Authors: Elizabeth Strout
Margaret said nothing, although she had opened her mouth as though she were about to.
“What are you thinking?” Helen asked her.
“I was thinking, How liberal of you.”
After a moment, Helen, who had some trouble taking this in, said, “Why, Margaret, you hate me.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
But now Helen felt sad. She thought ministers were supposed to be nice people. She made a raspberry sound with her lips. “I’m sad,” she said, and Margaret said, “I think you may be a little drunk.”
Helen felt her face flush again. She took the bottle of wine and poured more into the stupid mason jar. “Bottoms up,” she said.
And then the men could be heard on the stairs, and after a minute the door squeaked open and closed and there they were, standing in the living room. “Oh,
,” said Helen. “Boy, am I glad to see you two.” She squinted up at them. “Are you guys okay?”
She couldn’t see Jim’s eyes, but something in the way the men stood made her feel they were not okay. “Look,” she said, “I bought a piece of crap.” She pointed to the small painting, which was on the floor next to the couch.
Bob picked it up, and Jim stepped behind him to look. “God, Helen,” Jim asked, “why did you buy that?” And Bob said, “It’s not so bad.”
“It’s awful,” Helen said. “I just bought it—to be nice. Who was that woman?” Helen looked with confusion at Margaret. “That pickle person. You know—” She tried to snap her fingers, but her fingers slipped. “That person, what—you know, what’s like a pickle?”
“Olive.” Margaret said this coldly.
“Olive.” Helen nodded.
“Olive Kitteridge,” Margaret said.
“Well, she said this was crap.”
“Olive thinks everything is crap,” said Bob. “That’s just who she is.”
Margaret stood up and said, “I think we’d better go to dinner. Helen needs some food.”
It wasn’t until Helen herself stood up that she realized how drunk she might be. “Whoopsie,” she said, quietly. She looked around. “Where did Jimmy go?”
“He’s in the bathroom,” Bob said. “We’ll go in just a minute.”
And then Helen saw the staircase that went upstairs from the living room. “Bobby, is that where you sleep? Up there?”
Bob said that it was.
And Helen climbed the stairs. “I’m just going to peek,” she called out. She put her hand on the wall to steady herself. These stairs were steep as well, and they turned a corner partway up. She stood on the landing and turned around. There was a plant on the landing, and its leaves spread far up and down the steps. “Boy, that would give me the creeps,” Helen said, and then as she started up the rest of the stairs she fell backward, and what she was aware of was how long the fall was taking, how her body was bumping and bumping down these stairs, it was taking forever, and it was shocking. And then she stopped.
Margaret yelled, “Don’t move her!”
Jim went in the ambulance with Helen, and Margaret and Bob followed in their car. Margaret said, “Oh, Bob. Bob. This was all my fault.” He looked over at her. Her eyes seemed bald-looking to him, and they were red-rimmed. “No, it was,” she said. “It was all my fault. Bob, I couldn’t
her. And she knew it. And it was terrible of me, I didn’t even really try with her. Oh, Bob. And she knew! She knew, because people always know these things, and so she got drunk.”
“No, Bob. I feel terrible. She just drove me crazy, and there was no reason that she should have, but she’s— Oh, Bob, she’s just so
“Well, she is rich. That’s true. But what does that have to do with it?”
Margaret looked over at him. “It makes her self-centered, Bob. She never even asked about me once.”
“She’s shy, Margaret. She’s nervous.”
Margaret said, “That woman is not shy. She’s
. And I just couldn’t stand her from the very beginning. You know, her hair done so nicely, and her gold earrings. Oh, Bob. And then when she got out her foolish straw hat I thought I’d die.”
“Her straw hat? Margaret, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying I couldn’t stand her and she knew it, Bob. And I feel terrible.”
Bob said nothing. He could think of nothing to say. But a quiet sense of almost-unreality seemed to come to him, and he thought the word “prejudice,” and he understood that he needed to drive carefully, and so he did, and then they reached the hospital.
It was midnight by the time Helen was released. She had broken an arm, and two ribs, and her face had been badly bruised; one eye was purplish and swollen. Now she sat silently, with her arm in a white cast that bent by the elbow, while Jim—whom Margaret had driven back to their place to get his car—went around and opened her car door and then helped her into the car. There had been a CAT scan done of her head, and there was no damage, and she had had a number of X-rays to check for internal injuries. Now Bob got into the backseat, and he texted Margaret that Helen was okay, Margaret should go to bed.
Jim said over his shoulder, “You have to sleep sitting up when you break any ribs.”
“Oh, Helen,” said Bob, reaching to touch the back of Helen’s head. “I’m so sorry.”
Jim said, “Hellie, we’ll drive back tomorrow. I’m going to rent an SUV, and we’ll just drive straight back. You’ll be more comfortable that way, I think.” And Bob could see Helen nod slightly.
At the inn, Bob helped his brother get Helen seated in the wingback chair—once she was in her pajamas, her cast sticking out at an angle, and her robe pulled over her—in the sitting-room part of their room, and then he said he would be back.
When he went up the stairs to his own bedroom, he was surprised to see that Margaret was fast asleep. There was a small light on by the bed, and he watched this woman, who seemed almost a stranger to him at this moment. He recognized now the smallness of her response to a world she did not know or understand; it was not unlike the response his sister had had to Helen. And he knew that had he not lived in New York for so many years—if his brother, whom he had loved as God, had not lived there as well, rich and famous for all those years—then he might have felt as Margaret did. But he did not feel as she did. He turned the light off and walked down the stairs and back to the inn.
The door of the room was unlocked, and he entered it quietly. Jim lay snoring on the bed, and Helen sat, as though asleep, in the chair. On her feet now were thin pink slippers with fluffy pompoms on their ends.
Inside Bob moved a sadness he had not felt in years. He had missed his brother—his brother!—and his brother had missed Maine. But his brother was married to a woman who hated Maine, and Bob understood that they would not come up here again. Jim would live the rest of his life as an exile, in New York City. And Bob would live the rest of his life as an exile in Maine. He would always miss Pam, he would always miss New York, even though he would continue to make his yearly visits there. He was exiled here. And the weirdness of this—how life had turned out, for himself, and Jim, and even Pam—made him feel an ocean of sadness sway through him.
A sound came from the chair, and he saw that Helen was awake, and she was weeping quietly. “Ah, Helen,” he said, and he went to her. He turned and found a box of tissues on the table, then he put a tissue over her nose and said softly, “Blow,” and this made Helen laugh a little, and Bob squatted next to her chair. He put his hand on her hair, drawing it back from her face. “Ah, you’re going to be all right, Helen,” he said. “Don’t you worry. Jim’s going to drive you straight home tomorrow, and you will never have to come back to this awful state.”
She looked at him in the duskiness of the room, her one eye almost swollen shut, the other eye looking at him searchingly. “But you live here,” she said. “It’s not awful for you, is it, Bobby?”
He paused, then whispered, “Sometimes,” and he winked at her and so she laughed again.
“I’ve always loved you.”
“I know that. And I’ve always loved you too.”
Helen nodded just slightly. “Okay,” she said, “I’m sleepy.”
“You rest. I’m right here, and Jim is in the next room.”
“Is he snoring?”
And Bob sat back on his heels, and after Helen’s eyes had remained closed for a while he moved back quietly to sit in the chair opposite her. He ached, as though he had walked far longer than his body could walk, his whole entire body ached, and he thought: My soul is aching.
And it came to him then that it should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect: This was true for Jim and Helen, and for Margaret and himself, as well.
“Bobby?” Helen whispered this.
“What is it, Helen?” He got up and went to her.
“Nothing. I just wanted to know if you’re here.”
“I’m right here.” He stayed by her for a moment, then went back and sat in his chair. “Not going anywhere,” he said.
n a Tuesday morning in the middle of September, Olive Kitteridge drove carefully into the parking lot of the marina. It was early—she drove only in the early hours now—and there were not many cars there, as she had expected there would not be. She nosed her car into a space and got out slowly; she was eighty-two years old, and thought of herself as absolutely ancient. For three weeks now she had been using a cane, and she made her way across the rocky pathway, not glancing up so as to be able to watch her footing, but she could feel the early-morning sun and sensed the beauty of the leaves that were turned already to a bright red at the tops of the trees.
Once inside, she sat at a booth that had a view of the ocean and ordered a muffin and scrambled eggs from the girl with the huge hind end. The girl was not a friendly girl; she hadn’t been friendly in the year she’d worked here. Olive stared out at the water. It was low tide, and the seaweed lay like combed rough hair, all in one direction. The boats that remained in the bay sat graciously, their thin masts pointing to the heavens like tiny steeples. Far past them was Eagle Island and also Puckerbrush Island with the evergreens spread across them both, nothing more than a faint line seen from here. When the girl—who practically slung the plate of eggs with the muffin onto the table—said, hands on her hips, “Anything else?,” Olive just gave a tiny shake of her head and the girl walked away, one haunch of white pants moving up then coming down as the other haunch moved up; up and down, huge slabs of hind end. In a patch of sunlight on the table Olive’s rings twinkled on her hand, which sight—lit in such a way—gave her the faintest reverberation of surprise. Wrinkled, puffy: This was her hand. And then, minutes later, just as she had put another bite of scrambled egg onto her fork, Olive spotted her: Andrea L’Rieux. For a moment Olive couldn’t believe it was the girl—not a girl, she was a middle-aged woman, but at Olive’s age they were all girls—and then she thought, Why not? Why wouldn’t it be Andrea?
The girl, Andrea, sat at a booth by herself; it was a few booths away from Olive, and she faced Olive, but she sat staring out at the water with tinted glasses halfway down her nose. Olive placed her fork on her plate, and after a few moments she rose slowly and walked up to Andrea’s booth and she said, “Hello, Andrea. I know who you are.”
The girl-woman turned and stared at her, and for a moment Olive felt she had been mistaken. But then the girl-woman took off her tinted glasses and there she was, Andrea, middle-aged. There was a long moment of silence—it seemed long to Olive—before Olive said, “So. You’re famous now.”
Andrea kept staring at Olive with eyes that were large, her dark hair was pulled back loosely in a ponytail. Finally she said, “Mrs. Kitteridge?” Her voice was deep, throaty.
“It’s me,” Olive said. “It is I. And I’ve become an old lady.” She sat down across from Andrea, in spite of thinking that she saw in the girl’s face a wish not to be disturbed. But Olive was old, she had buried two husbands, what did she care; she did not care.
“You’ve gotten smaller,” Andrea said.
“Probably.” Olive folded her hands on the table, then put them onto her lap. “My husband died four months ago, and I don’t eat as much. I still have an appetite, but I’m not eating as much, and when you get old, you shrink anyway.”
Andrea said, after a moment, “You do?”
“Shrink? Of course you do. Your spine gets crunched up, your belly pops out—and down you go. I can’t be the first person you’ve seen get old.”
“You’re not,” Andrea agreed.
“Well, then. So you know.”
“Bring your plate over,” said Andrea, looking past Olive to where Olive had been sitting. “Wait, I’ll get it for you.” And she scooted from her seat and in a moment returned with Olive’s plate of eggs, and the muffin, and also Olive’s cane. She was shorter than Olive had thought: childlike, almost.
“Thank you,” Olive said. “I only started with the cane three weeks ago. I had a little car accident, is what happened. I was in the parking lot near Chewie’s. And I stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake.”
Andrea opened her hand slightly and said with a friendly half-grimace, “That’s fair.”
“Not if you’re eighty-two years old. Then everyone seems ready to take away your license. Although I must say, the policeman was very nice. I wept. Can you imagine? I still can’t believe I did. But I stood there and I wept. Awfully nice man, the policeman. And the ambulance people, they were nice too.”
“Were you hurt?”
“Cracked my sternum.”
“God,” Andrea said.
“It’s fine.” Olive pulled her jacket closed. “I move more slowly, and now I just drive in the early morning. Try to, anyway. I totaled two cars in the parking lot that day.”
“Two. That’s right. Well, three, if you count mine. I had to get my friend Edith’s husband, Buzzy Stevens, to help me get another car when the insurance check came in. I don’t think Buzzy cared much for that, but there we are. No one was hurt. Just me. Shook me up, I will say.”
“Well, of course,” Andrea said in her deep voice.
“I saw on Facebook you were just in Oslo,” said Olive. She ate some of her egg.
“You follow me on Facebook? Are you serious?”
“Of course I’m serious. You just had a whole Scandinavian tour doing poetry readings. I went to Oslo with my second husband, I’ve had two husbands,” Olive said. “And with my second husband we went to Oslo and took a boat—a cruise, I guess it was—around the fjords. They were beautiful, they were. My word. But then Jack got sad, and then I got sad, and we both said, It’s beautiful here, but not as pretty as home. We felt better once we’d figured that out.” Olive wiped her nose with a paper napkin that was on the table. She felt as though she was panting.
The girl was watching her carefully.
“I don’t know what you thought about the fjords, but that’s what we thought.” Olive said this, and sat back.
“I never saw the fjords.”
“You never saw the fjords?”
“No.” Andrea sat up straight. “I gave a reading and hung around with my publisher, and then I had to move on. I wanted to move on. I guess I really don’t care about the fjords.”
“Huh,” Olive said.
“I get lonely when I travel,” Andrea said.
Olive wasn’t sure she’d heard this right, but she decided she had, and she thought about it. “Well,” she said, “you were probably always lonely.”
Andrea looked at her then, gave her a look that confused Olive somewhat; the girl’s eyes were brown but almost a little bit hazel too, and they seemed to break into a tenderness around their corners as she looked at Olive. The girl said nothing.
If there was one student Olive had had over her vast years as a seventh-grade math teacher, if there was one student who was not going to be famous, it was Andrea L’Rieux. The only reason Olive even remembered her was because she used to see the girl out walking alone, and so sad-looking. Such a sad-looking face that girl had. But she had been no student; nope, she had certainly not been that. Not even in English class, because when the girl began to rise to prominence, when she became Poet Laureate of the United States (!) a number of years ago, even her high school English teacher had told a reporter that Andrea had not been much of a student. Horrible old Irene White, stupid as a stick and wouldn’t have known talent if she’d seen it, but still—
“Irene White is dead,” Olive told Andrea, and Andrea nodded and shrugged a slight shrug.
“She seemed old when I had her,” Andrea said. “I remember rouge would get stuck in the wrinkles of her cheeks.”
“Well, she sure wasn’t very generous about you,” Olive said, and when the girl looked at her with surprise, Olive realized that Andrea had not seen the article.
And then Andrea said, “I don’t read anything about myself.”
“Good idea,” Olive said. “Anyway, when they came snooping to me, I said nothing.”
She’d have had nothing to say. She wasn’t going to say the girl had been sad-faced, that she came from a family with God knows how many siblings, let others say that. And they did! But not the sad-faced part; apparently no one but Olive had seen the girl walking the roads of Crosby, Maine, thirty years ago.
The sun went down on the apple trees / and held the dark red seemingly forever.
This was the only line of Andrea’s poetry that Olive could remember. Maybe because it was the only line she liked. She had read a great deal of Andrea’s poetry. Everyone in town seemed to have read Andrea’s poetry. Her books were always center on display at the bookstore. People said they loved her work. Andrea L’Rieux had been hailed as all sorts of things: feminist, postmodernist, political mixing with the natural. She was a “confessional poet,” and Olive thought there were some things a person need not confess. (There were
in one poem, Olive remembered now.)
“Thank you,” Andrea said. “For not talking to any reporter,” she added. And then she shook her head and said, almost to herself, “I just hate it all.”
“Oh, come on now,” Olive said. “It has to be fun. You got to meet the president.”
Andrea nodded. “I did.”
“It’s not everyone from Crosby, Maine, who gets to rub shoulders with the president.” Olive added, “What was he like?”
“I think he just shook my hand.” Now her eyes held mirth as she looked at Olive.
Olive said, “And his wife? Did you shake hands with her as well?”
“So what are they like?” Olive loved this president. She thought he was smart, and his wife was smart, and what a hell of a job he had, with Congress being so horrible to him. She would be sorry to see him go.
“He was kind of arrogant. His wife was very nice. She said she read my poetry and loved it, blah-fucking-blah-blah.” Andrea tugged a stray piece of hair back behind her ear.
Olive finished her egg. She thought surely a poet could find words other than the phrase Andrea had just used. “Use your words,” Olive had told her son, Christopher, when he was small. “Stop whining and use your words.” Now Olive said to Andrea, “My husband—Jack, my second husband—he would have agreed with you about the arrogance.” When the girl made no response to this, Olive asked, “What are you doing up here?”
Andrea exhaled a long sigh. “My father got sick. So—”
“My father killed himself,” Olive said. She started in on her muffin, which she always kept until last.
“Your father did? He committed suicide?”
After a moment, Andrea asked, “How?”
“Really,” Andrea said. “I had no idea.” She put both hands on her ponytail and smoothed it over her shoulder. “How old were you?”
“Thirty. Why would you have any idea? I assume your father is not going to kill himself.”
“I think it’s unusual for a woman to use a gun,” Andrea said, picking up the saltshaker and looking at it. “Men, yes, that’s what they do. But women—usually I think it’s pills with women.” She sent the saltshaker spinning just slightly across the table.
“I wouldn’t know.”
“No.” Andrea pulled her fingers through her hair that was just above the ponytail. After a few moments, she said, “My father wouldn’t know how to kill himself. He’s, you know, not right in the head anymore. He never was right in the head. But you know what I mean.”
“You mean he’s demented. But what do you mean he was never right in the head?”
“I dunno.” Andrea seemed deflated now. She shrugged. “He was just always—he was just always so
Olive knew from Andrea’s poetry that the girl had never liked her father, but Olive could not now seem to remember any particular reason for this, he was not a drunk, she’d have remembered that— Olive said, “So now he’s going to die?”
“And your mother is dead.” Olive knew this; the girl’s poetry had been about that.
“Oh, she passed twenty years ago. She’d had eight kids. I mean, come
“You don’t have any kids, am I right?” Olive glanced up as she pulled apart her muffin.
“No. I had enough of babies growing up.”
“Never mind. Kids are just a needle in your heart.” Olive drummed her fingers on the tabletop, then put the muffin piece into her mouth. After she swallowed, she repeated, “Just a needle in your goddamn heart.”
“How many do you have?”
“Oh, I have just the one. A son. That’s enough. I have a stepdaughter too. She’s lovely. Lovely girl.” Olive nodded. “A lesbian.”
“Does she like you?”
This question surprised Olive. “I think she does,” she said. “Yes, she does.”
“So you have that.”
“It’s not the same. I met her when she was a grown-up, and she lives in California. It’s not like your own kid.”
“Why is your son a needle in your heart?” The girl asked this with hesitancy, as she tore at the orange peel that had garnished her plate.
“Who knows? Born that way, I guess.” Olive wiped her fingers on a napkin. “You can put that in a poem. All yours.”
The girl said nothing, only looked up through the window at the bay.
It was then that Olive noticed the girl’s sweater, a navy-blue thing with a zipper up the front. But the cuffs were grimy, old-looking. Surely the girl could afford some nice clothes. Olive moved her eyes away quickly, as though she’d seen something she ought not to have seen. She said, “Well, it was good of you to let me join you. I’ll be on my way.”
The girl looked at her, startled. “Oh—” she said. “Oh, Mrs. Kitteridge, please don’t go. Have some more coffee. Oh, you’re not drinking coffee. Do you want a cup of coffee?”
“I don’t drink coffee anymore,” Olive said. “It doesn’t seem to agree with my bowels. But have some more if you’d like. I’ll wait with you while you have some.” She turned to find the girl who worked here, and the girl came right over and was very pleasant to Andrea. “There you go,” the girl said, smiling—smiling!—at Andrea, and poured her a cup of coffee. “When you get old,” Olive told Andrea after the girl had walked away, “you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way.”
Andrea looked at her searchingly. “Tell me how it’s freeing.”