Authors: Elizabeth Strout
Olive felt the swiftness of dark rising up through her. It took her a moment to trust herself, then she said, “I don’t know what you mean, Ann. Are you talking about Christmas presents? I sent the children Christmas presents.”
“Yeah?” Ann said slowly. “But that was, you know, Christmas?”
Olive said, “Well, I never heard a word from you, so perhaps they didn’t get them.”
“No, we got them,” Ann said. Then she said to Theodore, “Remember that truck?”
The child shrugged one arm and turned away. And yet they stood there, that beastly mother and her two children from two different men, stood right there in the doorway, as though Olive was supposed to produce—what was she supposed to produce? She
had to bite her tongue not to say, I guess you didn’t like that truck. Or to say to the little girl, And what about that doll? I suppose you didn’t like that either? Olive had to
herself not to say, In my day we thanked people who sent us gifts. No, Olive really had to work not to say this, but she did not say this, and after a few minutes Ann said to the kids, “Come on, let’s get you to bed. Give Daddy a kiss.” And they walked to Christopher and kissed him, then walked right by Olive and that was that. Horrible, horrible children, and a horrible mother. But Little Henry suddenly wiggled out of his father’s lap and dragged his new scarf across the floor to Olive. “Hi,” he said. He smiled at her! “Hello,” she said. “Hello, Little Henry.” “Hi, hi,” he said. He held the scarf toward Olive. “Gank you,” he said. Well, he was a Kitteridge. He was surely a Kitteridge all right. “Oh, your grandfather would have been so proud,” she said to him, and he smiled and smiled, his teeth wet with saliva.
Christopher was looking around the room. “Mom, this place looks awfully different,” he said.
“You haven’t been here in a while,” Olive said. “Things change and your memory is different too.”
Olive was happy.
Her son was talking to her alone. Little Henry had been put to bed upstairs, and his mother and his tiny baby sister were up there as well. The two older children were tucked into their couch-bed in the study. The light from the lamp in the corner spilled over her son. This was all she wanted: Just this. Chris’s eyes seemed clear; his face seemed clear. The gray in his hair still surprised her, but she thought he looked good. He spoke a great deal about his podiatry practice, the young woman who worked for him, the insurance he had to pay, the insurance that his patients had, Olive didn’t care what he talked about. He talked about their tenant, no longer the guy with the parrot that would screech
anytime someone swore, but a young man with a girlfriend now, they were probably going to get married soon. On and on he talked, her son. Olive was tired, but she stifled a yawn. She would stay here forever to hear this. He could recite the alphabet to her and she would sit here and listen to it.
When he finally went to bed—“Okay, ’night, Mom,” raising a hand—she sat for a while in the living room, with just the one lamp on, the water seen through the window all black, just the tiny speck of the red light out at Halfway Rock; the front deck with its wooden chairs that she had brought out only recently seemed to sit quietly and patiently in the dark. It was the first night she had not spoken to Jack in months and she missed that, but he seemed far away to her right now. And then there was a sudden shriek—
—from the study. Olive’s heart started to beat fast, and she got up as quickly as she could and went to the door of the study, where Annabelle stood. Annabelle looked at her, then stepped back and screamed again, “Mama!”
“Now stop that,” Olive said. “Your mother is exhausted. Let her sleep.”
And the little girl pushed the door shut. Olive waited for a moment, then she went upstairs to bed. But she heard the child—most likely it was Annabelle—on the stairs later, and heard her go into her parents’ room, and Olive thought, Honest to God, what a brat. She heard Ann’s tired voice murmuring, but Olive was on her computer, and there was an email from Jack: How’s it GOING???? I miss you, Olive. Please, please write me when you can.
And she wrote back: Oh, too much to say! I miss you too.
A part of Olive thought: Come on, Jack, I have my hands full here, I can’t be there with you too! It was as though she had five hundred bees buzzing in her head.
Olive did not fall asleep for many hours that night, she kept going over her conversation with Chris like a giddy schoolgirl—oh, she had missed him!—and when she woke, she heard people in the kitchen. She got out of bed quickly; she was a very early riser, and she had not expected that Ann and Christopher—and all their children—would get out of bed earlier than she did. But they had. Every one of them was right there in the kitchen, fully dressed, when she went downstairs. Olive was not one to wear a bathrobe in front of people she felt she barely knew. “Well, hello,” she said, tugging her bathrobe tightly closed. And no one said anything. The older children looked at her with open hostility—Olive felt this—and even Little Henry was silent, on his mother’s lap.
Christopher said, “Mom, you didn’t get Cheerios? I told you we needed Cheerios.”
“You did?” Olive could not remember her son mentioning Cheerios. “Well, there’s oatmeal,” she said. She felt she saw Christopher and Ann exchanging a look.
“I’ll go,” Ann said. “Just tell me how to get there.”
“No,” said Christopher, “I’ll go. You stay here.”
And then—God, just in the nick of time—Olive said, “No,
go. Everyone just stay put.”
And so Olive went back upstairs and put some clothes on and then she took her coat and her big black handbag and she walked through the kitchen as fast as she could, and drove over to Cottle’s. The day was bright with sun. All she wanted was to speak to Jack. But she had walked out the door without her cellphone! And what had happened to payphones? She felt hurried and upset, knowing the kids were home waiting for their Cheerios. Jack, Jack, she called out in her head. Help me, Jack, she called. What good was the fact that Jack had bought her a cellphone when she didn’t even remember to take it with her? Finally, after she had the bag with the Cheerios in it, as she was pulling out of the parking lot, she saw a payphone near the back of the lot, and she parked again and walked quickly to it, and she couldn’t find a quarter at first, but then she found a quarter and she slipped it into the phone and there was no dial tone. The goddamn phone did not work. Oh, she was fit to be tied.
Olive had trouble driving home; she really had to concentrate. After she tossed the Cheerios in the paper bag onto the kitchen table, she said, “If you’ll excuse me just a moment,” and she went upstairs to her room, and she emailed Jack with fingers that were almost trembling. Help me, she wrote, I don’t know what to do. Then she realized that he couldn’t help her, he couldn’t call her—they had agreed they would not speak by phone until Olive had told Chris—and so she deleted what she had just written and wrote instead, It’s okay, I just miss you. Hang in there! Then she added: (More soon.)
Back down in the kitchen the silence remained. “What’s the matter?” Olive asked; she heard the anger in her voice.
“There’s not much milk, Mom. There was only a little. So Annabelle got it, and Theodore has to have his Cheerios plain.” Christopher was leaning against the counter as he said this, one ankle crossed over the other.
“Are you serious?” Olive asked. “Well, I’ll go back—”
“No, just sit, Mom.” Christopher nodded at the chair that Theodore sat in. “It’s okay. Theodore, give your grandmother a chair.” The child, with his eyes down, slid off the chair and stood.
Ann’s back was to her, and Olive could see Little Henry on one of Ann’s knees, Ann was holding the baby too. “What about the rest of you?” Olive asked. “What can I get for you? How about some toast?”
“It’s okay, Mom,” Christopher said again. “I’ll make some toast. You sit, Mom.”
So she sat at the table across from her daughter-in-law, who turned and smiled her phony smile at Olive. Theodore moved to his mother and whispered something into her ear. Ann rubbed his arm and said quietly, “I know, honey. But people live differently.”
Christopher said, “What’s up, Theodore?”
And Ann said, “He was just commenting on the paper bag the Cheerios came in, wondering why Olive didn’t use a recycling bag.” She looked at Olive and shrugged a shoulder. “In New York, we recycle. We bring our own bags to the store.”
“Is that right?” Olive said. “Well, good for you.” She turned around and opened the bottom cupboard and just about flung the recycling grocery bag onto the table. “If I hadn’t been in such a hurry I would have used this.”
“Oh,” said Ann. “Look at that, Theodore.” And the child moved away from the table, then he turned and went into the study. Ann was handing Little Henry a Cheerio. Little Henry did not seem in such a good mood this morning. “Hello, Little Henry,” Olive said, and he did not look at her, just looked for a long moment at the Cheerio in his hand before putting it into his mouth.
The day was very sunny and bright; all the clouds from yesterday had gone, and the sun shone through the house. Outside—through the big living room windows—the bay was brilliant, and the lobster buoys bobbed just slightly; a lobster boat was headed out; the trees across the bay were a fine line. It was decided they would all drive out to Reid State Park to watch the surf. “The kids have never really seen the ocean,” said Christopher. “The
ocean. They’ve seen the crappy stuff that floats up to New York. I’d like them to see the Maine coast. I know we’ve got it right here”—he nodded toward the window where the bay was sparkling—“but I’d like them to see more of it.”
“Well, let’s go then,” Olive said.
“We’ll have to take two cars,” Christopher said.
“So we’ll take two cars.” Olive stood up and scraped the uneaten toast left by Theodore into the garbage. In her whole life, Olive would not have allowed Christopher to waste toast like this, but what did she care? Let that beastly child waste all the food he wanted.
Once outside, Olive was surprised by Christopher saying, “Mom, when did you get a Subaru?” He didn’t say it pleasantly, is what she felt. She had put the car in the garage the day before; it was only out now because of her trip to the store.
“Oh,” she said, “I had to get a new car, and I thought, I’m an old lady on my own, I’ll get a good car for the snow.” She could not believe she said that. It was a lie. She had just lied to her son. The truth was, the car belonged to Jack. When her Honda had needed new brake pads, Jack had said, “Take my Subaru, Olive. We’re two people with three cars, and that’s ridiculous, so take the Subaru, and we’ll keep my sports car because I love it.”
“I can’t believe you got a Subaru,” her son said again, and Olive said, “Well, I did. And that’s that.”
The time it took to get things arranged, Olive could not believe. Christopher and Ann had to go over to the side of the parking area and have a conversation; Olive took out her sunglasses and put them on. When Christopher returned he said, “Theodore, you’re going with your mother, and, Henry, we’re putting your car seat in your grandmother’s car.” So Olive waited, chilly in her coat even though the sun was bright, while Christopher got the car seat and put it into her car, and she heard him swearing that the seatbelt wasn’t working, and she said, “It’s a used car, Chris,” and he stuck his head out of it finally and said, “Okay, we’re all set.”