He woke to the smell of smoke. Not burning grass, but wood smoke drifting through his bedroom window. His wife, Helen, slept soundly next to him, hugging a pillow tight against her belly. He didn’t bother her. The smoke worried him enough to get him up. Not that unusual to find him out of bed at four in the morning. It was too early to be the migrants scraping through the night’s coals to scare up a flame to cook on. He pulled his suspenders up over his shirt, threw on his hunting jacket, and headed out the back door, scratching his raspy face, more in a moment of wondering than hesitation before he stepped off the porch—who would he find when he got to the old house falling down on itself, and what the hell were they doing up at this hour? He grabbed his shotgun, patting his jacket to make sure there were still a few shells left from pheasant hunting. Slipping around the back of the workshop, not wanting to let the dogs see him and make a ruckus, it struck him how sure he was that something wasn’t right on his property.
The rifle swinging at his left side was a comfort more than any kind of protection. He wasn’t about to shoot a trespasser. A threat from him would be enough to scare a man off his property who had no business there.
He traipsed through the peaches, buds already swelling, ready to burst open. Half an acre away, he saw flames licking wood—cedar shingles that had fallen off the house from the looks of the spitting sparks. He couldn’t actually hear the fire but imagined he did. The leafed-out trees made it difficult to know what he was seeing. Two shapes, dark but slight, hunkered toward the fire, leaning like they needed the other to stay upright. Nothing more than a couple that couldn’t find room in his shacks to screw around. He’d just make sure it was one of his hires, before he’d tell ‘em to put out the fire and go back to their beds.
He came up behind them, maybe five strides away, before they noticed him. The man stood, except it was no man but a kid, sixteen or so, a mop cloth sweater and a hank of hair falling between his eyes, big and bright. Shock made the boy baby-faced. But he pulled the girl round his back anyway. She spilled her Spanish words over the boy, too soft for him to hear. He could tell, though, that they struggled to hide their fear.
He told them, “I ain’t your daddy.” He said it slow, and then in Spanish, in case they didn’t understand he wasn’t going to turn on them. “Go on home.” He flapped his hand like shooing a blackbird. The boy stepped back, knocking the girl toward the fire, until the back of her long skirt flared up. Shoving the boy out of the way, he pulled her around like a rag doll on a spool and ripped her skirt, casting the flaming part into the dirt, stomping on it till it was out.
I won’t hurt your girl. The lanky boy hesitated a minute staring him down.
He pointed his gun the way out, where the boy should go. But the boy wouldn’t budge. The girl shivered, holding on to herself, whimpering and looking over her shoulder like she could see the backs of her bare thighs below the ragged end of her skirt.
Ven, aqui. Let me look. He kneeled down, his back a shield from the heat. Her leg was red, maybe worse than a sunburn, but not bad enough to take her into Toppenish’s ER. Right above her left ankle looked seared, like a band of white eyelet lace.
“Doctor?” he asked her, still standing above him.
“No doctor.” She bit her lip, trying a smile, then a look to her boyfriend waiting in the shadow. “Mira. No falda.”
What in God’s earth was he thinking of?
“Go home,” he said, meaning it. “ The both of you.”
She looked frightened as she shook her head quickly, again and again. No. But he could tell she didn’t know what to do. Going home could be worse—the explaining she’d have to do— maybe a lot worse than the mark of fire on her legs.
“Jesus.” He wondered why the hell he’d gotten so worked up. Weren’t his mess. It was hers and her fainthearted boyfriend’s.
She told him she couldn’t go back to her Mamá without a skirt.
He could go back to the house, pull out a skirt from Helen’s things—no, she was too big—maybe Olivia’s or Kate’s something, anything to be rid of them.
“Gracias,” she whispered, looking at her boy.
Don’t move, he told them. He’d go get a skirt.
Summer was Kate’s favorite season. The sun drew moisture from the air and sharpened her senses, so when a thunderstorm approached, she could smell rain before it fell. When the sun dropped below Rattlesnake Ridge across the lower Yakima Valley, their land on the opposite east slope held onto the heat and almost guaranteed that she and Hayden were able to grow bumper crops of fruit. They raised Bing cherries, Red Haven and Alberta peaches, and Tilden apricots and two kinds of apples all sold under Kate’s family name, Goode. Her father had created the Goode Fruit Orchard and its reputation over thirty years of farming. The last few years their Bing cherries were heralded in Tokyo, advertised and anticipated two months before they were shipped out.
It wasn’t just admiring the half-ton bins full of fruit after all the picking was done. It began before that—pruning to maximize light on the fruit in early March, propping the heavy branches as the fruit grew, and then thinning the apricots, apples, or peaches when too many were clustered together. After work, the ache and languor of a good hard day moving their bodies without thought, doing what they loved. It’s what held Kate’s marriage to Hayden together and she believed, their family.
But for Kate the beginning of their second harvest season on her family orchard, the eastern Washington sun that had always made her father’s roses so gorgeous and the Bings ready for picking, softened her like tar in the midday heat.
On the Goode orchard, and across the entire lower Yakima Valley, hiring had begun. Hayden sat on the tailgate of his flatbed truck, at the edge of their orchard, prospective workers around him. Beyond him and the clearing where he worked, dark cherry fruit, like a bruise, pulled on the branches waiting to be picked.
Kate ignored the symptoms she could and walked away from him, downhill between rows of their cherry and peach trees, traveling farther into their orchard than intended. Each step a punctuating jab of her walking stick, dipping into the shade when she could. Gravity pulled harder on her right side. She stopped at one of the young peach trees to run her fingertips down a narrow vertical split in the bark. Frost damage, only now showing up. She flagged the tree with a tissue to come back later and seal the exposed wood.
Kate’s father loved ranching and taught her every aspect of growing fruit. After her father died, she and Hayden bought her family’s orchard from her mother, who no longer wanted it. Though Kate wouldn’t admit her father had flaws, her daughter Devra teased her for always saying, “Grandpa Jack did it this way, or you know Grandpa was really good at...” whatever Kate was doing.
At ten, when Kate’s father showed her how to graft a yellow delicious branch onto a red delicious tree, she didn’t believe that the tree would forever grow two kinds of apples. How can that be? she had asked him. Carefully but quickly in one swift angled cut with a knife, he sliced the slender branch of the red delicious apple tree—a young tree of only two branches. She thought he was killing the tree, cutting it like that.
“Nope,” he grinned at her. “A whip graft, Kate. You’ll see.”
He sat on an upturned stump; she was on her knees, leaning over his arm to get a closer look. He then sliced a yellow apple branch to be grafted onto the red like the other first cut, then made a straight short slit in the freshly exposed end of the yellow apple branch. He tapped the end of the knife on what he called the tongue, then slid the grooved yellow apple branch right down onto the up-sticking red apple tree stem. “That’s it,” he said, wrapping the two together with tape. He got up, left her staring at the splint, rubbed her head and moved on to another of the young red apple trees. He let her try it herself, guiding her shaking hand to make that first murderous cut. She got better, until now she could do it with the same ease he had.
Kate raised a peach tree limb in need of thinning, assessing value by touch and heft. A quick turn. A twist, a snapping stem. Dump, dump, b-dump, until peaches littered the ground.
She reached the irrigation canal near the end of their property where her father built the migrant camp. An annoying quiver in her legs slowed her steps. She stooped, holding onto handfuls of cheatgrass to climb to the crest of the raised bank where the irrigation ditch became the southern boundary between their property and the neighbors’ orchard. A sod-covered footpath across the culvert connected their orchards. When the county diverted water from the Yakima River for irrigation, the ditch swelled with the rush of water released from the reservoir. It roared through the culvert, rising right up to the top. Now, the irrigation canal was half full of brown, slow-moving water coming off the Yakima River. Across the watery bend of the canal, on the same side, the sun flashed off the outdoor kitchen’s new aluminum roof. Next to the kitchen were the migrant shelters. Twelve-by-twelve foot rooms, nothing more than the barest structures: walls, a roof, and a single opening—not even a door. Her father had called them houses, but they weren’t that. When she and Hayden built the kitchen and provided sleeping cots for the workers, she felt that she was compensating for what she thought of as her dead father’s one blindness—he saw no need to provide comforts for the workers who harvested his crops. Even with the improvements she and Hayden had made—outdoor kitchen and portable toilets—many of the workers preferred to sleep in their cars.
Kate poked her head inside one of the cabins. Sunlight revealed a season of accumulated debris. She went from one sleeping cabin to the next. Four of the ten had been swept. No cots for the workers to sleep on in sight. Devra hadn’t even finished half of what Hayden had asked her to do; set out cots for the migrant families that would stay there, as Devra said she had, as Kate had always done.
Wide-legged, half leaning against the wall, she scratched and jabbed with the broom as she swept the concrete floor and the corners, flicking dust outside, sending scraps of potato chip bags and candy wrappers flying. She swept furiously, her frustration with Devra powering the quick fft-fft of her broom. Breathless, she stopped only when she had finished all ten rooms. She slid down onto the single step of the last room she cleaned to regain her breath.
There had been days when she and her teenage daughter had gotten along better than now, when they talked easily about mundane details of the day without friction. Now, it seemed whenever Kate spoke or even walked into the kitchen she felt Devra’s resistance like a vibration in the air. When Kate saw her defiance—she caught Devra rolling her eyes, her jaw stiff with no, turning her back and closing her ears, no matter what Kate said—Kate attempted to take the sting of frustration out of her own voice. It hadn’t always been this way. And her older sister Olivia’s arrival probably wouldn’t help much—with the harvest, which Olivia didn’t like, or Kate’s thorny relationship with her own daughter.
When Devra had asked her Aunt Olivia to come home to help her with the harvest, Kate felt that she had to accept. Her daughter’s sudden concern softened Kate into giving in, letting Olivia return to their family home. What Devra didn’t know about her aunt, the reason she hadn’t come home before this, Kate would never tell.
The sun lifted over the ridge, finally, vaporizing the slick of dew on the quack grasses and the wheat-colored cheat. The moisture rose as steam in the sunlight. Irrigation water spilled over something snagged on the bank. How often had she and Olivia come down together to these empty shacks to escape their parents and play out imaginary scenarios without interruption? Here or their Old House, a falling down hundred-year-old house now a shell of itself, at the northern edge of their fifty acres.
Kate walked up hill on their center road to where Hayden had begun hiring without her. Harvest workers were arriving. Children of all sizes dashed ahead of the adults carrying bundles in both hands or balanced on their shoulders. A few women kept pace with their men. Their quick easy Spanish rose out of the fruit trees. Mostly Mexican or Mexican-American with very few Anglos in the group. Two pickups coming from behind pumped their horns. One pickup after the other pulled into whatever space between the peach trees they could find to park. Pick-up beds were jammed with people. So many people. And then the children were leaping out of the truck beds, the younger ones reaching to be handed down to outstretched arms. Once on the ground they were cautioned by the adults— don’t move. For a moment the kids listened, then they were off, scattering like goats through the trees. She had envied these kids when she was growing up on her father’s ranch and mistook what she thought they had as freedom.
If when she first saw Hayden he said “go inside” and “take it easy,” she’d refuse; then they would both be embarrassed. She knew his reasoning but wouldn’t accept it. What he couldn’t see, or if he did he had no time now to acknowledge, was if she didn’t do this work she loved, who was she?
Workers bunched around Hayden bent over his clipboard. The curve of his back showed how strongly muscled he was because of their work. She liked that he paid no attention to his body, that he was long-waisted and lean with remarkably green eyes, and it made no difference to him. He was too pale, though, for the outdoor work he did, causing him to burn, then tan, year after year especially between his shirt collar and his feed store cap.
She slipped around the entanglement of women, their arms like tethers reaching out for their small children and kept her eye on Hayden. Just as he glanced up she raised her hand—his look going to her and her red hair and her height above the others. She expected a scowl. But no, he had forgotten everything. His attention returned to the stoop-shouldered man showing his papers. He could really use her now. How else would he hire enough able-bodied workers to start the harvest? There were only a few days when the cherries were ripe enough to pick.
The elders pushed toward her, eager to sign up their entire families and secure a job for the two weeks of the harvest or, better yet, for an entire summer of work. First they picked the cherries, then apricots, then more thinning and propping the late summer fruit with wooden crutches, and then more picking: peaches, pears, and apples in that order. The men dressed in traditional whites at least for hiring day. They, like the women, had small children wrapped around their knees or hanging off their backs. The younger men and boys behind them wore baseball caps, T-shirts and jeans. With long hair and sagging pants, they could have been Devra’s classmates.
“Con permiso, con permiso,” Kate repeated, until she made it to Hayden. “How are you doing?” she asked him.
He fluttered through the stack of papers clipped onto his board. “Forty-eight or so. Not nearly enough.” And then in front of everyone he stroked her hair out of her eyes. “It‘ll be longer if you can’t help me.”
“That’s why I’m here.” She sighed, thankful for how quickly their argument over her not working flew out of his mind.
He handed her a separate clipboard and gave her a hand up so that she was sitting on the tailgate next to him, her legs dangling over the edge.
“Enrique Martínez,” said the man in front of her, “sesenta años.” He spoke through his graying, swooped mustache and more than a few missing teeth. She took his name and age, wrote down a permanent address and his green card number since he had one. Not everyone had a card. They often said they did but didn’t or didn’t have it with them. But what could she do? They had taken all the risk to get here and she and Hayden needed workers. She could take some risk, too. Unless something extraordinary happened on the ranch, no one would know anyway. And as her daughter would say, “Nothing ever happens here.”
While the next man was unearthing his papers from his duffel, Kate said, “I just came back from the workers’ camp. You know, Devra didn’t take down the cots.”
Hayden continued scratching on his payroll list, then like an afterthought, he blocked the sun with his forearm. “Maybe she forgot.”
“Devra told me she had done it. You asked and she ignored you.”
“She wouldn’t ignore me.”
“Now I have to go inside the house, get her out of bed and nag at her...” She was getting carried away. “It would be easier if I’d done it myself.”
He looked up, absently. “Then do it, Kate.” At least fifty people gathered around the truck bed. “I need to finish here.”
“I can’t... I—”
He slid his cap back as far it would go and still stay on his head. His jaw squeezed down. “Come on, honey. You want me to stop what I’m doing?”
Kate shook her head.
“It just don’t get done, Kate. Does it matter?”
It mattered to her. She wanted to say so, but she didn’t.
“And if you are too tired when you get back from your treatment, I’ll have to pick up your sister from the airport as well and leave the workers on their own.”
“Right.” Another reason Olivia shouldn’t be coming home. Kate let out the breath she was holding and turned to the next man standing in front of her unearthing his documents.
Four months ago the doctors told her and Hayden that her lethargy and what she dismissed as clumsiness, her lurching into doorways, could be early stages of Multiple Sclerosis. The diagnosis of MS, they told her, they came by excluding what it was not. A less than reassuring list beginning with brain tumor, Lou Gerhig’s disease, Lupus. Once these were ruled out, her team of doctors put her on increasing doses of steroids, which besides making her irritable and insomniac, threw her body into diabetes. When they said she needed insulin, she told them enough. Didn’t she have any other options?
She pushed her bangs back from her forehead. What breeze there had been at dawn, when she had gone to the camps and back, now in the middle of the hiring couldn’t stir the dust raised on the road. It would reach ninety today easily. At least the balance had changed between those waiting to be hired and those signed on. More men and women sat under trees—waiting to begin work, talking, eating rolled tortillas they brought in their bags—than stood in line.
Dolores and her family had come late to the early morning hiring having found no ride from the Yakima River where they had spent the night and had walked to the Goode family orchard.
Kate remembered them from last year.
“Hayden, I’m going to give Dolores and her family the remaining sleeping shelter.”
“Fine.” He was busy copying names and card numbers down in his portfolio. He looked up. “Who’s Dolores?”
“Maybe you remember Luís, her husband.”
“Nope. Wait,” he said, as if he only just realized whom she had been referring to. “Luís. Luís.” He stared at the young man in front of him, thinking. At one point last fall, Hayden had claimed he smelled drink on Luís’s breath after lunch.
“I think we should take them on again,” Kate said, glancing between Dolores and Hayden. “She’s quick. Quicker than anybody, even the men.”
Hayden watched Kate, wondering, she supposed, why she cared so much. She hadn’t told him she thought she remembered Dolores from growing up on her father’s ranch twenty years before. Kate rubbed her palms up and down her thighs.
Hayden shrugged. “Fine. But if I catch him drinking, Kate, he’s gone.” He shook his head and went back to recording names. He told her if they got through hiring, they would pick a half day today
Dolores, her toddler pressing into her, glanced at Hayden and then came up to Kate. Luis held back with the others.
Dolores said hello with her daughter standing on the toes of her shoes. “Amelia,” she said, tipping the two-year-old’s face up. The toddler then hid in her mother’s skirt, knocking Dolores’s rebosa where an infant slept.
If Dolores seemed to be the center of the family, Luís stood watchfully at the edge. Every boss was trouble in his mind, Kate guessed, and he was staying clear. Last summer Dolores was pregnant and had more than enough to do caring for two young children, picking more peaches than the men, and watching out for a husband who snared everyone’s attention. Even Kate’s.
When an image of Dolores at seven popped into Kate's mind, she wondered should she acknowledge her and Dolores’s shared history?
She and Olivia, six and seven, had tromped down to the camps as soon as they heard the workers had arrived. They wanted to find the girl who left a doll still wrapped in cellophane under the floorboards last season and give it back to her along with one of their own dolls. At six, Kate had assumed Dolores would want one of their old dolls that wet and cried instead of the doll that did nothing. Dolores’s black braids framed a watchful face and stared back at her and Olivia from the doorway of Dolores’s sleeping room.
Kate looked at the dark-haired young mother in front of her now and realized untangling her memories of Dolores growing up on her father’s ranch would be difficult without Olivia.
Kate dropped down from the truck bed to murmur over Dolores’s plump-bottomed infant girl asleep in her shawl. Luís, she saw, played with Manuel, fully recovered from his illness of last year. Kate bent close enough to feel Lucinda’s breath on her face.
“You came again this year. Where did you spend the winter?” Kate asked.
Dolores waved away her question though Dolores’s eyes darted back to Luís. Kate, too, watched Luís, giving him a brief acknowledgment when his eye passed over her. But mostly he ignored her, tossing Manuel high over his head and catching him, breath-takingly close to the ground.
"Tieñe domicilio fijo, Luís?” A permanent address? Kate asked, meaning semi-permanent, she knew, but required by immigration law. Luís gave her a post office box in Los Angeles. Dolores distracted Amélia by blowing into her fingers and humming.
“Mi madre has come, as usual,” Dolores paused. “Y mi primo está aquí. My cousin Alejandro is here to pick. You have him, too?”
Kate stopped writing. “Okay,” she said.
Dolores continued, “Mama can’t pick. Her hands are bad. So my cousin come.” Dolores lifted her voice and beckoned a young man with a downward wave. “Ven aquí, Alejandro.”
Kate had seen the boy leaning against the truck cab, two heads taller than Dolores, narrow-hipped with a rolling teenager’s gait. He really didn’t resemble Dolores, his skin more honey than brown. He’d shoved his hair through the loop in his Padres baseball cap.
“Hola.” Kate set the signing papers and board down.
“You live with them, Alejandro?” Kate asked.
“Alejo. Same address, then?”
Dolores nudged into the space between the truck bed and her cousin. “You had a place, yes?”
“We have a place for you, yes.” Kate looked over the whole bunch, the three kids, Dolores’s mother whom she now recognized sitting on a rag in the shade, the cousin, and Dolores and Luís. It was going to be tight.
Hayden touched Kate’s arm to get her attention. It was time for her to go to her treatment. “Hey,” he said. “I’ll finish without you.” But he didn’t look at her when he said it.
“Sure,” she said, pulling all the papers together. She set them next to him, thinking she’d been dismissed. She retrieved her walking stick.
“Kate,” Hayden called after her, a real shout. The workers eyes were on Hayden. He leaned in Kate’s direction trying to tell her with his body the rest of what he couldn’t say. “Lie down before you go to the hospital.”
“Yeah. I’ll do that,” she said, though turned toward the camps. First she’d check on the workers.
One thing she knew for sure was that after the treatment she would be unable to swing by the airport to pick up Olivia. Hayden would have to leave the harvest and drive to the airport himself.
There was no coming back to the Goode orchard until last year when Dolores had heard the father had died.
Now, without consulting Luís, Dolores gave instructions to her mother to take their things to the camp. Alejo scooped up Amélia with his right arm and threw a garbage bag of clothes and pots from their winter work over his shoulder. Luis, his hands full of their things, scolded Manuel to keep up. Even Dolores’s mother held bolsas bulging with dried beans, corn, onions and fresh tomatoes in both her arthritic hands. Dolores thought la Señora looked worried and too thin. Gracias she said to Kate before leaving. She was thankful for them to have work, and a place to sleep and thankful, too, that the Goode Ranch in Buena wasn’t the furnace that the San Joaquin Valley was this time of year. Picking lettuce was a different kind of hard than picking cherries.
She was seven when she first came thirty years before. Her own family, her Papá, now dead, and Mamá, before crippled hands, had dragged her along as a young girl with six older sisters and one brother to the Goode family orchard. Every one of them harvesting, except for her, until she was ten. Then she too climbed ladders and was expected to pick fruit next to the grownups. They came back to the same ranch, again and again, revisiting each summer this orchard, the one they could count on for work, even before her Papá had a green card.
Her older brother and sisters climbed ladders to pick, ignoring her, leaving her to herself. Secretly, she liked being on her own, and imagined that she was the one doing the telling and pointing, like el jefe, the boss. Kate’s father who owned all the ladders, was taller than her Papá. She wandered the orchard between boundaries of the road, the irrigation ditch with the brown water close to the sleeping shacks and the big white house where the man and his skinny wife lived with two girls, one of them La Señora Katarina. Kate. Kate was her own age—seven. Dolores had asked.
When Kate found Dolores’s doll she had hidden in the floorboards of their sleeping house the end of her first remembered summer, Kate pushed the doll at Dolores. Por usted, Kate said.
Dolores remembered that doll she’d hidden so she’d have something to play with when her family came back. Now, exposed, here it was. She stared at Kate, wondering, why return something that was already hers? And then Kate’s older sister brought out from behind her back a beautiful blonde dolly with closing eyes that looked just like Olivia and thrust it at Dolores. Dolores swatted both dolls into the dirt and walked past them, her back as stiff as she could make it.
Last summer was the first she had seen Kate in twenty years. She was so nervous then just to be on the ranch that she kept with her husband, Luis. Only when her son Manuel was ill did she ask for help.
Dolores never said ‘Sorry, your Papa has died’ fearful that the Señora would hear the lie in her voice.
When Dolores saw the new kitchen she said to Luís, “Mira, cocina nueva.” Luís waggled his head as if expecting it all along. Luís always balancing how much being right he needed to give up to Dolores. She knew of Luís’s tug between being boss and being right, and staying away from the long arm of los jefes. But Dolores knew only she caught the fleeting breach in her hombre, the worry and the fear he never let be known to his chatos.
She smiled inside. Even the sound of the irrigation ditch running through the culvert only gave her a moment to frown and remember her Tomas she thought she might love, at sixteen, and then lost so unexpectedly.
But here was a new kitchen and a place to stay. Maybe plenty to eat and work, and her kids growing beside her, and a husband bumpy and tough on the outside as an avocado, but rich and sweet flesh inside. A surprise even to himself.
Now that they were nearly settled into their living camp with work to begin soon, Dolores held a bowl of sunflower seeds to share with her amiga Juanita who she hadn’t seen since last year’s harvest on the Goode orchard.
Kate came into the camp just as Dolores dropped her tired body on the step of her family’s sleeping shed.
“Señora,” Dolores said, standing as Kate came toward them.
Kate was an arm’s length taller than Dolores. It wasn’t clear why she was here, since she had just seen her, but Kate smiled saying ordinary things—hello and I’m fine. The cots will be here soon. Hola. Esta bien, Dolores said in return. But she noticed something different from last year—Kate used a walking stick and looked frail in her big bones.
After a walk around the kitchen, nodding at Dolores’s mother chopping tomatoes, Kate glanced at the new bank of open fire stove tops and then said adios.
So Kate wanted nothing from them but to look around. Dolores shrugged, sat back down with Juanita, and offered her seeds from the bowl. Staring after Kate, frowning, Dolores said, “Y pues?”And then? She wanted to know about Juanita’s new marriage to Candelario.
Kate stepped into the shower, letting the hot water strike her taut shoulders and neck. Steam filled the small bathroom. When she got out to dry off, the mirror was foggy. She cleared the steam and stared at herself, freckled like a redhead even on her chest. Her breasts sagged from all the weight she’d lost in worry since finding out.
Finding out. She said it, but not with her lips. Her whole body told her. And it terrified her. She grabbed for the counter edge and rubbed her hair, no longer trusting what she saw in the mirror. She dressed, concentrating on efficiency.
Kate thought she’d just leave Devra a note, reminding her to finish what she said she had already done, but when she walked by Devra’s door, she heard a tinny tune distorted by her Walkman. She came into Devra’s room without knocking, mad at her all over again. Devra lay on her stomach, turning the pages of a fashion magazine.
“You didn’t take the cots down.” Kate willed calm and Hayden’s patience. “What were you thinking of?” she shrilled.
“Sorry.” Devra scooted up. “I’ll do it, Mom,” she said, not looking at her mother, before flipping back another page of her magazine.
“Right now.” Kate surprised herself when she ripped the covers from Devra’s bed. She felt anger thrum through her arms. “Get up and do it. Before I...”
“What?” Devra voice dared her, but she looked shocked when she saw her mother’s hand go up. “Do what, Mom?”
Kate saw that her right hand was raised, open for a slap. Devra, she could see, was as alarmed and edgy as she was. Kate put her hand down; thank God she had that much sense. She asked in a measured voice, “Why did you ask Olivia to come?”
“I thought you might want her help.”
”We are managing fine without her.” She didn’t want her older sister muddying everything. “I can’t pick her up from the airport, now. Would you please go get her?”
“I can’t, Mom. Remember? I’m having my first meeting with the college counselor today.”
Kate exhaled. “You know, don’t you, that your Aunt Olivia hates orchard work? Particularly the harvest season. She couldn’t wait to get away from this place.”
“I understand how she feels sometimes.” That surprised Kate. She thought Devra still loved the orchard as much as always.
“Sorry, Mom. It’s not that I don’t like it so much as I just don’t have time for my friends.” Devra took a deep breath then turned her back on her mother to slip on jeans, pulling a tank top over her head.
“If you can’t pick up your aunt, and I can’t, your father will have to. Would you please tell him?” Kate started for the door. “Oh, and take down the cots when you get back. I mean it.”
Kate left Devra’s room, unsettled by losing it. At the top of the stairs she began to feel her legs slowly buckle from fatigue, so she sat down and scooted one step at a time until she got to the bottom. By then her pulse had slowed enough to stand on her own and find the car keys and purse.
Any other day but the first of the harvest, Hayden or Devra would have driven her to the hospital. She let the keys jangle in one hand; with the other, she grabbed her stick and, with intention, walked to the car.
Kate entered the cathedral-cool of the radiology waiting room. The vaulted ceilings and skylights seemed stories above her head. She followed the receptionist into a softer, smaller room. Kate was asked to disrobe, put on a hospital gown, and climb onto the only table in the room.
“The technician will be with you shortly,” the receptionist said solemnly.
Kate wondered if the receptionist thought all who entered this room were doomed. Most of her patients, Kate guessed, were here for cancer.
The technician didn’t introduce himself but instead directed her from the confines of a booth. He came out into the room only to wordlessly cover her legs with a blanket. Her best part, she thought. Kate stared at the beam of light he maneuvered down the length of her body. Her gown was open, exposing her from chin to pubic bone. She crossed her arms, shielding herself.
Please, please, the tech asked patiently, would she lay her arms beside her body? She did it immediately. Her skin glowed amber under the damped light of the X-ray cubicle and, at the edge of her hearing, a hum so subtle it was almost a vibration on her naked skin.
The radiologist entered the room and went straight to a light box. She watched his white-cloaked back, slack as a windless sail, as he examined the X-rays they had taken of her two weeks ago. She had never seen inside herself before and could only guess which shadow shape was her spleen—the organ the radiologist would isolate with his beam and radiate.
He turned away from the opaque light and smiled at her. “I’m Dr. Peters, the radiologist.”
He extended his fingers for her to shake. As she did, a blush raced up the length of her body, not raising her temperature at all. His clothed body pressed against the table’s edge and exuded warmth. He put his hand on her bare arm. She shivered.
He was younger than her, maybe by ten years. His pale cherubic face, feathery brows, and piercingly serious eyes said to her that he was too pretty, too sure. But he spoke frankly and directly, without hesitation or condescension.
He held a black marker over her. She watched his hand as if it had nothing to do with the man who glanced back at the X-ray. The sharp odor of the pen preceded the coolness as he wrote on her flesh. Her belly had become a blackboard. He drew on her pale abdomen just below the curved edge of her ribs.
“I thought that was my stomach.” She was afraid he had gotten mixed up.
“No. Your stomach is here. Your spleen is behind and to the side.”
He outlined the thymus gland. She couldn’t see the lines he made, but she felt the butterfly shape as he drew on her upper chest above the notch where her ribs came together.
“I will radiate your spleen with 20,000 rads and then your thymus gland.”
Had her neurologist told her the amount of “rads” and she hadn’t been listening?
“Is that usual?”
Her voice sounded alarmingly whispy. She tried to settle the panic in her spine, pressing her bony vertebrae into the cushion of the table. With eyes closed, she shut out sight of beige walls and beige machines on long necks without arms. She longed to be back in the orchard, hands in the dirt, anywhere but here.
Why had she thought she could do this without Hayden?
“This is a blind study.” She opened her eyes and stared at the doctor’s face, into agate blue eyes. And still he continued, “You know what that means, right?”
“When you signed the consent, it said there is no established or recommended quantity of radiation when treating multiple sclerosis.”
She knew that this was experimental but with good results. And the steroids she had briefly tried made her sicker, sending her body into diabetes. She nodded weakly, even though she didn’t remember signing a thing now.
“Your agreement to participate in the study is for the purpose of determining how much radiation, if any, is effective.”
No. Her purpose was to stop this disease she could not see that was stripping away the sheaths covering her nerves. That she remembered. To stop her own body from destroying itself so she could return to her place in her marriage and in the family. That was the only reason she was here.
“May we begin?” Dr. Peters asked.
Surely he hadn’t meant to sound robotic. She wanted to ask if higher or lower amounts of radiation had proved more effective so far. But she didn’t dare. Fear clamped down on her chest and squeezed out her pittance of courage. And truth might rupture her hope.
She remembered that her neurologist had explained that even though the treatment was experimental, there was evidence—plenty of evidence—that this treatment might put her in remission. She put away the thought of other treatments, riskier ones. Remission meant normal to her, or near normal. Could she settle for that?
“May we begin?” he repeated, as if he had been waiting for her permission all along.
She nodded. Dr. Peters left her alone on the table to protect his own vulnerable body from stray radiation. The eye of light of the long-necked machine centered on her, on her body, right over the markings. What could she lose? What would she lose? She closed her eyes and listened for the click and then hmmmm-bzz. She imagined a long slender arrow, aiming in the dark, hoping to put out the moon.