She found the deer skull in the shallow brook in the woods where she used to take the dogs back when she had dogs. At first it revealed itself to her as something else: a stone broken into the false shape of a human face, a thing worth taking a second glance at and that’s all.
But then as she moved closer it became the real face of an animal looking up at her from the water. She didn’t hesitate. She jumped from the footbridge, moved closer and bent down. The water was cold and flecked with snow and she had to strain to free the skull from the mud. The spine rose in a long sinewy line, like the root of a difficult turnip, ending in a cluster of spiked bone. She let it drape between her hands and it reminded her of everything all at once—a broken machine, a weapon, a puzzle—except for the thing it used to be. Her shoes were soaked and she had a two mile walk back to the car, but she didn’t feel stupid in the least. The simple fact that others had noticed this grotesque treasure but decided to leave it alone did not occur to her until later. No, she was the first to see it, nobody else, and how special was that?
That’s what made her call Peter. Why else but to tell this story?
And yet, when she heard his voice on the line it was the other stories that came back to her: the loss of her job in the tough economy two years ago, a marriage and a divorce, the death of the dogs they had owned together and treated like children, one following the other quickly like an old married couple. She wanted to speak to him as a traveler returning from a long journey.
Eight years since they last spoke and even the memory of his features had worn away, but the old habits remained. He spoke first and then she asked gentle probing questions, feigning interest until that interest became genuine. She waited for the right moment to tell him about the skull that now rested in the basement sink, although she didn’t understand why this particular story should be the one to break their long silence, except they had walked their dogs down those trails. She had walked there many times since though, by herself and with other men, with her ex-husband, in fact, who was the kind of man to tell her, “Leave it alone,” if he had been there when she spotted the skull peering up from the muck. He would have stood on the footbridge, arms folded imperiously, and watched her. She would have felt that judgment—that sense of indignant piousness—resting on her back as she crouched, and some part of her would have enjoyed it. It would have made her feel young.
Now, as Peter talked, she thought of time as a practical joke, because how odd that he would be telling her about his young children, two of them now, and his own divorce, and the bald patch at the back of his head. He still owned the same car, the plucky Subaru they had once driven across country, and he still ran marathons. He was training for one now, would be heading out as soon as they finished this phone call. The weather was beautiful in Portland, Oregon, dark and cool with a light drizzle, perfect for running, and he didn’t have the girls this weekend. “Was it someone I knew?” she asked.
“What?” She heard the familiar catch in his voice. He was trying to decide if he should lie or not. It would not be a lie, really, not like before. This time it would be a fib, something to protect her feelings. But it had been eight years. Why would she have any feelings? She couldn’t even imagine his face, although she could picture his thick legs, his body moving through that wet Northwestern weather. Of course that would be the thing to remain, the constant in his life and in her memory of him. He said, “Yes. I’m sure you remember her. It’s the strangest thing. It really is. That girl who used to work at the food co-op.” He laughed a low, guttural laugh, a noise disconnected from the rest of him, the kind of laugh one might hear on a sitcom soundtrack as the ridiculous plot of the thing arrived at its climax. “It’s not what you’re thinking. It really isn’t.”
She found herself moving through the house, from the kitchen into the living room and then upstairs to the office she kept on the second floor. His voice followed her. He was explaining that he still didn’t quite believe it. She had been the one they always complained about because she packed the bags all wrong. They had mocked her dreadlocks, her dazed stare, even her Earth Mother breasts. “That’s why I’m out here now,” he said. “She has family out here. And guess where she’s working? A food co-op.” This was supposed to be a great joke but neither of them laughed. She sat down at her desk and tilted her neck to hold the phone, both hands moving over the keyboard. But all the old pictures were gone. That was two computers ago. These photos were more recent. In one of them her ex-husband sat in the bathtub reading the New York Times, his hard-on clearly visible like a boat half submerged in water. That had been a joke too.
The next one showed a sunrise, geese rising from a lake in crazy hundreds. But the photo didn’t capture the noise of that thing or her own joy as the birds sprayed above her head. He was still talking about the girl when finally she interrupted him and said, “I have to tell you something, Peter. It’s important.” She began to move again, down the hall toward the bathroom, and then to the bedroom, where the sheets sat in a stupid clump, her book open, her coffee grown cold. She thought of the catch in his voice, the split second decision of his to tell the truth, to just let it happen, and she tricked herself into thinking—just for a moment—that she was doing exactly the same thing. She said, “Things are very difficult right now. There’s been a diagnosis.” She picked up the cup and walked it to the bathroom sink, turned it over and emptied it out. “This is why I’m calling. I don’t mean to interrupt but it’s important.”
He said, “I understand,” and she remembered the accident when he had appeared in the hospital emergency room. Her torn hand had been wrapped in a bloody towel and he had unwrapped it, looked at the wound the way a doctor might, with cool detachment. Love and knowledge—even if it was fake knowledge—was exactly what she had wanted from him and that’s exactly what he had given her with the careful unwrapping of the towel, his unflinching expression.
“I have breast cancer,” she said.
“Jesus,” he said, because that’s what a person should say and then nothing else.
She added, “It’s been a battle.” She stepped downstairs with the clean mug, back into the kitchen, and in the center of the room, where she began telling him about the surgery, the radiation, and the more she talked the more true it seemed. She was telling these things to herself too, and the more she told it the more momentum it gained. She couldn’t stop—it was a rock rolling down a hill—and she wondered if Peter was already in his running clothes, if the rain was coming down harder out there. How far away was he? Thousands of miles. She said, “I’m sorry. I’m not sure why I’m telling you this,” which was the first truth she had uttered in the last five minutes. The second came right on its heels. “I knew this would happen. When you left me, didn’t you tell me that doom followed me around like a golf caddy? Those were your exact words. You were in the driveway of the old house and I was on the porch and I thought you were going to say something sweet. And then that came out of your mouth.” It was her turn to laugh, with the bitterness of someone who really was ill, a person counting the days. “A golf caddy. It’s like you had prepared it.”
She was trembling. The kitchen smelled of something burning and she remembered she had left a slice of leftover pizza in the toaster oven before making the call. The cheese was dripping and she remembered her ex-husband’s admonishment about that kind of thing, his use of the word filthy. She said, “I’m going to be all right. The worst is over.”
He said, “Listen. I want to talk about his. I really do. I’m glad you called. I’ve been thinking about you lately. I really have. Can I call you back later? I have a window of time here. What are you doing tonight? I can call you back.”
“Right,” she said, and she coasted along a wave of resentment, the righteous anger of the wronged and the cast aside. Her face was hot and wet and the kitchen surrounded her. Every bit of it seemed flimsy and dumb, the pan on the stove, the spirit catcher in the window, the tiles on the floor. She tried to calm herself by fixing on a single point on the wallpaper, a flower identical to all the other flowers in a sea of bad taste, and then, as her mind came back to her, she discovered that she had said goodbye and placed the phone on the counter right next to the morning’s mail.
She had wanted to tell him that other story, the true one, so much. Now she knew why—the knowledge hit her like a complicated math problem that, once explained, became the most obvious thing in the world. She called him because it was something he would have done. First he would have noticed the skull as they crossed the bridge, stopped her in whatever she was saying, and changed direction. Then he would have plunged his hands into the icy water and pulled it free.
She woke in the early morning to the buzz of her phone on the nightstand, the humming little rectangle of technology colored bright as candy and containing so much of her life. She let it make its appeal as the fragment of a dream sank down into whatever place had birthed it. She had been standing in front of a room, toasting someone. The table had been surrounded by family, many of them dead, hands reaching for food. The banality struck her as horrifying. Then even her disgust was gone as she reentered the world. She noted that the windows were still dark and then she reached across and silenced the hum. She expected Peter’s voice rushing out several apologies: the first about not calling back the night before the way he had promised, the next about the earliness of the hour. Another voice made the apology though, the woman from the collection agency, and the tone was not apologetic at all, but stern, almost professorial. It spoke from far away but also right up against her ear, and for a moment she found something erotic in the sternness: the clichéd teacher fantasy, the disciplinarian. “I apologize for the inconvenience,” the voice said, and then, midway through the next sentence, she ended the call with a push of her thumb and set the phone back on the nightstand. It began ringing again as she left the room.
The coffee shop at the corner overflowed with the business of life. A man called out orders to the back room in a booming voice and the ceiling fan clattered above the heads of the crowd. Reed sat imperial in the usual booth, hands cradling a mug. Today she glowed green: earrings, scarf, and belt. “Sorry I’m late,” Francis said as she slid in across from her. “I had a rough night. I just woke up.”
Mentioning her own discomfort was such rudeness—such absolute bullshit—in the face of Reed’s life, but Reed gave no sign of the insult. She had purchased a coffee for Francis, added milk to it and probably sugar too. The shop clamored around them and Francis raised her voice to be heard. She made a stupid joke about her own crusty sweatshirt, her wet boots and Reed’s face arranged itself into a neat smile.
“I’ve never felt so black,” Reed said.
What did that mean?
“I think I understand,” Francis said, and she pulled her cup into her body.
“Well, growing up in Detroit and then moving here,” she said. She pivoted her eyes to indicate the rest of the room, the white faces, each one its own puzzle of expressions, each one hungry but happy. “I’m telling you. Sometimes.” She chuckled, possibly a way of saying present company excluded. “But since Estrella got sick. The island got even smaller. It’s another country I’m living in, Francis.”
Francis had thought of Reed’s skin color many times, and that difficult upbringing in Detroit but only as something that made her stronger in that Nietzschen way. The image of Estrella rose up between them, sitting up in her hospital bed, and then the surgeon, the one Reed said showed no emotion, whose whole face looked like a knife as he had told them about the process: the barb penetrating the hard little tumor, his finger moving forward through the air in slow motion. He had compared it to fishing, she said. Hooking the smallest fish, the barest hint of a fish. Reed told that story often.
The coffee tasted perfect. She thought of Estrella and Reed in their own country, the size of a small town, a building, a room with EKG and television. It shrank as she considered it. The room around them swirled with fresh activity as another group entered and joined up with some others. One of them, a big man, was laughing and holding up his hand. Something seemed very funny about his fingers. The others laughed too.
“This is good,” Francis said as she sipped from the edge of the cup. “Thank you.”
Reed said, “Jonathan’s sister called me the other day. She said what they always say. ‘How do you do it?’ Like she wouldn’t do the same thing if our situations were reversed. Would she just break down? Run away? It’s not like I’m making a choice.”
All of this spoken with the flat tone of someone discussing her job or her mother-in-law. Out of the corner of her eye Francis could see him, the man at the other table, his hand held aloft, fingers together like a flipper. He was telling a story too, the story of accidentally gluing them together with super glue, a model plane and something about booze. He held his hand as if it were not a part of the rest of him—just a thing gathered in from the street and shown to his friends. A few of them were standing. There weren’t enough chairs at the table. Reed spoke through it, pushing through the noise as if through a fog. “If the situations were reversed I suppose I’d be asking, ‘How do you do it?’ too. But it still pisses me off. It’s a commercial for kitchen cleaner. That’s what I’m reminded of. Two people in a kitchen with a spotless floor and one asks the other that question.”
“What question should they ask you?” Francis said and she wondered if Reed could detect the sourness. She had asked this question too, many times, especially in the early days of the treatments.