She was still wearing her nightgown but decided it could pass for a simple sundress with its spaghetti straps and cotton material. It hit her just at mid-thigh where there was a centimeter’s hem of red lace, the only real clue, she hoped, of the garment’s intended use. As she walked down the sidewalk she wished most of all for her sunglasses, because her head was pounding. Her second wish would be for a cold glass of water. It was already hot out there, and sun burned the space between her shoulder blades as she trudged blindly up the walk.
She expected to hear someone running after her, a voice calling her name, but there was nothing; only the deep silence of these identical houses and the ragged hum of the cicadas. The trees were young here, small and spindly, furthering the neighborhood’s sense of desolation, of sterility, artificiality, unkindness. It seemed to Jane that she should cry now, that at last here was her chance to weep and prove herself human, but nothing came, only more waves of anger, their red power diminishing a little bit with every step. Her eyes were dry as sand, her heart pounding. She couldn’t imagine ever going back into that house and facing Ivy. She could just go to her parents’ house, but they would want a reason for the change of plans, wouldn’t they? And she was sure Rocky would be all too happy to explain the reason.
“Mom told us to shut the fuck up,” he’d happily relate.
“And Aunt Ivy kicked us out!”
Her thirst became more prominent the further she walked beneath the white sun. She had only drunk coffee this morning, a mistake with a hangover, and she was paying for it now, but she could not turn back. Wasn’t there a park around here with a water fountain, she wondered, scanning the long empty street, the rows of homes with no break for green space. In Madison, she would have passed three parks at least by now; she would have been offered water by strangers on the street. Jane turned a corner, then another, then took a pathway through a row of homes to another street. The trees were slightly more mature, the yards more tightly packed with shrubs and cactus. Some had patches of yellowish-green grass. Further down the street, she even heard the sound of children playing, a dog barking, water hitting pavement.
Turning another corner, she saw the kids running up and down a long driveway. A man was spraying both them and a large black dog with a hose. Water fanned out in the air, catching the sunlight, sparking and leaping as two little barechested girls in denim shorts ran in and out of the spray, laughing and calling to each other. Jane approached the scene, then slowed and stopped to watch from the sidewalk. “Hello,” the man with the hose called to her. He was barechested too, pale as a cloud with white-blond, cloudlike hair floating down to his shoulders. Despite his sturdy, well-muscled chest and arms, the hair and his pale color made him seem frail. She thought he might even be an albino, but then he wouldn’t be out in this bright sun, would he? He smoked a cigarette with the hand that didn’t hold the hose.
“Hi,” Jane said, waving.
She wondered if he could tell she was wearing a nightgown, then decided it didn’t really matter since she had on more clothing than anyone else in the yard.
“New neighbor?” he called.
“No, just visiting. Taking in the sights,” she said, spreading her arms wide.
“Pretty exciting shit, no?” He grinned and took a drag from his cigarette.
“Extremely exciting. I can’t get enough of it.” She looked around, realizing for the first time that she had no idea how to get back to Ivy’s house. “Actually, I think I got so entranced that now I’m lost.”
The man walked over to her, keeping the hose in his hand as he crossed the lawn and turning it as he walked so that it continued to spray the girls. Up close, she saw that he had dark brown eyes. Not an albino.
“What street are you looking for?” he asked.
“Um,” she thought for a moment, crossing her arms over her chest. “Pigeon Way? No, Cardinal Alley? I don’t know, something with a bird in it. My friend lives in that house with the crazy red door?”
“Oh, I know that door.” He looked immensely pleased. “That’s on Mourning Dove Way, right around the corner.”
“Mourning Dove Way. That’s it.” She smiled. “I don’t suppose I could have a sip of water from that hose. I’m parched.”
“Be my guest.” He lifted the hose her way and she leaned to take a sip, a lock of hair falling into the water as she drank deeply from the spray. It had been years since she’d drunk from a hose, and the pleasure of it was unexpected, the cool mist in her face, the cold, cold water sliding down her throat.
“Thank you,” she said, straightening up.
“My pleasure.” He explained the way to get back to Ivy’s street and she realized she’d looped in some sort of huge circle, because it was not far at all.
“How old are your girls?” she asked him.
They both had the same cloud hair he did, striped in wet, white strands down their backs.
“Six and eight,” he said.
“The perfect ages, in my opinion.”
“They’re on autopilot. They know what to do and they do it by themselves, but they’re still little enough to play with.”
“Do you stay home with them?” Jane asked.
“Not usually. I just got laid off.”
“Me too,” she said. “Isn’t it awesome? You get paid by the government to laze around with your kids.”
Jane wasn’t sure whether he was being serious or sarcastic, but could detect no bitterness in his tone.
“I liked my job,” Jane told him.
“I did too, but this is better.” He spread out the hand holding the cigarette to include his driveway and daughters, the dog, his house, which was only half the size of Ivy’s and not very well kept from the looks of it. The lawn was scruffy and cluttered with two pink Huffy bikes, a half-empty baby pool, and, inexplicably, a tall pile of palm fronds stacked beside an aluminum chair.
“Here.” He handed her the hose.
“Let me get you a real drink,” he said, then crossed the lawn to the front door before she could respond. She stood there, still on the sidewalk, spraying the two blonde girls with water. They didn’t seem to notice that operation of the hose had been transferred to a strange woman in a nightgown.
Several long minutes passed, and Jane considered leaving—setting the hose down and walking away—but it seemed unfriendly, even callous, so she stayed put, wondering if Ivy and the kids were worried about her yet, wondering too whether or not they would forgive her.
Beside this house with its messy lawn, it seemed to Jane that Ivy would be able to overlook her cursing. Of course she would. She had not, essentially, done anything terrible. Surely she had been forgiven for worse.
The man emerged through the front door carrying two tall green glasses. He had discarded his cigarette and put on a red T-shirt that said Rehab is for Quitters in black letters. She tried to decide if this was a pro-rehab shirt or a slam against it. He handed her a glass, then took the hose out of her hand. The liquid inside the glass was pale yellow. Ice cubes chimed against the side as she took a tentative sip, unsure what to expect. To her relief, it was simply lemonade.
“Thanks,” she told him. “This is perfect.”
“No sweat,” he said. “So where are you visiting from?”
“Wisconsin. But I’m from here originally.” They exchanged the usual information about neighborhoods and high schools. It turned out he had gone to Las Vegas High School too, but three years later than she had.
“So when I was a puny freshman, you were a senior,” he said, with a smile that was roguish, familiar. It suggested a shared intimacy. “Remember me?”
Jane shook her head and took another long swallow of lemonade, then moved slightly away from the man despite an impulse to step closer. Her skin tingled from his proximity, and the hairs on her arms stood up.
“Do you remember me?” she asked. He gave her a long, probing look, as if he were running through every face he’d ever seen, then shook his head.
“Nope. But I was kind of a goody-goody. I ran with the Mormon crowd.”
“Are you Mormon?”
“Used to be.”
“I used to go to those Mormon dances sometimes with one of my friends. I come from a long line of atheists though.”
A cell phone in the man’s pocket buzzed. He set down his lemonade, still holding the hose, and extricated the phone to check the number.
“Oh, shit,” he cursed, but didn’t answer the phone. “I forgot something. I just need to run one block over real quick. Would you possibly mind watching the girls for a sec?”
“C’mon,” he smiled. “We went to high school together, after all.”
He held out the hose to her, and Jane’s automatic impulse was to accept it.
“It will only be five minutes, tops. I promise.” He shoved the phone back into his pocket and hurried off down the sidewalk, in the direction Jane had come from.
She stood for a minute on the sidewalk, holding the hose and sipping the lemonade. The girls didn’t seem to register the fact that their father was gone, and Jane wondered at this. Did he often leave complete strangers to watch them? Would her children notice if she slunk away while they were absorbed in play? Adjusting the hose as she walked, Jane crossed the lawn and pulled the aluminum chair over by the driveway, then sat down. She wondered what she doing there. She left Ivy’s house to escape her own children and now there she was, responsible for watching two girls she didn’t even know and would likely never see again. She supposed she could leave, but of course she would not. The responsibility bore down on her, made her aware of the girls’ every movement.
“Slow down,” she called, when the smaller one raced down the driveway and almost slipped in the pooling water.
“Okay,” the girl yelled back, then stopped and turned to see who had spoken. She ran over to Jane’s chair; the bigger girl followed her, then they both stopped in front of Jane’s knees, looking down and dripping water onto her thighs. Neither of them had their father’s brown eyes; instead, they were light blue and widely spaced.
“Who are you?” the big girl asked.
“A friend of your dad’s,” she said. “Sort of. He’ll be right back.”
“Why are you wearing a nightgown?” the little one asked.
“It’s a dress,” Jane said.
“No it’s not,” the bigger girl said, frowning.
Jane shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“It’s cute,” said the little girl. “I like the lace.”
“Thanks,” Jane said.
“Do you know how to play Mother May I?” the little one asked.
“Sure,” Jane said, hoping beyond all reason she would not be asked to play. She hated that game—its ridiculous premise and snail’s pace. As if a child would ever ask permission to take a step.
“You’re the mother,” the big girl instructed. “Let me turn off the hose first.” She ran over to the house and cranked an unseen spigot behind a sagebrush, then ran back and got in line with her little sister, several yards away from Jane.
“Take three giant steps,” Jane called out, looking at the taller girl.
“Mother may I?” she asked.
“No, you have to say, ‘Yes, you may.’”
Jane rolled her eyes and let out a sigh, then said what she was supposed to say. The game continued in a haze of heat as Jane waited for the man to return. To pass the time, she imagined these were her kids and that man her husband. What a different life it would be. She would be at work now, she guessed, as his wife must be now. After that, Jane would come home to this place where there was a definite sense that anything you did would be considered okay. Adam would not be sulking in the corner in his headphones—all the years between them somehow getting in the way of being honest. She had wanted to tell him why she’d been fired, but could never bring herself to do it, wasn’t even sure it was the right thing to do. This new man, on the other hand, might be amused by her story of the long, groping kiss with her coworker in the cloakroom.
After fifteen minutes or so had passed, Jane began to worry. What if he didn’t come back? What if he’d been planning to leave for days, months even, and had just been waiting for his opportunity? His wife would come home at five to find a strange woman playing Mother May I with her two daughters, unable to explain the whereabouts of her husband. He got a call and just ran around the corner, she’d say, pointing. He was wearing his rehab shirt. The wife would be pale with cloud hair too, Jane imagined. Lined up in a row, they would look like a family of ghosts. Pink sunburn was beginning to spread across the shoulders of both girls, and Jane stopped the game and asked if they had any sunscreen.
“In the house maybe,” the older one said and ran inside.
“What’s your name anyway,” Jane asked the little one, who had moved close to her knees again and was eyeing the lace on her nightgown.
“Calliope. My sister is Polyhymnia.”
Jane nodded and smiled. “Those sound like fairy names.”
“Actually, they’re muses,” the girl said.
“Oh, right,” Jane said, remembering now that they were, indeed, the names of two of the Greek muses.
“They’re beautiful names.”
“Thank you,” she said.
The older sister returned and handed Jane a bottle of Coppertone number four, which did not seem sufficient for their white skin, but she rubbed it into both of their shoulders anyway, then dabbed it on their faces too. She was rubbing some into her own shoulders when the man tapped her lightly on the arm.
“Hey, thanks, I owe you one,” he said.
Jane rose and handed him her empty glass. She had been planning to say something cutting to him when he returned or at least shoot him a rude look, but the sight of him only engendered a sense of relief. She almost threw her arms around him she was so grateful for his return.
“How long are you in town?” he asked.
“We should get a beer. Talk about old times.”
She wondered what old times they would discuss since they had no real shared history, but didn’t point this out.
“Okay,” she agreed, then wondered why she had. Surely having a beer with this man was not a good idea.
“Maybe,” she added.
“Stop by whenever you like.” He grinned at her and she had an impulse to touch his white skin. She thought it should feel cool and solid like marble, though of course it wouldn’t.
“I’m Jane, by the way,” she said.
“Rex.” He offered his hand for a shake.