April 6, 2018
A Million Miles From Yesterday
by Maureen Connolly
Second Place Winner of the CWA Annual First Chapter Contest
That spring a satellite in space went off orbit, news events could not be broadcast from England, pagers and cell phones in Chicago did not work, and it was hot in Alma.
It did not always feel like 1999 in Alma. More often it felt to Hank like the whole place was moving through an earlier time, a blend of the 1940’s and a few selected decades since.
No, there was little of a ’nineties feel to Alma. Most of the time he liked this, the way it played with his mind as he moved through his day. But not today.
The morning began as usual: the long climb out of sleep, out of Sarah’s arms, into his own body in his own bed alone, in a small town in Wisconsin. At the clinic there was the familiar mix of pregnant women, asthmatics, heart patients, sore throats, back pain, sprained fingers. He coddled the eighty-nine-year-old who insisted on using udder balm for every ache in his bony body. He coaxed a five-year-old to sit still to get her ears checked by telling her a funny story.
By two o’clock, he was on his way out of Alma. The sun beat down on the town. Yellow wildflowers were poking up in the empty lot behind the general store. He bent his hand at the wrist, fingers up, in greeting to local workers resurfacing the gas station lot, their shirts off, exposing pale winter skin. He was making a house call.
Not a house call really, but a trailer call. On Mary Two-Rivers. The sky glowered as he turned onto the rutted back road leading to her place, and he felt like glowering back. He bumped his green pickup truck down the road, unable to find anything diverting on the radio. His spirits sank.
Mary Two-Rivers’ husband, who worked at the casino a hundred miles away, had disappeared a few months earlier. They couldn’t find the body. What this meant for Mary, who was not sorry to see him go, was that she had to wait a year to claim his pension. In the meantime, she stayed in her run-down trailer on the reservation, watching television and eating. Mostly eating. By now she’d gained another twenty pounds. “Poor soul,” Hank's mother would have said, “there but for the grace of God….
It was as hot inside the trailer as it was outside. Mary – all three hundred pounds of her – was sitting in a large chair with an old telephone book under one corner, stuffing spilling out of the side. Her eyes were slits in the puffiness of her face. Her face had the down-turned expression of the chronically mean. Bags of potato chips and cookies lay beside a small tobacco pipe on the counter. He cleared some space and sat down next to her.
He did not like to touch Mary Two-Rivers. He, who had touched the infected, addicted, unwashed, cancer-ridden, and obese so many times. So he did an especially careful exam.
Pushing a ponderous breast out of the way, he listened to her heart. “How’s it goin’, Mary?”
“My grandson’s such a bad kid,” she mumbled.
“That’s too bad.” He noticed her legs were more swollen than usual. “Are you taking your blood pressure medicine?”
“Sure, Doc.” She sat impassive. She only grunted when he said good-bye and climbed out of the trailer into the heavy afternoon air.
By evening Hank was down at Livy’s Bar and Café having a few drinks.
“I had a piece of pecan pie down in Savannah one time that made my fillings ache,” he said to Livy. “Your pecan pie is just right, not too sweet, the pecans are fresh, and it has a nice delicate crust.”
“Thanks, Hank, I never heard anybody get so spiritual about my pecan pie before.” She gave him a slightly lopsided smile and slapped him on the shoulder. He rocked a little on his swivel seat at the counter.
Livy doubled as a fire fighter for the county, and she was chunky but strong. She’d recently cut her dark hair short, so it was less in her way out on the fire truck. She was pushing forty, tired of looking for the right man to father a child for her and tired of providing condoms for the wrong men. She had an appointment set up at the beginning of the summer to have a baby planted in her womb, courtesy of the sperm clinic at the state university. Or at least what she hoped would be a baby, if the donor’s sperm did what Hank described as the dance of life with one of her eggs.
The winter his wife had died, Hank began to stay late in the clinic, lights burning long after the last patient had left. Then about nine-thirty, a half-hour before Livy closed the café, he would pick his way across the street through the sludge and piles of snow and climb onto one of the seats at her counter.
“What’ll it be, Doc?” Livy would say.
“A little whiskey for the inner man, Livy,” he’d say, “and I’d better have something to eat with that so give me a piece of pie.” He’d wink at her with a tired smile, over rhubarb pie, or cherry, or pecan, depending on what was in season or what Livy got the best buy on at the wholesale market.
Hank was probably the only attractive man in town Livy hadn’t been with, she wasn’t sure why. “You work too much,” she said tonight, “why don’t you ever hang out with some of the other guys and go fishing, or shoot pool or something?”
“Well that might be good, you know…but it seems like, just when I’m relaxing into their company, someone has a baby or breaks an arm and I just never get into the swing of what they’re doing. Or the women for that matter.”
She pondered this as she cleared the plate with pecan pie crumbs from in front of him.
Usually their talk in the café came in fragments as she waited on customers. Other than the rare visits she made to his office like the time she cut her finger chopping celery, these scraps were the size and shape of their conversations. But tonight Hank was the only one in the café. Livy pulled up a stool and sat down on the other side of the counter, and they began to talk. Their conversation took some winding turns, down lanes they had not traveled before, into surprising pools of laughter. They talked about baseball, wolves, opera, and politics. Then they relaxed into quiet. The radio was on low. President Clinton was talking about democracy to the Chinese people, drought fires were raging out of control in parts of Mexico and Florida, the prime minister of Japan had resigned over Japan’s failing economy, Wisconsin was hoping for a bumper crop of corn and soybeans. After a while soft swing music began to play.
The screen door banged in the kitchen out back. Rufus ambled into the front room of the café.
“Hey Livy, I got you those CD’s for the new player you got.”
Rufus really was the most beautiful sixteen-year-old boy either of them had ever seen. It was as if nature knew his good-hearted parents were going to give him an impossible old family name, and anticipated his rescue. He had thick black lashes, deep brown eyes, honey-colored skin, strong nose, well-shaped body parts; he moved with an unconscious grace charming everyone around him. This year he had added adolescent sinew and new muscle hauling boxes over at the recycling plant after school, but he still had a boy’s smile - guileless.
“Thanks, Rufus, just leave them on the table near the stove,” Livy said, smiling at him.
“How’s your mom?” Elrita Yazzi worked at the nursing home where Hank saw patients.
“Okay – she’s in Madison for some kind of sculpting class today.”
“Has your mother ever sculpted you?” Livy said, half-complimenting, half- teasing him.
“Nah, well…maybe once when I was little. I’m not much for holding still.” He colored a little. “Gotta go, Liv, Dad’s on the late shift at Harass this month.”
“Right…wait, do you want an apple pie?” “Uh…I don’t have any money on me right now.”
“That’s okay. This one’s from yesterday, take it home for the family. You’d be doing me a favor. It’s still good though.” She was wrapping the pie in plastic, slipping it into a brown paper bag.
Rufus hesitated, then pleasure washed over his face. “Yeah, Livy, thanks. Great, the kids’ll love it.” He turned towards Hank, “Bye, Dr. Cleary.” To Livy he said “Haagoinee.”
“He’ll love it too,” Hank said after Rufus rounded the corner onto the street. He looked up at Livy from his whiskey. “Was that pie really from yesterday?”
“Sure…what does it matter? I’m not going to go out of business giving away pies! I keep a good bottom line - you, for example, owe me $5.25 for the pie and the Jamesons.” She tilted her head towards him, back of her hand on one hip, eyes dancing.
Hank was startled to realize it was ten o’clock. He’d almost forgotten he’d have to pay the bill, and leave. Now he was discomfited.
Livy began closing up. Still he sat, elbow propped up on the counter, chin resting in his hand. He felt outside of himself. Like he was a half a beat off from the world. Or maybe that the world was a half-beat off from him.
Livy was walking towards the door, keys in her hand.
The next morning when he woke up, Hank couldn’t remember where he was. He’d sat on the porch in his old leather chair the night before, exhausted, watching a moth flap up against the inside of the frayed screens. He’d let himself have one more whiskey, then a cold beer, to wash down the whole long day. He’d finally gone to bed, and fallen into a hard sleep.
Towards morning when the first clear birdcalls sounded he turned over and began dreaming. He was all over in his dreams: with his second cousins in Ireland, back in Chicago with Sarah, fishing in the North Woods of Wisconsin with his grandfather. He wanted to stay, to sit in the rowboat with his Irish-born grandfather in the immense quiet of the cool early morning lake, learning how to put a worm on a hook. But the sound of dogs barking pulled him into the middle of a Thursday morning. Yesterday’s pants and shirt were draped over the back of a chair, his shoes and socks dropped where he’d taken them off. The same dust covered his bedroom furniture.
No medical emergencies during the night, and no office hours until one o’clock. Time to himself for a change. He wasn’t sure he wanted it. Instead of being grateful, he felt a little crabby. His head ached, pre-coffee.
He stretched out his long body, felt the sheets rub against his skin. He could not will himself to get out of bed. He sensed that the layer of equanimity he’d wrapped around himself in the three years since Sarah died had a tear. That there might be things to glimpse through the tear that he did not want to see.
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