Authors: Steve Yarbrough
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2013 by Steve Yarbrough
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Hal Leonard Corporation for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” words and music by Bill Monroe. Copyright © 1947 by Bill Monroe Music, Inc. (BMI), renewed 1975. Bill Monroe Music, Inc. administered by BMG Rights Management (US) LLC for United States only. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of Hal Leonard Corporation.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Yarbrough, Steve, [date]
The realm of last chances / Steve Yarbrough.
1. Married people—Fiction. 2. City and town life. 3. New England—Fiction. 4. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Jacket design by Jason Booher
Now that this danger has passed I can see that nothing is as it was, and that such danger was in fact the one true meaning of life
they were both fifty
when they moved to Massachusetts, settling in a small town a few miles north of Boston. Like a lot of people around the country over the last few years, they’d recently experienced a run of bad luck.
Due to the state budget crisis, she’d lost her job as vice president for academic personnel at a large University of California campus in the Sacramento Valley. The year before her layoff, everyone, even the football coaches, had been subjected to mandatory furloughs, and things had turned ugly as the union blamed the shortfall on “managerial bloat.” She’d had a hand in denying tenure to a number of professors, and many faculty members rejoiced when the administration was reorganized and she received her pink slip.
His business was construction. He was the man you engaged if you needed to have something small and delicate done and could pay for fine work. You had to accept certain things about him, though. He’d come and go on his own terms, and he would bring a small Bose along and listen to music throughout the day. He wouldn’t have much to say. The fact that he was working for you didn’t necessarily mean he’d return every phone call. People who’d put up with such idiosyncrasies when the economy was healthy proved a lot less understanding after the downturn. By the time they left the valley, he hadn’t had a job for close to six months.
Her friends had always considered them an odd pair. He was from someplace down around Bakersfield, a tall, angular man who’d attended college only a semester before dropping out. His great passion was stringed instruments, and he could play the guitar, mandolin, banjo and Dobro well enough to
earn money doing it if he’d chosen to, but the only audience he ever performed for was the other amateur musicians and assorted hangers-on who gathered at a crossroads grocery outside Sacramento on Friday nights. That was where they’d met, when she went there with a friend a year or so after the demise of her first marriage.
Of medium height, trim and fit, she’d earned a Ph.D. in comp lit and published a handful of articles on writers like Kafka, Broch and Svevo before moving into administration. With a laugh, she sometimes referred to her days in the classroom as “my previous life.” She didn’t think she’d been a very good teacher, perhaps because she had trouble reaching out to those she taught, who were often first-generation college students from migrant families. She loved cooking and sometimes wondered if she’d missed her calling and should’ve owned a restaurant.
She had what she always described as bad hair. Blond, it had always been thin, and as she aged it grew even thinner. The valley’s arid climate didn’t help. When she attended a conference in the Deep South or went back home to Pennsylvania, the moisture in the air lent it a bit more body. But it is what it is, she liked to say. She’d watched a couple middle-aged women—friends of her mother—quietly go crazy in the small town where she’d grown up, doing all sorts of bizarre things that caused others pain and kept the local gossips entertained, and she’d promised herself that when her time came to grow older she would accept it with grace.
Moving to Massachusetts was itself an act of acceptance. She got another job in academic personnel, this time at a state college, where she’d earn barely half her former salary, and they sold their house in the valley for barely half of what it had once been worth and bought a three-story colonial that needed lots of work. They wouldn’t hire anyone to fix it up. Cal could do whatever needed doing to any house, anywhere.
• • •
The couple owned a dog, a ten-year-old black Lab named Suzy that they’d given themselves for their fifth anniversary. The first evening in the new house, with most of their things still in Bekins cartons, they decided to take her out for a walk. She’d had a rough trip across the country, mostly riding in the cab of Cal’s pickup, though a few times they switched and let her get in the car with Kristin.
It was August and hotter than either of them had expected. “This feels like New Orleans,” she said as they stepped off the porch. “I don’t know if we can make it here without AC.”
He gestured at the house directly across the street, where a pair of window units droned on the second floor. “I’ll go look for one of those as soon as we get unpacked. We can put it in the bedroom. From what I read online, the most we’ll ever get’s three or four weeks of heat and humidity. Some years even less.”
The neighborhood, according to the Realtor who’d helped them find the house, was a good one, on the dividing line between two distinctly different North Shore towns. The one to the east, Cedar Park, was a little more upscale, with a fine seafood restaurant and a Mexican place the lady claimed would pass muster even with Californians. It also had a bakery where you could buy real Irish soda bread, a couple of nice cafés, several antique stores and an antiquarian bookshop. They never bothered to remove the Christmas lights on Main Street, she told them, so even a balmy summer night seemed to hint of nutmeg and cider, and you almost expected to hear sleigh bells. An early Temperance Movement stronghold, it was still legally dry, though you could get a drink in both restaurants, provided you first ordered food. Montvale—the town to the west in which they technically resided, though its center was farther away—had a grittier, blue-collar air. According to Wikipedia, back in the seventies it had earned an entry in the
Book of World Records
for the highest number of gas stations in a one-mile stretch. Most of those were gone now, apparently displaced by liquor stores: the day they made the offer on the house, Cal had counted seven. Chains like CVS, Walgreens, Stop & Shop and Shaw’s were driving out the mom-and-pops, but he’d noted two independent hardware stores within a few hundred yards of each other. He hoped to scope them out over the next few days.
“A lot of things seem strange here,” she said as they turned down the sidewalk.
She nodded at the house they were passing. Like almost all the other Victorians and colonials in the neighborhood, it must have been built well over a hundred years ago. Through the window she could see a couple sitting there watching TV. Dropping her voice, she said, “Their car has an Obama sticker on it.”
“Well, it’s Massachusetts.”
“But they’re watching Bill O’Reilly, and that means Fox News.”
“Maybe they’re disillusioned. Aren’t you?”
She knew how he voted—the same ticket she did—but sometimes didn’t have a clue what he was thinking. He was prone to silence. It was a matter of aesthetics, she supposed, like his disdain for musicians who played too many notes. “Not with Obama,” she answered.
He laughed. “With me?”
“Not you, either,” she said, refusing to consider whether she was telling the whole truth.
He jiggled Suzy’s chain. “Guess that means it’s you, pooch.”
They walked around the neighborhood for thirty or forty minutes, both of them wearing shorts and T-shirts, and in no time his were soaked. He’d always perspired a lot, but unlike her he relished being sweaty. In California, she’d often return
home to discover that he’d switched off the AC, even on days when the temperature soared above a hundred. They had a black-bottomed pool overhung by tall pines, and she frequently found him there reclining on the steps at the shallow end, a visor pulled low over his eyes, three or four empty beer bottles on the poolside, his ever-present Bose providing string-band music from the nearby picnic table.
When Suzy paused to relieve herself, he handed Kristin the leash, pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and bent to collect the waste. They were in Cedar Park proper, at an intersection maybe three hundred yards downhill from their new house. While knotting the bag, he asked if she’d noticed how many streets were unmarked.
From here she could see two other intersections—but not a single street sign. “You’re right,” she said. “That’s funny, isn’t it? Do you think kids are stealing the signs?”
He stuck the first bag into a second one, then tied it up and put it in his pocket. He’d always done that, and it had always troubled her to know that he was walking along beside her with dog shit in his pocket. She’d objected once, but he said he’d rather have it there than dangling from his hand where everyone could see it. And for reasons she couldn’t specify, that troubled her even more.
“I doubt kids are stealing their signs,” he said. “They just don’t put ’em up to begin with. They probably figure if you don’t know where you’re going, you most likely don’t belong here. Who knows? They may be right.”
She lay awake a long time that first night, drenched in perspiration and thinking about that observation until she gave up on sleep and got out of bed. In the bathroom she took a quick shower, toweled herself dry, slipped into the thin robe she’d worn in motels from one side of the continent to the other and went downstairs. In the darkened hallway Suzy lay twitching,
no doubt lost in a troublesome dream, so she stroked her neck until she woke, and together they went outside. Kristin sat on the porch steps with Suzy perched beside her. “We’ll get used to it here,” she whispered, realizing that she really didn’t have much more choice than the dog.
their first full day
was spent unpacking boxes—more than two hundred, all told. Before beginning to arrange their contents, he insisted on breaking down the cardboard and stacking it neatly in the backyard. Once he learned where a recycling center was, he said, he’d haul it away.
Toting out all that cardboard required more than forty trips, many of which started on the upper floors. He got so hot he pulled off his T-shirt and hung it from the railing of their rear deck, but he enjoyed the exercise. Sitting behind the wheel in his pickup for five straight days, he’d had too much time to think, and most of his thoughts were dark. Every time Kristin’s car disappeared from the rearview mirror, he whipped out his cell phone to call and make sure she hadn’t gotten lost or had an accident or turned around and headed back. Certainly, what awaited them on the opposite side of the country was anybody’s guess.