1. Topanga Canyon, California: July 24, 1993 TOPANGA CANYON, CALIFORNIA JULY 24, 1993
RORY—SHE WAS then just Rory, not yet anyone’s mother—saw it first and thought it was a dog. A small breed, a cairn or a spaniel pup that had snuck beneath a fence seeking food or affection only to get its first pat of the day from the fender of a speeding car.
It was not yet dawn and the canyon walls were denim blue under the moon’s soft light. Rory leaned forward to see the animal better and Gus, her stepfather, pulled the truck over. They’d come across roadkill nearly every morning. Deer, rabbits, even a coyote; bodies in the road, noses pointed toward their last intention.
Ever since school let out for the summer, Rory had been rising in the dark, waking Gus, wanting to work her full list of horses before the sun reached its scorching height.
“That’s a fox,” Gus said.
The rust-hued fur, the blackened lines of its muzzle and tail, were apparent in the beam of the headlights now. Rory sat back, relieved. She’d been imagining looking for a collar, having to call the number on the tag.
“I’ve lived here twenty-odd years and I’ve only seen one other. Had eyes the size of plums,” Gus said, making rings with his fingers, looking through them at Rory.
“Come on,” she said. “Quit playing. Let’s move it already.”
“I can get this one,” Gus said, putting his hand to the roof to lift himself out. He’d put on weight. Rory worried about his heart.
After the deluge of rain the winter before, Governor Pete Wilson had declared an end to six years of drought, but the lawns in the valley were only coming in green now because the rains that had hit the canyon ran down its parched crevices, never sinking in, going on to feed the L.A. River, the reservoir, and all those automatic sprinklers instead. The canyon’s creeks were dried to cracking already and Gus said the animals they kept finding had wandered from their beaten paths, hunting water. Burying them was beside the point—taking a vulture’s work—but he’d agreed they could stop and move the bodies, sparing them from being speed bumps the canyon’s tourists winced over.
Weeks ago, when they’d found the coyote, Rory felt compelled to say something—not a prayer so much as an apology on behalf of mankind—and she’d said a few words for every animal since. Gus obediently lowering his head, then mumbling, “That was good,” when Rory was through.
She closed her eyes now, readying words, but Gus was making a racket in the flat bed of the truck—a bucket dumped out, a bridle tossed aside, the metallic clank of bits and buckles. She turned around in time to catch the silken drape of the fox slipping from his hands and into the emptied bucket, the feline liquidity of its fur. She was still fixed on the bucket when Gus closed himself back into the truck.
“Is it alive?” she asked, gooseflesh riding her arms. “If it’s still alive we could—” She was imagining spoon-feeding it, warming it beneath saddle pads, nursing it back to health.
Gus tipped his hat off and gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head.
“But,” Rory started. “If it’s dead—”
Gus was looking into the well of his hat. “You should say your little prayer—”
“My little prayer?” she said. “Why’s it in the bucket? Why would you keep it? You’re the one—”
She was about to remind him of the vultures, the cycle of life, the notions he’d fed to her, she was realizing, just to keep them moving. She stared hard at him as he pulled the truck back onto the road, the twitch of a secret smile beneath his beard. She put her boots up on the dash, knowing how he hated it. “She won’t like this,” Rory said.
He rolled down his window and ran his hand through his straw-gray hair. Both of them knew she meant Mona, Rory’s mother.
Ten years ago, when they moved into Gus’s house, Mona insisted he box up all evidence of his old hobby. Rory, just five years old then, had a particular fascination with the birds, sitting motionless on perches, not yet understanding what taxidermy involved. In all these years, she hadn’t wondered if he still did it, but he hadn’t given her reason to until now.
“Did you hear what I said?” she asked.
They were cresting the mountain, nearing the ranch, the day’s first light splintering through the trees, a sandy light.
“I did,” he said, and turned the truck down the driveway and under the ranch’s iron archway:
LEANING ROCK RANCH
EQUESTRIAN TRAINING AND BOARDING
They weren’t the first to arrive. The gold convertible Mercedes belonging to June Fisk, of the Fisk twins, was already pulled in alongside the L barn, the coveted space that stayed shadiest the longest. The other cars, each one dustier than the next, belonged to the men who lived and worked on the ranch; Tomás’s was the worst of all, up on cinder blocks, yet to run.
Gus pulled in next to the office and hoisted the parking brake, rocking them back in their seats. Behind them, the bucket tipped over with a fleshy thud.
“Jesus,” Rory said. “Can we please just bury it?”
“This place is a tinderbox,” Gus said, ignoring her, looking up at the hillside. Rory had heard his theories about the downpours, about the winter rains being what actually ushered in wildfires, by growing the ground fuel. “Just you wait,” Gus said. “It’ll be one of you.” He looked toward June Fisk’s Mercedes. “Lazy with your cigarettes, flicking a match out of the car. It won’t take much.”
“One of us?” Rory asked, with a laugh of disbelief. Each of the Fisk twins, June and her brother, Wade, owned horses more valuable than their cars combined and neither of them ever said more than a half sentence in Rory’s direction. She made a stable hand’s wage of $3.75 an hour, exercising horses for people like them. People with air-conditioned homes and beach vacations, people who could afford a lack of commitment. Every other day, Rory had to ride Wade’s chestnut Hanoverian, Journey. “The Fisks don’t even know my name,” Rory said. “Besides,” she started, “I don’t smo—”
“I’ll tell you what,” Gus interrupted, lifting the toes of her boots and dropping them off the dash. “You don’t tell your mother about this”—he tipped his head toward the back of the truck—“and I won’t tell her you’ve been sneaking her cigarettes.”
“Seriously?” Rory said. She had taken maybe a dozen, but so carefully, and over weeks.
“Seriously,” Gus said, his eyebrows lifting with the challenge.
Beyond the ranch, beyond horses, what they shared most was a fear of Mona.
Rory got out of the truck with an itch to take the bucket from the back, to run with it into the hills and bury the poor animal, but instead she closed the door and leaned back in through the window, mocking his country drawl. “Mighty kind of you, Mr. Scott.”
THAT AFTERNOON, THE boy got away from Sarah Price in the market.
She was reading the ingredients on a box of fish sticks—busy hating Everett for requesting such plebeian food—when she looked down and saw the boy was gone. The boy. Sarah thought of Charlie as the boy only when they were having a bad day. She could not bring herself to appreciate the dichotomy of the toddler brain: at any given hour of the day he was madly dashing away from her, but in the pitch of night he insisted, repeatedly, incessantly, on having her at his side. And now she wasn’t completely sure when she had last seen him. She was exhausted, but not in the mopey, leaden-foot way people tended to be in this heat, rather in a deeper, more hardwired way: a compulsion to get out and shake loose of something. Everett wished she’d have the nanny, Carmen, do the shopping, but she knew he wasn’t being considerate so much as being fearful of some rogue paparazzo taking her picture looking disheveled in this sad little market, then splashing it on the cover of ET.: “You’d Never Know She’s a Movie Star’s Wife.” No matter, she liked the sifting and choosing, the mindless accomplishment of it. And this market was never crowded. Sarah loathed crowds, lines, gatherings of any kind, really.
The boy. Charlie. My boy. An emptiness was opening behind her ribs, a sinkhole of space. Charlie was a beautiful boy, unmistakable. His grandfather’s copper-red hair and emerald eyes and his father’s toothy grin. Even if someone didn’t know he was Everett Price’s son, she would worry. He stirred a need in people to touch him, to pick him up. To take him?
She heard his laugh—his impish snicker—before she saw him. He was in the produce area, looking up at a man in a white, blood-mottled apron: a butcher, bent over Charlie with a ghoulish grin. It took Sarah another stride, a split second, to see the slice of orange tucked between the butcher’s lips. Even as she had him in her arms again, Charlie was still laughing. The butcher pulled the fruit from his mouth. “He’s an easy laugh, that one.”
Sarah was working to keep ahold of him, the boy pushing and twisting against her, wanting, as usual, to be down again. She pressed her face to the seashell of his ear: “Be still.”
“But they can get away from you sometimes, can’t they? I was about to walk him back to you … Mrs. Price.”
“Of course you were,” Sarah said abruptly, turning away, resenting that pause before he said her name. That he’d said her name. He didn’t know her.
Had she felt liked here at all? They’d moved from Beverly Hills, where they were recognized and respected, to this gauche ogling. She’d been the one who wanted to move. To get away—as away as they could and still be near enough to the studios, the necessary parties; god help her. Though now, of course, Everett had been cast in a film that was shooting in Toronto. And he’d been in Vancouver all of June, and New York the month before that. Did anyone even make movies in Hollywood anymore?
Sarah thought better of how she’d spoken to the butcher. “Of course you were,” she said, over her shoulder, with renewed warmth. Charlie was twisting in her arms, still trying to see him.
“Paul,” the butcher said. “My name’s Paul, Mrs. Price.”
“Thank you, Paul,” she said, and then for some reason she kept on walking, right past the register, still talking—“Thank you, so very much, thank you, Paul”—she was rambling. “He just needs me, you see. He wanders off and”—she was backing out the door—“I’m his mother. So, we have to be on our way.” Like a crazy person; this was Everett’s voice in her head.
She’d gotten to the car and had Charlie in his seat before realizing that she still had the basket, that she’d set it down on the seat beside him as if it were her purse, the fish sticks there on top.
IF NOT FOR his finding the fox, this had been just another day of work, of resenting the tightness of his boots in this heat, teaching one lethargic jumping lesson after another. Gus’s last class was a training-level group of prepubescent girls on an older string of horses, all taking their fences as if weighed down in glue. Into the speaker system, he chided: “Ease up on the reins, ladies. Are you looking to jump these fences or back up over them?”
He’d seen Rory going up the trailhead on her mare not long ago. He needed to get her a ride home. He’d already decided how he wanted to articulate the fox; curled as if sleeping, one eye open above the bush of her tail.
“Okay, that’s enough for today,” he said into the loudspeaker, and every apple-cheeked kid dropped her reins as the horses turned for the barn.
In the distance, vultures swept black circles above the god-size fist of sandstone that teetered on the westernmost hillside above the ranch. Carlotta Danvers had named the ranch Leaning Rock because of it, back in the seventies, when she first bought the land, being sharp enough then to know naming the threat destigmatized it. It had been three years since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, yet Gus still aimed to please her with the way he ran things.
As soon as the ring emptied, Gus called to Jorge, his head stable hand, who stepped over the fence and began walking out the fire hose. With the water rationing lifted, Gus had the men hosing down the rings and the walkways throughout the day. Twenty years ago, he’d taken a job here exercising horses, same as Rory did now, never anticipating he’d become the manager, let alone the lead trainer, but here he was. There’d been articles written about him: “The Cowboy Equestrian.”
Gus briefly considered asking Jorge to take Rory home, but June Fisk was still around. And Gus didn’t like what Rory had said, that the Fisks didn’t even know her name.
“It shouldn’t be much out of your way,” Gus said. He’d found June putting her horse up for the night, the sky casting around in pinks and oranges. “I’d sure appreciate it.”
“No, I’d be happy to,” June said. “For sure.”
June didn’t always clock so many hours at the barn, but Gus knew she was getting ready for Fresno—conditioning Palmetto in the hills, taking a dressage lesson in the afternoon. And it wasn’t unusual for kids to mill around the barn anyway, lingering by the vending machine, watching the men clean up after their horses. Some of the girls flirted with the stable hands, especially Tomás, the youngest, as if practicing for boys at school, but June wasn’t that sort. She wasn’t so aimless. Not unlike his Rory. Wade was another story, always zipping in and out in that open-sided blue jeep of his, friends in flip-flops piled in the back, whistling to him to hurry up, startling the horses. If Wade had half of his sister’s dedication; if they’d had to share a car, he’d at least be here more often, but Gus registered there was some friction there, between the twins. These were vague thoughts: horseshit, forked and tossed. What mattered most was that June was reliable and willing to take Rory home. Maybe they’d become friends.
Rory was back in the L barn, cleaning tack, working lotion into the leather like it was a contest. Her mare, Chap, nickered to Gus from her stall.
“June here’s offered to give you a ride home, Rory.”
“You’re staying, then,” Rory said, not looking up.
“Now, Rory.” He sighed.
“Now, Gus,” she said. For a time after he and Mona had married, she’d called him Dad. He’d been Gus for a long time now, but right then it sounded all wrung out, the same way Mona said it. “I know why you’re staying,” she told him. Before he could respond, she turned to June, obliging as ever: “Just gimme a minute to wash,” she said, displaying the palms of her hands.
“For sure,” June said again. Her little gold Mercedes had white leather seats.
JUNE FISK WAS gay. Everyone knew this—everyone except Gus—and they also knew it was the source of a rift in the Fisk family. Despite this or maybe because of it, June wore a necklace with a small charm of two entwined Venus figures, a piece of jewelry that Rory had heard she revealed whenever one of the younger boarders got up the nerve to ask if “it” was true. So, when Gus said June was going to drive her home, Rory hesitated, picturing Mona, a cigarette dangling from her lips, taking in June’s car as they pulled up, her expression souring as if June’s goddesses of love were entwined on the body of the Mercedes itself. Hay fever kept Mona at a merciful distance from Leaning Rock during the day, and her job took her into the valley every night, usually just as Gus and Rory were getting home. But if she was still at home now, when June pulled up, Rory knew that through some invisible vibration in the air, she would feel Mona’s opinion of June, her fancy car, and her orientation. Mona’s moods and opinions took up an inordinate amount of space in their house, but lately, Rory had noticed an energy within herself, something spirited, maybe even angry, and she’d been letting this new force make different choices for her.
This was the first time Rory had ridden in a convertible. It was not unlike galloping downhill. Her hair was pulled back in its usual braid and tucked into her shirt, while June’s cropped box-dyed blue-black hair danced at the line of her chin.
June said something that Rory couldn’t hear, then repeated it: “You work too hard.”
Rory shook her head. She could have said the same about June, except she only rode her own horse and didn’t have to spend half the day forking out stalls.
“You ever get away? Leave the canyon? Leave the barn?” June asked.
“For school,” Rory said.
Rory nodded. Polk was in the valley, off the 101, cloaked in smog. She knew June went to a private school, somewhere in Brentwood or Santa Monica, near the ocean’s salt-scrubbed air.
June had a broad, plain face with a slightly piggish nose and large white teeth. She was not what Rory thought people considered pretty, but her features were tidy, well-kept, her eyes the wide honest kind, though she often wore large round sunglasses. She always rode in a white cotton button-up shirt, tan britches, and tall polished black boots; dependable as a uniform. The opposite of Wade, who often showed up in swim trunks and a serape, smelling of Banana Boat. But Wade’s confidence shone brighter, a luxury in his own body that drew people’s attention.
June stuck a cassette into the tape deck.
“Lou Reed?” Rory asked.
“Yeah,” June said. “The Velvet Underground, so yeah.” She nodded at Rory and turned it up. “How old are you?” June was practically yelling, competing with the wind and the music.
“Fifteen.” Rory knew she was small for her age, muscled and flat-chested.
“You ever smoke? Pot, I mean. You ever smoke weed?”
Rory’s cheeks flushed.
“Aw, I should get you high sometime. I kinda owe you—all your help with our horses.”
It was rare for June not to come work her horse, Palmetto, but when Rory had the chance to ride him she considered it a pleasure. She’d have ridden Pal for free, but she thought better than to say so.
Rory knew that plenty of the barn brats—this was a Mona phrase—smoked weed. She knew the wet-skunk smell. It had never interested her before. “Okay,” she said, louder than necessary as the car slowed, then stopped, and the wind stilled. Then more softly, “I mean, sure. I’d smoke with you. Whenever.”
June smiled at her. They were stuck in a line of traffic now, backed up a half mile from the stop sign at the fork onto the main road, right alongside the gated entrance to the Price estate. One of the two winged gates was standing open, like a beckoning arm. The closed side of the gate read, 521 OLD CAN, the lettering in glinting hot silver. The other half—Rory had driven by a thousand times—completed it: YON ROAD. She’d never seen the gate open this way, never laid eyes on the front doors. They were double wide, heavily varnished wood, with an enormous clay pot of fountain grass on each side. A broad silver plate framed the doorbell, shiny as a mirror.
“You know them? The Prices?” June asked. Everyone knew of the Prices.
“No,” Rory said. “You?”
“The daughter?” June said, her voice ticking up in a question. “Vivian? She transferred to our school, Merriam Prep, midyear. Seems nice enough, a little arrogant maybe. But it’s got to be tough being a movie star’s kid.”
“Right,” Rory chided. But June wasn’t laughing. “You’re kidding, right?”
“No. Really.” June tucked her hair behind her ear. “Wade sure thinks she’s all that.”
“He thinks she’s pretty?” Rory asked. “Vivian?” She liked saying her name, the slip of it, like rope untangling.
“You’ve seen pictures of her, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, of course,” Rory said. She’d seen Vivian in Mona’s magazines, the kind full of gossip and wardrobe imperatives, but also—“Our house looks down on their yard.”
“Bullshit,” June said, glancing at Rory. “Really?”
It was another two and a half miles and a two-hundred-foot climb up the ridge before they would reach the bridge that led to Rory’s driveway. Carlotta’s sprawling house was perched above the dilapidated little A-frame they rented from her, and now that house, their house, hovered ironically above the opulent expanse of the Price estate. All the canyon’s walls were tiered with houses this way, a result of people putting themselves where they didn’t belong. After the winter rains, the pylons of some houses had become exposed, precarious as the legs of a new foal. But the Prices had dug themselves a big flat lot, and from Rory’s bedroom window, through a stand of scrub oak, she could see the landscaped gardens, the winding slate paths, the giant sandbox, the blue gem of their pool. “I swear. From my room. I’ve seen her there. Not a lot, but—” She’d watched Vivian swimming. Often. Countless times. Seen her lying at the edge of the pool, the top to her bikini flung aside. “I can see their pool.”
“From your room? Shit, that’s something,” June said. “Maybe you’ll show me?”
When the Prices bought the land, it had been only a hillside consisting of the oaks, a windbreak of eucalyptus, and a small adobe shack. Then orange-vested surveyors came scrambling around like colonizing ants. Bulldozers followed, digging out the slopes. They downed oaks and all the eucalyptus, chain saws buzzing, and set them on truck beds like piles of matchsticks. Rory had watched, hidden up behind the remaining trees, inconsequential as a squirrel. Eight months later, the adobe shack had stretched into a single-story estate, the shape of a flying white crane, with its wings holding—rumor was—eight bedrooms, all spotted with skylights. There’d been grumbling about the bulldozing, more Hollywood types moving in, until a sizable donation was made to the Topanga Historical Society. Rory knew she had a view others would want.
At the fork, Rory directed June left, but they still had to wait for a break in traffic.
“Do you think she’s pretty?” Rory asked, amazed by her own boldness.
“Vivian? I think she’s pale.”
Pickup, car, van, car. Too many people with maps. June gunned it through the smallest break between oncoming cars, saying, “This heat has got to quit.”
In the dirt turnaround that served as their driveway, June stopped short, and a net of dust hung in the air. Mona’s car was gone, and Rory let out a relieved breath. “She’s at work.”
“She’s a bartender,” Rory said.
“A bartender,” June repeated, nodding.
“In Reseda,” Rory said, wishing she hadn’t. She untucked her braid from her shirt and gripped the end of it. A nervous habit that Mona was always pointing out.
“Huh. So, nobody’s home.” June cut the engine.
“You want to come in? There’s beer. Some harder stuff, too.”
“You drink?” June was running lip gloss over her lips, checking it in the rearview.
“Sometimes.” A lie, but the kind with a wish folded up inside, a wish for another version of herself.
“Right,” June said, puckering her lips. “For sure.”
ON THE PHONE, Sarah’s doctor said, “You sound overtired.”
Sarah knew by the occasional flare of sound coming from the east end of the house that Vivian was home. Charlie was in his high chair, painting the tray with the remains of his dinner. She’d given him something green. Eventually, Vivian would come out and make herself food, but not until Sarah had gone to bed—however temporarily. It was a routine, Charlie’s calling out for her, again and again, then clinging to her neck as she tried to soothe him, groping for her breasts as she stroked his back, shushing him, until finally she would relent and feed him in the glider. Then, when she was sure he was truly asleep—those heavy-lidded eyes!—she would rise, moving toward the crib as seamlessly as she was able, only to have his eyes inevitably pop open as soon as she bent toward the railing of his bed. His torso would go rigid and he’d thrust his feet to the floor, scrambling away, running from the room, down the hall, flopping onto the carpet. She did not recall Vivian’s infancy rendering her so powerless, but surely this forgetting was nature’s trickery. She’d anticipated Vivian’s teenage years would leave her feeling diminished—and oh, how they did—but this dual attack on her wits … “I’m just not myself right now,” she said to her doctor.
Ever since Everett had left, yet again, she and Vivian had fallen into a pattern of avoidance. Vivian could simultaneously own a room and not exist in it. She was always stretching out by the pool or putting her feet up on the couch, a Discman tethered to her head, her mind elsewhere while her vanity seemed to pulse, awaiting a spotlight. Her presence was an invitation for Sarah to move to another room. But maybe that was okay. Maybe it was simply Charlie’s turn to have her now. The baby she had so feverishly wanted.
On the phone, the doctor asked again, “Are you still breast feeding?” He would refuse to up her dosage if she said that she was. They’d had this discussion before.
GUS WAS IN the back of the main office, the room that had been Carlotta’s office; a picture of her son and daughter was still there on the wall. He’d had a drink, maybe three, enough to dull the senses before he cut. It had been a long time, but this was a beautiful animal, a thing to put his mind to, to do right. Mona wouldn’t be home for hours. He poured another drink, but then set it aside, a reward for when he was through the hard part.
The fox hung from a ceiling beam, one paw strung with twine. He held the limp paw and drew his knife in a ring around it, scoring the skin, before drawing the blade down the flank, where the fur shifted from red to gray, stopping at the tail.
Outside, the ranch had gone still; a lone mockingbird, a horse’s gusty exhale, and the hum of the freezer behind him were the only sounds.
It didn’t take much to tug the skin away, separating the hide from the musculature inside, but then there was the odor, that iron tint of blood, enough to overpower the whiskey. He sat down. Every time, this smell did him in. Sissy Gussie. His sister, Joy, she never cried when their father hung a deer to drain. And now she was more than just a ranch manager—she had her own land back in Wyoming. A man can get used to anything, his father always said, implying Gus wasn’t one. It was a phrase Gus still repeated to himself when any complaint took hold. Every jealousy. He knew that wasn’t how his father intended it, that he would’ve never put up with what Gus was dealing with. Not from his wife. But Gus wasn’t his father, thank god.
He threw back the reward whiskey and refreshed it, stepping out the back door for air, the smell of the cooling earth. The stars were tipping and swimming around him. So he was drunk. He could admit that. Something to eat, that was what he needed, then he could get back to it. When had he last eaten anyway?
Earlier, he’d seen Jorge sitting with Sonja, his wife, in the shade of the sycamore up against their squat stucco house, speaking in the abbreviated murmur of spouses. Happy spouses. Jorge had been eating from a paper plate—stewed meat, maybe peppers and onions, rolled into a tortilla. That’s what Gus needed: home-cooked food.
Sonja was always cooking for Jorge and Tomás, her son, and usually making enough for the three other men who also lived on the grounds, in modest quarters above the school horse tack room. When Mona hadn’t wanted to help with Carlotta—despite the fact that she lived directly above them, that they rented their own house from her—Gus had hired Sonja to come and look after her, make her meals, too. After that, he’d been offered a plate of Sonja’s food on occasion, but he knew better than to expect it.
Still, he was hungry now. And the light in their house was on, a beckoning orange glow. Leftovers, he’d only ask for leftovers. And tomorrow he would apologize for the disruption.
VIVIAN WAS IN her room, on the phone with McLeod. This was the third time she’d called him since they’d moved, since her transfer from Westerly, where McLeod taught AP English, to Merriam Prep, yet another private school where yet another white man in his early thirties stood before his pupils (half of them hungover) and tried lamely to avoid meeting her eyes only to end up looking at her tits.
“How does it feel to be a stereotype?” Vivian asked. “He even wears the same cologne.”
McLeod sighed. Everything on his end was overly loud as his “home office” (she had learned this on their second tele-soirée) was actually his garage, acoustically resonant, but most important (maybe?) it was outside of his wife’s domain. “Is this why you’re calling, Vivian?” He had given her his number when she’d taken too much “R & R” from classes at Westerly, offering to “be available” to help her catch up, only she never called until she’d started at the new school. “To insult me?”
“Noooo,” Vivian crooned. “I’m calling because my dad’s been away for so long that he might as well be at war, and I’m desperate for a father figure, but not a real father figure, McLeod, just the figure part, the part that wants my breath in his ear.”
“I can’t do this, Vivian.”
“Yes, you can, McLeod. Play along. I’m bored in my ivory tower. And so hot.” Vivian had muted her television: clips of President Bill Clinton in a press conference, followed by various men, Colin Powell and others, all in uniform, the scroll on the screen: Gays in the Military? That fucking question mark.
“Where’s your dad now?” McLeod asked.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” Vivian intoned.
“It’s better than nothing,” McLeod said.
“Canada. Is Toronto in Canada?” Vivian squeaked, playing dumb. “That’s where Daddy is this time.” Then her voice went flat again; disappointed. “It’s not what he said he’d do. Clinton, I mean.”
“You’re all so smitten with him,” Vivian said. She clicked over to MTV. From her bed, she could see across the patio and pool to the other wing of the house, to her parents’ room (more mausoleum), and to Charlie’s room, where Sarah was drawing the curtains, as if this would keep him in bed. “Why don’t you tell me about your wife instead? How is Mrs. McLeod?”
WHEN JUNE CAME inside, Rory saw her house as if she too had never seen it before: the trail of crusted dishes, the dripping faucet, the dead flies on the windowsill. June moved past her and pulled a glass from the kitchen cupboard, tearing away the last paper towel on the roll to clean the glass’s rim. She ran the water a solid minute before she filled the glass, downed it, then looked at Rory. “So, where’s your room?”
Upstairs, June slipped off her sandals, set her sunglasses down on the dresser, and moved into the room. She paused to touch the battered camera that Rory kept on a hook beside the bookshelf. A Canon AE-1 that Mona had given her earlier that year, having unearthed it from the bar’s lost and found. Rory had accepted it indifferently until Mona elbowed her, saying, “Come on, I know you wanted one.” They were uncomfortable, these moments when Mona knew her like this, though Rory couldn’t say why.
June was in the bathroom, looking at the two taxidermied birds Rory kept on a wicker table beside the sink. The ones Rory had snuck off with as a little girl, before Gus could pack them away, believing she was rescuing them from the horror of being sealed up in a dark cardboard box. A red-winged blackbird and a towhee. Each frozen atop mesquite perches, permanently alert.
“Those are weird,” June said, brushing off her hands. Then she pulled her britches down and sat on the toilet, the stream of her urine audible. Rory turned, fiddling with the knob of the floor fan, the room suddenly hot. “But it is nice up here,” June said.
It was nice up here. It was always a relief, to remember her separateness from Gus and Mona, from how they lived below. Her room had been the attic, long, like a train car with a pitched ceiling, but with three windows that sat above the tree line, letting in a play of light against the unpainted pine walls. Gus had refinished the floors and he’d managed to turn the storage room into a narrow bathroom. I didn’t marry rich, but I sure married handy, Mona had said, rubbing his neck. Years ago, Rory had begun cutting images from magazines, from Equine Times, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, and the more obscure news magazines that Carlotta let her cart away, and tacking them to the walls. She’d chosen some for their faraway destinations, others for their composition, their intimacy. She’d looked at the faces in these pictures for so long and so often that she felt she knew them. Otherwise, Rory kept the room spare: her bed, a rocking chair that Carlotta had given her in one of her manic unloading of things, the single dresser, a bookshelf, and the industrial metal fan—its low breeze lifting the corners of the pictures now. June was holding down the image of two women walking across a beige wash of desert, each balancing a basket, a shine in their eyes, aware of the photographer.
“You headed to Kenya, Scott?” June asked, her finger to the caption.
“Probably not,” Rory said. Scott was Gus’s last name, but Rory didn’t correct her.
“Sure you are,” June said, pulling a bag of weed from her pocket.
GUS KNOCKED AND leaned into the doorframe. He heard the inside of the house go quiet. He knocked again, and Sonja opened the door. Her face was blurry, but he registered some antipathy. Behind her, Tomás stepped into the living room and, seeing Gus, he stopped, lifting one hand to wave. He had his headphones on, his head bobbing. Gus went to lift his hand to wave back, but he’d been leaning on that hand and now he was moving into the kitchen, past Sonja, trying to explain, “I’m not here to make work. I promise. I’m only, I’m hungry—I couldn’t stop thinking about some food. Your cooking, Sonja. I haven’t eaten since—”
“Señor, you’re here so late,” Jorge said. There he was! Sitting at the little kitchen table in the corner of the room, a can of beer perspiring in front of him. The chair opposite him slid back from the table as if by magic. “Siéntate, mi amigo.”
Gus got a hand on the chair and sat, feeling welcome now. But there were other voices in the house—a garble of Spanish. There, the radio on the counter, the term NAFTA a life raft in an otherwise unrecognizable sea of words. Gus had mostly picked up curse words over the years. “I’m a stray dog, looking for scraps.” There were three more cans on the counter, drained and buckled. Mi amigo.
Jorge said something to Sonja and Sonja leaned into the hallway, yelling to Tomás—the boy yelling back, “Claro!” Tomás was taller and ropier than his mother or Jorge—clearly another man’s son—but Jorge treated him as his own. Yes, a couple of stepfathers—they had plenty in common.
Sonja put a kettle on and riffled in the fridge, peering into repurposed cottage cheese containers until she found what she was looking for, shaking two rolls onto a paper plate that she set in front of Gus. He brought the cold fist of a roll to his nose. It was one of the cheese-filled rolls she baked in the mornings. “It’s frío,” he said. His tongue felt thick.
Jorge and Sonja were speaking in rapid-fire Spanish now. What was this warm orange light? The walls were marmalade.
Sonja waved a hand between them at the table. “Those were for Tomás.” Rice. He’d have liked rice, maybe chicken or ground turkey, a meal that would stick to his stomach. He found Sonja’s face, her narrowed eyes. “Eat,” she said. “Then Jorge will make coffee for you.”
“Cabrón,” Jorge said, not yet getting up.
Gus lifted the roll and forced himself to chew. Sonja took a beer from the fridge and set it in front of Jorge. He had seen them squabble once or twice before, always drawing together again easily enough. Jorge cracked open his beer. Gus wanted one sip. Just one.
“It’s the last,” Jorge said, sensing Gus’s longing, and slid the can toward him.
This—the can across the table—tipped Gus’s thoughts to Mona, to the ever-available movie in his mind, her sliding a drink to another man, one of her regulars, leaning over the burnished wood of the bar, her breasts right there, inches from the always faceless man’s hands.
“That’s a hazard,” Gus blurted. He’d found the source of the orange glow: a scarf thrown over a lamp in the living room. “A fire hazard,” he said, pointing. His mouth was full, fizzing with beer and dough.
“We’re not working now,” Sonja said.
The teakettle was whistling, growing louder. Jorge got up.
“If you live here,” Gus said, “in this house, on this land—” He took one more sip, to clear his throat. “Then you are always working—”
“Why are you not home, Señor?” Sonja asked. “You need time off, no? You should be home, in your kitchen.”
Indeed, Gus thought.
Jorge was stirring instant coffee into the mug, the chink of the spoon against the porcelain.
He leaned toward Sonja and whispered to her before setting the mug down in front of Gus. Sonja walked away, cursing under her breath. She pulled the scarf from the lamp and disappeared around the corner.
Gus raised the mug. A door slammed. His hand shook. “Buenas noches,” he called to Sonja, his eyes still adjusting to the sudden light.
RORY OPENED THE window and stepped out onto the narrow lip of grating. It was a place for setting plants, not people, but June stepped out, too, sitting on the windowsill, not yet bothering to look down, focused on the rolling paper, the thread of weed she had pinched there, saying, “It’s going to be an easy competition, really. And your mare is so fit now. You should totally come.” She was quick with her hands, creasing and tightening. She was talking about Ram Tap, the three-day in Fresno that she and Wade, in his half-assed way, were training for. “I mean, why not enter?” she asked, flicking her lighter to the end of the joint.
“Money,” Rory said, blurting out the impolite truth, June having seen how they lived.
“Oh,” June exhaled. She handed the joint to Rory and then she looked down. “Shit,” she said, “That really is some place.” She lowered herself in beside Rory.
The half-smoked butts Rory had lifted from Mona’s ashtrays, smoking them out here, had her expecting the burn on inhale, but this was better, the taste lusher. They had to pull their knees up to their chests and pass the joint on the outside of the bars. They sat like that, pressed together, until the pool lights came on beneath them, like the opening of a show.
“They really can’t see us up here?” June asked.
“Nope.” A lightness had come over Rory, as if the iron grating were floating away from the house. June’s bare foot was up against hers. “The lights are on a timer,” Rory said.
June smiled. “How often do you sit out here, Scott?”
Rory took it for granted that the trees concealed her, though one of the gardeners had looked up once, shielding his eyes from the sun, and Rory had waved to him, a tic of cordiality from working at the ranch. “Our TV was broken for a while,” she said.
June laughed, a high shrill laugh that she let roll on too long.
The week before, Rory had watched Mrs. Price overseeing a delivery of succulents, while her diapered son smudged his face against the glass of the sliding doors.
June knocked one knee against Rory’s. “Look, look,” she said, pointing at the house.
Someone was moving behind the white curtains. “That’s the mom,” Rory said.
“Mrs. Sarah Price,” June announced, trumpeting into the shortened joint.
Mrs. Price came outside in a sleeveless, white, ankle-length nightgown that glowed against the darkened yard. She walked past the pool and June crouched into herself.
“She can’t see us,” Rory said, though a chill moved through her.
“Can she hear us?”
“I don’t know.” Rory whispered. “I’ve never sat out here with anyone, talking.”
Mrs. Price and Vivian had the same long, amber hair, the same light-footed gait. She was eyeing a flower bed near the sandbox now, a spade in her hand. She began digging.
“She knows it’s like fucking night out, right?” June said. “Does she always do shit like this? Dressed like that?”
Rory shook her head. She thought Mrs. Price looked like the subject of a painting, a photograph.
McLEOD REFUSED TO talk about the missus. “No,” he said. “How about you tell me what Merriam Prep has you reading this summer instead?”
“Conrad,” Vivian said, rolling away from the view of the garden. “So two years ago …” Her mother was outside now, being weird.
“Heart of Darkness?” McLeod asked.
“Hmm. I’ll be back in AP next year.” She was on top of her comforter, the phone cradled between her ear and her arm. She knew he could hear her breathing.
“Good, so they recognize you’re capable. Tell me what you’re reading for fun, then.”
“Shame on you,” McLeod said. “Well, what are you doing for fun, then?”
She didn’t answer. There was power in the pause. She heard the creak of his chair, his settling in, enjoying her. “See, McLeod,” she said. “You already know. I’m calling you for fun.”
“McLeod, Mickey McLeod, keep talking to me,” she sang.
“I can’t. And there’s our trouble, Vivian. I should go.”
“Should,” she said, “suggests you might not.”
“I am hanging up.”
“Tell me it was good to hear my voice.”
“And your breath in my ear,” McLeod said.
OUTSIDE THE OFFICE, Gus stood in the light pooling on the ground by the back door, retracing his thoughts. Your kitchen. Sonja’s admonishment. He knew Rory was most likely home alone, eating cereal for dinner again. He never talked to her about Mona, about the nights when she didn’t come home at all. A man can get used to anything.
He looked in the window, at the pink ribbons of innards laid across the wood plank; the fox’s fur still attached at the ears and muzzle, like a shirt drawn over a head.
Maybe Rory already understood everything about Mona. How there were days that she danced into his arms, when her laughter was contagious, right up against days full of animosity and dissappearing. Maybe Rory didn’t need to talk about it. Maybe it was Rory who could teach him a fucking thing or two about getting along in this world. Just rolling with it.
He felt in his pockets for his keys. He did want to be home. Sitting with Rory in his kitchen, eating anything at all.
AN ACCORDION OF time had spread open: ten minutes, an hour?
They’d watched Sarah Price go in the house and come out again. June remained quiet, mouth open. Rory felt light and tired, half-steeped in a pleasant dream. She was wishing for her bed, when Vivian Price came out of the house. June covered her mouth as if she’d been about to shout. Vivian was wearing the black one-piece, her hair pulled up in a high bun, a towel slung over her shoulder. Rory straightened, feeling she’d just made good on a promise.
Vivian looked in her mother’s direction, but neither of them spoke. She dropped the towel at the pool’s edge and stepped onto the first stair, the marbled light of the pool dancing against her skin. Rory let out the grip of her ribs as steadily as she could; she’d been holding her breath. Vivian’s dive into the water was silent. She came up, swimming a breaststroke, her face rising and dipping at the water’s surface. June began to laugh a scoffing, quiet laugh. She put her hand on Rory’s knee, as if to steady herself.
“What?” Rory asked.
“I mean, are they, like, vampires?” Her laughter pealed higher, her hand still on Rory.
“They are pale,” Rory said quickly, somewhat worried Sarah Price could hear. It wasn’t true. There wasn’t anything sickly about the Prices. Vivian Price, especially. She was beautiful. Rory knew this from the magazines, but she knew from this distance, too. It was clear in the way she carried herself, as if leading others behind.
When Vivian stepped out of the pool, she slung her towel over her shoulder without drying off. June’s hand loosened. It wasn’t until the sliding glass doors closed that Mrs. Price looked up in Vivian’s direction, her daughter already inside.
“You think she’s pretty,” June said. “I can tell.” She was facing Rory—the proximity of her breath, its disrupting warmth. “I’ll light this again,” she said, lifting the joint to Rory’s mouth. “There’s one hit left.” Rory inhaled, smelling the lighter’s fuel. “Now keep it in,” June said. Her hand was back on Rory’s knee, the other on Rory’s shoulder turning her until June’s cropped hair hung like a curtain around their faces. “Now exhale,” June said, her mouth already on Rory’s mouth as she spoke.
Not a kiss. Rory recognized this was not a kiss. June was inhaling, pulling the smoke up out of Rory’s lungs and into her own. Rory started to cough, and June sat back, her lips sealed, her breath held, until she smiled. “I wasn’t sure you’d let me do that,” she said, a thin ribbon of smoke escaping the side of her mouth.
OUT IN THE yard, in the dark, Sarah was more at ease. The heat more tolerable. Or maybe it was hormones. Perhaps she was beginning to menstruate again; she hadn’t since Charlie was born. Everett always suggested hormones whenever she complained, so quick to imply that women were mere animals.
Earlier, after she’d gotten Charles to bed, a mockingbird had started up and she’d picked up the phone dimly mistaking the bird’s prattle for the phone’s ring, overly hopeful, only to hear the monotony of the dial tone. She’d gone ahead and called Everett then, in Toronto. She listened as he answered sleepily, “Hello … hello … hello.” Then, “Sarah, is that you? Sarah, don’t let Charles play with the phone. Please, Sarah. Hang up. I’ve got a four a.m. call, for Christ’s sake. I need sleep, Sarah.” Everett needed sleep! When she called again, she found herself incapable of making words, though she wanted to tell him how hot it was, how unbearable, truly, it would be to sleep next to him anyway. Was Toronto nice this time of year? Had he been to the hotel pool? Of course she knew how busy he was, but wasn’t there time for dinner with the cast? They talked this way, in her head for a while. When she tried again, it only buzzed, a phone left off its cradle.
Whenever Everett called of his own volition, it was always in the middle of the day, just as everything around her was so bright she couldn’t focus. Not that they ever spoke about Charlie. She would have liked to talk about Charlie. She felt if Everett would just remind her that the sleepless nights, the boy’s rebelliousness, this heat—it was all normal, hearing that from him would bring some relief. His validation. Why did she always yearn for his validation?
Oddly enough, Charlie had gone down fine that night, even before dark. He’d napped only briefly on the drive back from the market that morning. Perhaps that was the trick, simply wear him out. But he was going to wake up again. He always did, needing her as Vivian and Everett did not. Had Vivian come outside? But of course it was Everett who needed sleep.
Digging in the soil, her nails painfully edged with earth, in the far corner of the garden, she began to worry she would not hear him when he woke. Though the way he could cry, she often heard him long after he had stopped, like a stifled alarm in her own body.
JUNE DROPPED ONTO Rory’s bed. “Next time, I’ll bring more. Then you won’t have to kiss me again,” she said, smirking.
Rory was in Carlotta’s old rocker, her pulse in her ears. “It’s okay,” she mumbled.
Only the bathroom light was on. There was a lamp on the bureau, but Rory couldn’t will herself up to turn it on. June was looking at the glow-in-the-dark star stickers above the bed, clustered in the pitched peak of the roof.
“Wade says it’s Sarah Price who’s the rich one. Everett’s famous and all, but apparently Sarah’s dad left them some ridiculous inheritance when he died.”
Rory rocked the chair. “From what?”
“Fuck, I don’t know. Whatever people die of.”
“I mean, where did his money come from?”
June shrugged. “Where’s any of it come from?”
June’s father was a doctor and their money seemed otherworldly, yet Rory heard envy in June’s voice.
“I hope you’ll forgive my lingering, Scott. I don’t like driving when I’m high.”
“You’re not,” Rory said, fingers busy at the seam of the chair’s cushion. “You’re not lingering, I mean. Stay, if you like.”
June rolled to her side, her face backlit by the bathroom light, unknowable, but Rory could feel her eyes. “Wanna pass the time over here?” She patted the bed.
“I’m good,” Rory said, her mouth, her hands, trembling.
“I’m only teasing,” June said. “No need to fear the lesbo, Scott.”
“Oh,” Rory started. “It’s not that. I just—” She stopped, listening to an announcement from the bridge over the creek, the ba-dum, ba-dum of a crossing car.
June was smelling the air. “We should’ve used a dryer sheet.”
Be Gus, please be Gus, Rory thought, but his truck and Mona’s car made two distinct sounds, and this was Mona, and because Mona moved with a lizard-like swiftness, she was already inside and hollering, “Rag-Tag! You here? Whose Mercedes is that? Where the hell’s the truck?”
Rory jumped up and closed her door. It closed as if a wind had snapped it shut.
Then louder, but muffled: “Rag-Tag? You hear me?” That ludicrous nickname followed by the click of Mona’s heels on the stairs. “I came home early. Bar was too slow.”
The room had lost all its air. June was feeding the leather strap of her sandal through its buckle, her big round sunglasses already back on.
A CAR KEPT coming up behind Gus and dropping away, making him feel rushed and woozy. He was driving in his socks; it was easier to feel the pedals under his feet, switching back and forth between the gas and the brake, taking the curves—one after another—like the barrel racer he’d briefly been, back in Wyoming, where quarter horses were king. Where the loyalty of one’s wife was expected. He pounded his fist to the wheel and felt its bounce.
As soon as he thought the other car was gone altogether, it caught up with him. He recognized that car. Someone he knew. He bumped off the road, thinking to let them pass on the straightaway, but all he saw in his mirror was the ghost of the dust cloud his tires had kicked up.
He pulled back out again with his eyes to the road ahead, thinking of the animals. Coyotes and coons were easy to spot, moving in packs, but the deer. Sometimes they’d come out of nowhere—dumb in rut, heads full of steam, as deadly to a driver as to themselves. Gus had never hit one, but he’d been in the car plenty of times when his father had. His father had said it was better to steer for them when they appeared, that you had to take them with intention. Hitting deer being as common and shruggable an offense as striking your own children.
SARAH KNEW CHARLIE would wake up soon. She felt it. He always woke up three to four times a night.
She wasn’t feeling right. The heat, surely. She went through the house opening the French doors, the windows, even the front door, begging for a breeze to come through—something natural. Of nature. She hated the peaty stink of Everett’s beloved central air. A cold washcloth, that would help. She lay down and let the water drip over her temples, her neck. Maybe it was another migraine coming. She was worried about the sun, about how soon it might be up. Was it really only 10:32 p.m.? Truly? So she could, she actually could fall asleep, but the sleep that beckoned was a deep, definitive sleep, and knowing this, sensing this, she remained hovering, lying there, so awake, until there he finally was, his little voice. “Mama,” he called. “Mama, in.”
VIVIAN HEARD CHARLIE, but he wasn’t calling to her. Sometimes he did. Sometimes, Vivian thought, she was more comfort to him than their mother. She turned up the television: Headbangers Ball, a show she detested (that ass kiss of a host, Riki Rachtman), but the noise drowned out her mother’s anxious voice in the hall, pleading with Charlie. What would it be to have this house to themselves? Just her and Charlie. They would color the walls in crayon, sing to one another through the intercom, eat ice cream for breakfast. She’d buy back that blue lounger they’d had two houses ago, the one that reclined with a hand crank, the fabric of its arm worn to a thin velvet where she used to sit beside her father. She’d find it again and she’d sit Charlie in her lap and she would read him all the fairy tales her mother had deemed too scary. She’d get him the bunny he wanted. Two, so they’d have a thousand babies, scurrying and sniffing and flopping all over Charlie’s feet.
GUS WAS ONE blind curve from passing the Price family gates. His mind skidded from the possibility of a deer jumping out onto the road to the way Mona had taken to sleeping, curled up and facing him with her hands balled to fists.
The car lights behind him were closing in again. He was aware of the enormous concrete wall of the Price estate, of the impossibility of an animal’s dash from behind that eyesore, but then he blinked and there was a boy.
A coppery glint. Then clearly, a boy. In the road.
His body as white and haloed as the moon in fog.
Gus hit the brake. And turned the wheel. He turned the wheel then hit the brake. His high beams lanced a rock wall, a tree trunk. The boy’s red hair.
He would remember the boy’s red hair as being near enough to touch. If he just reached out his open window, he could have touched him. It was like a roller coaster he’d once ridden, a thing that hurtled people toward one another and then, just as quickly, whipped them away from one another again.
The truck spun and spun, dancing toward a reinforced wall, and then the hood buckled in a metallic roar. Gus was against the wheel, wedged so deeply that he could not see the maroon Honda Civic that had been following him. Or how it had to swerve to avoid the back of his wrecked truck, but he could hear its tires, their shrieking attempt to stop. And the impact. The world was an echo of that impact, followed by a salvo of shattering glass echoing off the canyon walls, before the hiss of escaping air began—a tire, a radiator hose—followed by a woman screaming. Gus’s head dropped to the wheel. He was unaware of the multitude of fractures in his left leg, unaware that the boy he had turned to avoid, whose hair he might have touched, was Charles Leon Price, nineteen months old, or that it was Jorge Flores in the maroon Honda Civic. Jorge, who had been following him, hoping to see his boss—mi amigo, he had said—safely home, only to be the one who struck and killed the boy. The boy who, two minutes earlier, had gotten away from Sarah Price, just long enough for him to find his way out the front door and through the half-open gates while she ran to answer a phone that wasn’t ringing.