Authors: Elizabeth Strout
“Oh,” said Kayley, taking this in. “Oh, that’s so, so sad.”
And Mrs. Kitteridge said, “I guess to God it is.”
In two days, Kayley would start high school. The high school was a mile out of town, and her mother would drive her there in the morning, and she would walk back, or maybe a friend would drive her. But it was not near her old house on Maple Avenue, and today she rode her bicycle by that house, and she saw how the renovation had changed it. They had painted it a deep blue, when it had always been a white house, and there were pots of flowers on the newly made front stoop. The back room where her father had died had been removed altogether, and a large porch was there instead. After she rode by it she suddenly turned at the corner and rode her bicycle out over the bridge past the mill to the old nursing home where Miss Minnie had been. She stayed on the other side of the street when she got to the place, and dismounted from her bicycle and looked at the building; it was dark green, a shingled building, and it seemed smaller than it had before. She walked her bike along the side of the road; a few cars whizzed past. She waited for the cars to go by, then crossed the street and walked her bicycle around to the back, where the employees parked. And then, not wanting to be seen by anyone, she went to the side of the building that faced the woods, and she sat down on the gravel there, her bicycle leaning against the wall of the place.
The very top of a tree had started to turn red, and Kayley looked up at it, then looked at the gravel glinting in the sun. She thought about Mrs. Ringrose, how she had started the Silver Squares, and had that fashion show, beginning with the Pilgrims. Oh my God, Kayley thought, leaning her head against the shingled wall and closing her eyes. And her
boat in her living room. It seemed to Kayley that the history this woman had clung to was no longer important; it would be almost washed away, just a dot left—not just by the Irish, but by so many things that had happened since, the Civil Rights movement, the fact that the world was much smaller now, people connected in new ways Mrs. Ringrose had never imagined.
And then Kayley thought about Mr. Ringrose, who, in a way, she had never stopped thinking about, the loneliness he must have endured, and was enduring still, now just a few feet away.
Kayley shook her head, and pulled her arms up to cover her face. At the moment—only for this moment—it was all she wanted, just to be near him again.
They were late.
Olive Kitteridge hated people who were late. A little after lunchtime, they had said, and Olive had the lunch things out, peanut butter and jelly for the two oldest kids, and tuna fish sandwiches for her son and his wife, Ann. About the little ones, she had no idea; the baby must not eat anything solid yet, only being six weeks old; Little Henry was over two, but what did two-year-olds eat? Olive couldn’t remember what Christopher ate when he was that age. She walked into the living room, looking at everything through the eyes of her son; he would have to realize as soon as he walked in. The phone rang, and Olive moved quickly back to the kitchen to answer it. Christopher said, “Okay, Mom, we’re just leaving Portland, we had to stop for lunch.”
“Lunch?” said Olive. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. The late April sun was a milky sun, seen through the window over the bay, which shone with a steely lightness, no whitecaps today.
“We had to get something for the kids to eat. So we’ll be there soon.”
Portland was an hour away. Olive said, “Okay, then. Will you still be needing supper?”
“Supper?” asked Christopher, as though she had proposed they take a shuttle to the moon. “Sure, I guess so.” In the background Olive heard a scream. Christopher said, “Annabelle, shut up! Stop it right now. Annabelle, I’m counting to three….Mom, I’ll have to call you back,” and the phone went dead.
“Oh Godfrey,” Olive murmured, sitting down at the kitchen table. She had still not taken the pictures from the wall, yet the place looked remarkably different, as though—as was the case—she would be moving out of it soon. She did not think of herself as a person who had knickknacks, but there was a box of stuff in the back corner of the kitchen, and as she glanced into the living room from where she sat, that room seemed to her to be even more guilty; there was only the furniture and the two paintings on the wall. The books were gone—she had given them to the library a week ago—and the lamps, except for one, were packed into a box as well.
The phone rang again. “Sorry about that,” said her son.
“Are you supposed to be talking on a cellphone and driving?” Olive asked.
“I’m not driving. Ann’s driving. Anyway, we’ll be there when we get there.”
“All right then,” Olive said. She added, “I’ll be awful glad to see you.”
“Me too,” said her son.
Hanging up she walked through the house, and trepidation fluttered through her. “You’re doing this all wrong,” she said quietly to herself. “Oh Godfrey Mighty, Olive.” Almost three years it had been since she had seen her son. This did not seem natural or right to Olive. And yet when she had gone to visit him in New York City—when Ann was pregnant with Little Henry, and way before Ann had this other child, Natalie, a baby now—the visit had gone so poorly that her son had essentially asked her to leave. And she had left. And she had seen him only once since, soon after, when he had flown to Maine for his father’s funeral and spoken before the whole church, tears coming down his face. “I never heard my father swear” was one thing her son had said that day.
Olive checked the bathroom, made sure there were clean towels, she knew there were clean towels, but she could not stop herself from checking again. They had said not to worry about not having a crib, but Olive did worry. Little Henry was two and a half years old, and Natalie was six weeks, how could they not have a crib? Well, judging by how she had seen them living in New York—God, what a mess that house had been—she decided they could make do with about anything. Annabelle was almost four now, Theodore was six. What did a six-year-old boy want to do? And why did they have so many children? Ann had had Theodore with one man, Annabelle with another, and now she had spit out two more babies with Christopher. What in God’s name was that about? Christopher was not a young man.
In fact, when Olive saw him stepping out of the car she could not believe—she
not believe—that he had gray in his hair now. Christopher! She walked toward him, but he was opening the doors of the car, and little children spilled out. “Hi, Mom.” He nodded at her. There was the little dark-haired girl, dressed in a bulky pink nylon coat, also wearing a pair of knee-high rubber boots, robin’s-egg blue, who turned away immediately, and the blond boy, older, who stared at Olive; Ann was taking her time getting the baby out of the car. Olive went to Christopher, her son, and she put her arms around him, and felt the awkwardness of his older man’s body in her arms. She stepped back, and he stepped back, then he reached into the car and leaned over a child in an apparatus that looked like a small pilot seat for a child headed to outer space; he brought out the kid, and said to his mother, “Here’s Henry.”
The child looked with large slumbering eyes at Olive, and he was placed, standing, on the ground, where he held on to his father’s leg. “Hello, Henry,” Olive said, and the child’s eyes rolled up slightly, then he pressed his face into his father’s pant legs. “Is he all right?” Olive demanded, because the sight of him, dark-haired like his mother, dark-eyed as well, caused her to think immediately: This is not Henry Kitteridge! What had she thought? She had thought she would see her husband in the little boy, but instead she saw a stranger.
“He’s just waking up,” Christopher said, picking the child up.
“Well, come in, come in,” Olive said, realizing then that she had not spoken yet to Ann, who held the baby patiently nearby. “Hello there, Ann,” Olive said, and Ann said, “Hello, Olive.”
“Your boots are as blue as your hat,” Olive said to the little girl, and the little girl looked puzzled and walked to her mother. “It’s an expression,” Olive explained—the child wore no hat.
Ann said, “We got those boots for our trip to Maine,” and this confused Olive.
“Well, take them off before you come inside,” Olive said.
In New York, Ann had asked if she could call Olive “Mom.” Now Ann did not move toward Olive, and so Olive did not walk toward Ann, but turned and walked into the house instead.
Three nights they were to stay.
Once in the kitchen, Olive watched her son carefully. His face at first seemed open, pleased as he looked around. “Jesus, Mom, you’ve really cleaned up. Wow.” Then she saw the shadow come. “Wait, have you given away everything of Dad’s? What’s the story?”
“No, of course I haven’t.” Then she said, “Well, sure, some of it. He’s been gone a while, Chris.”
He looked at her. “What?”
She repeated what she had said, but she turned away as she said it. Then she said, “Theodore, would you like a drink of water?” The boy stared at her with huge eyes. Then he shook his head slightly and walked over to his mother, who, even as she was holding the baby, was shrugging her way out of a bulky black sweater. Olive could see that Ann’s stomach bulged through her black stretch pants, although her arms seemed skinny in a white nylon blouse.
Ann sat down at the kitchen table and said, “I’d like a glass of water, Olive,” and when Olive turned around to hand it to her, she saw a breast—just sticking out in plain view, right there in the kitchen, the nipple large and dark—and Olive felt a tiny bit ill. Ann pressed the baby to her, and Olive saw the little thing, eyes closed, clasp onto the nipple. Ann smiled up at Olive, but Olive thought it was not a real smile. “Phew,” Ann said.
Christopher said nothing more about his father’s possessions, and Olive took that as a good sign. “Christopher,” she said. “Make yourself at home.”
Then a look passed over her son’s face that let her know this was not his home anymore—this is what Olive thought she saw on his face—but he sat down at the kitchen table, his long legs stretched out.
“What would you like?” Olive asked him.
“What do you mean, what would I like?” Christopher looked up at the clock, then back at her.
“I mean, would you also like a glass of water?”
“I’d like a drink.”
“Okay, a drink of what?”
“A drink-drink, but I don’t imagine you have anything like that.”
“I do,” Olive said. She opened the refrigerator. “I have some white wine. Would you like some white wine?”
“You have wine?” Christopher asked. “Yes, I would love some white wine, thank you, Mom.” He stood. “Wait, I’ll get it.” And he took the wine bottle, which was half full, and poured the wine into a tumbler as though it was lemonade. “Thank you.” He raised the glass and drank from it. “When did you start drinking wine?”
“Oh—” Olive stopped herself from saying Jack’s name. “I just started to drink a little, that’s all.”
Christopher’s grin was sardonic. “No, you didn’t, Mom. Tell me the truth—when did you start drinking wine?” He sat back down at the table.
“Sometimes I’ll have friends over, and they drink it.” Olive had to turn away; she opened a cupboard and brought out a box of saltine crackers. “Have a cracker? I even have some cheese.”
“You have friends over?” But Christopher didn’t seem to require an answer, and he sat at the table with his wife, who finally stuck her breast back inside her shirt, and Christopher ate all the cheese and most of the crackers, and Ann sipped at his wine, which he drank quickly. “More?” He pushed the glass forward, and Olive, who thought he’d had enough wine, said, “Okay, then,” and gave him the wine bottle, which he emptied into his glass.
Olive needed to sit down. She realized there were only two chairs at the table; how had she not realized that before? She said, “Let’s go into the living room.” But they did not get up, and so she stood at the counter, feeling shaky. “Tell me about the drive up,” she said.
“Long,” Christopher said, his mouth full of cracker, and Ann said, “Long.”
Neither of Ann’s children spoke a word to Olive. Not a word. Not a “thank you” or a “please”—not one word did they say. They watched her carefully, then turned away. She thought they were horrible children. She said, “Here’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” pointing to the ones that sat on the counter, and they said nothing. “All right, fine,” she said.
But Little Henry was a sweet thing in his way. In the living room—where they finally went, because Olive said again, “Let’s go into the living room”—he toddled over to her and pulled his wet hand from his mouth and put it on Olive’s leg where she sat on the couch, and he banged her knee a few times, and she said, “Hello, Henry!” The child said, “Hi.” “Hello!” she said again, and he said, “Hi, hi.” Well, that was fun.
But when Olive—only because she felt it was expected of her—asked to hold the baby, Natalie, the baby screamed her head off as soon as she was in Olive’s arms. Just screamed her little head off. “Okay then, all right then,” Olive said, and handed her back to her mother, who took some time getting the baby calmed down. Ann had to pull out her breast again to do this, and Olive was pretty sick of seeing her daughter-in-law’s breast, it was so
the breast! All huge with milk, and a few veins running over it; honestly, Olive did not care to see it anymore. She stood up and said, “I’ll get supper started.”
Christopher said, “Oh, I don’t think we’re hungry yet.”
“No problem,” Olive called over her shoulder. In the kitchen she lit the oven and put the casserole in that she had made earlier that morning, scallops and sour cream. Then she returned to the living room.
Olive had expected chaos. She had not expected the silence of these children, or even the silence of Ann, who was different than Olive remembered. “I’m tired,” Ann said to her at one point, and Olive said, “I should think so.” So maybe that was it.
Christopher was more talkative. Sprawled on the couch in the living room, he spoke of the traffic they had run into outside of Worcester, he spoke of their Christmas, their friends, his job as a podiatrist. She wanted to hear it all. But Ann interrupted and said, “Olive, where did you put your Christmas tree? By the front window?”
“I didn’t have a Christmas tree,” Olive said. She said, “Why in the world would I have a Christmas tree?”
Ann raised her eyebrows. “Because it was Christmas?”
Olive didn’t care for that. “Not in this house it wasn’t,” she said.
After Ann had taken the older children into the study, where the couch had been turned into a bed, Olive sat with Christopher and Little Henry, who dangled from his father’s lap. “Cute kid,” Olive said, and Christopher said, “He really is, right?”
From the study she could hear Ann murmuring, and she could hear the higher-pitched voices—but not the words—of the children. Olive stood up and said, “Oh, Christopher, I knit Little Henry a scarf.”
She went into the study—the two older kids in there just stood silently and watched her—and got the scarf she had knit, bright red, and brought it out, and she gave it to Christopher, who said, “Hey, Henry, look what your grandmother made for you,” and the little boy put part of it into his mouth. “Silly thing,” Christopher said to him, and pulled it gently. “You wear it to keep warm.” And the child clapped his hands. Olive thought he was really a fairly amazing child.
Ann appeared in the doorway, flanked with her two kids, who were now in their pajamas. She said, “Um, Olive?” She pursed her lips a moment and then said, “Do you have anything for the other children?”