They were both fifty when they moved to Massachusetts, settling in a small town a few miles north of Boston. Like a lot of people around the country over the last few years, they’d recently experienced a run of bad luck.
Due to the state budget crisis, she’d lost her job as vice president for academic personnel at a large University of California campus in the Sacramento Valley. The year before her layoff, everyone, even the football coaches, had been subjected to mandatory furloughs, and things had turned ugly as the union blamed the shortfall on “managerial bloat.” She’d had a hand in denying tenure to a number of professors, and many faculty members rejoiced when the administration was reorganized and she received her pink slip.
His business was construction. He was the man you engaged if you needed to have something small and delicate done and could pay for fine work. You had to accept certain things about him, though. He’d come and go on his own terms, and he would bring a small Bose along and listen to music through- out the day. He wouldn’t have much to say. The fact that he was working for you didn’t necessarily mean he’d return every phone call. People who’d put up with such idiosyncrasies when the economy was healthy proved a lot less understanding after the downturn. By the time they left the valley, he hadn’t had a job for close to six months.
Her friends had always considered them an odd pair. He was from someplace down around Bakersfield, a tall, angular man who’d attended college only a semester before dropping out. His great passion was stringed instruments, and he could play the guitar, mandolin, banjo and Dobro well enough to earn money doing it if he’d chosen to, but the only audience he ever performed for was the other amateur musicians and assorted hangers-on who gathered at a crossroads grocery out- side Sacramento on Friday nights. That was where they’d met, when she went there with a friend a year or so after the demise of her first marriage.
Of medium height, trim and fit, she’d earned a Ph.D. in comp lit and published a handful of articles on writers like Kafka, Broch and Svevo before moving into administration. With a laugh, she sometimes referred to her days in the class- room as “my previous life.” She didn’t think she’d been a very good teacher, perhaps because she had trouble reaching out to those she taught, who were often first-generation college students from migrant families. She loved cooking and sometimes wondered if she’d missed her calling and should’ve owned a restaurant.
She had what she always described as bad hair. Blond, it had always been thin, and as she aged it grew even thinner. The valley’s arid climate didn’t help. When she attended a conference in the Deep South or went back home to Pennsylvania, the moisture in the air lent it a bit more body. But it is what it is, she liked to say. She’d watched a couple middle-aged women—friends of her mother—quietly go crazy in the small town where she’d grown up, doing all sorts of bizarre things that caused others pain and kept the local gossips entertained, and she’d promised herself that when her time came to grow older she would accept it with grace.
Moving to Massachusetts was itself an act of acceptance. She got another job in academic personnel, this time at a state college, where she’d earn barely half her former salary, and they sold their house in the valley for barely half of what it had once been worth and bought a three-story colonial that needed lots of work. They wouldn’t hire anyone to fix it up. Cal could do whatever needed doing to any house, anywhere.
The couple owned a dog, a ten-year-old black Lab named Suzy that they’d given themselves for their fifth anniversary. The first evening in the new house, with most of their things still in Bekins cartons, they decided to take her out for a walk. She’d had a rough trip across the country, mostly riding in the cab of Cal’s pickup, though a few times they switched and let her get in the car with Kristin.
It was August and hotter than either of them had expected. “This feels like New Orleans,” she said as they stepped off the porch. “I don’t know if we can make it here without AC.”
He gestured at the house directly across the street, where a pair of window units droned on the second floor. “I’ll go look for one of those as soon as we get unpacked. We can put it in the bedroom. From what I read online, the most we’ll ever get’s three or four weeks of heat and humidity. Some years even less.”
The neighborhood, according to the Realtor who’d helped them find the house, was a good one, on the dividing line between two distinctly different North Shore towns. The one to the east, Cedar Park, was a little more upscale, with a fine seafood restaurant and a Mexican place the lady claimed would pass muster even with Californians. It also had a bakery where you could buy real Irish soda bread, a couple of nice cafés, several antique stores and an antiquarian bookshop. They never bothered to remove the Christmas lights on Main Street, she told them, so even a balmy summer night seemed to hint of nutmeg and cider, and you almost expected to hear sleigh bells. An early Temperance Movement stronghold, it was still legally dry, though you could get a drink in both restaurants, pro- vided you first ordered food. Montvale—the town to the west in which they technically resided, though its center was farther away—had a grittier, blue-collar air. According to Wikipedia, back in the seventies it had earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the highest number of gas stations in a one-mile stretch. Most of those were gone now, apparently displaced by liquor stores: the day they made the offer on the house, Cal had counted seven. Chains like CVS, Walgreens, Stop & Shop and Shaw’s were driving out the mom-and-pops, but he’d noted two independent hardware stores within a few hundred yards of each other. He hoped to scope them out over the next few days.
“A lot of things seem strange here,” she said as they turned down the sidewalk.
She nodded at the house they were passing. Like almost all the other Victorians and colonials in the neighborhood, it must have been built well over a hundred years ago. Through the window she could see a couple sitting there watching TV.
Dropping her voice, she said, “Their car has an Obama sticker on it.”
“Well, it’s Massachusetts.”
“But they’re watching Bill O’Reilly, and that means Fox News.”
“Maybe they’re disillusioned. Aren’t you?”
She knew how he voted—the same ticket she did—but sometimes didn’t have a clue what he was thinking. He was prone to silence. It was a matter of aesthetics, she supposed, like his disdain for musicians who played too many notes. “Not with Obama,” she answered.
He laughed. “With me?”
“Not you, either,” she said, refusing to consider whether she was telling the whole truth.
He jiggled Suzy’s chain. “Guess that means it’s you, pooch.”
They walked around the neighborhood for thirty or forty minutes, both of them wearing shorts and T-shirts, and in no time his were soaked. He’d always perspired a lot, but unlike her he relished being sweaty. In California, she’d often return home to discover that he’d switched off the AC, even on days when the temperature soared above a hundred. They had a black-bottomed pool overhung by tall pines, and she frequently found him there reclining on the steps at the shallow end, a visor pulled low over his eyes, three or four empty beer bottles on the poolside, his ever-present Bose providing string-band music from the nearby picnic table.
When Suzy paused to relieve herself, he handed Kristin the leash, pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and bent to collect the waste. They were in Cedar Park proper, at an intersection maybe three hundred yards downhill from their new house. While knotting the bag, he asked if she’d noticed how many streets were unmarked.
From here she could see two other intersections—but not a single street sign. “You’re right,” she said. “That’s funny, isn’t it? Do you think kids are stealing the signs?”
He stuck the first bag into a second one, then tied it up and put it in his pocket. He’d always done that, and it had always troubled her to know that he was walking along beside her with dog shit in his pocket. She’d objected once, but he said he’d rather have it there than dangling from his hand where everyone could see it. And for reasons she couldn’t specify, that troubled her even more.
“I doubt kids are stealing their signs,” he said. “They just don’t put ’em up to begin with. They probably figure if you don’t know where you’re going, you most likely don’t belong here. Who knows? They may be right.”
She lay awake a long time that first night, drenched in perspiration and thinking about that observation until she gave up on sleep and got out of bed. In the bathroom she took a quick shower, toweled herself dry, slipped into the thin robe she’d worn in motels from one side of the continent to the other and went downstairs. In the darkened hallway Suzy lay twitching, no doubt lost in a troublesome dream, so she stroked her neck until she woke, and together they went outside. Kristin sat on the porch steps with Suzy perched beside her. “We’ll get used to it here,” she whispered, realizing that she really didn’t have much more choice than the dog.
their first full day was spent unpacking boxes—more than two hundred, all told. Before beginning to arrange their con- tents, he insisted on breaking down the cardboard and stacking it neatly in the backyard. Once he learned where a recycling center was, he said, he’d haul it away.
Toting out all that cardboard required more than forty trips, many of which started on the upper floors. He got so hot he pulled off his T-shirt and hung it from the railing of their rear deck, but he enjoyed the exercise. Sitting behind the wheel in his pickup for five straight days, he’d had too much time to think, and most of his thoughts were dark. Every time Kristin’s car disappeared from the rearview mirror, he whipped out his cell phone to call and make sure she hadn’t gotten lost or had an accident or turned around and headed back. Certainly, what awaited them on the opposite side of the country was anybody’s guess.
After depositing the last boxes on the shoulder-high stack, he surveyed the houses on either side as well as the ones behind them over a flimsy fence. He could be seen, he knew, from any number of windows, just as he’d been able to see into any number of backyards when he looked out of his own third- story window at dusk the previous evening and observed a woman—early fifties, reddish hair, chunky build, khaki knee shorts and a blue Red Sox T-shirt—walking around the corner of the house directly behind theirs. She looked over her shoulder as if fearful somebody might be following. Apparently satisfied that no one was, she pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket and, while he watched, stuck one between her teeth. She withdrew a lighter, and the flame flicked on and off. Then she squatted with her back against the wall and enjoyed the cigarette, her eyes closed the whole time. He knew he ought to quit watching—it made him feel dirty—but couldn’t tear himself away.
On a trip to Shaw’s to buy coffee and paper towels, he spotted some window units sandwiched into the seasonal section between marshmallows and charcoal. Their second evening in the house, he installed one in their bedroom.
Finally cool, she slept a full nine hours, waking shortly before seven. At some point during the night she’d heard him climb out of bed, the door then opening and closing. They were back to normal, she guessed: her asleep, him awake. That had been the routine for years. She never knew what he did after he left, but sometimes in the morning she’d find a guitar or mandolin lying on the living room couch, a couple of picks on the coffee table beside an empty whiskey bottle.
On the first trip they’d ever taken together, to a bluegrass festival in Napa Valley, she’d loved watching him move from one group of parking-lot pickers to another, joining in on whatever tune they were playing, never at a loss. He didn’t even ask what key the song was in, just slid a little clamping device up or down the guitar neck and started strumming. He told her it was called a capo. “When you’ve got one, all you need to do’s play in G or D. Put the capo at the second fret and G becomes A. D becomes E, and so on.” That night they ate dinner at a country inn and drank two bottles of wine, and though they’d reserved a pair of rooms they needed only one. Opening her eyes the next morning, she found him propped on his elbow, studying her face as if he hoped to memorize her features. His guitar was standing beside the bed.
“Play some-thing for me,” she said.
Now, however, his instruments were thousands of miles away in the home of a former colleague of hers who soon would FedEx them, and he was beside her on his back, his mouth wide open and an arm thrown over her chest. She lay there looking at his long, thin fingers, cupped as if in supplication. Having been with him for more than fifteen years, she thought she knew how large his hand was, but for an instant it looked as garish as a flesh-colored fielder’s glove. That it could once have been the source of pleasure seemed impossible. She gently shifted his arm aside—Unnh, he muttered—and slid out of bed.
In the room next door, which would eventually serve as her study, she flipped on the light. Books were piled against the wall, on top of her desk, even underneath it. When she stepped into this room for the first time a few weeks ago on their home hunting expedition, a pair of bunk beds came together in one corner, and the floor was littered with the kind of junk only boys could own: two or three baseballs, an aluminum bat, several pairs of smelly, mud-encrusted sneakers of various sizes, a surprisingly realistic replica of an AK-47, a desktop computer with a keyboard that had a huge wad of chewing gum stuck to the space bar. A milk crate was full of video games, and some of the titles made her shudder: Resident Evil 4, World of Warcraft, Killer 7. On the wall hung a Tom Brady poster. Somebody had used a black Magic Marker to render the famous quarterback toothless.
She’d been afraid to look at Cal that day. During the previous week they’d seen so many homes she’d lost count, and he’d detected major flaws in most of them before they even got inside. But when they entered this one he kept silent until he was standing in the opening between the living room and dining room, where he thumped the white facing. “These belly casings,” he observed, “most likely have pocket doors behind them. They were common in houses like this. They look real nice and can help preserve warmth.” He pointed at the fireplace in the corner: “That’s unusual in a dining room.” Examining it, he said, “Looks like the original firebox. Carved brass.” In the basement he ran his hand over one of the beams. “Hemlock,” he told her. “It’s good strong timber, resistant to rot. They ran single spans in here, too.” By then, she knew that after they told the Realtor good-bye and returned to their hotel, he’d sigh and say they might as well do it. They’d make an offer on this house, and it would be accepted, and in five or six weeks she’d be standing right where she was now, trying to find the new beginning she wanted to believe must be inherent in each ending except the last one.
Born in Indianola, Mississippi, Steve Yarbrough is the author of five previous novels and three collections of stories. A PEN/Faulkner finalist, he has received the Mississippi Authors Award, the California Book Award, the Richard Wright Award, and another prize from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters. He teaches at Emerson College and lives with his wife in Stoneham, Massachusetts.
The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested reading list are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of The Realm of Last Chances, Steve Yarbrough’s searing story of adultery and academic fraud set in a small New England town.
1. Soon after they arrive in Massachusetts, Kristin observes her husband sleeping and reflects that “she thought she knew how large his hand was, but for an instant it looked as garish as a flesh-colored fielder’s glove. That it could once have been the source of pleasure seemed impossible” (p. 11). In what ways do Kristin and Cal not
know each other? Why is their marriage poised for a catastrophe? Is there a hint of violence in the description of Cal’s hand?
2. Why does Kristin have an affair with Matt? Is she motivated more by unhappiness in her marriage or by something Matt can give her that her husband can’t, or won’t?
3. How has Cal been shaped by his relationship with his father? Why does he despise him so intensely?
4. More generally, what role does family history play in the novel?
5. In what ways are Kristin, Cal, and Matt each struggling with a sense of failure and feelings of loneliness and isolation? How do these feelings drive them to act?
6. Why does Cal beat up the petty criminal so brutally when breaking up the robbery in the convenience store? And does this violent episode cast a sense of menace over the rest of the novel?
7. The Realm of Last Chances gives readers an inside look at academia, warts and all. What are the most disillusioning aspects of this life as portrayed in the novel?
8. Why does Cal open up to Dave’s wife, Gloria, about nearly killing his girlfriend's father when he was a teenager? What effect does this confession have on Cal? What might have happened if he hadn’t been able to confide in her?
9. What makes Cal such a complex character? What are some of his most incongruous traits?
10. At their final meeting, Matt tells Kristin: “There’s a lot I don’t know about you. But I’m going to figure it out. Everything you never got around to telling me? I’ll be down the street imagining it. You’ll see the light on in my window, and you’ll know that’s what I’m up to. I’ll be imagining you. In fact, I’ve already started” [p. 265]. Instead of getting Kristin, Matt gets to imagine her. Losing her has launched the novel he’s wanted to write for years. Is this a better outcome for him?
11. Matt steals from his employer, Dilson-Alvarez commits academic fraud, Kristin cheats on her husband, Cal lies about his past, and his father swindles his clients. What is the significance of all these acts of deceit? Are there important ethical differences between them, or are they essentially the same? And what picture of human nature does this present?
12. Discussing the trend toward jargon and obfuscation in academic discourse, the chair of the history department tells Kristen: “I’m an old-fashioned proponent of event-based history who clings to the simple-minded notion that what’s most interesting is a well-told story” [p. 180]. In what ways does The Realm of Last Chances itself demonstrate the importance of personal history and the power of a well-told story?
13. The provost, Joanne Bedard, seems to be an ill-tempered, cynical and self-serving administrator, and Kristen’s secretary, Donna, seems brusque, hardened and one-dimensional. How do your impressions of these women soften and deepen by the book’s end, as more is revealed about them? Why is this process both surprising and satisfying?
14. In what ways can The Realm of Last Chances be read as a critique of contemporary America?
15. What has brought Kristin, Cal, and Matt into the realm of last chances, “where the ice is thin and apt to break and caution is no currency” [p. 153]? What do each of them make of the last chances they’re offered?
16. In the novel’s beautiful final paragraph, Kristin lets images from her distant and recent past “burn like embers” in her mind. What might Yarborough be suggesting by ending the novel with this?