Authors: Elizabeth Strout
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
” 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
” 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.
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
? 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
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.”