Olive, Again - Elizabeth Strout Page 0,1

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 affair 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