September 20, 2019, 17:43

“Motherless Child”

“Motherless Child”

Audio: Elizabeth Strout reads.

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, Christopher, and his wife, Ann. For the little ones, she had no idea. The baby was only six weeks old and wouldn’t be eating anything solid yet; Little Henry was over two, but what did two-year-olds eat? Olive couldn’t remember what Christopher had eaten when he was that age.

The phone rang, and Olive quickly answered it. Christopher said, “O.K., Mom, we’re just leaving Portland. We had to stop for lunch.”

“Lunch?” Olive said. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. Through the window, the late-April sun was milky 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, “O.K., then. Will you still be needing supper?”

“Supper?” Christopher asked, as though she had proposed that 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 hadn’t yet taken the pictures off the wall, but 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 when she glanced into the living room from where she sat that room seemed to her to have changed even more; 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,” her son said.

“Are you supposed to be talking on a cell phone 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,” her son said.

Me, too.

Hanging up, she walked through the house, and trepidation fluttered through her. “You’re doing this all wrong,” she said quietly to herself. 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 the birth of 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. She had seen him only once since, soon afterward, when he had flown to Maine for his father’s funeral and spoken before the whole church, tears running 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 that 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 need a crib? Well, judging by how she had seen them living in New York—God, what a mess that place had been—she decided that they could make do with just about anything. Annabelle was almost four now; Theodore was six. What did a six-year-old boy like to do? And why were there so many children? Ann had had Theodore with one man, Annabelle with another, and now she had spat 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 could 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 a little dark-haired girl, dressed in a bulky pink nylon coat and a pair of knee-high rubber boots, robin’s-egg blue, who turned away immediately, and a blond boy, older, who stared at Olive. Ann was taking her time getting the baby out of the car. Olive went to Christopher, 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 an apparatus that looked like a small pilot seat for a child headed to outer space; he lifted the kid out, and said to his mother, “Here’s Henry.”

The child looked with large slumbering eyes at Olive, as he was placed, standing, on the ground. “Hello, Henry,” Olive said, and the child’s eyes rolled up slightly, then he pressed his face into his father’s pant leg. “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 that she would see her late 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 yet spoken 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. “It’s an expression,” Olive explained—the child wore no hat.

Ann said, “We got those boots for this 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 move 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 awhile, 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 held the baby, was shrugging her way out of a thick black sweater. Olive could see that Ann’s stomach bulged through her black stretch pants, although her arms seemed skinny in her 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 she felt a tiny bit ill. Ann pressed the baby to her breast, and Olive saw the little thing, eyes closed, clasp on to the nipple. Ann smiled up at Olive, but Olive didn’t think it was 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 that this was not his home anymore—that was 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.”

“O.K., 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 were 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. 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, “O.K., then,” and gave him the bottle, which he emptied into his glass.

Olive needed to sit down. She realized that there were only two chairs at the table; how had she not noticed 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 “thank you” or a “please”—not one word did they say. 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 as 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 Natalie, the baby started screaming as soon as she was in Olive’s arms. Just screamed her little head off. “O.K., then, all right, then,” Olive said, and handed her back to her mother, who took some time getting her 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 naked, all huge with milk, and veins running over it. Honestly, Olive did not care to see it anymore. She stood up and said, “I’ll get supper started.”

“We don’t mean to ignore you, but, on the other hand, there’s no joy in an ice-cold enchilada.”Cartoon by Jack Ziegler

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 in the casserole that she had made that morning, with 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 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. “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 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 just stood silently and watched her—and got the scarf she had knitted, 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 by the older 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?”

Olive felt a darkness rising swiftly through her. It took her a moment to trust herself, then she said, “I don’t know what you mean, Ann. Are you talking about Christmas presents? I sent the children Christmas presents.”

“Yeah?” Ann said slowly. “But that was, you know, Christmas?”

Olive said, “Well, I never heard a word from you, so perhaps they didn’t get them.”

“No, we got them,” Ann said. Then she said to Theodore, “Remember that truck?”

The child shrugged one shoulder and turned away. And yet they stood there, that beastly mother and her two children from two different men, stood right there in the doorway, as though Olive were supposed to produce—what was she supposed to produce? She really had to bite her tongue not to say, “I guess you didn’t like that truck.” Or not to say to the little girl, “And what about that doll? I suppose you didn’t like that, either?” Olive had to force herself not to say, “In my day, we thanked people who sent us gifts.” Olive really had to work not to say this, but she did not say this, and after a few minutes Ann said to the kids, “Come on, let’s get you to bed. Give Daddy a kiss.” And they walked to Christopher and kissed him, then walked right by Olive, and that was that. Horrible, horrible children, and a horrible mother. But Little Henry suddenly wiggled out of his father’s lap and dragged his new scarf across the floor to Olive. “Hi,” he said. He smiled at her! “Hello,” she said. “Hello, Little Henry.” “Hi, hi,” he said. He held the scarf toward Olive. “Gank you,” he said. Well, he was a Kitteridge. He was surely a Kitteridge, all right. “Oh, your grandfather would have been so proud,” she said to him, and he smiled and smiled, his teeth wet with saliva.

Christopher was looking around the room. “Mom, this place looks awfully different,” he said.

“You haven’t been here in a while,” Olive said. “Things change, and your memory is different, too.”

Olive was happy.

Her son was talking to her alone. Little Henry had been put to bed upstairs, and his mother and his baby sister were up there as well. The light from the lamp in the corner spilled over her son. This was all she wanted: just this. Chris’s eyes seemed clear; his face seemed clear. The gray in his hair still surprised her, but she thought he looked good. He spoke a great deal about his podiatry practice, the young woman who worked for him, the insurance he had to pay, the insurance that his patients had. Olive didn’t care what he talked about. He talked about their tenant, no longer the guy with the parrot that would screech “Praise God” anytime someone swore but a young man with a girlfriend now; they were probably going to get married soon. On and on he talked, her son. Olive was tired, but she stifled a yawn. She would stay here forever to hear this. He could recite the alphabet to her and she would sit here and listen to it.

When he finally went to bed—“O.K., night, Mom,” raising a hand—she sat for a while in the living room, with just the one lamp on, the water seen through the window all black, just the tiny speck of the red light out at Halfway Rock; the front deck with its wooden chairs that she had brought out only recently seemed also to sit quietly and patiently in the dark. It was the first night in months that she had not spoken to Jack and she missed that, but he seemed far away to her right now. And then there was a sudden shriek—“Mama! ”—from the study. Olive’s heart started to beat fast, and she got up as quickly as she could and went to the door of the study, where Annabelle stood. Annabelle looked at her, then stepped back and again screamed “Mama! ”

“Now stop that,” Olive said. “Your mother is exhausted. Let her sleep.”

And the little girl pushed the door shut. Olive waited for a moment, then she went upstairs to bed. But she heard the child on the stairs later, and heard her go into her parents’ room, and Ann’s tired voice murmuring, and Olive thought, Honest to God, what a brat. But Olive was on her computer, and there was an e-mail from Jack: “How’s it going???? I miss you, Olive. Please, please write me when you can.” And she wrote back, “Oh, too much to say! I miss you, too.”

A part of Olive thought, Come on, Jack, I have my hands full here, I can’t be there with you, too! It was as though she had five hundred bees buzzing in her head.

Olive did not fall asleep for many hours that night. She kept going over her conversation with Chris, like a giddy schoolgirl—oh, she had missed him!—and when she woke she heard people in the kitchen. She got out of bed quickly; she was a very early riser, and she had not expected Ann and Christopher—and all their children—to get up earlier than she did. But they had. Every one of them was right there in the kitchen, fully dressed, when she went downstairs. Olive was not one to wear a bathrobe in front of people she felt she barely knew. “Well, hello,” she said, tugging her bathrobe tightly closed. And no one said anything. The older children looked at her with open hostility—Olive felt this—and even Little Henry was silent, on his mother’s lap.

Christopher said, “Mom, you didn’t get Cheerios? I told you we needed Cheerios.”

“You did?” Olive could not remember her son’s mentioning Cheerios. “Well, there’s oatmeal,” she said. She thought she saw Christopher and Ann exchange a look.

“I’ll go,” Ann said. “Just tell me how to get there.”

“No,” Christopher said. “I’ll go. You stay here.”

And then—God, just in the nick of time—Olive said, “No, I’ll go. Everyone just stay put.”

And so Olive went back upstairs and put some clothes on, and then she took her coat and her big black handbag and she walked through the kitchen as fast as she could and drove over to Cottle’s. All she wanted was to speak to Jack. But she had walked out the door without her cell phone! And what had happened to pay phones? She felt hurried and upset, knowing that the kids were waiting for their Cheerios. “Jack, Jack,” she called out in her head. “Help me, Jack.” What good was the fact that Jack had bought her a cell phone when she didn’t even remember to take it with her? Finally, after she had bought the Cheerios, as she was pulling out of the parking lot, she saw a pay phone near the back of the lot, and she parked again. She couldn’t find a quarter at first, but then she found one and she slipped it into the phone, and there was no dial tone. The goddam phone didn’t work. Oh, she was fit to be tied.

Olive had trouble driving home; she really had to concentrate. After she tossed the Cheerios in the paper bag onto the kitchen table, she said, “If you’ll excuse me just a moment,” and she went upstairs to her room, and she e-mailed Jack with fingers that were almost trembling. “Help me,” she wrote. “I don’t know what to do.” Then she realized that he couldn’t help her, he couldn’t call her—they had agreed not to speak by phone until Olive had told Chris—and so she deleted what she had written and wrote instead, “It’s O.K. I just miss you. Hang in there!” Then she added, “(More soon.).”

Down in the kitchen, the silence remained. “What’s the matter?” Olive asked; she heard the anger in her voice.

“There’s not much milk, Mom. There was only a little. So Annabelle got it, and Theodore has to have his Cheerios plain.” Christopher was leaning against the counter as he said this, one ankle crossed over the other.

“Are you serious?” Olive asked. “Well, I’ll go back—”

“No, it’s O.K. Just sit, Mom.” Christopher nodded toward the chair that Theodore sat in. “Theodore, give your grandmother a chair.” The child, with his eyes down, slid off the chair and stood.

Ann’s back was to her, and Olive could see Little Henry on one of his mother’s knees. Ann was holding the baby, too. “What about the rest of you?” Olive asked. “What can I get for you? How about some toast?”

“It’s O.K., Mom,” Christopher said again. “I’ll make some toast. You sit.”

So she sat at the table across from her daughter-in-law, who turned and smiled her phony smile at Olive. Theodore moved to his mother and whispered something into her ear. Ann rubbed his arm and said quietly, “I know, honey. But people live differently.”

Christopher said, “What’s up, Theodore?”

And Ann said, “He was just commenting on the paper bag the Cheerios came in, wondering why Olive didn’t have a reusable bag.” She looked at Olive and shrugged a shoulder. “In New York, we recycle. We bring our own bags to the store.”

“Is that right?” Olive said. “Well, good for you.” She turned around and opened the bottom cupboard and just about flung the reusable grocery bag onto the table. “If I hadn’t been in such a hurry, I would have used this.”

“Oh,” Ann said. “Look at that, Theodore.” And the child moved away from the table, then he turned and went into the study. Ann was handing Little Henry a Cheerio. Little Henry did not seem in such a good mood this morning. “Hello, Little Henry,” Olive said, and he didn’t look at her, just gazed for a long moment at the Cheerio in his hand before putting it into his mouth.

The day was very sunny and bright; all the clouds from yesterday had gone, and the sun shone through the house. Outside, the bay was brilliant, and the lobster buoys bobbed just slightly; a lobster boat was headed out. It was decided that they would all drive out to Reid State Park to watch the surf. “The kids have never really seen the ocean,” Christopher said. “The real ocean. I’d like them to see the Maine coast.”

“Well, let’s go, then,” Olive said.

“We’ll have to take two cars,” Christopher said.

“So we’ll take two cars.” Olive stood up and scraped Theodore’s uneaten toast into the garbage. Olive would never have allowed Christopher to waste toast like this, but what did she care? Let that beastly child waste all the food he wanted.

Once outside, Olive was surprised to hear Christopher say, “Mom, when did you get a Subaru?” He didn’t say it pleasantly, was what she felt. She had put the car in the garage the day before; it was out now because of her trip to the store.

“Oh,” she said. “I had to get a new car, and I thought, I’m an old lady on my own, I’ll get a good car for the snow.” She could not believe she had said that. It was a lie. She had just lied to her son. The truth was that the car belonged to Jack. When her Honda had needed new brake pads, Jack had said, “Take my Subaru, Olive. We’re two people with three cars, and that’s ridiculous, so take the Subaru, and I’ll keep my sports car, because I love it.”

“I can’t believe you got a Subaru,” her son said again, and Olive said, “Well, I did. And that’s that.”

Olive could not believe the time it took to get things arranged. Christopher and Ann had to go to the porch and have a conversation. When Christopher returned, he said, “Theodore, you’re going with your mother, and, Henry, we’re putting your car seat in your grandmother’s car.” So Olive waited, chilly in her coat even though the sun was bright, while Christopher got the car seat and put it into her car. She heard him swearing that the seat belt wasn’t working, and she said, “It’s a used car, Chris,” and he stuck his head out of it finally and said, “O.K., we’re all set.”

“You drive,” she said, and he did.

Ann sat on a rock that looked out at the ocean, even though the rock was windswept and must have been very 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 tightly 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 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 several minutes, Olive stood there. She had no idea what to do. But then she decided that she would try to sit next to Ann, and so she bent down and placed her hands carefully on the rock and eventually 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,” Ann said.

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 that she had a 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, she added, “It’s always a surprise, I think. Even if they’re languishing for months, they still just suddenly go away. Horrible business.”

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

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

“Yeah, that one,” Ann said. Then she 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 that the girl had a brother somewhere, but what was his story? She couldn’t remember. She knew only that they weren’t in contact—was he on drugs? He might have been. The mother had been a drinker, Olive knew that. And Ann’s father had divorced her mother years ago; he’d been dead for a long time. She said again, “Well, awful sorry.”

“Thanks.” Ann stood up—remarkably easily, considering that she was holding the baby—and walked away. She just walked away! It took Olive some time to stand up; she had to heave herself onto one arm and roll a bit to get her feet under her. “Oh, honest to God,” she said. She was panting by the time she got to the car.

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

He made a sound and shrugged.

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

“Oh, her mother was nuts. Whatever.”

In the back seat, Little 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 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 coming 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 that 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 fuck 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 were flaming hot, as though all the blood that had drained from her son’s face had made its way to hers.

He looked at her with such genuine astonishment that she felt she would take it back immediately, the whole thing, if she could.

“You’re getting married?” His voice was quiet now. In an even 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.”

“But is it content?”Cartoon by Benjamin Schwartz

“Then be 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 did 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 glaring at her. “You invited us up here to tell us you were getting married. Unfuckingbelievable.” Then he said, “Mom, you have never 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.

“Chris!”

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 know 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 really 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 considered a personality disorder? And who had come up with such a term?

She got into bed, though she did not expect to sleep, and she did not sleep. She took from her bedside drawer a little transistor radio, 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, shifting only a few times. She watched the red digital clock, and she clung to her little 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 dressed and went downstairs. She put the milk and three bowls of Cheerios on the table. Glancing in the small mirror by the doorway, she saw that she had the red-eyed look of a prisoner.

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

“I’ll call him right now,” Olive said, 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 banged his spoon on the table, then smiled at Olive as milk and Cheerios sprayed through the air.

“Henry,” Ann murmured. And Little Henry said, “Airplane!,” and took the spoon and rode it through the air.

As soon as Olive saw Jack’s car pulling into the driveway she realized that Jack—of course—was driving his sports car, and she hoped Christopher wouldn’t see it. When Jack knocked on the door, and she let him in, she saw that he was wearing his suède coat, and she thought he looked rich, and sly. But he had the sense not to kiss her.

“Jack,” she said. “Hello. Come and meet my son. And his wife,” she added. And then, “And their kids.”

Jack gave a small bow in his ironic way, his eyes twinkling, as they often did, and he followed her into the living room. “Hello, Christopher,” he said, and he held out his hand. Christopher rose slowly from his chair and said, “Hello.” He shook Jack’s hand as though it were a dead fish he had been offered.

“Oh, come on now, Chris.” The words were out of Olive’s mouth before she realized what she had done.

Christopher looked at her with open surprise. “Come on?” He said this loudly. “Come on? Jesus, Mom. What do you mean, ‘Oh, come on now, Chris’?”

“I just meant—” And Olive understood that she had been frightened of her son for years.

“Oh, stop it, Christopher! Stop it, for Christ’s sake!” This was Ann’s voice; she had walked into the room after Olive, and Olive, turning toward her, was amazed to see that Ann’s face was red. Her lips seemed bigger, her eyes seemed bigger, and she said, again,“Stop it, Chris. Just stop it! Let the woman get married. What’s the matter with you? Jesus! You can’t even be polite to him? For crying out loud, Christopher, you are such a baby! You think I have four little kids? I have five little kids!”

Then Ann turned toward Jack and Olive and said, “On behalf of my husband, I would like to apologize for his unbelievably childish behavior. He can be so childish, and this is childish, Christopher. Jesus Christ, is this childish of you.”

Almost immediately Christopher held up his hands and said, “She’s right, she’s right, I am being childish, and I’m sorry. Jack, let’s start again. How are you?” And Christopher put his hand out once again toward Jack, and Jack shook it. But Christopher’s face was as pale as paper, and Olive felt—in her utter bewilderment—a terrible pity for him, her son, who had just been so openly yelled at by his wife.

Jack waved a hand casually and said something about its being no problem, he was sure it was a shock, and he sat down and Christopher sat down and Ann left the room, and Olive stood there. She only barely heard as her son asked Jack—who was still wearing his suède coat—what he had done for work, and she only barely heard Jack say that he had taught at Harvard his whole life, that his subject had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Christopher nodded and said, “Cool, that’s cool.” Ann walked back and forth gathering all the children’s things; the children stood in the doorway watching, sometimes going to their mother, though she shook them off. “Move!” she yelled at one of them. Little Henry began to cry.

Olive went to him. “Now, now,” she said. He ran his hand over his wet eyes and looked up at her. Then—and Olive was never sure this really happened; for the rest of her life she didn’t know if she had imagined it—he stuck his tongue out at her. “O.K.,” Olive said, “O.K., then,” and she moved back into the living room, where Jack and Christopher were now standing, finishing their talk.

“All set?” Christopher asked Ann as she passed through the room once more with a wheelie suitcase. Then he turned to Jack. “Very nice to have met you. If you’ll excuse me, I have to help my wife get our brood together.”

“Oh, of course.” And Jack bowed again in his ironic way. He stepped back and put his hands into the pockets of his khaki pants, and then he took them out again.

Olive was dazed as they got all their things together, their coats on, the shoes, the blue rubber boots; Ann’s expression remained stony, and Christopher was obsequious in his attempts to be helpful to her. Finally, they were ready to leave, and Olive put her own coat on so that she could walk them to the car. Jack walked them out as well, and Olive saw her son speak to him once more by the passenger-side door—Ann was to drive—and Christopher seemed open-faced, and even had a smile as he spoke. The kids were all buckled in, and then Chris walked over to Olive and gave her a half hug, barely touching her, and said, “Bye, Mom,” and Olive said, “Goodbye, Chris,” and then Ann gave her a hug, too, not much of one, and said, “Thanks, Olive.”

And then they drove away.

It wasn’t until Olive saw the red scarf that she had knitted for Little Henry lying half under the couch in the living room that she felt something close to terror. She bent down and picked it up, and she took the scarf and returned to the kitchen, where Jack was leaning forward with his arms on the tabletop. Olive opened the door and put the scarf into the garbage bin beside it. Then she came back inside and sat across from Jack. “Well,” she said.

“Well,” Jack said. He said it kindly. He placed his large, age-spotted hand over Olive’s. After a moment, he added, “I guess we know who wears the pants in that family.”

“Her mother died recently,” Olive said. “She’s grieving.”

But she pulled her hand away. It came to her then, with the whooshing crescendo of truth: She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. Other people had their children come and stay, and they talked and laughed, and the grandchildren sat on the laps of their grandmothers, and they went places and did things, ate meals together, kissed when they parted. Olive had images of this happening in many homes; her friend Edith, for example, before she had moved to that place for old people, her kids would come and stay. Surely they had a better time than what had just happened here. And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was something about her that had caused this to happen. And it must have been there for years, maybe all her life, how would she know? As she sat across from Jack—stunned—she felt that she had lived her life as though blind.

“Jack?”

“Yes, Olive?”

She shook her head. She would not tell Jack about the alarm she had felt when Ann yelled at her son, and what came to her as she sat here now was the certainty that it had not been the first time that Ann had yelled at him like that; these were openings into the darkness of a relationship that one saw by mistake, as if a door had momentarily blown open and revealed things not meant to be seen—

But it was more than that.

She had done what Ann had done. She had yelled at Henry in front of people. She could not remember who, exactly, but she had always been fierce when she felt like it. So there was this, too: her son had married his mother, as so many men—in some form or other—eventually do.

Jack spoke quietly. “Hey, Olive. Let’s get you out of here for a while. Let’s take a drive, then go to my place. You need a break from being here.”

“Good idea.” Olive stood and got her coat and her big black handbag and she let Jack walk her out to the Subaru. He helped her in, and then got in himself, and they drove away. Olive almost looked back, but she closed her eyes instead. She could see it perfectly, anyway. Her house, the house that she and Henry had built so many years ago, the house that looked small now and would be razed to the ground by whoever bought it, because the property was what mattered. She saw the house behind her closed eyes, and a shiver seemed to go through her bones. The house where she had raised her son—never, ever realizing that she herself was raising a motherless child, now a long, long way from home. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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