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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Cactus League

A Novel

Emily Nemens

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

WWJDD


Audrey and Michael Taylor have been traveling all day, since before the sun rose on their daughter’s snowed-over Milwaukee suburb. Now, late afternoon, Michael directs the cabbie from Sky Harbor and Phoenix’s loop freeway into Scottsdale, toward their development—a square mile of adobe-clad ranchers—and finally, down their street.

Theirs is halfway down the block on the left. “It’s that one,” he says, his wrinkled finger jutting into the front of the cab, indicating a house that’s so orange it’s nearly pink. “The salmon.”

He tips the driver well—Michael always tips well; it is part of what he considers his character—and the young man happily unloads the Taylors’ coffin-size suitcases onto the curb. Forty-nine pounds each: the Taylors have been doing their off-season circuit for so long Audrey knows exactly which sundresses and sweaters to include, every wool blazer and light jacket and pair of slacks Mikey will need for Thanksgiving in Chicago, Christmas in Virginia, the month of January with Katie, their youngest, and her four kids in Wisconsin. And now, February and March in Arizona, where the desert can swing from the thirties at night to the nineties at noon.

The lawn looks dried out—the timer on the sprinkler must’ve malfunctioned, Michael thinks. He’s bothered by this; he prides himself on his perfect little patch of bluegrass-ryegrass. The neighbors appreciate it, too—Mr. Baseball knows his grass.

“How’s that for peculiar?” Michael says to himself as he jiggles the doorknob. He tries the key again, no luck. He checks the others on the ring—stadium entrance, supply room, and office (all to the old stadium—was he supposed to turn those in? he forgot to, in any case); Scottsdale safe deposit; spare set to Betty and Dave’s (those he definitely should return); the Camry; and the new, beloved Cadillac. He cannot help letting his thumb linger on that smooth black pebble, its silver shield a pleasing ridge under his thumb. He tries the house key twice more before stalking past the picture window to the side gate. There is a hide-a-key under the back mat; he’ll get in that way.

“What’s going on, honey?” Audrey missed his defeat at the front; she had her nose in her phone, texting one kid or another. “Did you forget your keys?”

“No, Aud—my God!” Michael bellows. The gate, now open, reveals a backyard in disarray—trash is skewered on the spines of their saguaro, and it looks like someone played whack-a-mole with their potted plants. A tower of crushed beer cans is piled on the patio table, and pizza boxes, stacked like so many beach towels, sit next to the Taylors’ small in-ground pool. The pool’s water is murky, with strange, bright blooms skimming the surface.

The cardboard panel in the back door’s French window leers at him like a smile’s missing tooth. Michael punches the cardboard out, reaches down, and opens the latch from the inside. The alarm system should trigger, but it doesn’t. Instead, he hears the sound of feet on gravel and Audrey’s gasp. He barks, “Now just hang on, Audrey.” His wife, fretting her hands by the patio furniture, nods like a bobblehead. “I’ll take care of this.”

* * *

When Michael bought their Arizona house, brand-new in 1971, guys on the team thought he was crazy. But Michael thought they were crazy not to buy. Why spend their meal money on six weeks of hotels every spring when they could be putting their stipend toward a mortgage? Scottsdale wasn’t quite tumbleweed-down-Main-Street back then, but it was a lot different. Small, for one. It stopped around Indian Bend, mostly just cacti and the old army airport past that, the ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright hanging out on some distant hill. Other players rented convertibles and bought clothes that impressed only whoever else was eating late-night at the Pink Pony; Michael paid down his banknote. A career in baseball, or at least one going the way he had imagined, was a looming unknown, but some things you could count on. By thirty, he and Audrey already had their retirement home. When it was clear his shot at the majors was done, that thrift felt more important than ever.

And while their official residence is Salt Lake City, home of the Stallions, the Lions’ Triple-A affiliate, the Arizona house is their favorite stop on the yearlong, countrywide circuit. These days, now that all the kids are out and mostly on their own, Michael and Audrey spend eight weeks in Scottsdale every spring and fall. It is well lived in, and well loved, but not any sort of run-down—Michael makes sure of that, always sprucing up the yard and keeping the paint fresh. There is something very cathartic about everything being in its right place, especially after so many months on the road.

* * *

The first thing to hit him is the stench of decay, a garbage smell, but he also detects the acrid aroma of something not meant to burn having been burned. It is cool—downright cold—the thermostat doing its best to keep the house at sixty against an eighty-five-degree sun. Michael shivers.

“Anybody home?” he calls. It sounds ridiculous, he thinks, yelling out as if he were some overcurious neighbor. Like this isn’t his own home. But Michael can’t think what else to say, what else to do. So he calls out again, and then he listens.

No answer.

He surveys the kitchen. Wadded-up Pop-Tart wrappers spill across the counter, dishes jam the sink, and then his eyes go to a dark, sticky-looking stain on the floor. Blood, Michael thinks, and his breath pulls up short. Only when he kneels down and sees the overturned bottle of Hershey’s syrup wedged underneath the fridge is he able to exhale. A trail of tiny ants march from the spill to some unknown world behind the cabinets.

The security system, once mounted next to the thermostat, is now smashed plastic and a knot of clipped wires. The dead bolts in the front and back have been replaced with some cheapo set, the locks sitting loose in their casings. One mystery solved.

Michael pops out the back door. Audrey is gingerly gathering takeout containers and depositing them into the trash. “Leave it be, Audrey. Those are filthy.”

She looks up. “How is it in there?”

“Not good,” he says with a grimace.

He does a quick survey of the dining room. At some point, a meal had been set for four, premade lasagna by the looks of the caked tinfoil casserole. The Taylors’ nice china, stained orange with grease, is spread across the table, crusted and crumbed. He inspects the sideboard, the small liquor cabinet and wine rack atop it. Their visitors drank every ounce in the cabinet and every bottle in the rack, including a 1999 Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux Michael was saving for their fiftieth. “Those shits,” he mutters.

In the girls’ room—now fitted with two sets of bunk beds, for when the grandkids visit—all four beds have been slept in, none of them made. Something squirreled in the corner catches his eye. An assortment of Michael’s sports memorabilia has been gathered from different parts of the house and deposited, improbably, here. The ball from his first home run. His collection of cards, all the way back to his squinty rookie year. He’d been handsome in 1965, even if the TOPPS photographer had surprised him, asked him to turn around and smile right into the sun. Michael didn’t know he could ask for a redo, not until the team set came in and the whole clubhouse laughed at his squished-up mug. He slips the card into his shirt pocket. Also in the pile: a framed clipping from 1974, that lucky moment when they made it all the way to the World Series, and he was the Lions’ backup left fielder. No ring, though—they’d lost in five to Saint Louis. His retired gloves, their leather gone soft and then stiff again. Ball caps from every level of the organization: Carolina, Kansas, Salt Lake. The medallion the Lions organization gave him for forty years with the club—for those, major or minor don’t matter, nor do player or coach. It is about being loyal—which he is, faithful as a border collie. If only the feeling were mutual. The last time he encountered Stephen Smith, the head of the ownership group, the man couldn’t be bothered to hide his sneer, making a face like Michael were a stain he’d have to scrub out.

In the master bedroom, the bed is unmade, the sheets strewn like something violent happened. He stands in the threshold, listening to the ticking of a quiet house, wanting and not wanting to hear something more. As he waits, he can feel his blood pressure going up. He has meds for it, and he takes them dutifully every morning. But a tiny pill can do only so much when someone’s been living in, and messing up, your home.

Those little white pills—he charges into the master bath and throws open the cabinet. He shakes one bottle after another, hoping for a rattle. They ate everything but the stool softener. “No respect,” he says to himself.

Closing the cabinet, Michael catches his reflection in the bathroom mirror. Blue eyes rimmed pink, jowly, a carbuncly nose that keeps getting bigger, his hair bright white—he sees very little of that young man from the TOPPS card staring back at him. He’d been handsome, he’d been strong. He looks down at his wrist, the threaded bracelet embroidered with the letters W-W-J-D-D. What would Joe DiMaggio do?

He wouldn’t blow his fucking cool, Michael reminds himself. So he ignores the ringed tub and the towels wadded on the floor. He steps back into the bedroom and closes the bathroom door so hard the whole room shudders. The pictures of his kids and grandkids, the black-and-white wedding photos of his folks and Audrey’s had been knocked askance anyway.

WWJDD. “Audrey,” he calls down the dim corridor, “I’m coming.”

* * *

Audrey is in the kitchen. “They melted plastic onto the range,” she says, picking at the stove’s coils with a polished nail. She gives herself a manicure every Thursday, the same color of pale pink for the past twenty-two years. When a fleck of the color breaks off and skips across the range, she makes a concerned face but keeps going.

“And look.” She holds up a crystal pitcher, a wedding gift from his long-deceased grandmother. “It’s chipped. And they cracked the Mr. Coffee.” She points to the carafe, and her eyes run over the counter. Michael watches them skim, skitter, and jump.

“What? What is it?” Michael says.

“Oh, it’s … nothing,” Audrey says, in a way that, Michael knows, after forty-eight years of matrimony, means it absolutely is something. Her eyes dart again, there and back.

“What? Tell me.” His voice is stern, but then he sees what her eyes are unable to avoid: the turned walnut bowl that had previously held their spare keys. Now, save for some gum wrappers, a withered apple, and an oozing brown banana, it is empty.

He feels a curse rising from the grumbling pit of his belly. Of course Michael left a spare key to the Cadillac sitting in the bowl. It’s his house, for fuck’s sake, and you leave your keys, to your car that is parked in your garage, attached to your house, in your fucking fruit bowl. He storms across the kitchen, throws open the door to the garage, and faces a big, empty space where his new car had been.

“GODDAMN IT!”

He punches a button, and the garage door begins its creaking ascent. With the light of the afternoon streaming in, he can see into the shadows on the far side of the garage. They also took Audrey’s car, an old Camry with a hundred thousand miles and a fritzy air conditioner. Tools gone, lawn mower gone. Michael kicks a bag of mulch because he has to kick something. He kicks it again, the bag giving way like someone’s soft middle. Then he stomps back into the kitchen and dials the police.

* * *

It’s not the Johnstons’ fault, he’d never say that. But next-door neighbors Betty and Dave Johnston always did look in on the place when the Taylors were away, and after Betty’s fall … well. Audrey and Michael sent flowers to Betty’s hospital room, and when Dave called to thank them, Michael steered conversation toward their street—he wanted to make sure they’d still be checking in. That’s when Dave confessed they’d not be coming around. They were moving into one of those retirement developments. Michael didn’t know what to say to that. The idea of giving up so much of one’s life—possessions, property, even the ability to set one’s own damn dinnertime—was terrifying. You sure about this? he asked Dave. His neighbor replied that the house was already listed, and he’d hired some college kids to pack up the place.

So Dave and Betty weren’t there to hear the home alarm wail or notice when it unceremoniously stopped. They didn’t see the perps coming and going, wreaking havoc in the pool. But Michael had to admit that things started going south well before Betty’s fall. With the recession came a wave of bad mortgages, homeowners owing more than their properties’ worth. Foreclosures. Some people walked away. The house on the other side of them had been empty for a year, nominally on sale but even the broker had stopped coming around. Last spring, not in their development, but not too far away, either, he’d seen a row of houses that had gone to seed: boarded up, gap-toothed with broken windows, pocked with orange eviction notices. Was that coming for them? Michael didn’t know; he sure as shit hoped not. Theirs had been a nice neighborhood—kids biking in the streets and splashing in pools. Michael never sees children playing anymore.

Long story short, the Johnstons sold quick, and for a too-low price, to some developer buying up lots like they were Monopoly houses—he had three on their block, four on the next. Dave had heard the guy was fixing to raze the whole neighborhood, but when Michael pressed, Dave changed the subject.

* * *

Michael and Audrey wait on the dead grass, holding hands. Michael hopes that by squeezing Audrey’s she can get his message: Hang on, sweetheart. We’ll be okay. The responding officer doesn’t use a siren, but the lights on his squad car flash red and blue. Officer Miller looks like he might’ve played high school football thirty years back. Michael gives him the short version of their rude welcome, and Miller stomps inside. He comes back out in what feels like ninety seconds and tells them they are lucky to still have their plumbing, which strikes Michael as a pretty rotten thing to say.

The lights strobe, red and blue. “Could you turn that off?” Audrey finally asks, her voice sounding pinched. She closes her eyes and squishes up her face like she does when a migraine’s coming. Michael squeezes her hand again: I’ll take care of everything. And this time, he feels her press back, her thumb running over the callus at the base of his palm, pulling along the rim of his embroidered bracelet. Please, hers says.

What would Joe DiMaggio do? Take care of fucking business.

Miller continues without enthusiasm. “It could be anyone: your typical drugged-out vagrant, but maybe also a family down on its luck, a vet who’s a little out of sorts, some dumb kids from the university. You said there was booze in the house. Any drugs?”

“What?” Michael’s mind flashes to the empty vials in the bathroom, pain pills left over from the last time he threw out his back. Those don’t count. “No. Nothing.”

“So then how do you spot a squatter nowadays?” Audrey asks.

“Yeah,” Michael says. “From what you’re saying, it’s not like they’re hoboes trailing a swarm of flies.”

Miller sniffs. “They’re not. And you don’t. Y’all have homeowner’s insurance?” the officer says, capping his pen.

Michael’s nod feels more like a shrug. “Sure.”

“Get ready for a fight. They’ll nickel-and-dime you all the way to Kalamazoo. Document everything. Keep your receipts, take photos.” Miller hands Michael a card. “Call the station if you folks need anything. We’ll keep an eye out for the cars. You said the Cadillac was—”

“Ebony. With a little tint of navy blue.”

“That some sort of black?”

“Right. And a sky-blue Toyota Camry, nineteen ninety—”

“Seven.” Audrey remembers. Of course she does.

After the patrol car leaves, Audrey and Michael stand there for a minute, just holding hands and blinking at the house. Then Michael heads for the curb—their suitcases haven’t budged since the Taylors first arrived, when the cabbie plopped them down with such cheeriness. Audrey stops him, her hand wrapping around his arm with a surprisingly strong grip.

“I don’t feel safe here, Mikey.” Most days, his wife doesn’t look a day over fifty-five, big brown eyes and a cute nose and a smile that hardly sags. Not plastic surgery, just good genes, a little hair dye, and lots of moisturizer. But at that moment, her hair mussed out from its precise bun, her face damp from the heat and showing every one of its wrinkles, she looks frail. Like an old lady. “I don’t want to stay here.”

As much as it kills him to hear that, Michael can’t blame her. “Sure. Right.” So he walks back into the stinking kitchen and calls another taxi.


Copyright © 2020 by Emily Nemens