Survival Rates

Overview

Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. "Finely crafted short fiction that explores the aftermath of life-threatening events. . . . Sculpted prose." —Booklist
Mary Clyde’s stories explore not so much what has happened already but what happens next. Illness bristles through the book, magnifying emotional undercurrents: two teenage girls survive surgery and the prospect of never eating popcorn again; the stoicism of a husband with cancer infuriates his wife. Set ...

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Overview

Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. "Finely crafted short fiction that explores the aftermath of life-threatening events. . . . Sculpted prose." —Booklist
Mary Clyde’s stories explore not so much what has happened already but what happens next. Illness bristles through the book, magnifying emotional undercurrents: two teenage girls survive surgery and the prospect of never eating popcorn again; the stoicism of a husband with cancer infuriates his wife. Set in the desert Southwest, these stories show the influence of a landscape populated with cat-eating coyotes and car-crushing boulders. The characters are relative newcomers, some sharing the author’s Mormon heritage. But they are survivors, relying on the ironies and blessings of ongoing life.

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Editorial Reviews

Rich Wertz
While Clyde's stories happen to be set in the Southwest, they can be read as reports from the front lines of the dominant culture anywhere in America.... The author writes compellingly about young people and adults, men and women.... For a book with so many traumatic events, it is curiously uplifting.
ForeWord Magazine
Karen Karbo
Clyde's writing has many strengths, but the greatest one is her ability to transform a shallow experience into somethign resembling hope. That she does so with intelligence and wit makes this collection as good as they get.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Low-key and bland on the surface, the Southwestern characters of Clyde's restrained first collection (winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction) stay matter-of-fact in the face of alarming circumstance. "Farming Butterflies" introduces a sensitive teenage boy to his mother's dearest friend, the "precarious" Deirdre, whose affinity for bright foods and search for spiritual ascension put a sunny face on desperation and suicidal tendencies. In "Jumping," a woman remembers the ski-lift accident that she survived but that killed her schoolmate Veronica when they were 13: "What I know is that if she'd lived I'd have completely forgotten her... in her death I was caught, frozen in my indifference." Many of the characters in these nine tales come from Mormon families, and address unsettling events with the blank confidence of faith: "Mormons hope tragedy improves the soul," one survivor claims. The successful plastic surgeon in "Howard Johnson's House" struggles to sympathize with his insufferable and socially ambitious mother when she reveals her illness to be "t-e-r-m-i-n-a-l." Grief, disappointment and loss test the mettle and change the contours of these people's lives. But while Clyde's omniscient, smooth-browed confidence makes the stories a pleasure to read, sometimes her determinedly straightforward prose could use some graceful arpeggios. (Mar.)
Karen Karbo
Clyde's writing has many strengths, but the greatest one is her ability to transform a shallow experience into somethign resembling hope. That she does so with intelligence and wit makes this collection as good as they get.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Decently done but unremarkable debut collection, the recipient of this year's Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. Most of the characters here-many of them Mormons, almost all living in the American Southwest-are either sick or connected intimately with sickness or tragedy. How they face the distress at hand becomes a measure of their character. Cecil, the nose surgeon of "Howard Johnson's House," has to carry on with his daily routine of facial reconstructions even as his mother Edna lies dying, beyond his assistance. Anna and Nicole, the two teenaged cancer patients of "Krista Had a Treble Clef Rose," carry on with all the normal occupations of adolescence-crushes on boys, preparations for dances, fantasies about their futures-from the oncology ward of the hospital where they've met. "A Good Paved Road" describes a religious dilemma: a high school girl tries to convert her boyfriend to the Mormon Church she grew up in, then loses her faith when she fails. And in "Victor's Funeral Urn," a recently divorced wife who's contemplating a reunion with her ex-husband happens upon an urn containing what appear to be human ashes on the side of a road-and then tries to locate the owner. "Jumping" finds a woman still haunted by a skiing accident 33 years after the fact. The best of the lot is the title story, describing the dual traumas of a husband being treated for thyroid cancer and of the wife whose exhaustion over his disease prompts her to leave him.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Mary Clyde spent her childhood in Utah, has lived in New York City, and now lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Howard Johnson's House


At a time when environment simply meant surroundings, Howard Johnson, the hotelier, used dynamite to gouge a foothold for his mansion overlooking Paradise Valley. He built a carport to accommodate six automobiles, including his favorite, a white Lincoln Continental, its windows dark and mirrored. He enclosed the cement balcony with wedding cake railings that occasionally saved inebriated guests from toppling into the pale, hardscrabble desert below. When he sold the house, the neighbors lower on Phoenix Mountain were optimistic. At last, they said, someone will get rid of the orange roof.


* * *


The mansion is now calm and almost dark behind its swimming pool moat. The beam from a security light is fractured in the ripples of the spa. Here is the peace of wealth. Cecil sits on the raw silk comforter of the king-size bed, shaking his knotted gold cuff links like dice, an unconscious wish for better luck.

    Beth says, "But what's she dying of?" Beth is nestled in the bed's assortment of pillows: brocade, tapestry, needlepoint--her decorator's studied mismatch.

    Cecil says, "She won't tell me."

    Beth's black-framed reading glasses are new since their wedding two years ago. Her elbow rests on a velvet pillow menacingly embroidered NOT TONIGHT.

    Cecil walks into his closet. A stack of unread JAMAs leans against the black plaid golf bag. He crumples his shirt into the pile.

    "You can phone Dick in the morning," Beth calls.

    "She has a new doctor. She said it was time to be independent. She wants to take charge." His mother had made it sound like getting hired for a first job. That's what amazed him more than anything: she seemed less frightened than proud, invigorated. He pictures Edna's face as she told him, her smile crisp as hotel linen. "Dear," she'd said, "I'm very ill. It's t-e-r-m-i-n-a-l." And he'd thought, actually prayed, Please, please let me be good. This time. Let me rise to this and do the right thing. But he also thought--and he was ashamed to admit it--why did she have to spell it?

    Beth enters his closet, straightens a tie on the rotating rack--a tie that reveals Cecil's first wife's strange taste. It has squiggles like anxious sperm. Beth says, "What are you going to do?"

    What he must do--urgently, must do--is be the best son he can be. He must find a way not to be irritated by his mother. This is a test, from God or Edna, a test he will pass.

    "What do you think I should do?" he says.

    "I think you should find out: (a) what she's dying of and (b) what she wants you to do for her." Beth often alphabetizes answers.

    But it makes sense, and it sounds simple. His spirits lift until he thinks of Edna, standing in the foyer of Symphony Hall after spelling out her doom. She was wearing a bright lime jacket with dark braid on the lapels and with pearl buttons. Apricot and lime green, she's explained, are secret code colors of wealth and good taste.

    Sipping Dr. Pepper: "It's a fine production," she said of a tired and sound-distorted Grease. "Don't you think Zuko is authentic?" She put her hand, suddenly, on his arm. "I had to change doctors. Dick misses things."

    Cecil sensed her energy then, focused and precise, even as she was talking about her death. "What has Dick missed?"

    "Phh," she said, an exhale ruffling her lips, indicating Dick's omissions were too numerous and odious to mention. "I don't want you and Ted to worry about me." By which he knew that's precisely what she wanted--as well as attention; she was dying for it.

    "Homosexuals," she said, way too loudly, "isn't it interesting how they like theater? Why do you think that is?" Edna's specialty: asking questions that deserve no answer. Also, affectations of broad-mindedness.

    Now Beth dumps the pillows off the bed like unwelcome pets. A little yoga and a lot of money seem to have made her serene. She says, "She's probably just trying to be brave."

    Edna brave? Not likely. Cecil thinks of her terror at his father's funeral, the gulping sobs like drowning and then a last-minute refusal to let the casket be lowered. "I just can't do that to him," she'd said, the heels of her small black pumps sinking into the soggy earth and the vein in her temple throbbing. And Ted with his always too-long hair said, unhelpfully, "Mom, you don't have to," which was after all--Cecil remembers--the tack that finally worked.

    He struggles to consider her as simply another human being. Distance, he feels, would help him do better. But just as he can't imagine Edna's pride and joy, the silver and crystal candlesticks, ever belonging to anyone else, she is only his and Ted's. Her past choices so old they seem to never have been decisions at all, just circumstances that have always existed. She has always said taupe when brown would have done, and burgundy instead of red. She has always salted lettuce and sipped Dr. Pepper. But death. That's making Edna something else. Because she is dying, suddenly she has life. Still exasperating, still impossible, but exposing him, making him accountable.

    Beth touches his face. Her cool fingers slide to his jaw. She says, "I'm taking a bath."

    He walks to the window and looks past the city lights to the dark, prehistoric hulk of Camelback Mountain. There is a light where the camel's ears might be. Campfire, hikers. The Search and Rescue team bills them when they have to risk their own lives getting them down.

    My mother is dying, he thinks, and he's chagrined to realize all he feels is extremely tired.


* * *


Beth has begged him to have it replaced. "It's a roof, Cecil," she's said. "And it's orange." But when he bought the house he was recently divorced and undone by failure as well as hope. He'd walked through the empty rooms and thought of the man who built them. He read about Johnson, how critics announced that he was not like his father, the restaurant's founder. They called the younger Johnson an accountant, but said his father was clever, an entrepreneur with vision. The business began to fail when the son stuck with the stodgy menu; everyone--Denny's, Marriott, Big Boy--diversified. Restaurants specialized. They became ethnic, regional, or themed. They offered a variety of single menu items. How could Howard Johnson's compete with Baskin-Robbins' reckless imagination?

    But Cecil was vicariously proud of his Johnson's accomplishments. The restaurants had a plain, homey comfort. Nice, clean restrooms. The orange roofs signaled that: something happy and decent. He fancies families dining with fresh-scrubbed faces, the boys wearing boxy jeans with cuffs rolled wide--the kind he'd wanted to wear, but Edna called too ugly.

    Cecil finds he's fond of Howard Johnson. He feels he understands him, often calls him Howard. He is unsettled, however, when he tries to remember eating at a Howard Johnson's, because he can't recall a single time.


* * *


Pajamas soaked from urine or sweat--he's too scared to know which--five years old and he tells Edna his nightmare. "Dreams come true in the opposite," she said. "So it just means that someday you will swim fast and eat up a big shark." Then she smiled as if something had been settled and left him sitting in the dark.


* * *


It's from a dog bite. The nose has been degloved; the cartilage destroyed. The patient, only nine, has blond too-thick hair. Her mother is agitated, anxious to declare her confidence in Cecil and to lament the tragedy that has befallen her only child.

    "She's a beautiful girl," she says, looking at her daughter with conviction--truckfuls of dizzying mother's hope.

    His examining room is too ordinary for the excesses of this drama. The nubby carpet and high-backed vinyl chairs, the barren cleanliness seem designed to discourage or deny suffering. Cecil takes paper from the wall desk. He nudges the rolling stool back toward the girl and begins to sketch the reconstruction. "It'll take at least two surgeries," he says.

    When he glances at the girl, she's looking at him carefully, as if she's going to draw him. Cecil tells about taking cartilage from a rib, rotating a flap of skin from the forehead to cover it. The mother says they understand.

    The surgery is scheduled. The yellow insurance sheet torn off, hands shaken, pre-op is left to be discussed with the nurse. Halfway out the door Cecil turns back: "If you happen to have a photograph. Or can get me one. It can help."

    Eagerly, the mother opens her purse, slips the picture into Cecil's hand.

    Verdant foliage seems to choke the other surroundings. To Cecil so much green looks desperate, false as hair dyed black. His patient is squatting and appears to have been examining something just out of the camera's view. Now she looks up through sun-bleached bangs, not with irritation, but with the lingering pleasure of her discovery and also expectantly, as if what life offers is dependably good. Her face is shadowed by the suffocating green, but her nose is in the clearest light.

    It may be the ugliest child's nose Cecil has ever seen. In French cuisine, it would be scrambled eggs doused with ketchup. In classic automobiles, it would be a Gremlin disfigured with body putty. She has a nose like a golf club--a one wood. Too thin, then too round, and full at the tip.


* * *


At the party, Cecil is showing the aerial photograph Howard Johnson bad someone take of the house. The bedroom roofs fan out like a fluted fruit bowl.

    "How would you ever think of an orange roof?" says Andrea, an anesthesiologist's wife, whose too-small nose is Mark Myer's work.

    Cecil's giving a tour. He's shown the saltwater fish aquarium, with its pulsing sea anemone and fluorescent pink starfish. Then the kitchen where the fireplace is large enough to roast a boar, according to a Southwest Home article. In the living room Cecil motions toward the view, the cactus-studded mountains with their sudden bizarre rock formations. He feels dating living here, where the landscape doesn't want to be inhabited and seems to wait patiently for him--for all of them--to go.

    "Incredible," someone sighs.

    The sandy-haired anesthesiologist says, "Do you suppose the McDonald brothers' houses had golden arches?"

    Cecil says, "Howard Johnson's took off when Johnson senior added butterfat to his ice cream flavors: vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry." Cecil knows this brings all conversation to a bored standstill, and Beth has asked him not to do it. But the story is so straightforward and gratifying.

    He can hear Beth laugh, a group away. "Thongs, I say, should be worn only on feet."

    He turns and in doing so bumps into a young woman who he sees has been waiting to catch his attention. She has the grim look of an overachiever. Her handshake is determined. She tells him her name, a man's name, which he instantly forgets. She explains that she's in a plastic surgery residency at the Mayo Clinic. "What I'd like to know," she says, "what I can't resist this opportunity to ask you--is what you consider the key to a successful rhinoplasty." Her eagerness makes him feel as if he's been asked the secret of life.

    Cecil considers giving her the conventional answers: that a nose needs to match its owner; that the dorsum must have a gentle break. But maybe because it's a party, or perhaps because she's so young and overzealous, instead he laughs: "It's so much fun."

    The woman--isn't she a girl really?--cocks her head. Perplexed.

    He says, "It's like being able to change ugly ducklings into swans. When you consider what you can do with just a tuck at the nostril or by resloping the bridge!" He pauses to savor the pleasure of it, a thrill he's certain only the best in his field know.

    But the young doctor frowns. "A fairy godfather thing?" This is not what she'd hoped for.

    "Yes!" Cecil ignores her disappointment. "I can grant the wish for a perfect nose."

    He's grabbed by the lawyer who set up his corporation. She asks if he thinks her forehead is falling. Beth walks toward him, graceful and careful, like a headdressed showgirl. "You preaching noses?"

    "I was asked."

    She roils her eyes, but smiles. "Ted called."

    "Did he leave a number?"

    She pauses. Silver bracelets jingle as she waves to someone across the room. "Says he's on the road. He'll call you."

    Ted being on the road might mean a new job, a lost job, a move, a marriage. Ted thrives on big change and long odds. He's content in the way only dreamers are. Ted will put his arm around Cecil's shoulders and call him Sport, an affectation Cecil means to find irritating but always enjoys instead.

    "Does he know anything about Mother? Has she told him what the disease is?" He thinks of Edna, whose footing, he decides, seems unsure. A consequence of his not knowing what she's dying of is that she seems to have symptoms of everything.

    "Ted doesn't know any more than you do." Beth pulls off a spangled earring, repinches it onto her ear. She nods toward their company. "How soon do you suppose they'll go home?"


* * *


Edna says fine is for wine, art, and china, but not for the weather. She says smuck for schmuck. And before she stopped suddenly: e-lec-twis-ity. Cecil can't imagine who corrected her.


* * *


Horrified, the mother says, "It looks like a tongue growing out of her forehead. Is there anything you can do in the meantime?"

    Cecil says, "We have to leave it like that until it establishes its own blood supply. Then we'll amputate it by the bridge, and we can start to sculpt it." He clicks on his penlight, scoots his stool toward his patient. He's been looking at the mother, searching for clues as to where the girl's original nose came from, but the mother's nose is ordinary, with a slight rise at the bridge.

    The girl continues to watch him thoughtfully, even sympathetically, as if she knows his secrets. More likely, he thinks, she has her own. He examines the tissue with his light and is satisfied it is healthy. He wonders why the girl didn't complain about the other children's taunts. Surely, all of her life she's been teased about her nose. Was she saving her mother or herself?

    "Mrs. Martin," he says, clicking off the light, "this is going to take some patience. And her nose won't be the same as it was before."

    The mother sputters. Her voice husky with despair, she says, "You're supposed to be the best. My husband says they call you The Nose."

    The girl brightens. "That's what they always call me."


* * *


Beth enjoys nice things. Cecil thinks this with pride and a twinge of miserly alarm as he notices new mosaic vases flanking the stone fireplace. "Do you like them?" she says, coming up behind him. "They were quite a find."

    Since she moved in, she and her decorator have undertaken a room-by-room redo. Gone are the bright red leather sofas he'd had made. "Howard Johnson had some like them," he'd said weakly in their defense. "Cowboy boots aren't quite the look we want," the decorator said with such disdain Cecil was intimidated and knew she must be good.

    He's also a little scared of Beth, his former travel agent, who one day included with his ticket to the Canary Islands a printed card saying she had changed her name from Marilyn to Beth. Getting to know her better, he'd hoped for an explanation that has never come. He doesn't know why people would change their names, or even what it means to want to. But he's sure her ability to sluff off a name proves she's capable in ways he can't imagine being. Her decisiveness and self-assurance are the traits he'd say attracted him to her. Her answers. Sometimes he fears the only thing he knows for certain is how to correct a nose.

    "Reproductions?" Cecil says, hopefully, of the vases.

    "Reproductions of what?"

    "Something more expensive?"

    Beth's smile is elusive. "The colors blend so nicely with the view, don't you think? Desert colors. Cold, pale browns, harsh greens."

    Cecil thinks it sounds a little ominous. Rattlesnakes, he imagines, scorpions. He watches Beth look into the desert. He's close enough to see how the red cast of her hair makes her eyes a sharper blue, but he can't tell what she's thinking. His first wife was a librarian. You know where you stand with a librarian, he thinks.

    "Should we go out for dinner?" she says, arranging bare swirly branches in the vases.

    "How about takeout?" He's exhausted.

    Beth frowns. "Long day?"

    He's had a letter from his patient's mother, a rant about good faith, an admonition that he will not "play God" with her child's nose. She says she sees what he's trying to do.

    "Beth, what would you do--" he starts to ask about his patient, but he finds he knows her answer will be to send the girl to someone else. She will tell him that with a mother like that, helping the girl is too risky. It could have serious consequences. It's true, of course. But suddenly he can't stand to hear it, can't stand to think what this says about Beth--that a certain dispassionate objectivity would allow her to abandon the girl; that her decisions can be based on mere expediency. He switches topics: "Mom's obsessed with getting a will drafted."

    Beth's look says, So what's the matter with that?

    "Beth, she doesn't have enough to bother with."

    "But it will give her a sense of closure. It will make her feel as if she does."

    His mother is doing it for attention, he thinks. He feels sullen but also ashamed of the stubborn stinginess that won't allow him to feign the concern she craves.

    Beth says, "It's easy to make Edna feel important." She is always solicitous toward his mother. "Edna, take this chair," she says, ushering her over to it. And Edna will situate herself, in her new, fragile body, flashing Beth one of her not-long-for-this-world smiles of appreciation. His mother looks like she's lost weight, he thinks, oddly wishing for one of his own before-surgery pictures for comparison. She's paler, too, of that he's sure.

    "You need to be patient with her," Beth says. "I'll get the takeout menus."

    He goes to the fireplace and sees the new vases are made of shards of old china. On one fragment there is gold lettering that spells Tuesday; another has a beige fleur-de-lis. One piece has the gray-green stripe of a Depression-era cafeteria mug. Why, it could be from a Howard Johnson's, he thinks. Pleased, he puts his mother out of his mind.


* * *


Cecil and Edna sit in her living room. With its careful arrangement of long-waisted ballerina figurines on a distress-finished table, it is Edna's idea of someone else's idea of appealing. A room like Edna, begging to be thought well of.

    She has given him a cup of tea in her pink art deco china. With a dull panic, he notices red pinpoints on her hand, which he thinks he remembers are a sign of a blood disease. He'd like to blurt, What is your illness? But he sees that her determination to keep it secret is a perversity she treasures.

    "I hope Beth will enjoy this set," Edna says, lifting a cup toward him. She has been sorting her belongings into teetering piles. Cecil realizes that if she weren't Edna he would see how sad this is; he would feel pity. Oddly, he could do better then, be more patient and tolerant. But pitying his mother--even if he could--would open some immense family floodgate that they would all slip through, helpless as trout. Something fragile is maintained in his reserve.

    "I've found some things of your father's. One is a wallet you made for him at summer camp. He never used it," she adds flatly.

    "Ted made it," Cecil says, handing it back, though he has no idea where it came from.

    When he was ten Edna taught him to polka, after first insisting he wash his face and hands and comb his hair. Now, as he remembers it, it is not just the living room furniture that whirls by, but his growing up, his life. The card games she taught them with complicated, contradictory rules. "Salamander," she'd yell suddenly, her bangs permed like poodle fluff, her cards flying like bats. ("Turn your head, too," she said, as they polkaed. "Next time we'll roll up the rug.") She cut their hair in the bathtub, then powdered them with Lily of the Valley. Ted begged to be spared the powder. She replied, "Silliest of boys." (An animal's name--a billy goat? a bear?--in the polka's title helped make it seem more fun.) Then the thread was taut before she bit it. "I hope you like it, dear," she said to his first wife about a homemade skirt Andrea wore to the library even after she got her Neiman's charge. The dance ending, Cecil rug-burned an elbow in a dizzy fall. "Stop that racket," his father yelled from the basement. Cecil supposes that was when he discovered that accordions were embarrassing and also a little sad.

    "... those cookies I used to make at Christmas. Do you remember the year you ate them all? And Ted told on you?" Her laugh represents a past she wants them to have shared. She says Ted's coming next week. She says she killed a black widow in the bathroom. But her chatter only communicates one thing to him: her last-chance hope for his love.

    He wonders when he got old enough that the failure of this relationship became his failure and no longer hers. How old was he when she called him Cecil-Weasel? And didn't he love her then? He searches for a day, a moment--some concrete time--where her foolishness and her vanity, where the irritations of who she is overwhelmed his dutiful affection. When did his soul become so destitute? A son who does not love his mother.

    Maybe it happened when he started medical school and she began to call him doctor--not because her addressing him as doctor was pretentious and slightly mortifying, but because suddenly he was important. She adored him. Did he reject her because he guessed her love was based more on his status as a future physician than on who he really was? My son, the doctor. Or perhaps his failure came later, during his residency. Did he despise Edna because the glamorous speciality so delighted her? My son, the plastic surgeon! Did it happen when he understood that he didn't intend to dedicate his life to transforming the ropy patches of burn victims? Did he fear he'd inherited her dubious ideals? Did Cecil hate Edna because her love was, after all, based precisely on who he really was?

    Why wasn't she the right kind of mother? But also, why wasn't he the right kind of son?

    "Beth sent this over," he says, remembering the fruit basket she had shoved into his hands. "Take credit for it," she had said.

    "How thoughtful she is," Edna says. She picks up an apple, rubs the skin to make it squeak. "An apple for your thoughts," she says.

    His frustration is so strong he thinks it leaves a taste--a taste dusty and sharp, the bad flavor of a shriveled walnut.

    "Penny," he gasps. "Mom, it's a penny for your thoughts." He begs it.


* * *


As they leave the examining room, the mother says, "You'll pay for this."

    In the absurd objective thinking of such times, Cecil decides, melodramatic.

    Before she's yanked out, the daughter shyly waves.

    He sits on his examining table, clicking his penlight off and on. He shines it on the wastebasket lid, flashes it on the sinuses of the cross-section diagram, says out loud, "what have I done?" He doesn't even know her, this other Nose. He thinks it's the photograph that got him here, the hopeful way she looked up. She deserved something. He's glad about her wave.

    He puts the light in his pocket, pats his hospital identification badge. He'd like to think of himself as a man of principle. He has done, and will stand by doing, the right thing. But this feels quaint and ineffectual, a Boy Scout reciting his oath. If good is triumphing somewhere, he guesses it has more to do with luck than choice or God.

    The sad irony is that the nose turned out better than he had hoped--the skin blending surprisingly well, the new shape transforming the girl's appearance like a fable. The nose is a miracle. "It was the best I could do," he says, rehearsing his testimony. "The nose was like a golf club," he says, knowing he won't and can't say it in court.

    "It was obvious." He eases himself off the table and shoves the stool back under the desk.


* * *


Edna wept when he left his first wife. She said, "I wish I knew where this might lead."

    Cecil said, "I knew where it was leading, Mother. I knew it was something I just couldn't fix."


* * *


Beth's voice is a shrill soprano that twists in Cecil's chest. They are singing "Happy Birthday" to Edna on his balcony. Beth's smile is cheerful as the expensive birthday cake with puffy frosting carrots fake as Bugs Bunny's.

    "Should I blow them out?" Edna says before she does. She wears a pendant with an abstract shape like an internal organ. Liver, he thinks. No, pituitary gland. She pats it whenever something excites her.

    Cecil admits it: today his mother appears ill. She no longer fusses as before with the gauze pad taped to the crook of her arm. Dying seems to have lost its novelty. She has a peaked look of fear.

    She says Ted's arrival has been postponed for just a week or two, studiously overlooking how Ted has been unavoidably delayed four times already. Cecil watches as she turns toward the desert. He thinks the mountains seem close today, particularly inhospitable in the noon light. The olive green of the saguaros reminds him of a tank's armor, and there's a glare that makes him feel thirsty.

    Edna nods toward the Praying Monk, a huge sandstone formation on Camelback Mountain. Its devout posture is marred today by rock climbers on belay. "What are they doing up there?"

    "Climbing," Cecil says.

    "Why would they do that?" She laughs, but is, in fact, expecting some answer.

    "I'm being sued for negligence," Cecil says.

    Beth looks up from her cake. "Negligence?"

    "Gross negligence is the exact terminology. I expect to lose."

    Beth and Edna seem stunned. He sees he's disillusioned them in ways they'd never imagined.

    Beth's voice is gentle. "Surely there's something you can do?"

    "I can operate again, give the child an ugly nose, but I'm not going to."

    Beth says, "Let's think about this."

    Edna whispers, "But what about me?"

    "Edna!" Beth flashes her a look of displeasure so sharp that Cecil flinches. He sees a pretense slip, Beth's animosity for Edna exposed. He understands suddenly how he's depended on Beth, counted on her doing the right thing with his mother. She has been his conscience, but this conscience, he sees, is based on what is easy, not on what is honest or even right. A conscience without feeling. Beth smooths the hair at her temples, a gesture he knows is calculated to restore her composure. But watching it, he imagines her adjusting a mask, adroitly blending the edges into her hair.

    Cecil looks at his shoes. They are falsely rugged, like his expensive all-terrain vehicle that has never been off asphalt. Like Beth, whose real name is Marilyn. He looks at his mother. Her face is pale. Her mouth quivers. He is all she has.

    "What is your illness, Mother?" he says.

    Her hand flutters to her necklace. "Leukemia," she says, a surrender reverent as a prayer.

    A breeze ruffles the fringe of the table's umbrella and tosses Edna's crumpled napkin. He waits to feel love for his mother. Now that he knows what she's dying of. Now that he knows it is real. He thinks it could come like a spirit, floating from some heavenly height. A form with iridescence, like the rainbow shiver of oil on water. Maybe the Holy Spirit. But there is nothing.

    "Oh, God," he says. He thinks of the rattlesnakes on the mountain, their bodies fat as a man's arm. They suddenly seem real and close. "Ted won't come, Mom," he says, this final, necessary cruelty. "He'll leave this to me. I'm sorry."

    Beth says, "Cecil, stop."

    He expects Edna to weep, but she does not. She holds her head in a way that seems brave. In her courage--or the sad, limp imitation of it--he sees she deserves some kind of love, and he wishes love were about what is deserved or earned. He wishes love could be awarded.


* * *


Three months later Cecil is in a booth meant for a family, where their sliding in would look comical, ending with the mother getting the last seat by a high-chaired baby. But Cecil is here alone. The menu is in a greasy plastic cover. The waitress looks so much like a waitress that Cecil believes serving tables was her only possible choice. She is a cliché of swollen ankles and bobby-pinned hair. She calls him hon, an unconsidered intimacy from overwork and another era, but it touches him.

    As he expected, the entrees are out of style: chicken cacciatore with "savory herb blends from Italy" and spiced baked ham with pineapple rings. No little red heart-smart labels in sight. An industry analyst in Hotel Management said that Howard Johnson could have saved the business if he'd eaten at his own restaurants instead of lunching at 21.

    "Spaghetti," Cecil says, pointing, as if the menu is in a language he doesn't trust himself to pronounce.

    She nods with grave approval. "Coffee with that, hon?"

    The place is almost empty, just off I-10 where drivers can spot the orange roof.

    Cecil says, "Howard Johnson started out with three ice cream flavors in a store by a commuter rail station."

    She nods, pleasant but uninterested. Even her nose is a waitress's, with a look of habitual romantic disappointment.

    "I live in a house Howard Johnson built," Cecil says.

    "No kidding?" This time she's not just being polite. "Where?"

    "It has an orange roof."

    She squints to see if he's teasing, but then is somehow convinced. "No way!"

    "Each bedroom has its own outside entrance and a bathroom with a phone."

    "Like a hotel!" she exclaims, as if it's the punch line.

    "Howard had a lot of guests. Business, of course, but he was really a nice guy. Honest and generous. People liked him."

    "You knew him?" She's impressed.

    "My mother died last Wednesday," he says, before he can stop himself or even think to try.

    "I'm so sorry." She folds her arms for a respectful moment. "I'll bring your coffee. Losing a mother. That's hard."

    After she's left he looks out the window. Near the entrance, orange lantana sprouts hopefully from the hard-packed bare ground. A couple of bedraggled palms shade the door. A car angles into the handicapped parking space.

    The waitress, whose name tag reads EDDIE, returns with his coffee. "On the house, hon," she announces proudly, but also sympathetically.

    "No, no." He is undeserving. "I couldn't possibly. It's too much," he says, because suddenly it really is.

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Table of Contents

Howard Johnson's House 1
Krista Had a Treble Clef Rose 20
A Good Paved Road 35
Victor's Funeral Urn 53
Pruitt Love 72
Survival Rates 88
Farming Butterflies 107
Heartbreak House 126
Jumping 141
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