This happened right at the start of what people call the downturn. They make it sound like a temporary condition, like a particularly harsh winter, but I am not so sure.

I thought I’d woken up in California. It was 1957. I was older than I would have been then. Stan Kenton was on the radio. The louvered windows were cranked open. It was before plastic bags were used in grocery stores. All food was whole food. I was unschooled, but I had an intellectual life. That is to say, I used the public library. Every day until noon I wore a slinky robe. Then I went to work at a bookstore or a record store. Selling something—that was the feeling. I liked men. It did not matter that I had small breasts. They said, “Anything more than a mouthful is wasted.” Later I would stop believing that they were sincere. I was not a virgin, but I could remember what it felt like to be a virgin. There was a pan-asian-y feel to everything, very Pacific Rim, with the ceiling fan blades a smoky red lacquer.

That lasted about six seconds. Then I was back in Ohio, on the edge of a defunct liberal arts college. Waking up in my van. Without my job. The number-crunching job I had loved, in the financial aid office at the selfsame liberal arts college. Thinking, “Frank Zappa said that, so it can’t be 1957.” The redbud trees had begun to bloom, but it was near freezing when I unfolded my aching fifty-eight-year-old bones and got out of the van to the March daybreak. Frost skinned over the down parka I’d forgotten to bring in. It lay on a picnic table, a creamy white, flattened cadaver. They had stopped cutting the grass the summer before. That’s how all the worker bees had known the college was about to shut down. I had to choose a place to pee, always the first order of business when you live in your van. Alex, my ex, lives in California. A foreman at a wind farm. Was that where such a full-blown, unbidden, California half-dream had come from? Was it about Alex?

So far as I knew, no one had put together an intervention. No one had slyly asked me to save a date, the way they would for a surprise birthday party. No one had yet come right out and said: What the hell are you going to do? You’re almost sixty years old. (I’m not! I wanted to say. Fifty-eight is fifty-eight!) And you have already spent your paltry retirement savings on five months in Europe. Under every encounter lay this worry: Will I have to rescue you? My daughter Willow would leave the room exasperated, spitting out “Boomers—.” I wasn’t simply her mother who had lost her job. I represented a generation of people about to enter their golden years unprepared. Willow, Alex, and my friend Kim all thought that I had swerved over the line and hit those hard dots on the highway that remind you: hey, get with it, you’re asleep at the wheel.

Kim had sent me a ticket to Mexico. Free! For points! Willow disapproved. She had said, reasonably, “Mom. You’ve got to stop traveling. You’re on unemployment. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, as Aunt Mina would say.”

Amid overgrown ornamental grasses, behind the library, I squatted and remembered all this, and the day seemed brighter. I would fly from Columbus to Cancun. Kim would meet me and take me to her home in Puerto Morelos. To get my head together. Kim still talked like that. With Kim you got your head together, things were trippy or a bummer, you got a wee bit wasted.

We hadn’t seen each other in over thirty years, and we were riding around in her champagne-colored hybrid SUV that had her trademark——stencilled on both front doors. All those years, the phone and then email had been equalizers. As if we hadn’t been through ugly times, power plays. On the phone we were all “hello, sweetie,” and “take care.”

After we stopped at the Cancun Costco and were out on the highway, she said, “Is everything all right?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” I said.

She popped in a Jimmy Buffett CD. One time long after the divorce, Alex and I had taken Willow to a Jimmy Buffett concert in Angels Camp. We drank syrupy margaritas someone handed us in plastic cups. Willow was only five and happy that Mom and Dad were having fun with her. She knew the words to most of the songs. Alex was still with Kim—the outing was covert.

She said, “You just seem…”

The highway out of Cancun was like a kids’ board game, with signage every few yards. Beaches, beaches—this way pleasure lies.

Meekly, I said, “We’ve been building a bridge, right?” We had talked every three months for the last fifteen years.


“I thought—when I saw you—that the last little bit of the bridge would click into place.” I had to catch my breath, as if I’d said too much. “But there’s still a gap.“

“Don’t look down,” she said. Her tone all-wrong. Bitchy? Playful? That is, I felt serious. My life somehow depended on what would happen in the next week.

By early evening we were strolling on the beach, navigating the blue-and-white striped beach umbrellas under which die-hards sipped their evening cocktails. In the shallow sea, French Canadian toddlers squealed, “Mama.” And on the far horizon, the pearly gray of cruise ship exhaust. I wore a swirly skirt and a top that provided plenty of infrastructure. I had forgotten how much we looked alike. I remembered Kim as plump in a sexually ripe sort of way, with hair the color of cow’s cream down to her waist. Now we matched: short, tightly-exercised, with good biceps and silvery hair, our faces sun-mottled and blurry with fine lines, flaunting post-tennis swaggers, even though we didn’t play tennis. We were perky, as if to prove something to the world. We’re not old. Basically that was the message. Now, could Alex have told us apart from a distance?

It was awkward to say, but I always describe Kim as “the woman Alex was with after me.” Alex and Kim had lasted long enough to have two boys. They work in the solar panel industry. I relayed Willow’s latest scheme—she and her partner were starting up a franchise of garages that would convert gas hogs to electric. It must be genetic, this obsession with energy issues. The soft, gray beach sand grew clammy beneath our bare feet. We talked about the kids in shorthand. We knew all about the school problems, the boy-girl problems, the trophies won, the AP courses, the applications for college, the best and worst significant others, the moves, the resume-building and the jobs. Kim and I liked to say that we were almost blood relatives, but the final word on the kids was this: They have their own lives.

Then we touched on the parents, what we already knew. At that time, hers were in assisted living near Emory, where her father had worked for over forty years. “They still play bridge,” she said. Was that a speck of one-upmanship? Mine had passed away within months of each other while Reagan was still president. To remember their faces I have to dig up curling Kodak photos from a shoebox in Willow’s attic. The scent of Shalimar or something in the grocery—Underworld Deviled Ham—might remind me. A twinge of loss.

“Let’s stop here for dinner,” Kim said. We stood before an impromptu fish house, plastic tables and chairs set amid the sand slaloms. Solar torches lit the way. The food came forth from a concrete block building with a corrugated metal roof. Wind blew off the Caribbean. My skirt flipped over my face, my white, northern legs exposed. An empty table tumbled away; the wind was that strong. The sky was the color of lilacs.

I hesitated.

“It doesn’t look like much,” Kim said, “but they have a chef from New Orleans.” Then, “My treat.”

“I’ll get it next time,” I said. My debit card still worked. Which is to say, I had some money in the college credit union. At home, I kept a close eye on the balance. In a notebook, I wrote down every single dollar I spent or withdrew. I’d had an overdraft incident the month before and Willow had grudgingly sat down at a computer and helped me sort it out. As if I’d lost my number-crunching gift.

“Whatever, honey,” Kim said. “Not to worry.” She had taken up the habit of calling everyone honey or sweetie. I thought it was from living in Atlanta before she moved to Mexico.

That was the last time Kim had to say, “My treat.” After that, it was understood that almost everything we did was her treat. I held up my end feebly by purchasing fruit at the market, washing it, and stacking it artfully in a ceramic bowl on the kitchen counter.

That evening, before the walk on the beach, people had come to the door to be paid. At first I couldn’t make out who they were. But Kim’s voice altered when she talked with them. She was managerial, but kind.

Kim did not have to worry about being unemployed. She employed other people. A housekeeper, a gardener, a Mayan errand boy with industrial-looking metal braces on his teeth that Kim had paid for. He was a senior. Eventually he would go forth with a blazing smile and a high school diploma, the first person in his family to finish. And why didn’t I know about these people? How would she have told me? Oh, by the way, I have servants. People who do my bidding. Minions.

I pictured myself working for her. At a computer. Helping people make their dreams come true. Helping people blossom. All that crap. Wearing a nice outfit every day, even though Kim worked in yoga pants or pajamas. Her house was whitewashed, blocky, two stories, with five bedrooms. A view of the sea. And a cheerful kitchen paved in blue-and-yellow tiles. The garden ran amok with birds-of-paradise and hibiscus and palm trees. Kim had made her most recent pile of money as a motivational speaker. Now she did not even have to show up. She maintained a website and her clients paid to chat and ask her questions. She offered a Kim-style brew of astrology, creative visualization, and financial planning.

In the middle of the night, I’d pad barefooted across the clean tile floor to my own clean bathroom to pee. Because I could. Because I didn’t have to lie awake in my van, my bladder full as a water balloon, forcing myself to get up, get out. New-age music, lobotomy music, fluttered faintly twenty-four/seven. When I got back into the queen bed, I’d lie awake in the creature comfort of the bedding, the scents—clean cotton and curry or hot peppers from our evening meal. I’d think about what to keep on the down-low. The Jimmy Buffett concert. Sex with Alex two months before when I went to see him in California. I don’t know why I did that. Or why I wouldn’t want her to know. She had told me years ago that the thought of being physical with Alex gave her the heebie-jeebies. We did it on a vinyl couch in a maintenance building at the wind farm, with the turbine blades cutting through the batter of the wind. Our bodies did not work the way they once had. I just missed him. Missed having a man’s broad back to encircle with my arm at night. Then, there was that crush I had on Henry Gravitt when Kim and Alex were getting together. At the time I had some virtuous-sounding reason for not telling Alex. Rock bottom, I wanted to play the aggrieved party. That had been my take-away from six years of therapy.

Halfway through my visit, we got tarted up for blues night at the Chinese restaurant. We set out on foot, into the dusk. I did not want to think about money or talk about money or make money plans. But Kim loved to talk about money. Money and people from our jolly, sordid past. I would ask, What about Jumper? What about Sugar? What about Georgette? What about Sequoia? Kim was the keeper of newsy bits. Why didn’t I know what she knew? And worse, what did she tell them about me? At the plaza, girls in tight jeans rehearsed a dance routine for carnival. Music stirred the air: salsa and Mexican ballads. Tiny white lights hung in loops along the eaves of the Chinese restaurant. Right before we went inside, Kim leaned against me. In my ear she whispered a dig: “Lighten up.” I had to blink back tears.

Faux-paper lanterns gave off a copper glow on the back patio. It was packed. Vast steaming quantities of shrimp and noodles and broccoli lay before the diners. We settled at a round table, already sticky. You had to shout to talk. The amps outsized the space. She my sweet little thang. What would I do to lighten up by Kim’s standards? Dance by myself? Order two martinis? Get on my goo-goo eyes?

Kim invited a man in aviator glasses to join us. Right away she moved up front with a video camera to record the band for YouTube, leaving me with the man—Russell. The music was so loud—at first I had to read his lips. He scooched closer. I could smell his aftershave. He had a sun-scarred face, a long white ponytail, and a slightly southern accent. His voice sort of reached into me. I felt a lick of attraction. Just go with it, I thought. Russell held court, giving me a crash course on himself. Five years in the Air Force. Later, he had a high-tech job at a regional airport. Worked his way up through the union. Believed in unions, the people who brought you the weekend. He had returned from Cuba only the day before. In Cuba, men and women alike propositioned him every day. He said, “It’s the one thing Fidel cannot control.” I said, “And so?” He shook his head distastefully, but bragged about the salsa moves he had perfected. He seemed like a man for whom little had gone wrong. He was a talker and that was a relief. I did not have to tell him that the plates on my van would expire in three weeks and that I could not afford to renew them. No need to reveal the ins and outs of all that. No. To him, I was a fresh slate.

Kim darted back to the table. She pointed a finger at him like a pistol and said, “The last time I saw you was carnival—Merida.” So she knew him. I was the outlier, the extrana. For a while we volleyed, vied for his attention. In the caterwaul we told stories on ourselves. Tidy stories, familiar.

Russell went off to the men’s room. Kim was a wiggler in her seat when there was live music. Out of the blue she shouted, “You heard about Lindsay, of course.”

“Lindsay?” I shouted back. And that is when she told me Lindsay Gravitt had committed suicide at the farm by slitting her own throat.

Alex and I hadn’t been hippies or hedonists. We had regular jobs before we moved to the anarchist farm. I worked in my father’s drugstore. Alex worked at a water pump station. He understood watersheds and global warming and biologically active mud. He always knew what phase the moon was in. All of that was new to me and perplexing. Which is to say, I admired him for it, but I chafed under his constant instruction. Seasonally, he worked in an orchard that belonged to his Aunt Mina. This was in the hillocky southeast corner of Ohio, a few miles from a small town with one stoplight. Our rental house had architectural flourishes. There was a carport with white wrought iron supports that I thought were tacky until I lived at the farm with no shelter for my car.

My crush on Alex started when my mother thought I was too young to have a crush. Pre-puberty, at a time when I still played with dolls. We lived up the lane from Aunt Mina and I noticed him chugging by on the rusted-out tractor. I noticed his tanned arms, the rakish tilt of his baseball cap. Now I think about how inexplicable lust is. Alex has a short forehead with a little dent in the middle. He was going bald, even then.

Once they turned fourteen, girls worked in the orchard after school and on the weekend—picking ginger golds and winesaps. Alex advised his aunt to hire girls. They didn’t goof off the way boys did. At lunch he’d sit amid them, under an apple tree, passing around ice water and homemade brownies and whatever else the girls had baked the night before. He would sprawl there, legs wide, grinning.

I pined after him. When my time came, I worked my tail off. We flirted. We made out in the barn. When I graduated from high school, we were married at the Catholic Church in town. I had to promise I would raise our children Catholic. That was fine. After the wedding, nothing mattered but getting Alex into that hotel room in downtown Cincy and finally going all the way. We had done everything but. It did not disappoint me. I fantasized the other girls hovering on the periphery, their envy. I was that young.

Being married felt sweet, ordinary. We established that ordinariness. But it turned out Alex had dreams he hadn’t told anyone. It was as if being married gave him access to them. He wanted to change the way things were headed. He fretted about energy and overpopulation. “Bonnie, Bonnie, Bonnie,” he’d say, “the world’s a mess.” Whenever Alex hunched at the supper table, telling me his worries, I had to concentrate hard to understand it all. He was educating me, but it wasn’t an education I’d chosen. Now that I’ve sampled college courses like a smorgasbord for years, I’m wise to that.

On Saturdays when Alex worked the orchard, I would keep Aunt Mina company, shelling peas or cutting quilt pieces. Alex said he didn’t want me to have to work in the orchard. I would drift to the window, tuck back the curtain, and watch the girls arriving on their bicycles. I wished I were among them. Barely eighteen, I had crossed over to another realm. I noted their short-shorts, which ones had dimpled thighs already, which ones were busty.

Aunt Mina and my mother were different. Visiting Aunt Mina you took a few steps back in time. She wears a sunbonnet, for crissakes, Alex would say. Like a frontier gal. She dated—men in town liked her. There was a fireman, a mortician. After I had begun junior high, my mother had gone for her real estate license and her first plastic surgery. A bitter, angular woman, every day she wore high heeled shoes that tortured her feet.

Now when I have reason to talk about those years at the anarchist peace farm, I say, “We moved out to the country. I wanted to be like Aunt Mina. Generous. Earthy. Not like my mother.” I keep it vague. The details get plowed under—sending away for the magazine about intentional communities, composing the hand-written letters to apply, receiving enticing letters and photographs back, all of it taking months, and then the big yard sale at which we divested ourselves of electric appliances and frivolous items we’d been given as wedding presents, the trek across the country in a VW bus when gas was only fifty cents a gallon, the shock of driving down into the canyon, the mind-altering substances (marijuana, home-brew, LSD, magic mushrooms, you name it), the drama of living with thirty-seven other people.

Aunt Mina would never have done the things I did at the farm.

Aunt Mina would never in a million years have stood naked under an outdoor shower while a friendly neighbor man called out, “Must be jelly ‘cause jam don’t shake like that.”

Alex and I had been married almost five years. It was a different time. People didn’t move around like crazy. At first my mother was put-out. Then grief set in. Her only daughter was moving to the western edge of the continent. We were not caught up in the romance of a back-to-the-land life: growing organic food and making do. The big thing, the really big thing, I told my mother as she dabbed tears away with a handful of tissues, was that Alex had all these ideas about inventions that would save the world. His A.A. degree was in wastewater treatment. He had a shed full of pipes and wrenches and diagrams. He wanted to build a methane generator so that when you shit—went to the bathroom, I said to my mother—the gasses would in a twinkling make electricity to run your small appliances. The very appliances we had sold at the yard sale. This was in 1973.

Our cabin—built of scavenged lumber and bricks—was a $500 bargain. The boy who built it used the money to finance a trip to the Andes to apprentice himself to a sorcerer. There was a rule at the farm that you could not sell your home for any more than the cost of the materials. I decided I was a quilter, even though I’d never done more than cut neat stacks of diamonds and rectangles for Aunt Mina. I ground organic wheat and baked bread. I bartered this and that. I got a part-time job at a drugstore. All for Alex and his methane generator dreams.

I had a secret.

Alex was a natural-born flirt and I was sick with jealousy nearly every day we were together. I grew accustomed to it, like a sore that won’t heal. The new normal, someone on TV might say today. After I married Alex, jealousy was the new normal.

What we never discussed before the move to the farm was the lure of free love. We knew about it, but I couldn’t think the phrase without what my therapist called protective irony. After five years, my fantasies of my high school friends watching me have sex with Alex had faded. I was only twenty-three. Sometimes at night, the fire banked, the kerosene lamp a sheen by which to read or sew, satisfaction was unavoidable. Then lickety-split I’d wonder, “Is this all there is?” If Alex were in the shop working, I might put on several layers of winter clothing and trudge through the squeaky snow to a neighbor’s house. We would stay up half the night talking. It might seem unnecessary to reverse the process and walk home. I might sleep on that neighbor’s sofa. Sleeping over made me feel like a girl again. I wanted something: I wanted to crave something.

Henry Gravitt and his sister Lindsay drove down into the canyon in a truck from the fifties painted the color of limes. A home paint-job. It was summer when they arrived, full of plans and enthusiasm. They had cash from Lindsay’s divorce. Henry had been in school, a poet. He wore a suit—linen pants and a double-breasted jacket he said he had paid a Thai tailor to make custom. It was ratty from traveling, but elegant. His hair was blond. It fell fetchingly across his forehead. He had that gene—now I know there is a gene for it—that enabled him to pick up on the needs of others. A communicator. He might have made a good politician, but he was an anarchist-poet. Lindsay did not seem right, even then. They moved into a hogan not far from our cabin.

I did not believe in love at first sight until Henry. My crush on Alex had developed over time, like a sickness that can’t be diagnosed right away. When Henry got out of the lime-green truck, near the mailbox on the main road, I clutched a handful of mail and was about to head back to my cabin. I had an outdoor fire going. I was canning cherries in the front yard. My clothes and hands and face were sticky with cherry juice, my hair matted with it. My baggy shorts and T-shirt stained like pale rosy continents on a map. I longed for a shower or a dip in the creek.

Tickled, self-congratulatory, Henry said, “We have arrived.”

When I heard his voice, I felt as if I’d had a brain transplant. Calmly, I said, “Welcome.” But I wanted to reach out and touch him. Jump his bones, as we used to say.

Then Lindsay got out of the truck. Amazonian, in a sundress and delicate sandals. Her face and arms slightly sunburned, her nose peeling. The sundress was printed with tiny sprigs of mint. Lindsay laughed. She threw her arms up toward the canyon walls. Her armpits had been recently shaved. Ditto, her legs. She said, “So this is it. End of the road.” That was probably the last time I heard Lindsay laugh. That very day her mood turned upside down. They did not have running water. She would be hauling water in two-gallon white buckets until an overland gravity-fed system of PVC pipes might be installed.

The sun beat down malevolently—it was in the nineties, July. But we stood there. I fanned myself with a seed catalog. Flies zeroed in on me, keen on the cherry juice. Henry and Lindsay had, through the mail, purchased the hogan, within a creaking windbreak of Doug firs, up a ravine. They had driven from a suburb of Chicago in three days. A veneer of suburbia was evident on Lindsay—clean, neat, shaven. Henry, too, had shaved. Lindsay’s toenails were polished pink.

I craved Henry. I wept at night for want of him.

It seemed as if Alex did not notice. I taught Henry and Lindsay what they needed to know to survive. How to start a fire in their wood cookstove. How to brew and bottle beer. How to dry fruit on screen doors laid flat over sawhorses. Whenever I came within a few feet of Henry, my body buzzed. He educated me, as well. He sometimes carried a sweat-stained book of poems in the back pocket of his work pants. I asked to borrow the books and Henry took to reciting poems whenever we worked together. For a long time after, at the library I would cruise the 811s.

There was a cow co-op, six families with one cow—Bessie. I urged Henry to join. I volunteered to work side by side with him in the barn. How I trembled as I went out into the still-dark summer morning to join Henry down the lane for dairy duty. He would recite “Fern Hill” as we worked. At Bessie’s teats, my fingers brushed his.

Lindsay Gravitt was troubled. She loved more than anything a trip to the dump. There, wearing high rubber boots to protect herself from rats, she would forage for discarded makeup and skin products—nail polish, powder, lotions, and mascara. These she organized on shelves in her kitchen. You had to be careful—she might insist on giving you a makeover. Nudity we were used to. There were nude volleyball games and sauna parties. But Lindsay might be discovered wandering the main road at night, dressed only in combat boots. If she found a dead animal—a blue jay or a snake—she’d bring it home and let it dry in the crook of a cottonwood tree. In her garden she grew an overabundance of herbs but few root veggies, what you really needed to get through the winter. She had a pet rooster named Kerouac who terrorized anyone who ventured past a certain point on the path to the hogan. Still, she was charming. She always came bearing muffins she’d baked or a bundle of fresh lemongrass. In the wan oily light of a kerosene lamp, she would unfold a paisley scarf and read your Tarot cards, her voice husky and patient.

While I nursed my crush on Henry, Alex and Kim were hell bent on what they called ending the tyranny of marriage and inclusiveness and openness. That is, they wanted to have sex in the parsnip patch. They wanted to have sex in our bed. And why didn’t I go for Henry, I wonder even now? Tit for tat? Or, as some people might have thought, Why not give Alex a dose of his own medicine?

One day Lindsay found an airtight blue plastic drum at the dump. She donated it to Alex’s project. I saw her going into the shop and I saw her coming out, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand. She looked like a woman who had gone to a movie in the middle of the day and emerged from the theatre having forgotten that it was daytime. As if she’d been somewhere. She wore only a cotton petticoat, one strap falling off her shoulder. She picked her way down the path to my front porch. I went out to the porch, drying my hands on a dishtowel. I was pregnant with Willow by then, my belly big under Alex’s bowling shirt left over from Ohio. Up close there was something pathetic about Lindsay. She did not bathe well. One side of her neck was gray, like a paw print. She had stopped polishing her toenails. Still, she was undeniably beautiful.

She stood her ground in front of my porch, in the pine duff.

“How’s every little thing?” I said.

“He’s attracted to me,” she said.

A crackle of irritation and jealousy lit me up. “Get out of here, Lindsay,” I said. “Just go.”

And she did. She turned tail and went. Shooed away like a stray dog.

At the end of blues night, after too much Argentine wine, Russell put a hand possessively on the back of Kim’s neck. She tilted her head toward him. Wattle, wattle, I thought, noticing hers for the first time. The sound of the word in my mind almost made me laugh. I had a key to the house. I said, “Bon voyage. I’ll catch a taxi.” Kim made a fuss over me and Russell stood by, waiting.

At the house, I attempted to sober up with two aspirin and a glass of orange juice. I checked my email. I went to the farm’s website and tried to recognize the faces of the picnickers gathered under a maple tree. I remembered that tree. The sofa seemed like a good place to wait for Kim, a cushiony nap-friendly sofa. The sea swish-swished, but remorse about Lindsay would not let me fall asleep.

Hours later, Kim tiptoed in. I sat up alert, with a killer headache and questions. She put a kettle on to make tea. I knew that moment from the farm, that turn in the road where you decide to stay up all night or as long as it takes.

Jumper, a longtime farm resident, had emailed the news to Kim. Jumper had said that the blood—pints and pints of it—seeped into the mattress, a darkening stain by the time they found her. It was all over the place, on the wall, the floor. He did not know why she chose that house, that bed. The man whose goats she was supposed to tend was a quiet, asexual guy who grew fields of garlic and built birdhouses to sell in the city. The goats bleated from the pain of not being milked. That’s why she was found when she was. There was an open book facedown on the bed, a Norwegian novel titled Kristin Lavransdatter. The sheriff had to come, and that had happened very seldom. They avoided turning to the authorities when things went wrong.

And things had gone wrong. There had been truck accidents, houses burned down. There had been thievery. And domestic violence. Once a baby had died. But this took the cake, Kim said. Why would she? In her fifties, when life tends to get better. Speak for yourself, I said, and she laughed.

I said, “What did I care if she’d slept with Alex? It might have made a difference to her.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Sexual healing. All that jazz.”

Kim leaned closer, her voice an incredulous warble. “Lindsay wanted to sleep with Alex?”

I had a little bauble she coveted, a story impinging on her story. “I told her to get lost,” I said.

“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she said. Her stock advice.

I had not thought about Lindsay Gravitt in years.

Later that night I asked Kim if she had a job for me. She said she’d been thinking about it.

It was nearly daybreak. She went first, up the outdoor stairway at the abandoned house, reaching back for my hand. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, I sang to myself. Her hand was soft, lotioned. Wind knocked a lawn chair over on the patio down below. Weeds grew a foot tall out of the cracks in the cement. She let go of my hand and struggled with the key. When she opened the door it smelled bad inside. A dead animal and maybe mildew. We went in. She switched on the overhead light. The mattress was stained. I didn’t want to think with what. A cracked sliding glass door led to a smidge of balcony. One blade of the ceiling fan had snapped off. CDs without cases lay strewn around the room. I wanted to check out the CDs but stooping to pick them up would have looked too much like trash picking. “You can see the water from here,” she said. Another saving grace was the bathroom, with a walk-in shower and a ceramic sink painted with birds. Out the side window, in shadow, a boy and girl lay half-dressed on the rooftop next door. They curled tenderly on a blanket beside a satellite dish. It made me melancholy, and then cross, to think of how far I was from passion. Cross because I didn’t want to care about that.

“A fixer-upper,” I said.

“Can’t you see it?” she said. “A boutique hotel. Only eight rooms.”

“I can see it.”

All business, Kim went around the room straightening the fake art, pictures of Mayan ruins and seashells. Later, she would toss them out in the rubbish. Her back to me, she said, “I want to get it renovated—off the runway—by the end of hurricane season.”

Palm trees whipped against the balcony railing. I went into the bathroom, on the pretense of examining its features. A frisky lizard the size of my thumb dashed into the shower.

“You can live here,” she said. “I need someone to supervise the job—start to finish.”

“What about your place?”

“Oh, Bonnie, honey, my astrologer tells me I’m meant to live alone.”

Her astrologer told her that her mother was a porcupine in another life. Her astrologer told her to move to Mexico. Her astrologer told her to offer me a job.

A front was called for. What was one more front? I missed my van, my autonomy, such as it was. The empty, dilapidated campus I thought of as my own estate. I missed the lonely security cop who would tell me to keep an eye on things while he scurried on foot across the state highway to Mary Lou’s Doughnuts. He’d bring us back warm apple fritters and coffee as thin as green bean juice.

I said, “First things first—I’ll need a curtain.”

“We can go to Costco and get whatever you need.”

I said, “What a generous offer.” For now, it’ll do for now. Who knew where it would lead? Out on the balcony, a skinny white cat stretched, arching her back, just waking up. “I need a cat,” I said.

“And a cat you shall have,” Kim said, as if she had produced the cat from up her sleeve.

She smiled, a crafty, self-satisfied grin. I recognized it. Once I’d come upon her and Alex tucked into the outdoor bathtub, soaking in hot water. Their bodies striped with moonlight. He did not see me, but she did. She closed her eyes and pretended otherwise. She straddled Alex, giggling, as he held her hips and entered her. It was the same grin. The better-than-you-grin.

Engine Books will publish Patricia Henley’s fourth collection of stories—Other Heartbreaks—in October 2011. Her published work includes two chapbooks of poetry, three collections of stories, two novels, and numerous essays. This is her 25th year teaching in the MFA Program at Purdue University.

Featured photo of Mexican landscape by Eduardo Herrera.

Back to Freight Stories No. 7


Patricia Henley