Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(8)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(8)
Elizabeth Strout

“I was thinking,” my mother said, in her soft, rushed voice, “how one morning, oh, we must have been little, maybe I was five, and Harriet three, I was thinking how we decided to help Aunt Celia take the deadheads off the lemon lilies that grew by the barn. But of course Harriet was just a little thing, and she thought the big buds were the dead parts to take off, and there she was, snapping them right off, when Aunt Celia came out.”

“Was Aunt Seal mad?” I asked.

“No, I don’t remember that. But I was,” my mother said. “I’d tried to tell her what was a bud and what wasn’t. Stupid child.”

“I never knew Harriet was stupid, you never said she was stupid.”

“Well, maybe she wasn’t. She probably wasn’t. But she was afraid of everything, she was so afraid of lightning. She would go hide under the bed and whimper,” my mother said. “I never understood it. And so frightened of snakes. Such a silly girl, really.”

“Mom. Please don’t say that word again. Please.” Already I was trying to sit up and raise my feet. Even now I always feel the need to get my feet up where I can see them, should I hear that word.

“Say what word again? ‘Snakes’?”

“Mom.”

“For heaven’s sake, I don’t— All right. All right.” She waved a hand, and gave a little shrug as she turned to look out the window. “You’ve often reminded me of Harriet,” she said. “That silly fear of yours. And your ability to feel sorry for any Tom, Dick, or Harry that came along.”

I still do not know, even now, what Tom, Dick, or Harry I’d felt sorry for, or when they’d come along. “But I want to hear,” I said. I wanted to hear her voice again, her different, rushed voice.

Toothache, the nurse, walked into the room; she took my temperature, but she did not look into space the way Cookie did. Instead Toothache looked at me carefully, then looked at the thermometer, and then told me that the fever was the same as it had been the day before. She asked my mother if she wanted anything, and my mother shook her head quickly. For a moment Toothache stood, her woebegone face seeming at a loss. Then she measured my blood pressure, which was always fine, and it was fine that morning. “All right, then,” said Toothache, and both my mother and I thanked her. She wrote a few things on my chart, and at the door she turned to say that the doctor would be in soon.

“The doctor seemed like a nice man,” my mother said, addressing the window. “When he came in last night.”

Toothache glanced back at me as she left.

After a moment I said, “Mom, tell me more about Harriet.”

“Well, you know what happened to Harriet.” My mother returned to the room, to me.

I said, “But you always liked her though, right?”

“Oh, sure—what was there not to like about Harriet? She had that very poor luck with her marriage. She married a man from a couple towns away she met at a dance, a square dance in a barn, I think, and people were pleased for her, you know, she wasn’t a great deal to look at even back then in the prime of her youth.”

“What was wrong with her?” I asked.

“Nothing was wrong with her. She was just always fretful, even as a young girl, and she had those buck teeth. And she smoked, which gave her bad breath. But she was a sweet thing, she was that, never meant harm to anyone, and she had those two kids, Abel and Dottie—”

“Oh, I loved Abel when I was a kid,” I said.

“Yes, Abel was just a wonderful person always. Funny how that can happen, out of nowhere a tree rises up strong, and that’s what he was. Anyway, one day Harriet’s husband went out to get her cigarettes and—”

“Never came back,” I finished.

“I should say he never came back. I should say he indeed never came back. He dropped dead on the street, and Harriet had such a time trying to keep the state from taking those kids. He left her nothing, poor woman, I’m sure he didn’t expect to just die. They were living in Rockford by then—you know, it’s over an hour away—and she stayed there, I never knew why. But she would send the kids to us a few weeks each summer, once we were in the house. Oh, such sad-looking children. I’d always try and make Dottie a new dress to send her home with.”

Abel Blaine. His pants were too short, above his ankles, I remember, and kids laughed at him when we went into town, and he always smiled as though none of it mattered. His teeth were crooked and bad, but otherwise he was nice-looking; perhaps he knew that he was nice-looking. I think, really, his heart was just good. He was the one who taught me to search for food from the dumpster behind Chatwin’s Cake Shoppe. What was striking was the lack of furtiveness he displayed as he stood in the dumpster and tossed aside boxes until he found what he was looking for—the old cakes and rolls and pastries from days before. Neither Dottie nor my own sister and brother were ever with us, I don’t know where they were. After a few visits to Amgash, Abel did not come back; he had a job as an usher in a theater where he lived. He sent me one letter, and enclosed a brochure that showed the theater’s lobby; it was just beautiful, I remember, with many different colored tiles, ornate and gorgeous.

“Abel landed on his feet,” my mother told me.

“Tell me again,” I said.

“He managed to marry the daughter of someone he worked for; the boss’s-daughter story, I guess, is his story. He lives in Chicago, has for years,” my mother said. “His wife’s quite a hoity-toity and won’t have anything to do with poor Dottie, whose husband ran off with someone else a few years ago now. He was from the East, Dottie’s husband. You know.”

“No.”

“Well.” My mother sighed. “He was. Somewhere here along the Eastern Seaboard he came from—” My mother gave a small toss of her head toward the window as though to indicate this was where Dottie’s husband came from. “Thought he was just a tiny bit better than she was, probably. Wizzle, how can you live with no sky?”

“There’s sky.” But I added, “Except I know what you mean.”

“But how can you live without sky?”

“There’s people instead,” I said. “So tell me why.”

“Why what?”

“Why did Dottie’s husband run off?”

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