When Marie saw the small house, nestled almost invisibly among weedy hills and sycamores, she thought, jackpot. She thought, heaven.
Hell, she thought, I could live and die here.
Of course, all she said to the McGregors was, “It’ll do.”
The McGregors owned the property and lived in the large house next door – though next door was a relative term; the main house was at least 100 yards away. Through the trees all Marie could see of it was a patch of pale blue siding – which, in the right mood, she could easily pretend was part of the sky.
The right mood was not uncommon lately. It often involved gin. Marie was careful not to put the empties in the recycling bin. She didn’t wish to give the McGregors the wrong idea.
Luckily they hadn’t asked her to fill out one of those renter-information packets, or done a credit check. They’d been satisfied with her offer to pay the first six months in advance.
As soon as Marie signed the lease, she felt a weight lifted from her heart. Maybe this lightness had something to do with the land and the trees, which reminded her of the estate she’d grown up on, across the valley, in the Rincons.
Not that she’d been particularly happy there – but it was childhood and so, at a certain age, revered. And certainly it hadn’t been terrible. Her parents had been decent people – though they’d had their edges, their sorrows. Their moods had oppressed her as a child, but now she saw it as a good sign, a sign that perhaps they’d wanted more than what they’d had. When they died five years ago on the highway, it had been their first trip out of Tucson in 20 years. They were going to Apache County to see the ruins, but made it only as far as Pinetop. A sleep-deprived trucker carrying a load of frozen fruit had swerved and toppled.
“Blueberries everywhere,” one witness had said.
The caskets had been closed.
The first month at the rental, Marie slept better than she had in a while. It was quiet, and the McGregors kept their distance. She’d told them she was a writer; she needed her privacy. The lie had come out of her with such ease that she wondered if maybe she should write a book. Now that she’d stopped dating, she could do with a new hobby.
Mostly she read – and when she got up to look out the large front window, it was nice to occasionally see the animals. The McGregors had four piebald cows and a scattering of Buckeye chickens. Before renting the place, Marie had been asked if it was all right if the animals grazed, as they always had, on the entire property. Not at all, she’d said – let them roam.
Of course, she hadn’t considered the shit – which, for weeks now, had been accumulating on what she thought of as her part of the land, though there was no fence to mark such distinctions. More than once, Marie had been wandering about the hills, musing on something she’d read, only to land disastrously in some fresh excretion.
In addition to the shit, she hadn’t thought about children. One afternoon a girl appeared – a preschoolish type called Lacy, who, in violation of her name, was indelicate and wild, chunky, and most disturbingly, a shouter.
All in all, though, it wasn’t really a crisis – more of a nuisance. Neither the animals nor the girl ever came right up to the house. Still, after Marie had been there nearly three months, she wondered if she might talk to the McGregors about the possibility of a fence. She’d even be willing to share the cost.
Despite the problems, she was settling in nicely here. What she’d felt on first seeing the place – that this was somewhere she might stay awhile – she felt still.
Plus, it wasn’t easy to find furnished rentals in Tucson. All Marie carried now were three suitcases, and she had no intention of acquiring anything else. Other people’s beds and dressers suited her just fine.
When her parents died, Marie had been living in Phoenix – had been living there for nearly 12 years. That former life seemed a blur now: a job at an art gallery, a two-storey townhouse, a tall man with a beard who’d stayed with her most nights and who she’d assumed she’d eventually marry.
After the accident, though, she’d come to Tucson to attend to her parents’ affairs, taking a leave from the gallery and telling the man that she’d be back in a few weeks.
She stayed for six months – the whole time in her parents’ house, the house of her childhood, the house that she, as sole heir, had inherited. Her mother’s dog was still around, a chocolate Lab, old and infirm now. It pained Marie to watch him limp and collapse, often at her feet, looking up as if there was something she could do. When the vet said it might be time, Marie didn’t hesitate: she put the dog to sleep.
It’d been the last bit of business. Still, she’d stayed on at the old place, sorting through her parents’ stuff. They’d been hoarders of a sort. The nights she spent alone in the house, she often felt sick. It might have been her diet (green apples and cans of sardines). More likely it was the exhaustion of grief.
Slowly, she’d got rid of almost everything. Every piece of furniture, all her mother’s jewellery, her father’s collection of Western art. She even sold the most valuable paintings – the small Dixon of a crazy sky chockablock with clouds, and the good-sized Blumenschein of a stoic Navaho draped in bright blankets and gesturing like some Martha Graham princess.
As a child, she’d loved the paintings, hanging in every room like an extra window: desert landscapes of muted colours, as if recalled from a dream; horses and riders kicking up dust under blue moonbeams. She’d stood before these paintings with her father, who’d explained how they preserved a history of light, how the light was different back then, before the cities were built. Romantic, surely, he’d said, but important, historical. Marie had wanted to live in that light; imagined that she’d become a painter one day.
Why had she told the McGregors she was a writer? Only now did she see that she could have offered a much more truthful lie.
For a while she completely forgot about the idea of a fence. But then summer came and the girl had friends and the animals had flies that were always getting into the house. She walked over to the McGregors’ with some apple cookies.
A boy answered the door. Older than the girl, probably around 14.
“Are your parents home?”
The boy stared dully, as if woken from a nap. “They’re at work.”
Marie glanced at her watch; it was nearly six. “Long day, huh?”
The boy grimaced. He seemed a bit slow.
“I’m the renter. Next door,” she said, in case he wasn’t up to speed.
“I know. I seen you.”
Marie smiled. She’d put the cookies on a ceramic platter; it was a bit heavy.
“You don’t work?” the boy said.
“No,” replied Marie. “May I give you this?”
“What is it?”
A piece of cow shit, she wanted to say. “Cookies,” she told him. “I made cookies.”
“Oh.” He immediately took them and peeled back the tinfoil. “Can I eat one?”
“That is their purpose.”
He took a bite, said it was pretty good.
Marie chucked up another smile. “Maybe I could wait until your folks get home?”
The boy nodded, backed away from the door.
The house was a mess. When Marie walked in, she stepped on what might have been a piece of breakfast cereal. Open textbooks were scattered across a coffee table.
“Doing your homework?”
The boy was as blank as the walls, which contained no decoration whatsoever. No mirrors or shelves of knickknacks, no paintings. The furnishings were a mishmash, and badly arranged. It all seemed very provisional.
Maybe they’d bought the house only recently. Marie realised she knew nothing about the family.
“Have you lived here a long time?”
“Forever,” the boy said. He was on his second cookie.
The house was hot, and Marie untwirled the silk scarf from around her neck.
“So, are you, like, rich?” the boy asked.
What a question, thought Marie. She was renting a shoebox from this idiot’s parents.
“Yes,” she said. “I’m loaded.”
The kid nodded, munched. He was liable to finish the whole plate before his parents got home, lessening the effect of the gesture. She couldn’t begin a conversation about a fence with a present of crumbs.
“You know what? I think I’ll come back another time. Maybe save some cookies for your sister?” suggested Marie.
The boy stopped mid-chew. “Oh, I thought… Sorry.”
No.” Marie blushed. “Eat as many as you like. I can bring more.”
The boy said he liked chocolate-chip best, and second-best, oatmeal.
“Yes, well, we’ll see. No promises.” She paused at the door. “You know, there’s a lot of poop outside my house.”
“The cows,” the boy said unhelpfully. “We got it, too.”
“I would imagine so. I was just wondering if maybe someone could scoop it.”
“Don’t need to be scooped. It’s good for it to stay there.”
“Good for what?”
“I don’t know. For like the grass and stuff, I guess. I’ll tell my dad.”
“Uh-huh,” the boy mumbled, turning back to his books.
Marie watched him. Terrible posture, a paper-thin tee stretched over the bow of his spine.
He looked up. “You know, my grandmother was supposed to live there, where you’re living. But then she died.”
Marie adjusted her scarf. “Well, that’s… were you close to her?”
“Nah. She wasn’t from around here. Plus, she was pretty old. She had to put, like, oxygen on her face and everything.”
Marie widened her eyes. “Wow.”
“I know,” said the boy.
“Well, I’ll be going,” said Marie. “No need to tell your parents I was here.”
“Should I tell them about the cow shit?”
Marie glanced at the dirty carpet and said it wasn’t necessary, she’d give his mother a ring.
On the way back, she wanted to scream.
Grandma’s house? And here she was, baking cookies for these people. When they should be attending to her needs.
It was nearly sunset when Marie stepped onto her porch. She checked her shoes for muck before entering the house and then made some lemonade.
It wasn’t exactly lemonade, but that’s what she called it, should anyone ask. She put it in a thermos and grabbed the car keys. She needed to be outside, closer to the mountains. The mountains always put things in perspective for her – made the smallness, the crushability of humans, seem valid.
At Sanctuary Cove, Marie kicked at some agate shards and wondered who was living in her townhouse. She’d never met the new owners. After selling her parents’ home, she’d put the Phoenix place on the market. She’d done well on both. Add to that the paintings, the jewellery, the insurance payouts – yes, she was what that stupid McGregor boy would call rich. She should show him the suitcase one day, blow his dimwit mind.
Honestly, though, it was a burden. Most people had no idea how much a suitcase stuffed with cash weighed.
Her head hurt quite a bit. Every morning it was like this.
It was midsummer now, and the temperature was steadfastly in the hundreds. The little house had peppy AC, though, and so other than runs to the grocery store Marie stayed inside. Her books came by post. She was rereading the Russians. The text, though, was ridiculously small, and since it hurt her pride to wear reading glasses, she ordered some large-print editions. Anna Karenina alone arrived in five volumes and was nearly 2,000 pages. Reading it was a revelation – the oversized text making the book seem like a story for children, and for this reason all the more shocking. The sentences practically slapped you in the face, welcomed you afresh to the world of humans. The letters no longer ants, but ladybugs – the Os large enough to catch Marie’s tears.
One morning, she woke to the McGregor boy knocking on her window. She pulled up the sheets in case she was naked.
“I’ll come around the front,” he shouted.
When she opened the door, the boy said he was here for the pies.
“I haven’t made any,” said Marie.
“No, I mean, I just thought I’d pick them up,” he persisted.
Marie felt slightly dizzy. She asked the boy what the hell he was talking about.
“The cow shit,” he said. “I brought a bucket.” He held it up.
“I don’t think one bucket’s going to cut it.”
The boy said it would if he smashed it down.
Marie nodded – and though she had no more to say, she lingered at the door.
The boy looked down and coughed. “Well, I better get started before it hots up.”
She watched him from the window.
Sometimes he didn’t scoop the shit, but only crushed it with his foot and then mashed the dry bits into the earth. His boots were as big as a man’s, and though he was skinny, he had a man’s seriousness.
When he saw Marie staring at him from the window, he waved. Marie backed away and faded into the house.
I’ll give him a tip, she thought.
Though perhaps it was better to give him nothing. He was doing no more than basic upkeep, which was the owner’s responsibility.
Marie shut the curtains and lay on the couch. Volume two of Anna Karenina, a fat paperback, curled on the coffee table. She fetched it, and despite the dimness of the closed-up room, didn’t bother to turn on a lamp. Another good thing about these large-print books was that you could practically read them in the dark – which, as far as Marie was concerned, was the perfect way to read Tolstoy.
When the knock came, she refused to get up. “All done?” she shouted.
“Yup!” came the reply.
“Thank you!” chirped Marie – and when she didn’t hear his boots moving away, she sighed and checked her pockets for cash. “One second!”
His face was flushed and his shoulders pink. “I got most of it, I think.”
Marie had the money in her closed fist. It was to be a gift and not an obligation. She waited to get a reading on the boy’s greed. She could smell his boots. He seemed reluctant to speak.
“Yes?” said Marie.
“Yeah, I was just, uh… I was supposed to ask if maybe you wanted to come over for dinner sometime.”
Marie was speechless.
“My mom said you could come on Friday or Saturday.”
“This week won’t work,” said Marie. “But tell your mother thank you.”
“Sure. My dad already told her you wouldn’t come.”
When Marie said she was sorry, the boy shrugged. “I wouldn’t go either, if they invited me.”
Marie wasn’t sure what to do with this information, but decided to defuse the confession with wit. “But you have to go,” she said. “You are their prisoner.”
The boy laughed and said he sure was.
And then he told her his name was Harland.
“Well, Harland, maybe you’d like to come by in a week or so and clean up again.”
“I could, yes. If you want.”
“I do.” Marie extended her hand and opened her fist. It felt perverse, giving the kid a hundred-dollar bill – but it felt wonderful, too.
“Oh,” said Harland. “I don’t – I don’t have any change.”
“I don’t want change,” said Marie. “You worked hard.”
He was still staring at the bill as she shut the door.
The next time he came, there was little to do. After he scooped the pies, he gathered some dead brush, then scattered grass seeds on a balding hill.
Marie sat on the porch, reading.
“Do you always carry seeds in your pocket?” she asked him.
“Not to school,” he said. “But around here it comes in handy.”
He was charmingly literal. If Marie was ever sarcastic or unkind, it seemed to go right over the boy’s head. She found it best to keep things simple, though this was surprisingly hard. Simplicity was a kind of honesty, and Marie was out of practice.
“Would you like something to drink, Harland?”
“No, thank you,” he said – and then: “Well, what are you drinking?”
“Oh, this is just…” Marie made a discouraging face. “This is just lemonade.”
When Harland said he’d take some of that, Marie said she’d just poured the last of it.
“How about some milk?”
“Milk’s good,” he said. “If it’s cold.”
He removed his boots at the door and came inside wearing grubby sweat socks. The way he kept one foot atop the other, Marie suspected he was hiding a hole.
“Would you like to sit down? Cool off?”
He shook his head. “I need to do some things for my dad.”
She handed him a glass of milk and a brownie, which he ate quickly, nodding in approval.
Marie had the money in her pocket, but she waited.
As the boy chewed, he looked around the room.
“You sure got a lot of books.”
“Passes the time.”
“I guess,” said Harland. “Do you use that chair?” He pointed toward the plaid-upholstered La-Z-Boy.
Marie said, yes, sometimes she did.
“That used to be my chair. I used to come over here all the time before you moved in. After my dad built it for my grandma, there was, like, almost a year before you showed up. So it was kinda my house for a while.”
He walked over to the chair. “You see all these cuts?”
“I was wondering about those.” The arms were covered with gashes, inside of which you could see the white stuffing.
“I made them,” said Harland.
He nodded and sat down. “With my pocketknife.”
He didn’t say anything after that – only caressed the distressed fabric and stared at the wall with slightly raised eyes. Marie was tempted to grab her sketchpad in an attempt to capture what she was seeing, which seemed to be a face of exquisite beauty. Something about the tightly locked brow gave the impression of an animal preparing to pounce. It was some time before she realised that the boy was crying.
“I’m not,” he said before Marie had uttered a word. “I just got some of that shit in my eyes.”
Marie pretended to believe him and turned away to pour herself more lemonade. She took a few swigs before speaking. “I haven’t seen your sister in a while.”
“Yeah, she was in some trouble,” grumbled Harland. “She broke something.”
Marie asked if it was something valuable, and Harland said he guessed so, it was her ankle. “Cast came off last week, but now she has to go to, like, resuscitation.”
“You mean, rehabilitation?”
“Something like that. I ain’t got the greatest memory.”
“You also have terrible grammar,” said Marie. “We really should work on that.”
When she sat on the couch – nearly a stumble – she saw that he’d pulled some of the stuffing from one of the gashes on the armchair. It looked like a tiny puff of smoke.
“I have to go,” said Harland.
As he stood, she pushed the money into his hand.
He quickly checked the amount – and this time he didn’t bring up the matter of change. “All right then. See ya.”
He didn’t come the next week. Marie, expecting him, had made gingerbread. She’d also stitched up the armchair with a sewing kit she’d found in one of the drawers.
Possibly she’d been overzealous, though, and put in too many stitches. The chair looked sort of gruesome now.
“I had to operate,” she’d tell Harland. “But the prognosis is good.”
It was strange, then, when he finally showed up two weeks later with a gash across his forehead. For a moment Marie was confused, as if Harland’s injury were somehow connected to the chair. The boy’s cut was crudely mended with tiny adhesive bandages.
“Are you okay?”
“What?” he said – and when she pointed to his head, he told her it was nothing, it was old.
“You didn’t have it the last time I saw you.”
“Maybe you didn’t notice.”
“I would have noticed.”
Harland rolled his eyes – and when Marie asked him what did that mean, he said,
“Nothing. You were just a little…”
“A little what?”
“Listen, why don’t you just tell me what you want me to do today – cause I won’t have a lot of time now that school’s starting up.”
Marie took a step back, in case he could smell her breath. “Well, maybe you should do a little pickup outside and then…” She glanced out the window, looking for her train of thought. “You know, I still want you to come by when you have school. I can help you.”
“Help me with what?”
“I don’t know. English.”
“I’m past help,” said Harland. “I failed like three things last year.” He squinted toward the hills. “I better go get started out there.”
“Why bother? Just come in and have something to eat.”
“Nah. If I don’t do any work –”
“Don’t worry,” slurred Marie. “I’ll pay you anyway.”
“Well, we’ll have to negotiate. Maybe you can read to me.”
“Are you kidding?” said Harland.
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
“You look like you need to sit down.” He took her arm and led her to the couch.
The weather was finally cooler. When Harland came over now, he was usually dressed in a flannel shirt. The cut on his head had healed, and though other bruises appeared now and then, he never offered explanations, and Marie didn’t pry. She simply let him know that he was welcome to visit whenever he liked.
They were still on part one of Anna Karenina. Harland had tried to squirm out of it at first, but Marie had insisted. “Reading it will improve you.”
“Do I need improvement?”
“I hate to tell you this, Harland, but we all do. It’s our life’s work.”
Sometimes, when she said things like this, he took away her lemonade and poured her a glass of milk.
“I just don’t understand why I have to read it out loud.”
“That way, you’ll never forget. The words will stick.”
Marie often closed her eyes to listen to his nervous, halting voice – a harsh fiddle playing a waltz. She could picture him swaying on a tightrope, crossing the abyss of all he didn’t know. Of course, the person up there in danger might have been her. She’d gotten so used to her loneliness, she didn’t want to fall from it now. Sometimes she corrected Harland’s pronunciation or explained a word he was unfamiliar with. Calumny, epaulet, samovar.
When he went home, she often felt sad. She knew she was probably confusing things, thinking about something old, something that had nothing to do with the boy, but she chose not to examine this too deeply. Why tarnish with psychology something so simple and pure? A pureness perhaps slightly muddied already by the fact that she continued to give the boy, at the end of every visit, a hundred-dollar bill.
One morning, she opened one of her suitcases and took out the small Higgins she’d kept. The frame was long gone, and the canvas was wrapped tightly with two summer dresses. She released it from its swaddling and hung it in the living room, near the La-Z-Boy.
It was different from the ones she’d sold. This one was a simple painting of hills, very modest, almost abstract. It didn’t attempt to tell a story. It was all about the light.
Harland, she hoped, would like it.
The next week, of course, he didn’t come. But on a Wednesday morning Mrs McGregor did. The small talk (good morning, how are you, that rain!) lasted all of 30 seconds before the woman got to it.
“I’m really not sure what’s going on over here, but I sure as hell hope we won’t need to call the police.”
“The police?” said Marie. “Why would you call the police?”
“You tell me,” said Mrs McGregor.
Marie asked the woman if she’d like to come inside.
“What I’d like is to know what you and Harland are up to.”
“We’re just – please, why don’t you come inside?”
When Mrs McGregor stepped warily into the cottage, Marie gestured toward the books. “Harland and I have been doing some reading.”
Marie realised how ridiculous this sounded, so she added: “Plus, we eat. You know, he has a big appetite, and it turns out I’m quite a good baker.”
“And what is this?” The woman pulled the hundreds from her pocket – snapped the fan of bills like a flamenco dancer.
“It’s just a tip. A gift. He does some work outside and –”
“This is a pretty big tip for picking up cow shit.”
“Well, he does other things. I mean, he… honestly, there’s nothing unwholesome going on.”
“And where do you get this kind of money, no job or nothing? Because if there’s anything illegal happening over here –”
“There’s not. I swear.”
Mrs McGregor snorted. “Don’t matter anyway, cause your six months is up.”
“Yes,” said Marie. “I realise that. I was actually going to suggest paying another six in advance.”
“No. You keep your money.”
“I can pay you right now,” said Marie. “In cash.”
Mrs McGregor suddenly looked exhausted. “What are you even doing here, person like you?”
“I’m – I like it here. If you want, I’d be willing to pay a full year upfront.”
“Why would you do that? See now, that just makes me think there’s something seriously wrong with you, lady.”
“Please,” said Marie. “I’d really like to stay. Harland and I are just friends.”
“The boy is 15.”
“Well, what does that mean? You and I are probably around the same age. Aren’t you friends with him?”
“No, I’m not friends with him. He’s my fucking son. We’ll give you a week to get yourself packed.”
Marie started to shake. “Okay, just let me – can we just talk about this?”
“No, we can’t,” said Mrs McGregor.
Outside the open door, rain began to fall. The smell of creosote flooded the house. Marie crossed the room and sunk into Harland’s chair. She looked at the Higgins – the hazy hills, the blurred light. When she stood again, she was shaking even more.
“You evict me and I’ll report you.”
“Yes. You and your husband.”
“As I said, Harland and I are friends.”
“And what does he tell you? Cause he’s a liar, too.”
“How’s the little girl?” asked Marie. “How’s her ankle?”
The woman’s face turned a stunning shade of red.
“Do you think I can’t hear you over there?” continued Marie.
When Mrs McGregor clenched her fists, Marie backed away.
The woman didn’t move, though. Her eyes filled with tears. “That’s not your business.”
As they looked at each other, Marie could feel her own shame push against Mrs McGregor’s, the force as real, as implacable, as opposing magnets.
It seemed a defiance of some physical law when Marie found herself touching the woman’s arm.
“Please. I’m not doing anything to harm your son.”
“You better not be, lady.” Mrs McGregor pulled her arm away. “Cause he’s got enough of that already.”
In the silence that followed, a cow lowed. Both women looked at the floor.
“He’s safe over here,” said Marie.
“So you say.” Mrs McGregor kept her eyes down. “If we didn’t need the cash, you’d be out on your ass.”
“I can drop it by tomorrow,” said Marie.
“Rent’ll probably be going up.”
“Probably a hundred more a month.”
The woman made a terrible sound, a defeated laugh, then put Harland’s money in her pocket.
After she left, Marie couldn’t breathe. And when she could, there was still the stench of creosote. She’d known that smell her whole life, had probably first smelled it from inside her mother’s womb. It was the scent of Tucson – tarry, dank, a bitter cloy of chocolate. Once, as a child, she’d collected the leaves and tried to smoke them like the Indians used to. She was always doing crazy things, running around with boys. Her mother had called her disgusting, picking cactus spines from her arms. Pushing her away after she’d groomed her: “Go to your room now. I can’t stand to look at you.”
When the boy finally showed up a few weeks later, Marie was in a state.
“It’s after midnight, Harland.”
He told her he was having a bad night, he couldn’t sleep. “I thought maybe we could read or something.”
“Do your parents know you’re here?”
“No. They’re in bed.”
“I’m sure your mother told you not to visit me.”
“She didn’t tell me shit. She took my money, though.”
“I don’t care. They need it more than I do.”
Marie, feeling dizzy, sat down.
“Harland, I don’t know if you should be here.”
“You want me to leave?”
He looked at her in a way she couldn’t bear. She turned on the lamp and handed him volume one. They were only about a hundred pages in. Nineteen hundred more to go.
“Shit,” said Harland. “We might be doing this forever.”
“It does have an ending,” said Marie.
“A good one?”
She tried to smile. “You’ll have to give me your opinion when we get there.”
Sometimes he came three days in a row, but then there were long stretches when he stopped by only once a month, or less.
“I’m here for the shit,” he’d often say when he arrived – which now meant Tolstoy.
Harland wasn’t a fan; he didn’t care for Anna. “She’s a horrible person, don’t you think?” he said one day.
When Marie shrugged, Harland said, “What’s wrong?”
“What? Is she like your favourite person in the world or something?”
“No. But I don’t dislike her as much as you do.”
“She’s just so selfish.”
“Well, I don’t think Tolstoy liked her either.”
“The author?” said Marie.
“Oh, right. That’s pretty weird, though. I mean, how do you write 2,000 pages about someone you don’t like?” Harland spooned up some pudding. “So, is she, like, gonna marry that Vronsky guy?”
“I’m not telling you.”
So they kept reading – Harland always in his chair, and Marie on the couch. Some afternoons, there were fresh bruises. Usually, Marie made no comment, though sometimes she couldn’t help herself: “You will escape one day. You know that, right?”
It was Harland’s turn to shrug.
“You will.” Marie liked telling him this, and it seemed that he liked hearing it.
Page by page, it progressed. Kitty fell ill, Anna got pregnant, Vronsky attempted suicide.
Every summer, the rains came and went. The yard flooded; the garden thrived.
Eventually, Harland started combing his hair differently – and when he was 17 he grew it long. Sometimes he told her about his girlfriends, or a road trip he was taking with some buddies.
Often, as he read, she sketched him. “Don’t roll your eyes.”
Whenever she offered money, he mostly refused it, but now and then he accepted it gravely with a nod: “Probably I’ll just give it to them.”
“That reminds me. I have some milk bottles for you to bring back to your mother. Don’t forget to take them.”
When Harland got into college, Marie felt an almost painful pride. She’d helped him with his applications.
The day he left, Marie held back her tears, so as not to compete with Mrs McGregor. At the cottage, she offered him the final two volumes of Tolstoy – but Harland said, “No. We’ll finish it when I get back.”
Marie didn’t argue. She gave him some money instead.
When Harland leaned in as if to kiss her, Marie only smirked and told him not to be dramatic.
He met a girl, of course. After college, he moved to Ohio. Whenever he visited Tucson, he always stopped by.
“I miss talking to you, Marie.”
She told him he could call her anytime.
But he never did.
Marie thinned out the loneliness with gin. She was well into her fifties now.
Twice a year she had dinner with the family. When she got sick, it was Mrs McGregor who took her to the hospital.
Eventually she came home – but then, several years later, she collapsed one morning in the yard, a terrible pain in her gut.
“I did this to myself,” she said, but Linda (Mrs McGregor) said, “Don’t talk like that.”
At first, she thought it was a boy she’d known in high school – but the hair was the wrong colour.
“You didn’t have to come,” she said.
Harland just tilted his head:
“Did you fly here?” she asked him. “From…”
“Ohio,” he reminded her.
He sat beside the hospital bed and took her hand. “It’s bad, right? Mom says it’s…”
“It’s not good.” She handed him a magazine, something the nurse had left in the room.
“What’s this for?”
“I don’t have anything better. All my books are at the house.”
So, he read her an article about camping in the Apennines – but only made it through a few paragraphs before he stopped.
“Sweet boy, don’t cry.” And then she told him, “Go ahead, let it out,” because clearly he couldn’t stop and she didn’t want him to feel ashamed for it.
It washed over her and she felt clean.
As he dried his eyes, he laughed. “The nurse asked if you were my mother.”
“What’d you tell her?”
“I told her, yes.”
“But I never really thought of you that way,” he continued.
She patted his hand, said she was very glad to hear it.
He didn’t come again, or if he did, she didn’t see him. She dreamed all the time now. The pain was gone. Often in her dreams she was drunk. Morphine was something else.
Marie wished that her parents had not gone so quickly; that they, too, could have had something like this. This dream of life, as you lay dying. It was more than she’d thought – her 60-something years. Fascinating how quickly the mundane faded, and all that was left were the brilliant patches of colour.
The small Higgins was left to Harland, as well as most of the money. Linda and Lacy were not neglected.
“She was a crazy fucking lady.”
Harland told his sister to shut up.
“Why are you keeping that piece of crap?” she asked as he lugged the La-Z-Boy into the back of his pickup.
He offered no explanation.
He spent a day going through her things – packed up most of the clothes and relics in a box for St Vincent de Paul. He debated over Anna K, and decided to leave her for the next tenant. He was pretty sure he knew how it ended.
As for the drawings, he took all he could find, though he didn’t look at them until he got back to Ohio. And then he sat on his chair and went through them. Again and again, his face as a teenager – sometimes sullen, sometimes bruised, sometimes squinting like a pirate.
Harland shook his head, amazed that she’d somehow done it – improved him. Hell, she’d nearly made him beautiful.
Victor Lodato was born in New Jersey. His novel, Mathilda Savitch (2009), was hailed by The New York Times as “a Salingeresque wonder of a first novel” and was a “Best Book of the Year” in The Christian Science Monitor, Booklist, and The Globe and Mail. The novel won the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, and has been published in sixteen countries, including the UK (Fourth Estate). Victor is a Guggenheim Fellow, as well as the recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Camargo Foundation (France), and The Bogliasco Foundation (Italy). His short fiction and essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta, and Best American Short Stories. His new novel, Edgar and Lucy, will be published in March 2017. Victor currently divides his time between Tucson, Arizona and Ashland, Oregon.