Some days, Robin Besher could taste the new facts of her life in the back of her throat. She’d buried her privileged life along with Ray: the Lululemon clothes and the Pittsburgh Junior League, the monthly shipments of pricey health-shake mix, her home in suburban Mount Rynda with its updated kitchen and Ethan Allen bedroom set—it was all as out of reach now as the callused palms of Ray’s hands. He’d been a high-end contractor who knew his way around Italian marble and radiant floors, but the ability to manage hundred-thousand-dollar kitchen renovations didn’t help him when his kayak overturned on a day no sane person should have been out on the Yough.
Robin was left with nothing. Though she’d known about Ray’s sideline as a landlord, she’d never imagined that he’d use their entire savings to buy the rentals. There they were, listed on the paper she held, two single-family and two multi-family homes in the destitute former coal town of Four Points. Each purchased for under $30K, each more decrepit than the last. Project properties, Ray called them—a different species from the showpiece renovations at the heart of his business. Four Points, only sixty miles south of Mount Rynda, was deep in the Appalachian foothills. The Steelers ruled there, but so did teenage pregnancy and OxyContin.
Robin swallowed against rising tears as she pulled into the parking area of Scott Hardy’s law office, which occupied the corner suite of Mount Rynda’s glittering Steel Star office park. The sprawling, one-story rectangle was full of financial advisors, lawyers, and CPAs. The landscaping—boxwoods under the windows, a few spindly plum cherries—was practical at best, designed solely to survive Pennsylvania winters. During her and Ray’s regular visits to Scott and their accountant, Robin had always wished for more flowers, lush greenery, though she understood that the survival of anything lovely in below-zero temperatures was impossible. Still, she thought, they were paying enough in retainers and hourly fees to deserve more beautiful surroundings.
Now she wound her ivory pashmina around her throat and ducked out of the car, keeping her face lowered against January’s bitter wind as she strode to the entrance. When she pulled open the heavy glass door, she met a gust of hot, cedar-scented air. She breathed deeply. The glowing aroma diffuser, the plush carpet, the receptionist with trendy highlights, the jades on her desk—Robin would miss it all. This would be her last visit to an office this expensive, this luxurious. Scott was being kind in keeping this appointment; he knew Robin no longer had any way of paying him.
“Robin.” Scott stepped out of his office, extended a hand to welcome her in. “After you. Good to see you. It’s a cold one today.” Already his voice was concerned and grave. He closed the door behind her with a weighty click.
She sat on the leather chair in front of his desk, smoothed her wool slacks, and quickly balled her fists. Her nails looked terrible, rough and torn after she’d peeled off the gels from her last manicure herself. She couldn’t quite meet Scott’s eye; her attention drifted instead over his shoulder. Rows of dark bookshelves, family photos in gold-plated frames, thick hunter-green draperies over standard-issue corporate windows—she’d seen them countless times before. They’d never seemed so aggressively showy.
“The orchid bloomed again,” she observed, gesturing to a hot-pink flower in a porcelain pot. She’d given it to Scott as a thank-you last year for trying to pull strings with her mortgage lender. Not that it had done any good. She should have saved the fifty dollars.
Scott considered the orchid politely, then cleared his throat. “So. Robin. You’re here today to talk about options.” He peered at her, clearly gauging whether or not she would make a scene, as she had many times before. “To be honest, I’m worried about you. We knew foreclosure was coming, but damn, it’s a blow.”
How many times had she sat here, in this year since Ray drowned? She no longer sobbed through the meetings; her distress had given way to a prickly anger directed squarely at Scott. The lawyer dealt in a reality she simply could not accept, and each visit forced her to face more unpleasant truths. This, today, was the end, the final indignity. Her fury roiled. “Call the bank again. Ask for more time. I’ll give you another orchid. Two.”
Scott’s face twitched with pity and frustration. “They gave more time. They lowered your rate. You still can’t pay the mortgage.”
“I can try.”
Scott sat back. “Robin.”
“I’ll get a job. I’ll be a secretary, I’ll clean offices. Anything.”
“You won’t make enough to stay in that house.”
“I’ll waitress. I’ll be a cashier.”
Scott leaned forward and put his hand on her arm. “You tried that,” he said gently. “We both know that’s not going to work.”
She’d lasted two weeks behind the register at Giant Eagle. The manager had felt bad when he fired her, but Robin couldn’t stop herself from crying through every shift. Then she’d gotten a waitressing job at an Olive Garden, but she was decades older than the other servers and had cried when they whispered behind her back. She hadn’t bothered to wait to be fired. She wanted to be the kind of woman who could hustle when shit hit the fan, but she wasn’t. She was spoiled; she was weak.
“Robin, the house is lost already. There are no saleable assets. We need to figure out where you’re going to go.”
“I’ll find an apartment. Okay? Something close by, so Haley can stay at Our Lady. She’s thirteen; I won’t make her change schools halfway through the year. I have to get going, Scott. School lets out soon.” She gripped her handbag and stood.
“Sit down.” His tone this time was different—less worried, less indulgent, firm in a way Ray’s had never been. His desk phone trilled; he glanced at it, discreetly pressed a button to silence the ringing. “We’ve been over the numbers, so I’m going to be blunt. You can’t afford to stay in Mount Rynda. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Robin wiped her eyes. “No. I don’t understand any of this.”
“It means you have to leave.”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“The Four Points properties are all you have left, Robin.”
“You told me I can’t even sell them, the condition they’re in.”
“You can’t sell them. But you can live in one of them for free, repair the other ones, and get tenants, start bringing in some money. You can be happy. Make a new life.”
“Not in Four Points.”
He pushed back from his desk, curiosity edging his exasperation. “I have to ask—why do you hate it so much? There are a lot of worse-off places in southwestern PA.”
“I grew up there. I made a lot of mistakes.”
“We all did. Hell, we were young.”
Whatever mistakes Scott had made in his life were nothing compared to the things she’d done. Robin almost wanted to tell him the truth, to show him exactly why he had to find another place—another way—for her to live. But she couldn’t do that. Too much was at risk already.
Scott straightened the papers in front of him. “Well, I don’t know what else to tell you. Even if we talk about assistance, about low-income housing in Moon, you’re most likely not even eligible, since you do, technically, have a place to live in Four Points. Haley needs to be your first priority.”
“That’s exactly why I can’t go back.”
Robin stood again. Scott was trying to help, trying to be a friend to her in the way he’d been to Ray, but he didn’t know her. No one in Mount Rynda did. He couldn’t possibly understand that a choice between Four Points and starving wasn’t easy to make. If she hadn’t had Haley, there would have been no question at all: she would have starved.
“I’m going to make it right,” she said quietly. “I know you don’t believe me. I’ll go out there if I have to—but I’ll be back in Mount Rynda by spring.”
They’d reach Four Points in one and a half hours.
Earlier, with the day barreling ahead at a fever pitch, Haley had sobbed hysterically while Robin extracted last-minute must-takes from the stacks on their way to storage, hovering over the Craigslist guys as they loaded the rented truck, watching as her boxes filled a mid-size unit at the UStoreIt on the edge of Mount Rynda. The bleak rows of metal doors and concrete were a far cry from Mount Rynda’s main business district, a tidy, four-block area of restaurants, clothing boutiques, and high-priced gift shops. UStoreIt didn’t even technically share Mount Rynda’s zip code. No one she knew had ever set foot there—no one had reason to, living in four-bedroom Colonials with dens, finished basements, and garages. The only other living soul in the stark rows that morning was a clean-shaven biker smoking a cigarette outside a jumbo unit with its blue door rolled halfway up. He was wearing a ribbed black tank top despite the bitter cold, and he’d stared implacably at Robin and Haley, who, still crying, had refused to let Robin close and lock the unit’s metal door when the Craigslist guys were done unloading.
They’d retrieve their belongings when they could. For now, they took what they could carry, the kinds of things they’d save in a fire if they could see the fire coming from miles away. Their favorite clothes and shoes. The strongbox filled with important papers, photos, laptops, phone chargers, and the good camera Ray had bought last year, when a lifetime of photo-worthy occasions stretched before them. Stuffed animals and tchotchkes that Haley couldn’t bear to leave behind. Sheets and towels. Two big bags of uneaten, nonperishable food. And, in Robin’s purse, an envelope with $3,425 in cash, which she’d gotten from selling her furniture and home décor to people in a local Facebook swap group. It all went into Robin’s black Highlander.
Behind the driver’s seat, on the floor, was Ray’s tool case. A Dewalt made of heavy-duty black plastic, with two giant silver latches and, inside, a divided lift-out tray and large storage well. The case had been as much a part of him as his wedding ring. Even when he wasn’t going to a job site, when he was heading out for dinner or a school event with Robin and Haley, he’d carried the case with him. You never know, he said. He liked to be prepared. Over the past year she’d sold or thrown away most of Ray’s work things—the table saws, the giant buckets coated with old plaster, the half-empty paint cans and bags of grout, boxes of mismatched ceramic tiles. But the tool case she had kept, along with his watch, his favorite blue button-down, and his wedding ring—things that had lived on his body, in his hands.
When the backseat and trunk were packed full, Robin and Haley took a last look around their home. Seventeen Meadowbrook Court: she’d had a return-address stamp custom-made with this address. It had been printed on labels sent hopefully from St. Jude’s, Smile Train, March of Dimes. It was on her checks, her driver’s license, every single piece of her identification. Now it was no more hers than any storefront in Mount Rynda’s pretty downtown.
Haley had stopped crying, but Robin almost preferred the loud tears to this new, numb silence as they slowly walked through the rooms. Without area rugs to soften the parquet, the house rattled with every step. Without the golden light from the many table lamps Robin had collected from weekly trips to Home Goods, the painted baseboards showed their age. The overhead fixtures, dusty and long unused, cast odd, unflattering shadows on their faces. Once outside again, Haley pushed past Robin to the car. She didn’t watch as her mother locked the mahogany door.
Robin sank into the driver’s seat and adjusted the rearview mirror in a pointless attempt to see past the suitcases and boxes in the back. She started the car, not bothering to tap the address into her phone. It was a straight shot to Four Points after getting on the Turnpike, unlike the path that had brought her here. A path turned full circle now, a snake biting its tail.
She’d left no lights on, not even the door-framing lanterns on the porch. Even with the Notice of Sale tacked to the door, the house hadn’t looked wholly lost until now.
Haley choked out, “Good-bye, home sweet home. Good-bye, Mount Rynda.”
“We’ll be back by spring,” Robin said.
“You have to believe me, Haley. This isn’t forever. Hey,” she added, glancing over and touching Haley’s cheek. “It’s going to be okay.”
It was midnight, too dark to see the mountains. Pittsburgh rose around them as they sped down I-376, office towers glowing, the skyline cross-cut by the Fort Pitt Bridge. There was the bright glint of the Incline on the side of Mount Washington. From the top of that mountain, the city’s three rivers were visible—Youghiogheny, Monongahela, Ohio. Ray had proposed there. In a second it was gone, obscured in the rearview mirror by the pile of their stuff, all that remained of life with Ray.
Haley was asleep, or pretending to sleep, so Robin turned on the radio and twisted the dial from NPR to country. She’d once known every song, every word, every moony story of heartbreak and pain. Now, nothing. The words were as unfamiliar as dreams.
Ahead, boring through the mountain, was the Fort Pitt Tunnel, narrow and amber-lit, two lanes split by solid double lines. Robin didn’t slow as the car slipped in. After a few yards, the radio faded to a silence as heavy as water in her ears. The whooshing of air and speed surrounded the car, swallowed it like an ocean, drowned Haley and Robin and all the plates and mugs and tortured secrets traveling with them to Four Points.
This was what Robin couldn’t tell Scott Hardy: she would die before letting Haley find out about her past. She’d been a poor, desperate teenager, and she hadn’t done it for long, but selling sex in a basement with her friend Cindy Sweeney wasn’t something that allowed for different levels of shame. She’d buried that part of her life beneath the Galleria and season tickets to the Pittsburgh Symphony. She had never set foot in Four Points since leaving with Ray at age twenty-three. What she’d told Scott Hardy was true: Four Points was an economic and cultural backwater, and not the right place for Haley. The real reason she dreaded this return, however, was the very good chance that she’d run into the men she’d met back then, the ones who’d visited the basement in Cindy Sweeney’s house.
She’d changed a lot in twenty years; maybe they wouldn’t recognize her. But maybe they would. And maybe she’d be with Haley when they did.
Worst of all, Four Points held a secret loss that had altered her world like a missing peak from the Laurel Mountains. She’d been nineteen when she’d lost her infant son, Trevor, and the tragedy had changed everything: wind, shadows, light. She’d never tell Haley about this kind of sadness, how it still hollowed out the center of every happy day.
When she’d left Four Points all those years ago, she hadn’t had much, just enough to fill a heavy leather shoulder bag that Ray had given her for Christmas. When she’d climbed unencumbered into Ray’s tidy car that day, the empty backseat and uncluttered floor had suggested how her new life would be: no baggage to drag along behind her, no mistakes to explain and seek forgiveness for. Being new was easy. A decision, nothing more. What had happened to the old Robin—who she’d been, what she’d done, what she’d lost—could stay and die in Four Points. She left with a smile, a lightly packed bag, and a steely resolve to learn another way of life.
Hiding so much from Ray had been hard. And maybe it had been her fault that things turned out the way they did: she’d dug a cellar full of secrets that Ray couldn’t help falling into. She’d told Ray a story about her life in Four Points that was just wayward enough to be believable: she’d waitressed, skipped a lot of school, hadn’t kept any friends. Ray had loved her, but he also needed a certain kind of woman, and Robin had been only too happy to slip on a brand-new skin. Expensively moisturized, expertly waxed, smooth under silk and cashmere.
She’d learned the new rules well. She’d made the right kind of life for Haley, for herself. Even now, she wouldn’t let Four Points take that away.
The radio slid back into focus. They were out of the tunnel, on the Turnpike, heading south. Ray’s tool case rattled as she drove, the tools loose and heavy as old bones.
It was 1:00 a.m. when Robin and Haley finally drove, unseen, into Four Points. No other cars stalked the streets at this hour, and the dark quiet was deepened by the shallow breaths of Haley sleeping beside her. Robin was alert at the wheel, every nerve thrumming.
After the exit, a ten-minute drive along desolate, hilly roads—a trailer here and there in the fields, a few spot-lit American flags—took them into town. There was the familiar weathered sign: Welcome to Four Points, population five thousand. Robin crossed Ember Street, a sorry stretch of empty storefronts, and drove two more minutes to the leaning, beige-sided ranch-house on Dandelion Drive that she and Haley would now call home. She owned this house: a cruel joke. It stood in the middle of a street of small ranches, the homes as squat as though the sky had pressed them into the earth. In the moonlight, they all had the same dull glow, but Robin’s was clearly the block’s disgrace, aggressively neglected, wearing its careless vacancy like a gruesomely scarred, unpatched eye.
Beside her, Haley stirred, lifted her head from the turquoise ski jacket balled against her door. Reflexively she finger-combed her flyaway hair into a ponytail, her glittery lavender nail polish winking in the dashboard lights. She kept her tear-swollen eyes straight ahead. “Where are we?” she asked, her voice dull—full of as much sadness as it could hold.
“Dandelion Drive.” Robin refused to say home.
She got out of the car, ignoring Haley’s piercing scream of disgust—“This place? We’re staying here? We actually have to sleep here?”—and found the plastic-tagged key in her purse. Ray’s handwriting: 25 Dandelion. She stepped onto the cement slab out front and held the flimsy aluminum screen-door open against her hip. When she jiggled the key in the lock and pushed, the knob came off in her hand.
Behind her, Haley was crying again.
“Haley, you’ve got to stop this. Come in. It’s not as bad as all that.”
Robin felt for a light switch and flicked on a dim bare bulb overhead. They were standing in a small room with a suggestion of furniture—a stained, sagging couch, a white plastic coffee table, and a paisley bedsheet nailed over the single, broken window. The floor was sheathed in filthy linoleum peeling at the edges. On the ceiling was a large brown water stain, the plaster as soft as clay. There was no heat.
“I thought you said it was furnished,” Haley said, her voice shrill and shaky.
“That’s what Scott told me. I guess it is, sort of.”
Robin felt sick. If she’d been alone, she would have turned around and walked out, slept in her car across the wide back seat. She was exhausted. Sleeping here, sleeping in the Highlander—was there a difference, really? On the wall was a thermostat. She twisted it to seventy, praying it would work. Then she led Haley into the kitchen, where a card table with four metal folding chairs was jammed between the refrigerator and the wall.
In the sink was a dead cockroach, its legs bent into its body. When Robin turned the water on, it flipped to its feet and skittered into the drain. “Jesus Christ!” Robin yelled. Her life was spinning beyond the borders of the world she knew. She forced every thought from her mind but one: Haley.
“Let’s unload the car,” she said quietly. “That, first.”
Box by duffel by suitcase by box they emptied the trunk, piling their belongings beside the couch. Robin put the bags of food in the kitchen, not daring to open the cupboards tonight—she couldn’t face any fresh horrors. She tore open the box holding the sheets and blankets and took them in her arms. Both bedrooms were cheaply wood-paneled and linoleum-floored, each single window sheathed in a great pouf of torn white polyester—long, ruffly curtains meant for much longer, larger windows. Only one of the two bedrooms had a bed—a bare, stained, full-size mattress on a metal frame. Robin covered it with every sheet, blanket, and towel she’d brought.
Next: the broken window. “Stay here. I’ll be right back,” she told Haley. She went to the car, opened the back door. The ceiling light shone directly on Ray’s tool case. For a moment, she felt overcome with anguish; she bent over, put both hands on the leather seat. She was failing. Had failed. She’d lost their home and yanked Haley away from everything she knew and loved, and what she was offering in its place was—this.
Haley flicked the porch light a few times. She was scared, upset; she needed Robin. Quickly Robin unlatched Ray’s tool case. A hammer, three wrenches, a complicated screwdriver with a set of thirty heads. A cordless drill and charger. Nails, screws, bolts of all kinds. Nothing that would help. Then she saw them, almost hidden by the drill: two thick rolls of heavy-duty duct tape. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Nearby a dog growled, and some cold creature rustled in the hedges. Robin straightened, slid the rolls onto her wrist, and held them aloft, triumphant, to show Haley as she walked inside. “Dad’s tool case,” she said. There would never be an end to the things that made them cry.
Still sniffling, Haley watched as Robin duct-taped an empty, flattened box over the broken window. She guided tape along the edges of the cardboard, tore the strips with her teeth. The makeshift cover would have to do. Hot air gusted from a floor vent; the furnace worked. The rooms would warm.
“We need to sleep,” Robin said finally.
Haley flounced angrily into the bedroom, curling on her side away from Robin. But when Robin climbed in next to her, Haley reached over and took her hand, holding on for dear life.
For hours Robin lay sleepless, sweating. When she’d crawled into bed, she’d brushed crumbs and strangers’ hair from the bottom of her socks. People lived like this—she’d forgotten. Dirt, carelessness, despair revealed in grimy bathroom tiles. She took deep, deliberate breaths—inhale five, exhale eight—but her heart kept pounding hard enough to hurt her ribs. In the silence, among bulky shadows in unfamiliar shapes, the memories shrieked in.
The things she’d done. She and Cindy Sweeney. What rushed in first was the feel of Cindy’s hair: thick and coarse, with an almost sticky chemical sheen. It was like Barbie hair, or unwashed hair saturated with days of strong chlorine. Robin remembered the tangled nest of it left behind in Cindy’s red plastic brush, the long loose strands that swayed from her sweaters until falling free. It was a dark, purply auburn; every couple of weeks Robin helped her rinse new Clairol gel out of her hair into the basement bathroom sink. The stained water swirled down the drain, like thin blood. Robin used to dye her own hair too, and her color was more dramatic, indigo-shadowed black. The color seemed to swallow the light. It made her capable of things, kept her untouchable even when being touched.
The memory of that hair dye—the eggy, sweet smell—was physical. Robin might have been back in that bathroom, with its pink-painted cement walls and the faded silk flowers on the sill of the tiny, glass-block window. The sound of footsteps on the stairs, boys who would be waiting when the girls emerged, their hair damp, Robin’s hands stained sunset-orange, Cindy’s blue-black. Cindy’s mother, Rochelle, never asked the boys questions; she just let them in and sent them to the cellar. It didn’t really matter who got who. Mostly, though, the boys wanted Cindy. She was the one who seemed to like what they came there to do.
Robin had been living with Cindy back then, renting a room from Rochelle, who’d scoffed at Robin’s frantic night-time waitressing at the Rowdy Buck when she first moved in. “Working yourself to death, and what for?” she’d asked. “There are easier ways to make money than that. Cin knows. Hell, I do, too.” That was the last Rochelle ever said of it directly. When she saw that Robin had cut down on her shifts, she raised her rent with a smile and expected it in full on the first of the month.
Cindy, the men, that basement. Over twenty-five years had passed, but the shame still settled over Robin like a synthetic blanket, sweltering, suffocating. The air in Four Points was toxic, infused with her past.
Beside her, Haley breathed.
The Distance from Four Points is about Robin Besher, an affluent suburbanite who thought she’d escaped the guns and poverty of her hometown, the Appalachian backwater of Four Points, Pennsylvania, when she married a successful contractor, Ray. But her upscale life in Mount Rynda implodes when Ray drowns and leaves her with nothing but seven run-down rental properties in Four Points. She has no choice but to drag herself and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Haley, back to a place she hoped never to see again—where every encounter threatens to expose her former life as a teenage prostitute and to reopen the wounds caused by the tragic death of her first child.
When Robin’s old friend Cindy Sweeney rents one of her apartments, Robin is pulled back into a too-familiar world. The return of a man from Robin’s past forces her to confront long-buried heartache. Meanwhile, the local slumlords are furious over an outside development company’s plans for restoring decrepit landmark buildings—an effort that threatens their lucrative strategy of neglect. Robin reluctantly aligns herself with the slumlords as they take increasingly violent steps to drive the developers out of town.
As Robin’s goal of escaping Four Points recedes, Haley befriends Dana, a teenage mother who’s squatting in a condemned house on Whistlestop Road—where, unbeknownst to Haley, the most tragic events of Robin’s life took place. When Robin leaves Haley alone to attend a fundraiser in Mount Rynda, Haley sneaks out with Dana—and disaster strikes. Robin’s fiercely separated worlds finally collide, and she must turn to an unlikely ally to avoid repeating her life’s greatest mistake.
I grew up in Appalachia, in a former coal-and-coke boom town that’s now full of blighted rental properties. Many of these rentals were once grand mansions for the town’s wealthiest citizens—and they’re now actively crumbling, listed on Zillow for under $20K. When I began researching this novel, I went into many properties with a realtor, witnessing unimaginable filth and disrepair. But the ruin often appeared side by side with original stained glass, ornate woodwork, turreted peaks. Such research is dangerous. My husband and I have now purchased one of these properties, currently without wiring or plumbing, thanks to local thieves. We hope to restore it. We’ve probably bitten off more than we can chew.
Though I live in northern New Jersey, just outside New York City, Appalachia is what sparks my imagination. My first novel is also set there. I understand this place and its people more than anywhere else in the world. It’s poverty-stricken, troubled, with Trump signs outside decrepit trailers and teenagers who get excited about “hick night” at basketball games. But I try, in my fiction, to show the community, cohesion, and loyalty that outsiders often can’t see beneath the rough, gun-toting surface.
Margo Orlando Littell grew up in a destitute former coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania—where there’s always a crowd at the gun counter in the Rural King. Her first novel, Each Vagabond by Name (University of New Orleans Press, 2016), about grief, isolation, and xenophobia in the Appalachian foothills, won a Gold Medal IPPY Award for Mid-Atlantic Fiction, was long-listed for the 2017 Tournament of Books, and was named one of 15 Great Appalachian Novels by Bustle. She has an MFA from Columbia and lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and two daughters. Her website is www.margoorlandolittell.com.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017