Fidelia knew it was time to fire Larry the Landscaper when she found human excrement behind the hydrangeas. They’d hired Larry to build a patio in the backyard, a place where they could put a grill and a couple of Adirondack chairs, maybe some potted bamboo. He was a small man who smoked cigars and wore a cowboy hat and a long leather coat. Someone in Edward’s firm had recommended him, and the reviews he’d gotten online were mostly positive. “Thanks to Larry our terraced garden is the envy of the entire neighborhood!” one person had written. Someone else had said, “Nice guy, a little strange, okay work, probably wouldn’t hire again.”
Work had started on Monday. Today was Thursday. After the trucks had left, Fidelia had gone out to see how the patio was coming along. What she saw was a big hole surrounded by blue string. It had been raining all day and the muddy grass was strewn with litter. Tools and machinery sat under a dirty tarp. Hundreds of gray and chalk-colored pavers were stacked haphazardly beside the shed. Fidelia noticed one of her yellow tulips was crushed. On closer inspection she spotted a large boot print in the wet soil. She ventured deeper into the tulip bed, and that was when she’d discovered the excrement, smooth and dark and impressively coiled, between the hydrangeas and the fence.
Her first thought had been of the dog next door, a manic labradoodle whose owner she didn’t like. But then she saw the paper napkin, and she understood it hadn’t come from the dog—dogs didn’t wipe—but from Larry the Landscaper. Or, more likely, from one of Larry’s subcontractors, a pair of handsome young men who’d seemed to Fidelia well-mannered and professional and for whom she’d begun to feel a kind of motherly solicitousness despite their infuriatingly slow work pace. Larry was building a koi pond for another client and stopped by for only five or ten minutes a day, puffing on his fat cigar, yelling instructions and taking measurements with the tape measure clipped to his belt before roaring away in his enormous Ram pickup. He’d said the patio would be finished by Saturday. That obviously wasn’t going to happen. Fidelia would have to talk to Edward about the legal ramifications of firing Larry before the job was finished. They’d signed a contract. Wouldn’t extenuating circumstances allow them to break it? For example, when a subcontractor shits in your yard.
The rain fell in scattered drops. The dog was barking next-door. Wearing her gardening gloves Fidelia bagged the mess and put it in the trash. She looked again at the hole where the patio would go. Then she went inside to make herself a drink.
On the five o’clock news they were covering the story of an elephant that had killed a woman trying to feed it frozen yogurt. Having failed to subdue the elephant with tranquilizer darts, the police had dispatched it with tactical shotguns. The elephant’s body was shown lying under a white sheet, one huge flat gray foot sticking out. Fidelia wondered where such a big sheet had come from. She finished her drink and made another and got started on dinner. Without any classes to teach she’d been getting more inventive in the kitchen. Tonight she would do something with celery. She wanted the focus to be celery.
“How’d it go today?” Edward asked when he came home from work.
“One of the workers did number two in the yard,” Fidelia said, cutting an onion.
Edward’s face was tired but amused. “You saw him?”
“I found the evidence.”
Edward got a beer from the fridge. He pried off the cap and took a thoughtful sip.
“Are you sure it wasn’t an animal?”
“Why didn’t he just ask to come in and use the bathroom?” Edward said. He wore a blue linen sport shirt, British tan chinos, and brown wingtips with polka-dot socks. He’d been growing out his hair to compensate for his rapidly receding hairline, and recently he’d started pulling it back in a tiny ponytail secured with a rubber band. Fidelia thought it made him look like a blackjack dealer in a not-very-reputable casino. She hadn’t told him this.
“That’s what I want to know.”
Larry had asked for bathroom access during the work, and Fidelia had thrown some frayed bath towels on the floor to keep mud from being tracked into the house. Only once had one of the subcontractors asked to use the bathroom. He’d called her “ma’am,” which, although sweet, made her feel like an old farmer’s wife. She could hear him pissing forcefully into the toilet, a sound she’d found oddly thrilling, and when he was finished she hurried into the living room and pretended to be reading the Jehovah’s Witness literature she’d been given at the mall the week before.
“I’ll call Larry tomorrow,” Edward said.
“Can you call him now?”
“I just got in the door.”
“I’ll call him, then.”
“Hold on,” Edward said with a laugh.
“I don’t want these people working for us.”
“It’s a little late to fire them.”
“It’s been four days and they haven’t even really done anything yet,” Fidelia said.
Edward went to change out of his work clothes. He ran a small architectural firm on the outskirts of the city. He enjoyed his work and rarely complained about it. Fidelia also enjoyed her work, but it had been two months since she’d taught a class. She’d been told by the department chair, a stocky blonde named Rebecca, that there might not be any classes for her until fall or possibly winter quarter. Six months ago Fidelia and Rebecca had met for cocktails at a Chinese restaurant, and Fidelia, enjoying the cool dimness of the lounge, the paper lanterns strung across the ceiling, the oily smells floating in from the kitchen, told her a story from her childhood involving a girl named Allison and boy whose name she couldn’t remember. She and Allison had cornered the boy in Allison’s sister’s playhouse and threatened to take out his eyes and mail them to his parents if he didn’t show them his penis. The three of them couldn’t have been more ten years old. The boy had cried, whereupon Fidelia and Allison had lost interest.
“Wow,” Rebecca had said. “That’s quite a story.”
After that they talked briefly about differential equations and then Rebecca said she had to go pick up her father at chemotherapy.
Fidelia wondered now as she fixed herself another drink if the story had anything to do with her not getting a teaching assignment. Rebecca had said it was because of falling enrollment. Enrollment seemed pretty high to Fidelia. The campus was always thronged with students. There was rarely a place to park. Fidelia usually ended up parking on a residential side street several blocks away, wearing sneakers and then changing into her heels once she got to the faculty room, a cluttered, clamorous space where she had to share a desk with a dozen other part-time adjuncts.
During dinner Fidelia couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d found in the garden. It was a health hazard. Whoever the culprit was, all he’d had to do was ask to come inside. Maybe she’d been in the shower when he knocked on the door.
As if reading her mind, Edward said, “He probably didn’t want to bother you. Or it could have been an emergency, one of those “gotta go” situations. I’ve had those.”
“But you didn’t go in somebody’s backyard.”
“I went under a train trestle,” Edward said, chewing. “This was in college.”
“It’s weird you’re not bothered by this.”
“I guess I’m not.”
“Good thing we’re not paying Larry by the hour,” Fidelia said, a fourth drink putting itself together in her mind—ice, gin, tonic, lime. She wasn’t happy with the dinner she’d made, which tasted both spicy and bland.
“I’ll admit they’re a little slow.”
“If they went any slower,” Fidelia said.
The next day the subcontractors stamped the dirt flat with loud electric machines that looked like giant pogo sticks. Through the blinds Fidelia watched them working in the drizzle. They wore black concert T-shirts with matching cargo pants, as if they’d coordinated their outfits over the phone before coming to work. The one who’d asked to use the bathroom had a tattoo of what looked like a caduceus on his forearm, only instead of a staff the snake was curled around the stand of an old-fashioned microphone. She thought it was clever and kind of beautiful.
Later she skimmed the ads on a website called Find College Teaching Jobs Now! The only jobs in her field were in distant parts of the state. She had a rule about commuting: If she could listen to all seven symphonies of Holst’s The Planets in the time it took her to get to work, she was traveling too far. She usually got to her current job, which was beginning to seem like her previous job, just as “Uranus” was starting. She saw a position teaching Women’s Studies ten miles away. I’m a woman, she thought. I can do that. But her degree was all wrong. It didn’t even fall under the ambiguous umbrella of “closely related field.” She considered going back to school at 47. She laughed out loud at this preposterousness, badly wanting a drink. Was it five o’clock yet? It wasn’t even three.
She made thumbprint cookies and a pitcher of iced tea and took them out on a tray to the subcontractors. The ground was wet and spongy and difficult to walk on in her skirt and heels. The men were fitting some kind of plastic coping around the edge of the hole, the dirt perfectly flat and smooth, like the bottom of a chocolate bar. When they saw her they stopped what they were doing and stood up with polite smiles on their young faces. They were so young! Their eyes fell on her stockinged legs and darted nervously away.
“I thought you might want a snack,” she said, setting the tray on her potting table. The neighbor was playing fetch with his ugly labradoodle. Freeway traffic hissed in the distance. “Remind me of your names.”
“I’m Kirk,” said the one with the tattoo.
“Jake,” said the other.
“Kirk and Jake,” she said, smiling witlessly. She glanced at the hydrangeas, with their pale clusters of pink and blue flowers. She couldn’t tell whether anyone had crapped behind them.
The young men thanked her and continued with their work.
Back inside, making herself a drink, Fidelia wondered if the subcontractors knew that she knew. Did they know that she knew that they knew she knew? She liked this kind of thinking. It was like holding two mirrors together, each one reflecting the other for infinity.
There was no tonic water left. She wasn’t in the mood to drive to the store, with its long lines and chipper, overly-inquisitive cashiers. No, she did not want to “round up” for breast cancer. The last time she’d been asked that question she’d gone off on the poor girl, telling her that there had been virtually no progress made in cancer research in thirty years. She’d known two people who’d died of cancer in that year alone—brain, stomach—and to ask her if she wanted to donate forty-eight cents to this sham was rude and irritating. “That’s okay,” the girl had said, looking like she might cry. Feeling rotten, Fidelia had peeled off one of the bananas she’d bought and given it to her. “Sorry it’s not quite ripe yet,” she’d said and fled the store.
There was some cranapple juice in the fridge and she poured it in with the gin and ice and stirred it with a metal chopstick she’d taken from a Korean restaurant just for this purpose. It tasted awful. Then again it didn’t taste too bad either.
Saturday was Fidelia and Edward’s eighth wedding anniversary. It seemed to Fidelia they’d been married much longer. To celebrate they rented a cabin at a rustic resort in the northwestern part of the state, which they did every year. It was a three-hour drive through farmland and forests, past winding creeks and old barns leaning in empty cow pastures. The cabin had a Murphy bed and a wood stove. A sign in the bathroom said “Please Don’t Flush Feminine Napkins Down Toilet.” Fidelia had always obeyed the sign, though last year she’d tried flushing half of a gala apple just to see what would happen. Surprisingly it had gone right down.
They left the house before the subcontractors arrived. There wasn’t much traffic. Low clouds churned over the mountains. On Highway 19, about an hour from the resort, was a place called Ducky’s Reptile Zoo, a rundown assemblage of wooden outbuildings surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with concertina wire. They’d never thought to stop there but today Fidelia wanted to stop. It seemed imperative to see the reptiles, which included, according to the hand-painted sign out front, crocodiles, armadillos, lizards, snakes, and “the world’s smallest gila monster.” She was particularly keen on seeing the gila monster.
Edward had no interest in Ducky’s Reptile Zoo, but he agreed to have a look. He was dressed in olive cords, a black flannel shirt, and spotless white Jack Purcells that he was very careful not to get dirty. As they pulled into the parking lot he said, “I don’t think it’s open.”
“Of course it’s open,” Fidelia said, although there were no other cars, and the gate at the entrance was locked with a big chain.
But in a moment a man, presumably Mr. Ducky, came out of a shack decorated with old hubcaps and unlocked the gate. He said he was closed today because of a death in the family but they were welcome to enter the zoo for twenty dollars apiece.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Fidelia said.
“It’s just my cousin,” the man said. He had a bushy beard and wore overalls and a Seattle Seahawks cap. “He got hit by Amtrak. It was kind of his fault.”
The hubcaps clanked in the damp breeze. No sounds emerged from the reptile zoo.
“We should probably get back on the road,” Edward said, glancing down at his immaculate sneakers.
Fidelia, who now felt obliged to enter, removed two twenties from her wallet and handed them to the man. Edward gave her a perplexed look.
The man stamped their wrists with an unreadable purple stamp and gave them two thin brochures that looked to have been fished out of a trash bin. Fidelia had assumed he’d guide them through the zoo but he only told them not to feed, touch, or harass the reptiles and walked away.
Fidelia and Edward passed down a dim corridor and into a barn-like structure scattered with crushed hay. It was cold and dank in there and Fidelia chided herself for the outfit she’d worn, a sleeveless white cotton dress and peach espadrilles, as though they were weekending in Belize. They walked around peering into the dirty glass tanks sitting here and there. They saw a small green lizard eating a cricket and a black and orange pit viper curled up on some wood chips in an attitude of extreme boredom. Most of the tanks were empty. In the gila monster’s tank was a folded cardboard sign that said Clyde Has Moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Though spiders weren’t reptiles there was a furry brown tarantula basking under a sunlamp. Fidelia decided this was her favorite. She was staring at it raptly when Edward touched her arm and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here, okay?”
Back in the car, Fidelia thought about the subcontractors, who were at that moment working unsupervised on the patio. What kind of unseemliness was going on? She should have fired Larry the Landscaper herself. Edward had called him on Friday, but all he’d said was that they would be out of town for the weekend.
“Why didn’t you tell him these people are shitting in our yard?” Fidelia had railed.
“It happened only once.”
“And that makes it okay?”
“It’s not okay,” Edward had said. “But the work’s already been started.”
They would probably never even use the patio, Fidelia thought now as the road climbed through the lush evergreens. How often did they barbecue? How often did they want to sit outside? Edward liked to be near his books, and Fidelia was perfectly content in the armchair by the window, gazing out at the oddly shaped clouds, the birds and squirrels, the rain falling in a silvery mist. They were spending a ridiculous amount of money for nothing. And what if she never taught again? They couldn’t live on Edward’s salary alone. She might have to find some kind of part-time work. Cashiering. Babysitting. She’d been a supermarket checker in high school, and though she’d never babysat in a formal sense, she sometimes felt that teaching in a community college was like caring for small children. The whining, the crying, the demands and excuses. One of her students, a stunning girl with a pierced lip, had complained to Fidelia that her assignments were too vague. “There’s the door, bitch,” she wished she could have said, but instead she’d apologized, thanked the girl for her input, and promised to do better.
The resort was called Journey’s End, a string of whitewashed cabins on a forked river, with horseshoe pits, a shuffleboard court, and two dented skiffs chained to a cement dock. The hosts were an older couple who lived in a nearby trailer.
After unloading the car Fidelia and Edward ate the sandwiches they’d brought from home. Then Edward took a nap, which he usually did after lunch. Fidelia wasn’t sleepy. In fact, she felt totally awake, almost energized after the long drive. She put on her jacket, threw her purse over her shoulder, and left the cabin.She’d thought she would take a walk through the apple orchard and down to the river, where she’d sit in the clean spring air and watch the water gliding over the smooth stones, maybe write something in the journal she’d bought recently and hadn’t opened yet, but she found herself getting in the car and driving to the town ten miles away. It was a nothing town, but it had a liquor store. When she went inside she was comforted by the clang of the bell on the door, which seemed to announce, “You have arrived, you are here.” She got a fifth of cheap gin and placed it on the counter. Looking in her bag she discovered she had no cash, having spent it all at Ducky’s Reptile House. She inserted her credit card. Chip Malfunction it said on the little screen. She pulled it out and inserted it again and got the same message.
“Uh-oh,” said the man.
“Will you take a check? I can write you a check.” Fidelia was digging through her purse. “My checkbook’s in here somewhere. I know I brought it.” She found the soft leather checkbook in an inside pocket. “See? I knew it.” She held it up and waved it like someone with a winning raffle ticket.
The man looked at her.
Fidelia laughed and then put on a serious face.
Driving away from the liquor store, the gin snug in its paper sack beside her, Fidelia was happy to be away from home, away from the machine noise and truck noise, the tang of cigar smoke, the talking. The subcontractors were always talking. In one conversation she’d overheard, they’d bragged about their sexual conquests. “I fucked her so hard I almost broke my dick,” one of them had said. It was then that Fidelia had decided to make them thumbprint cookies. Pulling in front of the town’s lone grocery store, she wondered if it was possible for a dick to break. Would it require a splint?She bought two limes, tonic water, and a bag of ice. On the way back to the cabin she passed a sign that said APPLE MAGGOT QUARANTINE AREA NEXT 2 MILES. She bumped up her speed as if fleeing a contagion.
Edward had gotten the woodstove going. He was sitting in the rocking chair reading an architectural magazine he’d brought. He looked rested if slightly repellent, Fidelia thought.
“Hello, darling,” she said.
“Where’d you go?”
She pulled the gin from the bag. “Ta-da.”
“I’m practicing frugality. Who knows when I’ll teach again.”
“You’ll get some classes,” Edward said, immersed in his magazine, the cover of which showed a glass building shaped, Fidelia couldn’t help but notice, like a vibrator.
She cracked the seal on the gin, got a coffee mug from the kitchen cupboard, and started making herself a drink. “Would you like one?”
“Little early for me,” Edward said.
Fidelia sat by the stove. She sipped her drink and looked at Edward reading his magazine. They’d met at a birthday party for a mutual acquaintance, in a rented space that had once been a men’s bathhouse. He’d come up to her and introduced himself. “You’ve got something on your lip,” he’d said. She’d laughed in embarrassment, wiping off a fleck of cream cheese from the canapé she’d eaten. They chatted about their work and their travels and then went up to the bar to replenish their drinks, spending the rest of the evening entwined in a loose, heady conversation in a little cedar room that had previously been a sauna. A year later they were married.
The stove didn’t seem to be putting out much heat. Fidelia pulled the afghan off the bed and spread it over her legs. She always felt cold lately. Her inactivity could have something to do with it, she thought. She was accustomed to being on her feet for long periods, writing on the board, moving around the classroom, hustling to conferences and committee meetings. Now all she did was sit. She watched the flames twist and flicker in the wood stove and drank her drink.
They went for an early dinner at a restaurant called the Timber Ridge, a big drafty rough-hewn place overlooking some rapids. They went there every year and every year it was the same. The only thing that changed was the staff. This time their server was a thin, nervous girl with acne on her chin. Fidelia asked for a gibson and the girl brought her a gimlet. The drink’s carbonated fruitiness annoyed Fidelia, but she didn’t say anything.
Waiting for their entrees they gazed out at the rushing water. Up on the opposite bank, in a stand of tall pines, a deer stood as still as a lawn ornament. Fidelia pointed it out to Edward, who, after a sip of wine, chuckled and said, “That’s a garbage can.”
After a moment Fidelia was able to see that it was indeed a garbage can. It had looked so much like a deer to her—the graceful legs, the pointed face, the ears prettily erect. Possibly she needed stronger eyeglasses. A six-pack of empty beer bottles sat next to the overflowing metal can, and behind it Fidelia could see a picnic table and a cement fire pit. She couldn’t recall these things being here last year. She downed her unpleasant gimlet.
Driving back to the cabin, on a shadowy road that wound and dipped through old-growth firs, they really did see a deer. It appeared suddenly, on a tight curve, huge and golden in the headlights. Edward couldn’t brake in time and the deer, watching them with an expression of pitiful indifference, was hit head-on. Edward screamed, something Fidelia had never heard him do before. It was a ghastly, high-pitched scream, and it made her for an instant dislike him.
They pulled over and got out of the car. The deer lay unmoving on the gravel verge. It had a set of sharp antlers and its eyes were open, black and luminous in the chilly dusk. Blood bubbled from its nostrils. It was still breathing.
“Let’s go,” Fidelia said.
“We should call somebody.”
“I don’t know.”
“There’s nothing anyone can do.”
“I don’t want to just leave it here,” Edward said.
Fidelia was already walking back to the car. She wanted to get away from the deer and go back to the cabin, with its Murphy bed and musty smells, its little sign in the bathroom requesting that sanitary pads not be flushed down the toilet. Edward was yelling at her. She got in the car and closed the door.
One of the headlights was out, the other shining off into the dense forest. Fidelia could see that the hood was buckled. For some reason she remembered the last faculty meeting she’d attended. Everyone had been asked to state their preferred pronouns. When her turn came, as a joke, and thinking the whole thing ridiculous, she’d said, “I’m a she the last time I checked.” Only one person had laughed. The others had looked into their laps.
Edward was inspecting the front of the car, his face angry, his ponytail coming loose. In a moment he was in the driver’s seat again, smelling of the cold and the citrusy antiperspirant he used. He said nothing to Fidelia. He fixed the rearview mirror, which had somehow gotten twisted around. Then he started the engine, put on his seatbelt, and pulled back onto the road.
They got home Sunday afternoon. Fidelia had thought she would be relieved to find no one there. What she felt was a mild sort of longing—for the trucks, the tools, the noise, the dirt and drizzle. It was a warm, radiant day. The yard was quiet and clean and the patio had been completed, its pavers set in a herring bone pattern, scrubbed and shining in the sunlight.
“Looks great,” Edward said, standing in the middle of the patio. He tapped it here and there with his foot, as if testing it for seaworthiness.
Fidelia had to admit it was lovely. She liked the way it curved away from the shed in a gentle parabola. She saw where the table would go and the gas grill and the big earthenware pot of clumping bamboo. Then she remembered the excrement, and a fury sprang up inside her.
She stepped behind the hydrangeas to see if anyone had gone back there again. If so she would call Larry the Landscaper and demand he clean it up. She would also demand reimbursement, she wasn’t sure how much. Twenty percent? Fifty?
She found nothing. She looked in other parts of the yard—behind the compost bin, in the cobwebby spot between the butterfly bush and the quince tree, under the dogwood that was just beginning to bloom. There was nothing, nothing. For a disconcerting moment she wondered if she’d dreamed the whole episode. No, it had been there. The shit had been there. She’d picked it up and discarded it.
Edward had gone in the house. Fidelia got a folding chair from the shed. She opened it and sat taking in the new patio. It was so bright she had to squint. She kept squinting. Then she closed her eyes and tried to relax. She wanted a drink. She should go make one and bring it out here and then relax, she told herself, but she didn’t move. The labradoodle started up with its incessant barking. Fidelia sat there with her eyes closed, the patio solid and level beneath her. The dog’s shrill yelps jabbed at her ears. She was cold despite the sun on her face. After a while she put the chair away and went into the house.