Authors: Elizabeth Strout
“How does she even know you play the piano?” asked Christine Labbe. She and Kayley were walking on the sidewalk, close to the center of town by the doughnut shop, and Christine was eating a doughnut that had cinnamon all over it. Christine’s eyes had dark blue liner around them, and part of it was smudged.
“I don’t know.” Kayley turned to look at the cars going by. “Maybe she heard me playing that piano they have in the gym. I don’t know how she knows.”
Christine said, “She’s creepy. Her husband’s creepy too. Dressing up like stupid Pilgrims every year and talking about that stupid fucking
ship her ancestors came over on. Reciting that stupid Longfellow poem ‘The Courtship of Miles Standish’ while kids yawn their fucking heads off.”
“You should see their house,” Kayley said, and she described Mr. Ringrose’s bathroom.
Christine looked at her and said, “Jesus Holy Christ.” Then Kayley touched her eye to show Christine that her makeup was smudged, and Christine shrugged and took another bite of her doughnut.
On Saturday afternoon Kayley rode her bicycle to the nursing home out past the bridge where Miss Minnie was. It was cold in mid-March, but there was very little snow, and Kayley’s bicycle bumped over twigs that had fallen onto the sidewalk; her hands were cold because she wore no gloves. Miss Minnie used to live in the apartment above the one Kayley lived in now with her mother; Miss Minnie had lived there for years, and she was the first person Kayley had cleaned for. The old woman was tiny, with enormous dark eyes, and Kayley had been astonished at the grime, especially in the kitchen, that had built up over time. And so Kayley scrubbed and scrubbed while Miss Minnie peered into the doorway and said, “Oh, what a lovely job you’re doing, Kayley!” Miss Minnie would clap her hands, she was that excited at Kayley’s work, and Kayley loved her for this. Miss Minnie always gave Kayley a glass of orange juice when she was done, and Miss Minnie would sit across the table from her, leaning forward toward Kayley, and ask questions about her school and her friends; no one had asked Kayley about these things since her father died.
After Miss Minnie had her stroke last fall, Kayley went to visit her in the nursing home, even though the place was dark and smelled bad. Miss Minnie would thank her many times for coming. “It’s okay,” Kayley would say, “I like seeing you,” and after the first few visits she gave Miss Minnie a kiss when she left, and the old lady’s enormous dark eyes would glow.
Kayley locked her bike out behind the nursing home, and as she went around to the front door, Mrs. Kitteridge was just coming out. “Hello again,” Mrs. Kitteridge said to her; she was a big woman, tall, and when Kayley had first met her here a month ago, she had seemed a little frightening. Now Mrs. Kitteridge held the door open for Kayley, and she said, “You’re quite a kid, coming to visit someone in this place. God, I hope to hell when I get to this stage, someone just shoots me.”
Kayley said, “I know. Me too. I mean I hope they shoot me too.”
Mrs. Kitteridge put her sunglasses on and looked Kayley up and down and said, “Well, you won’t have to worry about it for a while.” She let the door close, and they stood together in the pale March sun. “Say, I did some snooping and found out you’re the Callaghan girl. I had your sisters in school years ago. Your father was our postman. He was a good man, I’m sorry he died.”
“Thank you,” Kayley said. A sudden warmth moved through her, that this woman knew who her father had been. Kayley said, “Were you here visiting your friend?”
Mrs. Kitteridge gave a big sigh, looking through her sunglasses up at the sky. “Yes. Horrible. The whole thing. But listen,” glancing back at Kayley now, “you said last time you used to clean for Miss Minnie, and I have another old woman who’s looking for a house cleaner. Bertha Babcock. She’s an old horror, but she’d be okay to you. I’ll tell her to call you, shall I?”
“She already found me,” said Kayley. “I work there on Wednesday afternoons. I started a few weeks ago.”
Mrs. Kitteridge shook her head in what appeared to be sympathy.
Kayley said, “And now I have to clean for Mrs. Ringrose too. She’s my English teacher.”
“I know who she is. Another old horror. Well, good luck.” And Mrs. Kitteridge stepped away, tossing a hand over her head.
The nursing home was dark, and it still smelled bad, of course. Miss Minnie was asleep, and so Kayley sat down on the one chair in the room. On the table by Miss Minnie’s bed was a photograph of a young man in uniform, and beside this photograph was a bunch of fake violets. The same photo and the same violets had been by Miss Minnie’s bed in her apartment. The photo was of Miss Minnie’s brother; Kayley found this out one day when Miss Minnie picked up the photo and held it to her chest and told Kayley how he had died in the Korean War. It made Kayley sad; she would have much rathered it had been a man Miss Minnie had loved who was not related to her.
Now Kayley sat, waiting for Miss Minnie to wake up. An aide came in, a big woman in a blue uniform, and said, “She hasn’t woken up all afternoon. She’s depressed. She’s sleeping more and more.” Together Kayley and this woman looked at Miss Minnie, and then Kayley stood and said, “Okay. But can you tell her I was here? Please?”
The woman glanced at her watch. “I get off in an hour. If she wakes before then, I’ll tell her.”
“I’ll leave her a note,” Kayley said, and so the big woman went and found a piece of paper and a pencil and Kayley wrote in large letters, HI MISS MINNIE! IT’S ME, KAYLEY. I CAME TO VISIT YOU BUT YOU WERE SLEEPING. I WILL COME BACK!
One day when Kayley’s father was very sick, he had motioned to her from where he lay on his bed, and Kayley had gone and put her ear to his mouth, and he said, “You’ve always been my favorite child.” After a moment he added, “Your mother’s favorite is Brenda.” His lips had a white gumminess in the corners.
“I love you, Daddy,” Kayley said; with a tissue, she wiped his lips carefully, and her father looked at her with warmth in his eyes.
But she thought about this often, the fact that her father had said she was his favorite child. And she thought about her mother, who had always been a distracted woman and who worked part-time now at a dental office in town; it seemed she had little to say to Kayley in the evenings, and often Kayley’s feelings were hurt by this; Kayley could actually feel a small wave of pain go through her chest at times, and she would think: This is why they say a person’s feelings are hurt, because they do hurt.
The next week that Kayley worked at the Ringrose house she felt that same feeling she always got in their house, a stark feeling of dismalness. The day was tremendously sunny, the light poured through the windows of the living room, and after Kayley had washed the logs in the fireplace she sat down on the couch with the upholstery that was stiff and hard.
A strong sensual impulse suddenly went through her, as though the chasteness of the house was screaming for her. She sat there as the feeling grew, and after a moment she slowly undid the first button on her blouse and put her hand down under her bra and felt her breast and a glow went through her. She closed her eyes and undid the second button of her blouse and pulled her breast from the cup of her bra. In the stillness of the house her breast seemed vulnerable and alive to her; she touched her fingers to her mouth and then back to her breast and she kept touching her breast, filled with unbelievable sensations. She sat with her eyes closed, touching her breast, feeling the air touching it as well—it was oddly thrilling, doing this in the strangeness and silence of the Ringrose home.
A small sound made her eyes open, and in the doorway of the living room stood Mr. Ringrose. Kayley sat up straight and tried to close her blouse; her cheeks became flaming hot. The man was tall and he stood there watching her behind his glasses, not smiling. Without saying anything Mr. Ringrose gave the tiniest nod, and in the blurriness of the moment Kayley somehow understood he wanted her to continue. She stared at him and then said—or tried to say—“No,” but he spoke first, and his voice was thick. “Go on.” She shook her head, but he kept watching her, and a kind expression appeared on his face. “Go on,” he said again, quietly. She stared at him, she was tremendously frightened. And he seemed to know it, because his expression of kindness grew; he tilted his head slightly down. He said quietly, “Please go on.” They watched each other, and his eyes—he wore large rimless glasses—seemed kind and oddly harmless, and so in a moment she closed her eyes and touched her breast again. When she opened her eyes, he was gone.
She buttoned her blouse hurriedly and stood up; she finished her dusting with her cheeks still hot; she felt a breathlessness as she went about the place, washing the floor on her hands and knees. Her mind kept thinking: Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.
She almost didn’t see it as she was leaving, the envelope on the mat by the front door as she left the house, and then bending down she saw that it had her last name on it. She took the envelope, and when she turned the corner she opened it and found three twenty-dollar bills.
Now Kayley felt a different fear. She stuck the money in her back pocket, still in the envelope, and rode her bicycle far out of town. “Oh my God, oh my God,” she kept saying.
When she came home, her mother said, “Where were you?” Kayley said she had been riding her bike after cleaning for the Ringroses; it was such a gorgeous day. And then Kayley sat down at the piano and began to play—oh, how she played! She went through the sonatas of Mozart as though she could not dig her fingers deep enough into the fresh soil of the music; she played and played.
As they sat eating supper, her mother said, “You’ve barely touched that piano since your father died, and it’s sitting right there taking up all that space.”
Kayley said, “I’ll keep playing. Please don’t get rid of it.”
The next week it was raining and Kayley rode her bike to the Ringrose house with her raincoat on and her hood over her head, but she was still dripping wet when she got there, and again there was no sign of either of them. She dried herself as best she could with a towel from the kitchen and went to work, getting the pail with the cleaning fluid for the logs, and as she was kneeling and running a cloth over the logs in the fireplace—there must have been a sound—she looked up; Mr. Ringrose was standing exactly where he had been standing the time before. A few raindrops were on the shoulders of his pale blue shirt, and also on his glasses, but she could still see his eyes. He simply stood there looking at her, and she did not speak. After a moment he gave her the tiniest nod, and she sat back on her heels and put her hand over her breast and he nodded the tiny nod again, and after another moment Kayley slowly stood, drying her hands on her jeans, and she went and sat back on the stiff couch, and she undid her blouse, this time watching him. For Kayley there was a sense of unreality to it as she took her blouse off slowly, then took her bra off, and the air in the room seemed to leap at her bare breasts, and the rain outside beat down on the windows. The man said in a low voice, “Thank you.”