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The Burgess Boys(2)
Elizabeth Strout

Jim Burgess was ten years older than I, which made him seem as far away as someone famous, and he kind of was, even back then: He was a football player and president of his class, and really nice looking with his dark hair, but he was serious too, I remember him as someone whose eyes never smiled. Bobby and Susan were younger than Jim, and at different times babysat for my sisters and me. Susan didn’t pay much attention to us, although one day she decided we were laughing at her and she took away the animal crackers that my mother always left for us when my parents went out. In protest, one of my sisters locked herself in the bathroom, and Susan yelled at her that she’d call the police. What happened is not anything I remember except there were no police, and my mother was surprised to see the animal crackers still there when she got home. A few times Bobby babysat, and he would take turns carrying us on his back. You could tell you were clinging to someone kind and good, the way he kept saying, turning his head partway, “You okay? You all right?” Once, when one of my sisters was running in the driveway and tripped and skinned her knee, we could see that Bobby felt terrible. His big hand washed it off. “Ah, you’re a brave girl. You’ll be all right.”

Grown, my sisters moved to Massachusetts. But I went to New York, and my parents were not happy: It was a betrayal to a New England lineage that stretched back to the 1600s. My ancestors had been scrappy and survived a great deal, my father said, but they had never stepped into the cesspool of New York. I married a New Yorker—a gregarious, wealthy Jewish man, and this exacerbated things. My parents did not visit often. I think the city frightened them. I think my husband seemed a foreigner and that frightened them, and I think my children frightened them; bold and spoiled they must have appeared, with their messy rooms and plastic toys, and later their pierced noses and blue and purple hair. So there were years of bad feelings between us.

But when my husband died the same year my last child left for college, my mother, widowed herself the year before, came down to New York and stroked my forehead as she had done when I was little and sick with a bug, and said she was sorry I had lost both father and husband within such a short time. “What can I do for you?”

I was lying on my couch. “Tell me a story,” I said.

She moved to the chair near the window. “Well, let’s see. Susan Burgess’s husband’s left her and moved to Sweden, I guess he had ancestors there calling to him, who knows. He came from up north in that tiny town of New Sweden, remember. Before he went down to the university. Susan still lives in Shirley Falls, with that one son.”

“Is she still pretty?” I asked.

“Not a bit.”

And so it began. Like a cat’s cradle connecting my mother to me, and me to Shirley Falls, bits of gossip and news and memories about the lives of the Burgess kids supported us. We reported and repeated. I told my mother again about the time I had come across Helen Burgess, Jim’s wife, when they lived, as I once did, in the neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn: The Burgesses moved there from Hartford after the Packer trial, Jim taking a job with a large firm in Manhattan.

My husband and I one night found ourselves dining near Helen and a friend in a Park Slope café, and we stopped near Helen’s table as we were leaving. I’d had some wine—I suppose that’s why I stopped—and I said to her that I’d come from the same town Jim had grown up in. Something happened to Helen’s face that stayed with me. A look of quick fear seemed to pass over it. She asked my name and I told her, and she said Jim had never mentioned me. No, I was younger, I said. And then she arranged her cloth napkin with a little shake, and said, “I haven’t been up there in years. Nice to meet you both. Bye-bye.”

My mother thought that Helen could have been friendlier that night. “She came from money, remember. She’d think she was better than someone from Maine.” This sort of remark was one I had learned to let go; I no longer bothered myself with the defensiveness of my mother and her Maine.

But after Susan Burgess’s son did what he did—after the story about him had been in the newspapers, even in The New York Times, and on television too—I said on the phone to my mother, “I think I’m going to write the story of the Burgess kids.”

“It’s a good one,” she agreed.

“People will say it’s not nice to write about people I know.”

My mother was tired that night. She yawned. “Well, you don’t know them,” she said. “Nobody ever knows anyone.”

Book One


On a breezy October afternoon in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, Helen Farber Burgess was packing for vacation. A big blue suitcase lay open on the bed, and clothes her husband had chosen the night before were folded and stacked on the lounge chair nearby. Sunlight kept springing into the room from the shifting clouds outside, making the brass knobs on the bed shine brightly and the suitcase become very blue. Helen was walking back and forth between the dressing room—with its enormous mirrors and white horsehair wallpaper, the dark woodwork around the long window—walking between that and the bedroom, which had French doors that were closed right now, but in warmer weather opened onto a deck that looked out over the garden. Helen was experiencing a kind of mental paralysis that occurred when she packed for a trip, so the abrupt ringing of the telephone brought relief. When she saw the word PRIVATE, she knew it was either the wife of one of her husband’s law partners—they were a prestigious firm of famous lawyers—or else her brother-in-law, Bob, who’d had an unlisted number for years but was not, and never would be, famous at all.

“I’m glad it’s you,” she said, pulling a colorful scarf from the bureau drawer, holding it up, dropping it on the bed.

“You are?” Bob’s voice sounded surprised.

“I was afraid it would be Dorothy.” Walking to the window, Helen peered out at the garden. The plum tree was bending in the wind, and yellow leaves from the bittersweet swirled across the ground.

“Why didn’t you want it to be Dorothy?”

“She tires me right now,” said Helen.

“You’re about to go away with them for a week.”

“Ten days. I know.”

A short pause, and then Bob said, “Yeah,” his voice dropping into an understanding so quick and entire—it was his strong point, Helen thought, his odd ability to fall feetfirst into the little pocket of someone else’s world for those few seconds. It should have made him a good husband but apparently it hadn’t: Bob’s wife had left him years ago.

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