Lee Martin is the author of fourteen books, including The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and, most recently, The Glassmaker’s Wife. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University and at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University.
It came up from time to time in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the fact that the seashell pendant was missing from Betts’s coat pocket.
“My god, Sam, it must have fallen out,” she said on Christmas night.
They’d walked home from the neighborhood party at Nan and Gunther Mikler’s house, an evening that ended early after an unfortunate incident involving Honey and Peter Vanlandingham. During the white elephant gift exchange, Betts had received the pendant, the very one Sam had given Honey for her fiftieth birthday, a gift that had been too personal and too forward, coming as it did from Sam Shuman, who’d only recently become a part of this group of neighbors that called itself The Patio Club. Honey’s husband Peter hadn’t taken kindly to the gift, and Shuman knew he’d been the one to force Honey to give it up.
“You cruel bastard,” Honey had screamed at Peter, and then she’d stormed out of the Miklers’ party.
Shuman helped Betts search the house. They retraced their steps from the walk they’d taken from the Miklers. No luck, which came as no surprise to Shuman since he was the one who’d fished the pendant out of Betts’ pocket—stolen it—so he could return it to its rightful owner, the woman he’d given it to first, Honey Vanlandingham.
“I didn’t really think you’d do it,” Honey said to him a week later when he slipped it into her palm at Lynn and Ernie Fontaine’s New Year’s Eve party.
“It has to be our secret,” he told her.
“Mum’s the word,” she said with a wink.
As the winter months went on, Betts finally stopped mentioning the pendant, and Shuman thought the matter settled—that is until this day in early March when driving through the Sonoran Desert north of Phoenix on their way to the Grand Canyon, she said, “You know, I can’t for the life of me figure out what happened to that necklace.” She was driving the rental car, a pale green Volkswagon Beetle she’d requested because she told Shuman it would be fun. She had her tortoiseshell Wayfarers on her face and a long purple scarf tied around her neck. She was driving with the windows down, and the hot air was lifting the end of her scarf and unfurling it out into Shuman’s peripheral vision. “I’m just sick about it. Really, Sam. Just sick.”
“Spilt milk,” he said.
“That’s just like you.” She slid her Wayfarers down her nose and glanced at him. He saw the heat in her eyes. “lo que fácil viene, fácil se va.”
Her Spanish escaped him. “What the heck does that mean?”
“Easy come, easy go.” She pushed her Wayfarers back up her nose. "You’re so indifferent. You’re like a turtle with his head stuck in his shell, not knowing if he dare stick it out. Comme ci, comme ça.” Now she’d switched to French, and for good measure she added a shrug of her shoulder. “Meh,” she said.
Shuman knew the lingering question of his divorce had begun to try her patience. His wife, Elsa, had served papers on Christmas Eve, and he’d promised Betts he’d see to them after the first of the year.
“It’s really not my business,” she’d told him, “but you know how I feel.” She’d made it clear that she thought there might be a future for them. “Something good,” she’d said. “Something that could last, but I guess that’s up to you.” They’d barely hung on through January, and in fact had gone the first two weeks of February without seeing each other. “You know, I don’t think you really want this divorce,” she’d finally said to him. “Call me if you change your mind. Maybe I’ll answer.”
It was a lonely time for Shuman—no more movie dates, no more shared meals, no more shared beds—and then on Valentine’s Day, his phone rang, and it was Elsa.
“Thank god, I got you,” she said. “I need your help.” She’d been shopping at Whole Foods on Lane Avenue when she realized she didn’t have her car fob. She had no way of driving to her apartment in her MINI Cooper. “You’ve got the spare fob there in the house,” she said. “Please bring it to me.”
He told himself he was only doing it to prove he could be decent about their current state of affairs, but once he was there, fob in hand, and he was looking at Elsa, pacing in front of the store, he was surprised to find himself thinking of all the times one of them had waited for the other to come—to meet for dinner after work, to pick up the other from a medical appointment, to come home. He felt the old thrill at seeing her rise up in him again.
“Bad luck,” he said. “Losing your keys, I mean.”
“Good luck, though, that you were home.”
There it was, the difference between them, the one that had finally become too much for Elsa. To him, the glass was always half-empty. To her, the glass was half-full.
It was a damp night. A mist hovered in the glow of the parking lot lights. Tires hissed over the wet pavement. A slight rise in temperature had brought the smell of wet earth into the air. Shuman pressed the MINI Cooper fob into Elsa’s hand, and he thought how easy it would be to take that hand and pull her to him, or to lead her into the Whole Foods Cafe and sit by the fire and have a coffee and talk.
“Thanks for this.” She slipped the fob into the small purse looped over her shoulder. She was wearing a wool pea coat he’d given her last Christmas, and the sight of it suddenly irked him. It was a reminder of how much had changed between the two of them. Here they were now, almost familiar, and almost strangers.
“I guess your boyfriend could have driven you home,” he said. “Why didn’t you call him?”
“Better for me to get the extra fob, don’t you think?” She came up on her toes and leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “It was sweet of you to come.”
For a moment, they stood there in the night, their foreheads touching, Shuman’s hand on her arm, hers on his shoulder, and he knew to anyone who may have been watching it would seem like a tender moment between two lovers on Valentine’s Day.
“Elsa,” he said, but before he could go on, she pulled away.
“I have to be going,” she said. “I have plans.” Still, she lingered, glancing down at her feet and then up at him. He wasn’t about to ask what those plans might be. He wasn’t even sure what he’d been about to say just before she interrupted him. That he missed her? That he thought they should try again? Or did he only mean to say no matter what ended up happening she’d always be able to count on him? “Sign the papers, Sam,” she finally said as she turned to go. “Let’s get this over with.”
Which brought him to Betts’s door.
“All right,” he said. “I’m in. You and me, yes?”
Then the virus came. COVID-19, which had ravaged China, was now in America. The highly contagious and potentially fatal, airborne illness was on the loose. The U.S. reported eight cases on February 1. By the end of the month, that number had jumped to sixty-eight, and a man near Seattle became the first to die.
Hoarding began. Suddenly, Shuman’s attention was on making sure he had ample toilet paper as well as hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes. He started wearing a face mask when he was out in public. Everyone he met was suspect, as was every surface he touched—the PIN pad at the ATM, the nozzle at the gas station, the very mail he chose to leave in a box in the garage for three days before bringing it into the house. Suddenly, the signing of the divorce papers seemed like small potatoes next to the effort to stay well.
“Can you believe it?” Betts said to him one night when they were sharing a meal at his house. “All of us wearing masks like we were in some foreign country where the air is bad. Who could have seen this coming?”
HIV, Ebola, the bubonic plague, and on and on. Shuman could tell Betts diseases like COVID-19 had always been there, ready, given the proper circumstances, to erupt. The hold everyone convinced themselves they had on health was always tenuous. Hence the surprise.
“It’s a different world now, Betts.” He reached across the table and took her hand. He was grateful for her company again, thankful she’d answered her door on Valentine’s night and asked him to come inside. “We’re moving into a different world.”
“But we’re moving through it together, right?” She squeezed his hand. “You said you were in.”
“Right,” he said.
And he meant it. He really did. He meant it all through that night as they finished their meal and cleaned up the kitchen and sat by the fire with a glass of wine and talked about their upcoming trip to Arizona, the gift he’d made to her at Christmas, and later drifted off to sleep, their bodies curled together.
And he meant it as they went into March, the day of their flight to Phoenix drawing closer, and the virus came to Ohio, and the governor declared a state of emergency. By this time, the virus was rampant in the southwest, and Shuman and Betts debated about whether it was safe for them to go to Arizona. Word was, a lockdown might be coming soon, people ordered to stay at home.
“I say we go,” Betts said. “One last fling.”
Shuman wasn’t so sure. “An airplane?” he said. “A hotel? All those germs?”
“Come on.” She waved a container of Lysol wipes in his face. “Live a little, Sam.”
He stopped hearing from his attorney, and he made no move to reach out to him, nor did Elsa’s attorney make any follow-up. It seemed that matters like these were on hold as the world held its breath in the face of this pandemic.
But Shuman and Betts were going to Arizona, and for the time he was happy to give himself over to that excitement and the thrill of traveling—the danger even—that ebbed in the rental car when Betts accused him of being a coward.
“For god’s sake, grow a set, Sam,” she said. Then she punched the accelerator and sped up I-17 through the desert on the way to the ponderosa pines of Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks on the way to the Grand Canyon beyond.
A light rain began to fall as they drove higher into the mountains, and Betts was forced to put up the windows. The temperature had dropped dramatically, and soon it was snowing.
“Maybe you should slow down,” Shuman said.
“Nah.” She still had on her Wayfarers. “It’ll stop. Nothing lasts forever, right?”
He kept his mouth shut. He let her drive. She drove through the snow, and soon it stopped, and in front of them was a rainbow.
“Oh, Sam.” She grabbed his hand. “It’s a good sign, don’t you think?”
“I do,” he said, though he wasn’t sure now of much of anything. Not of what he wanted. Not of how to keep from catching COVID-19. Not of Betts, even, whose balls-to-the-wall, full-steam-ahead approach had begun to be off-putting—reckless, even. Still, there was something in the way she clung to his hand—as if she were grabbing a lifeline—that made him feel necessary and capable in a way he hadn’t felt with Elsa for a very long time. “I do,” he said again, this time with conviction, and then, together, holding hands, they went on into the sunshine.
On the south rim at Mather Point, they stepped onto a viewing area and looked out onto the rock formations and down into the canyon. Shuman was surprised at its majesty. He took in the depth and the multi-colored layers of sandstone and limestone, and he thought about how he could swear he was ready for something when really he wasn’t ready at all.
“My god,” he said.
Betts pushed her Wayfarers up onto her head and grabbed his arm. Her fingers were trembling. “I never,” she said, and then she couldn’t go on. Seconds ticked by, and then she tried again. “I never imagined it like this. Not in my wildest dreams.”
People, despite the pandemic, were all around them. Some were wearing face masks. Others weren’t. They were speaking multiple languages—Spanish, German, Chinese, and something Shuman could identify as only Eastern European. They were taking photographs, and even though Shuman could hear their voices, to him it was as if he and Betts were the only people left alive on earth, and they were shrinking in the presence of the grandeur. Who were they, and what did they matter to the universe that had made such a thing? How insignificant it all seemed—the divorce papers, the seashell pendant, the spat with Betts in the car on the drive up. Everything reduced to next to nothing when Shuman considered how long the canyon had been there and how long it would continue to be there after he and Betts and Elsa and this virus were gone. You could think you were in the midst of something that would last forever when really, given the grand scheme of things, it was just a blip. Make a choice and move on. The world wasn’t going to wait for you.
An American woman, a slight brunette who reminded Shuman of Elsa when she’d been younger, broke into his reverie. She was wearing a pale blue paper face mask.
“Excuse me, please.” She was cradling a dachshund dog in the crook of her left arm. The dog had no leash, and it was shivering. “Would you please?” She held her phone out to Betts. “A photograph?”
Betts’s eyes were damp. She bit her lower lip and put her Wayfarers back on so the woman wouldn’t see she was close to tears.
“I’ll take it,” Shuman said, and he grabbed the woman’s phone. “What’s your dog’s name?”
He had no idea why he asked her that—perhaps just to bring himself back to the world.
“Minnie,” she said. “This is Minnie.” She held the dog’s paw up and waved it. “She’s my baby, aren’t you Sweetums? Yes, you’re Mommy’s baby.” The dog had a pink collar with a little pink bell. “We’ll just pose over there.” And with that the woman found a place on a low stone wall along a walking path away from the safety rails of the observation areas, and she sat down with her back to the canyon. “Come on,” she said to Shuman. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
A feeling of dread came over him. He’d read about people who came to the canyon to kill themselves, and suddenly he was afraid. He looked around for Betts and found her at another stone wall farther back from the canyon. She sat there, her head bowed, looking at her phone.
“Are you sure?” Shuman said to the woman.
“Yes, please,” the woman said.
Then she sat Minnie down on the stone wall beside her. She made no attempt to steady the dog or to hold it in place. Shuman was struck by the tremendous trust that nothing would go wrong—buoyed by it even. Behind them, a California condor swooped low in the sky, headed to perch on an outcropping, and its shadow caught the dog’s attention. Minnie jerked her head around. Shuman heard her nails scrabbling on the stone wall, digging for purchase as she began to lose her balance.
The woman cried out, “Minnie, my god.” The dog was slipping, and the woman caught her by her pink collar. The bell jingled. Then the woman herself was tilting backward. Her feet lifted from the ground.
That’s when Shuman reached out and grabbed her by her arm. Her cell phone went clattering from his hand to the rocks. He had his other arm around her waist now, and he was holding on, pulling her and her dog back over the stone wall, collapsing with them, finally, and holding on.
Then Betts was there, kneeling with them, and she was ugly crying now, great sobs wracking her, and the woman with the dog was crying, too, and Minnie was still shivering, and soon a park ranger was there to make sure everyone was all right, and in the end Betts got the photograph on her own phone, the one of Shuman and the woman and Minnie at the instant of near-disaster.
The woman’s feet were off the ground, the tread on the soles of her running shoes visible. She had her right arm thrown back over the ledge, and Minnie was a floppy brown ear lifting up; another fraction of a second and she’d be lost. But the woman was holding on, and Shuman was holding on. He was on his knees, and he had the woman’s left arm in both of his hands, and it was clear from the backwards tilt of his body that he was anchoring her, pulling her back, even, back among the living.
“I just knew I had to save her,” he told the news reporter after the incident. “I was the only one who could.”
“He’s my hero,” the woman with the dog said—her name turned out to be Fern Peabody, a schoolteacher from Taos, New Mexico, visiting the Grand Canyon over her spring break. “He’s my and Minnie’s hero.”
“Oh, that’s just Sam,” Betts said in the article that went out over the news wires. “You can always count on him.”
Soon the story would hit USA Today and The New York Times and People Magazine, not to mention The Columbus Dispatch where Shuman’s neighbors would read it and stand in amazement.
“Who’d a thunk it?” Gunther Mikler would say to Nan.
“That bastard,” Peter Vanlandingham would let the newspaper drop to his lap and be barely able to hide his admiration. “That splendid bastard.”
Honey would press the seashell pendant into the hollow of her throat and take smug satisfaction from the fact that she’d known this about Shuman all along—he was a man capable of grand surprises.
Elsa would see Shuman being interviewed via satellite on Good Morning America by the former NFL defensive end, Michael Strahan, who would compliment Shuman on his quickness and his strength. “You look like you maybe played a little in your time,” Strahan would say and then flash that trademark, gap-toothed smile. “I bet you could still lace ‘em up and ball.”
Shuman had never been athletic, but Elsa, watching that interview, could imagine him in uniform, shoulders broad, waist trim, thighs like tree trunks, a football star like the boys she’d lusted after in high school but to no avail. Sam Shuman. Her Sam Shuman. His face and his story a hot item from coast to coast.
Honest to god, she thought and felt a chill move through her.
“I could have lost you,” Betts said to him that night in their hotel room. “You could have tipped over, too. I could have lost you in Arizona.”
“But that didn’t happen.” Shuman took her hand and laid it on his chest. “I’m right here. Do you feel my heart beating?”
“I’m so sorry, Sam.”
“For giving you grief about the divorce. For starting that little spat in the car.”
“None of that matters now.”
“You’re right. It doesn’t. I looked into that canyon and I was overcome. I didn’t know if I was crying because I was sad or because I was happy. Then that woman. . . .” She couldn’t go on. “It’s too much for me, Sam.”
He held her to him. “It’s okay. We’re here. Both of us. Right now.” He had no idea whether this feeling would last, but for the time being, he was happy to pretend it would. The canyon was so deep and vast, Shuman swore he could throw anything into it—any regret or guilt or shame—and everything would be forgiven. “We’re here and we’re safe,” he said.
Outside, the sun was going down on the desert. The sky was dimming, the last of the sun streaking it with swatches of purples and oranges. Before long, as the desert cooled, the scorpions and the rattlesnakes and the Gila monsters and the tarantulas would come out from what shade they’d sought among the saguaro and the organ-pipe and the prickly pear and the mesquite and the canyons and the buttes and the spires. The Nighthawks would begin to swoop low in the sky, hunting for flying insects. The Poorwills would sound their mournful calls.
Shuman had read about the first Poorwill found in the Sonoran in a hollow in a canyon. The man who found it thought it was dead. He held a mirror to the beak of the bird, hoping to see condensation, a sign of respiration, but no sign came. Ten days later, the bird still hadn’t moved, but when the man touched it, the Poorwill winked at him.
At rest, Shuman thought, that night as he lay face to face with Betts, both of them with their eyes wide open, both of them not wanting to be the first to nod off and leave the other.
“You first,” Betts said.
“No, you,” said Shuman.
The Poorwill had been at rest, so deeply at rest, it appeared that it was dead. What was coming was coming, but on this night, Fern Peabody was alive, and her dog Minnie was alive, and Betts and Shuman were alive, and for the time, that was enough. In fact, that was everything.