Colette Sartor writes and teaches in Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Carve, Kenyon Review Online, The Chicago Tribune, The Good Men Project, Hello Giggles, Crab Orchard Review, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her at colettesartor.com and follow her on Twitter at @colettesartor.
The last thing Althea needed with Owen missing was Irene nosing around. Yet there she was, pacing outside the store, her wrinkled cheeks ruddy from the early morning chill. Althea hid inside in the dark behind a shelf of stuffed seals, willing her friend to leave. Owen might be wandering along the freeway, traffic swift with impatient commuters. He might need her. She gripped the shelf. No. He was a grown man, her husband of almost fifty years. He could still take care of himself.
Irene stopped pacing and rapped on the window. “I know you’re there, Althea,” she called. “It’s 8 a.m. I’ve got news.”
Althea sighed and flipped on the lights before unlocking the door. “Can’t it wait? I’m getting ready to open.” She walked to the cash register and started dusting.
Irene followed her. “Our whole lives, you’ve never been too busy to gossip. Where’s Owen? I haven’t seen him in forever.”
“Upstairs,” Althea lied. “He overslept.”
Owen had sneaked out before dawn while she was showering. No note, nothing. But that wasn’t anybody’s business. He always came back eventually, sometimes his normal self, sometimes not. Friday he had been gone all afternoon. When he finally returned, there were twigs in his thick white hair, and he let out a whoop before dancing her up and down the aisles, right in front of the customers. Then he had barged out of the store and upstairs to their apartment, where he had slept straight through until morning.
Irene plopped her gloves on the counter. “Wait till you hear. Someone wants to buy the hardware store from me and open a Starbucks.”
“Oh, please. You’ll never get around the ordinance.”
Twenty years before, in the early ’80s, when Althea had still been on the city council, she had helped draft an ordinance banning franchises. No cookie-cutter chains would besmirch their town. Althea’s own store typified Cambria hominess, a two-story clapboard brimming with postcards, coffee mugs, and sweatshirts bearing images of the region’s beloved elephant seals, plus replicas of Hearst Castle’s glassware and china.
“Rules are written on paper, not stone,” Irene said as the bells on the front door jingled.
Owen, at last.
Instead, Beatrice walked in, blowing on her knobby, reddened hands, her long white braid trailing down her back. Althea made herself kiss her hello just like any other day.
“Lucky I was driving by,” Beatrice said. “It’s been too long since we coffee-klatched. What’s our topic?”
“Selling the hardware store and retiring,” Irene said.
Beatrice snorted. “Oh please. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.”
“I’d move someplace social,” Irene said. “Some of us don’t have husbands for company.”
She pulled a brochure from her coat pocket. It showed detached stucco townhouses, elderly couples strolling beneath graceful arbors. Laguna Woods Leisure World, down south near San Diego. Althea touched a glossy page. She and Owen walking hand in hand along a sunlit path. Or maybe he would gallop her past the other residents in a frenetic foxtrot.
“Women outnumber men three-to-one in those places,” Althea said.
“Better odds than here.” Irene took off her knit cap, fluffed her wispy hair. At seventy-one she remained lovely despite the wrinkles and bluish veins roping her hands and neck. A person couldn’t help being drawn to her face with those eyes like bright slices of sky. She had always known how to use them to her advantage, even when they were all children. “There hasn’t been a decent single man around here in decades.” She paused. “Not since Hank.”
Althea tossed her dust cloth on the counter. Even after so much time, just hearing that name infuriated her. But she couldn’t let on. She had promised herself. “You’ve dated plenty since him.”
Irene folded her cap, then looked up smiling. “He’s still my gold standard.”
Beatrice spun the greeting card rack. “Owen sleeping in again?” she asked, her eyes on the rack. “He should get checked for chronic fatigue.”
Althea found she couldn’t look at Beatrice and busied herself with the coffee makerbehind the register. “He’s fine. Touch of flu, maybe.”
The front bells jingled; this time Owen walked in. Finally. Althea suppressed the urge to scold; instead, she hurried over and stood on tiptoe to kiss his cold, rough face. At least he’d remembered a coat. He looked like himself, so handsome still and imposingly tall with large capable-looking hands, watchful eyes that normally drank her in, even after so many years of knowing her.
“There you are, sleepyhead,” she said, loud enough for Irene and Beatrice to hear, then whispered, “Where’ve you been?”
Frowning, he considered her question. Did he even know?
“Around,” he said. “I left a note, like always.”
“You didn’t. I checked everywhere.”
He regarded her absently, then kissed her, a full-on smooch that he usually saved for private.
“And you complain Owen’s not romantic.”
He looked up at the sound of Irene’s voice. Althea patted his arm. Focus, hon, she wanted to say. But not with the others there.
“Irene and Beatrice stopped by,” she said.
“Take it down a decibel. My hearing’s fine. I can see, too.” He let Irene and Beatrice each peck his cheek, then walked to the coffee maker, where he picked up the pot and wiggled it at the women. “Offer you some?”
Beatrice declined—“Gives me heartburn lately”—but Irene nodded. He poured a cup and brought it over.
Irene propped her elbows on the counter and took a sip. “Owen, what do you think about selling our stores and moving to Laguna Woods? Bea, you and Stuart could sell the bed-and-breakfast lickety-split, it’s in such a prime location. Imagine, buying side-by-side condos and barbequing every evening. No more foggy cold. Just balmy days and nights.”
Owen stared at Irene, then down at the counter, which he started wiping with Althea’s abandoned dust cloth.
“Stop talking craziness,” Althea said. “We’re staying put.”
Irene thumped down her coffee mug. “There was a time you couldn’t wait to leave. You packed up faster than a man running from a jilted fiancée when you moved to Los Angeles.”
Irene was right. That had been Althea’s dream, once. She watched Owen’s slack face. “We were children back then. This is home. We know this place. Right, hon?”
“Just because we’ve lived here forever,” Irene said, “doesn’t mean we have to die here.” She smiled at Owen. “Talk to her, O. If we work together, we can get that ordinance overturned in a blink and sell to the highest bidder. Then Laguna Woods, here we come.”
He shrugged, a quick quiver, as if shaking off a trance.
“If Althea’s not interested, I’m not either.” He picked up the coffee pot, wiggled it at Beatrice. “Offer you some?”
Beatrice hesitated, then tapped her chest. “Heartburn, remember?”
Althea forced herself to turn away as Owen paused, then said, “Of course. What was I thinking?”
. . .
Within a week, Irene started a petition to overturn the franchise ban.
“She’s planning to knock on every door in a twenty-mile radius,” Beatrice shouted to Althea above the elephant seals’ baying. They stood on the bluffs overlooking the Piedras Blancas haul-out beach, which writhed with activity: elephant seal pups jostled mothers for milk; bulls bellowed their ardor to cows. It was twilight, the end of Beatrice and Althea’s docent shift for the elephant seal conservancy. Each held bullhorns and wore badges with red letters—“Ask Me Anything!”—visible even in the incessant fog that blanketed the area during winter.
Althea adjusted her badge. “She won’t get much support. Everyone loves this town as is.”
“The petition’s already as thick as my thumb.”
On the beach below, a woman watched a boy poke driftwood through the tall chain link fence at a pup who mouthed the wood. Docents were supposed to keep visitors from bothering the seals. The huge two-ton bulls with their long, meaty snouts could be dangerous now, during mating season, when they sometimes battled over cows. Amazing how often Althea had to warn people who reached through the fence, even climbed it, wanting to touch the animals.
The boy kept poking the pup. Althea aimed her bullhorn. “Please don’t tease the seals.” Her words echoed in the cove. The boy whirled around, searching for his admonisher. “You’d think parents would teach children more sense,” she said.
“Sense runs off when people really want something.” Beatrice cradled her own bullhorn as she regarded Althea. “Irene’s lonely, Thea. She’s been talking about Hank again like he was here just yesterday. Only way she thinks she’ll find somebody is by selling and moving. So she’ll keep getting signatures.”
Althea stared down at the seals. Again with that man. Lately Irene acted as if losing him had swept away all her options, as if she hadn’t had a lifetime full of opportunities. Which wasn’t true, not a bit. Irene had always been popular, always had dates and boyfriends, even now. There was no reason for Althea to feel guilty. “She won’t get my signature,” she said, keeping her eyes on the beach. “How’s Stuart?”
Beside her, she sensed Beatrice shifting quietly, as if deciding whether to let Althea change the subject.
“He’s frustrated,” Beatrice said. “A guest woke us after midnight insisting we fix her cable TV or give her a rebate. The ninny. As if we could do anything at that hour.” She paused. “We’re getting too old to run a B&B.”
The skin under Beatrice’s eyes was puffy. She was Althea’s age, seventy, but seemed frail wrapped in her quilted coat. Her long braid was thin and scraggly. How had she aged so much without Althea noticing?
“Hire a manager,” Althea said.
“That’s one option.”
“You haven’t signed—”
“No. Although admit it, selling to a franchise, the money would be nice. That dry heat in Laguna Woods would be better for Stuart’s gout than this constant fog.”
“Excuses, excuses. The weather’s not so different and you know it.”
“Don’t get snippy. I’m only thinking out loud.” She paused, then said, “What about Owen? Has he changed his mind about all this?”
There it was, the guarded tone Beatrice used lately whenever she asked about Owen. She suspected something was amiss, which was why Althea had been turning down invitations that included Owen, sending him into the stock roomif Beatrice or Irene stopped in (though they had caught her off guard last week by arriving so early). If they knew about Owen’s diagnosis, they would try to cajole Althea into action. Irene would bring her brochures for in-home aid and full-care facilities. Beatrice would hold her hand and say in her blunt, practical way that the most difficult path was usually the right one.
Not in this case. The thing to do was to enjoy the times when Owen was himself. Which mostly he was. Occasionally he even left her silly notes in random places, the way he used to. For the other times, there was the young man from San Simeon that Althea had hired to help around the store. He had Owen’s measured way of doing things, was good at getting him to hang around by asking how to fix something or where to put a new shipment of seal magnets or sweatshirts. For now, that’s what Owen needed, a young man to show the ropes, someone to focus him on the familiar, ground him in routine, like the doctor had advised. And this place, with its shops and lifelong friends and proximity to the Castle, was ingrained in them, as routine and familiar as their own mottled, aging skin. She had been here so long, so much longer than she had ever intended.
“Owen still agrees we should stay,” she said, then squeezed Beatrice’s hand. “Just like you do.”
Beatrice put an arm around her. Althea hugged her close. Together they watched the seals on the beach below.
. . .
The summer of 1946 was the hottest on record along California’s central coast. Sweat stuck Althea’s clothes to her skin even in the early hours. Every day she helped her mother in the store, though business was slow. No one wanted to be out midday. The sun’s pounding glare made everything—the town, the store, their daily rhythms—even more tedious, screamingly so.
Althea sat behind the register plucking her new dress with its grown-up, belted waist away from her damp skin. It was probably ninety degrees already and only 10 a.m. Oh, to be somewhere else, like the castle on the hill a few miles away, owned by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. “La Cuesta Encantada,” he called it. The Enchanted Hill. There were rumored to be two huge swimming pools, one indoor, one outdoor. Probably a servant stood by the outdoor pool with big, fluffy towels so that guests emerging from the water didn’t catch cold. Althea fanned herself with her hand. As if catching cold were even possible right now. Someday she would leave here, someday soon.
A lone customer, scruff-faced and lanky, kept glancing over from a nearby shelf. His fingernails were black crescents, his armpits sweat stained.
“I’ll take a pint,” he said.
“I don’t know what you mean.” She smoothed her belt and tried to look stern, older than fifteen. You never knew when Mr. Hearst might send a snitch, her mother said.
The man regarded her with narrowed eyes. “Kay around?”
“Mama,” she called without standing, “someone’s asking for you.”
Behind her there were footsteps, quick insistent clicks on the floorboards. Her mother ducked around the curtain shielding the back. Her high-cheeked face looked stern as she assessed the man’s creased clothes and dusty boots. Even in heels, she barely reached his shoulder, but he cowered a little under her gaze.
“Who sent you?” she asked.
“Donny. He said you’d know—”
She turned and pushed past the curtain, the man trailing her. Althea cringed when she noticed his eyes fixed on her mother’s shapely bottom.
They kept liquor in the back, in pint-size bottles that were easier to hide, though prohibition had been dead for over a decade. Mr. Hearst had strict rules about alcohol on the Hill. One cocktail a night per guest, limited wine at dinner. Merchants weren’t supposed to sell to people on their way there. Mr. Hearst had his guests’ bags searched upon arrival. Better to be discreet, Mama said, than to risk being run out of business like Carmichael’s, whose owner had dared to keep whiskey on display.
Bells jingled up front. A bird squawked. Althea looked up to see Irene wearing a wide-brimmed hat and hurrying down the main aisle. Beatrice followed close behind. On her shoulder was her cockatiel, Cecil, clutching the tip of her long dark braid in his claws. He screeched as he swiveled his head and eyed the shelves.
“Irene did something stupid again,” Beatrice sang out. She looked tiny and solid next to Irene’s willowy figure. “To help her meet boys.”
“Oh, Bea, hush,” said Irene. “You have Stuart, you don’t need to worry. Thea, wait till you see.” She swept off her hat. “What do you think?”
Her hair, normally auburn, was bleached platinum like Jean Harlow’s. The color made her eyes bluer than the tiny cornflowers dotting her shirtfront dress. Althea’s own new dress looked dowdy by comparison.
“Does your grandma know?” she asked.
“I’m sixteen. It’s my hair. Besides, her vision is so bad these days she can barely see.”
Behind Althea, her mother pushed aside the curtain. The man followed, slipping a bottle into his back pocket. Irene craned her neck to watch, smiling slightly when the man grinned at her as he left the store. Sometimes she was positively shameless.
Irene touched her hair. “Hi, Mrs. Hamilton. Notice anything different?”
Althea’s mother glanced over as she shut the register. “Someone stumbled into the bleach.”
Irene flushed. Beatrice snorted and scratched Cecil’s neck. He arched his crest, trilled. Althea’s mother wheeled a dolly to the dry goods and started loading flour sacks.
“Althea,” she said over her shoulder, “next back-room customer, get me right away. Don’t wait to be asked.”
“How am I supposed to know if they don’t ask?”
“Use your instincts. You need to learn to read people if you’re gonna take over this business.”
The back door opened. In walked the new stock boy, Reggie. He’d only worked for them a week, and he wasn’t a boy, he was eighteen. Wavy black hair, gray eyes. Usually Althea wouldn’t bother looking at someone like him, who wouldn’t notice a girl like her: small, fussy, persistent, like a sparrow seeking crumbs, Irene sometimes teased. Reggie had traveled some before settling in Cambria with relatives. Althea imagined where he’d been: San Francisco, Los Angeles, maybe even Chicago. Big cities where no one would know anything about her, where glamour and excitement didn’t reside solely at the top of a hill that offered no invitation. Cities where she wanted to go.
“Reggie, how’re you?” She straightened her belt and sucked her teeth before smiling.
He waved—“Hey, kiddo”—then turned to her mother, who wheeled the dolly of flour sacks over to him.
“Rush delivery for the Castle,” she said. “Big party tonight and they’ve got weevils.”
“Sure thing.” He eyed Irene. “You girls keeping outta this heat?”
“I must not be working you hard enough,” Althea’s mother said, “if you’ve got time for chitchat.” She strode out the back door.
He grinned as he wheeled the dolly after her. Althea watched him go.
Irene twirled a brittle strand of hair. “You didn’t say there was a new boy.”
“He’s nobody.” Althea found a cloth and started dusting the spotless register, but not before she caught Beatrice’s sympathetic look.
Beatrice offered Cecil a palmful of seeds. “He just moved here, Irene. He’s probably not looking to leave first chance he gets.”
“Turn a boy’s head, he’ll take you anywhere.” Irene stared thoughtfully at them. “Let’s get him to bring us to the Castle.”
Althea pictured Irene flipping her hair, the way Reggie’s eyes would linger. “Mama would fire him.”
“We’ll flag him down around the block. She’ll never know.”
Althea’s mother walked back inside wiping her forehead with her apron. “Must be the hottest day of the year.”
Irene clasped her hands behind her. “Mrs. Hamilton, can Althea come for ice cream?”
Her mother walked to the windows and lowered the blinds. “Might as well. We won’t have many customers until evening.”
“Really, Mama, there’s still inventory—”
Irene tugged Althea closer. “Don’t you want to see the Castle?” she whispered.
The Castle. La Cuesta Encantada. They had all dreamed about it, the ever expanding mansion looming on its nearby hilltop estate. Mr. Hearst had set up a telescope on the San Simeon pier for locals to catch a glimpse. The one time Althea used it, she saw a car chugging up a dusty road, graceful, scaffolded domes evoking a Spanish cathedral. There were rumors—confirmed by Beatrice, whose father was the local vet—that Mr. Hearst kept all kinds of exotic animals, though many of them had been sold over the years. Althea imagined droopy-humped camels, tigers with bristling stripes. She especially loved big cats. Plastered on her bedroom walls were posters of panthers, lions, leopards, along with their fearless trainers. Sometimes she pictured herself in a pen surrounded by white tigers, her whip raised confidently as she took the cats through their paces. She wouldn’t be afraid, even when the biggest one flattened his ears and hissed. She would flick the whip, growl instructions; he would growl back but obey. She would be in charge, the kind of girl that boys like Reggie would look at.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Irene was already halfway to the door, her hat abandoned on the counter. Beatrice shrugged at Althea. Together they followed their friend outside into the heat.
. . .
Althea stood by the rumpled bed and clipped on her docent badge. Her coat pockets were stuffed with seal magnets for the children too shy or scared to leave the cliff. She always offered to watch them while their parents and more adventurous siblings trekked down the narrow path to the beach. She understood the children’s hesitation, the safety in the familiar.
Just this past week, two bulls had battled by the shoreline, the slapping of their skin echoing in the cove. Nearby a pup wailed, frightened but clearly too weak to move. Althea had noticed him wailing earlier as bigger pups pushed him off the teats of different cows. She radioed the conservancy for rangers, who arrived in their pickup with tranquilizer guns and first aid supplies. By then, the bulls had moved on and the pup lay motionless. The children, awed and silent, clustered around Althea on the cliff as they watched two rangers maneuver the pup into an animal carrier, lift it into the truck bed, then speed down the beach to the conservancy’s seal shelter. Althea had gathered the children close, told them everyone would be fine. Their powdery scent and the feel of their small, shifting bodies still lingered.
Docent badge in place, she went looking for her bullhorn. It wasn’t where she kept it in the closet with her handbags. She searched under the bed (cluttered with dusty shoeboxes full of Owen’s old notes), in drawers, the living room, the second bedroom that had been her mother’s. In the kitchen, she found Owen seated at the table reading the local newspaper, a sandwich by his elbow. He was supposed to be downstairs at the store. Thank goodness for the new boy Greer. He was big like Owen, quiet and capable. He wouldn’t spread rumors or offer advice. Three afternoons a week, he ran the store and kept an eye on things while she volunteered at the haul-out beach. Three afternoons a week, she could breathe easily, away from Owen.
She started opening cabinets. Owen kept reading.
“Have you seen my bullhorn?”
“Can’t say I have.”
It was tucked behind the oatmeal canister and some cans of creamed corn. There were also three rolls of quarters and a package of fishhooks. No notes though. She took out everything that didn’t belong.
“How’d these get there?” she asked.
He looked up. “I must have rushed putting groceries away.”
“That must’ve been it,” she agreed. “I’ll be a little late tonight. We’re bottle feeding that pup we just saved.”
He spread out the newspaper. There was Irene’s picture below the headline, “The Path to Wealth is Paved with Lattes.” Two weeks of petitioning and already she was front-page news.
“She’s making progress,” he said.
“A million articles won’t convince the planning board.”
“This ordinance gets overturned, we could make a mint, go anywhere.”
Laguna Woods’ manicured hills, the warm breeze as they read by the pool. Owen would angle the umbrella to keep the sun off her face and make frothy drinks for them all, Althea, Beatrice, Stuart, and Irene applauding him from their wicker lounges.
He would get worse, perhaps suddenly, though it would only seem sudden. The symptoms likely had gone unnoticed for some time. Last month, in an office lined with medical degrees, a tired-looking specialist suggested they consider alternative care options. Owen had gripped his chair arms, breathed slowly. “Better to know now,” he said once they were home. “We can plan for the future before I forget about it.” He got her to smile with that one, even as she cried, curled on their neatly made bed. The bed he had made every day of their marriage until recently. These days, the sheets were often rumpled, the pillows in a heap. His notes—those silly, random, lovely things—were intermittent now, and rambling, digressing to long ago events. I walked by Beatrice and Stuart’s old place, where they lived all those years they were trying to have a baby, he wrote in one she’d recently discovered underneath her bedside lamp. Remember how Irene used to bring Hank there for cocktails? Your mother was still alive. Hank thought guard dogs would’ve been a better bet to breed than cats. Kind of a know-it-all, liked to puff himself up like a peacock. Although maybe he had a point about the dogs. I always tried to be friendly, for your sake, and Irene’s. He didn’t make it easy though.
Hank—the blowhard, the cur best forgotten; she had done the right thing about him, though she could never tell anyone. Hank, Owen remembered. Where the fishhooks belonged, where he went in the mornings and afternoons when he left her, that he forgot. There was no way of knowing which memories would fade first or which would be the last to go. But the most recent memories, the basics of daily life, could be among the earliest casualties, the doctor had warned. What would happen when he started forgetting to eat? Forgetting who he was? Who she was. They would wait and see. They wouldn’t change anything. Better not to risk a disorienting change.
Owen smoothed out Irene’s picture, then picked up the packet of fishhooks. “Irene’s got the right idea. We could afford a house near wherever I wind up. Near Irene and Beatrice and Stuart, if they’re willing. You could travel like you’ve always wanted, then come back and tell me about where you’ve been. Or pretend I went too. I won’t know any better eventually.”
“We’re both staying put.”
He slammed down the fishhooks, making her jump. “Stop being pigheaded. If we don’t sell now, we never will. And then you’ll be here all by yourself.” His face was flushed and angry. “I need to know you’re safe. That you’ll be okay without me.”
Carefully, she took the hooks, folded the newspaper to hide Irene. She rubbed his back as his breathing slowed. “It’s not time to worry about that yet,” she said and rested her cheek against his coarse white hair.
. . .
Althea and Owen’s move to Los Angeles that one time so long ago occasioned his very first note. He was twenty, with a couple inches yet to grow, all ears and wrists and gulping Adam’s apple, a slight heart murmur enough for a 4-F when he registered for the draft. She was twenty-two, still sparrow-like in her darting motions, with billows of curly black hair. Together their belongings fit in a trunk and one large suitcase.
They had met three months before at a Cambria Presbyterian dance. He’d driven into town from his family’s apricot orchard in Morro Bay. She wore a bottle green, cinch-waist sheath that she’d sewn from a Vogue mail-order pattern. He towered over the other boys in his ill-fitted jacket and leaned in close for Althea to hear his quiet voice above the polka band. “There’s more to life than Morro Bay,” he’d told her, his steady gaze drinking her in.
They had married within weeks.
The day they moved to Los Angeles, where Althea had a distant cousin, everyone gathered at the train station to see them off. “Make sure to call Cousin Izzy for advice. Or I could always lend a hand,” her mother kept saying as they waited on the platform, until Althea stopped bothering to respond. Nearby, Irene, Beatrice, and Stuart talked with Owen. Beatrice—long braid already graying, eyes gazing absently—stood quietly clutching her belly, as if she sensed this pregnancy would fail like the others. Stuart, with his round face and droopy cocker-spaniel eyes, looped one arm protectively around her waist as he smiled and nodded at Irene, who held Owen’s elbow and chattered away. She hadn’t yet met Hank. Her lips seemed perpetually pursed, as if she couldn’t believe the turn her life had taken.
“Just you wait,” she told Owen. “Once our boys are home from Korea, I’ll find someone to move me right next door.”
His head was cocked attentively, but he winked when he caught Althea watching, then gestured for her to check her coat pocket. Inside was a slip of paper. Los Angeles, here we come! When she looked up, he was smiling at her. Only her.
So many notes followed, written in his careful print on ruled notebook paper and tucked behind the cash register, underneath dinner plates, in cabinets behind canned goods, to be found when she least expected them. Counting the minutes till I see you again or Odds are you’re stuck with me forever or some other gushy thing that he would never say aloud but knew would make her laugh. She kept them all, smoothed out, folded carefully in boxes under the bed.
Once in Los Angeles, they rented a storefront and started a pet store a few doors down from her cousin’s flower shop by the Fairfax Farmer’s Market, where there was ample foot traffic. The risk, the adventure, of selling things that people wanted but didn’t need. Teacup terriers and Siamese cats sold best. Eventually, she and Owen would breed the cats themselves. Blue tips, they decided. At night on the bed squished into the stock room, they schemed about how they would find an apartment once they were established, how they’d open another store in Beverly Hills, buy a house, have a baby. Let’s call her Velma, said a note under a bag of pet food. Luke if it’s a boy, said another behind the mop. The time they spent, talking about a baby, trying to make one. The surprising, yearning, lovely ache of trying.
Her mother called like clockwork at month’s end to say hello she claimed, but really to gauge how close they were to failure. Fish or reptiles were cheaper upkeep, she suggested. Or sell something practical, like hardware. Althea always said goodbye quickly.
After a year, her mother called mid-month. It was probably nothing, but she kept falling. It was difficult to swallow. Her hands wouldn’t work right. Owen wanted to move her to Los Angeles, where they could help out and still keep their store going. Althea said no. Her mother would want to run things. Before long, they’d stock more pet food than pets. Better for Althea to return to Cambria, nurse her mother back to health, then rejoin him in Los Angeles.
Don’t go, said the note she discovered in her handbag upon arriving in Cambria. She threw it in a dustbin near the train station exit.
. . .
Owen had a string of good days after their argument about Irene’s petition. Instead of wandering, he kept to the store, sweeping, unpacking seal magnets and T shirts, avoiding customers’ questions with a smile, like always. When Greer was working, he followed in Owen’s wake, a steady, watchful presence. If Althea kept her distance, she could pretend that Owen was instructing the young man about how she liked the shelves arranged or where to put this or that, which, sometimes, he was.
Then one night she woke to find the bed empty beside her. Her heart pulsed in her throat. He’d never left at night before. Moonlight cast a sulky glow as she pulled on a robe and checked the apartment. Of course he wasn’t there. The stairs creaked beneath her slippered feet as she hurried down to the store. That’s where he’d be. Please, let him be there.
Outside, a biting wind tugged at her robe and the fog, thick and viscous, clung to her hair and lashes. The sidewalk was empty. She peered through the store windows. It was dark inside except for one dim light. She unlocked the door, crept to where Owen sat by the register, jotting in a notebook beside a hurricane lamp.
He smiled when he saw her, a wide, inviting smile that washed over her. They would go upstairs. She would make tea. They would sleep, wake up refreshed, renewed.
“Hon,” she said. “Why’re you down here?”
He glanced at his notebook, then back to her. “Can I help you?” he asked. “We’ve got some fine Siamese blue points. Pretty little things. Although now we’re breeding puppies—big guys, guard dogs who’ll know their way around. They’re the better bet.”
He watched her, lips taut, eyebrows raised, waiting for an answer. She stood there, barely able to breathe. This was their future. This. This.
. . .
Hank started courting Irene near the end of Althea’s mother’s illness. Owen and Althea had been back for three years already. Hank seemed too good to be true, a wealthy San Jose banker who met Irene during a weekend at Beatrice and Stuart’s bed-and-breakfast. Ten years older than Irene, he was short and stocky, with slightly bulging blue eyes so pale they appeared almost colorless. He was exceedingly well-groomed—manicured nails, dark suits custom-fitted to his thick arms and long torso—but his skin was coarse and his voice, loud and cigarette-roughened, asserted his opinions for everyone to hear.
He claimed to be a World War II hero, a bombardier who’d shot down countless enemy planes. “You two are lucky you’ve never been called to serve,” he’d say to Owen and Stuart as he puffed his cigarette. “The horrors. Those Jap planes were the worst. If they couldn’t shoot us out of the sky, they’d try colliding with us. Fight until death. That’s their culture, you know.” Or he’d grin at a blushing Irene and announce how, once he had a family, he’d need something grander than his San Jose townhouse, and a vacation home too. “I’ve got my eye on some property by the Hill,” he told them a few weeks after meeting Irene, over drinks at Beatrice and Stuart’s fixer-upper cottage they’d bought the previous year when Beatrice had carried a pregnancy almost to term. “Build a summer place on it. Nothing on the scale of La Cuesta, of course, but with a pool and servants’ quarters. Only the best for my family. That’s the ticket.”
Irene clasped Hank’s hand. Tiny creases already gathered around her lovely eyes, and her hair had taken on a straw-like consistency. Her voice, though, was still girlish with hope. “Just think,” she said, “a maid serving us poolside, almost like a Hearst guest.”
“Wouldn’t that be something,” Beatrice said and placed a restraining hand on Althea, who smiled tightly and pinched the meat of her own palm to keep herself from saying something she couldn’t take back. Irene cared about this Hank. It wasn’t Althea’s place to judge. And even she had to admit, as she watched Irene stand to freshen her drink, that Hank seemed smitten, his pale eyes following Irene as she crossed the cozy living room, his lips parted in a slight smile as if he couldn’t believe his luck.
The first time Irene brought him to the apartment above the store, he spent much of the evening darting glances at Althea’s mother, who had Althea strap her to her wheelchair that night so she could sit upright to inspect Irene’s new fellow. She rarely met new people since getting sick. Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, made famous by Lou Gehrig. Her formerly precise, decisive speech was garbled at best. Most days she required feeding, turning to avoid bedsores, diapering and changing like a baby. Soon there would be an iron lung to help her breathe; she would barely be able to blink.
Near evening’s end, she turned to Hank and pointed a shaky finger at her own chin. “Foo … on … ma … face?”
The room went silent. Althea watched Irene look around, Owen and Stuart by the bar cart, freshening their drinks, Beatrice frozen with her hands in her lap. Althea’s mother kept looking at Hank, as if daring him to do anything except apologize. He considered her, then turned his soft palms upward as he shrugged.
“Actually,” he said, “I’ve been noticing how beautiful you are for a woman of any age.”
It was the only time Althea ever saw her mother blush. Everyone laughed, including Althea. Owen stirred his drink and watched her. Let him. Let him see what she looked like happy, a rarity since their return to Cambria. There was no room, no time, for happiness or playful notes. They communicated mostly through terse instructions and slept on the outer edges of the double bed in Althea’s childhood room. Owen still reached for her occasionally, but often all she could muster were a few distracted kisses before surrendering to exhaustion. Running the store consumed her, as did caring for her mother, who turned her face away at every ministration. “So ... sorry,” she’d said the first time she’d wet the bed. The middle of the night, her mother’s bedside bell ringing insistently. Her mother was heavy, and Althea struggled to move her limp body and change the soaked sheets, the pungent stink strong enough to taste.
“Thea, do you need me?” she heard whispered behind her. There by the door stood Owen, his pajama bottoms askew, his long, lean chest and muscled arms bare in the moonlight. Ready to help.
Oh, to lie her head against the comfort of that chest. But her mother’s set grimace, the tears sliding past her temples. This was a woman who had been left a teenage widow with an infant and a heavily mortgaged store, who had sold liquor in defiance of the great William Randolph Hearst to make a life for herself, for Althea. A woman who had never asked anyone for help yet still managed to achieve her own small measure of success. Althea gently set down her mother and walked to Owen.
“I’ve got her,” she said. “I can do this.”
A sharp intake of breath, then roughly he cupped her cheek. “I know,” he said and padded back down the hallway.
She returned to the bed and wrestled the sheets free, her mother’s breathing quick and labored in her ears.
Irene had been seeing Hank for several months when he cornered Owen one night while the women played cards in Althea’s mother’s room. Her mother had been in bed all day, too weak to move. Althea propped her mother’s cards on a music stand, then sat so she could see her blink: one blink for yes, two for no, multiple blinks when she got frustrated by not making herself understood.
From the living room, Althea could hear the men’s voices, Hank’s blaring with cheer, Owen’s a quiet, wordless drone, Stuart’s sweet tenor weaving in and out. Althea could imagine them sitting where she’d left them earlier: Hank’s cigarette smoke swirling around their heads, Stuart and Owen on the worn couch, Hank in the armchair, tumblers of bourbon sweating on the coffee table, alongside an overflowing ashtray. “A business loan would be just the ticket,” she heard Hank say, his voice louder than usual. “It’s a chance to get out from under this place.”
Irene, Beatrice, even Althea’s mother looked up.
“Leaving … again?” she asked, one hand trembling as she tried to raise it from the blanket.
“Of course not, Mama.”
Her mother managed to raise her hand enough to make a shooing gesture. “Better … leaving.”
Althea couldn’t look at her, couldn’t let her see the longing that flared.
Across the bed in her folding chair, Irene leaned forward, splaying out her cards for anyone to see. “Hank and I want to help however we can, Thea. There are convalescence homes, or nurses. We could—”
“That’s awfully kind,” Althea said briskly, though the room suddenly felt stifling. “But I’ll manage. Bea, collect that trick before Mama and I grab it.” Her face burned. She pointed at her mother’s cards. “This one, Mama?”
Her mother blinked rapidly. Althea threw the card, and they started playing again. She strained to hear, but the men’s voices had dropped back down to a murmur, Stuart’s tenor reentering the mix. “That’s not the way we do things,” she imagined Owen saying as he spread his large hands decisively over his knees.
Once everyone had gone, her mother was asleep, and she and Owen were cleaning up, him washing dishes while she dried, their rhythm studied and peaceful, she said, “That Hank is a piece of work.”
Owen put a wet saucer in the dish rack. “No worse than Irene’s others.” When she snorted, he glanced over with his old, sly smile. “Although if he puffed himself up any more, he could float in the Macy’s Parade.”
“She deserves better. I’d tell her so, but she wouldn’t listen.” Althea dried the saucer. “I heard him offer you money. As if we’d take a handout, especially from him.”
He turned off the faucet. “It’d be a loan, not a handout. I said we’d think about it.”
She should have embraced the idea, a means of paying the medical bills that would keep them tied to this circumscribed life long after her mother died. A means of having the pet store, the house, the baby she’d craved before coming to dread the sound of someone calling her name, needing something. At the very least she should have noted the hope on Owen’s face, the steady determination underlying that hope, the love. But all she could picture was the San Jose mansion that Hank would buy Irene, the vacation cottage in the shadow of Hearst Castle. Gathering by the pool for drinks handed around by a maid who would even clean up afterward. Maybe Irene would lie back on her chaise, a flowing beach robe partially covering her expensive bathing suit, and ask, “How’s business? Hank says you’re doing so well.” As if Althea and Owen’s success had been conferred on them by Hank and, by extension, Irene. As if Althea were still the yearning, homespun girl living in the shadow of her platinum-haired friend.
“We’ll need something of our own,” Owen said, “once your mother’s gone.”
She placed her dish towel on the counter. “I will not be beholden to that man.”
. . .
Owen started sneaking out to follow Irene.
Althea found out when Irene brought him back just before closing one cold brittle evening. He’d been gone since before dawn. Althea had searched all the regular places, as had Greer. She’d been about to call the police.
When Irene and Owen entered the store, they wore scarves, hats, and gloves and carried clipboards. They’d been collecting signatures, Irene explained, ever since Owen had appeared on her doorstep early that morning.
“We covered twice the streets I do alone,” she told Althea. “I’m glad you changed your minds. We’ll be able to sell before long, and I’ll finally have the life I’ve always wanted.”
She kissed Owen’s cheek, then gestured for Althea to follow her. Greer tried to lead him to the storage room, but Owen jerked away and stood watching Irene and Althea.
“I wanted to mention,” Irene said quietly, her back to the men. “Owen seems a little off. Said a couple times there’d be a new litter soon. ‘Litter of what?’ I asked, but he just shrugged. Is everything all right?”
Her hand felt warm on Althea’s arm. Althea closed her eyes and pressed her palms to her cheeks. Two weeks since she’d found him at the register. Since he hadn’t recognized her. Since he’d started sneaking out again. She couldn’t take much more. Not alone.
When she looked up, Owen was staring at Irene.
“I haven’t changed my mind,” Althea said. “Owen, what were you thinking?”
“We need this overturned as much as anybody,” he said. “More, even. You know I’m right.”
“Listen to him, Thea,” Irene said. “We can all start fresh—”
“Stop it,” Althea said to her. “Just because you want to start over doesn’t mean everybody does. You’ve only ever thought about yourself, our whole lives. Don’t bother coming around if you don’t like my decision.” She pushed past Irene and her startled expression.
The next day, she hired Greer full time to watch Owen. On the afternoons she volunteered at the conservancy, Greer’s younger brother worked the register so Greer could focus on Owen. The extra help was expensive, but they had the money saved. She couldn’t stop volunteering. She needed the time away.
If Owen realized he now had a babysitter, he didn’t acknowledge it. During the day while he worked alongside Greer, he became talkative, almost garrulous, chatting with customers as he never had before, telling anyone who would listen about Althea’s mother, how she had been Cambria’s first successful businesswoman. He even bragged about Althea, how she had given up everything to nurse her mother and then decided to stay on, to keep her mother’s memory alive in the store. “That’s devotion,” he would say and shake his head as if awed. Devotion, not defeat, which was how she had always thought of it.
He still managed to sneak away, usually when she was out volunteering and Greer was helping a customer with a question that his brother couldn’t answer. Sometimes Owen was at Irene’s hardware store, picking through nuts and bolts, or he was pacing the street in front of Irene’s house. Irene hadn’t brought him back again. So far, Greer had found him before it came to that.
Still, whenever Greer brought Owen home, Althea couldn’t help think that maybe the universe was paying her back for what happened with Hank. But that was nonsense. Besides, there was no score to settle, no malice in her actions. She had protected Irene. Done the right thing.
Nights with Owen were the worst. After the store was tidy and Althea and Owen had locked up and climbed the stairs to their apartment, he sat staring silently at the TV’s flickering images. He’d grunt when she suggested shows to watch, nod at her questions. It was as if he were marking time, waiting for her to fall asleep so he could make his escape.
When she put bells on the apartment door, he took them down. She set the alarm clock to go off every few hours, but by the second time, he was usually gone. She would dress, drive to Irene’s, where he stood by the curb, watching the dark windows, maybe thinking this was his home and the woman inside was the one he’d spent a lifetime with. Still, he never resisted when Althea guided him to the truck, although once he shook her off so hard she fell, her tailbone whacking the asphalt. He kept staring at the house. Only when she started crying—“Dammit, I’m right here!”—did he look over, his eyes suddenly sharp with recognition. “Thea. Oh, Thea. I’ve got to help get this done.” He pulled her up, wiped her face with his bare cold hand. Then he led her to the car and drove them home.
. . .
The truck bounced along the narrow road winding up the mountain toward La Cuesta. Cecil stalked the dashboard, his talons pricking the vinyl. Althea’s head bumped against the ceiling.
“Ouch!” She rubbed the sore spot. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea, no matter how many tigers she might see. But to glimpse them, just once. To peek into that other world, the other life that might be hers someday. She straightened her spine and shifted in Beatrice’s lap, where she sat sideways with her shoulder blades pressed against the passenger window. Her new dress—hopelessly wrinkled—clung to her clammy back. Perspiration beaded Beatrice’s upper lip, and Althea’s own face felt oily, her hairline sweaty. Only Irene looked fresh and unflustered. She sat in the middle, close to Reggie. Working her way into his affections.
Beatrice bounced her knees underneath Althea. “Stop squirming.”
Reggie glanced over. “Everything okay?”
Althea’s smile ached. “A little cramped is all.”
He stretched his right arm across the seat back. “This should make some room.”
Irene shifted closer to him. Beatrice raised her eyebrows at Althea, who looked out the windshield and said, “They say Mr. Hearst lets the animals roam free.”
Irene shuddered. “I hope not.”
Reggie laughed. “An antelope was the most dangerous thing I saw on my last delivery.”
“Daddy told me and Stuart that most of the dangerous ones have been sold, but the ones left, like the tigers and bears, are penned up,” Beatrice said. “The rest roam around.” She pointed out Reggie’s window. “Look down there. Zebras.”
Irene craned her neck to look past his driving arm. “They’re gorgeous,” she breathed.
All Althea could see was Irene’s fair hair and Reggie glancing from Irene to the road. She was practically in his lap.
Althea poked Irene’s shoulder. “For pity’s sake, stop hogging the view.”
“Thea, that hurt!”
Beatrice glanced between them. “It’s hot. We’ll get out soon and stretch.”
“You’d better not,” Reggie said. “I don’t think they’d like me bringing girls.”
All this discomfort for nothing. Althea felt Irene watching her. Stubbornly she stared out the windshield. A cool dry hand clutched her own.
“Maybe we could find the pens,” Irene said, “and park far away. I’ll bet we can still see them. No one would know.”
Irene’s hand squeezed Althea’s. She couldn’t help squeezing back. That was the thing about Irene. Just when you couldn’t believe how self-centered she was, how she’d take any opportunity for herself, she did something to change your mind.
Reggie shifted his arm from the seat to Irene’s shoulders. “Your wish is my command.”
Beatrice poked Althea. Oh, please, she mouthed. Althea forced a smile. What she would give to be the one Reggie was talking to.
. . .
The conservancy’s elephant seal shelter was peaceful, its outdoor pens and tanks empty except for where Althea stood bottle-feeding the rescued pup on the concrete deck surrounding his tank, where he’d lived for over a month already. She stroked his head as he gulped greedily, his long throat pulsing, his damp body leaned heavily against her shins. A runt, he was still nearly half her size. His black fur was soft and plush, with silvery hints of his future coarse coat. Beached bulls were so huge after months feeding at sea that they could last all mating season ashore without food. This pup was far too small to go without or to compete with the other bigger pups for the cows’ milk. Lucky that Althea had noticed him, or he would have starved.
The pup nudged the empty bottle. Althea looked through the chain link fence to the parking lot. Beatrice was walking toward the conservancy. Althea put down the bottle and patted the pup’s head. As he dove into the tank, she hurried down the deck stairs and slipped out the gate, behind the cab of a flatbed truck. Beatrice would see her if she headed to her car. Since Owen had started shadowing Irene, Althea hadn’t been able to face either of her friends. She’d even changed her docent schedule to avoid volunteering with Beatrice. Irene had probably mentioned Owen’s odd behavior, Althea’s anger. Beatrice would want an explanation. Time to own up, she would tell Althea. Let’s fix whatever’s wrong. Althea turned to walk back to the conservancy.
“Thea, wait,” she heard behind her. She turned back around to see Beatrice hurrying over.
Althea’s arms felt awkward hanging at her sides. “I didn’t think you were working today,” she said.
“I came to see you. Getting hold of you lately is like trying to pin a cloud.”
Althea watched a gull dive-bomb the shore. Last night she’d found Owen sitting by the register again. Guard dogs were the ticket, he kept insisting. “They’ll keep us going, Thea.” At least he’d known her name this time. But what about next time? And the next?
Beatrice said, “Irene and I have been talking.”
“Actually, I’m glad. I’ve been wanting to tell you, but I didn’t know how—”
“Thea, Stuart and I found a buyer for the bed-and-breakfast.”
“But the ordinance—”
“We both know it’ll be overturned soon enough.” Beatrice took a breath. “It’s Owen, isn’t it? Whatever’s going on with him, that’s what’s keeping you from selling too.”
Althea stepped back. Owen would wander to the beach, to the gas station down the 101, to where the hardware store used to be. She would find him, bring him home. The next day, he would disappear again, going farther afield, determined to find whomever had left. But if everyone stayed, if everything stayed the same, he might remember a while longer.
“You don’t understand. If we move, he’ll get worse so much faster.”
“Not necessarily. And eventually he’s going to need more care than you can give him. What’ll you do then, live here without him or us? Think long term, about what’s best for both of you.”
“So I should abandon him, like you’re abandoning us. That’s your solution.”
“You know that’s not what I mean,” Beatrice said.
“I would never betray you or Irene like this. Never.”
Her words sounded wrong, even as she said them. Betrayals came in all sorts and sizes. Hide something you’ve done that caused a friend pain, even if it was for her own good, and it would surely haunt you. Hank. She had forced his hand, given him an ultimatum that had torn Irene apart. Now Althea was the one who would lose everything. It was only fair. She shook her head, a quick jerk that shuddered through her. Such nonsense. But the thought gripped her hard and wouldn’t let go.
“Althea, listen—” Beatrice said, but Althea had already started walking, then jogging, then running across the beach, her lungs blazing, unaccustomed to the challenge.
. . .
The day Althea made the long, hot drive to San Jose to confront Hank about his loan offer to Owen, she told everyone that she was going to see about changing the store’s title into her and Owen’s name, something her mother had been after her to do. Her mother was relieved. She beckoned Althea over to her wheelchair by the living room window, where she liked to look down on Main Street at the people strolling the dusty sidewalks. Her forearms lay frail and wasted on the wheelchair’s sturdy armrests. Her limp hand felt hot in Althea’s.
“Owen nee … you,” her mother said. “Be goo … ea … other. I ... gone ... befo ... long.”
“There’s time left in you yet,” Althea said and kissed her mother’s flaccid cheek.
Irene often mentioned the bank—San Jose Savings and Loan—though she’d never been there or even to San Jose. “Ladies shouldn’t travel with men before marrying,” Irene said. “This time, I’m doing it right. Besides, Hank says I’d be bored, with him always working.”
Althea was impressed despite herself when she finally pushed through the bank’s brass-edged revolving door into the massive lobby with its vaulted ceiling and heavily veined marble floor. Neat rows of desks sat to one side of the velvet-roped lanes leading to teller cages. Beyond the desks along the bank’s perimeter were several offices. One would be Hank’s, where he talked on the telephone, met with important men to discuss the pressing matters of the day. Hank was ambitious. He was going places, would take Irene places that Althea would hear about but never see. Still. A handout was unthinkable. She drew off her gloves and placed them carefully in her purse. That’s what she would explain to Hank, how insulting his offer had been, no matter how well-intentioned. She would put him in his place.
She approached a man at one of the desks. “Bank Clerk” said the placard near his phone. His chin receded into his neck and dandruff flecked the shoulders of his navy suit. “May I help you?” he asked in a hushed voice.
Althea shifted her handbag higher up her arm. “I’m looking for Hank Ashcroft.”
“He’ll be back shortly. You’re welcome to wait.”
The man stood and walked her to the desk nearest the offices. He pulled out a guest chair, gestured for her to sit. On the desk was another “Bank Clerk” placard. She ran her fingers over the letters. Nearby was an ashtray overflowing with Hank’s brand of cigarette butts. A thought blossomed.
“Is this his secretary’s desk?” she asked.
The man looked at her curiously. “It’s his desk,” he said before walking away.
She sat, purse in lap, the words thrumming inside her—his desk, his desk, his—with a faintly triumphant beat. But no. This was no triumph, this discovery. This was a betrayal, Hank’s betrayal of Irene. Althea had to do something. She had to protect Irene, tell her the truth, save her from making yet another bad choice, maybe the worst in a series of many.
She slipped the placard into her purse and exited the bank.
. . .
Hearst Castle’s service road was even bumpier than the main one. The top of Althea’s head ached by the time Reggie stopped the truck. A relief, to slide out of Beatrice’s lap, plant her feet on the packed dirt road.
Overhead the sun had bleached the sky. Althea smoothed her hair. Beatrice took off her glasses and wiped the nose guard with her skirt. Cecil crouched on her shoulder. Althea turned in a circle. “Where’re the pens?”
Reggie pointed at a steep incline covered with vaulting pine trees, twisted coastal oaks, parched brush. “Up this way, the cook said.”
“You’re kidding.” Beatrice put on her glasses. Cecil shifted closer.
Althea looked down at her Mary Janes with their inch-high heels and leather soles. She had saved for a year to buy them. “It’s awfully steep.”
“Suit yourself.” Reggie started walking.
Althea stayed put. Beatrice stood beside her, her arms crossed. Irene took a few steps and looked back at them. Her hair was lighter than the white-hot sky. “You’re the ones who wanted to see the tigers. Where’s your sense of adventure?”
They watched Reggie climb.
“Wait for me,” Irene called and started up, slipping on the rocky soil. When she reached him, he held out his hand to steady her. Her giggle floated down the hill.
“Can you believe her?” Althea said.
Beatrice crossed the road to sit beneath a pine tree. Cecil nestled near her ear. Althea trudged after her and sat. Pine needles, prickly and dry, crackled beneath her.
“You know he’s a show-off,” Beatrice said. She offered some pine needles to Cecil, who picked at them with his curved beak.
Sweat trickled between Althea’s breasts, down the insides of her thighs. She imagined Reggie’s eyes fixed on Irene, his large hand enveloping her dainty one, the places he would lead her. “She always gets what she wants.”
Beatrice stroked Cecil’s neck. “If that were true, she’d have a mother who loves her like mine or yours.”
“All Mama does is boss me around.”
Something rustled behind them. Althea froze. Cecil bristled his crest, swiveled around to investigate. Beatrice grabbed him. The rustling became a rhythmic thump, like a body being dragged through brush.
“Probably a deer,” Althea whispered.
“What if it’s not?” Beatrice squeezed Cecil. He squawked, pecked her. She gasped and let go. He flew into the tree. The noises stopped.
“Cecil, get down here.” Beatrice stood, looked up at the tree, clucked her tongue.
The bird squawked and paced a branch just out of reach. White gook splattered Althea’s shoes.
Beatrice glanced down. “Sorry. He’s afraid of heights.” She clucked again. Cecil’s wings flickered; his head bobbed. She grabbed the lowest branches. “Give me a boost.”
Althea sighed and laced her fingers together. Beatrice was heavy for such a small girl, and quick. She scrambled from branch to branch, murmuring to Cecil, who stared at her and trilled.
The noises started again, closer. Althea froze. Out of the brush hopped a small gray kangaroo. It stopped when it saw her, crouched low, its forepaws dangling inches above the ground. If she reached out, she could stroke its dusty coat. Muscles twitched in its powerful hind legs. She kept still. Above her in the tree, Beatrice and Cecil were silent. Almost casually, as if deciding Althea were part of the landscape, the kangaroo craned its neck and nibbled the dry grass. Its teeth were blunt, yellowish, its tongue long and slender.
A girl’s scream split the quiet. The kangaroo darted into the brush. Overhead, a rush of wings. Althea looked up. Cecil clung to Beatrice’s sleeve as she scrambled down the tree. Beatrice’s eyes were wide and fearful.
Another scream. Althea ran across the road, up the hill, racing, slipping. Faintly, behind her, Beatrice’s rough breaths. In sight, the empty hillcrest. Then Irene appeared, her head, her shoulders, the length of her slim torso.
“Are you okay?” Althea called.
Closer, she could see Irene’s trembling hands, her dirty skirt. Irene stopped walking as they reached her. Dust streaked her arms and legs. Her face looked tight, blunted, like something essential had been erased.
“What happened?” Beatrice gasped out. “Where’s Reggie?”
“I fell,” she said and wiped her eyes.
Althea stared. The waist of her friend’s dress gaped where several buttons had torn. Irene noticed her looking.
“You did that falling?” Althea said.
Irene’s red-rimmed eyes were as pale as crystal. “Reggie’s still up there. He wanted a closer look at the pens.”
Halfway down the hill, Irene stopped and looked at her friends. “Don’t tell.”
Althea could see from Beatrice’s confused expression that she wasn’t sure either what they weren’t supposed to tell. But it was something shameful, something no girl deserved, even one as spoiled and willful as Irene.
“We won’t say anything,” Althea answered. “Not ever.” She took Irene’s hand and, together with Beatrice, helped her the rest of the way down the hill.
. . .
The evening after Althea visited the bank, Hank drove down to see Irene. They all gathered at Beatrice and Stuart’s house. Pregnant again, Beatrice was under strict instructions to rest. Althea could barely stand saying hello to Hank. In the closet, her purse held the “Bank Clerk” placard. “Fraud!” she longed to yell, then heave the placard at him with everyone watching. For Irene’s sake.
“What’s wrong?” Hank asked when Althea stiffly hugged him hello while Owen made their drinks in the kitchen. “Cat stole your smile?”
She looked at Beatrice tensed on the couch next to Stuart, Irene clutching a whisky sour.
“Just tired,” she said. “Long night with Mama.”
Irene exhaled and sipped her drink. Beatrice leaned back against the cushions and smiled at Althea, who turned away. She would tell them once she got them alone. That way Irene could keep her dignity and send Hank packing in private. Then all their lives could go back to normal.
But when finally after dinner the women gathered by themselves in the kitchen, Irene revealed her ring, waving it like a trophy. The diamond was garish, surely over a carat. It couldn’t be real. Beatrice admired it from afar, her feet propped on a chair, but Althea stared stonily away while Irene chattered about how Hank wanted children immediately to fill up the new mansion they’d buy in San Jose, how they’d hire someone to run Irene’s hardware store, inherited from her grandmother, but they would visit Cambria weekends and summers, after they finished the house near the Hill, so Irene wouldn’t miss her friends too much.
Althea smacked the table. “Stop following him blindly, Irene. He’s not who you think.”
“Althea, what’s gotten into you?” Beatrice said.
“She’s jealous that he’s taking me away.” Irene looked at Althea. “I can’t help it if you came back.”
She left the kitchen, her hand with the ring trailing behind, as if too heavy to keep up with her.
Beatrice swung her feet off the chair. “You’re being petty,” she said to Althea. “Can’t you see? She just wants what you have with Owen.” Carefully she stood and followed Irene.
Maybe Althea should have chased after them and tried to explain, but they wouldn’t have believed her. “First pettiness, now lies,” they would have said, shaking their heads.
Through the window over the sink she spied Hank nursing a cigarette on the back porch. He was the liar, not her. She grabbed the placard from her purse in the closet and hurried outside to lean against the railing beside him.
“Quite a ring you gave Irene,” she said. The placard felt heavy held behind her back.
He squinted at her through the smoke. “Been in the family for years.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s as fake as your job.” She handed him the placard.
He studied it. “Sam told me a pretty lady stopped by. Didn’t figure it was you.”
Stars pinholed the velvety sky. The heavy scent of jasmine thickened the air. Pretty, he’d called her, as if that would fix things. Beside her, she heard him harrumph. When she looked over, he was smiling.
“If we had accepted your offer,” she said, “that would have given you away.”
“You wouldn’t have. You’ve never liked me. Besides, what’s there to give away? I never said what I did at the bank. Maybe I have family money. Did you ever think of that?”
“You’re a fraud.”
He slid along the railing until his shoulder touched hers and his breath—slightly smoky and foul—wafted against her cheek. Then the silk of his whisper, so quiet it could have been the wind: “A shame, any of you lovely ladies wasting away in this place.” The rankness of his scent, the sharp current of his finger tracing the back of her hand. This was what it was like to be Irene. The thought left her unsteady, unmoored. Unlike herself in any way.
“I’ll tell,” she said, staring into the yard.
“You only think you will. Girls like you never do.”
She stepped away, back into herself. “You’d be surprised what I’d do,” she said.
“Althea, you out there?” Owen called behind them, quickly followed by the retort of the screen door slamming. She rubbed her cheek, which still carried the taint of Hank’s breath.
Owen walked over, his hands shoved in his pockets. “Beatrice is tired,” he said. “We should go.”
Althea turned to Hank. “Don’t let me surprise you.”
“That’s certainly worth considering.” He straightened his jacket, put the placard in his pocket, gave her a final glance. “I do care about her, you know.” Then he patted Owen’s shoulder—“She’s the ticket, this wife of yours”—and strode into the house.
Owen watched him go, then turned to Althea. “Old puffed-up Hank sure was in a hurry. I assume he behaved himself?” He sounded playful, but his expression was stern.
“He knows better than to get in my way,” she said. “Or yours.”
He smiled then and pulled a slip of paper from his pocket. “Let’s say our goodbyes,” he said before handing her the note and walking back inside. Stuck with me, forever, it said. No pretty, flighty words, just promises he would keep. This man. She folded the note and followed him inside.
Hank broke off with Irene barely a month later. Business was too hectic, he said. It wouldn’t be fair for him to marry anyone, especially someone as special as Irene. Irene told them over coffee in Beatrice’s living room since Beatrice had already miscarried and couldn’t yet leave the house. She looked spent stretched out on the couch underneath a blanket that Althea had crocheted for the baby. Irene sobbed on the couch by Beatrice’s feet. Althea sat across the room, her fingers threaded in her lap. He wasn’t worth his weight in tears, she longed to tell them.
Once Irene stopped crying, she looked at Althea. “I guess you’ll say ‘I told you so.’”
Beatrice leaned forward, wincing as if even that small motion hurt. “No one’s gonna say that. But I will say it’s better this happened now, before you married him.”
Althea watched her friends. I made him leave, for Irene’s sake, she should say. But that would only make Irene resent her, if not blame her outright. And maybe Althea deserved a little bit of blame, for the seedling of satisfaction planted deep within her belly: now Irene was stuck here, just like Althea. Which maybe was for the best. This was where they belonged, cocooned in the safety of each other’s friendship.
She walked over and sat next to Irene so they were all crowded together on the couch, then rubbed Irene’s shoulders as her friend began crying again.
“You deserve better,” Althea said.
. . .
After Beatrice admitted she and Stuart were selling the B&B, Althea spent days upstairs staring at the television. Let Greer retrieve the rolls of quarters from where Owen hid them behind the display cases, rescue laundry from the sale shelf, fetch Owen from wherever he’d gone. At night, she still followed Owen to Irene’s, but she stayed in the truck and waited for him to notice her. Sometimes it took hours.
Beatrice and Irene both left message after message. Althea erased them and got a substitute docent to lead her tours. Better to adjust to life without them sooner rather than later. She had never been one to let a Band-Aid linger.
Her only solace was the pup. Each day, she visited the shelter to feed him; by now, he ate only fish. She sang songs, brushed him with a wire brush. He’d slip out of his tank and bay when he saw her, roll on his side to be stroked. Too soon, he was big enough for the vet to approve his return to the beach.
The morning of the release, she rode beside the pup’s oversized carrier in the flatbed. That early, the beach was empty except for the seals. Two rangers maneuvered the carrier out of the truck as Althea watched, hugging her coat around her. When the pup emerged onto the sand, Althea knelt to stroke his damp head. He nudged her, then rocked himself away, into the mass of seals by the water’s edge. If not for the red tag on his back flipper, she wouldn’t have been able to tell him from the other seals lolled together, grunting, snuffling, sighing, splashing. She stood watching while the rangers packed the equipment. Off in the distance, two bulls circled a cow feeding her pups.
“Althea, we need to talk to you.”
It was Beatrice, standing by the fence with Irene and Owen. Beatrice opened the gate with her docent’s key and started walking across the sand toward Althea. As Irene followed, Owen touched her shoulder, like he always did with Althea. Like he thought she was Althea.
Althea couldn’t help herself. “You could at least wait for Laguna Woods, Irene, to steal someone else’s husband.”
Irene stopped, her face flushed. “Dammit, Althea, why’re you being so mean lately?”
“So you think you’ve been replaced?” Owen said, the gate propped against his hand. He sounded more bemused than angry. He sounded like himself.
“I don’t know what to think,” Althea said and turned away. She heard the gate slam, rubber-soled shoes squeaking in the sand. In her periphery there was motion, maybe the bulls circling the cow, but maybe Irene walking over to try to change her mind. That crazy thought took hold again: payback, for Hank. If only she could balance the scales, embrace Irene and say, “This is who he really was. I never meant to hurt you.” Then, poof, there would be no reason for anyone to leave.
Enough already. The past played no part in what she was about to lose, what she had already lost.
A bull bellowed. Althea kept still.
Behind her, Beatrice said, “Owen told us he’s sick. We thought if we all talked to you, you’d see that you’re not alone.”
“There are options, Thea,” Owen said, even closer. “Let’s figure them out together.”
The fury, so close she could touch it, ever since she could remember. It was there, beside her now, like a separate person, someone who would turn and scream at them, Stop, just stop. None of them understood, not even Owen. Options weren’t appealing anymore. All she wanted was this life, in this place, frozen in time. But illness had a way of progressing stubbornly forward. The tedium, the sameness of the days, his decay continuing to encroach until it engulfed every last memory, even of how to walk or breathe. She would be there until the end, feeding him, wiping sweat from his forehead, from underneath his arms and between his legs, but he would have already forgotten her, though she wanted desperately to be the last to go, to be the one thing that he couldn’t—no, wouldn’t—forget.
How could he let her go, dammit? How could he let it happen?
A gasp ravaged her throat. “How dare you go behind my back, Owen Boudreau—”
“For God’s sake, we need help, Althea! Let someone help for once!”
His hand was on her arm, spinning her around. The distant bellowing got louder and then there were two bulls raging, surely over a cow, it was the season, her thoughts in slow motion even as the bulls moved closer, tusks flashing, and Owen grabbed her, pulled her to safety, and then a higher bellowing, a flash of darker, softer fur as the pup threw himself at one of the bulls, which turned from its fight, grabbed the pup by the scruff, shook him, tossed him aside.
The pup lay still, gaping puncture wounds bleeding at his nape.
Outside herself Althea heard a scream—“No!”—and she was racing across the beach to the pup, trying to staunch the blood as she sobbed. Someone embraced her from behind, held her close. “Don’t, Thea, don’t. It’ll be okay,” she heard whispered in her ear, and for that moment she lost herself in the surety of his voice.
. . .
Moving day, six months later. The store had been sold, the condo bought, close to Irene’s and Beatrice’s. They had found a facility for Owen not far from Laguna Woods. All that remained was to give the apartment above the store one last scrub.
Althea cleaned with Irene and Beatrice while Owen puttered around or watched Main Street from the living room window. Which was fine. There wasn’t much left to do. All the furniture was gone, all the years of stuff sorted through and thrown out, sold, or moved to the condo. In the kitchen, Irene tied a kerchief over her hair and attacked the grease built up on the stove hood. Beatrice mopped the bedrooms while Althea scrubbed the grout in the bathroom with a toothbrush dipped in bleach.
When Althea emerged from the bathroom, a little nauseated from the bleach fumes, she heard voices in the kitchen. She walked over, stood in the doorway. Irene was wiping down the counters, chatting about their new homes (“There’s that lovely arbor by the Laguna Woods pool, do you remember seeing it?”) while Owen nodded every now and then, as if he were listening. All the while, he opened cabinets and pulled out drawers, running his large palms across the interiors in a final caress. It took every ounce of Althea’s energy to keep from stepping between them, holding his hand. Staking her claim. He didn’t need reminding yet. He still knew who he was, where his love belonged. Most days, he knew.
They would visit daily, they’d promised, and they would each be busy: craft projects and woodworking for him; knitting classes, cooking classes, beach trips for her. Pleasant enough, but not what she was used to. Not purposeful enough. Not shared with him.
“This place looks spotless,” she said.
Irene looked over and smiled. Owen kept opening drawers.
“Almost like new,” Irene said. She gathered the cleaning supplies in a bucket, squeezed Althea’s hand as she left the kitchen. “Beatrice and I will bring everything down to the car.”
Beatrice emerged from a bedroom carrying a dust mop and a garbage bag. Her nose was smudged with grime. “We’ll give you two a minute,” she said and kissed Althea, waved to Owen, who opened a cabinet door as if he were alone.
Once her friends had clattered down the stairs, Althea touched Owen’s arm.
“Hon,” she said. “What are you looking for?”
He peered inside another drawer before he turned, his features creased with worry. “Pups been fed?”
The ache of it still hit hard: standing right beside her, he could still be somewhere else.
“Yup,” she said. “They’re getting big, almost ready to sell.”
His fingers plucked at his shirt; a relieved smile smoothed his face, made him appear open and innocent, like he must have as a boy, before she knew him.
One last pass through the apartment, this time with just her hands and eyes tracing every hidden spot that could remain in such an empty space. She felt Owen watching as she ran her palms across baseboards, slid open windows to investigate their sashes, checked closets inch by inch, tugged appliances away from walls. Ensuring the apartment was immaculate. Really, though, she was searching for a note, some silly reassurance. But she didn’t find what she was seeking, what she finally decided didn’t exist.
She stood from the last baseboard and covered her eyes, her breathing ragged. When she looked up, he was standing beside the window, plucking at his shirt.
“This place.” His voice was thick, rough. “What is it?”
She took his hand. “Irene and Beatrice are waiting,” she said. “Time to go.”
The door shut behind them. There was no trace of them left, or so she thought. She didn’t know, would never know, that the note she had been searching for was wedged behind a kitchen drawer, in the back slats of the cabinetry. It was folded up tight, smudged with dust, as if it had been there forever. If I had it all to do again, he wrote, I’d do it all the same, except I would’ve opened a pet store right here, in the shadow of the Hill. We would’ve bred some pets ourselves just like we always planned, not blue tips, though, but Shepherds, big, smart, brave dogs who listened when we spoke like they were put here to obey. Dogs who would come with me when I wandered off and lead me back to you. Back to home. Anywhere you are is home, Thea. In my bones, I’ll always know it, even when my mind forgets.