley was not to touch this, Mrs. Ringrose said that first day, holding up her finger. “Do. Not. Touch.” Then she told Kayley how she was a direct descendant of Myles Standish, who had come over on this ship, and if you looked at it—Mrs. Ringrose peered down at the model—you could see where the people stayed, and Kayley murmured, “Oh yeah,” although she thought of her father then, and how, when he was sick in the back room, she would watch the movie with him about Michael Collins and the green tank of the English that came into Croke Park and started shooting all the Irish people. Kayley stepped back from Mrs. Ringrose; being so close to her allowed Kayley to see the patches of pink scalp through her white hair; it gave Kayley that sense of nausea again.
* * *
But also on that first day—it was the strangest thing—Mrs. Ringrose made Kayley try on her wedding gown. The gown was yellow in places, and spread out on Mrs. Ringrose’s bed. Mrs. Ringrose had a separate bedroom and bathroom from her husband. “Just try it on, Kayley. You’re about the size I was when I got married, and I would like to see this gown on someone.” She gave a little nod. “Come on now,” she said.
Kayley looked behind her, then back at Mrs. Ringrose. Slowly she unbuttoned her blouse, and Mrs. Ringrose kept standing there watching her, so Kayley took her blouse off, and then she unzipped her jeans and took them off too, after slipping off her sneakers. She stood in her underpants and her bra in front of this woman as a milky sunlight came through the windows of the bedroom; tiny goosebumps went over her arms and legs. Mrs. Ringrose held the dress above Kayley’s head, and it slipped down over her body, fitting her easily.
Mrs. Ringrose took her glasses off and wiped her eyes with her other hand. There was water still on her cheeks when she put her glasses back on.
“Now listen,” Mrs. Ringrose said, touching Kayley’s shoulder. “I’ve started a group at our church, and it’s called the Silver Squares. There’s already one group called the Golden Circle, but they’re old, and so I have started the Silver Squares and we’re going to have a fashion show in June, and I would like you to play the piano for it and wear my wedding dress.”
With the woman still watching her, Kayley got into her own clothes again.
* * *
Except for Kayley’s first time at the Ringroses’, Mrs. Ringrose was never there. “I’ll be off at the Silver Squares,” she had said. Kayley got the key from under the mat and let herself in, as she had been instructed to do. A ten-dollar bill was always left on the kitchen table for her.
But the Ringroses’ house really depressed Kayley in a powerful way.
For example: Mr. Ringrose’s bathroom was designed to look like an outhouse. There was a dark green painted barrel around a flush toilet, so it looked like you were going to sit on a hole. Rough wooden planks were on the walls. Kayley had never spoken to Mr. Ringrose; he was not there when she cleaned, and she knew who he was only because she’d seen him around town with Mrs. Ringrose: He was tall, old, white-haired; for years he had worked in Portland at some history museum, but he had long been retired. There was no sink in his bathroom; just those barn boards with the dark green barrel in the middle. Mrs. Ringrose’s bathroom was normal, white porcelain with a sink and a vanity table with her hairbrush on it and hairpins.
In the living room, the couch was small and tightly upholstered. The seat rounded up into a mound, and when Kayley sat on it she felt she might almost slip off. The chairs were the same. The upholstery was a deep rose color, and on the dark green walls were paintings of people that looked like weird dolls, they looked a little bit like grown-ups, except for how short they were, and they wore white hats and dresses that were from a different era; these pictures Kayley could not stand.
She could not stand them.
* * *
“How does she even know you play the piano?” asked Christine Labbe. She and Kayley were walking on the sidewalk, close to the center of town by the doughnut shop, and Christine was eating a doughnut that had cinnamon all over it. Christine’s eyes had dark blue liner around them, and part of it was smudged.
“I don’t know.” Kayley turned to look at the cars going by. “Maybe she heard me playing that piano they have in the gym. I don’t know how she knows.”
Christine said, “She’s creepy. Her husband’s creepy too. Dressing up like stupid Pilgrims every year and talking about that stupid fucking Mayflower ship her ancestors came over on. Reciting that stupid Longfellow poem ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish’ while kids yawn their fucking heads off.”
“You should see their house,” Kayley said, and she described Mr. Ringrose’s bathroom.
Christine looked at her and said, “Jesus Holy Christ.” Then Kayley touched her eye to show Christine that her makeup was smudged, and Christine shrugged and took another bite of her doughnut.
* * *
On Saturday afternoon Kayley rode her bicycle to the nursing home out past the bridge where Miss Minnie was. It was cold in mid-March, but there was very little snow, and Kayley’s bicycle bumped over twigs that had fallen onto the sidewalk; her hands were cold because she wore no gloves. Miss Minnie used to live in the apartment above the one Kayley lived in now with her mother; Miss Minnie had lived there for years, and she was the first person Kayley had cleaned for. The old woman was tiny, with enormous dark eyes, and Kayley had been astonished at the grime, especially in the kitchen, that had built up over time. And so Kayley scrubbed and scrubbed while Miss Minnie peered into the doorway and said, “Oh, what a lovely job you’re doing, Kayley!” Miss Minnie would clap her hands, she was that excited at Kayley’s work, and Kayley loved her for this. Miss Minnie always gave Kayley a glass of orange juice when she was done, and Miss Minnie would sit across the table from her, leaning forward toward Kayley, and ask questions about her school and her friends; no one had asked Kayley about these things since her father died.
After Miss Minnie had her stroke last fall, Kayley went to visit her in the nursing home, even though the place was dark and smelled bad. Miss Minnie would thank her many times for coming. “It’s okay,” Kayley would say, “I like seeing you,” and after the first few visits she gave Miss Minnie a kiss when she left, and the old lady’s enormous dark eyes would glow.
Kayley locked her bike out behind the nursing home, and as she went around to the front door, Mrs. Kitteridge was just coming out. “Hello again,” Mrs. Kitteridge said to her; she was a big woman, tall, and when Kayley had first met her here a month ago, she had seemed a little frightening. Now Mrs. Kitteridge held the door open for Kayley, and she said, “You’re quite a kid, coming to visit someone in this place. God, I hope to hell when I get to this stage, someone just shoots me.”
Kayley said, “I know. Me too. I mean I hope they shoot me too.”
Mrs. Kitteridge put her sunglasses on and looked Kayley up and down and said, “Well, you won’t have to worry about it for a while.” She let the door close, and they stood together in the pale March sun. “Say, I did some snooping and found out you’re the Callaghan girl. I had your sisters in school years ago. Your father was our postman. He was a good man, I’m sorry he died.”
“Thank you,” Kayley said. A sudden warmth moved through her, that this woman knew who her father had been. Kayley said, “Were you here visiting your friend?”
Mrs. Kitteridge gave a big sigh, looking through her sunglasses up at the sky. “Yes. Horrible. The whole thing. But listen,” glancing back at Kayley now, “you said last time you used to clean for Miss Minnie, and I have another old woman who’s looking for a house cleaner. Bertha Babcock. She’s an old horror, but she’d be okay to you. I’ll tell her to call you, shall I?”
“She already found me,” said Kayley. “I work there on Wednesday afternoons. I started a few weeks ago.”
Mrs. Kitteridge shook her head in what appeared to be sympathy.
Kayley said, “And now I have to clean for Mrs. Ringrose too. She’s my English teacher.”
“I know who she is. Another old horror. Well, good luck.” And Mrs. Kitteridge stepped away, tossing a hand over her head.
* * *
The nursing home was dark, and it still smelled bad, of course. Miss Minnie was asleep, and so Kayley sat down on the one chair in the room. On the table by Miss Minnie’s bed was a photograph of a young man in uniform, and beside this photograph was a bunch of fake violets. The same photo and the same violets had been by Miss Minnie’s bed in her apartment. The photo was of Miss Minnie’s brother; Kayley found this out one day when Miss Minnie picked up the photo and held it to her chest and told Kayley how he had died in the Korean War. It made Kayley sad; she would have much rathered it had been a man Miss Minnie had loved who was not related to her.
Now Kayley sat, waiting for Miss Minnie to wake up. An aide came in, a big woman in a blue uniform, and said, “She hasn’t woken up all afternoon. She’s depressed. She’s sleeping more and more.” Together Kayley and this woman looked at Miss Minnie, and then Kayley stood and said, “Okay. But can you tell her I was here? Please?”
The woman glanced at her watch. “I get off in an hour. If she wakes before then, I’ll tell her.”
“I’ll leave her a note,” Kayley said, and so the big woman went and found a piece of paper and a pencil and Kayley wrote in large letters, HI MISS MINNIE! IT’S ME, KAYLEY. I CAME TO VISIT YOU BUT YOU WERE SLEEPING. I WILL COME BACK!
* * *
One day when Kayley’s father was very sick, he had motioned to her from where he lay on his bed, and Kayley had gone and put her ear to his mouth, and he said, “You’ve always been my favorite child.” After a moment he added, “Your mother’s favorite is Brenda.” His lips had a white gumminess in the corners.
“I love you, Daddy,” Kayley said; with a tissue, she wiped his lips carefully, and her father looked at her with warmth in his eyes.
But she thought about this often, the fact that her father had said she was his favorite child. And she thought about her mother, who had always been a distracted woman and who worked part-time now at a dental office in town; it seemed she had little to say to Kayley in the evenings, and often Kayley’s feelings were hurt by this; Kayley could actually feel a small wave of pain go through her chest at times, and she would think: This is why they say a person’s feelings are hurt, because they do hurt.
* * *
The next week that Kayley worked at the Ringrose house she felt that same feeling she always got in their house, a stark feeling of dismalness. The day was tremendously sunny, the light poured through the windows of the living room, and after Kayley had washed the logs in the fireplace she sat down on the couch with the upholstery that was stiff and hard.
A strong sensual impulse suddenly went through her, as though the chasteness of the house was screaming for her. She sat there as the feeling grew, and after a moment she slowly undid the first button on her blouse and put her hand down under her bra and felt her breast and a glow went through her. She closed her eyes and undid the second button of her blouse and pulled her breast from the cup of her bra. In the stillness of the house her breast seemed vulnerable and alive to her; she touched her fingers to her mouth and then back to her breast and she kept touching her breast, filled with unbelievable sensations. She sat with her eyes closed, touching her breast, feeling the air touching it as well—it was oddly thrilling, doing this in the strangeness and silence of the Ringrose home.
A small sound made her eyes open, and in the doorway of the living room stood Mr. Ringrose. Kayley sat up straight and tried to close her blouse; her cheeks became flaming hot. The man was tall and he stood there watching her behind his glasses, not smiling. Without saying anything Mr. Ringrose gave the tiniest nod, and in the blurriness of the moment Kayley somehow understood he wanted her to continue. She stared at him and then said—or tried to say—“No,” but he spoke first, and his voice was thick. “Go on.” She shook her head, but he kept watching her, and a kind expression appeared on his face. “Go on,” he said again, quietly. She stared at him, she was tremendously frightened. And he seemed to know it, because his expression of kindness grew; he tilted his head slightly down. He said quietly, “Please go on.” They watched each other, and his eyes—he wore large rimless glasses—seemed kind and oddly harmless, and so in a moment she closed her eyes and touched her breast again. When she opened her eyes, he was gone.
She buttoned her blouse hurriedly and stood up; she finished her dusting with her cheeks still hot; she felt a breathlessness as she went about the place, washing the floor on her hands and knees. Her mind kept thinking: Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.
She almost didn’t see it as she was leaving, the envelope on the mat by the front door as she left the house, and then bending down she saw that it had her last name on it. She took the envelope, and when she turned the corner she opened it and found three twenty-dollar bills.
Now Kayley felt a different fear. She stuck the money in her back pocket, still in the envelope, and rode her bicycle far out of town. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she kept saying.
When she came home, her mother said, “Where were you?” Kayley said she had been riding her bike after cleaning for the Ringroses; it was such a gorgeous day. And then Kayley sat down at the piano and began to play—oh, how she played! She went through the sonatas of Mozart as though she could not dig her fingers deep enough into the fresh soil of the music; she played and played.
As they sat eating supper, her mother said, “You’ve barely touched that piano since your father died, and it’s sitting right there taking up all that space.”
Kayley said, “I’ll keep playing. Please don’t get rid of it.”
* * *
The next week it was raining and Kayley rode her bike to the Ringrose house with her raincoat on and her hood over her head, but she was still dripping wet when she got there, and again there was no sign of either of them. She dried herself as best she could with a towel from the kitchen and went to work, getting the pail with the cleaning fluid for the logs, and as she was kneeling and running a cloth over the logs in the fireplace—there must have been a sound—she looked up; Mr. Ringrose was standing exactly where he had been standing the time before. A few raindrops were on the shoulders of his pale blue shirt, and also on his glasses, but she could still see his eyes. He simply stood there looking at her, and she did not speak. After a moment he gave her the tiniest nod, and she sat back on her heels and put her hand over her breast and he nodded the tiny nod again, and after another moment Kayley slowly stood, drying her hands on her jeans, and she went and sat back on the stiff couch, and she undid her blouse, this time watching him. For Kayley there was a sense of unreality to it as she took her blouse off slowly, then took her bra off, and the air in the room seemed to leap at her bare breasts, and the rain outside beat down on the windows. The man said in a low voice, “Thank you.”
On the mat by the front door was once again the envelope filled with cash.
* * *
When Kayley was very young she had asked her mother one day if she was pretty, and her mother said, “Well, you’re not going to win any beauty contests, but you’re not going to be in a freak show either.”
In fact, not long before her father died, Kayley—she was in the sixth grade then—was asked to be in a beauty contest. Her gym teacher called her aside and asked if she would take part in the Little Miss Moxie competition in the town of Shirley Falls; Kayley’s father was furious. “No daughter of mine will be judged on how she looks!” He was really angry about it, and so Kayley told her teacher no, she couldn’t do it, and Kayley didn’t care about it one way or another.
Yet these days she would stare at herself in the mirror in her bedroom, turning her head one way, then another. She thought—some nights she thought this—that she might be pretty. She did not take her shirt and bra off in front of the mirror to see what Mr. Ringrose saw. That was not something she could do, but she thought about the man almost constantly.
* * *
June arrived. School would be over in two weeks.
In the activities room of the Congregational church, Kayley sat on the piano bench dressed in Mrs. Ringrose’s wedding dress. It was an unseasonably hot day, and a big fan stood nearby squeaking slightly as it twirled the air around. Folded chairs were set up with an aisle between them, and the old wooden floor creaked as women walked across it, settling themselves into the chairs. Through the windows a bright blue sky could be seen, and also part of the parking lot. Every week for nine weeks now, Kayley had taken her blouse off for Mr. Ringrose—one time only he did not show up, and Kayley felt bereft—and the cash-filled envelopes, which she had stuffed in the bureau drawer beneath her underpants and socks, had become so much she had taken them and hidden them in her closet. It was odd, because sometimes there was sixty dollars, and a few times there was just a ten and a few ones, and once there were two twenties.
As Kayley sat on the piano bench, she watched Mrs. Ringrose walking around the activities room and thought: Your husband has seen my breasts and I’ll bet you he hasn’t seen yours in years! This thought made her extremely happy. Mrs. Ringrose finally gave her the nod, and Kayley began to play “Pomp and Circumstance,” and the first woman who was in the Silver Squares fashion show walked down the little aisle between the folding chairs, wearing a long dress and a white cap over her gray-haired head; Mrs. Ringrose stood in the front of the room and said, “The first Pilgrims, 1620.” Perhaps fifteen old women sat in the chairs that were set up for fifty, and Kayley kept playing as Mrs. Ringrose stood behind a lectern and said who each person was, and what period of time it was about whatever they were wearing.
Bertha Babcock came last; she wore an orange pantsuit. “The modern era,” Mrs. Ringrose said, and they all clapped lightly.
Afterward the women sat on the folding chairs eating cookies with thin paper napkins on their laps. No one spoke to Kayley, and so in a while she went and changed out of the wedding gown and put it on the table in the front of the room, then she rode her bicycle home.
* * *
Christine Labbe stared at her from her blue-made-up eyes, then burst out laughing. “How nauseating,” she said, and she laughed and laughed, coughing, bending over.
“It was,” Kayley said. “It was just so stupid.”
“You think?” And Christine coughed again and said, “Jesus mother of Mary, Kayley. What a stupid fucking thing. She’s retiring this year, you know.”
Kayley said she didn’t know. She gazed at a truck parked nearby; it had a bumper sticker on it that said: REDNECKS NEEDED. FRECKLES OKAY.
“Oh yeah. The student council was getting all weepy about it, and they’re going to present her with a lilac bush on the last day of school.” Christine rolled her eyes.
“Who cares. I don’t care, that’s for sure,” Kayley said.
* * *
At home these nights Kayley played the piano; she played and played, and she became good at it again. Up and down the keyboard her fingers flew.
* * *
At the nursing home, Miss Minnie sat slumped over a tray table, her head resting on her arms, her eyes closed. “Miss Minnie?” Kayley whispered, leaning toward the old woman. “Miss Minnie?” But the old woman did not respond; she did not move, or open her eyes. She had been like this—exactly like this—the last two times Kayley had ridden her bike out to the nursing home. The same aide came in, in her blue uniform, and she stood with her hands on her hips, watching Miss Minnie.
“Oh, honey,” she finally said to Kayley. “She’s just real old, and real depressed.”
Kayley leaned down toward Miss Minnie, and she spoke quietly into her ear, feeling the woman’s fine hair against her mouth. “Miss Minnie, it’s me, Kayley. Listen, Miss Minnie?” And then Kayley said, “I love you.” And the woman did not move.
The next time Kayley visited, Miss Minnie’s room was empty—completely empty, no bed, no chair—and there were two women in it cleaning with mops. “Wait!” Kayley said, but t