Winner of the Dr. Neila C. Seshachari Fiction Award
Spring/Summer 2007, Volume 23.3
On the morning of his sixtieth birthday, Jimmy Medina opens his eyes and reaches for his glasses. There in the early morning half-light, he realizes he is nude and in his wife’s bed where she is snoring softly next to him, still wearing last night’s earrings and makeup. He swings his feet to the floor and sits there for a moment on the edge of the bed, blinking slowly, looking back to consider the fullness of the arm Nora has just thrown across his evacuated pillow. The house is cool and quiet so early. He entertains the thought of returning to sleep with her, nuzzling up against the warm broad back of his wife of thirty-eight years, but making the decision for him, he hears the sound of the alarm going off in his bedroom down the hall.
It’s 6 a.m., and like everyday, the alarm is set for his early morning jog. He pads through the house naked and wary, as if one of the boys might still step out of their rooms, bleary-eyed and hungry for cereal. He shuts off the alarm and sits down for a moment on the edge of his eldest son’s old bed where he has been sleeping for the last month and a half. It’s something Nora wanted to try. He’s been too restless these days, and she needs her sleep more than ever since they moved her back to nights at the hospital. Besides, she’d joked, at their age, beds are for sleeping anyway. He admits it makes sense on paper—the uncommon schedules they keep, the unused extra bedrooms, and the unfortunate truth that, no, they do not make love very often any more. But all of this doesn’t make the idea rest any easier with him, especially when he wakes in the middle of the night and struggles with his bearings as he stares at the crowd of trophy silhouettes on the windowsill and the constellation of model aircraft suspended from the ceiling.
He cradles his forehead on the way to the bathroom to dull the drumming that has begun in his temples. A mild wave of sourness begins to roll through his gut, followed by an unaccountable rumble of dread, something he can’t quite put his finger on yet.
He hadn’t meant to drink so much at Doyle’s housewarming party the night before. The crowd had been a mix of company people and prospective clients for winter golf homes in the new subdivisions. Doyle had handwritten a note on all the employee invitations suggesting everyone should bring their business cards.
Medina’s plan had been to stay for the polite hour, but it evaporated as soon as Nora and Ellen began to talk. "If it isn’t the famous Medinas," Ellen said, arms outstretched, wide smile. "We thought we’d lost you forever."
"Lost us?" Nora said, receiving Ellen’s hug. "You and Doyle build out here to get away from us, and here we are. You can’t get rid of us."
Medina smiled at Ellen and asked her where Doyle was.
"You know Doyle. He never stops. Last time I saw him, he had someone cornered up on the deck. They’ll probably be in escrow by Monday." Ellen took Nora by the arm, then over her shoulder, "I’m stealing your wife, Jimmy."
Medina nodded a few greetings and made his way outside onto the flagstone patio where people had gathered to enjoy the twilight. The back yard was outlined by a low stucco wall, separating the manicured lushness of Doyle’s irrigated landscaping from the scrub creosote and mesquite of the desert. Above the patio, paper lanterns were strung through the palo verde boughs. Speakers hidden somewhere out in the river rock and clumps of lantana played some breathy jazz piece. Medina unbuttoned his coat and looked for the bar.
Medina was enjoying his rum and Coke, admiring the tile work around a beehive fireplace in the corner of the yard when Doyle came out and offered him a cigar. It was dark by then. The whole night had been strange like that, Doyle now styled and gracious, everyone in slim black dresses and sport coats without ties. "All these kids," Doyle said, holding his drink and cigar in the same hand and waving it out over the crowd. "All the money. They don’t know what it was like, do they? When you were twenty-four, twenty-five, how much money were you making?"
"It’s all relative," Medina said. "The cost of living has changed. You don’t start a family until later now."
Doyle smiled. "You keep telling yourself that, Jimmy. If it makes you feel any better. But these kids, they’re a different kind of animal."
Medina caught a glimpse of Nora moving through the crowd inside the house. He hadn’t even wanted to come to the party. He complained to Nora up until the last minute about spending his Saturday night at an event where he would have to be on all the time, but she reached back and stopped his hands as they fumbled with the clasp of her necklace. "Jimmy," she’d said. "For me."
Inside the house, Medina watched as Ellen introduced Nora to Spencer, the good looking kid just down from Phoenix who, had he not gone into sales, would have done well in advertising or state government. Spencer shook Nora’s hand and leaned forward to say something to Ellen and Nora that made them tilt their heads back and laugh.
"Look at that kid," Doyle said. "Better keep an eye on your wife, James, because I’m telling you, it comes natural to him. Ellen told me she wouldn’t think twice about it if anything happened to me. That’s the new gold standard. He’s what? Twenty-six? Twenty-eight, tops. Hell, he could be thirty-five. You never know these days. But a guy like that, he comes walking into a room and smiles, people want to do things for him. That’s the future." Doyle took a sip of his scotch and grimaced. "And the worst part is, it makes guys like you and me ugly because we have to be ruthless to compete."
Medina had started out in the land business at the same time as Doyle, thirty-five years earlier, both of them working as agents out of two competing offices in Tucson. Now the whole market had changed, all the little towns in the valley no longer sovereign, but just different subdivision options for Catalina Homes, the builder where he has been a senior sales rep for the last seventeen years, and Doyle, now a senior vice-president. There had been rumors circulating for months now that the company was restructuring. Doyle had been dropping substantial hints about the opportunities that might abound for the self-motivated. He said what the company could really use right now was for everyone to step it up.
Medina swallows three aspirin and closes the medicine cabinet. There is a certain amount of heaviness around his neck now that he can’t deny, more salt in his hair than pepper. He remembers coming up behind Nora in her slip at the open refrigerator, waiting for her to feel him against her. She laughed as he shepherded her into the bedroom and undressed with the same fireman’s urgency as those precious times when all the kids had been out of the house at once.
He stands in the kitchen in his running clothes and forces down two glasses of chlorinated tap water while he looks out over the houses crawling up the hills. He makes the coffee, setting the pot to go off in an hour and a half. When he returns from his morning jog, Nora will just be getting up then, maybe wrapped in her robe on the couch, turning through the paper. He knows that after last night, he only has to look at her in a certain way or hum a few bars of Volver, Volver to raise a blush along her jaw. He decides what he wants to do for his birthday is to take his wife down to Tubac to look around the shops, maybe buy her a wind chime and eat at the Italian place she’s been after him for.
He slaps his leg and calls their cattle dog, Dolly, from the couch. She follows him out into the carport and watches him do a few half-hearted stretches against the Buick. Dolly looks at him, one eye blue, one brown. The plan for today is to suffer a little under the sun, rinse the poison out of his system and get his head clear again.
Doyle’s billiard room was decorated like a steak house, paneled in cherry wood and painted hunter green with a small brass bar assembled in the corner. Doyle posed with minor celebrities and huge shimmering fish in a collection of framed photographs that covered the longest wall. Medina walked over to the table and was about to roll the cue ball down the middle when Spencer startled him from the doorway.
"Nora tells me you’re a madman out on the trails, Jimmy."
The voice so close and sudden caused Medina to spill a little of his drink on the felt. He pressed his tie to the wet spot. Spencer smiled and came into the room. "I do the Maui Ironman every year. Maybe some weekend we can train together. All these slugs want to do is play golf."
Medina imagined Spencer’s Tahoe parked at the end of his drive, Spencer able to touch his nose to his knees as he stretched. "It’s just a little loop I do through the hills," Medina said, shaking his head. "It’s not for an ironman."
"Don’t sell yourself short, Jimmy" Spencer said. "It’s probably worth ten miles on a treadmill. Besides, I’d love to pick your brain about business. Doyle tells me you used to sell the shit out of things."
Medina ran the ball down the rail into the corner pocket. "I did all right."
At one time Medina had been the company’s number one man, back when you did whatever it took, when they’d just started to pipe in the water and you had to sell people on the idea alone. The golf courses came in first, long rivers of green flowing out into the brush. Clients would fly in from someplace cold and he’d show up at their hotel in his gleaming Florsheims with a book of floor plans and a smile. Back then he could make a phone call and have clients on the tee at Quail Creek or Canoa Hills within the hour. With the desert in full bloom under the cloudless blue bell of sky, he used the tee box like a stage. "Talk is cheap," he told them. "My job is easy. Look around you. It’s December and it’s seventy-two degrees. Let me ask you something. How many people are playing golf in Pittsburgh right now?" When it was his turn at the tee, he’d drive without a practice swing, and in those days he’d crush it.
The first few miles of the trail is soft powdered dirt that Medina has ground down over the years, making a pale scar on the desert floor that he can see from the kitchen window and from the road on his way in to work. Dolly is bouncing in and out of the greasewood and mesquite after quail, impatient with his pace, which under his hangover is slow and a chore. If it weren’t for the dog and his yellow jogging shorts, he knows he could easily be mistaken for a sunstruck illegal up from Nogales or Douglas, ready to run deliriously into the arms of the first border patrol that offers him shade and water. He has his father’s light skin, but his mother’s broad Indian face. El viejo loco, Nora used to call him when he first started appearing in their driveway wide-eyed and wheezing, the sweat rolling down his jaws. "It’s just me and the crazy runner man out here now," he used to hear her laughing to her friends over the phone.
Nora was the one who’d first checked his pressure in their living room. Medina went to see the cardiologist in Tucson. After the exam, the cardiologist asked Medina into his office and opened a large medical journal of ghostly angiograms depicting the various stages of heart disease. In each of the photos the hearts were guarded within a complex and alarmingly delicate system of veins and arteries. The bloodways were like vines, encircling and criss-crossing, doubling back into impossibility, spidery tendrils that disappeared into the darkness of the body, much too frail to bear the responsibility of blood.
Driving out of Tucson that afternoon, Medina slipped his hand into his shirt to the burning spot where the doctor’s stethoscope had been. Beneath the spot he saw his heart as an antique engine. He was a fierce smoker, drank a half dozen cups of coffee a day, and had the diet of a man who worked mainly out of his car.
The next day he stood outfitted at the end of his driveway in shorts and new K-Mart running shoes that were gleaming white and ridiculous at the end of thin brown legs. He started with just a few long and breathless walks, but then one day, his confidence booming, he took the first step of a half-hearted run, a shambling stumble and recovery that he forced his body to adopt for stride.
For all the miles he’s trudged since then, there has been very little physical change about him—no added grace, no rippled muscle—but it has given him confidence. His regular doctor is always after him to take it easy—A twenty minute walk at night is all you need. But walking doesn’t take the jangle out of his nerves or help him through the sales meetings where all the recent talk at the conference table has been sales incentives and profit margins. He knows that the younger reps think he is a dinosaur, with his transition lenses and his sturdy knit ties, but he’s still a man who can sit back superior with the knowledge that earlier in the morning while the hot shots were blow-drying their hair, he was out running miles of desert trail.
A light rain had fallen and driven everyone back into the house. Medina began filtering his way through the crowded rooms looking for Nora. Doyle’s plan had come together nicely. All the new blood making connections, measuring opportunities.
As Medina was moving through the crowd, someone reached out and plucked his sleeve. He turned and found Doyle and a tall, extremely thin woman smiling at him. The woman was wearing too much makeup and had the lips of a prizefighter.
"Jimmy," Doyle said, "remember Rachel Rubens?"
"Oh, Jimmy wouldn’t remember me as a Rubens," the woman said, extending a skeletal hand. "It’s changed more than once since then, I’m afraid."
Medina saw that the woman had tried to tease her hair up, but the curve of her scalp was visible under the gallery lights.
"Of course," Medina said, lying at first, taking her hand, but then seeing through the surgeries and feeling all the weight of who she was. "Rachel," he said. "It’s been a few years, hasn’t it?"
Twenty years ago her name was Rachel Dixon and she had been a great beauty. Medina had been showing her and her husband properties that winter when the husband had been called back to Boston to deal with a labor dispute. "Something’s always coming up," he told Medina. Away from his wife, he said he would consider it a personal favor if Medina would keep her occupied while he was gone. Show her a few places, maybe a round of golf.
All that week Medina picked up Rachel at the resort after her morning round and took her to lunch where she speared a few pieces of food from her meal, snapped her fingers at waiters and drank too much. In the afternoons, he ingratiated himself as he drove her up and down I-19 to tour various properties while she stared out the car window at the passing landscape. In the evenings, he took her to happy hour and endured her complaints about the food and wine. Every day it was the same. Medina hated spending time with her, suffering her lectures on the West’s poverty of culture and architecture, listening to the lonely, mean sound of her footsteps clicking through the tiled floors of empty homes.
Then one afternoon in one of the new subdivision models, she stopped in front of the patio door and stood staring at the slate-colored Catalinas in the distance. She wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold, and in her solitude at the window, Medina thought she missed her husband. He tried to be sympathetic and said he hoped her husband’s business could be resolved soon so he’d be able to return and enjoy the rest of his vacation with her. "Ha!" she said sharply, her voice barking off of the glass in the empty room. She murmured, "Vacation. He’s on vacation right now with her."
Medina then watched as her head dropped and her shoulders began to shake.
"Hey," Medina said. He went to her and put his hand on her back to let her know he was there. "It’s okay," he said, rubbing her back. "It’s okay." She turned and curled into his chest. "There, there," he said, trying to be comforting, but also aware of the touch and smell of a woman’s body who was not his wife. She moved her hands up underneath his jacket and he knew she could feel him becoming aroused. After a moment, she stopped crying and looked up at him. Medina took off his glasses. "Wait," she said. Then she left the room and Medina heard her chaining the front door.
Back in Doyle’s living room, Rachel said, "You know, Jimmy was the one who first convinced Roger and me to invest in this backwater. People thought we were crazy when we told them we were moving to the desert, but now look at this place."
Doyle put his arm around Medina. "Jimmy has always been our very best man."
Medina moved the ice around the bottom of drink with his cocktail straw and tried to smile.
"Jimmy," Doyle said. "Rachel here has recently returned to us from California. I’ve been telling her about some of the great new places going up in Terravita. Maybe next week you can show her a few of our lots."
"Sure," Medina said. "Just give me call."
"Do you have a card?" Rachel said.
"No," Medina said, not even bothering to pat himself down. "Not on me."
At the top of the ridge he thinks about Nora back home sleeping, maybe one bare leg sticking out from the sheets. She’ll be rising soon. The valley is now under full sun. Everywhere is the sound of heat: Dolly’s rapid panting, the buzz of cicadas, and blood pounding in his ears. There is still the slight scent of Nora’s heavy perfume about him, mixed now with his own alcoholic perspiration. He looks out over the distance he’s already crossed and knows it’s deceiving. It’s what kills people when they breakdown far from water. They think they can make it on foot for help. Down below, they’ve just graded the road. Here the houses are zoned for horse property, although few people have them. It’s the idea that people like, that they can move out West and ride a horse down the road and wear a gun.
This is as far as he’s ever come and he wonders if Spencer could make it. Probably, he thinks. Very probably. He imagines Spencer standing next to him, sweating lightly and breathing through his nose, grinning, "What’s next?"
Dolly has a slop around her mouth as she pants. Her black lips are drawn back into a smile. "Go home," he tells her, but his voice has no edge to it and she comes closer. "Go home!" he yells at her and takes a few threatening steps, but she doesn’t move far. She has no reason to believe he’d do her harm. He throws a stone that hits her in the flank, and he feels awful for it, the way she tucks tail and trots away like a coyote, looking back at him every few feet.
He starts down into the new valley on a rockslide. He clutches at thistles to slow his descent, stripping away the tender poisoned thorns. At the bottom he stumbles and gashes his knee. A dark rivulet streaks down his shin into his sock. He finds a dirt road and, soon, a grid of surveyor markers, a blooming field of pine stakes with little yellow ribbons flapping in the slight breeze.
He’d managed to get a bottle of Doyle’s good rum out of the liquor cabinet and out to the bartender where he demonstrated to the kid how to make a real Cuba Libre, the measure of liquor in the glass thinning the cola to the color of tea. He stirred his drink with a bare finger, the first sip sending a sour jolt along his jaw. He couldn’t remember the last time he and Nora slept together, but knew it was probably something ceremonial—an anniversary, Valentine’s Day. Nora was the best person he knew, almost always happy, never in despair about the trauma she dealt with daily.
"Jimmy," Spencer called to him through the open door. He was standing outside in the light rain with three of the other young sales reps smoking Doyle’s cigars. "Come have a drink with us. We’re having a staff retreat out here and need your input."
Medina smiled, gave them the A-okay, and moved on.
He hadn’t seen Nora in twenty minutes and each time he moved through the crowd looking for her, he kept getting waylaid by old clients to whom he’d speak in brief sentences, careful to shape the words that had gone soft in his mouth.
Ellen came up to him and rescued him from a conversation with a young escrow agent who was after his business. "Your presence is requested in the bedroom."
Doyle and Ellen’s bedroom was a huge space with the bed in the middle of the room and the furniture at odd angles. Nora was standing at the open closet door, a small room really, where Medina saw a catacomb of shoes and racks of clothes; one side Ellen’s, one side Doyle’s.
"This is some bedroom," Medina said.
"It’s feng shui," Nora said. "Nothing is supposed to touch the walls. We should do this to our bedroom."
"Your bedroom," he said, smiling, then handing her the car keys. "You’re in charge."
They walked down the hall together where it seemed everyone made way for them. He’d chalked it up to drunken paranoia until they entered the room and he saw the candles on the cake. Drawn in icing, the grim reaper stood behind a tombstone that read, Relax, I’m just here for the dessert. Doyle started everyone off singing. Medina stood there by the flaming sixty waiting for everyone to finish so he could blow out the candles. There was a trick he used to do for the kids where he’d lick his fingers and pinch out the flame. He slipped his fingers into his drink and waited for the chorus to finish. Nora leaned to his ear and whispered, "If that’s some of Doyle’s rum in there, you’ll light your hand on fire."
Medina traded his drink for coffee. People he didn’t know kept smiling at him and patting him on the back. Someone pressed a card into his hands. Everyone was doing their best to eat while standing up. Nora had disappeared somewhere again to help Ellen with something, and Medina was searching for her when Doyle caught his eye and jerked his head toward the patio. Doyle tapped Spencer on the shoulder as he passed him.
Water dripped from the roofline of the house and made the trees shimmer. The rain had dropped the temperature enough so that Doyle’s breath was just visible when he spoke. "I just want to let both of you guys know that pretty soon here, we’re going to be moving into a different phase and both of you might be asked to take on some different roles in the company. Now is the time to shine and see what you can bring to the table."
Spencer set his drink down on the patio table and nodded soberly. "Hey, whatever it takes."
Doyle turned and waited for Medina to respond, but Medina was looking at the crowd in the living room. "James, you reading me here?" Doyle said.
"Yeah," Medina muttered. "I understand." He watched as Nora and Rachel Rubens were sitting on the edge of the couch together, balancing small plates of Medina’s birthday cake on their knees as they spoke, Nora nodding, her face lighting up in understanding as Rachel explained who she was.
The back of his neck is cool and he knows he might be in some trouble, but he’s made it all the way to the new subdivision set for new construction. Most of the lots are empty; it’s just the infrastructure now, dirt roads with fire hydrants and trenches for septic, but there are a few new homes, big stucco estates set out in the brush. There’s a surf pounding in his ears which makes him think of water and thirst. A big jackrabbit freezes in a granite yard under the spiny shade of a cholla as he passes. The sun looms white with heat. His tongue is thick and there’s a stitch in his side. The jack moves out into the sun toward him, twitches his radio-dish ears, and opens a wide pellucid eye. The iris is a ring of gold. The pupil is black and deep.
Nora had to help him out to the car last night. A nurse’s touch, he remembers that, the way her hand had been able to steady him down Doyle’s steps with just a little pressure on the small of his back.
Ellen and Doyle had followed them out into the driveway and Doyle said, "Take good care of him, Nora. I need him back safe and sound in the office on Monday. Monday, James. We’ll talk more on Monday."
"Sure," Medina said, "Monday. Let’s talk."
Behind the wheel, Nora had trouble adjusting the seat. Medina leaned over and reached between her legs and slid the seat forward. Then he laid his head in her lap. She laughed, "Jimmy, I can’t drive like this."
He sat up in the passenger seat and watched the headlights reaching through the dust.
"What was all that about back there?" Nora said.
"The latest thing," Medina said. "Who knows."
"Jimmy," she said. "Maybe it’s time for you to start thinking about something else."
"I don’t know," she said. "Figure it out. Sell houses for yourself. Retire and make pottery. I don’t really care. But this," she nodded back to Doyle’s big house lit up in the foothills, "this is no good for you anymore."
They left the dirt road and settled into the hum of the blacktop, and Medina dozed against the window, occasionally turning to Nora to find her wearing the smirk of a woman who was driving her husband home after he’d had too much to drink.
Later in bed, Nora rolled over and put her hand on his chest. She whispered, "That’s awful about that woman."
Medina stared up at the sound of the ceiling fan. "Who?"
"The one you sold a house to a long time ago. I met her tonight."
"Rachel," he said.
"That’s the one," she said. "The pobrecita. Ellen told me she has cancer. She’s moving back here for some treatment they’re trying at the medical school."
Medina rolled over and clutched his pillow. "God," he said.
The homeowners have a long mission wall running the breadth of their property. Medina walks up their drive aware of what he must look like, a sweaty Mexican with a bloody knee. He rings the doorbell and takes a few steps back where he waits and practices his speech. He’s a neighbor. He just needs a glass of water and the telephone.
He has a serious concern about his shaking legs and the odd sense of euphoria he feels. He opens the side gate and heads for the shimmering blue oval. He is sitting on the first step of their pool, sluicing water down his neck, when he notices a man in a terry cloth robe on the porch, a woman in the window on the phone, and their little terrier bouncing down the steps after him. He can see the dog yapping and the man is saying something to him as he approaches with his arms outstretched as if to calm loose livestock. Medina wants to explain to the man, but can’t find the breath. The man is mouthing something to him, and when Medina tries to stand, the man begins to shout, "Alto! Alto!" Medina wants to tell him that there’s been a mistake. It’s okay. Everything’s alright. He just needs a moment to collect himself before he can get on his way. It’s his birthday today and he’s taking his wife to town for lunch.