Read Olive, Again: A Novel Online

Authors: Elizabeth Strout

Olive, Again: A Novel (11 page)

BOOK: Olive, Again: A Novel
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“You drive,” she said, and he did.

Ann sat on a rock that looked out at the ocean, even though the rock must have been very cold—it was windswept and had no moisture on it, but it still must have been cold—while Christopher ran back and forth on the beach with the kids. Olive watched this from the edge of the parking lot, her coat pulled tight around her. After a few minutes she made her way to Ann, who looked up at her, the baby asleep in her arms. “Hello, Olive,” Ann said.

Olive couldn’t figure out what to do. The rocks were wide, but she couldn’t get herself down to a sitting position. So she stood. Finally she said, “How’s your mother, Ann?”

Ann said something that got lost in the wind.

“What?” Olive said.

“I said she’s dead!” Ann turned her head back to Olive, yelling this.

“She died?” Olive yelled this back. “When did she die?”

“A couple months ago,” Ann yelled in the wind toward Olive.

For a number of moments Olive stood there. She had no idea what to do. But then she decided she would try and sit next to Ann, and so she bent down and placed her hands carefully on the rock and finally got herself seated.

Olive said, “So she died right before you had Natalie?”

Ann nodded.

Olive said, “What a hell of a thing.”

“Thank you,” said Ann.

And Olive realized that this girl, this tall, strange girl—who was a middle-aged woman—was grieving. “Did she die suddenly?” Olive asked.

Ann squinted toward the water. “I guess. Except she never took care of herself, you know. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise when she had her heart attack.” Ann waited a moment, then turned her face toward Olive. “Except I was surprised. I’m still surprised.”

Olive nodded. “Yuh, of course you are.” After a moment Olive added, “It’s always a surprise, I think. Even if they’re languishing for months, they still just go away. Horrible business.”

Ann said, “Do you remember that song, I think it’s a black spiritual—‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’?”

“ ‘A long way from home,’ ” Olive finished.

“Yeah, that one,” Ann said. Then Ann said, “But I always felt that way. And now I am.”

Olive considered this. “Well, I’m very sorry,” she said. Then she asked, “Where was she living when she died?”

“Outside of Cincinnati, where she always lived. Where I grew up, you know.”

Olive nodded. From the corner of her eye she watched this girl—this woman—and she thought, Who are you, Ann? She knew the girl had a brother somewhere, but what was his story? She couldn’t remember, she only knew they had no contact, was he on drugs? He might have been. The mother had been a drinker, Olive knew that. And her father had divorced the mother years ago; he’d been dead for a long time. She said again, “Well, awful sorry.”

“Thanks.” Ann stood up—remarkably easily, considering she was holding the baby—and then she walked away. She just walked away! It took Olive many moments to stand up, she had to heave herself onto one arm and roll herself a bit to get her foot under her.

“Oh, honest to God,” she said. She was panting by the time she got back to the car.

On the way back, Olive said, “Chris, why didn’t you tell me Ann’s mother died?”

He made a sound and shrugged.

“But why wouldn’t you tell me such a thing?” Through the window were the trees still bare, their limbs dark, poking toward the sky. They passed by a field that looked soggy and matted down in parts, the streaming sun showing it all.

“Oh, her mother was nuts. Whatever.”

In the backseat Henry sang out, “Goggie, goggie. Train, airplane! Daddy, Mama!” Olive turned to look at him, and he smiled at her.

“He’s just singing all the words he knows,” Christopher said. “He likes to do that.”

“But I don’t understand,” Olive said, after waving to Little Henry. “I just don’t, Christopher. She’s my daughter-in-law, and I’d like to know what’s going on in her life.”

Christopher glanced at her quickly, then back at the road; he drove with one arm draped across the wheel. “I really didn’t know you cared,” he said. He looked over at her again. “What?” he asked.

Olive had started to ask a question. “Why—?”

“I just told you why.”

And Olive nodded. Her question, which she did not ask, was: Why did you marry this woman?

They made it through another night, and one more day, and then the final night arrived. Olive was exhausted. In the entire time, except for Little Henry, the children did not speak to her. But they stared at her—with increasing boldness, she thought—because whenever she looked at them they were looking at her, and instead of glancing down as they had at first they continued to stare, Theodore with his huge blue eyes, and Annabelle with her small dark ones. Unbelievable children.

Finally they went off to bed in the study and Olive sat with Christopher and Ann and the baby while Little Henry—such a good boy!—was asleep upstairs. Olive was getting used to the breast being stuck out in the open now, she didn’t like it, but she was getting used to it. And she felt sorry for Ann, who seemed to her to be diminished in her grief. So she made small talk with the woman and Ann seemed to try to do her best as well. Ann said, “Annabelle wanted those rubber boots because we were going to Maine. Isn’t that sweet?” And Olive, who could not think what to say about this, nodded. Ann eventually went upstairs with the baby, and then Olive was alone with Christopher, and she realized the moment had come.

“Christopher.” She forced herself to look at him, although he was looking down at his foot. “I’m getting married.”

It seemed forever before he looked at her and said, with half a smile, “Wait. What did you just say?”

“I said I’m getting married. To Jack Kennison.”

She saw the color leave his face; without a doubt his face became pale. He looked around the room for a moment, then turned to look at her. “Who the
is Jack Kennison?”

“He lost his wife a while ago. I’ve mentioned him on the phone to you, Chris.” She felt as though her face was flaming hot, as though all the blood that had drained from her son’s face had made its way to her face instead.

He looked at her with such genuine astonishment, she felt she would take it back immediately, the whole thing, if she could. “You’re getting married?” His voice was quiet now. In a quieter voice he said, “Mommy. You’re getting married?”

Olive nodded quickly. “I am, Chris.”

He kept shaking his head in small gestures, slowly, just kept shaking it and shaking it. “I don’t understand. I don’t get this, Mom. Why are you getting married?”

“Because we’re two lonely old people and we want to be together.”

together! But why get married? Mom?”

“Chris, what difference does it make?”

He leaned forward and said—his voice sounded almost menacing—“If it doesn’t make any difference, then why are you doing it?”

“I meant, to you. What difference does it make to you?” But horribly, Olive now felt a niggling of doubt. Why was she marrying Jack? What difference
it make?

Christopher said, “Mom, you invited us up here just to tell us that, didn’t you. I can’t believe it.”

“I invited you up here because I wanted to see you. I haven’t seen you since your father’s funeral.”

Christopher was looking at her hard. “You invited us up here to tell us you were getting married. Unfuckingbelievable.” Then he said, “Mom, you have
invited us up here.”

“I didn’t need to invite you, Chris. You’re my son. This is your home.”

And then the color returned to his face. “This is not my home,” he said, looking around. “Oh my God.” He shook his head slowly. “Oh my God.” He stood up. “That’s why it looks so different. You’re moving out. Are you going to move into his house? Of course you are. And sell this one? Oh my God, Mom.” He turned to look at her. “When are you getting married?”

“Soon,” she said.

“Is there going to be a wedding?”

“No wedding,” she said. “We’ll go to Town Hall.”

He walked to the stairs. “Good night,” he said.


He turned.

Olive stood up. “Your language is deplorable. You said at your father’s funeral that the man never swore.”

Christopher stared at her. “Mom, you’re killing me,” he said.

“Well, Jack is coming over in the morning to meet you before you all leave.” She was suddenly furious. “Good night,” she said.

She could hear—almost immediately—Christopher and Ann talking; she could not hear what they said, she was sitting in the living room, but the sound of their voices came to her steadily. Finally she rose and slowly, very quietly, went and stood by the stairs. “Always been a narcissist, Chris, you
that.” And then Chris answered, “But Jesus Christ,” and something more, and Olive turned and went just as slowly and quietly back to her chair in the living room.

In her room later that night she kept thinking about the word “narcissist,” which she knew the meaning of naturally, but did she
know the meaning? She looked at her computer, finding the word “narcissism” in the dictionary. “Self-admiration,” it said, then, “personality disorder.” She closed the computer. Olive didn’t understand this, she really didn’t. Self-admiration? Olive felt no admiration of herself! Personality disorder? Given the extensive and widespread array of human emotions, why was anything a personality disorder? And who came up with such a term? People like that crackpot therapist Ann and Christopher had been seeing years ago in New York. Well, that therapist had a disorder; he was crazy.

She got into bed and she did not expect to sleep, and she did not sleep. She took from her bedside drawer the little transistor radio she had held on to while she slept—or tried to—for so many nights of her later life, and she turned it on low and held it to her ear, lying with it that way. The entire night went by and she stared at the dark, turning only a few times. She watched the red digital clock, and she clung to her little transistor radio, but she heard every word that came from it and understood that she had not even dozed.

When it was light she got up and got dressed and went downstairs. She put three bowls of Cheerios and the milk on the table. Glancing in the small mirror by the doorway she saw that she had the reddened-eye look of a prisoner.

“Hi, Mom,” said Christopher, appearing in the kitchen. “What time is he coming over? Because we have a long drive.”

“I’ll call him right now,” said Olive, and she did. “Hello, Jack,” she said, “can you come over now? They have a long drive and want to get started. Wonderful. See you soon.” She hung up.

“Oh, kids, look what Grandma did.” Ann came in holding the baby. “She got your cereal out.” The children did not look at her—Olive noticed—but sat down, Theodore and Annabelle balanced together on one chair, and ate their cereal. They made terrible smacking sounds. Little Henry put his spoon on the table and banged it hard, then smiled at Olive as milk and Cheerios sprayed through the air. “Henry,” murmured Ann. And Henry said, “Airplane!” And took the spoon and rode it through the air.

BOOK: Olive, Again: A Novel
11.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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