The twenty-something traffic cop hovering at the window of Alyson’s Lexus wants to know who she thinks she is. He phrases the question just like that, his acne-sprayed mouth all pretzeled up with moral indignation. Alyson decides to take his question literally. “I’m the vice president of the college,” she says, indicating with a tilt of her head the campus five miles behind them. “I’ve had a long day, and I’m heading home.”
“You work at the college.” He’s got gum in his mouth, and Alyson can smell it—classic bubblegum, inseparable in her mind from the pink of cheap hair curlers.
“I’m the vice president.”
“Don’t you think you of all people might know not to speed ten miles over the limit in a school zone? That’s the high school right there, ma’am. You can’t miss it.”
Alyson adjusts an earring. “I know it’s a high school. And if we’ve got seventeen-year-olds who don’t know how to look both ways before crossing a street, maybe we should let natural selection run its course and take a few of them out.”
The cop stares at her. “I’ll be right back.”
She fumes the rest of the way home—she’ll have to go to traffic school again, shuffle her way into Ben Franklin Motors down the road where she and the newest round of victims will sit at plastic desks in the back room and learn how to calculate the ideal following distance and how to align their side-view mirrors. You’d think it’d be the dregs of Oak Ridge who showed up for that, but the last time she went, she sat between a physicist and an underwriter. The physicist told her that while his cop was filling out his ticket, he watched a drug deal go down in the Gold’s Gym parking lot right across the street. “But we wouldn’t want to take them down,” he’d said, widening his eyes and batting his lashes. “Not those darling meth-heads. We’ve got rogue scientists and engineers going three over the limit!” Alyson had liked him. He was tall and flinty, like the man she’d had an affair with six years earlier, and she encouraged him: “It’s all part of a larger plan to eliminate anyone who’s actually contributing,” she said. “Once we’re wiped out, the scum can feel better about themselves.”
Her house is in a small community called Magnolia Grove. While the community isn’t gated, there’s a distinct sense of separation from its environs: the Grove is a figure eight with a grassy gazebo-dotted knoll at the center of each oval, and its homes stand in stark contrast not just with the rest of Oak Ridge’s residencies but with the architectural style of East Tennessee in general. The cabins and dank ranches that have always repulsed Alyson are nowhere to be found. Every house in the Grove is two or three stories high, with breezy multi-floor verandas and whimsical bedroom balconies, wide front porches and glittering bay windows. Viewed from a nearby hill, the cluster of houses could be a basket of Easter eggs—white, pastel blue, sun-yellow, palest pink. The realtor who showed Alyson the neighborhood just after her divorce commented that driving through the place always felt surreal to her, as though a tornado had lifted a beach town and dropped it in the middle of a mountain-locked village. She hadn’t expected Alyson to buy the first house they toured, but then, she hadn’t really known Alyson.
The truth was that when Alyson first saw Magnolia Grove, she liked its unabashed pretentiousness. Its location had to have been an inside joke on the part of the investors—it was nestled in the middle of Oak Ridge’s worst neighborhood, like the cream filling inside a cheap caramel. Within the figure eight, it was possible to forget that other world entirely, but climb over the fence of anyone’s backyard and you’d be on a street where kiddie pools sagged with rainwater and brown bag exchanges were made on dandelion-choked parkways. There was something so blithely self-absorbed about the prim lampposts that marked the borders of those backyards. Sentries to a godless Narnia, they signaled to the grubbier residents of Oak Ridge that all that was good in the world lay within the Grove’s borders, hopelessly out of reach.
Alyson could not have articulated it to the realtor, but she was pleased with the sort of neighbors she assumed she’d have. Like her, they’d be realists, people who’d figured out the hard truth of who they were and had given up pretending to be anything different. They didn’t go the church or read books or agonize over the meaning of life. They didn’t moralize and they didn’t dream. They knew people were basically rotten and that no sane God, if there even was one, would pay attention to such a lot. What they cared about was money and power and prestige—all that was available to you, really, if you wanted to do something with your time here—and they were comfortable wanting those things. What other sort of person would live in a community like this? She felt safe, turning her key the day she closed on the house, just over a year ago. The Grove, otherworldly as it appeared, was immune to fantasy. It was a state of being she’d aspired to most of her life.
The neighbors had failed her utterly.
Bill, the retired Army medic who lives in the yellow house next door, is playing solitaire on his front porch when Alyson pulls in. She pretends not to see his friendly wave, even though they’ve made plans for him to come look at her washing machine tonight. His psychologist wife has invited Alyson to “fellowship” a dozen times, refusing to take a hint; Bill sometimes takes walks with a book of Bible study prompts open in his left hand. At least they’re old and tired. Far worse are the newlywed Shipleys on the other side, earnest and bright-eyed as Labradors. Two houses down is Calamity Bess, who loves to talk in hushed tones about local tragedies, as though the newspapers didn’t already cover all that ad nauseam. She once invited Alyson over to see her meditation garden and Alyson curtly declined, saying she wasn’t a new-ager. Over the course of the year it had dawned on Alyson that nobody but her saw the irony of where they lived. She’d rooted herself in a community of idiot hopefuls, people who met for book clubs and volunteered at the Boy Scout pumpkin sale in October and dabbled in Hinduism to “awaken” themselves. She’d had better luck connecting with the feral cat who slept in the gazebos and occasionally reconnoitered people’s porches. He was unquestionably a cynic, burned out on life but too dispassionate to complain about it, and she showed her appreciation by regularly leaving him wild-caught sardines in glass pudding cups.
“Got my toolkit,” Bill says, toasting her with it as she climbs out of her car. He’s far too enthusiastic, as is the case every time Alyson asks him for help with a toilet or clogged drain; probably he’s compensating for the absence of bullet holes to plug and shrapneled men to load onto helicopters. Alyson hates asking for his help, but he’s convenient and never charges her a cent, which makes him a more practical choice than a professional who’s going to bill her for recycled scrap masquerading as new parts.
She’s at her door with Bill right behind her when Calamity Bess walks by in a flowered cardigan. “Did you hear? Terrible,” she says as Alyson digs in her purse for her key.
Her back to them both, Alyson rolls her eyes. Bill says, “What happened?”
“This poor man. He lived just three blocks from here. Car salesman, killed in a wreck on I-40 three days ago. Left behind a son and two daughters.” Bess clucks her tongue, exactly the way Alyson’s grandmother would have.
“Where’s the mother,” Bill wants to know. Alyson has the door open and is halfway in.
“I don’t think it even mentioned her. Maybe there isn’t one. Can you imagine? The oldest one’s only fifteen, it said. It’s just terrible.”
“We’ve got some work to do, Bess. We’ll see you later,” Alyson says with strained brightness.
“Sure, honey. Tell Delia hello, Bill.” Still shaking her head in that mournful way, Bess moves on.
Alyson steps into the foyer with Bill and waits. Always he comments on something—the absence of books, the austerity of her living room, the picture-less walls—and while it infuriated her at the beginning, she’s developed a bored patience with it now, understanding that his criticism veiled as fatherly concern is simply the cost of his services. Sure enough, Bill scratches his chin and says, “I still say it looks like nobody lives here. I don’t know how you keep it this way. I got to say, I worry about it.”
She shrugs, sets her purse down. “I like it this way, Bill.” And she does. If the neighborhood has disappointed her, the house has not. Even furnished, it has a look of hard cleanness, the trim blindingly white and the floors smooth as wax. Not a mark anywhere. It is a house entirely without history, blissfully bereft of what people sometimes referred to as “character” when of course they meant mistakes. There is nothing—not a single thing—of her ex-husband’s in the house. She knows very well that the only good break is a clean break, and when she and Charles moved out of their sprawling ranch and went their separate ways, she took everything he failed to pack up and donated it to Goodwill, which was more convenient than the dump.
Bill says, “I guess I’ll get started. It’s probably just a gasket. You said there’s still water in the washer?”
“I bailed out some with a water bottle. Then I asked myself what was the point.”
“You were right—no use in that when you’ve got me to get it down.” Bill knows where the laundry room is, and she listens to his heavy steps as he makes his way down her back hallway.
A dinner of celery sticks slathered with almond butter waits for her in the fridge, and she carries it into the front bedroom she’s converted into an office. She likes to eat in the blue glow of her desktop computer and balance the plate on her lap as she prowls the news. The house is too large for her to be able to hear Bill tinkering away in the laundry room, but as she chews her celery, she thinks she hears him anyway—his contented muttering, the clink of tools on metal. It’s happened before, memory coloring in the house’s silence against her will. What she’s hearing is not Bill, but her father and her ex-husband. Her father was a janitor at the local college. As though he hadn’t had enough of broken toilets at the end of the day, he’d come home and just like Bill help out the neighbors or try to service some doomed appliance in their own tiny house. They lived in a sagging duplex in Knoxville’s worst neighborhood in the years after her mother walked out, and the place was a handyman’s heaven, or hell: mold under the sinks, cracks in the ceiling, ancient coughing appliances, birds that made nests in the dryer pipe. As a teenager, it drove Alyson mad to hear her father humming so happily as he crawled under the kitchen sink. Humming, after his alcoholic wife had taken his money and left town with a bartender. Humming, when he’d spent his day clawing feces out of porcelain. Humming, when his daughter’s only hope of escape lay in hard-won grades in the classes that had taken over her life and kept her from parties, football games, dates. It was the music of the deluded. Everything he did was like this, from his faithful Sunday service attendance to the notches he made in their (rented) doorframe to mark not her height but her birthdays.
You’ll lose the security deposit, Alyson would huff at him as he dug his penknife into the wood. So I’ll lose it, he’d say, grinning. My daughter is a year older today. And he’d speak a kind of prayer, raising his eyes to the waterlogged ceiling and asking God to bless her and watch over her in the coming year—as if God had any hand in what happened to her, or any interest in them at all. When Alyson’s father keeled over from a heart attack at fifty-one, he was still languishing in that duplex, and Alyson, clearing the place out, could not look at those notches any more than she could look at his body laid out for the wake. She had both the housecleaning and the funeral professionally handled, something she could well afford to do as she was already moving up the chain of command at the college by then. She ignored his wish to be buried behind the church he’d attended for thirty years; she couldn’t stand the idea of having to talk to his pastor every time she visited the grave.
A year into her marriage to Charles, a chemical engineer with the means to hire anyone to do anything, Alyson was unnerved to hear an echo of her father’s low, pleased murmur as her husband cleaned out the gutters. It was their first autumn in the house they’d bought together, and Alyson watched from the open kitchen window as leaves tumbled in droves past the glass. She should have known then that the marriage wouldn’t last. Theirs was the catastrophe of couples who married before they really knew each other: they kept bumbling in on each other’s hidden selves, and when this happened, they both preferred to retreat into the hall and pretend never to have seen. Earlier that morning, Alyson had found Charles at the breakfast table with his coffee and a hardback book she’d never seen before. Illustrations of cave paintings and hieroglyphs danced across the cover. She took the book from him and flipped it over. The author pictured on the jacket was a Catholic nun who looked too corn-fed and energetic to be living in a convent.
“Give it a chance,” Charles said, sipping his coffee, “before you compost it.”
“What is this?”
“It’s a history of mythology. I found it at McKay’s after work Monday. The first few chapters are pretty academic, but you can feel her gathering force. I’m rereading the final section. It’s more than a history—it’s like a call to action. She’s saying things I’ve been thinking for years but never really had the words for.”
His flushed excitement startled her. He was no ordinary engineer, it was true; he loved classical literature, loved the opera down in Atlanta, didn’t have that protractor-in-the-shirt-pocket weirdness of his colleagues. But she had always thought of him as a man of science, and his passionate interest was all out of sync. She said, “What’s her thesis?”
Charles laughed. “Thesis—you’re still teaching freshman comp, even when you’re not, Ally.” When she said nothing, he went on, “She’s diagnosing us—the modern world. She says our problem is that we’re missing myth. Religion. We’ve tried to make science and reason the backbone of everything and it’s never going to be enough. It’s this incredible irony: we think we’re making progress, but we’re more limited than the most primitive man ever was, because we aren’t growing in the spirit. Prehistoric man with his crazy myths of moon-gods and fire-gods had something higher to strive for than career prestige and a solid retirement plan. Prehistoric man had something better, something more personal, than political ideology to get them all fired up. In short, they had it made.”
“And you agree.” She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Growing in the spirit.
“Why are you looking at me like that? We’ve talked about this before. One of our first dates, at the fine arts museum, down in Chattanooga.” He looked genuinely perplexed, sitting there with his coffee getting cold. “I’m sure it came out all bungled, but I remember talking to you about this. It was after we saw the medieval paintings. You remember.”
“I think I thought you were being sarcastic.”
“Does this mean you’re going to start attending Our Lady of Perpetual Nonsense down the road?”
Charles got up to pour out his coffee. “No, Alyson, I’m not. I’m going to go clean the gutters, if that’s all right with you.”
Damn Bill and his contented humming down the hall, imagined or not. Alyson stuffs another celery stick into her mouth and scrolls through her work email. She doesn’t have time for worn-out memories; she doesn’t have time for anything really. Back when she was just a professor, she could tell her students she wouldn’t answer emails at night or grade late work. Administration is a different beast, and while she’s well-suited to the massive workload, she’s found that her tether has gotten shorter and shorter with the passing years. Abruptly she stands up and carries her plate back into the kitchen. She’s about to march down the hall to tell Bill to just leave it, she’ll hire someone, when the doorbell rings. No doubt Calamity Bess back with fresh tragedy.
She moves briskly through the front hall and stops in the half-bath to simper at the mirror. “Terrible,” she mimics in a high voice. “Well, take heart, Bess. I’m sure your dead man is headed for a scintillating afterlife.”
“What?” Bill yells from laundry room.
“There’s someone at the door. Just keep at it, Bill,” she shouts back. “I’d like to get to bed early tonight.”
Alyson jerks open the front door, preparing to tell off Bess, but it’s not Bess who’s standing there. It’s some kid dressed for church, holding a suitcase. Blue-eyed, he squints at her through the descending sunlight. “Good evening, ma’am,” he starts, but she cuts him off: “What are you, Jehovah’s Witness? We’re not interested.” She winces—the we’re is reflexive, out of her control. “I’m not interested.”
“No ma’am.” He holds up the suitcase. “I’m a salesman.”
“I’m selling ties, ma’am. Nice ones, if you want to look. They make good gifts for your husband or son.”
“Ties?” She stares at him blankly.
“I work for JC Penney.” The kid, who can’t be more than fifteen, fumbles open the case and displays it on his knee. Pinned to the fabric within are ties of every color, striped, polka-dotted, paisley, geometric. Even from where she stands, Alyson can see that they aren’t new.
“JC Penny,” she murmurs, leaning in. “Funny, the ones in the store are never wrinkled like this. But that’s becoming a trend, isn’t it? Shabby chic?”
The kid blushes. “I been going around with this case for awhile. Some people have tried them on.”
“If you want, we can take them out so you can look.”
“You want to come inside, right? Open that case on my dining room table and give me a spiel?”
He blinks at her.
She knows she should just laugh and send him on his way. It’s obviously an amateur con, a scheme to get him inside people’s houses where he can stake out the exits and see what kinds of valuables are lying around. A colleague of hers was recently robbed in a similar way; she stood at the front door, distracted by a kid in a baseball uniform selling chocolate bars, while a second teenager slipped in through the back door and made off with her purse. Well. Christina had never been particularly bright, didn’t even realize it wasn’t baseball season. And chocolate bars were so obvious. Alyson had to at least give her visitor points for originality—hocking shoddy ties was a new one.
She should just laugh. But it’s fury that rises up to surprise her, fury at this kid’s faith in her guilelessness and stupidity, and she holds the door wide open. “Come on in,” she says, saccharine-sweet. “I’d love to take a closer look. You can’t get that kind of attention from salesmen in the stores nowadays.”
The kid’s expression brightens. “Thank you, ma’am. I won’t take up too much of your time.”
“I’m sure you won’t.”
She leads him into her kitchen, and as he sits down with the case, his smell curls around her: cheap shampoo, a brand she hasn’t purchased in twenty years. She smells it on the occasional student who walks brazenly into her office—See the secretary first, she tells them crisply—and the effect is always the same. It’s not simply that she recognizes the smell. It’s that the aroma claims her, branding her as its own. Inside that smell are its distant cousins: discounted detergent, and the oily scent of the dollar-store makeup her mother used to keep behind the bathroom mirror before she packed it up with her clothes and climbed into another man’s car.
The kid peers around.
“It’s a big house, isn’t it?” Alyson says brightly. “Huge, actually. It’s a shame I’m almost never here, especially in the evenings, when I’d like to be able to enjoy it. I’m always working late.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” He’s still looking around. “Your husband work a lot, too?”
“He’s never home.”
“Why? We’re loaded.” She gestures to take in the whole of the house. “As you can see.”
His face clouds over a little. “I guess he probably already has ties.”
“Oh, sure, but never enough.” Alyson leans over the case. She notices that one of the ties still has a pin in it, a junky metal thing that probably cost a dollar fifty. “Looks like someone forgot his pin,” she comments, pointing.
The kid flinches; it’s obvious he’s only just now noticed it. “It comes with that tie.”
“Another fashion statement.”
He fumbles with the pin, wresting it out of the fabric and setting it aside. He says, “If he likes bright colors, I have a lot of those.”
“I noticed.” Alyson has an idea of how to play this out, and the more she imagines it, the better she likes it. She’s almost smiling when the kid says, “Ma’am? Is there someone here?”
“Oh.” She tilts her head toward the laundry room. “That’s my neighbor you’re hearing. He’s fixing my washing machine. So how much apiece?”
“Five dollars. Everything’s on discount.”
“What a steal.” Alyson rises, goes to the fridge where she has a carafe of sugarless iced tea. “Let me get you a cold drink while you’re here.” In the moment of grasping the carafe’s handle, she vividly recalls the one time a door-to-door salesman appeared on her and Charles’ porch: a middle-aged man, selling kitchen knives out of a felt-lined case. Charles had amazed her by sitting down with the man and showing avid interest in his wares—interest she knew was feigned—and he’d asked her to bring out some drinks. Twenty minutes into the charade Alyson picked up one of the knives and studied it closely under a light. The handle was poorly fastened on, and she commented on this. “Planned obsolescence,” she said to her husband. He glared at her. When Charles made his purchase, Alyson walked out of the kitchen, disgusted. He found her in their bedroom after the salesman had left. “What is wrong with you?” he demanded, speaking the very words she’d been holding in her mouth for the past half hour. “Those were crap knives, Charles,” she responded. “He took you in.” “He was in trouble,” Charles responded. “Couldn’t you tell? I wanted to help him out.” Alyson thought he meant the man was running from the law, and said so. Charles rubbed at his temples. “I meant he was the saddest sack I ever saw, Ally. He needed to make a damn sale. Were you even there?”
Shaking herself, Alyson asks the kid, “You’ve been selling door-to-door long?”
“All day.” He says this heavily, staring at some point past her face. He’s thin, almost gaunt, as though he’s gone a week without food or sleep. Probably he’s using.
Alyson says, “I meant, how long have you done this job?”
“Just a little while.”
“Do you save up your money?”
“Do you save up your cash for a car or something? Because you should. Don’t put it in the bank. Hoard it. That’s what I do.” She pours the tea into two glasses, watching him from beneath her lashes. “You can’t trust banks—they could go under at any time. Ever heard of the Federal Reserve? Well, forget that. Just trust me—keep it in the house. I keep ten thousand in cash right here in my bedroom, in my top drawer, just in case. I say a bureau is better than a bank safe any day.” She doesn’t have ten thousand dollars in her top drawer—just five—but she means what she says.
“My dad always said the bank isn’t the safest, but it’s still better than leaving cash lying around for thieves,” the kid says. He’s straightening out the ties one by one, taking his time, almost caressing them.
He’s good—better than she’d realized. But she’s already got him outmaneuvered. “Well, it’s just one person’s advice,” she says. She sets down the glasses. Reseating herself across from him, she folds her hands on the tabletop. “Look, sweetie,” she says, “I know you don’t work for a department store. You just need money, don’t you.”
His hands stop moving.
“Nobody sells ties door-to-door. Certainly not ties like these. Look at them—worn-out and tacky and just screaming used car salesman. Come on. No one in this neighborhood’s going to buy this, and I mean buy this in both ways.”
Slowly he looks up at her, his expression unreadable.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” she continues. “I don’t need ties, but you obviously need money. If you want to, you can do some odd jobs for me around the house tonight. My neighbor will be leaving any minute now, and I’ve got to head out too. You can work as late as you want—I won’t be back til ten. I’m meeting friends. I’ve got a lawn mower that needs fixing, and some shelving units in the garage I haven’t gotten around to putting together. I’ll pay you a hundred dollars as soon as I get back.”
“A hundred dollars?” He gapes at her.
“Is that fair?”
He nods, still open-mouthed. He really is good, looks almost cherubic there in the glow of the overhead light, plaintive and unguarded. Alyson takes a long sip of her tea. She doesn’t own a lawn mower—Bill lends her his, adamant that she not spend money on a landscaping service—and the shelving unit is something she lost interest in weeks ago. But she figures it all sounds realistic. She says, “You just pack up your ties. I have to get my neighbor out of here and change clothes before I go. Go ahead and finish that tea, and I’ll show you the garage.”
She leaves him in the kitchen. In her bedroom, she opens her jewelry box and scoops out its contents by the handful, scattering it across her vanity. None of it is particularly special to her; she can replace any piece whenever she likes. From beneath a pile of camisoles in her bureau drawer she digs out the wad of cash, bound with a rubber band, and sets it atop the heap of silk and cotton so that it is plainly visible. This too doesn’t matter—she can withdraw another five grand and stick it in a different drawer whenever she wants. As she changes out of her pantsuit into jeans and a sweater, she scans the room; what else can she leave out, what else would be easy to carry off? There’s the coin collection she picked up at an antique mart in a fit of unwonted nostalgia, and the absurdly expensive Hasselblad camera she bought herself a few years back but never used. These she sets on the vanity beside the jewelry. Just before she leaves the room, a thought occurs to her, irresistible: here’s a way to finally get rid of her father’s old memento box, the one thing she kept against her better judgment after the house was cleared out. It contained a watch, a handful of dirty silver dollars, his wedding ring, and the rusty pearl-handled pocketknife he’d inherited from his own father and used to make his ridiculous notches in the doorframe on Alyson’s birthdays. She hadn’t known what to do with it. Like a specter, the box has haunted her room since she moved into the new house. It’s the incarnation of a song her mother used to sing to her when she was very small, the only nursery song whose lines Alyson can actually remember: One of these things is not like the others / One of these things just doesn’t belong. She snatches the box from the top shelf of her walk-in closet and leaves it open on the bed. Then she checks herself in her floor-length mirror and exits the room.
Her ADT signs are out back, invisible from the front porch. The kid has no idea that he’s already been on camera, nor that when he walks out of here with her valuables, he’ll be on camera again. She’ll come back in a few hours and call the police, and the kid will have to revise his assumptions about which of them is the stupid one.
She’s almost gleeful, striding down the hallway to the laundry room where she finds Bill repacking his toolkit. “Done,” the man says, holding out his calloused hand for help up off the floor. Concealing her irritation, Alyson grabs his hand and pulls. Bill lets out a grunt. “Easy job,” he says. “Just a gasket, like I thought. Just a pebble caught in there. Want to see it?”
She can imagine him asking soldiers the same thing: want to keep your bullet? She’s almost feeling good enough to laugh about it. “No, Bill,” she says, “I think I can do without it.”
“Who was here? I heard the bell.”
“A kid selling door-to-door. He’s still here.”
“He is? You let him in?” Bill looks startled.
“Don’t worry, Bill. I can take care of myself. You’d better get home to your wife.”
“Why am I getting the bum’s rush? What’s the kid selling?”
“Ties,” Alyson says shortly. “If you want to know, Bill, he’s a little con-artist in training. But I’m humoring him.”
“Ties?” They’re halfway down the hallway, and Bill cranes his neck toward her kitchen. “You serious?”
“Bill. I’m going to send him out in a minute. I have to leave. Thanks for your help.”
He grumbles something unintelligible as she opens the front door. She doesn’t ask him to repeat himself; she doesn’t care. Once he’s out, she hurries back to the kitchen where the kid is still sitting there before his case of ties. “The garage is this way,” Alyson says.
The kid stands up and follows her. She takes him down the hall and out the back door onto the wide veranda. Just past her back fence, beyond her own prim lamppost, are the kiddie pools and drug dealers. Alyson’s rattan furniture is positioned in such a way on the veranda so as to convince prying eyes of her wide social circles, the omnipresence of friends and family. She hates to even acknowledge the stereotype of a home being safer with a man living in it, but she also keeps a pair of size-fourteen work boots in plain sight on the top step—boots she bought at a Wal-Mart and muddied up with potting soil. Now, of course, the boots are working against her. “My husband won’t be home til eleven,” she tells the kid, lest he lose his nerve at the sight of them. “I’ll be back first. You won’t have to deal with him.”
“What’s he do?” the kid asks, not looking at her as she keys open the side door to the garage.
“Engineer,” she says automatically, and winces again. She flicks on the garage lights. “Those are the shelving units on the floor, in those boxes. As you can see, they’re a mess.”
“Where’s the mower?”
“Back behind the garage, by the bushes. You’ll see it. Look, the back door’s still open, so you just go in and out as you please. Help yourself to more iced tea if you need it. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
He’s crouched beside one of the boxes, studying its label, but she can see his mind is elsewhere. He’s doubting all this—probably can’t even believe his luck at stumbling across a fabulously wealthy woman dumb enough to leave him alone with her house, her stacks of hoarded cash.
“Everything okay?” Alyson asks sweetly.
It takes him a minute to respond. “It’s a good idea,” he says finally, his fingers interlacing as if in prayer. “Putting big shoes on the back porch. Makes it look like he’s home when he isn’t.”
Alyson’s throat tightens. “Excuse me?”
“Nothing. Forget it. It’s just—you don’t have to say he’s here if he’s not. Lots of people live alone.” He gives her a strange lopsided smile. “I know. I sell door-to-door.”
Curtly, Alyson says, “I don’t live alone. As I said, he just gets home later than I do. I think you’re all set, yes?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll leave you to it then.”
Instead of cutting through the house, Alyson follows the shrub-fringed walkway that separates her house from Bill and Delia’s. She’s almost in her driveway, almost out in the open, when she hears their voices through a cracked window: “It’s just sad,” Bill is saying. “I think we need to make more of an effort. She’s got that kid over there for company, Deels. You think she’d ever buy anything from a door-to-door salesman?”
“I’ve tried,” Delia says, her voice flat. “You know I have. Nothing takes. These power-career women—they’re not right in their minds. Something’s always off, broken.”
“Says the psychologist.”
“Yes, says the psychologist. I’m not that type and you know it. I don’t care how much I make—it’s just like nursing or rehab counseling. You don’t get to disconnect. You don’t get to live like she does. I’m telling you, something’s not right there.”
“Don’t forget that she just got divorced a year ago.”
“You ever find out why?”
“Husband had an affair. I think she only told me to shut me up. I haven’t asked about it since.”
Fuming, Alyson twists a handful of leaves off the shrub nearest her. Bill was precisely right—she’d told him about Charles’ affair to put an end to his fatherly questioning, and she’d been tipsy that night, too, having stopped for a vodka tonic on her way home from a round of meetings. Delia says, “Why didn’t you tell me that?”, and Bill responds, “I didn’t think she’d want me to. That poor lady’s got her pride.”
Alyson reaches down and slips off her shoes, then hurries along the remainder of the walkway as quietly as she can. She’s shaking with rage when she climbs into her car. In a few hours, she’ll set them all straight: this kid who thinks he can rob her, these neighbors who dare to pity her, to think she’s stalling salesmen for the company. She slams the Lexus into reverse and guns the engine.
The only part of the plan she hadn’t thought out is how to kill three hours. Not that she really needs to kill all three—the kid will probably wait for the cover of full darkness to slip out with his suitcase loaded with her things, but he doesn’t need to wait until ten. Still, Alyson’s stomach clenches as she starts down the turnpike. Since her divorce, she’s meticulously avoided this precise situation: a stretch of time in which she has nothing to do but think. She debates driving back to the college and letting herself into her office to do some paperwork. But the custodian, whose name she refuses to learn, caught her at that a couple of months ago and gave her a look of such sympathy that she wished she had documented cause to fire him.
She drives. It’s a hideous town, Oak Ridge, no real downtown, no interesting shops or cafes, just a long line of redundant fast-food joints and gas stations. It’s infested with cops and cameras, which means it takes forever to drive from one end of the city to the other. Making her way toward Clinton, Alyson spends more time on the brakes than on the gas, and she has the same cheetah-on-a-hamster-wheel feeling she gets in committee meetings. Once she’s out of Oak Ridge and curving past Melton Lake, she accelerates hard down highway 61, not caring if she lands a second ticket. The intersections are behind her now, and she can finally breathe.
It was true that Charles had had an affair. He’d confessed it immediately, the Monday morning after he returned from a conference in North Carolina. It meant nothing, he told her; it was one night, and he’d hardly known the woman. Something in him had come loose. It wasn’t him, wasn’t the kind of man he was. He told her this sitting on the edge of their bed, his eyes mapped with red, his head in his hands. He smelled faintly of rum.
Alyson had stood up and gone to the mirror above their dresser. She touched her hair, straightened her blouse. “If that’s not who you are, why did you do it?” she asked him coolly.
He sat there a long time, motionless. When he picked up his head, he said, “Something’s wrong with us, Alyson. It’s not an excuse for what I did. But I wouldn’t look twice at another woman if you—if we—”
“If I what?”
He held out his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I don’t know how to explain it. Like I said, it’s not an excuse. I know I’ve hurt you horribly. I know what I’ve done can’t be undone.”
“You don’t have to put on sackcloth and ashes, Charles.” It was a phrase she liked to mock, something out of the Bible. “I’m already over it. We’re even.”
His head snapped up. “We’re what?”
She didn’t hesitate. “I had my affair years ago.”
There was a long silence during which they stared at each other in the bureau mirror.
“Your affair,” Charles said at last.
“People cheat, Charles. That’s what they do.” She turned to face him. “One of us was going to do it first. It may as well have been me.”
“People? What people?” His eyes were circles; he was standing up now, gripping his head. “Who talks like that, Alyson? We’re not talking about people. We’re talking about us. When did this happen? How long were we married?”
“About two years in.”
“Two years in.”
She reached into a ceramic dish on the bureau and located her earrings. “Stop repeating me, you sound ridiculous.”
“Who was he?”
“Someone I met in the Ed. D. program at U.T. It didn’t last long. Longer than yours, but not long.”
He sat back down. In a softer voice, he asked, “Why did you?”
“I don’t know. It just happened. But it’s long over, and now neither of us has anything to feel guilty about.”
“Are you kidding me, Alyson? Are you hearing yourself? We’ve only been married eight years, and we’ve both cheated. You don’t think something’s wrong? Look in that mirror. You look almost—you’re too calm about this. Like you called it all before it happened, like this is just par for the course. I have news for you. It isn’t.”
The truth was that she’d been attracted to the hardness of the other man’s vision even more than she was to his broad shoulders and square jaw. He’d offered her a cigarette during a break between classes and said, “A doctorate in education is for people with no souls—or people fervently hoping to disband with them.” He’d been almost cheerful about it. Like her, he’d confronted the truth of what the world was, and who he was; he knew they were chasing a degree that meant exactly nothing, knew that their classes were unmitigated fluff, but had accepted that it was a means to a very material end. They talked like this every day between classes. It became a kind of competition to see who could speak the more outrageous truth. “I don’t care about students,” he told her over lunch downtown. “I didn’t even care as a teacher. It’s all bullshit, all this garbage we’re cramming down their throats. But somebody profits from it, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be me.” They began sleeping together halfway through the semester. The affair ended when he had too much to drink after a night class and confessed to Alyson that he’d once been a fine arts major, that all he’d ever wanted was to write poetry and that he couldn’t quite believe that part of him was truly dead. She left him at the bar and drove herself home to Charles, who was piecing together a ten-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper on the coffee table. Fed up with them both, she went to bed without a word.
Now, starting down I-75, it occurs to Alyson that it wasn’t just the man’s cynicism that had attracted her. It was the idea of the affair itself. There’d been a sense of relief about the whole thing, a feeling of undertaking a necessary task for the survival of her future. If Charles betrayed or left her, she’d have in reserve the knowledge that she’d left him first. It was a kind of game she’d been playing since her teenage years—cutting people off at the pass. She would not be victimized. She would not be one of these glass-hearted types who fell apart at the first stroke, nor would she be her father, humming happily as the people around her took and took and took.
She hasn’t been on I-75 since she was still married. It’s the gateway to the places Charles used to call their sacred sites back when he was in his mythology phase—sites of early dates, romantic picnics, Charles’ proposal. Down this route was Cove Lake State Park, Norris Dam, the egg-and-toast place in LaFollette. Further north lay Cumberland Gap, a throwback mountain town that reminded her of a secondhand toy she’d played with as a toddler, a brightly colored plastic neighborhood with a post office, fire department, bank, grocery store. The figurines who peopled it were fat and smiling, thrilled to be delivering mail and rescuing cats from trees. It was all so perfect, so wholesome, that plastic was the only appropriate medium for such a place. She’d laughingly explained the comparison to Charles when he took her there, and it sparked the first argument they’d had as a married couple.
She checks the car’s digital clock. It’s not fully dark yet, but how patient would the kid be, with a wad of cash waiting for the taking in her top drawer? She takes the exit for Cove Lake and turns around in the hotel parking lot just past the ramp. It’s a beat-up Holiday Inn, and once, caught in a sudden blizzard, she and Charles had holed up here for a night. It was early in their relationship and they were in that ridiculous stage where they believed everything that happened had been tailored specifically for their enjoyment. Or rather, Charles was in that stage. He was the one who dragged her downstairs to the lobby to “talk and drink cocoa” by the electric fireplace. He was the one who made her walk outside in the freezing cold at dawn to see the way grapefruit-pink light sparkled against the new snow blanketing the mountains. “You’re not a chemical engineer at heart, you know,” she’d told him as he squeezed her into his coat. He laughed. “I hope not.”
Alyson returns to the interstate, driving south. To the dashboard, she says, “But you are. You’re more like me than you want to admit. You did cheat after all.” And he’d been the one to ask for a divorce, not her. It was not the other woman but Alyson’s reaction to his affair that convinced him. When he told her what he wanted, Alyson was as collected as she’d been the morning of his confession. She called a lawyer and scheduled an appointment. Then she began parsing out their belongings, telling Charles she’d be happy to leave first and that he could decide how he wanted to handle the house. For a week he watched her in a kind of numb shock as she boxed her things. “You don’t want to take anything?” he asked just once, and by anything she knew he meant any memento of their life together.
The fact that the memory of him still wounds her, the fact that his affair ever wounded her at all, cements Alyson in her purpose. No doubt that skinny drug-addled kid is flying down the figure eight right now, suitcase thumping against his leg, thinking to himself, poor lady. He’ll think differently when the cops knock on his door in the morning, and so will his loser parents.
On the off chance the kid is still in her house, Alyson shuts off her headlights before she pulls into the driveway. Bill’s house is dark—he and Delia go to sleep at eight o’clock—and Alyson’s is dark, too, save for the kitchen, whose light forms a wide amber rectangle on the side lawn.
Alyson keys her way into the house and stands there in the near-dark. No sound. She heels off her shoes and goes to her bedroom first, flipping on the light. Her jewelry is still on the bureau beside the camera and the coin collection. Her cash sits atop her lingerie, untouched; her father’s memento box rests on her bed like an open casket. She steps back into the hallway.
In the kitchen, one chair is slightly askew. The two iced tea glasses are in the sink—had she put them there? She moves through the rest of the house, turning on more lights. Nothing is disturbed. An inexplicable dread clutches at her as she exits the house and crosses the dark lawn to the garage. He’s left a light on, just the single bulb above the door, but it’s enough to illuminate the shelves he’s set up for her along the far wall. She’s about to back away when she notices a slip of paper taped to the door. It’s her yellow legal paper, ripped from the pad she keeps by the phone in the kitchen, and he’s used her Sharpie to write a note: I finished your shelves. Couldn’t find the mower, but I can come back to fix it if you show me where. I had to leave, I should have told you I couldn’t stay til 9. My sisters are home alone right now and I have to get back. 100 is too much for this but if you want me to do more work this weekend I could earn it fair and square. It would help us. A phone number is scrawled at the bottom of the sheet with the word house written in parenthesis after the final digit.
She reads the note twice, blinking. Then she goes back inside, forgetting to turn off the garage light or lock the door behind her. She lays the yellow sheet on the kitchen table. As she pulls out her chair, she catches sight of something glittering on the floor. It’s the tie pin, the one the kid had so embarrassedly removed when Alyson pointed it out. In a rush she recalls his thinness, the way he stroked and smoothed each tie, the look on his face when she said they just scream used car salesman. Suddenly she knows exactly who he is, and in her shame, she covers her face with her hands.
Alyson is motionless for a long time. The kitchen is deathly quiet save for the tick of the clock over the stove. When she finally does move, it’s to pick up the tie pin and walk unsteadily to the front door. She fumbles the pin open. Lips pursed, she digs the point into the white-painted doorframe and starts to carve. The pin is stronger than it looks, and she’s able to cut all the way into the wood, a diagonal slash that could be the beginning of her name.
Praying is not something she can do. She can’t look heavenward and ask for a blessing, can’t clasp her hands together and convince herself that someone is listening. Probably she never will. But she at least has it in her to draw a line—a single, quavering line, primitive and hopeful as a petroglyph on a raw stone wall.