Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(3)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(3)
Elizabeth Strout

“The thing about Kathie,” I said, “is that she was nice.”

“I don’t know,” my mother said. “I don’t know how nice she was.” We were interrupted by the nurse Cookie, who walked into the room with her clipboard, then held my wrist and took my pulse, gazing into the air, her blue eyes far away. She took my temperature, glanced at the thermometer, wrote something on my chart, and walked out of the room. My mother, who had been watching Cookie, now gazed out the window. “Kathie Nicely always wanted more. I often thought the reason she was friends with me—oh, I don’t know if you could call us friends, really, I just sewed for her and she paid me—but I’ve often thought the reason she would stay and talk—well, she did have me over to her place when her troubles arrived—but what I’m trying to say here is that I always thought she liked my circumstances being so much lower than her own. She couldn’t envy anything about me. Kathie always wanted something she didn’t have. She had those beautiful daughters, but they weren’t enough, she wanted a son. She had that nice house in Hanston, but it wasn’t nice enough, she wanted something closer to a city. What city? That’s how she was.” And then plucking something from her lap, squinting, my mother added in a lower voice: “She was an only child, I think that had something to do with it, how self-centered they can be.”

I felt the cold-hot shock that comes from being struck without warning; my husband was an only child, and my mother had told me long before that such a “condition,” as she put it, could only lead to selfishness in the end.

My mother went on: “Well, she was jealous. Not of me, of course. But for example, Kathie wanted to travel. And her husband wasn’t like that. He wanted Kathie to be content and stay at home and they would live off his salary. He did well, he managed a farm of feed corn, you know. They had a perfectly nice life, anyone would have wanted their life, really. Why, they went to dances at some club! I’ve not been to a dance since high school. Kathie would come to me and get a new dress made just to go to a dance. Sometimes she brought the girls over, such pretty little things and well behaved. I always remember the first time she brought them over. Kathie said to me, ‘May I present the pretty Nicely girls.’ And when I started to say, ‘Oh, they’re lovely indeed,’ she said, ‘No—that’s what they’re called at their school, in Hanston, the Pretty Nicely Girls.’ Now, how does that feel, I’ve always wondered. To be known as a Pretty Nicely Girl? Though once,” my mother said, in her urgent voice, “I caught one of them whispering to her sisters something about our place smelling funny—”

“That’s just kids, Mom,” I said. “Kids always think places smell funny.”

My mother took her glasses off, breathed on each lens briskly and cleaned them with the cloth of her skirt. I thought how naked her face looked then; I could not stop staring at her naked-looking face. “And then one day, you know, the times changed. People think everyone went foolish in the sixties but it wasn’t until the seventies, really.” Her glasses returned—her face returned—my mother continued. “Or maybe it took that long for the changes to find their way to our cow patch. But one day Kathie came to visit, and she was giggly and strange—girlish, you know. You’d gone off by then. To—” My mother raised her arm and wiggled her fingers. She did not say “school.” She did not say “college.” And so I didn’t say those words either. My mother said, “Kathie fancied someone she’d met, that was clear to me, though she didn’t come out and say so. I had a vision—a visitation, it would be more accurate to say; it came to me as I sat there looking at her. And I saw this, and I thought: Uh-oh, Kathie’s in trouble.”

“And she was,” I said.

“And she was.”

Kathie Nicely had fallen in love with the teacher of one of her children—who were all three in high school by this time—and she began to see this man secretly. Then she told her husband that she had to realize herself more fully and she couldn’t do it trapped by domestic chains. So she moved out, left her husband, her daughters, her house. It wasn’t until she called my mother weeping that my mother learned the details. My mother drove to find her. Kathie had rented a small apartment, and she was sitting on a beanbag chair, much skinnier than she used to be, and she confessed to my mother that she had fallen in love, but once she’d moved out of her house the fellow had dropped her. Said he could not continue with what they’d been doing. My mother, having come to this point in the story, raised her eyebrows, as though the puzzlement of this was large but not unpleasant to her. “Anyway, her husband was furious and humiliated and would not take her back.”

Her husband never took her back. He went for over ten years without even speaking to her. When the oldest girl, Linda, got married straight out of high school, Kathie invited my parents to the wedding, because—my mother surmised—Kathie had no one at the wedding who would speak to her. “That girl got married so quickly,” my mother said, speaking rapidly now, “people thought she was pregnant, but no child arrived that I ever heard about, and she divorced him a year later, and went off to Beloit, I believe, looking for a rich husband and I think I heard she found one.” My mother said that at the wedding Kathie kept flitting around, desperately nervous. “It was a sad thing to see. Of course we didn’t know a soul, and it was obvious she’d just about hired us to be there. We sat in the chairs—I remember on one wall of the place, you know, it was The Club, that silly fancy place in Hanston, and they had all these Indian arrowheads under glass, why was that, I wondered, who would care about all those arrowheads—and Kathie would try and talk to some person and then come right back to us. Even Linda, gussied up in white—and Kathie had not asked me to make the gown, the girl went out and bought it—even this bride-girl hardly gave her mother the time of day. Kathie’s lived in a little house a few miles from her husband, ex-husband now, for almost fifteen years. All alone. The girls stayed loyal to their father. I’m surprised, when I think of it, that Kathie was even allowed at the wedding. Anyway, he never had anyone else.”

“He should have taken her back,” I said, tears in my eyes.

“I suppose his pride was hurt.” My mother shrugged.

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