Read Olive, Again: A Novel Online

Authors: Elizabeth Strout

Olive, Again: A Novel (3 page)

But filled with a sense of goodwill—the day was almost over and the whiskey was working—Jack sat at his computer and googled the fellow, Tom Groger. He found the man; he was apparently still teaching at that private high school for girls in Connecticut; he’d be eight years younger than Jack. But only girls? Still? Jack scrolled through and saw they’d been accepting young men for about ten years. Then he found a small picture of Tom Groger; he had gray hair now, he was thin, you could see that in his face, which seemed pleasant enough, and very bland to Jack’s eyes. There was an email address for him attached to the school’s site. So Jack wrote to him. “My wife, Betsy (Arrow as you would have known her), died seven months ago, and I know she loved you very much in her youth. I thought you might want to know about her death.” He pressed

Jack sat back and looked at the light that was changing on the trees. These long, long evenings; they were so long and beautiful, it just killed him. The field was darkening, the trees behind it were like pieces of black canvas, but the sky still sent down the sun, which sliced gently across the grass on the far end of the field. His mind went back over the day and it seemed he could make no sense of it. Had that guy
had a boner? It seemed impossible, yet Jack knew—in a way, he knew—the feeling of anger and power that might have produced it. If the guy had even been getting one. And then Jack thought of the ants that were still going about trying to get their sand wherever they needed it to go. They seemed almost heartbreaking to him, in their tininess and their resilience.

Two hours later, Jack checked his email, hoping his daughter might have written and hoping as well that Olive Kitteridge might have reappeared in his life. After all, she had been the one who emailed him the first time, about her son, and he had answered about his daughter. He had even told Olive one day about his affair with Elaine Croft, and Olive had not seemed to judge him. She had spoken of a schoolteacher that she herself had fallen in love with years ago—an almost-affair, she called it—and the man had died in a car accident one night.

Now as he checked his email he saw that he had forgotten (forgotten!) about Tom Groger, but there was a reply from [email protected] Jack squinted through his reading glasses. “I know about the death of your wife. Betsy and I were in contact for many years. I don’t know if I should tell you this, or not, but she spoke to me of your own dalliance, and perhaps I should tell you—I don’t know, as I said, if I should tell you or not—but there was a period of time when Betsy and I met in a hotel in Boston, and also New York. Perhaps you already know that.”

Jack pushed back his chair from the desk; the wheels rumbled against the hardwood floor. He pulled the chair back in and read the message again. “Betsy,” he murmured, “why, you son of a gun.” He took his glasses off, wiped his arm across his face. “Holy shit,” he said. In a few minutes he put his glasses back on and read the email one more time. “Dalliance?” said Jack out loud. “Who uses the word ‘dalliance’? What are you, Groger, some faggot?” He pushed
and the message disappeared.

Jack felt as sober as a churchmouse. He walked around his house, looking at the touches from his wife, the lamps that had that frill around the bottoms, the mahogany bowl she picked up somewhere that stayed on the glass coffee table and was now filled with junk: keys, an old phone that didn’t work, business cards, paper clips. He tried to think when his wife went to New York, and it was—he thought—not too far into their marriage. She had been a kindergarten teacher, and he remembered her speaking of meetings in New York she had to attend. He had paid no attention; he was busy getting tenure, and then he was just busy.

Jack sat down in his armchair and immediately stood up. He walked around the house again, stared out at the now darkened field, then went upstairs and walked around that too. His bed, their
bed, was unmade, as it was every day except when the cleaning woman came, and it seemed to him to be the mess that he was, or that they had been. “Betsy,” he said out loud, “Jesus Christ, Betsy.” He sat tentatively on the edge of the bed, his hand running up and down his neck. Maybe Groger was just yanking his chain, being mean for the fun of it. But no. Groger was not the sort; he was, Jack had always gathered, a serious man, he taught English, for the love of Christ, all those years at that school for little twats. Wait, was this why Betsy had said it would have “made things easier” if Jack had died during his gallbladder operation? That far back? How far back was that? Ten years into their marriage at least. “You were doing my wife?” Jack said aloud. “You little prick.” He stood up and resumed his walking through the upstairs. There was another bedroom, and then the room his wife had used as her study; Jack went into them both, turning around as though looking for something. Then he went back downstairs and walked through the two guest rooms, the one with the double bed and the one with the single bed. In the kitchen he poured himself another whiskey from the jug he had bought that day. It seemed days ago he had bought it.

His own affair with Elaine Croft had not started until he’d been married for twenty-five years. The urgency he and Elaine had felt; God, it was something. It was terrible. Had Betsy felt that? Not possible, Betsy was not an urgent woman. But how did he know what kind of woman she was?

“Hey, Cassie,” Jack said, “your mother was a slut.”

But he knew, even as he said this, that it was not true. Cassie’s mother had been— Well, she was kind of a slut, for Christ’s sake, if she was off doing Groger in a hotel in Boston and in New York and Cassie was just a little kid, but Betsy had been a wonderful mother, that was the truth. Jack shook his head. Now he suddenly felt drunk. He also knew he would never, ever tell Cassie, he would let her have her mother as she had been: a saint who put up with a homophobic father, a self-absorbed asshole.

“Okay,” said Jack. “Okay.”

He sat back at his computer. He retrieved the message from Trash, read it one more time, then wrote—being very careful of spelling so it would not sound drunk—Hello, Tom. Yes, I do know of your meetings with her. This is why I thought you would want to know of her death. He sent it, then he shut the computer off.

He stood up and went and sat in his armchair for a long time. He thought once again of the ants he had seen today while that awful Fish-Eyes man had him against the car, those
Just doing what they were meant to do, live until they died, so indiscriminately by Jack’s car. He really could not stop thinking of them. Jack Kennison, who had studied human behavior from the medieval times, then the Austro-Hungarian times of Archduke Franz Ferdinand being killed and everyone in Europe blowing each other up as a result—Jack was thinking about those ants.

Then he thought how tomorrow was Sunday and how long a day that would be.

And then he thought—as though a kaleidoscope of colors swam past him—about his own life, as it had been and as it was now, and he said out loud, “You’re not much, Jack Kennison.” This surprised him, but he felt it to be true. Who had just said that, about not being much? Olive Kitteridge. She had said it regarding some woman in town. “She’s not much,” Olive had said, and there was the woman, gone, dismissed.

Eventually Jack got out a piece of paper and wrote in pen, Dear Olive Kitteridge, I have missed you, and if you would see fit to call me or email me or see me, I would like that very much. He signed it and stuck it into an envelope. He didn’t lick it closed. He would decide in the morning whether to mail it or not.


Two days earlier, Olive Kitteridge had delivered a baby.

She had delivered the baby in the backseat of her car; her car had been parked on the front lawn of Marlene Bonney’s house. Marlene was having a baby shower for her daughter, and Olive had not wanted to park behind the other cars lined up on the dirt road. She had been afraid that someone might park behind her and she wouldn’t be able to get out; Olive liked to get out. So she had parked her car on the front lawn of the house, and a good thing she had, that foolish girl—her name was Ashley and she had bright blond hair, she was a friend of Marlene’s daughter—had gone into labor, and Olive knew it before anyone else did; they were all sitting around the living room on folding chairs and she had seen Ashley, who sat next to her, and who was enormously pregnant, wearing a red stretch top to accentuate this pregnancy, leave the room, and Olive just knew.

She’d gotten up and found the girl in the kitchen, leaning over the sink, saying, “Oh God, oh God,” and Olive had said to her, “You’re in labor,” and the idiot child had said, “I think I am. But I’m not due for another week.”

Stupid child.

And a stupid baby shower. Olive, thinking of this as she sat in her own living room, looking out over the water, could not, even now,
what a stupid baby shower that had been. She said out loud, “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” And then she got up and went into her kitchen and sat down there. “God,” she said.

She rocked her foot up and down.

The big wristwatch of her dead husband, Henry, which she wore, and had worn since his stroke four years ago, said it was four o’clock. “All right then,” she said. And she got her jacket—it was June, but not warm today—and her big black handbag and she went and got into her car—which had that gunky stuff still left on the backseat from that foolish girl, although Olive had tried to clean it as best she could—and she drove to Libby’s, where she bought a lobster roll, and then she drove down to the Point and sat in her car there and ate the lobster roll, looking out at Halfway Rock.

A man in a pickup truck was parked nearby, and Olive waved through her window to him but he did not wave back. “Phooey to you,” she said, and a small piece of lobster meat landed on her jacket. “Oh, hell’s
” she said, because the mayonnaise had gotten into the jacket—she could see a tiny dark spot—and would spoil the jacket if she didn’t get it to hot water fast. The jacket was new, she had made it yesterday, sewing the pieces of quilted blue-and-white swirling fabric on her old machine, being sure to make it long enough to go over her hind end.

Agitation ripped through her.

The man in the pickup truck was talking on a cellphone, and he suddenly laughed; she could see him throwing his head back, could even see his teeth as he opened his mouth in his laughter. Then he started his truck and backed it up, still talking on his cellphone, and Olive was alone with the bay spread out before her, the sunlight glinting over the water, the trees on the small island standing at attention; the rocks were wet, the tide was going out. She heard the small sounds of her chewing, and a loneliness that was profound assailed her.

It was Jack Kennison. She knew this is what she had been thinking of, that horrible old rich flub-dub of a man she had seen for a number of weeks this spring. She had liked him. She had even lain down on his bed with him one day, a month ago now, right next to him, could hear his heart beating as her head lay upon his chest. And she had felt such a rush of relief—and then fear had rumbled through her. Olive did not like fear.

And so after a while she had sat up and he had said, “Stay, Olive.” But she did not stay. “Call me,” he had said. “I would like it if you called me.” She had not called. He could call her if he wanted to. And he had not called. But she had bumped into him soon after, in the grocery store, and told him about her son who was going to have another baby any day down in New York City, and Jack had been nice about that, but he had not suggested she come see him again, and then she saw him later (he had not seen her) in the same store, talking to that stupid widow Bertha Babcock, who for all Olive knew was a Republican like Jack was, and maybe he preferred that stupid woman to Olive. Who knew? He had sent one email with a bunch of question marks in the subject line and nothing more. That was an email? Olive didn’t think so.

“Phooey to you,” she said now, and finished her lobster roll. She rolled up the paper it had come in and tossed it onto the backseat, where that mess still showed in a stain from that idiot girl.

“I delivered a baby today,” she had told her son on the telephone.


“Did you hear me?” Olive asked. “I said I delivered a baby today.”

“Where?” His voice sounded wary.

“In my car outside Marlene Bonney’s house. There was a girl—” And she told him the story.

“Huh. Well done, Mom.” Then in a sardonic tone he said, “You can come here and deliver your next grandchild. Ann’s having it in a pool.”

“A pool?” Olive could not understand what he was saying.

Christopher spoke in a muffled tone to someone near him.

“Ann’s pregnant
? Christopher, why didn’t you tell me?”

“She’s not pregnant yet. We’re trying. But she’ll get pregnant.”

Olive said, “What do you mean, she’s having it in a pool? A

“Yeah. Sort of. A kiddie pool. The kind we had in the backyard. Only this one is bigger and obviously super clean.”


“Why? Because it’s more natural. The baby slides into the water. The midwife will be here. It’s safe. It’s better than safe, it’s the way babies should be born.”

“I see,” said Olive. She didn’t see at all. “
is she having this baby?”

“As soon as we know she’s pregnant, we’ll start counting. We’re not telling anyone that we’re even trying, because of what just happened to the last one. But I just told you. So there.”

“All right then,” Olive said. “Goodbye.”

Christopher—she was sure of this—had made a sound of disgust before he said, “Goodbye, Mom.”

Back home, Olive was pleased to see that the little spot of mayonnaise on her new jacket responded to the hot water and soap, and she hung it in the bathroom to let the spot dry. Then she went back and sat in the chair overlooking the bay. The sun slanted at an angle across it, nothing but sparkles at the moment, only a lobster buoy or two could be seen, the sun at this time of day was that bright as it cut right across the water. She could not stop thinking how stupid that baby shower had been. All women. Why only women at a baby shower? Did men have nothing to do with this business of babies? Olive thought she didn’t like women.

She liked men.

She had always liked men. She had wanted five sons. And she still wished she had had them, because Christopher was— Oh, Olive felt the weight of real sadness descend now, as it had been on her ever since Henry had his stroke, four years ago, and as it had been since his death, two years ago now, she could almost feel her chest becoming heavy with it. Christopher and Ann had called their first baby together Henry, after Chris’s father. Henry Kitteridge. What a wonderful name. A wonderful man. Olive had not met her grandson.

She shifted in her chair, putting her hand to her chin, and thought again about that baby shower. There had been a table with food; Olive had been able to see intermittently, from where she had sat, little sandwiches and deviled eggs and tiny pieces of cake. When Marlene’s pregnant daughter went by, Olive had tugged on her smock and said, “Would you bring me some of that food?” The girl looked surprised and then said, “Oh, of course, Mrs. Kitteridge.” But the girl was waylaid by her guests, and it took forever before Olive had on her lap a small paper plate with two deviled eggs and a piece of chocolate cake. No fork, no napkin, nothing. “Thank you,” Olive had said.

She stuck the piece of cake into her mouth in one bite, then tucked the plate with the deviled eggs far beneath her chair. Deviled eggs made her gag.

Marlene’s daughter sat down in a white wicker chair that had ribbons attached to the top, flowing down, like she was queen for a day. When everybody finally took a seat—no one took the seat next to Olive until that pregnant girl Ashley had to because there were no other seats left—when they were all seated, Olive saw the table piled high with presents, and it was then she realized: She had not brought a gift. A wave of horror passed through her.

Marlene Bonney, on her way to the front of the room, stopped and said quietly, “Olive, how is Christopher?”

Olive said, “His new baby died. Heartbeat stopped a few days before it was due. Ann had to push it out dead.”

Marlene’s pretty eyes filled with tears.

“No reason to cry about it,” Olive said. (Olive had cried. She had cried like a newborn baby when she hung up the phone from Christopher after he told her.)

“Oh, Olive, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Marlene turned her head, looking over the room in a glance, then said quietly, “Best not to tell anyone here, don’t you think?”

“Fine,” Olive said.

Marlene squeezed Olive’s hand and said, “Let me tend to these girls.” Marlene stepped into the center of the room, clapping her hands, and said, “Okay, shall we get started?”

Marlene picked up a gift from the table and handed it to her daughter, who read the card and said, “Oh, this is from Ashley,” and everyone turned to look at the blond pregnant girl next to Olive. Ashley gave a little wave, her face glowing. Marlene’s daughter unwrapped the gift; she took the ribbons and stuck them onto a paper plate with scotch tape. Then she finally produced a little box, and in the box was a tiny sweater. “Oh,
at this!” she said.

From the room came many sounds of appreciation. And then, to Olive’s dismay, the sweater was passed from person to person. When it reached her she said “Very nice” and handed it to Ashley, who said, “I’ve already seen it,” and people laughed, and Ashley handed it to the person on the other side of her, who said many things about the sweater, then turned to give it to the girl on her left. This all took a long time. One girl said, “You knit this yourself?” And Ashley said she had. Someone else said that her mother-in-law knit too, but nothing as nice as this sweater. Ashley seemed to stiffen and her eyes got big. “Oh, that’s nice,” she said.

Finally it was time for the next gift, and Marlene walked one over to her daughter. The daughter looked at the card and said, “From Marie.” A young woman waved a hand at everyone from the far end of the room. Marlene’s daughter took her time attaching the ribbons from the gift onto the paper plate with tape, and then Olive understood that this would happen with each gift and in the end there would be a plate of ribbons. This confused Olive. She sat and waited, and then Marlene’s daughter held up a set of plastic baby bottles with little leaves painted on them. This did not go over as well, Olive noticed. “Won’t you be breastfeeding?” someone asked, and Marlene’s daughter said, “Well, I’ll try—” And then she said, gaily, “But I’m sure these will come in handy.”

Marie said, “I just thought, you never know. So it’s best to have some bottles around even if you breastfeed.”

“Of course,” someone said, and the bottles were passed around too. Olive thought they would go around faster, but it seemed that every person who touched the bottles had a story to tell about breastfeeding. Olive had certainly not breastfed Christopher—back then, no one did, except people who thought they were superior.

A third gift was presented to Marlene’s daughter, and Olive distinctly felt distress. She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamned gift on that table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait
while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life.

Into her hands was placed a yellow pair of booties; she stared at them, then handed them to Ashley, who said, “These are gorgeous.”

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