Authors: Elizabeth Strout
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:
“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 they just kept swirling their mops, and when Kayley went to the front desk, the woman there said, “I’m sorry. We didn’t have your number or we would have called.”
That night, Kayley’s mother only shrugged and said, “Well, it was bound to occur.”
“But what happened to the picture of her brother, and her violets?”
Her mother said, “I imagine they got tossed out.”
Kayley waited long enough so that her mother would not think she wanted to get away from her, but after some time passed Kayley said, “Mom, I want to go for a bike ride. The evenings are light now,” and her mother looked at her suspiciously. Kayley could not ride fast enough, up Dyer Road, then down Elm Street, and then up past the school, she just could not ride her bike fast enough.
When Mr. Ringrose showed up the next week, silently as always, Kayley was dusting the legs of the couch. She turned; she was enormously glad to see him. “Hello,” she whispered as she stood up. It was the first time she had spoken to him. He nodded and gave her a tiny smile, gazing at her through his rimless glasses. She unbuttoned her shirt without pause. She thought his eyes seemed even kinder than usual and she watched him steadily as she moistened her fingers and touched her breasts, the tips becoming hard almost instantly; if Mrs. Ringrose should walk in, she didn’t care! This is how Kayley felt that day as she turned slightly one way, then the other, for the silent Mr. Ringrose.
She put the envelope of money inside her underwear drawer, and the next three weeks she did the same; she was astonished that one week there was a hundred-dollar bill.
School was now out, and on Wednesday mornings and Saturday mornings, Kayley worked at the doughnut shop. She poured coffee and brought out the doughnuts from the back, slipping them into the white paper bags for the customers. One Wednesday she saw Mr. Ringrose walking by the place; he was glancing down at the sidewalk and did not look up through the window. He was slightly bent over, and she almost did not recognize him at first; his white hair was sticking at odd angles from his head. She stopped in the middle of an order to watch him; he seemed to not walk in a straight line. It could not be him, she decided. But she was rattled. No, that could not have been him.