- Published: 3 November 2020
- ISBN: 9780241985540
- Imprint: Penguin General UK
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $19.99
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge
In the early afternoon on a Saturday in June, Jack Kennison put on his sunglasses, got into his sports car with the top down, strapped the seatbelt over his shoulder and across his large stomach, and drove to Portland—almost an hour away—to buy a gallon of whiskey rather than bump into Olive Kitteridge at the grocery store here in Crosby, Maine. Or even that other woman he had seen twice in the store as he stood holding his whiskey while she talked about the weather. The weather. That woman—he could not remember her name—was a widow as well.
As he drove, an almost- calmness came to him, and once in Portland he parked and walked down by the water. Summer had opened itself, and while it was still chilly in mid- June, the sky was blue and the gulls were flying above the docks. There were people on the sidewalks, many were young people with kids or strollers, and they all seemed to be talking to one another. This fact impressed him. How easily they took this for granted, to be with one another, to be talking! No one seemed to even glance at him, and he realized what he had known before, only now it came to him differently: He was just an old man with a sloppy belly and not anyone worth noticing. Almost, this was freeing. There had been many years of his life when he was a tall, good-looking man, no gut, strolling about the campus at Harvard, and people did look at him then, for all those years, he would see students glance at him with deference, and also women, they looked at him. At department meetings he had been intimidating; this was told to him by colleagues, and he understood it to be true, for he had meant to be that way. Now he sauntered down one of the wharfs where condos were built, and he thought perhaps he should move here, water everywhere around him, and people too. He took from his pocket his cellphone, glanced at it, and returned it to his pocket. It was his daughter he wished to speak to.
A couple emerged from the door of one apartment; they were his age, the man also had a stomach, though not as big as Jack’s, and the woman looked worried, but the way they were together made him think they had been married for years. “It’s over now,” he heard the woman say, and the man said something, and the woman said, “No, it’s over.” They walked past him (not noticing him) and when he turned to glance at them a moment later, he was surprised—vaguely—to see that the woman had put her arm through the man’s, as they walked down the wharf toward the small city.
Jack stood at the end of the wharf and watched the ocean; he looked one way, then the other. Small whitecaps rolled up from a breeze that he felt only now. This is where the ferry came in from Nova Scotia, he and Betsy had taken it one day. They had stayed in Nova Scotia three nights. He tried to think if Betsy had put her arm through his; she may have. So now his mind carried an image of them walking off the ferry, his wife’s arm through his—
He turned to go.
“Knucklehead.” He said the word out loud and saw a young boy on the wharf close by turn to look at him, startled. This meant he was an old man who was talking to himself on a wharf in Portland, Maine, and he could not—Jack Kennison, with his two PhDs—he could not figure out how this had happened. “Wow.” He said that out loud as well, past the young boy by now. There were benches, and he sat down on an empty one. He took out his phone and called his daughter; it would not yet be noontime in San Francisco, where she lived. He was surprised when she answered.
“Dad?” she said. “Are you okay?”
He looked skyward. “Oh, Cassie,” he said, “I just wondered how you were doing.”
“I’m okay, Dad.”
“Okay, then. Good. That’s good to hear.”
There was silence for a moment, then she said, “Where are you?”
“Oh. I’m on the dock in Portland.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I just thought I’d come to Portland. You know, get out of the house.” Jack squinted out toward the water.
Another silence. Then she said, “Okay.”
“Listen, Cassie,” Jack said, “I just wanted to say I know I’m a shit. I know that. Just so you know. I know that I’m a shit.”
“Daddy,” she said. “Daddy, come on. What am I supposed to say?”
“Nothing,” he answered agreeably. “Nothing to say to that. But I just wanted you to know I know.”
There was another silence, longer this time, and he felt fear.
She said, “Is this because of how you’ve treated me, or because of your a‑ air for all those years with Elaine Croft?”
He looked down at the planks of the wharf, saw his black old-man sneakers on the roughened boards. “Both,” he said. “Or you can take your pick.”
“Oh, Daddy,” she said. “Oh, Daddy, I don’t know what to do. What am I supposed to do for you?”
He shook his head. “Nothing, kid. You’re not supposed to do anything for me. I just wanted to hear your voice.”
“Dad, we were on our way out.”
“Yeah? Where’re you going?”
“The farmers market. It’s Saturday and we go to the farmers market on Saturdays.”
“Okay,” Jack said. “You get going. Don’t worry. I’ll talk to you again. Bye-bye now.”
He thought he could hear her sigh. “All right,” she said. “Goodbye.”
And that was that! That was that.
Jack sat on the bench a long time. People walked by, or perhaps no people walked by for a while, but he kept thinking of his wife, Betsy, and he wanted to howl. He understood only this: that he deserved all of it. He deserved the fact that right now he wore a pad in his underwear because of prostate surgery, he deserved it; he deserved his daughter not wanting to speak to him because for years he had not wanted to speak to her—she was gay; she was a gay woman, and this still made a small wave of uneasiness move through him. Betsy, though, did not deserve to be dead. He deserved to be dead, but Betsy did not deserve that status. And yet he felt a sudden fury at his wife—“Oh, Jesus Christ Almighty,” he muttered.
When his wife was dying, she was the one who was furious. She said, “I hate you.” And he said, “I don’t blame you.” She said, “Oh, stop it.” But he had meant it—how could he blame her? He could not blame her. And the last thing she said to him was: “I hate you because I’m going to die and you’re going to live.”
As he glanced up at a seagull, he thought, But I’m not living, Betsy. What a terrible joke it has been.
The bar at the Regency Hotel was in the basement, the walls were dark green and the windows looked out at the sidewalks, but the sidewalks were high up in the windows, and mostly he could just see legs going by. He sat at the bar and ordered one whiskey neat. The bartender was a pleasant fellow. “Good,” Jack said when the young man asked how he was today.
“Okay, then,” said the bartender; his eyes were small and dark beneath his longish dark hair. As he poured the drink, Jack noticed that he was older than he had first seemed, although Jack had a hard time these days figuring out the age of people, the young especially. And then Jack thought: What if I’d had a son? He had thought this so many times in his life it surprised him that he kept wondering. And what if he had not married Betsy on the rebound, as he had? He had been on the rebound, and she had been as well, from that fellow Tom Groger she’d loved so much in college. What then? Troubled but feeling better—he was in the presence of someone, the bartender—Jack laid these thoughts out before him like a large piece of cloth. He understood that he was a seventy-four-year-old man who looks back at life and marvels that it unfolded as it did, who feels unbearable regret for all the mistakes made.
And then he thought: How does one live an honest life?
This was not the first time he had wondered this, but it felt different today, he felt distant from it, and he truly wondered.
“So what brings you to Portland?” The bartender asked this as he wiped the bar with a cloth.
Jack said, “Nothing.”
The fellow glanced up at him, turning slightly to wipe the other part of the counter.
“I wanted to get out of the house,” Jack said. “I live in Crosby.”
“Nice town, Crosby.”
“Yes, it is.” Jack sipped his whiskey, put the glass down with care. “My wife died seven months ago,” he said.
Now the fellow looked at Jack again, pushing his hair out of his eyes. “Sorry? Did you say—?”
“I said my wife died seven months ago.” “That’s too bad,” the fellow said. “That’s gotta be tough.”
“Well, it is. Yes, it is.”
The young man’s face didn’t change expression as he said, “My dad died a year ago and my mom’s been great, but I know it’s been hard on her.”
“Sure.” Jack hesitated, then he said, “How’s it been on you?”
“Oh, it’s sad. But he was sick a while. You know.”
Jack felt the inner slow burn that was familiar to him, which he felt when that widow talked about the weather in the grocery store. He wanted to say, Stop it! Tell me how it’s really been! He sat back, pushed his glass forward. It’s just the way it was, that’s all. People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something.
And this is why he missed Olive Kitteridge.
Okay, he said to himself. Okay now. Easy, boy.
With deliberation, he made his mind return to Betsy. And then he remembered something—how curious that he should remember this now: When he had gone in for surgery many years back, to have his gallbladder out, his wife had stood at his side in recovery, and when he woke again later a patient near him said, “Your wife was gazing at you with such love, I was struck at how she was looking at you so lovingly.” Jack had believed this; it had, he remembered, made him a tiny bit uneasy, and then—years later—during an argument he brought it up and Betsy said, “I was hoping you would die.”
Her directness had flabbergasted him. “You were hoping I would die?” In his memory he had opened his arms in astonishment as he asked her this.
And then she had said, looking uncomfortable, “It would have made things easier for me.”
So there was that.
Oh, Betsy! Betsy, Betsy, Betsy, we blew it—we blew our chance. He could not really pinpoint when, maybe because there had never been a chance. After all, she was she, and he was he. On their wedding night she had given herself, but not freely, as she had in the months before. He did, of course, always remember that. And she had never really given herself freely since that night, now forty-three years ago.
“How long have you lived in Crosby?” The bartender asked him this.
“Six years.” Jack switched his legs to the other side of the barstool. “I have now lived in Crosby, Maine, for six years.”
The bartender nodded. A couple came in and sat down at the far end of the bar; they were young, and the woman had long hair that she smoothed over one shoulder—a confident person. The bartender walked over to them.
Now Jack allowed his mind to go to Olive Kitteridge. Tall, big; God, she was a strange woman. He had liked her quite a bit, she had an honesty—was it an honesty?—she had something about her. A widow, she had—it felt to him—practically saved his life. They’d gone to dinner a few times, a concert; he had kissed her on the mouth. He could laugh out loud to think about this now. Her mouth. Olive Kitteridge. Like kissing a barnacle- covered whale. She had a grandson born a couple of years ago, Jack hadn’t especially cared, but she had cared because the kid was called Henry after his grandfather, Olive’s dead husband. Jack had suggested she go see the little fellow Henry in New York City and she had said, Well, she didn’t think so. Who knows why? Things were not good with her son, he knew that much. But things weren’t good with his daughter either. They had that in common. He remembered how Olive had told him right away that her father had killed himself when she was thirty. Shot himself in his kitchen. Maybe this had something to do with how she was; it must have. And then she had come over one morning and unexpectedly lain down next to him on the bed in the guest room. Boy, he had been relieved. Relief had just flowed through him when she’d put her head on his chest. “Stay,” he said finally, but she rose and said she had to get home. “I’d like it if you stayed,” he said, but she did not. And she never returned. When he tried calling her, she did not answer the telephone.
He had bumped into her in the grocery store only once—a few days after she had lain down with him; he’d been holding his jug of whiskey. “Olive!” he’d exclaimed. But she had been agitated: Her son, down in New York City, was going to have another baby any day! “I thought he just had a baby,” Jack said, and she said, Well, the woman was pregnant again and they hadn’t even told her until now! Olive had a grandson; why did they need more kids, there were already two the wife had brought into the marriage. Olive must have said that three times at least. He called her the next day, and the telephone just kept ringing, and he realized she didn’t have her answering machine turned on. Could that be true? Anything could be true with Olive. He assumed she had probably, finally, gone to New York to see this new grandchild, because when he called again the next day, there was no answer then either. He emailed her with the subject line ?????. And then no subject. She had not answered that either. More than three weeks ago that had been.
The bartender was back in front of Jack, making the couple’s drinks. Jack said, “And you? Did you grow up around here?”
“Nah,” the fellow said, “I grew up right outside of Boston. I’m here ’cause of my girlfriend. She lives here.” He tossed his head a bit, getting his dark hair out of his eyes.
Jack nodded, drank his whiskey. “For years my wife and I lived in Cambridge,” Jack said, “and then we came up here.”
He could have sworn he saw something on the bartender’s face, a smirk, before the fellow turned away and went to place the drinks before the couple.
When the fellow returned, he said to Jack, “A Harvard man? So you were a Harvard man.” He pulled a rack of clean glasses from below him, and began to put them—hanging them upside down—in the rack above him.
“I cleaned toilets there,” Jack said. And the idiot guy looked at him quickly, as though to see if he was joking. “No, I did not clean toilets. I taught there.”
“Great. You wanted to retire up here?”
Jack had never wanted to retire. “How much do I owe you?” he asked.
Tommy Guptill had once owned a dairy farm, which he inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois.
In that crowded city, she had worked for a haberdasher and presided over the slow death of her mother, after which she’d discovered in herself an unexpected yearning to leave Ireland and see the world.
1974 Dodoma, Tanzania, East Africa In the churchyard of the Anglican cathedral two coffins lay ready for burial.
There aren’t many rules of singlehood, but I have made a few for myself in the two (if anyone asks, but really it’s four) years in which I’ve been single.