Read Olive, Again: A Novel Online

Authors: Elizabeth Strout

Olive, Again: A Novel (5 page)

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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.”

That night!

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.

Cleaning

K
ayley 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.

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