Looking back, the signs on Jody’s autumn dawn walk were ominous: the severed turkey head, the two tufts of squirrel tail, and, worst, the dead hump of a Steller’s jay chick.
The good news? She had handy dog poo bags in her pocket and was able to swipe up the dead chick before one of her two dogs snapped it up, but she looked around, assuming bird murderers were still lurking.
Raccoon, most likely. Possum? Cat. Maybe coyote.
“Come on,” she said, tucking the dead carcass into her pocket to nest amongst the bags of dog shit. A bad habit, this, carrying poo around. One bad day, she went out to lunch with her friend Marcelle. A fine spring afternoon, the weather light and full of plum, they sat out on the sunny restaurant veranda, the Oakland day passing by in a Sunday way. Lighter traffic. Fewer sirens.
“Do you smell that,” Jody had asked. “Are we sitting by a sewer?”
Marcelle smiled and ate her vegan ginger rice flour pancakes.
Later, at home after lunch, Jody had disgorged her pockets to find a bag of poo, one, maybe two days old. For the rest of the day and despite a second shower, she felt perfumed by waste.
Riley and Kaya jumped around her, licking her arms, nuzzling her sides, and then they pulled her up the hill, past the houses for sale (multiple signs flapping in the sellers’ market), the trash cans at the lips of driveways. Male turkeys gobbled from way up, perched high in Monterey pine boughs. Cars slipped by too fast, as if greased, trying to beat the daylight and the commute pile ups.
Jody was wearing a thin fluorescent green vest, the kind garbage collectors wear to keep motorists from running them down. Riley’s and Kaya’s collars were reflective, as were their tags, which jingled as they all strode up the hill. Smooth like white seals, they urged Jody forward toward the trees, as they did every morning, and all times that she really just wanted to stay still.
Now she wanted to stay caught in this moment of the thing that was coming. She could feel it. Also, it was really happening at home, her husband Jeff packing his things. All of them. The movers there now to take the exact half of the furniture, the split of which they’d both agreed to. In the coming months, the house would go on the market, once Jody found a suitable place with a yard for the dogs.
“Don’t you just want to try it out first,” Jody had asked her husband.
“What do you think I’ve been doing for five years?” Jeff said. “I was trying it out. It didn’t work.”
“Five years?” Jody asked.
Jeff turned his gaze even further. “Four years. Three months.”
This morning, when she woke in the guest room and then trudged out into the kitchen, the dogs at her heels, Jeff was already packed up.
“Take a long walk. Drive up to the redwoods.” He hadn’t met her eye, so there was no use trying to engage his mouth, much less his heart.
And here she was, both dogs, on a path littered with dead animal parts, the sky gray with a thick wet fog that made Jody’s eyes water. She kept walking, up into the hills, out past the line of redwoods, to the view, the San Francisco cityscape invisible, nothing but a wall of flickering white in front of her, the path obscured. Not a soul in sight. Miles away, her whole life was changing. And Jody couldn’t even see it from here.
~ * ~
Not that later there was anything to see. A seven mile hike in the hills, a half hour for watering the dogs and taking a pee break for all of them, a stop at the grocery store, gas station, and ATM, Jody pulled into her garage to find Jeff’s car gone. That was to be expected, of course; it wasn’t as though he was at work and would come home at seven, hungry for dinner and eager to eat and then to go to his office and close the door.
Tonight, there would be no silent eating of polenta with tomato sauce or tofu stir-fry with steamed snow peas, Jody cleaning up the dishes and then watching British TV shows on that streaming channel. It would be crackers and cheese and the streaming channel, the dogs at her feet. She wouldn’t listen for the sounds of his going to bed, the closing of the door, the sounds of Netflix or worse coming from his room. Sometimes, she wondered if he were on the phone, but she never asked. Two years ago, it was as if they’d drawn a line through the house, zigging and zagging around bathrooms and shared space. She’d stopped going into the master bedroom/bathroom suite and the downstairs office and onto the second floor deck. When she wanted to work in the backyard, she walked around the side of the house, through the gate and down the path to her vegetables and flowers. She laundered her sheets and towels, washed the windows in her rooms, and vacuumed and mopped her floors.
She didn’t even check to see what he had done in his part of the house.
Digitally, their worlds split in two as well. His check was deposited into his bank, and Jody’s went into hers. He sent a list of what was owed monthly, and they each wired it or wrote checks. They signed the papers, agreed to various and sundry. There was even a tally of who would get what, a long list written up and signed. This bed and that bed, this painting and that, all the way down to various pots and pans and dishtowels. He wanted nothing to do with the dogs, both Kaya and Riley sleeping on her side of the house. She bought the food, paid the vet and groomer bills. She walked them twice, sometimes three times a day, feeling any moment she was going to turn into a woman who rescued special needs dogs, wore purple Uggs, and drove a utility vehicle slapped with a bumper sticker that read Grandmothers for Peace. Of course, at this point, she didn’t have much of a chance of ever becoming a grandmother. That would necessitate children that she needed to bear yesterday in a litter.
Sometimes, when Jeff thought she wasn’t around, she heard him talking to the dogs, the jingle of collars as he scratched first one and then the other around the neck. Then a “Go on. Get going.”
Click click click of claws headed back to her.
The divorce was almost final, but for two years, they never said the words. They never admitted to their separation, at least Jody didn’t. She still said, “My husband” and “My spouse.” She said, “We.”
But no more of that. He would be her ex. Her former spouse. Jeff, the guy she married during college. Jeff, her first (maybe her last) husband, partner, fling. Just Jeff, the one who left.
She unlocked the door, and Kaya and Riley bounded inside. But instead of running into the kitchen to search out their food bowls, just in case a hank of cow mysteriously appeared, they stopped. Stood, both of them trotting into the living room that was no longer a living room at all. A room, large, wood floored, empty.
Jody walked around the space, turning to the dining room that was no longer filled with table, chairs, hutch, and sideboard. China, crystal, silver. Not to mention art, some of which she’d hated: those dark Japanese etchings, one she was sure depicted a monster hiding under opaque bath water. But the beautiful quilted art she’d bought at the store in Ashland, Oregon? Jeff, really, had bought it, seeing her appreciation and surprising her with it when they got home. He’d hung it carefully, standing on the ladder. Bang, bang, banging the nails and hanging the rod, the fabric draping softly down the wall, ruffling with color.
“Oh.” Jody stumbled forward, into the kitchen, lurching as she thought to sit or lean on something, none of which was there. “Oh.”
The dog bowls were there, at least.
Every room, the same thing. Office, pantry, family room. Divots in the carpet where furniture once was. Dust and string and dog hair. Oak leaves curled by the doors. Dead flies in the window corners. Blank spots on the walls where art and pictures and diplomas had hung for years.
The dogs followed her quietly from room to room, dog tags clinking. Outside, nothing but the muffled stuff of air, fog clenching down hard on the neighborhood. Then, a Steller’s jay, cawing on a fence rail, probably in mourning for its dead baby. Then it was gone, a giving up. Nothing but air.
In the guest room, finally, her things. Tossed like a bad salad, clothes, shoes, and books. Purses, pillows, shampoos and conditioners, cardboard boxes labeled “College Stuff” from their last move twenty years before. Who knew what the college stuff was anymore. Books and keepsakes and papers, essays about sociologists and dead authors. Yellowing photos of her and Jeff outside classroom buildings. Maybe her journals, too, ideas she’d long since let go of, whatever they had been.
As Jody stood in the room, the dogs finally giving up and heading back to the kitchen and their water bowls, her cell phone rang, a vibration deep in her sweatshirt pocket.
Jeff, she thought, realizing his mistake. “Those damn movers!” he’d say. “I’m so sorry. They are turning around right now. My god! What a mistake. In all ways. Oh, my god, I’ll be home soon.”
But it wasn’t Jeff, but Rhonda Strand, local area real estate expert, and that’s how she announced herself the moment Jody said hello. The name flashed in Jody’s ear and mind, a hundred For Sale signs over the years, all the open houses she’d passed while walking the dogs.
“Is this Jody! It is Jody!” Rhonda said. “Of course. Jeff told me you’d answer right away. So is 11:30 still okay?”
“Okay for what?” Jody asked, amazed her mouth was working.
”For me to come over and assess the damage!” Rhonda chirped, every other syllable accentuated with a tiny up-squeak.
Wasn’t that going to be obvious? Jody turned and stared at the guest room as Rhonda trilled into her ear about painters, floor guys, and landscapers. Wasn’t the damage clear in everything that was gone? Jody tried to find a way to say some of this, but Rhonda pushed onward.
“Staging’s next. Just the right furniture. You just can’t stage and live there. It’s hard for you both. But now we can get your house on the market in a month. You will be so happy!”
“Happy,” Jody repeated.
“That’s the goal,” Rhonda said. “See you at 11:30.”
Rhonda clicked off. Jody stood still, waiting for something to change, but, the point was, it already had.
~ * ~
“So where are you staying?” Rhonda asked at 11:32, both of them leaning on the kitchen counter as there was nowhere else to sit in the house.
The good news? After the shocking empty house reveal and the call with Rhonda, Jody had phoned Marcelle, who’d offered her recently vacated lower floor, a place where Jody and the dogs could stay.
“But everyone is coming for Thanksgiving. I kind of—“
In a flush of horror and shame, Jody blurted, “Don’t worry. I’ll—Really, I’ll have a place by then. A condo. A house somewhere out in the suburbs. I promise. But a couple of weeks.”
Then Marcelle must have felt ashamed too, rushing forward, “It doesn’t matter. If you need to stay, you stay. We can find—I can’t believe. . . God. What an asshole!”
Jeff used to have an aphorism: “Don’t let worlds collide.”
Jody had let her shitty-ass life collide with her calm, once-a-week lunch friendship with Marcelle. All her horrible home life was moving into her friend’s empty lower level, filling the house with its gaseous atmosphere and molten core.
But what else could Jody do, on the fly, at this drop of a horrible hat? Better to stay with Marcelle than with her mother in Walnut Creek or her sister in Sonoma.
“I always hated him,” her sister Beth said just a month ago, when Jody finally admitted to the impending divorce. “And frankly, it’s your fault for staying that long. What were you thinking?”
“Turn the channel, dear,” her mother said once when Jody came over to broach the subject. The television wasn’t even on.
Now, Rhonda scribbled furiously and then looked up. “Somewhere close? A friend’s? I’ll need to have you check a few things as I go along.”
“Maybe Jeff,” Jody began, but she knew from her repeated calls today, Jeff was not answering her calls, and maybe no one else’s.
“He’s probably already on the plane, right? Hard to check on floor refinishing from Paris.” Rhonda laughed, leaning in as if in collusion, girls against boys. “So you’re leaving tonight. I’ll get the guys in here tomorrow morning. They’ll start with a power clean of the outside, while the carpet guys rip up the second floor. Dog smell.”
Rhonda sniffed, rubbed her little nose with the back of one tanned hand. “Anyway, all looks good! Make sure you take everything.” She glanced at a slightly dead potted plant outside on the patio. “Can’t make a first impression twice!”
After Rhonda left, Jody put everything that Jeff had thrown into her pile of life in the back of her Subaru. Kaya and Riley followed her every move, tracking her from guest room to car, as if certain they were the next things to be tossed.
The dogs in the back seat, windows cracked, Jody walked the house one last time. After throwing away the dead plants and a bag of trash, she stood on the back deck, hands on the rails. She remembered viewing the house for the first time, her real estate agent Florence (pronounced the French way, Flor-ance) walking ahead of her as they climbed the stairs and stood side-by-side in the living room. The windows looked out onto trees, the tops of them, redwoods, cypress, and oak. Behind the branches, the bay and clouds. How that vista had felt like air she could breathe for a very long time. Forever, maybe, if she were lucky.
~ * ~
Two days later, Jody had enrolled the dogs at a doggie daycare because she couldn’t leave them alone during the day with Marcelle, who was actually a bit afraid of dogs any bigger than a Havanese or a Pekinese, little under-ten-pound dogs that looked like guinea pigs or foot stools. The first day at Marcelle’s, Jody called in sick and spent her time finding a good daycare, amazed by the large spaces holding dozens of dogs.
“You need to be able to go to work,” the director said to Jody as they both watched Kaya and Riley frolic in the rowdy pack. “This is the perfect solution.”
Of course it was, to the tune of forty dollars a day for the first dog, thirty-six for the second. But Jody signed the contract, and then back at Marcelle’s, she called Florence.
“You’re working with Rhonda,” Florence said, no question involved. “She’s insane. You know that, right?”
“I had no idea,” Jody said, not only about Rhonda’s sanity or the house sale. She then proceeded to tell Florence the rest of the story, which might have made Florence forgive her a little. But then when she laid out the details that Florence could take charge of—a rental or lease agreement and then purchase once the house sold—Jody felt her settle back into business.
“What a terrible man,” Florence said in an off-hand way, before reading Jody a list of currently available places with yards and with pet agreements.
“It’s going to be a month,” Florence said. “And you are going to have to act quick. We start this weekend.”
Jody agreed, but she also knew that she only had what she made as director of the large athletic club plus a tiny bit of savings she’d started as an after-thought. A couple hundred a month, just in case her divorce was for real. It wasn’t as if she was going to get a monster raise any time soon. This was still the job she’d taken when she’d not been able to find a good job as a social worker years ago. All she’d been doing was waiting for the right offer in the right town, but then the next thing she knew, she was still at Cedar Hill Athletic Club, making sixty-five thousand dollars a year, which wasn’t very much in the Bay Area. Until the house sold, she could afford a reasonable rent, the doggy daycare, and not much else. After the house sold, maybe more.
First, last, and deposit were going to be mostly on her Visa card, minimum payments until she could pay it off. At the back of her mind, worries, dark like mascara under a partied eye, like half-moon mud heels on a white carpet. Jeff, never having returned one single call, might have done more than steal the furniture, the whereabouts of which Jody could still not determine, no matter the calls to his friends, mother, and colleagues at the accounting firm. Jody had called her divorce lawyer, who had called in one of her partners, who had requested information Jody couldn’t provide. This was a criminal case now, and everyone wanted details.
But she couldn’t see into Jeff’s bank accounts, and all she could do was rely on Florence who was investigating the deed and the current home loan. Florence was also leaning on Rhonda, who, it was now universally acknowledged was Jeff’s agent. Not Jody’s. A war was brewing over documents and staging bills. By the time Jody thought to look for the paper trail, nothing was left to search through but nothing, Jeff not leaving behind an invoice or even a single digit.
“Okay,” Jody said to Florence, who was waiting, her clipped, irritated breathing in Jody’s ear. “I’m ready.”
So after dropping off the dogs, Jody headed back through downtown Oakland and through the tunnel, into the suburbs where despite the traffic, everything seemed dampened. Fog filled the valley basins. The sunrise a glimmer of orange over the shroudy white. The commute roared and then dimmed as she got off the freeway and made rights and lefts into the twisty turns of dry hills and oaky gullies. There, on a flat and landscaped expanse was the athletic club. Basketball, racquet ball, Pilates, dance, spin, swim, and yoga classes. Children’s programs, a weight and cardio room, an Olympic sized-pool. Sauna, massages, Jacuzzis, and steam, all of it Jody ordered and controlled, a fleet of minions at her disposal.
She turned into the parking lot, her tires gripping the newly resealed pavement, a slick sucking sound as she headed toward the employee spaces. It was just after six-thirty, most of the employee spaces still available. Thank god there would be some quiet when Jody sat down in her office.
The office staff didn’t usually arrive until eight. So Jody was early, parking under the small oak tree that would later provide shade. Strangely, there was a crowd in front of the bank of front doors, people with hands on hips or cell phones to ears. Jody got out of her car and watched, stepping around her car and then heading toward the patrons. The pavement was wet from dew, as if it had rained. Probably, the sprinklers had gone wonky. Overhead and in the trees, birds were barely cheeping, muffled wicks of tiny sound.
As she walked toward the doors, her assistant Emma rushed up to her, her purple-cased cell phone clenched in one hand, her short blonde (and sometimes green) hair flattened, thin, her eyes wide.
“Oh, my god,” Emma said. “I’ve been trying to call you?”
Jody blinked, wondering, again, if Emma really knew what she was saying. And how she was saying it. Had she actually called? Or had she literally tried to call and failed. Now, as always, it was unclear, but this seemed no time to discuss.
“Why is everyone standing around? Was there an accident?”
“Not yet.” Emma gripped her wrist. “There’s a guy in there. He says he’s going to kill someone.”
“Does he have a weapon?” Jody asked, unconsciously feeling for something in her jacket pocket. What? A mint tin? A hairbrush? Maybe a quarter. What could an average person use to protect herself?
“Yes. Well, no one really knows.” Emma was distracted, smoothing her hair while looking at the gym members milling about. Why were they still here? “He said he did so we all ran.”
“You’ve called the police,” Jody asked, turning around, looking for a police car.
“Um, no,” Emma said. “I just got everyone out. I didn’t–”
“Call,” Jody said. “Now.”
As Emma fumbled with her phone, Jody walked closer to the crowd, and smiled the smile she’d worked so hard on, one of knowing and full of a relaxed mood. A “Hi” smile. A “How’s it going?” smile when the only appropriate answer is, “Just great.”
“Folks,” she said. “I’m going to have to ask you to go back to your cars. For now. The police are on their way.”
“My purse is in there!” a woman said. “My phone!”
“I’m sure all of this will be settled—”
“My briefcase,” another man said, he, Jody realized, dressed only in one of the thin white towels the gym provided.
“And there was no warning,” another woman said. “That girl just ran around with the trainers and shooed us out.”
“I’m sure—” Jody began.
“You’re not sure about anything,” a man said, maybe a lawyer, partially dressed, dress shirt undone at the neck, a dot of shaving cream on his cheek. “Or you wouldn’t be right here.”
“Exactly,” said another woman. “Why wasn’t there an alarm? A disaster plan?”
Good questions, Jody thought. Why hadn’t there been a disaster plan? A couple of them in a variety of locales. An extra hundred thousand dollars in a bank account. A prenuptial agreement. One of those spy cameras on in the house the day Jeff took her belongings. Or at least half of them.
“This is the disaster plan,” Jody said. “I need to get you all away from the building.”
“Who is going to guarantee that our belongings—”
“I will,” Jody said. “At least from anyone who works here. And everyone who works here is outside.”
She nodded her head a bit toward the trainers, receptionists, and janitorial and maintenance staff. Her accountant Stan stood clutching a lamp post for dear life. Danielle, the activities director, was on her phone, waving her left hand as she spoke, a modified aerobics move. Everyone who should have been here at this exact time stood in the parking lot.
“The only person in there right now threatened you with bodily harm,” Jody said, feeling heat in her face. “The only person in the gym is a man who wants to hurt you. So it’s for your best interest that you back away.”
Panting a little, trying to tamp down the heave in her lungs, Jody set her expression, her special smile a mask over something deeper and uglier, a feeling that churned in her throat.
They stared at her for a second, and then, one man and then another, one woman and then another moved toward their cars, away from the front door, grumbling as they left. In the distance, Jody heard a siren, the wail muffled by the fog.
“They’re almost here!” Emma said, the girl now at Jody’s side.
Jody started toward the door, seeing only her reflection in the glass.
“Where are you going?” Emma grabbed her arm, her dark eyes wide behind her oversized glasses.
“It’s fine. You wait with them.” Jody waved one hand. “Don’t come in. Tell the police what you know.”
“Jody,” Emma said, her voice light and floating away in the still, wet air.
The gym was bright, light, glinting. The building was a cave of warm silence, save for a hum Jody had never heard before, an incessant and slight whirring whine from the overhead lights, the great steel refrigerators in the kitchen, the dah dah, dah dah rumble and roll from the laundry area, a dryer left on in the panic.
Her hands in her pockets, her fists clenched, Jody walked forward as if going to her office, scanning as she went, looking for someone doing what he shouldn’t be. But nothing seemed out of place. A madman wasn’t rummaging through the cash register behind the food counter or at the front desk. He wasn’t in her office, riffling through private notes and letter. No, her door was open, the desk neat and tidy, just the way she left it. He hadn’t loaded up a hand truck with computers and other electronic equipment. He wasn’t running on the pool deck or banging any weights together upstairs in the weight room.
Jody swallowed, held her breath, walked into the women’s locker room. Maybe he was a crazy pantie guy, wanting to dig through left-open lockers to his heart’s content. Or at least until the police came. But he wasn’t in the locker section, the sauna, the showers, or the bathroom stalls.
Outside, Jody heard the yelp of the siren, and she started to run, heading out of the locker room and toward and into the men’s, where she found the man sitting down on the recently reupholstered couch and watching television, nestled and cozy. He was naked, legs crossed, as if he were at a meeting instead of trespassing while wearing no clothes.
But when he saw her, he jumped up and grabbed something that swung in one hand. Jody stuttered, stopped, stepped back, a hand at her throat. She didn’t make a sound, both of them breathing hard.
He was disheveled, his hair dark and scraggly, bits of scalp showing where strands had clumped together. His was thin and dirty, a towel at his large hairy feet. In another universe, he could have just had a hard workout and taken a break to catch the traffic updates before hitting the shower. But she could smell him, too, the warm fetid odor of unwashed skin, a smell she’d never actually had to recognize before but did now.
His eyes were red and also slightly yellow. Hepatitis, maybe. Jaundice. Something bad.
And what did he see? A forty-two-year-old woman with too long, going-gray blonde hair, wrinkling skin, and tired eyes. A slumpy sack body in a bad outfit, one of many she should have put into the clothes collection box at the Safeway long ago. No lipstick, a little mascara, and splotchy cheeks. She was likely as appalling.
“What are you doing?” she managed.
He lifted the thing in his hand which was a bike chain with a heavy lock. Emma hadn’t said anything about a bike, but who had thought to ask.
“Stand back!” he said.
She couldn’t help but stare at his penis, a small clenched fleshy knob in a thatch of matted hair that swung slightly as he moved. How many months had it been since she’d seen a penis other than Jeff’s? Years, really. And how long had it been since she’d seen Jeff’s? Actually, she didn’t remember the last time they’d had sex, and there must have been a last time. They used to have sex three or four times a week. And then once or twice. Then maybe once a month, three times a year. Perhaps the last time had been months before Jody realized their marriage was over, long before the lawyers had been hired. Jeff had to have been plotting, though. Moving over to her side of the bed, moving on top of her in the way that was known. Coming just as he figured out how he would steal the furniture and force the sale of the house.
But maybe Jody had been planning, too, even if she hadn’t noticed that by not reacting, she was.
“I said stand back!” The man shook the chain. Jody felt a scream in her throat, but she stepped back, as demanded.
“Why don’t you get that towel,” she said, “and put it on. Then maybe we—”
He rushed at her, and she stumbled a little, moved around to the other side of the television area, an armchair between them. His teeth—those that he still had—were almost brown. He bared them, stomping with one foot. He growled, just like Riley did when Kaya got to close to the cherished cloth monkey. He bared his teeth again, wider, until Jody realized he was smiling.
“Oh,” she said.
“I just wanted a shower,” the man said.
He lurched toward her again, but then he was picking up the towel and wrapping it around his waist. Jody felt her body unclench, relax.
“Are you from the area?” she asked. Out in the main hall of the gym, she heard doors opening, the whine of a walkie-talkie.
“I am the area,” he said. “Can’t you tell? Can’t you see it?”
He lifted his arms, and again, a waft of too much man smell. Dirty streaks from jawbone to towel. “I’ve been living in the park. I didn’t know gyms opened up so early. Just thought I’d sneak in with the cleaning crew or something.”
“Go on,” Jody said. “Hurry. They’ll be here any second.”
The man’s eyes widened, and he paused. But only for a one, two. Then he nodded, dropped the bike lock, and took off toward the showers. In a moment, she heard water, smelled soap and steam.
“Ma’am,” a voice said, and Jody turned to see an officer behind her. He seemed heavy, padded, a bullet-proof vest under his clothing, one hand on his holster. His black shoes were thick-soled and shiny.
“A homeless man,” Jody said. “That’s all. He thought he would sneak in and have a shower. So he is. He’s not too dangerous.”
The officer did some police moves, walking crab-like around Jody, his head making sharp swivels. As he walked toward the shower, he spoke into the walkie talkie thing on his shoulder, and then another officer came into the men’s locker room, this one with his gun out.
“Ma’am, I need you to leave immediately.” This fellow moved his head, too, using it like a hand. Go, his head said. Now.
So Jody went, leaving the now clean homeless man to the cops, who would likely take him either to jail or a mental health facility.
Some place not here.
~ * ~
That night at Marcelle’s, Jody sat on the couch on the third floor, refusing to allow herself to go upstairs, even though Marcelle had insisted and made mention of a green curry with summer squash. But too much of Jody was too much, and she needed Marcelle for later, which was likely going to last a long time. As Jody had feared, worlds were currently colliding, and she needed to soften the impact. Maybe tomorrow she’d go up for dinner. And then by the weekend, she and Florence would have a plan. Maybe a rental. A lease.
Jody picked up her tablet, signed on with the Wi-Fi. Kaya and Riley were asleep at her feet, exhausted from all the doggie daycare play, and she sat reading her email. Five from Florence. Two from the new lawyer. One from Jeff.
It had all been a mistake. No need for the police or the lawyers. He’d left the movers with detailed instructions and gone directly to the airport. Things had not gone as planned. Yes, he was in Paris. Yes, he was with a woman. Someone he’d been seeing for a year. This from Florence, who had it from Rhonda.
Jumped the gun on the real estate agent, he wrote. She’s that way, though.
Jeff wrote: I’m sorry. I didn’t want it to end this way.
Paris was a bit of a cliché, wasn’t it? And in general, it all seemed a little fishy. But the facts were the facts. No one wanted things to end the way they did. Who wanted a marriage that wasn’t a marriage? Who wanted to end up on a friend’s couch with two dogs she couldn’t take very good care of anymore? Who wanted to sneak in for a shower before getting arrested? Who wanted anything that happened when things went off course, turned and spun like a young police officer’s head as he stalked you, ready to cart you off to the looney bin?
Jody was middle-aged without having felt it happen, but now it all felt too heavy and hard and sad. She felt as small and useless as the homeless man’s penis. Something so unimportant, he didn’t even cover it up.
Truth was, the bravest thing she had ever done in her entire life was walk through the front doors of the gym to find the trouble. She’d walked right toward it, him.
“Why did you go in all by yourself?” Emma later asked as they sat in Jody’s office, the police taking statements from all the employees. “He could have killed you. Or worse.”
Exactly. Worse than death, these past years. Maybe when Jody pulled open the door, she wasn’t actually alive in the first place, her life wrapped in gauze because underneath, everything was red, exposed, nothing scabbed over.
But she was here now.
Kaya stirred, looked up, licked Jody’s ankle. For the first time, a feeling in Jody’s chest, solid, weighted, as all failure was. She tried to breathe through the ache but couldn’t, not quite yet. She closed her eyes, thought about everything that was gone and then focused on the rasp, rasp rasp of her dog’s tongue.
There, she thought. This.
Jessica Barksdale’s fourteenth novel, The Burning Hour, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in April 2016. Her novels include the best-selling Her Daughter’s Eyes, The Matter of Grace, and When You Believe. A Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee, her short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in the Waccamaw Journal, Salt Hill Journal, Little Patuxent Review, Carve Magazine, Palaver, and So to Speak. She is a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California and teaches novel writing online for UCLA Extension. She holds an MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA from the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.