There were so many resources—had been since the 1960’s: frugal living and self-sufficiency and survivalist guides in addition to solar power and alternative energy handbooks. In particular, the must-have lists provided by the survivalists seemed reassuringly complete, as if you could shop your way to utter preparedness for the unprecedented. It took awhile, studying these books over the years, becoming a bit obsessive perhaps, before you really grasped their limitations. While water purification tablets and a superbly well-stocked first aid kit might be applicable to many if not most emergency situations, the future was unknowable, after all.
Henceforth, as you continued your preparations, you became something of an amateur odds-maker, betting on the likelihood of one type of disaster over another. Finally, it became clear that you must come up with another list, not of the things you will need, but of the things that will allow you to live.
Plenty of writing paper, pencils, St. John’s Wort, oomph, equanimity, playing cards, jigsaw puzzles, board games, hard cider, bird seed, Joseph Campbell, Kierkegaard, Merton, Hafiz, Blake, coffee, guitar, replacement strings, good boots, better socks.
Olive and aloe soap, almond body butter, pumice stone, shell collection, running shoes, spare buttons and shoelaces, needle and thread, Chapstick, emery boards, unreasonable optimism, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, Neruda, Hass, Marquez, star charts, Classical lullabies, Satie, chocolate, cocoa, yarn, knitting books.
Mason’s abilities in carpentry, plumbing, and wiring had been exotic and attractive. Here was a guy who knew his way around the tool shed. He bought for quality. He measured twice and cut once. He laughed easily and loudly in an I-just-can’t-help-myself way that made other people smile. He was sturdy.
Shay hadn’t wanted to support another of the men who were usually drawn to her: overeducated, self-medicating, underemployed depressives. She was no longer interested in the shifty, neurotic love they offered. It would be a novelty, Shay had thought ten years ago, to spend some time living in Mason’s funky, earth-sheltered, solar-powered house in the woods—quite like a fairytale dwelling. And Mason, something like the humble woodsman, sawdust in his hair and eyelashes.
useful skills she brought to the table
—native proficiency in Spanish (maybe; though less practical, certainly, in the Midwest)
other skills, above average, currently irrelevant
—distinguished (full professional) proficiency in Catalan
—life master ranking, duplicate bridge
—ordering the best dish on the menu
what is meant by difficulties
—the calamities the “Chicken Littles” had long forecast, i.e. epidemic viruses, civil unrest, catastrophic weather incidents, terrorism, and even a plague of pesticide-resistant corn weevils.
—the kind of things that had once made for wincingly funny jokes in late night talk show hosts’ monologues.
—things that made you a bit ashamed you’d ever blithely used the phrase “when the shit hits the fan.”
something they agree is worthy of concern
What would happen to their dog if something happened to them? Paisley was a terrific barker, a great raiser of alarm, but she’s an arthritic old Irish wolfhound mix, never been much of a biter or a fighter, and wasn’t particularly good at distinguishing between actual danger and a stray cat or squirrel.
ongoing discussion about weapons
They spoke of guns in low voices in bed with the lights out; she was against them, of course.
According to Mason, Shay had a bizarre, non-animal lack of regard for self-preservation. He’d met many self-professed pacifists over the years and they were all phonies, well-meaning and otherwise, every one of them. Maybe they didn’t eat meat, kill spiders, or wear leather shoes. Maybe they were against capital punishment and animal testing. Maybe they’d never fight as soldiers or join a militia. But when a knife was pressed to their throats, when something deadly crept up on a loved one, you’d see something else again: a pretty pitiful fight for life, unarmed and panicked. But Shay was a different matter, he had to admit.
“We’re all going to die,” Shay said. “That’s what an animal doesn’t know. That’s how we can be different. By having some dignity.”
He pressed his lips tight.
“What? Go ahead, say whatever it is you want to say.”
What Mason wanted was to change her mind. Or have her pretend to change her mind, say she’d fight back. But the only way he could think to accomplish this was by scaring her and he wouldn’t do that. He hoped he’d know when it was time to tell her about the guns and ammunition he’d hidden in his shop. He hoped she knew he had ignored her protests.
From the beginning Shay had thought that the house was a marvel—a Hobbit dwelling built right into the side of a hill. An expanse of south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows stretched the width of the house and breathed in light. The domed ceiling of the main room, the rough-textured stuccoed walls, and the odd, earth-hugging silence made it a sacred, contemplative place. You felt contained rather than buried. It was a house that didn’t favor one season over another, equally adept at sheltering its inhabitants from sun, wind, snow, and rain. Now she appreciated that it was something else again: concealed and defendable. Surrounded by woods, invisible from three sides, and nearly invisible behind a stand of bamboo from the fourth, it was as obscure and ingenious as its builder.
the things that have surprised her the most
—That right now she can’t say that she is in love with him.
—That the university was one of the first things to shut down.
—That it happened in her lifetime.
—That it all happened so fast.
Once, they were cocktail party questions: How do you imagine the end of the world as we know it? Would you rather die of heat or cold? Which would be harder to give up, going to the movies or having pizza delivered, driving fast down the freeway or getting a pedicure?
Would people in the future understand it better than they did now? Just how far back would you have to stand in order to connect the dots between events of the early part of the century and these troubled late-middle years? As a younger woman, reading novels that imagined various post-industrial, post-apocalyptic worlds, she had found it hard to take them seriously. They seemed a bit hysterical. Yet hadn’t she chosen a man with exactly the qualities that would be helpful if disaster did strike? She had known from their first date, hadn’t she?—that here was a man who would be useful even when there were no more stock brokerages or think tanks or small claims courts.
things she regrets (synonymous in her mind with things Mason would consider ridiculous even to think about; but then he says regret is for sissies)
That she once cried as she said goodbye to the woman who had given her impeccable haircuts for over six years before quitting the business and moving to Florida. That she had chosen to maintain a relationship with a grim, impoverished sculptor over a long, humid summer rather than travel again to Catalonia. That she had made no great mark on her profession. That she’d never ridden a horse. That she didn’t play an instrument. That when she was eleven she’d made her little sister sad enough to run away; although Elise had made it no farther than the neighbor’s garage, her red plastic suitcase had been heart-breakingly well packed. (She hoped Elise’s practicality was serving her well now.)
things about which she is wrong
—Him and regret. (He puts up a good front, but he regrets far more of his life than he embraces. Truly and daily he is heavy with regret. He loves Shay foremost because she is his last chance for redemption. He will try to keep her safe.)
—That she thinks he doesn’t wonder whether the effort to survive isn’t pathetic.
—That he’s exaggerating or being dramatic when he tells her he had been a bad man.
things he thinks she’s wrong about
—That she was ever really in love with him. (He figured it had been his best swindle, a real razzle-dazzle. He made her laugh, he built her bookshelves, he planted a redtwig dogwood in the front yard in her honor. He was the handy, practical guy who made her feel cared for.)
Mason worried that what he took to be Shay’s listlessness would drag her down to some place he would be unable to reach. Surely she felt differently about her life—less content—now that she had very little choice in how it continued? Weather permitting, she took early morning runs in the woods, but she sat for many hours in the big chair reading. Her coffee grew cold but she didn’t get up to reheat it. He could never sit still like that for so long. Sometimes the lopsided slant of her head told him that she was arguing with herself again.
“I mean, all along I had trouble convincing myself that what I did was important. So how can I convince myself now that translating another short story by a writer from Reus is in any way worthwhile?” In addition to teaching she had published several volumes of English translations of Catalan literature and edited an anthology.
There was no use hoping she didn’t expect an answer. When she was upset her eyes went lizardy, barely blinking. “Maybe that’s not the right question,” he said. Mason looked down at his hands, the curve of black beneath each fingernail.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s your work, right? Translating?”
“No, it is, Shay. I know it is. And I think that’s about all we can do right now—our work.”
“You mean like keep on keepin’ on?” She sneered slightly and he froze. But she got up and kissed him hard on the lips. “Thank you.”
Mason gardened like he did everything else, doggedly. He was the only man she’d ever been with who ground his teeth while making love. The garden grew by rows, yards, quarter-acres. She enjoyed kneeling beside him in the dirt and helping him weed—an excuse to watch his fingers deftly separate the lacy fronds of the carrots from the thatched leaves of the weeds. This was his gift, she thought, knowing what belonged and what didn’t.
And then one afternoon, after so many days had unfolded in so much the same way, Wayne arrived.
Paisley barked and barked. She never did relax when he was near.
Shay and Wayne had started graduate school at the same time and that first semester they took a course together, History of the Spanish Language, with Professor Sabina Torrijos-Garcia. Wayne claimed to have seduced Sabina, but he mocked her scholarship and her pointy-toed designer shoes. Wayne didn’t like the women he slept with. Shay learned that the hard way. He cooked delicate omelettes for Shay’s supper and read Neruda to her by candlelight while she took bubble baths, but he wouldn’t spend the night at her apartment and never invited her to his. Wayne helped with her dissertation. He once arranged to get them into the National Gallery after hours because she had told him it was one of the things she dreamed of. She ran her finger very lightly over the horse’s standing front hoof in El Greco’s St. Jerome and the Beggar. He frequently called in the middle of the night to berate Shay for her immaturity, her laziness, her perfume, her inferior accent. The calls continued even after she stopped sleeping with him. He got her drunk on tequila and took her for long humid drives with the top down on his 1957 El Dorado convertible. The calls continued even after she earned her degree and moved away.
She had never mentioned him to Mason and she told him very little after Wayne arrived. How did you explain such a crooked thing?
what Wayne presented upon his arrival, as though offering up bounty
—a twenty-pound block of six-year aged raw-milk cheddar
—two dozen fresh eggs
—a bag of lemons
—three bottles of George Dickel No. 12
—a set of crystal-studded dominos
—heirloom tomato seeds
—a grain mill
It took less than a second, the sizing up, before Mason had an inkling of what Wayne had been to Shay. And in the next moment, sharp and quick, like a joint snapped back into its socket, he saw Wayne for what he was. And then another shock, the jolt of recognition coming right back from this man: I see you, too.
In that moment, Mason was a radiologist studying the X-ray of his own former self’s soul: that epic selfishness, high pain threshold, and excess self-regard crossed with a thirst for admiration, recklessness, duplicity. And showing up like a grey tumor-shadow on the pale oval of the soul’s lung: the willingness to inflict pain.
This was a man who might take everything from him, including all the ways he believed he had changed in the past fifteen years.
Wayne told them he’d traveled mostly at night, sticking to rural highways in disrepair. He professed to know little more than they did about the situation at large. He said he’d been holed up for most of the past year at an old commune-turned-compound in the Ozarks. “The men were a bit too enthused about their weaponry. They said they didn’t want trouble but I didn’t quite believe them. They had a very nice dairy operation, though. I’m going to miss the fresh milk.”
“That’s quite a ride you got there,” Mason said. A clean, rust-free white van with newish tires and a shiny blue tarp strapped over some kind of cargo on the roof.
“I’m knackered,” Wayne said. “Okay if I set up my tent up in your trees?”
Mason felt Shay studying his face. He forced his expression into carefree cordiality. “Absolutely,” he said. “That stand over there will give you the best wind break. You want a hand?”
“Not necessary. I’ve got an ace tent, a breeze to put up.”
“Once you’ve had a chance to rest, you’ll come in for cocktails, yes? And dinner?” Shay asked.
“I’d be delighted.” Wayne winked at Shay.
Mason slammed the door to his shop. He could have laughed like a maniac—could have thrashed his workshop, taken an axe to the table he’d been working on for Shay. He spun around in the center of the room, looking for something to pick up or hold onto that would calm him. But every polished tool, every cunning little wooden thing, only inspired the desire to crush, splinter, demolish. Oh what a hackneyed plot! Old boyfriend comes to town, stirs up trouble, tests the durability of the commitment. If you were the current boyfriend there were so many ways to suffer defeat. From lose the girl to make a jealous horse’s ass of yourself to the painful disclosure of unwanted facts about: self, girl, relationship. And these days, you could only hope that this might be the worst of it. Fuck all.
“Quite a house,” Wayne said.
“Except for pouring the concrete, Mason built it himself.” Shay stretched her lips into a smile. She hated her tone, knew it sounded like she was bragging about a small child.
“This is an example of an elevational design plan, is that right?”
Mason’s eyebrows didn’t even raise, but she could see his jaw muscles working. “That’s right.”
“You’ve got what, four or five feet of land above?”
“Sounds ideal.” And yet his tone conveyed skepticism.
Mason made a wasps’ nest humming sound in the back of his throat. The men were still standing in the middle of the room just below the skylight.
“This must be—what—almost twenty years old?” Wayne asked.
“Still, man, you were definitely ahead of the curve. So tell me, was building this house the act of a prescient man or of a good, old-fashioned tree hugger?”
“I think of myself as pragmatic.”
“Yes, pragmatic,” Wayne said, his inflection suggesting pragmatism was a venereal disease.
Shay could have screamed. This is not a triangle!
“Has Shay told you about our road trip to Charleston?”
Mason snorted. “We could all hold our liquor better when we were younger, I gather.”
Shay wasn’t even sure they’d ever gone to Charleston. She remembered Atlantic City, Cooperstown, Philadelphia . . .
“Speaking of which,” Mason continued, “why don’t we try out of some of that very fine Tennessee whiskey.”
“I’ll get glasses and ice,” Shay said. She felt unreasonably guilty, knowing that Wayne would take his straight up no ice and not knowing until this minute if Mason even drank whiskey, Tennessee or Irish or Canadian or Scotch, much less how. She and Mason had never been on a road trip. If they hit the road now they’d be running for their lives.
“Is that an English accent?” Mason asked when they were nestled in bed, Paisley a warm, dog-breathy mound between them.
“It’s a nothing accent. He was born and raised in the Northwest. Puget Sound? Bremerton maybe? He’s always talked like that.” And she was talking too much.
“Of course the real question is where’d he get all that stuff?”
“You don’t seem a bit surprised, though.”
“He has a way of inspiring people to give him things.” She felt her cheeks redden. Was she defending Wayne? She switched off the bedside lamp.
“Give him things?”
“That’s right. Give him things.”
“And you don’t think that’s strange?”
“They’re gifts, Mason. Wonderful gifts. I’d almost forgotten what a lemon smelled like.”
“I’ve never given or received gifts like this.”
“I haven’t seen him in twenty years,” she said.
“A special occasion indeed.”
“What about the rocking chair you gave Ellen? It’s exquisite, worth fifty sets of dominos.” Why couldn’t she just shut up?
“I made the chair for Ellen. Wayne didn’t lay those eggs.”
A laugh sputtered in her throat. “Very funny,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s normal. He has strange powers of persuasion, okay?”
“I’m sure that’s the case,” he said. “What do you suppose he’ll be persuading us to give to him?”
That was a very good question. “Are you mad at me?” she asked. There was something wrong and it was her fault.
Only on the first night was Mason able to outlast him. It wasn’t the drinking that did him in, but sheer weariness. Fifteen years ago, at the outset of his self-transformation, he’d decided to be the kind of man who rose with sun, and he signed a pact with his body that he was unwilling to break. So he turned in first and got up at dawn, whereas Wayne slept in, Wayne napped, and Wayne drowsed about, languid and yawning until cocktail hour. Only then did he come fully awake, perched like a wide-eyed owl, hungry for whatever they served him and ready for hours and hours of conversation.
Dear Shay tried to steer them away from memory lane. Wayne would oblige by talking about himself for some time: the thrill of being invited into the imam’s quarters in a gypsy encampment in Bosnia, the only non-Muslim man ever allowed into that particular camp; learning how to make a perfect bchamel for moussaka while living briefly with a Greek heiress on Santos; playing harmonica for spare change in Trafalgar Square on Boxing Day after his pocket had been picked at the Tate. Stories from the old world. But then he’d swerve hard in the other direction. “Remember how drunk we got on Ouzo the day we rented that boat on Dundee Creek?” And there was nothing for Shay to do but answer. Wayne’s voice, with its lulling faux-accent, just soft enough so that you had to lean in to hear, made Mason sleepy.
“Time for me to hit the hay.” He refused to compete with this man; he refused to show his contempt.
“Sweet dreams. I’ll be along soon.”
“G’night, kind gentleman.” Wayne’s voice all oily satisfaction. “Another brilliant evening.”
For not the last time, Mason thought he’d just as happily kill the man as invite him into his home. It had been a long while since he’d had such a thought.
The hard thing—the best thing, he convinced himself—was to wait and see.
“I’m pretty tuckered out, too,” Shay said.
“Alright, then, just one more for the road—in a manner of speaking.” Wayne refilled their glasses. “So who are you still in touch with?”
“What do you mean? By smoke signal?”
“Don’t be silly. I mean, last known whereabouts type of thing.”
“Hard to say. Most of the people I stayed in touch with were affiliated with universities. Who knows where they’ve gotten to now.”
“Anyone around here?”
“Well, who were you in touch with most recently?”
She felt his mind working on hers as if it was a fork in a telekinesis experiment. Her brain felt hot.
“Have you heard from Berman?” Berman had been involved in politics when they were in school. After graduation he’d gotten a job with the State Department.
“Really, Wayne, I’ve lost track. That was all a long time ago.”
“Really, Wayne,” he mocked. “It’s none of your business. You’re on your own, oldest friend of mine. Lovely.”
Shay was surprised by the wave of shame that washed over her. Until this moment she’d believed she had severed the hold Wayne had on her when she had finally told him a decade ago to stop calling and he had. The shame was followed by anger. She caught a whiff of sulfur, as though a match had just been lit. She remembered that one of their fellow grad students had half-jokingly referred to Wayne as the dark lord.
She steadied her voice. “That’s not what I meant. It’s just that since I moved in here, and especially since I left the university, I’ve been cut off.”
“Meaning what? Are you a prisoner here?”
“I cut myself off. Whenever I do hear from anyone, it’s always bad news.”
He smiled wickedly, as if to say Gotcha! “So who have you heard from?”
She yawned and lowered her eyes, signalling her intent to end the conversation and go to bed. And she truly was tired. She threw him a bone, told him about the months-old letter she’d received from her sister, delivered through acquaintances of Mason’s in town a year before. Elise had settled into an agricultural “faith community” in Iowa. “We do what we can to ease the suffering of our neighbors,” she had written. “The flu has hit this area hard and there is so much work to be done.”
“It’s hard to imagine Elise churning butter or applying poultices,” Shay said. “In my mind she’s always wearing a smart Ann Taylor suit.” She didn’t tell him how the earnestness of Elise’s letter, which she had closed simply “God bless you,” had made Shay feel unworthy and that she hadn’t been able to work on her translations for months afterward. She didn’t tell him that this letter from her sister, a former district attorney in Chicago, had frightened her—that this was the thing that had convinced her there would be no going back to the way things had been.
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a person who wanted nothing more than to do good works,” Wayne said. He grinned at her incredulous expression. “Well, vaguely wondered. I’d only do it if I thought I could be a celebrity—the thinking man’s Mother Theresa.” He swallowed the last of his drink and got up to leave. He brushed his lips against her cheek, whispered in her ear. “You’re one of those women who becomes more beautiful with age.”
What she felt at his touch, his compliment, she had no word for. Not in any of her languages.
They’d seen only what came out of the van to this point; it was sort of like a magician’s hat designed to thrill an audience. Who knew what still lay hidden in the folds of its satin lining? A pony? A hot air balloon? Vials of anthrax? The ghost of fucking Pablo Neruda? Mason certainly didn’t need permission to inspect the premises, yet he’d more or less snuck away while Shay was rolling out pie crusts and Paisley lay beneath the table, hoping for a scrap of dough to fall his way.
Wayne’s dark green tent was a doozy, an expensive marvel of engineering, an artifact from the era when climbing and camping were pasttimes for folks with plenty of disposable income. This thing hadn’t been constructed for Arkansas weather—this baby was for mountaineering. It’d hold up in a Himalayan gale. Mason admired how the system of panels that mapped the tent’s main tension lines along the poles and down the side panels to the main guy points acted as a truss structure that held the poles in a stable arch.
Mason was a few feet away when he heard a squawk from inside the van. The side panel was ajar. He edged toward it. Now he could see that the blue tarp had been rolled up, exposing a double-looped antenna and a pair of solar panels. Mason focused his attention on the four-inch gap. He needed to get closer than he wanted to—close enough to get caught—in order to really see inside the van.
Wayne was crouched over a bulky stack of electronic components, an array of dials and switches and cords. This was something Mason knew little about, though it seemed like a good guess that the thing Wayne was attending to was some kind of short wave radio. The slight movement of Wayne’s right arm and an irregular but rhythmic clicking told him that Wayne was dispatching a message in Morse code.
Wayne swivelled at the exact moment Mason had known he would, the moment at which he himself would have become aware of being watched, so that just as Wayne began to turn Mason leapt sideways behind the van. As expected, the van door rolled open and Wayne probably looked out in all directions and cocked an ear, but he didn’t step out—as Mason would have—didn’t circle the van’s perimeter. That was Mason’s advantage: Wayne’s certainty that he was too clever to be found out.
Mason held to his practice of going to bed early, though he didn’t sleep. He was too aware of their ongoing discussions. Or rather he heard Wayne’s tone—presumptuous, wheedling, breaking into Spanish—his voice audible _now—_and Shay’s voice barely there. He tried to turn their voices into something else, the sound of a remembered dryer tumbling.
Had he thought that one day he would reenter the society of his fellow human beings? That this would signal the completion of his “rehabilitation”? Penman was the only friend he had hung onto—another man who had reinvented himself. Penman the quiet, once-upon-a-time Green Beret who had set up house with Ellen and now kept bees and bred dogs. Mason knew that doubting Shay shamed him. But why hadn’t she been more surprised by Wayne’s arrival?
When Shay came into the bedroom she turned off the light beside the bed first thing, denying his view of her undressing. And she felt different when she came to bed. She affectionately rubbed her feet against his, but let Paisley stay where she was between them. Shay told Mason she was too tired to talk—having used up her words on Wayne.
Was it this perceived or imagined withdrawal that made him keep his discovery to himself? Or was he waiting to figure out what Wayne’s equipment meant?
“Has he said anything about his plans?”
She groaned, playing up her weariness. “I would tell you, I will tell you if he does. But he enjoys being mysterious.”
“And you don’t think that’s because he has something to hide?”
“As opposed to the rest of us?”
He leaned across her, a bit roughly, and switched the lamp back on. But her expression was calm, even amused, as she watched him, waiting for his pronouncement.
“Shay. Listen. I need you to believe me. That man is a threat.”
“This has nothing to do with believing you or not.”
They heard the whine of engines as they shared their morning coffee. She hadn’t felt up to a run, or perhaps she had sensed something amiss. Mason jumped up, his left hand already outstretched for the binoculars that hung on a nail by the window.
She joined him. It was six dirt bikes, crisscrossing the hills and valleys beyond their property. If she remembered right, kids from the university had used to come out here on their mountain bikes. Screamin’ terrain.
She felt Mason calculating—the distance between the bikes and the house; how long it would take him to get the guns and ammunition from his top-secret cache in the shop and be ready to mount some sort of defense if the bikers approached; the likelihood of their approaching; the probabilities regarding the bikers’ motives. He stayed where he was. After about ten minutes the bikes stopped on a grassy ridge. Mason grunted. He handed her the binoculars and went back to the table to fetch their coffee cups. What did he see that she couldn’t see? The riders could have been men or women. They were trim and wearing camo and black helmets. She shivered, watching their binoculars tilted in her direction. Their gaze seemed to pass over the house—but maybe that was wishful thinking—and they trained their binoculars several times on the big green tent and the white van. The men—she decided they were men—were making no effort to go unseen. She didn’t need Mason to tell her that this was more threatening than if they’d been covert.
For another hour the motorcyclists tooled up and around the hills and surveilled, but came no closer. Wayne showed up less than an hour after they finally drove off.
Mason headed him off before he reached the door. “Good morning,” he said. This was the first time Wayne had come to the house before late afternoon.
“Quite the tourist destination you’ve got here,” Wayne said in the smarmy voice he’d used with hotel managers and maitre d’s. How dare he talk to them that way?
“Besides you,” Mason said, “those guys are the first people we’ve seen out here in almost a year.”
“Is that so?”
“Quite a coincidence,” Mason said.
“We got a bit of this in the Ozarks, too. Makeshift patrols, one militia group or other making sure nobody’s infringing on their territory. Nothing to worry about, I’d say.”
“Are there people looking for you?” Mason asked.
Why did the question surprise her? Wasn’t this just as likely as Wayne having somehow called in these interlopers?
“Do you mean, am I a wanted man?” Wayne laughed heartily. “What a thought!”
Wayne was false. She’d always known he was false and she was reminding herself of this as he added, as if it had just occurred to him to ask, “Have any of those fellows stopped by?”
“We had a couple of them in for tea while you performed your morning toilette,” Mason said.
“Ha! Good one.”
Mason closed the door behind him and headed to the shop, dismissing Wayne, but he heard Wayne following.
Mason opened a can of dark stain and picked up his brush. The strips of sycamore were ready to be cut, but his hand was shaking too hard to use the wood knife. His design for the marquetry was ambitious. He liked to imagine how Shay would react when he unveiled the finished table.
“Shay was never my type,” Wayne announced.
He glanced at Wayne, as if registering surprise that he was there. The intricate design was composed of intersecting chevrons.
“Physically, sexually, I mean.”
“I’m not at all interested in discussing that.”
Wayne stepped closer. “I don’t want you to have the wrong idea about things.”
What were the words that would make this man shut up and go away? How much of this was he supposed to listen to?
“It’s clear to me there’s nothing between you now,” Mason said. “That’s all that matters to me.”
Wayne nodded sagely. If he’d had a beard he would have stroked it. He picked up one of Mason’s knives, then another, and felt their heft in his palm. He settled on a straight razor Mason kept throat-slittingly sharpened on a ceramic stone.
Try me, Mason thought. Go ahead.
“That’s an admirable stance to take,” Wayne said.
A pistol sat beneath the chamois just to his left. “Spoken as a man who has worn out his welcome,” Mason said. He and Penman had gone out to some abandoned corn fields for target practice a few months before.
Wayne held the razor just above a piece of veneer Mason had left unstained. It would constitute the lightest shade of his design. Wayne’s hands did not shake.
“In that case, I’ll leave you to your handiwork. Unless you have an objection, I think I’ll trouble your sweetheart for a spot of tea.” He snapped the razor closed, as if to pocket it, then, meeting Mason’s eyes, flipped it onto the work table. “Ciao.”
She saw Wayne leave the shop. He didn’t knock and he didn’t wipe his feet on the doormat and she watched his feet shedding sawdust as he walked across the room. Paisley sat up and cocked her head as if she, too, realized that this was the first time Shay and Wayne had been alone together in the house. Shay was glad for the rolling pin in her hand. She was glad she’d chosen to make peach pies, Mason’s favorite.
“So Shay, my darling, tell me again—what in the world are you doing out here in the wilds?”
“You said yourself that I look good. I’m thriving ‘out here,’ Wayne. How many people can say that these days?”
“It’s a pretty small life, don’t you think? Are you sure you haven’t been bewitched?”
“This is the life I yearned for when I was teaching—ample time and space and quiet.”
“Ah yes, a bucolic paradise. You and your handyman.”
She would not talk to him about Mason.
“It’s not that I can’t see the attraction,” he said. “It is simply enchanting. And of course he does have you all to himself.”
Such a menacing, sly man. She was shot through with the certainty that he intended to stay, to harm. “There’s nothing for you here, Wayne.” She knew her voice sounded ridiculous, melodramatic.
“I’m not sure I believe you,” he said.
Yet he didn’t show up for dinner and he was gone in the morning. Mason had been up first and presumably had noted the absence of the tent and van as he headed to the shop, if not before, but he left her to discover Wayne’s absence for herself.
She wasn’t exactly sure she remembered Mason getting up. Had it been dark? What if he wasn’t in the shop? But there he was, striding toward the garden with a pair of wire cutters in his hand, before she could panic or develop further hypotheses.
She looked out at the flattened grass where Wayne’s tent had stood, and felt relief mixed with something sour. She was glad that Mason would be happy.
Only he didn’t seem happy. He was angry. When he returned to the house he paced back and forth, breathing hard, as though trying to expel something from his lungs.
“He didn’t spoil anything,” she told him.
Yet the house felt spoiled. As if everything—every spoon, chair, cup, and book—had been shifted a millimeter out of place. When had the fabric of the sofa faded? Why was that cupboard door sagging on its hinges? If not spoiled, then made wrong, as if this house was an earnest but imperfect replica of their home.
“Nothing’s changed,” she said.
Her naiveté was too much sometimes. Too heavy a burden. Wayne’s visit made clear that he’d let his guard down, succumbing to the temptation to ignore what existed beyond their immediate area. He feared they would pay for his lapse. He felt cheated out of a confrontation, though surely no good would have come of it. He had been ready to taste Wayne’s blood. To dig Wayne’s grave.
The man had left no clue, no note. There would be no answers about the radio or the riders. Where he’d gone, whether he’d return.
That afternoon Mason cycled off. “Don’t expect me back tonight.”
She would not say the wrong thing again. She would not cling.
“I promise to be home in the morning.”
Be safe, she thought—words he would surely scoff at.
They were long hours, but she trusted that he was a man of his word.
She turned things over in her mind. No matter what Mason thought, Wayne hadn’t found them because of her. Except in the sense that she had once been something to him. She wished she hadn’t told Wayne about her sister. Yet he could have found her through Elise.
Sure enough, around seven the next morning Mason and Penman trundled up in a prehistoric-looking bulldozer and spent the daylight hours erasing the driveway. There was more to it than that, but she understood that when they were through there would no longer be a sign of them from the road.
“Do you ever stop to think how awful it would be for me if someone hurt you? If they hurt you and made me watch? I can’t let that happen.”
“Is this about Wayne?”
“This is about our life. This is about the worst thing I can imagine.”
He watched her face as she closed her eyes. He wondered what pictures flickered in her mind. He would never know what she imagined.
Her flesh was holy. It had always driven him crazy how careless she was in the kitchen. Her burns and cuts made him feel weak, powerless to prevent harm. What he imagined awake was worse than his nightmares. Knives flashed brighter, sharper, pressed against her skin. He would never know if Wayne had asked her to leave with him.
“I never claimed I wouldn’t run,” she said. She yanked on the shoelaces of her running shoes. “What do you think this is about?”
That was about as comforting as a cup of lukewarm tea, Mason thought. He knew Shay had been fast. She had run a half-dozen better-than-respectable marathons in her twenties and thirties, with one top-twenty finish in Los Angeles. But fast wouldn’t save many people.
“Fast is better than nothing,” she said, and he smiled, gladdened a bit by her knowing the way his mind worked.
They spoke gently. They nursed each other from the twin insults of intrusion and anti-climax. For some time they ate melted-cheese sandwiches and thick slices of cheese with fresh-baked bread; they drank lemonade, put slices of lemon in their water, and Shay buried her nose in each spent half-lemon; they drank the one remaining bottle of whiskey in two back-to-back drinking nights during which they made drunk talk and declarations of love and played a few dull games of dominoes, but it wasn’t the game for them, they decided. They were gin rummy and double-solitaire types. And eventually they began to dispose of what remained, though Mason couldn’t make himself throw away seeds that might date back 150 years. He carefully planted them, just a few pinches in each #10 envelope labeled in Wayne’s small calligraphic print. Mason smashed the empty whisky bottles and buried the shards away from the house. On a long run along a dried-up creek bed Shay dropped the dominos one by one, a glittering path leading from no place to no place in particular. She pushed the grain mill to the very back of the most out-of-the-way cupboard in the kitchen.
The soles of her running shoes were losing their tread. She still had three new pairs of shoes but one day she wouldn’t be able to run. Their resources were both plentiful and finite. She considered restarting their conversation about raising some animals—sheep for wool, goats, maybe, for milk. Creatures for comfort—the noises and smells of other living things. But it was another of those conversations that would circle around to the same unjoyful conclusion. Their safety—she did see that—depended on not drawing attention to themselves, and livestock and additional structures would make the property more evidently inhabited.
reminders of Wayne
—the absent driveway
—the rectangle of dirt his van had occupied; it was simply there, like the shadow of a geometric cloud; Mason watched Shay avoid it when she filled the bird feeders, veering around it like a sidewalk crack.
—Shay’s affection; if she didn’t love him, exactly, she did love living with him in the house he’d built; she had stayed when she might have left.
—splinters of eggshell in the compost
—the following summer, their white plates piled with lush, multicolored slices of tomatoes: Black Krim, Red Brandywine, Zapotec Pleated; mid-winter, mouth-watering fantasies of next year’s tomatoes.
what surprised them both
They were less lonely, though neither of them put those words to their feelings, or attributed them to Wayne’s visit. Instead, they agreed it was the cool nights of early autumn that caused them to lie skin to skin, pressed together in the middle of their large bed. Mason started teaching Shay how to play guitar. He put his fingers over hers to direct them to the right spots on the frets. He hummed as she stretched her fingers to make the notes. She heard music in her head now, melodic folk songs.
The cool mornings meant sunrise was once again a blessing. Mason would set off on his bike at dawn, venturing to the outskirts of town to deposit bags of produce in drop boxes the locals had established over the past few years, and to hide others in the bushes beside rusting mailboxes and at the ends of alleys. You couldn’t be sure who still lived where. If the food was gone on his next run he added that spot to his list.
They canned and canned and Mason built a bigger dehydrator. Several times Penman and Ellen came by with jugs of moonshine and chicken sausages and the two couples ate and sang the old songs together. In October they brought out a puppy, too, a small white terrier with a perfectly round brown spot on her side that Shay and Mason named Genius. Paisley seemed puzzled by Genius’s arrival, but not altogether displeased. Shay and Mason put her gorgeous new desk next to the window. She loved how the inlaid pattern looked like a cross between argyle socks and an M.C. Escher drawing. In the afternoon sunlight she reread her favorite poems and began a new set of translations, often working through until dinner. Or she knit. Realizing they would need only so many scarves and mittens themselves she started giving them to Mason, along with knitted washcloths and wool socks, to add to his anonymous care packages. And whereas before Shay had sat still for so many hours, thereafter she frequently went outside, throughout the day, taking a step or two toward Mason’s shop or the garden, listening until she heard the scrape or clang of an implement that told her where he was.
Valerie Vogrin is the author of the novel Shebang (University Press of Mississippi, 2004). Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Florida Review, Natural Bridge, The Black Warrior Review, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. She is assistant professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where she serves as prose editor of Sou’wester. (updated 4/2009)
Vogrin’s AGNI story “things we’ll need for the coming difficulties” won a Pushcart Prize and is reprinted in the 2011 anthology.