Mackie dreaded the mail. That was new, one of many new things in her life, none good. Lying in bed on a Saturday morning, clinging to sleep although she wasn’t tired—this greediness for sleep also new—she heard the mail truck turning into Buena Vida Circle. The sound of its motor—part truck, part toy—grew louder, every little throb and rattle distinct in the desert air. Then came a squeak of brakes, followed by a pause in which she thought she heard mail thumping into the boxes at the foot of the circle; too far away to hear that, of course, had to be her imagination, if not playing tricks on her then anticipating that tricks were going to be played.
Two drivers shared the mail route—a man and a woman, both with sun-worn faces and long gray ponytails. The man always tapped the horn as he drove off. Like that: toot toot. People were friendly out West, as everyone said, and that toot-toot had sounded so optimistic in the beginning, back in the ground-breaking days. Now it made her heart race, like the opposite of a defibrillator. A wireless fibrillator: there was an idea. Niche-marketed to sadists and torturers it might bail them out, they being Lianne and her. Kevin would have to do his own bailing. Mackie got up, put on sweats, went outside.
A tangerine tree grew in her front yard. Each house in Buena Vida Estates—nine in all, arrayed like jewels around the circle as the architect had put it, crammed, as Mackie had said the first time she’d seen the plans, drawing one of those looks from Kevin—had a tangerine tree. Cost: $850 apiece. “Maybe this is a place we could cut back,” Mackie had said. But Kevin wouldn’t hear of it. Tangerines went with estates and the Santa Fe–style beams poking through the adobe walls and the heavy Spanish dark oak front doors, the whole concept they were selling, even if there was barely enough room to plant them. Mackie picked two bright orange beauties as she went by—pretty close to stealing from the bank.
She opened her mailbox, number four. Number four Buena Vida Circle—in her name alone now—was the original model home. And the nicest: she’d even loved it for a while, despite all the shortcuts and compromises she knew were part of it, from the foundation up. At the same time, she’d known it wasn’t a permanent home, just the last and biggest sale, leading to a move even higher up. Now, no longer loving it, even closer to hate at times, Mackie wanted to hold on to this house forever.
Surprise: just one little envelope in the box, not the dammed-up cascade of overdue bills, lawyers’ letters, and collection agency threats so often waiting to spring. Mackie plucked it out, one of those letters that still came addressed to her as Mrs. Kevin Larkin, even though the divorce was six months old and she’d gone back to her maiden name. A little distracted by that, she didn’t notice at first that it came from the IRS.
The IRS. They never had any correspondence with the IRS; everything went through the accountant, Mr. Fertig, a careful old guy with lots of starch in his short-sleeve white shirts and neat little knots in his striped ties. Then she remembered Kevin saying something about a refund this year. Wouldn’t that be something, a check he didn’t get his hands on first? Mackie opened the envelope: no check. Kevin didn’t slip up on things like that. She scanned the page inside, thick with type, waiting for the meaning to jump out at her. It did not. She had to read it three times, her eyes all of a sudden wild to speed ahead, faster than her mind could follow, before she understood that she owed the IRS $101,961.
Impossible. Mackie knew there were lots of people who didn’t fear the IRS, but she wasn’t one of them. She always made sure that Mr. Fertig had the two returns, their joint personal and the Buena Vida Develop- ment Company corporate, ready a month before filing date. It had to be a mistake. Her mind knew that, but the signal didn’t get passed along to her hands, too unsteady to fold the letter and stick it back in the envelope.
She walked back toward her front door, the nine houses of Buena Vida Estates fanning out around her, the canyon rising into the foothills beyond them, the mountains standing in the middle distance, cloudless sky above. Mountains on all sides, the first thing she’d noticed when they’d moved here, back when Kevin was still teaching tennis and Buena Vida Estates wasn’t even a dream, at least not in her mind; mountains the first thing and still the best, the air a close second. She’d hiked in those mountains now, even in the heat of the summer, learned a bit about them. They weren’t as green as they appeared from down here in the foothills, for example. Green came from the accumulated effect of the saguaros, like pixels, individually invisible at this distance, living up high at their own slow pace, blind to the million-dollar views of the city down below. Hiking up there, it was impossible, at least for Mackie, not to feel them doing something like thinking. Only recently was she starting to understand what was on whatever they had for minds: nothing human can make a lasting impression in this landscape.
Mackie went inside. Lianne was in the kitchen, hanging up the phone. That meant they still had service and the last check had cleared; this immediate reaction another one of those new things, not good.
“Morning, hon,” Mackie said.
“Hi, Mom,” said Lianne.
Who was on the phone? Mackie kept that remark, a mother’s natural remark, inside. Teenagers needed space. But she couldn’t help being curious because Lianne didn’t have many friends. No fault of her own: she was a great kid. Going over all the good things about Lianne in her mind was one of Mackie’s secret pleasures. But there’d been so many changes. First the move from back East, Lianne in the middle of sixth grade at the time. Then a few years later, when the development got going and the bank loans came through, they’d put her in private school, which was what everybody did, the kind of everybody they’d been getting to know. Now she went to Kolb High.
“Straight off the tree,” said Mackie, handing Lianne a tangerine.
“Thanks.” Lianne loved them.
They ate the tangerines—sweet, juicy, perfect. True luxury: $850 divided by two.
“That was Dad,” Lianne said.
“He’s on his way over.”
Saturday was Kevin’s day with Lianne. That was the agreement. But he hadn’t shown up the past three Saturdays, hadn’t even bothered to call.
“What’s the plan?” Mackie said.
Lianne shrugged. She was tearing the tangerine rind into tiny bits.
You don’t have to go, Mackie thought. But unfair to say. A girl needs a father. She said: “Better get ready.”
Lianne rose, pushed herself up from the table, really, like a nine-to-fiver off to work. Maybe divorce was like that for kids, an adult job suddenly handed to them, a hard one, sometimes a backbreaker.
Lianne was still in the shower when Kevin knocked on the front door. Mackie knew that knock—three taps, very quick, almost urgent. She knew every little thing about him. The big things were where she’d slipped up.
Mackie opened the door. “Oh, hi,” he said, as though this were some nice surprise. “Lianne all set?”
“Not quite,” Mackie said, moving aside. He came in, glancing at the mops and brooms by the door, went into the kitchen. Mackie checked his car out in the street before closing the door, in case he somehow had a new one, which would mean another big slipup on her part. But it was the same car he’d been driving since a week or two after the bank shut them down, yes, a BMW and, yes, a convertible, but this one twenty years old; and no graduate of the Yale School of Architecture waiting in the passenger seat, tapping her suntanned foot.
Kevin was leaning against the counter. Mackie sometimes still forgot how good-looking he was. From certain angles, like this one, he even appeared strong and resolute.
“Coffee brewing, by any chance?” he said.
Mackie handed him the letter.
“What’s this?” he said.
“You tell me.”
Kevin read the letter. She watched his eyes, beautiful deep brown eyes, like Lianne’s although not so intelligent, one of Mackie’s postdivorce realizations about him, and like all of them far too late. Did a little tremor cross their dark surface as he read, last faint wavelet from some deep disturbance? If so, it was gone in a flash.
“Must be some mistake,” he said, handing the letter back. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“As I can be, under the circumstances.”
“What does that mean?”
“It is addressed to you, after all,” he said.
“What are you saying?”
“Just that I’m no longer privy to your finances.”
Privy. Something about that word made her want to hit him in the mouth.
“What?” he said. “What?”
Privy. It meant free to root around. He’d rooted around in her finances, all right, to the tune of sixty thousand dollars, her inheritance and the foundation of the whole Buena Vida plan, the sixty grand turning into the down payment for the land less than a month after she got it, the land becoming the collateral for architectural, planning, and construction cost of the houses; a logical plan with millions in profits the inevitable result, golden, visible, almost tangible. Leverage was the magic word. They’d leveraged her father’s heart attack.
But Mackie hadn’t said no, had been caught up in the dream herself. Even now she wasn’t sure how crazy it was. Who could have foretold all the bad things, the economy going one way, mortgage rates the other, and those last five houses sitting empty, month after month, no one even coming to look at them? “Unreal,” as Jenna had said more than once, shaking her curls.
Jenna was the architect. Paid in full, Kevin had been scrupulous about that. She’d done a beautiful job, wedging those houses—clones, but all slightly unique, as though they’d been to different plastic surgeons or tailors—around Buena Vida Circle. Kevin had learned a lot from her, as he’d pointed out when Mackie questioned the size of Jenna’s bills. And in the master bedroom of the model house, he’d taught Mackie some of those lessons. At first, she’d assumed he’d suddenly taken to reading Maxim or one of those magazines: how to drive women wild. What other source could there be of this newfound expertise? All of a sudden he had the touch, after years of not having it, of being just slightly off. Now he was dead-on, and with new themes and variations every time, rooting around inside her and yes, driving her wild.
Mackie had figured it out eventually.
“Just tell me one thing,” she said. Didn’t privy also mean outhouse? Something right about that, although Mackie couldn’t have said why.
“What’s that?” Kevin said. He was leaning back slightly against the counter, wary, as though sensing an impending punch in the mouth, although of course there’d never been any of that.
“Tell me there are no more time bombs,” Mackie said.
“Financial time bombs you’ve left behind.”
“How could there be?”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Then no. No time bombs.”
“Not even one or two that could never possibly go off in a million years?”
He laughed, the kind of laugh that said, What a character.
“Your tone could be a little more civil.”
She didn’t change it. “Think.”
He thought. “Not a one,” he said. “We’re in a bomb-free zone.” But she saw that fucking tremor in his eyes again.
“What’s funny?” said Lianne, coming into the room with her over- night bag.
They turned to her. “Hey,” said Kevin, crossing the room, giving her a big hug. “Who’s getting better looking every day?”
The top part of Lianne’s face, from the eyes up, poked over his shoulder. Her gaze was on Mackie. “What were you laughing about?” she said.
“Mom—your mom and I were just shooting the breeze,” said Kevin.
“About what?” Lianne said.
“Nothing important,” said Kevin.
Lianne stepped out of Kevin’s embrace, came over to give Mackie a quick kiss. “See you tomorrow, Mom.”
“Have fun,” Mackie said.
“Do our best,” said Kevin, although she hadn’t been talking to him.
Then they were out the door. Mackie watched them get into the car. Kevin said something that made himself laugh. Lianne put on sunglasses. They drove off, a little too fast, which was how Kevin drove, leaving an oily cloud hanging in the air. The desert wind swept it away.
Mackie tried Mr. Fertig’s office, picturing him hard at work on a Saturday, tax time only a couple months away. But no. She left a message on his voice mail, brisk and untroubled, “Helen MacIsaac here, Mr. Fertig. Got a quick question, if you could get back to me.”
Mackie went into the bathroom. It had his-and-her sinks, a vanity mirror surrounded with light bulbs, and a round whirlpool bath where she and Kevin had played once or twice. A tiny spider ran down the drain.
Mackie brushed her teeth, pulled back her hair, and wound it into a tight bun, then stuck in her turquoise and silver comb, a gift to herself the day she arrived in Tucson, all about a new future and her belonging in it. Now she was a lot smarter and it was just a comb, but a nice one. Mackie gathered up her stuff—mops, broom, vacuum, cleansers, dustpan, toilet brush—and left for work.
Excerpted from Their Wildest Dreams by Peter Abrahams. Copyright © 2003 by Peter Abrahams. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.