Under her straw hat, Evelyn broke off the brown seedheads and dead stalks winter had left and heard the answering machine pick up inside her house. She’d programmed it so Kitty Wells’ maple syrup voice melodically invited the caller to please use the password, just say the words of love. Evelyn rested her weight on her palms, like an infant in a crawl, as she heard the Radiologist’s voice.
“This is Dr. Sawyer?” the voice said girlishly. “Evelyn McNair can give me a call at–”
“Want me to get that for you?” Barry yelled out through the screen.
“It’s the doctor!”
“But it could be—”
“I’ll call her back later!”
Barry came out the door in his bare feet, walking gingerly over the gravel, coffee mug in hand. He squatted beside her and pulled out a weed. “Is there something you aren’t tellin’ me?”
“Everything doesn’t have to be told.”
“I’m gettin’ a lot of no’s today.”
Earlier that morning, she’d refused his offer to put his own voice on her answering machine.
“You don’t live here,” she’d said, reaching into her kitchen cabinet for a coffee mug, then shutting it closed just-so, “but thank you.”
“Just trying to protect you from the crazies.” Raising his thick gray eyebrows, he’d retreated a step and held his calloused palms between them as if to fend her off.
“That’s how it all starts.” She cinched the belt of her flannel robe around her thickening waist. The robe still smelled of their mutual sweat, and she was naked beneath it–a sight she herself did not like, but Barry had said he appreciated a younger woman. She was 60 to his 65. He called her honeyrumped and sweetfaced, and whenever she mentioned a part she didn’t like (the sagging skin under her arms or the blue veins in her thighs), he’d roll up her sleeve or her pants leg and start kissing her there. With his dimples, a person wouldn’t think he’d once carried an M60 through the jungle, except that he still did his military push-ups every morning. About the rest, he preferred not to speak.
“How what starts?”
She’d folded her arms, sent him a glare. “It.”
He’d lifted his own coffee mug between them, sipping, but did not appear discouraged. When she sat down at the table next to him and spread out the newspaper, she allowed him to touch her fingers lightly, then squeeze, before she reclaimed her hand to turn the page.
Crouched among the dead stalks now, she avoided looking at him.
“I don’t think you need to know everything. I don’t even think you want to.”
“Oh I want to,” he said.
She’d felt the lump in her breast a few weeks ago, checking herself in the shower as she did on the first of each month. Her mother had had a bout with breast cancer, though in the end she’d died from a heart attack, so Evelyn knew to be careful, and she got herself to the doctor right away. There had been one indeterminate but worrisome mammogram, and this was the second. She hadn’t mentioned either to Barry, nor to her grown son, Bart, nor even to her women friends. Why worry people if there was nothing to worry about?
Inside her cotton sweatshirt now, she could feel the fabric against the two nipples she still had. On the other side of the board fence, as if nothing disastrous was happening to Evelyn, her friend and neighbor Joan, a college professor one year from retirement who lived with three Siamese cats, discussed politics.
“I love Hilary,” Joan said, in what Evelyn knew to be her phone voice. “They say she’s a heartless bitch, but what’s she supposed to do? If she was any more emotional, they’d say she was a bubblehead.”
Whatever else was going on for Hilary Clinton, she at least appeared to have two excellent breasts, as did Evelyn, despite the reality of gravity–though now, a sagging breast seemed far better than none at all, and none at all better than death—especially now that she’d finally, after years of dreaming and mooning over country-western music, gathered enough money to retire and move into cowboy country in central Washington, from the bleak hog-raising flatlands of Minnesota; yes, she was in the great State of Washington, where she was closer to the drama of mountains and rivers, the plenty of vineyards and orchards, as well as the fruit of her womb, Bart.
In the yard, Barry touched her fingers, apparently unbothered by the dirt under the nails, grimed into the skin. “I want to know all about you. Every inch.”
“You got enough to worry about.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Like what?”
“Getting the hay in.”
“Not today. Today I rest.”
“Well, I’m operating on a need-to-know basis.”
“That’s okay.” He broke off some brown stalks, dug up a bindweed with the screwdriver, but she could tell he was hurt. “I’ve been there before.” He tightened his lips. “Can’t say I like it, though.”
“I’ll be right back.” She went into the house, turned on the answering machine, and played back the message. Dr. McNair wanted her to call back.
She dialed the number. When Evelyn explained herself, the receptionist said, “Oh, I’m sorry, but the doctor will have to talk to you herself. She’s in surgery right now. What time can she reach you?”
Evelyn had never, after a mammogram, had to wait for a doctor’s call. She knew it was bad. She sat down at the kitchen table, holding her head in her hands. Her cat, Loretta, twined about her ankles.
It was as if that morning’s dream had been some kind of warning. “He was right there,” she’d said to Barry when she’d awakened to the vibrations of the cat’s purr penetrating the blankets between them. In her dream, Bart stood next to the bed trying to say something, but Evelyn hadn’t been able to hear him above Barry’s snoring.
“A course.” Barry had tried to pull Evelyn closer. Evelyn didn’t give. She didn’t want to dislodge poor Loretta, who’d lost an eye but miraculously survived her encounter with something she’d run into (coyote or dog), not long after Evelyn had moved in.
“It was the same feeling I had right before the tornado—” Evelyn began.
“You say that flag across the way just kept flyin?”
“While everything else—”
“Wrecked. The wind blew so hard they found a piece of straw embedded in a tree trunk. That’s not in the dream, now, you know. That’s the truth.”
“Piece a straw?”
She pointed a finger off to the side. “Like it was an arrow.”
“Guess you saw your share of that.”
He stiffened, but as usual, evaded the reference to his service. “You were saying about the feeling—’”
“Without that tornado, I’d still be ignorant.” It was a complicated story, but she’d explained to him that fifteen years ago, the tornado that had taken the roof of her house in Owatonna, Minnesota, had also revealed receipts and telephone records that had given away her husband’s numerous infidelities. “I was taught to trust people,” she’d explained. “So it came as a pretty good shock.” She snuggled closer to Barry. “Maybe that’s what disasters do. They wake us up. Without it, I’d still be playing the fool. But as for the dream—”
“Well then I’m gonna call it the perfect storm.” Barry had kissed her so deeply she’d forgotten about the cat and moved her elbow, sending Loretta off the bed with a yowl.
At the kitchen table, phone silent beside her, Loretta now on her lap, she heard the screen door open. Barry’s feet padded across the carpet. She felt his hands on her back.
“There’ll be daffodils any minute,” he said.
“I hope I’m here to see them,” she said.
Barry sat down beside her. “You better tell me what’s goin’ on.”
She shook her head.
What if the Radiologist called and she didn’t answer it? Then she’d never find out the results. Would it be like the tree falling in the forest—if there was nobody there to hear about a malignant lump, could it still do harm?
If she didn’t get the news, she wouldn’t have to break it to Barry or her son Bart, who worried about everything anyway, but lately of course had more than enough with his wife Shirley stationed in Baghdad. Everyday Bart looked at a website that could tell you exactly how many new dead and wounded American soldiers there were. Not too many, Evelyn thought, compared to over a million Iraqi deaths blamed on the US invasion, but none of those was the mother of her grandchild.
“You shouldn’t be looking at this stuff,” Evelyn had told Bart last time she was there, setting Iris on his lap to distract him from the computer. “It doesn’t help Shirley.”
Poor Bart, old enough now to have the hair thinning on top of his head, had taken up his daughter and held onto her the way he used to do with the yellow blanket she remembered his father taking away from him when he was six years old. “I need to keep the whole truth in my mind.”
He shrugged. “Part of living. Part of knowing I’m alive.”
“The living are as true as the dead.”
“I’m aware of that, Evelyn.”
She’d gotten used to it she guessed, but still hated the fact that he didn’t call her Mom. He’d started using her first name right after she’d left his father. She still remembered Bart with those braces on his teeth saying it was far better, as he put it, to see your parents as individuals than as the inhabitants of roles. The inhabitants of roles. Like a role was a little burrow and they were moles blindly making their way down the tunnels. About the same time as he started calling her Evelyn, he also began to write poetry and listen to music she thought was downright ghoulish. She blamed his girlfriend, Marly Southard, though she was grateful, too, that Marly’d been so wild she couldn’t stick with one guy, so Bart had finally let his hair go from the Mohawk and curl around his ears, and then he’d found Shirley, who seemed to Evelyn a good, faithful woman despite the fact that she’d ventured thousands of miles away, but that–of course—wasn’t her choice.
On the radio just then, the song went to Merle Haggard. Barry made a face, but didn’t ask her to change the channel. He was a rock ‘n roll fan, Led Zeppelin among his favorites. Not Evelyn. When she was younger, with her curly dark hair and eyebrows against her pale (and some said sweet-featured) face, people who knew country music often said Evelyn looked like Kitty Wells. Barry didn’t know “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” until she put the earbuds on him and played him the song. He’d nodded politely but eyed with suspicion the life-sized stand-up cardboard Clint Black by her entryway. “You sure you don’t want to hold out for a cowboy? We got plenty of em around.”
She had intended on a cowboy when she moved West, but when they’d sat on the folding chairs where she’d met him, at the Red Cross waiting to donate blood, she’d moved into easy conversation with the big-shouldered easygoing dimpled man who’d given up his morning because he had the blood type of a universal donor, and pretty soon she’d forgotten all about the cowboy idea and given Barry her phone number.
Much later, at his house, she’d asked, “What if you wake up in the night thinking I’m the enemy and let me have it?” She’d pointed to the unloaded rifle next to his bed, ammo in the drawer of the bedside table.
“What if you wake up mad thinking I’m your ex-husband and cut off my dick with a butcher knife?” At her house, he’d pointed to the pepper spray in her dresser drawer and the carving knives in the kitchen.
It was hard enough to trust a man when you were sixty years old with two healthy breasts, but with one going south, maybe she should just be calling it off.
“Don’t you have someplace you have to be?” she asked Barry, who was sipping his coffee carefully, as if waiting for her to speak.
“Are you tryin’ to get rid a me? ‘Cause if you are, I’m happy to go.”
“What do I really know about you, anyway?”
He shook his head as if to clear it. “Huh?”
“You don’t tell me diddlysquat.”
“You know enough.”
“I know you grew up here and inherited a hay operation. I know about a few women you’ve been with in town. But I don’t know a thing about what you did in the war.”
She knew she was treading on dangerous ground, but it was better than thinking about her own mortality.
Her neighbor and friend Joan had said she didn’t see how Evelyn could trust a guy if she didn’t know whether he’d killed boys younger than Bart, children Iris’s age, mothers like Shirley. If he wasn’t going to explain what had happened in Vietnam, all that was left for her were images of bloodied heads on stakes from Apocalypse Now or magazine cover images of women and children’s bodies thrown into ditches during the My Lai massacre. Of course, she’d argued with Joan, it was equally possible she was kissing someone who’d soiled his pants and run the other way in combat and couldn’t shoot a can if it was six feet tall, or much better, kept his body between the villagers at My Lai and harm. “My ex-husband was a conscientious objector, and look what kind of a partner he was,” she’d said.
“What’s past is past,” Barry said.
“I wish what was present was past,” she said.
“I don’t know how to help if I don’t know what it is.” He rubbed her shoulders. “What can I do you for?” he joked.
She thought of him faithfully riding the tractor in the hay field, turning the mown green blades to dry, then operating the baler. She liked it that he was a native Westerner. The Kittitas Valley was famous for timothy hay, which was shipped to Japan, the country that had had some of the worst of war, but where today Barry’s hay was fed to dairy cows who turned it into butterfat while—the sound of a small plane flying overhead made her think of it–new bombs were dropped on Iraq.
How must people down here look to the pilot—mere dots inside the neighborhood’s maze of board fences on top of what once had been a big, flat hayfield? The horizon to the north was dominated by the Stuart Range—she’d learned the names of the mountains when she dreamed over maps in Minnesota. They were snow-covered, toothed, magnificent as the Grand Tetons. A mile to the west, buildings clustered in the small town of Ellensburg, where wine tastings had become as common as beer swilling, and university professors drank coffee next to cowboys.
She raised her chin, watching the sky out the window. If some machine was up there taking infrared photographs, would the lump in her breast be visible? If cancerous, would it be growing and dividing even as he watched? So close to her chest cavity, maybe it would look like a mutated heart. One that was immune to the password Kitty Wells sang about—one that grew on bad genes and fear instead of love.
“Maybe it’s lunch time,” she said to Barry.
She got up to wash her hands, then made them each a turkey sandwich. In silence, she chewed each bite, savoring the silky mayonnaise and the tart dill of the pickle. She wiped her mouth and washed the dishes before she looked at the telephone again.
You lived your life, you thought love was seeing only the good in people, but when the sirens went off, you had to expect a big blow. She’d been home with Bart, thank God, and got into the basement in time when the twister hit Owatonna, but they could hear it—a sound just like they said, something like a train engine–and after that, Bart, always a worried kid, withdrew even more. They’d had him to specialists, counselors. He’d got into drugs for a while. He wasn’t good at holding a job. But now he was a damn good father, though of course he had Iris to the doctor when the little girl so much as sneezed. Still, he was there with the child day after day. Not running around with other women as his father had been. He sang lullabies to the little girl that Evelyn had sung to him. She’d even caught herself humming one to Barry the other night.
“Sweetness,” he’d murmured in his half-sleep. “That takes out the sting.”
“Look,” Barry said, looking into his water glass. “About Vietnam. Let’s just say I saw some things I don’t want to think about, and I did some things I wished to God I hadn’t. It was wartime. It leaves a sickness in me that I try not to think about too much.”
“How do you know if you don’t say anything—you know, get it out, it won’t turn“–with cancer on her mind, the word came naturally–“malignant?”
“It very well could,” Barry said. “I’ve seen that. A person has to find his own way, though, and this is mine.” He pushed his plate away, took a long swallow of water.
“Tell me one thing,” she said. “And then I’ll tell you mine.”
He looked around the room, as if trapped. He sighed. He stood up. “I can’t do it in here. Let’s go outside. Let’s walk.”
They went out the front door into the neighborhood of new houses in which Evelyn lived. They passed a couple teenagers shooting a basketball into a hoop that had been placed on the curb by the side of the road. It was a nice day, and several of her neighbors were out walking their dogs. Evelyn and Barry waved to them. They turned onto a gravel bike path that had once been a railroad bed, and after a few minutes, finally, they were alone.
“My stories are like a lot of what you hear,” Barry said. “The same kind of shit people are probably going through in Iraq, where you can’t trust anybody. Kids, women, old people. Any of em might blow you up. So you had to kill people that—“ his voice broke, “—people you’d been taught to protect. People who looked completely harmless. The way to live was to kill.”
“Do you know how many you killed?”
“Three,” he said, without hesitation. “Three up close, that I can’t forget. A woman and two kids. They were coming at me—I could tell they had something. They were going to do something. A bunch of us fired on em. Not just me. But who knows which bullet—
“All I know is, after that, I was done. I wouldn’t shoot anybody. I was a danger to everybody. And when you get that kind of reputation, you feel like you’re not a man. They put me in another unit. I got some medic training. I saw lots of awful things there—guys with guts falling out, missing limbs–but at least I was on the healing end of things then. I didn’t mind any of the blood and guts. I thought I deserved it, after shooting those— Every man I helped, I thought how much I wished I could’ve saved the lives I took.” His voice was thick.
Evelyn tried to take his hand, but he wouldn’t hold on.
“I’d rather not have told you any of this. It’s just ugly. That’s all it is.”
She looked down the trail at the wide sky, the green of the fields stretching out on the edges of the new suburbs.
“I probably have breast cancer,” she said. “I don’t know how far it’s spread, but I’m sure that’s what the doctor is calling me about.”
“Compared to what you’ve been though, it’s not much. I didn’t want to bother you with it.”
“Well,” he said. He reached for her hand, and she let him have it. “We’re a pair.”
The receiver had taken on a life of its own, sinking into her lap. Barry had stayed while she took the call, but she’d asked him to go in the other room so she could be alone while she talked to the doctor.
“We’ll have to go in and see,” Dr. McNair had said, meaning cut into her, look inside the breast tissue, maybe remove the breast entirely. “We don’t know how far it’s spread til we’re in there.”
Evelyn closed her eyes. She heard the buzz of a small plane again. The wind had not yet started to blow, so later, she could turn the water on the lawn, set the timer, move it around til the wind came up again. A bee had come in, causing Loretta, lying in a sunny spot on the rug, to raise her head, watching with her one eye while her tail twitched, before she jumped into Evelyn’s lap. She imagined Barry humming “Stairway to Heaven” while he sat next to her in a folding chair at the hospital holding her hand. He’d let them jab a needle into his vein if she needed the kind of blood he had.
She went into the next room, where Barry waited at the kitchen table. When he saw her in the doorway, he got up and put his arms around her. She let herself slump into his chest.
“Guess I don’t have to ask what you found out,” he said. “Even the cat’s upset.” Loretta was twining around their ankles meowing as if in distress.
“You didn’t sign up for this,” Evelyn said.
“If you want me to be here, there’s not a wind big enough to blow me away.”
“It could be a rough ride.”
“I’ll be a cowboy,” he said.