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The Burgess Boys
Elizabeth Strout


My mother and I talked a lot about the Burgess family. “The Burgess kids,” she called them. We talked about them mostly on the telephone, because I lived in New York and she lived in Maine. But we talked about them also when I visited her and stayed in the hotel nearby. My mother had not been in many hotels, and it became one of our favorite things: to sit in a room—the green walls stenciled with a strip of pink roses—and speak of the past, those who had left Shirley Falls, those who had stayed. “Been thinking about those Burgess kids,” she’d say, pulling back the curtain and looking toward the birch trees.

The Burgess kids had a hold on her, I think, as a result of the fact that all three had suffered publicly, and also my mother had taught them years before in her fourth-grade Sunday-school class. She favored the Burgess boys. Jim, because he was angry even back then and trying to control it, she felt, and Bob because his heart was big. She didn’t care much for Susan. “Nobody did, far as I know,” she said.

“Susan was pretty when she was little,” I remembered. “She had those curls and big eyes.”

“And then she had that nutty son.”

“Sad,” I said.

“Lots of things are sad,” my mother said. My mother and I were both widowed by then, and there would be a silence after she said this. Then one of us would add how glad we were that Bob Burgess had found a good wife in the end. The wife, Bob’s second and we hoped his last, was a Unitarian minister. My mother did not like Unitarians; she thought they were atheists who didn’t want to be left out of the fun of Christmas, but Margaret Estaver was from Maine, and that was good enough. “Bob could have married someone from New York after living there all those years. Look what happened to Jim, marrying that snob from Connecticut,” my mother said.

We had talked about Jim a good deal, of course: how he’d left Maine after working homicides in the attorney general’s office, how we’d hoped he would run for governor, the puzzle of why he suddenly hadn’t, and then we—naturally—talked about him the year of the Wally Packer trial when Jim was on the news each night. The trial was back when they were first allowing trials to be televised, and in another year O. J. Simpson would eclipse many people’s memory of the Packer trial, but until then there were Jim Burgess devotees across the country who watched with amazement as he got an acquittal for the gentle-faced soul singer Wally Packer, whose crooning voice (Take this burden from me, the burden of my love) had swept most of our generation into adulthood. Wally Packer, who had allegedly paid to have his white girlfriend killed. Jim kept the trial in Hartford, where race was a serious factor, and his jury selection was said to be brilliant. Then, with eloquent and relentless patience, he described just how deceptive the fabric could be that wove together—or in this case, he claimed, did not weave together—the essential components of criminal behavior: intent and action. Cartoons ran in national magazines, one showing a woman staring at her messy living room with a caption that said, “If I intend this room to be clean, when will it become clean?” Polls indicated that most people believed as my mother and I did, that Wally Packer was guilty. But Jim did a stunning job and became famous as a result. (A few magazines listed him as one of the Sexiest Men of 1993, and even my mother, who loathed any mention of sex, did not hold this against him.) O. J. Simpson reportedly wanted Jim on his “Dream Team”; there was a flurry of talk about this on the networks, but with no comment from the Burgess camp it was decided that Jim was “resting on his laurels.” The Packer trial had given my mother and me something to talk about during a time when we were not pleased with each other. But that was in the past. Now when I left Maine I kissed my mother and told her I loved her, and she told me the same.

Back in New York, calling from my twenty-sixth-floor apartment one evening, watching through the window as dusk touched the city and lights emerged like fireflies in the fields of buildings spread out before me, I said, “Do you remember when Bob’s mother sent him to a shrink? Kids talked about it on the playground. ‘Bobby Burgess has to see a doctor for mentals.’ ”

“Kids are awful,” my mother said. “Honest to God.”

“It was a long time ago,” I offered. “No one up there went to a psychiatrist.”

“That’s changed,” my mother said. “People I go square-dancing with, they have kids who see therapists and they all seem to be on some pill. I must say, no one keeps quiet about it either.”

“So you remember the Burgess father?” I had asked her this before. We did this kind of thing, repeated the stuff we knew.

“I do. Tall, I remember. Worked at the mill. A foreman, I think. And then she was left all alone.”

“And she never married again.”

“Never married again,” my mother said. “I don’t know what her chances were back then. Three little kids. Jim, Bob, and Sue.”

The Burgess house had been about a mile from the center of town. A small house, but most of the houses in that part of Shirley Falls were small, or not big. The house was yellow, and it sat on a hill with a field on one side that in spring was so richly green I remember wishing as a child I could be a cow so I could munch all day on the moist grass, it seemed that scrumptious. The field by the Burgess place didn’t have cows, or even a vegetable garden, just that little sense of farmland near town. In the summer Mrs. Burgess was sometimes in the front yard, dragging a hose around a bush, but since the house was on a hill she always seemed remote and small, and she didn’t answer my father’s wave whenever we drove by, I assume because she didn’t see it.

People think of towns as bubbling with gossip, but when I was a child I seldom heard grown-ups talking about other families, and the Burgess situation was absorbed the way other tragedies were, like poor Bunny Fogg who fell down her cellar stairs and didn’t get discovered for three days, or Mrs. Hammond getting a brain tumor just as her kids left for college, or crazy Annie Day who pulled her dress up in front of boys even though she was almost twenty and still in high school. It was the children—we younger ones especially—who were gossips, and unkind. The grown-ups were strict in setting us straight, so if a child on the playground was overheard saying that Bobby Burgess “was the one who killed his father” or “had to see a doctor for mentals,” the offender was sent to the principal’s office, the parents were called, and snacks were withheld at snack time. This didn’t happen often.

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