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 a hundred 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. There was something distinctly Christiany about them. Something to do with how polite they were – a politeness that seemed a bit performative, as if they were trying to make a good impression, not only on her, but on someone off in the wings. Marie often had the urge to look behind her to see who they were talking to. It was nerve-wracking – though surely it was worse for them. Believing in God was no doubt stressful, like living under constant surveillance.
Marie was grateful for her freedom. And, lately, she’d become intrigued by the idea of something more. Anonymity. It seemed a very classy business card: cloud-white and completely blank. She’d hand them out to anyone who got too close.
Luckily the McGregors 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 twenty 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. The cows were particularly prodigious, leaving behind mounds the size of Bundt cakes.
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. She often darted about, in white sneakers, on some manic escapade. Apparently she had a sixth sense about how to avoid the excrement. Her white sneakers remained pristine. When she leapt across the hills, it was as if she were preparing for flight. Her shouts had the shrill urgency of a crow.
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. Maybe just a little one around the rental house. She’d even be willing to share the cost.
But how to start such a conversation? Especially since she hardly ever spoke with the owners. Perhaps she’d say it was an aesthetic thing – not mention the child or the animals. A fence, she could say, would add to a feeling of home. She’d play up the romance of it. White picket sort of nonsense.
The funny thing was: 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. The McGregors’ cottage had a yellow Formica table that at first had made her wince, but now was a happy revelation each morning when she woke to it buttered in sunlight. Drinking coffee there seemed right, seemed familiar.
Careful, she thought.
Because it was frightening, really, how quickly a person got used to things. Attachment was an octopus. Even when you cut off its arms, they grew back. You had to keep a knife in your back pocket. This was her ninth rental in five years.
Marie sighed. She knew the drill. She might allow herself a few more months here – but then it would be time to move.
When her parents died, Marie had been living in Phoenix – had been living there for nearly twelve years. That former life seemed a blur now: a job at an art gallery, a two-story 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. She fed him green beans from a can, his favorite, but eventually he stopped taking food. When the vet said it might be soon, 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 – wondering if she might invite the bearded man to live with her; he’d been down to visit several times and commented how much he liked the house. He’d also mentioned something about the two of them starting their life. ‘Time to get to it,’ he’d said. But the more Marie had thought about this phrase, the more it had rankled her. What was the man implying – that she was running out of time? What was she then? Thirty-nine?
Marie never invited him down again, and soon after, she began dating other men – brief affairs, usually less than a week. The sex was always conducted in her parents’ bedroom. Marie felt like a spider, taking the men apart on her mother’s best satin sheets. The orgasms often ended in tears, but they were glorious. Though Marie wasn’t religious in any way, or inclined toward metaphysics, she had a sense that there was some higher purpose to these sexual encounters. She sensed somehow that she was feeding the dead. Giving them something for the road. Something better than cold blueberries.
Her parents had rarely touched her as a child – rarely touched each other. When the men left, Marie shuffled from room to room, 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, which had been a full-time job back then.
Slowly, she’d got rid of almost everything. Every piece of furniture, all her mother’s jewelry, 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. I offer peace – or something to that effect.
As a child, she’d loved the paintings, hanging in every room like an extra window: desert landscapes of muted colors, as if recalled from a dream; horses and riders kicking up dust under blue moonbeams; women patting tortillas outside adobes pinked with sunset. 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 fourteen. Horsey-looking, but in an attractive sort of way. Marie was horsey herself. Handsome, her mother had always called her.
‘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. The sofa was piled with clothing. 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 realized 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.’
‘Really,’ said Marie. ‘Could she not afford the rent?’
‘What? No,’ the boy said. ‘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.’
‘They’re gonna figure it out.’ He gestured toward the cookies.
Marie sighed. ‘Why don’t you just . . .’ She marched toward the couch and slid the remaining cookies onto a piece of the boy’s notebook paper, then took back the platter. ‘It’ll be our secret.’
‘Should I tell them about the cow shit?’ he asked.
Marie glanced at the dirty carpet and said it wasn’t necessary, she’d give his parents a ring.
On the way back, she wanted to scream.