Sample text for Yellowcake / Ann Cummins.


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1

They come at ten o'clock in the morning. Ryland's wife, Rosy, is at the fabric
store with their daughter, Maggie, who's getting married next month. Ryland
goes ahead and opens the door against his better judgment. He always
opens the door when somebody rings, though he usually regrets it. He is not
afraid of muggers. Muggers, he figures, will leave sooner rather than later.
He's afraid of the neighbor lady, Mrs. Barron, who always leaves later, and
the Mormon missionaries, who like to fight with his wife, they always leave
later. And Pretty Boy across the street, old Hal Rivers, who waters his lawn
in bikini swim trunks, parades young girls in and out, day in, day out, lady's
man, though he has a gut and a little bald pate -- still, the girls like him,
which only goes to show that it's not the looks but the pocketbook. Old Hal
stopping by every now and again to chew the fat terrifies him, though Ryland
makes sure the man never knows but that he's welcome.
This man and woman, though, Ryland doesn't recognize. He lets
them in because of the young Navajo woman with them. She has to tell him
who she is. Becky Atcitty.
"You know my dad," she says.
"You're not Becky Atcitty."
"Yes I am."
He stands for a minute and admires the young woman little Becky
has become. He tells her that when he first met her she wasn't any bigger
than a thumbnail. Now they sit across from him, three of them on the couch,
and Becky begins telling him how Woody is sick.
Ryland shakes his head. He likes Woody. "Your dad was a good
worker. Every time somebody didn't show up for a shift at the mill, I'd call him
and say, 'Woody, got a cup of joe with your name on it,' and your dad'd
always say, 'Okay, then.' " Ryland looks over Becky's head out the front
window to the ash tree in the yard. The leaves are green-white, dry. Rosy has
hung plywood children in plywood swings, a boy and a girl, from the tree
limbs. The children aren't swinging, though, because there's no hint of a
breeze.
"He has lung cancer," the woman with Becky says. Classy.
Dressed like a TV news anchor in one of those boxy suits. Hair any color but
natural -- one of those poofed-up, clipped, and curled deals that hugs her
head.
"Your dad's a strong man," Ryland says to Becky. "Don't you
worry." Becky is sitting between the man and the woman. The man is looking
all around, beaming at the pictures on the wall. His hair is pulled back in a
little ponytail. Skinny guy in jeans.
Becky says, "We just think that maybe the mill workers should
get some of the same benefits the miners got."
"We're just at the beginning of this process, Mr. Mahoney," the
woman says. "The mill workers like yourself and Mr. Atcitty are entitled . . .
Tell him about the air ventilation in the mills, Bill. Bill's a public interest
lawyer --"
"I don't have cancer."
The woman stops. She blinks at him. He watches her eyes slide
to the portable oxygen tank at his feet.
"Of course not," she says. "We were wondering if you kept
medical histories on your workers, and if by chance you still have . . ."
"You people like something? I could put on some coffee. Rosy'll
be home any minute. She's going to be mad if she sees Becky Atcitty here
and I didn't give her anything."
Becky says, "They think if you've got any records on Dad it might
give us some place to start."
"Mr. Mahoney," the woman says, "as I'm sure you know, we made
great strides when the compensation act passed, but it does us no good if
there's no way for victims to collect. The mill workers like yourself and Mr.
Atcitty are entitled . . . Bill, tell him about the --"
"He doesn't have to tell me anything," Ryland says.
The woman blinks again. She smiles.
The lawyer gets up and walks over to the pictures on the wall. "Is
this your family, Mr. Mahoney? Handsome family."
Ryland stares at the man staring at his family.
The woman says, "This is simply about workers who were
continually exposed to toxic --"
"Your daddy doesn't know you're here, does he." He peers at
Becky, who leans back into the couch. They had a party when she was born.
He brought cigars and cider to the mill. Sam Behan, his old chum, teased
him. "During working hours, Ry?" Sam said, and Ryland said, "Who's the
boss?" They all raised a glass and toasted this girl's birth.
Ryland leans forward. The girl stares at something over his
shoulder. He can't read her. Navajos. Never could read them. But her dad,
Woody was a good man. Didn't truck with unions. When they wanted to bring
the union in, Woody said he had a family to support. This Ryland knows for a
fact.
"Don't you worry about your dad," he says. "He's a strong man."
He looks at the news anchor lady. Her eyes are as bright as a child's, and
her grinning teeth are blue-white. Her hands, laced in a fist on her lap, are
white, too, and the skin pulls so tight it looks like her knuckles are about to
bust through.
"One of the best men I know," Ryland says to her. "Woodrow
Atcitty. This girl's dad."

But Rosy catches them as they're leaving. Now the four of them sit around
the kitchen table drinking coffee. Ryland sits in his chair in the living
room. ". . . little chance the Navajo miners with legitimate claims can file. The
red tape is prohibitive," the lawyer's saying.
On the TV a fancy man is breaking eggs into a dish. The man
uses one hand to break the eggs -- egg in the palm of the hand, little tap,
then presto! On the egg-breaking hand, the cook wears a Liberace ring. One
of those rings that stretches from knuckle to fist.
The lawyer says they've only just begun to organize. He wants to
have community meetings. He wants to educate and motivate.
Moneygrubbing lawyer. Ryland would lay bets that guy's on the
clock. The man isn't sitting at his kitchen table out of charity.
Liberace says, "Whisk it up good." He's making a confection.
Ryland watches him stir sugar into eggs.
Rosy wants them to know about Ryland's handkerchiefs. "All
those years that he worked in the uranium mill, his handkerchiefs were
always stained yellow from mucus he blew out of his nose. I have many
questions and no answers."
"We all have questions," the lawyer says. "Maybe you'd like to
join us next week. We're identifying key people in the region who might form
a planning committee."
"Sure," Rosy says. "Any day but Tuesday." She says something
about a doctor's appointment Tuesday. Ryland strains to hear. He hits the
mute button on the channel changer. She's saying he's got some sort of test
scheduled.
"What test?" he calls out.
The kitchen goes silent. Ryland can feel them looking at each
other. Then Rosy yells, "I told you about it. We scheduled this a month ago,
Ryland." He stares at the thick confection as Liberace pours it into a bowl.
Now he hears a chair skidding on the kitchen linoleum, and he watches his
wife's reflection in the TV screen as she comes into the living room. "You
agreed to it," she says quietly. She says that Dr. Callahan recommended
this test, that they're going to take a little tissue from his lung. That's all. "It's
just a precaution," she says, and he turns, giving her a look. "It wasn't my
idea," she hisses, her dark eyes fiery. He wonders about that. "Don't you
remember?"
He looks back at the TV. He can see her hands, tiny fists in the
screen's reflection. He says, "You're my memory."

Copyright © 2007 by Ann Cummins. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Uranium miners -- Health and hygiene -- New Mexico -- Fiction.
Family life -- Fiction.
Navajo Indians -- Fiction.
Conflict of generations -- Fiction.