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.
“We’ve gone away with them before,” Helen reminded him. “It’ll be fine. Alan’s an awfully nice fellow. Dull.”
“And managing partner of the firm,” Bob said.
“That too.” Helen sang the words playfully. “A little difficult to say, ‘Oh, we’d rather go alone on this trip.’ Jim says their older girl is really messing up right now—she’s in high school—and the family therapist suggested that Dorothy and Alan get away. I don’t know why you ‘get away’ if your kid’s messing up, but there we are.”
“I don’t know either,” Bob said sincerely. Then: “Helen, this thing just happened.”
She listened, folding a pair of linen slacks. “Come on over,” she interrupted. “We’ll go across the street for dinner when Jim gets home.”
After that she was able to pack with authority. The colorful scarf was included with three white linen blouses and black ballet flats and the coral necklace Jim had bought her last year. Over a whiskey sour with Dorothy on the terrace, while they waited for the men to shower from golf, Helen would say, “Bob’s an interesting fellow.” She might even mention the accident—how it was Bob, four years old, who’d been playing with the gears that caused the car to roll over their father and kill him; the man had walked down the hill of the driveway to fix something about the mailbox, leaving all three young kids in the car. A perfectly awful thing. And never mentioned. Jim had told her once in thirty years. But Bob was an anxious man, Helen liked to watch out for him.
“You’re rather a saint,” Dorothy might say, sitting back, her eyes blocked by huge sunglasses.
Helen would shake her head. “Just a person who needs to be needed. And with the children grown—” No, she’d not mention the children. Not if the Anglins’ daughter was flunking courses, staying out until dawn. How would they spend ten days together and not mention the children? She’d ask Jim.
Helen went downstairs, stepped into the kitchen. “Ana,” she said to her housekeeper, who was scrubbing sweet potatoes with a vegetable brush. “Ana, we’re going to eat out tonight. You can go home.”
The autumn clouds, magnificent in their variegated darkness, were being spread apart by the wind, and great streaks of sunshine splashed down on the buildings on Seventh Avenue. This is where the Chinese restaurants were, the card shops, the jewelry shops, the grocers with the fruits and vegetables and rows of cut flowers. Bob Burgess walked past all these, up the sidewalk in the direction of his brother’s house.
Bob was a tall man, fifty-one years old, and here was the thing about Bob: He was a likeable fellow. To be with Bob made people feel as if they were inside a small circle of us-ness. If Bob had known this about himself his life might have been different. But he didn’t know it, and his heart was often touched by an undefined fear. Also, he wasn’t consistent. Friends agreed that you could have a great time with him and then you’d see him again and he’d be vacant. This part Bob knew, because his former wife had told him. Pam said he went away in his head.
“Jim gets like that too,” Bob had offered.
“We’re not talking about Jim.”
Waiting at the curb for the light to change, Bob felt a swell of gratitude toward his sister-in-law, who’d said, “We’ll go across the street for dinner when Jim gets home.” It was Jim he wanted to see. What Bob had watched earlier, sitting by the window in his fourth-floor apartment, what he had heard in the apartment down below—it had shaken him, and crossing the street now, passing a coffee shop where young people sat on couches in cavernous gloom with faces mesmerized by laptop screens, Bob felt removed from the familiarity of all he walked by. As though he had not lived half his life in New York and loved it as one would a person, as though he had never left the wide expanses of wild grass, never known or wanted anything but bleak New England skies.
“Your sister just called,” said Helen as she let Bob in through the grated door beneath the brownstone’s stoop. “Wanted Jim and sounded grim.” Helen turned from hanging Bob’s coat in the closet, adding, “I know. It’s just the way she sounds. But I still say, Susan smiled at me once.” Helen sat on the couch, tucking her legs in their black tights beneath her. “I was trying to copy a Maine accent.”
Bob sat in the rocking chair. His knees pumped up and down.
“No one should try and copy a Maine accent to a Mainer,” Helen continued. “I don’t know why the Southerners are so much nicer about it, but they are. If you say ‘Hi, y’all’ to a Southerner, you don’t feel like they’re smirking at you. Bobby, you’re all jumpy.” She leaned forward, patting the air. “It’s all right. You can be jumpy as long as you’re okay. Are you okay?”
All his life, kindness had weakened Bob, and he felt now the physicality of this, a sort of fluidity moving through his chest. “Not really,” he admitted. “But you’re right about the accent stuff. When people say, ‘Hey, you’re from Maine, you can’t get they-ah from he-yah,’ it’s painful. Painful stuff.”
“I know that,” Helen said. “Now you tell me what happened.”
Bob said, “Adriana and Preppy Boy were fighting again.”
“Wait,” said Helen. “Oh, of course. The couple below you. They have that idiot little dog who yaps all the time.”
“Go on,” Helen said, pleased she’d remembered this. “One second, Bob. I have to tell you what I saw on the news last night. This segment called ‘Real Men Like Small Dogs.’ They interviewed these different, sort of—sorry—faggy-looking guys who were holding these tiny dogs that were dressed in plaid raincoats and rubber boots, and I thought: This is news? We’ve got a war going on in Iraq for almost four years now, and this is what they call news? It’s because they don’t have children. People who dress their dogs like that. Bob, I’m awfully sorry. Go on with your story.”
Helen picked up a pillow and stroked it. Her face had turned pink, and Bob thought she was having a hot flash, so he looked down at his hands to give her privacy, not realizing that Helen had blushed because she’d spoken of people who did not have children—as Bob did not.
“They fight,” Bob said. “And when they fight, Preppy Boy—husband, they’re married—yells the same thing over and over. ‘Adriana, you’re driving me fucking crazy.’ Over and over again.”
Helen shook her head. “Imagine living like that. Do you want a drink?” She rose and went to the mahogany cupboard, where she poured whiskey into a crystal tumbler. She was a short, still shapely woman in her black skirt and beige sweater.
Bob drank half the whiskey in one swallow. “Anyways,” he continued, and saw a small tightening on Helen’s face. She hated how he said “Anyways,” though he always forgot this, and he forgot it now, only felt the foreboding of failure. He wasn’t going to be able to convey the sadness of what he had seen. “She comes home,” Bob said. “They start to fight. He does his yelling thing. Then he takes the dog out. But this time, while he’s gone, she calls the police. She’s never done that before. He comes back and they arrest him. I heard the cops tell him that his wife said he’d hit her. And thrown her clothes out the window. So they arrested him. And he was amazed.”
Helen’s face looked as if she didn’t know what to say.
“He’s this good-looking guy, very cool in his zip-up sweater, and he stood there crying, ‘Baby, I never hit you, baby, seven years we’ve been married, what are you doing? Baby, pleeeease!’ But they cuffed him and walked him across the street in broad daylight to the cruiser and he’s spending the night in the pens.” Bob eased himself out of the rocking chair, went to the mahogany cupboard, and poured himself more whiskey.
“That’s a very sad story,” said Helen, who was disappointed. She had hoped it would be more dramatic. “But he might have thought of that before he hit her.”
“I don’t think he did hit her.” Bob returned to the rocking chair.
Helen said musingly, “I wonder if they’ll stay married.”
“I don’t think so.” Bob was tired now.
“What bothered you most, Bobby?” Helen asked. “The marriage falling apart, or the arrest?” She took it personally, his expression of not finding relief.
Bob rocked a few times. “Everything.” He snapped his fingers. “Like that, it happened. I mean, it was just an ordinary day, Helen.”
Helen plumped the pillow against the back of the couch. “I don’t know what’s ordinary about a day when you have your husband arrested.”
Turning his head, Bob saw through the grated windows his brother walking up the sidewalk, and a small rush of anxiety came to him at the sight of this: his older brother’s quick gait, his long coat, the thick leather briefcase. There was the sound of the key in the door.
“Hi, sweetheart,” said Helen. “Your brother’s here.”
“I see that.” Jim shrugged off his coat and hung it in the hall closet. Bob had never learned to hang up his coat. What is it with you?, his wife, Pam, used to ask, What is it, what is it, what is it? And what was it? He could not say. But whenever he walked through a door, unless someone took his coat for him, the act of hanging it up seemed needless and . . . well, too difficult.
“I’ll go.” Bob said. “I have a brief to work on.” Bob worked in the appellate division of Legal Aid, reading case records at the trial level. There was always an appeal that required a brief, always a brief to be worked on.
“Don’t be silly,” said Helen. “I said we’d go across the street for supper.”
“Out of my chair, knucklehead.” Jim waved a hand in Bob’s direction. “Glad to see you. It’s been what, four days?”
“Stop it, Jim. Your brother saw that downstairs neighbor of his taken away in handcuffs this afternoon.”
“Trouble in the graduate dorm?”
“He’s just being my brother,” Bob said. He moved to the couch, and Jim sat down in the rocking chair.
Going Through Old Papers by Elizabeth Strout
Recently I was going through drafts of old manuscripts, and this is what I found: a scene of the Burgess family emerging from the middle of Abide with Me. I was surprised to see it there. Clearly, I had been thinking about these boys-these Burgess children—for many years, before they finally landed in a book of their own. Abide with Me was my second novel; it took me seven years to write it, and it was published eight years after my first novel, Amy and Isabelle, appeared in 1998. Olive Kitteridge was my third book, published in 2008. After that I sat down and began, or thought I began, The Burgess Boys. So to discover this scene of the Burgess family, sketched out so many years earlier, indicated to me the tenacity of their hold on my imagination. I had no memory of having written anything about the Burgess family that long ago. But now, on notebook paper, in blue ink, here was a scene in which Polly Burgess—who later became Barbara Burgess—seeks out the large-hearted Reverend Tyler Caskey to see if he will perform her husband’s funeral. She sits behind the wheel of her car in the man’s driveway, three small children with her, and Tyler comes to realize that something is very wrong. Polly Burgess is understandably agitated, but Tyler has no way of knowing that one of the children is responsible for the family tragedy. He asks Polly, out of concern and politeness, if she has a church of her own. Polly takes umbrage, interpreting his question as one of castigation, and drives off, one of the boys looking out the rear window. Tyler is haunted by the image.
As it happens, Tyler and the Burgesses are never to meet again.
The two storylines were ultimately separated: Tyler Caskey had his own book, Abide with Me, and the Burgess kids grew up and are with you now. It is always hard for me to clarify and properly remember how a book got its start, but coming across this scene reminded me of just how long images or thoughts can linger in my mind before reaching the final page. And it gave me some clue as to what I had first been drawn to in writing The Burgess Boys, part of which is how different cultures deal with distress. And this has to do, quite naturally, with time and place. Had the Burgess kids been born into an affluent family of today’s New York City, there is a good chance that all three, along with their mother, would have had extensive therapy after the accident that comes to determine so much of the rest of their lives. Or friends might have talked openly about their own pasts, and how they dealt with childhood traumas. But the Burgesses grew up half a century ago in northern New England, where a person’s inner life was traditionally not something for common discussion. “Grit your teeth and bear it” was, and perhaps still is, the maxim children heard as they grew up in this part of the world.
And that’s what the Burgess kids did. They gritted their teeth and went forward, which is actually what most people do in most parts of the world. Surprisingly—surprising to me, anyway—most people bear ostensibly unbearable things. It is the particularities of bearing life that make us distinct and singular. The Burgess siblings each grew in different ways, according to who they were and who they thought they were. The country grew as well. A Somali community emerged in the whitest state of the Union, and people responded to this, as people have responded for years to immigrant populations everywhere. We know that some people carry a strong fear of the unfamiliar. Others are moved to immediately defend a vulnerable population. Most people, I think, fall somewhere in between, balancing their fears with a desire to be decent. And what this means, really, is that change takes time. It takes time, for example, for a town that has traditionally been all white to accept that their high school soccer team has become one mostly of dark-skinned people, to see in the stands women wearing hijabs as they cheer their sons and brothers on. Time is needed to learn that our view of the world is exactly that: our view, and not a view belonging to someone else. And our view is, and should be, continually open to change.
Books help. They help by allowing us to imagine the realities of another person’s inner—and outer—life. Bernard Malamud said that we value man by describing him. So when I describe Jim Burgess, I am aware of—and honor—the anxiety and pain he has lived with his whole life. When I describe Susan Olson, I am aware of the quotidian bravery she maintains. I am aware of Bob Burgess’s steadfast heart, which keeps beating in spite of the cigarettes he smokes. When I describe Abdikarim, I respect and value the terrible violence and disruptions of his history. But I am the writer. Being aware of these aspects of character is my job. That Zachary Olson is only half aware of the severity of his actions seems in keeping with the idea that many of us—as we live our lives without such writerlike examination—are only half aware of what our actions mean. This is where the conversation between reader and writer comes in. Readers can more clearly see aspects of themselves and of others if the writer has been scrupulous in crafting a fictional truth. It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives. To present this in the form of fiction helps make our humanness more acceptable to the reader; this is my wish.
The Burgesses’ story is an American story. We are a country built on the continuing influx of a variety of cultures, and we are also a country in which the dream of reinventing ourselves continues to thrive. Running away—especially to a city—has long been attractive to those who want to leap from their pasts. Our American, and changing, sense of family reflects confusion about what the individual is entitled to, and what our responsibilities may or may not be to those we leave behind. In a different culture, in a different time, these confusions would play out another way, or not even be confusing at all: For example, there was a time in rural New England when children were expected not to leave but instead to marry and remain nearby, helping with the family farm, or perhaps the family business. There was a time when a child grew up and worked in the same textile mill that his father and mother had worked in. But most of those mills are now gone. The mill that the Burgess father worked in has long been closed. And so this story belongs to the Burgess boys. It belongs to their sister as well, but it is the boys who have attempted, with desperation and arguably some success, to get ahead of that determinative sunny day when they were small children in the town of Shirley Falls, Maine.
I wrote the story, but you will bring to it your own experience of life, and some other reader will do the same, and it will become a different story with each reader. I believe that even the time in your life when you read the book will determine how you receive it. Our lives are changing constantly, and therefore not even our own story is always what we think it is. The mutability of life—our losses, our loves, our fears—can at times be overwhelming. I hope that reading The Burgess Boys makes this changeability become, if even only for a few moments, more manageable. No one is alone in wondering: How did that happen? How did I get to this place right now? History, our own and the world’s, continues to be made, and the accuracy of history continues to be questioned. As the Burgess kids discover, we are what we remember—and what we don’t remember, too. But in the complementary acts of writing a book and reading a book, you and I share the commemoration of lives, each in our own way construed.