A Short Story
By Erin Saxon
I know how crazy it sounds, but I watched them every night until I left the valley. One part of one night sticks out the most, but I can’t be sure if it’s really one night or a composite of many nights or something I’ve invented between then and now. I’d been sitting in the dark loft so long it looked bright. Light from the moon and street lamps hacked through the windows and skylight so it felt like SWAT team helicopters were outside. Or a movie spaceship, when it comes right down on the hero’s house, and he holds a hand over his awestruck face, moving it aside for an eyeful of a UFO the audience doesn’t get to see.
I was on the floor in a slice of light by the back window, hair tied back and my face pressed into the short telescope I’d found packed away in the closet. It was brass, but glowed faintly silver and its three legs shined like tinsel. My pajama shorts left my bare knees flattening down circles of carpet where I watched them through the wormhole the scope created. The lens stretched my sight across the two suburban backyards connected and separated by chain link fence below. The boy was already in bed, tucked away in a secret corner of the house I never saw, as he was every night by that hour.
I could see right into their bedroom. It filled my one open eye. The nightstand and striped section of wall where a frame of dead butterflies hung. It was one of those shadowboxes they have in museum gift shops, with the big blue specimen in the center. Shiny blue blue like nothing else in the natural world. Where do they get those butterflies? Do workers run around with nets on a mossy hillside before returning to the factory to pin the insects and box them up in an assembly line? Maybe they’re not even real. On one side I saw the doorway. On the other side, the edge of the bed peeked in lengthwise. The comforter looked expensive, beige with lighter beige embroidery webbed through it. I could see the bed skirt, too. So matchy-matchy and put together. I imagined him pushing a shopping cart like a pram while his wife strolled ahead, admiring the bed sets on display in their plastic, giving each one a moment of tender attention. I thought of his marriage as a stack of such routine department store excursions.
Then his wife entered the bedroom, pretty and plain. Her short charcoal robe was tied above the huge orb of her belly like a present. She sat down on the edge of the bed so I could just see her knees and shins dangling. Then he was there. James was standing in the doorway in his t-shirt and underwear, thick greying hair and short dark beard. I used to think he would look perfectly at home on some ancient battlefield or standing over a conference table bordered by suits. His lips moved as he spoke to his wife.
Then he rubbed the sides of his face in a manly way and smiled in the direction of her legs. It hurt me like a shove to the chest. No build up or ascent of thoughts to trace back and examine the root. Just those tiny muscles under each side of his beard, contracting over there, the photons passing over the dark yards, through the glass of the telescope and into my eye. Then James reached an arm where I couldn’t see his hand anymore, but I knew the light switch was there, and—black. The portal closed, I sank back from the scope into the room I rented at the top of Bill McCaulley’s house.
I crawled over to the air mattress, a body’s length away on the floor. The bed was half deflated like a pool raft meant for lounging where your hips and ass stay submerged. I stared up at the glass of the skylight above me, trying to divine whether he was holding her or asleep at that exact moment. I thought they might be back to back and not touching, or they could be having sex, just eighty feet away. He never cut the lights off when he was with me though. I turned over on my side, my hip sinking to the floor and fell asleep, confident that I was flickering into his brain just then. Whether it was against his will or he broke ravenously into such thoughts in the privacy of his own mind, it didn’t matter.
Most mornings during those three months at Mr. McCaulley’s house, I drove out before sunrise to the dig site on the east edge of the valley. Six days a week I worked as temporary field assistant on a Hohokam excavation. It helped kill the time until I could whip out the telescope without fear. The dark was required to intrude, letting me see in and protecting me from getting caught. Daylight sectioned off a boundary from him and was solely for work. My old Tahoe trembled at each stop light, afraid it wouldn’t make the forty-five minute drive from Phoenix. The desert brightened from behind me like a theatre when the lights go up and the sun would clip above the horizon as I passed Blackwater Junction. If I met a green light, I would imagine (or maybe fantasize is closer to what I mean) that a car would run the light and crash into me, glass and heavy steel crunching.
Archaeology seemed scholarly and adventurous, but by the time James left Utah and I had my degree I knew I’d been wrong. It was tedious and dirty, performing the same unskilled motions from dawn to dusk. On my first day in the desert, another field assistant told me archaeology was a lot like construction or plumbing. I can’t recall his name but he wore rust colored work pants with the ankles rolled up and bragged often about his tribal tattoos. “But we’ll never see that kind of money,” he said. I could tell he’d said that line a hundred times, though he laughed with himself as if he’d made it up right then.
Of course, most people assume that it’s all adventure and relics. “Have you ever discovered anything… you know, anything really special?” James asked me the night we met, leaning across the high bar table. One of his coworkers, a stout bald guy, clapped him on the back on his way out. He and the others were migrating to another bar, one not filled with “all these spoiled college brats.” The men all stood out against the sloppy sweatshirt clad collegiate boys in their slacks and collared shirts.
Earlier that night, I’d spotted Baldy trying to seduce a girl with the grace of a broke car salesman. She sipped her free drink with regret and looked around the bar while he talked too loud and close, embarrassed that someone might be watching but also hoping for a sympathetic set of eyes to hook onto. I was sure James would follow them, but he told Baldy he was just fine where he was and turned back to the table.
“Sorry about that interruption,” James said, leaning in again on his elbows and twisting his watch like it was as much a familiar part of him as his own thumbs. His sleeves were pushed up past his forearms, but he looked natural there. There wasn’t the same deliberate loosening up that the other men had tried with goofy results. One shirt button too far undone and deliberately mussed. One of them was likely wearing a tie around his forehead by the time the night was over.
“I’m sure you find all kinds of things, but does anything stand out?” he said. It was the response everyone had when they discovered what I did. People are eager for a story about tomb raiding or discovering a shrine covered in rubies. But it’s almost never about the object. And when it is, it’s nothing that sexy. At the Hohokam excavation, we sought potsherds and hearths. A piece of a charred hearth could be carbon dated to tell you when it was last used. Enough pottery could reveal who they traded with, considered their neighbors.
Still, an artifact by itself is useless. Layers of strata are crucial. Perhaps a fire pit was burned again by a lone traveler two hundred years after the settlement was abandoned, which happened more than you’d think. It matters where something’s found and what’s near it. It’s all about context. James was disappointed when I tried to explain but recovered fast. I caught him grinning and looking around my whole face, the way you might look at a Christmas tree the first day it’s up.
The dig site had been plotted and gridded, stakes pinning down the strings that divided the ground into little squares inside of a bigger square like complicated tic-tac-toe. I picked at the squares little by little each day, stopping every ten centimeters to roll the extracted dirt in a wheelbarrow and sift it through the fine mesh of a screen to see what was hiding in it. During my second week, I could tell by the light that it was almost closing time. Two of the men were loading buckets and equipment into the van, while the other two sat on their lunchbox coolers, smoking Winstons. They only listened to the classic rock station, and Pink Floyd was blasting from the van, crackled by static. I was still kneeling down, teasing a clay chunk out of the ground with a trowel. It turned out to be the size of a huge beetle, taking up half my palm. It was curved and smooth on both sides, dusty red zigzags broaching one side of it.
I don’t know why it mattered. It was just a flake of broken pottery, and there were thousands scattered around just like it. But then, it was still tremendous to me, pulling a man-made object straight from the earth. I wonder if doctors feel something like that when holding up a baby or an extracted tumor and being the first to touch it.
I ran my thumb over the clay and tried to imagine who might have made it. Someone so long dead that no one knew their name or what language they spoke. I didn’t even have a clear idea of how they dressed, but it had been someone. A man or a woman that had lived right there. I tried to picture who had touched it last but all that came to mind was a weathered hand. I was drawn to this work because of my inability to make peace with time. Sophomore year, my physics teacher explained that time travel into the past was impossible, so this seemed the closest option, touching what the dead had touched.
We could dig up every piece of eight hundred year old garbage left by the Hohokam, but we would never get a full picture of the past, could only use the disintegrating things to add details to an impression that would stay hazy forever. I don’t know if that justifies anything. But that day, the uncrossable rift was clear, making me so lonely and sorry for everyone. I made sure the guys weren’t watching and slid the potsherd into the back pocket of my jeans alongside the blade of my trowel.
I applied for the field assistant position because it was close to him. The job posting blinked like sonar in my brain as I read the state, going off faster when the site was near Phoenix. The fifteenth draft of my letter to his wife might not have to be sent after all. Truthfully, I didn’t want to send it. I would have done anything to get his attention, but making him hate me was not part of the plan. When they hired me, it had been six months since he’d gone, taking his clothes while I was in class.
The day he left, I walked out of an osteology lecture to late afternoon. The bells of the clock tower were ringing as I walked down the asphalt path. A cluster of magpies, sprinkled in a gangly maple like giant buds, flapped and rose with the gonging. I felt connected to the bird swell and hoped I’d remember it, and I did. I guess most people have a few memories like that where nature eclipses everything. A winter sunset of your childhood out a bay window. The noise from the traffic below drops out, and it’s just you and the quiet growing things looking at each other like lovers across a room.
When I got back to my apartment, I could feel the disorder before I really saw it. Clothes and furniture were pulled out of place like they had clung to him before tossing themselves down in exhaustion. Hangers littered the floor near the closet. Some of my books had toppled over on the shelf filling a new gap. A sticky note on the counter said he was going back to her, that he was sorry. Our betta fish blub blubbed sympathetically in his bowl, fluttering his tattered ribbon fins in a fit of grief. Later, I discovered the few pictures of us that existed and a necklace he’d given me were missing. The necklace was the kind that’s advertised on junk mail, plain silver with a dangling heart charm.
He left his toothbrush, a disposable razor and a bank statement with his address on it. I found the statement lodged vertically against the back of the nightstand drawer. For a while, I used the razor to shave my legs and nuzzled into his pillow each night like a dog, falling asleep in the smell of his sweat and shampoo. I saw him everywhere, as you do when that happens and you’re young. A man in profile in the produce section would become him for an instant, and I’d feel like I was falling and lifting off at the same time. It never was him though.
After I applied for the job at the Hohokam site, I kept instinctually stepping through whenever a door opened. Two days after I got the offer, I was driving away from Salt Lake City at 4 a.m. with everything I could fit in my SUV teetered up in the back, turning the rearview mirror into a simple ornament. Everyone I knew had gone away to doctoral programs at other schools or were backpacking through Asia, collecting passport stamps like merit badges. I found a freshman that wanted to sublet my place and was willing to feed Betamax the fish, but I didn’t intend to come back.
Stopping only once at the state border, I went right to his neighborhood and drove through it like I was part of a heist. It felt criminal dipping into his life, which it probably was. I drove passed the little suburban house over and over, the windows glowering at me with accusations but unable to speak. The porch railing was half painted and rubber clogs sat beside each other in front of the door. I tried to soak it all in. I wanted to grab the house by the shoulders and shake a confession out of it, get it to tell me what had taken my place.
Around the opposite side of the block was a sign in a yard that said there was a room for rent. I thought the lawn was astroturf, it was so green compared to the properties surrounding it, until I stepped on it and felt it squish under my sneaker. An elderly man answered the door wearing a white t-shirt yellowed under the armpits. His severe eyebrows were drawn on with dark pencil and looked vaguely like the McDonald’s arches. Bill McCaulley must have been in his eighties. Wisps of white hair were combed over to mask the bald spot on top of his head, which I could only see because he was hunched over, tilted on a wooden cane like he might not need it but was relaxing there out of boredom.
I told him I wanted the room, and he waved me inside, closing the door then tamping it with the bottom of the cane for good measure.
“Go on up and take a look at it first, doll,” he said. He sounded like an irate Kennedy and led me to the stairs, moving just fine except for one foot that dragged behind, never reaching liftoff.
The attic contained a bedroom, a bathroom and a small living room area. There were boxes in the back of the closet. Later, I opened one and found a few ragged wigs, but I was only interested in the view that day. The little window that faced the backyard looked out at the back of James’ house. I could see into part of the kitchen, a section of countertop and the end of a farmhouse table. The curtains were drawn in what turned out to be the living room, but the window to their bedroom was open. I’d hit the jackpot. Even without taking in the bits of the inside, this view of the house was more intimate. The formality of shutters and curb appeal was stripped away, and it didn’t feel so imposing, seeing the place with its makeup off.
“It’s a mother-in-law suite,” he told me when I came back down to the living room. He was sitting in a frayed recliner, his bum leg outstretched, revealing an ankle crisscrossed with lumpy veins.
“I doubt you’re anybody’s mother-in-law though. You know why they call it that? Because that’s where your feeble old mother-in-law is supposed to live.”
“Did your mother-in-law live there?”
“What? Jesus, no. They’re morons for building it up there. The old bird would never leave. You’d have to run up and down the stairs bringing food and whatever else, if she couldn’t make it down. Maybe they were hoping she’d slip on the damn stairs, and then no more mother-in-law for the mother-in-law suite.”
Bill McCaulley had lived in the house with his wife, who he described as a vile nut job, and oft-unemployed son until his divorce thirty years before. When I moved in, he shared the place with a fat orange tabby named Admiral Whiskers. Bill said he was portly in a noble way, like Winston Churchill, but that cat was so enormous he had to be hoisted onto the sofa. He would laze on the cushions for hours, his tiny feet popping out from under the oval of his body and his half open eyes roving the room with the same vague distain for furniture and humans.
I didn’t even think about what I was doing until I was at the breakfast table signing the lease that Bill had evidently written himself on a typewriter. It was bumpy with dots of liquid paper and some of the capitalized commandments forbade houseguests, drug use, theft and the keeping of abnormal hours. After signing it, he said, “I didn’t show you the garden yet!” and scrambled up on his cane, shuffling to the back door the way a sea turtle might scrape across a beach if running for its life. I hadn’t noticed it from the attic, but his backyard was crammed with flora.
There were palms and various cacti, some stubby and flowering and some tall. One towering saguaro would dwarf a professional basketball player. They prickled out between patches of amaranth and California poppies. In a more temperate environment, it would have looked like the yard of a mentally ill spinster, where you see the haphazard overgrowth of rosebushes and forty wind chimes, and you can tell whoever lives there is probably a hoarder.
But in the valley, that yard was sort of miraculous. The first day, I didn’t really look at it, but I remember Bill pointing at the banana tree and saying, “Do you know what it takes to grow these in this climate?” as though I’d insulted the trees by not being impressed enough. I don’t know what else he said about them. I kept looking over my shoulder thinking James was going to come out and see me and I’d be caught. That afternoon, after unloading the car, I had time to inspect the landscaping from the attic and noticed James’ lawn was a typical desert yard, with a wasteful swimming pool framed by a lawn of concrete and dying sprigs of weeds. The contrast at the fence line made it look scorched. I noted their one spindly acacia tree starving in a corner of the yard and felt smug.
For the few months I lived with him, Bill brought me out there whenever I returned from the site with a few spare minutes of sunlight to show off what he’d planted or moved or trimmed. On Sundays, I’d help him back there in the morning, putting on a baseball cap and huge aviator sunglasses to disguise myself in case James ever did come out. Bill said I looked like the Unabomber.
“You should try to look more like a lady,” he said, “Always tooling around in dirty rags and sneakers.” He loomed over me while I ripped out the sporadic weeds that were attempting to invade a flower bed.
I pulled off the gardening gloves and slapped them down next to me. “My clothes are dirty because I work in dirt. Who’s around to impress anyway?”
“You still need a little class,” He groaned, disgusted by the entire planet. “Everybody nowadays runs around like they don’t give a shit.”
“That’s because no one does,” I said.
“You have to pay attention to details. You’ll never meet a man like this. It’s like you can’t be bothered to take an interest in your own life.” He screwed his cane back and forth into the ground, then pointed out the sprouts I’d missed.
Her name was Abby, James’ wife. I found out when I met her. He was going to leave her, but you’ve heard this story before. I didn’t see myself as the scandalous other woman. I thought he’d been trapped in a tedious life and felt it was unjust. Allowed to do what he wanted at last, he was giddy simply listening to records and day drinking. All he told me was that he married her fourteen years ago, her family was Mormon, she was ordinary. I pictured her as some sexless tyrant. I’m sure that’s how he wanted me to think of her, of them.
It might seem like I was jealous or hated her or something like that. The jealous part is true, a little, but just in the beginning. Mostly, I needed to learn what exactly she had that I lacked. I told myself that I had to know, for my own sanity, what made it so easy to choose her, but I’d catch myself tying my hair back the way she did. The telescope blew up their uneventful evenings together, and I would watch her sometimes on the telephone, pacing slowly, and vanishing, reappearing again to laugh with a wide open mouth or put a hand on her lower back. Rather than provide me with some sort of plan to win him back, self-pity festered in me until it grew into an ache to know her, this woman who had been a part of so many of his days. I saw her as an extension of James.
“I don’t feel alive out there,” James said one morning. I was still in bed, and he was still in Utah with me, helping the new office get off the ground. He’d made coffee and stood looking out the window, my “This Might Be Vodka” mug that he’d wordlessly claimed steaming in his hand.
“Just everywhere… outside this apartment.”
“Forget out there then. We’ll call and have the groceries delivered.”
“You think I’m kidding?”
“I’m not kidding,” I said. “This studio apartment is our oyster and when you decide you hate me, you can retire over by the stove.”
“We’ll have to put up a divider.” He released his finger from the blinds and they made a soft metallic snap even though they weren’t metal and moved to the foot of the bed. “It’ll go right here,” he said, squinting one eye and cutting the bed in half with a chopping motion. Then he leaned down and kissed my ankle.
Things like that would come to my mind at random for months and months after he left. What I mean is, they were so clear, more vivid than reality. I would be brushing my teeth or scooping dirt and ancient trash from the wheelbarrow, not even thinking about him, and there it was. And not just the memory of the moment. I’d feel how I felt when it happened, which seemed so cruel of my subconscious. If you scald your hand on a stove, your brain isn’t supposed to make you crave burning coils. It’s supposed to keep you safe. I remember one day while unloading Bill’s dishwasher, I reached up to put a glass in the cabinet, and I was gripping the sticky bark of a pine branch, pulling it with my weight so that the snow shook off the needles. James was up ahead, grinning at me for wasting time, then swooshing down the short distance, his skis against the ice sounding like crinkled tissue paper. The cranking of the ski lift was muffled by the insulation of snow, making it feel like the interior of a house in spite of the open space. Then I was in Bill’s kitchen again, alone with the smell of old sponge and decades of grease.
Bill’s son came by once in the three months I lived there. His wife had sent leftovers with him, soggy potato salad and a casserole covered by creased tinfoil. Bill said it was white trash food, though he only ate canned soup most of the time. I told him it was a nice gesture.
“Yeah, they want it to seem so nice, don’t they?” He chucked his spoon into the plastic container of potato salad. I noticed he was wearing deep red lipstick that had seeped into the wrinkles around his mouth and a dingy bra strap had slid down his bony shoulder. The bra was 1970’s looking, the cups pointy under his ribbed wife beater.
“Well, why did he bring it over then?”
“Todd and Carla, or whatever her name is, and my ex-wife think I have cash hidden in somewhere on the property.” Bill must have forgotten he was even wearing the bra and makeup because he was unashamed.
“Of course not, but I told them to look for coffee cans if I kick the bucket.” He slid his plate across the little table, laughing. “Idiots. Trying to secure an inheritance.”
I saw her, Abby, face to face in the backyard one day. I was watering Bill’s flowers when their little boy threw a squishy football into the yard. Without thinking about it, I retrieved the ball and went up to the fence where she was. She had her hair in a low ponytail and looked like a TV mom, meaning that she was abnormally pretty and stylish for her age, which wasn’t that old, now that I think about it.
She thanked me and asked me about myself. I lied about my name and took off my sunglasses. Her hand was soft and manicured when I shook it over the fence. It was like meeting a celebrity, and I marveled at her face and the maternity sweater stretched over her stomach. I don’t remember the boy’s name. She said, “Jim, my husband, and I have lived here almost eight years.” She called him Jim! When she invited me over for lunch, I couldn’t tell if she really meant it, but I accepted. I trailed behind her after she opened the gate and led me around their swimming pool to the sliding door of the kitchen.
We sat side by side in the living room over a plate of crackers and cheese cubes. I felt like a con artist or a Trojan horse, sneaking glances at the microfiber furniture and scattered toys. She told me things I already knew about James and some things I didn’t. She said, “I don’t know if he really wanted another baby, not at first. He was helping with a new branch in Salt Lake and ended up coming back early.”
“He’s getting used to the idea. Excited sometimes. We’ve been putting together the nursery and everything. It takes Jim a while to adjust to changes.”
“Set in his ways?”
“Mmhmm. Definitely.” She nodded. “Do you have a boyfriend or somebody?”
I nudged a bulky toy police car back and forth with my sneaker and shook my head. My mouth was clamped into a shy smile so I wouldn’t laugh.
I wanted to see more of the house and asked to use the bathroom. The hallway was covered in framed portraits. They had a double sink, his and hers. I sniffed at her perfumes in jewel-like bottles on the counter. A dish with humming birds on it held a tangle of jewelry like coins in the palm of a hand. The necklace he’d given me was in it, and I wadded up the chain before slipping it into my pocket. I rubbed some of her face cream into my hands and noticed a picture on the wall of the boy. He was a baby and covered in suds. James was reaching towards him with a rubber duck on the edge of the bathtub. He looked young and happy, and I thought maybe I didn’t know him at all.
I saw their bedroom on the way back to the living room. The door was open, and it was so beige and inviting. It was different up close, getting the whole feel of the place. Books askance on the nightstands. An alarm clock. A half empty glass of water let me know which side was his.
Abby found me sitting there, where he slept, and asked me if I was okay, and I said I just got dizzy all of the sudden. I reached over and downed the glass of water before she could say anything besides “Ooh!” She got me my own glass, which I didn’t touch, and I left.
I only had until monsoon season began to stay near them. Once the downpours started, the excavation site would be a mud pit instead of a dirt pit. And the rain can kick up the spores that cause valley fever. The fungus lays dormant in the soil until water and wind jar it awake, kicking it up in invisible tendrils. When breathed in, it infects your lungs before it crawls around through your blood to reach other organs. I was picking at the dirt under a bright gray sky after I met Abby and thinking it could be in there. The people who lived there, the Hohokam, well some of them died from it, and I got this urge to scoop handfuls of the earth into my mouth. I could see myself doing it, like fast forward claymation.
I got an email from James at the end of May. A message in a bottle, which I read over and over, of course. He had no idea I was there so close, had been in his house. I met him at a motel near Gila Bend off Highway 85. I expected it would be some seedy, kitschy place with a huge neon teepee flashing “VACANCY,” but it was a Super 8 with free breakfast and cable TV.
When I saw him open the door I felt like I’d come home. Like I’d won, even if he never left her. But when he reached out to touch my jaw, it began drift away from me. We wrapped around each other, I think I even jumped on him, legs around his waist, but it seemed like a play. I got this sinking, weird feeling that he wasn’t the man I had lived with and he wasn’t the man I’d been watching, but some kind of impostor. As though the timber of his voice or a flicker across his eyes hinted at an unprovable switch.
Afterward, he laid there snoring, one arm thrown across me, its weight pressing against my ribcage. I watched him for a while, trying to shake the sensation. I thought of all those mornings mashed together when I’d watched him like that, but I couldn’t make myself feel anything. I had the necklace (Abby’s or mine or Abby’s and mine) in my purse and hooked it around his neck while he slept. Then I left. I still wish I’d been there when he realized.
Bill had a stroke while I was out. Luckily, it was on the front lawn, when he was getting the mail. After he died a few days later, I went out to water the garden, and discovered an old woman and a middle aged couple back there. I recognized the man, Bill’s son. The yard was all torn apart. Plants uprooted, tossed around like socks. The couple had shovels, cutting mercilessly into a strip of royal blue zinnias. They saw me in the doorway and looked sheepishly at the destruction and shovels in their hands, but then the man stepped forward holding his shovel like a staff. Had we been closer, I’m sure he would have spit in my face. He said “This is none of your business,” and the three of them stood that way until I went inside. I packed the car up the same as before, with the addition of Bill’s box of wigs, and headed for Utah. Whatever was on my mind during the drive back, I can’t recall anymore. Only pieces of those three months are still clear to me. But I have the suspicion that every time I revisit a moment, take it out of its packaging to play with it, I damage it somehow. Change it each time so that who I was then sinks a little deeper.