Authors: Elizabeth Strout
The last time Bob had been to New York, he had called his ex-wife, Pam, and they had met at a café near where she lived on the Upper East Side. “Bobby!” she said, and threw her arms around him. She looked the same, only older, and he told her this, and she laughed and said, “Well, you look
“I’ve missed you,” he said, and this was true.
“Oh, Bobby, I’ve missed you so much,” she said, flicking her hair back; it was shoulder-length hair, dyed a nice reddish color. “I just keep thinking, are you okay up there in that awful state of Maine? Oh, I don’t mean to say it’s awful—it just seems so…”
“Awful,” he said, and they laughed. “I’m fine, Pam. It’s all just fine.”
As Bob remembered this now, he felt a surge of love for Pam; they had married right out of college, just kids. And they had stayed married for almost fifteen years. In Bob’s mind, Pam had left him when she found out—when they found out—that Bob couldn’t father children. And it had broken Bob’s heart. Only later did he realize it had broken Pam’s heart as well, but she found a man, and had her two boys—boys that Bob had met over the years, great kids they were—and her husband seemed fine. She never complained about him; he was a top manager of a pharmaceutical company, and Pam had tons of money now, but whenever she and Bobby got together, they were just like kids again. Only older, and they both said this every time they met.
“She’s great,” Bob said to Susan.
Margaret had not liked New York. This had been evident to Bob on their one visit there together: He saw her fear as they walked down the stairs to the subway, and even though he tried to reassure her, and she tried—he could see this—to take it all in stride, it had not really gone that well, because Bob could not stop himself from sensing her discomfort, and it had made him sad, because he loved New York, where he had lived for thirty years before meeting Margaret in Maine.
“Will you tell Pam I was asking about her?” Susan said, and Bob said of course he would.
Jim said, “You’re better off with Margaret,” and Susan said, “Why do you say that?”
But Bob said, “Susan, tell us how Zach is. Jim said he seemed pretty good when he came to New York.”
“Oh, Zach.” Susan ran her hand through her hair, which was gray and wavy and cut just above her shoulders. “Jim, he’s doing so well. Into computer programming, as I’m sure he told you, and he’s going to marry that girlfriend he met down in Massachusetts.”
“Do you like her?” Jim asked. He raised his tea mug, took a sip, returned it to the table.
“Well, there we are.” Jim looked around now as though a restlessness had come over him. “You know, you guys, I’d like to come back up here more. I miss it. I miss Shirley Falls, and I miss you both.”
Bob and Susan looked at each other, Susan widening her eyes slightly. “Well,
,” she said. “Boy, we would love that.”
“I gained ten pounds this year,” Jim said. “Can you tell?”
“Nah,” said Bob. He was lying.
“Bob, you still boozing it up?” Jim squinted at his brother.
“No. Maybe one glass a night at most. And I haven’t had a cigarette since I married Margaret.”
Jim shook his head slowly. “Amazing.” Then he asked Susan, “How’s the eye business?”
“Booming,” Susan said. “I could retire, but I don’t feel like it. I like my job.”
“Look at you two,” Jim said.
Back in the small apartment, Helen said, “How about a glass of wine?”
Margaret looked surprised—to Helen she looked that way—and she said, “Okay,” and she got out the bottle of white wine that Bob had put in the refrigerator earlier and opened it and poured a small amount into a mason jar. She handed it to Helen.
“Lovely,” Helen said, and decided she would not make a joke about the wineglass. “You’re not having any?” Margaret shook her head, sitting down in the rocking chair that had the split upholstery; Helen sat on the couch. Helen crossed her legs and swung a foot. “So,” she said.
“So,” Margaret said.
“Oh, let me show you just a few more pics of my grandkids,” and Helen brought out her phone. “I just keep thinking about little Ernie. I’m just not sure he’s
enough to be at camp all by himself, but his parents wanted him to, and even Ernie seemed keen on it, but the cabin he was in seemed—well, terribly rustic.” When Margaret didn’t respond, Helen found some pictures on her phone and had Margaret look at many pictures of her three grandchildren. She told Margaret how little Sarah was talking already—almost full sentences and she was barely two, could you believe it? “No,” said Margaret, peering at the phone through the glasses she wore on the string that fell over her chest. Then Margaret sat back and sighed.
Helen rose and went into the kitchen, returning with the bottle of wine. She poured more into her glass and then said, looking at her phone again, presenting it to Margaret, “And look at Karen! She’s three, and she’s so different from her brother, he’s all confident and outgoing, and Karen—don’t you like that name, Karen? it’s so straightforward—and she is just the
little thing—” Helen looked up at Margaret and said, “I’m talking about my grandchildren too much.”
Margaret said, “Yes. You are.”
Helen felt a sense of disbelief, and her face got hot immediately. She put her phone into her handbag, and when she looked back at Margaret, she saw that Margaret’s cheeks were pink as well. “I’m sorry,” Helen said. “I’m very sorry. I know you and Bobby never—”
“No, having no children makes us different. We feel fine about it, but it does get tiresome to hear—” Margaret waved a hand and stopped. “I apologize. I’m sure your grandchildren are all just wonderful.”
Helen took two big swallows of the wine and felt the warmth of it spread through her chest. “I wonder when the boys will be back,” said Helen, looking around the place; she was mad at Margaret now, just plain mad. She stood up. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to use your bathroom.”
“Of course,” Margaret said.
Helen took her wine with her and finished the glass as soon as she closed the bathroom door. But then she realized that if she called Jim, everything could be overheard, so she sat on the toilet and texted him. Jimmy, she texted, where are you? M is making me NUTS. She waited, and there was no response. Then she texted, I think she is GRUESOME. Oh, come on, Jimmy, she thought, and then she worried that Margaret would not hear her peeing—because Helen had not needed to—and so she tried, and then she made a small gaseous sound, which was very upsetting, Margaret was right out there listening! After a moment she stood up and washed her hands carefully—the towel looked a little grimy—and then she returned to where Margaret was still sitting in the rocking chair as though she hadn’t moved at all.
Helen poured herself more wine.
“I really am awfully sorry,” Margaret said to her.
“No, no, that’s fine.” Helen drank the wine.
On the drive back to Crosby, Jim said, “You know, Bobby, here’s the truth: I’ve loved Helen even more since she redid the house.” He glanced over at Bob, who sat without moving. “You know why?”
“No,” said Bob.
“Because she actually thought it would help. She thought if she changed the house it would eradicate everything that had gone on in it, meaning that last year when I fell apart and screwed those dopes, and Helen really thought, If we change things, it will be different.”
Jim looked again at Bob, then back at the road in front of him. “But of course it doesn’t change anything, and now we’re living in a whole new house, which used to be our old house where many wonderful things happened. And when I realized that’s why she was doing it, making that godawful renovation, it made me love her more, Bobby. I think it made her more human to me, or something. I love her more than I did before, and that’s the truth.”
“Okay,” said Bob. “I get it.”
After another minute Jim said, “Helen didn’t make me go on this stuff. I did it myself.”
They drove in silence for a moment after that; Bob understood what Jim had said, but the information seemed to stay outside him. “She didn’t make you?” Bob asked. “Then why did you?”
And then Jim said, “I’m scared.” Jim looked straight ahead as he said this.
“Of what, Jimmy?”
“Of dying.” Jim looked over at Bob, gave him his wry half-smile. “I’m scared to death of dying. I really am. I can feel it coming so fast—whoosh! Jesus, it all goes so fast these days. But you know what?”
“I don’t really care, either. I mean, about dying. It’s so
Bobby. Because on one hand I have these moments—or I
these moments before I got all doped up—of just sheer terror.
. And at the very same time, I kind of feel like, Yeah, okay, let’s go, I’m ready.” Jim was silent for a moment, glancing in the rearview mirror; he let a car pass him. “But I’m scared. Or I was. Before the medication.”
And now Bob felt frightened. Jimmy, he wanted to say, you can’t get scared, you’re my leader! But he knew—a part of him knew, and oh God it made him sad—that Jim was not his leader anymore. Then he said, “If Helen isn’t making you take the stuff, why did you tell Susan it was Helen who insisted on it?”
Jim looked as though he was considering this. He said, “Because I know Susan doesn’t like Helen, so I blamed Helen for it.” He turned to look at his brother, and his eyes widened. “Listen to me, Bobby, wow, am I an asshole.”
Bob said, and he was surprised to hear the level of irritation in his voice, “You know what, Jim? Will you stop that? You did one stupid thing ten years ago when Zach got in all that trouble, for crying out loud, and it brought up all the guilt you’d been feeling, and so you—you acted out. You had an affair. Or a couple of them, I don’t know. That doesn’t make you an asshole, Jim. It makes you a human being. Jesus, will you stop this?”
Jim said immediately, “You’re right, you’re right. Sorry. I really am sorry. God—I sound so melodramatic. I’m sorry about that, Bobby.”
And Bob felt a swift swoop of desolation; he could not remember ever speaking to his brother like that, or having Jim respond with an apology as he just had.
Helen held her mason jar of wine and rocked her foot. “A year ago, Jimmy and I were on our cruise to Alaska,” Helen said. She didn’t know why she said this.
“Yes,” said Margaret. “So I heard.”
“It rained every day. When we got to the glacier place, Glacier Bay, we were supposed to take a helicopter up to see the glaciers, but it was too foggy.”
“That’s a shame,” said Margaret.
“No, it’s not. Who cares?”
Margaret looked at Helen. “I should think you would have cared. You’d paid all that money to go see the place.”
“Well, I didn’t care,” said Helen. She took two more large swallows of wine. After a moment she said, and she could feel her cheeks flushing slightly, “I’ll tell you what I cared about: the Indonesians who worked on the cruise ship. Everyone working on that boat was from Indonesia, and we got talking to one fellow one night and he worked ten months a year on that boat and went home to Bali for two months. And I bet you
” she pointed a finger at Margaret, “that those guys are stacked up on top of each other in the bottom of that ship with no windows, and once I realized that—well, I couldn’t really enjoy myself anymore. I mean, we were taking this trip on the backs of these people.”