Kate shrugged. "A little blue maybe."
Marcia made a note in the chart. "It’s been almost exactly twelve months since your last appointment. Way to go."
"You know us Catholic girls. Rule-followers."
Marcia smiled and closed the chart, reaching for her gloves. "Okay, Kate, we’ll start with the pap smear. Slide on down to the end here . . ."
For the next few minutes Kate gave herself over to the little indignities that came with female health care: the speculum, the probing, the sampling. All the while she and Dr. Silver made stilted, impersonal conversation. They talked about the weather, the latest show at the 5th Avenue Theater, and the approaching holidays.
It wasn’t until nearly thirty minutes later, when the exam had moved to her br**sts, that Marcia actually stopped making chitchat. "How long have you had this discoloration on your breast?"
Kate glanced down at the quarter-sized red patch beneath her right nipple. The skin was slightly puckered like an orange peel. "Nine months or so. Maybe a year, come to think of it. It started as a bug bite. My family doctor thought it was an infection and put me on antibiotics. It went away for a while and then came back. Sometimes it feels hot—that’s how I know it’s an infection."
Marcia stared down at Kate’s breast, frowning. Kate added: "I had my mammogram on time. Everything was clean."
"I see that." Marcia went to the wall phone, punched in a number, and said, "I want to get Kate in for a breast ultrasound. Now. Tell them to fit her in. Thanks." She hung up and turned around.
Kate sat up. "You’re scaring me, Marcia."
"I hope it’s nothing, Kate, but I want to be sure, okay?"
"Let’s talk when we know what’s going on. Janis will take you down to radiology. Okay? Is your husband here?"
"Should he be?"
"No. I’m sure it’s fine. Oh, here’s Janis."
Kate’s mind was a whirl. Before she knew it, she was dressed again and being shepherded up three floors and down the hall. There, after an interminable wait, she endured another breast exam, more clucking and frowning, and an ultrasound.
"I always do my self-exams," she said. "I haven’t felt a lump."
Above her, as she lay in the dark room, the nurse and radiologist exchanged a look.
"What?" Kate said, hearing fear in her voice now.
When the ultrasound was over, she was again shuffled out of the exam room and deposited back in the waiting room. Like all the other women in the small room, she read magazines, trying to concentrate on random sentences and Bundt cake recipes; anything except the results of the ultrasound.
It’ll be fine, she told herself whenever the worry crept through. Nothing to worry about. Cancer wasn’t something that crept up on you; certainly not breast cancer. There were warning signs and she watched for them religiously. It had already struck her family once with Aunt Georgia, so they were vigilant. One by one, the other women left; still Kate waited.
Finally, a plump, doe-eyed nurse came for her. "Kathleen Ryan?"
She stood up. "Yes?"
"I’m going to take you across the hall. Dr. Krantz is waiting to do a biopsy on you."
"Just to be sure. Come on."
Kate couldn’t seem to move; she could barely nod. Clutching her purse, she stumbled along behind the nurse. "My last mammogram was clear, you know. I do regular self-exams, too."
She wished suddenly that Johnny were here, holding her hand, telling her everything was going to be fine.
She took a deep breath and tried to control her fear. Once, several years ago, she’d had a bad pap smear and needed a biopsy. It had ruined a weekend, waiting for results, but in the end she’d been fine. Remembering that, clinging to it like a life ring in cold, turbulent water, she followed the silent nurse to the office down the hall. The sign by the door read: THE GOODNO FOUNDATION CANCER CARE CENTER.
Tully was awakened by the phone ringing. She came awake hard, looked around. It was 2:01 in the morning. She reached over and answered. "Hello?"
"Is this Tallulah Hart?"
She rubbed her eyes. "Yes. Who is this?"
"My name is Lori Witherspoon. I’m a nurse at Harborview Hospital. We have your mother here. Dorothy Hart."
"We’re not sure. It looks like a drug overdose, but she was pretty badly beaten up, too. The police are waiting to question her."
"Did she ask for me?"
"She’s unconscious. We found your name and number in her things."
"I’ll be right there."
Tully got dressed in record time and was on the road by 2:20. She pulled into the parking lot at the hospital and went to the desk.
"Hello. I’m here to see my mother, Cl—uh, Dorothy Hart."
"Sixth floor, Ms. Hart. Go to the nurses’ desk."
"Thanks." Tully went upstairs and was directed to her mother’s room by a tiny woman in a pale orange nurse’s uniform.
Inside the shadowy room there were two beds. The one nearest the door was empty.
She shut the door behind her, surprised to find that she was frightened. For the whole of her life, she’d been wounded by her mother. She’d loved her as a child, inexplicably; hated her as a teenager; and ignored her as a woman. Cloud had broken her heart more times than she could count, and let her down on every possible occasion, and yet, even after all of that, Tully couldn’t help feeling something for her.
Cloud was asleep. Bruises covered her face, blackened one eye; her lip was split open and seeped blood. Short gray hair, apparently cut with a dull knife, was matted to her head.
She didn’t look anything like herself; rather, she looked like a frail old woman who’d been beaten by more than someone’s fists—by life itself.
"Hey, Cloud," Tully said, surprised to find that her throat was tight. She gently stroked her mother’s temple, the only place on her face that wasn’t bloodied or bruised. As she felt the velvety soft skin, she realized that the last time she’d touched her mother had been in 1970, when they’d held hands on that crowded Seattle street.
She wished she knew what to say to this woman, with whom she had a history but no present. So she just talked. She told her about the show and her life and how successful she’d become. When that started to sound hollow and desperate, she talked about Kate and their fight and how it had left her feeling so alone. As the words formed themselves and spilled out, Tully heard the truth in them. Losing the Ryans and Mularkeys had left her devastatingly alone. Cloud was all she had left. How pathetic was that?
"We’re all alone in this world, haven’t you figured that out by now?"
Tully hadn’t noticed her mother wake up, and yet she was conscious now, and looking at Tully through tired eyes. "Hey," she said, smiling, wiping her eyes. "What happened to you?"
"I got beat up."
"I wasn’t asking what put you in the hospital. I was asking what happened to you."
Cloud flinched and turned away. "Oh. That. I guess your precious grandmother never told you, huh?" She sighed. "It doesn’t matter now."
Tully drew in a sharp breath. This was the most meaningful conversation they’d ever had; she felt poised on the edge of some essential discovery that had eluded her for all her years. "I think it does."
"Go away, Tully." Cloud turned her face into the pillow.
"Not until you tell me why." Her voice trembled on that question; of course it did. "Why didn’t you ever love me?"
"Forget about me."
"Honestly, I wish I could. But you’re my mother."
Cloud turned back and stared at her, and for a moment, no longer than it took to blink, Tully saw sadness in her mother’s eyes. "You break my heart," she said quietly.
"You break mine, too."
Cloud smiled for a second. "I wish . . ."
"I could be what you need, but I can’t. You need to let me go."
"I don’t know how to do that. After everything, you’re still my mother."
"I was never your mother. We both know that."
"I’ll always keep coming back," Tully said, realizing just then that it was true. They might be damaged, she and her mother, but they were connected, too, in a strange and profound way. This dance of theirs, as painful as it had always been, wasn’t quite over. "Someday you’ll be ready for me."
"How do you keep hold of a dream like that?"
"With both hands." She would have added, no matter what, but the promise reminded her of Kate and hurt too much to utter aloud.
Her mother sighed and closed her eyes. "Go away."
Tully stood there a long time, her hands curled around the metal bed rails. She knew her mother was pretending sleep; she also knew when it became real. When intermittent snores filled the silence, she went to the small closet in the room, found a folded-up blanket, and grabbed it. That was when she noticed the small pile of clothes folded neatly in the corner on the closet’s bottom self. Beside it was a brown paper grocery bag, rolled closed at the top.
She covered her mother with the blanket, tucked it up beneath her chin, and returned to the closet.
She wasn’t sure why she went through her mother’s things, what she was looking for. At first, it was the stuff she’d expected: dirty, worn clothes, shoes with holes along the soles, a makeshift toiletry set in a plastic baggie, cigarettes and a lighter.
Then she saw it, coiled neatly at the bottom of the sack—a frayed piece of string, knotted into a circle, with two pieces of dried macaroni and a single blue bead strung on it.
The necklace Tully had made in her Bible study class and given to her mother on that day, so many years ago, when they’d left Gran’s house in the VW bus. Her mother had kept it, all this time.
Tully didn’t touch it. She was afraid somehow that she’d find it existed only in her mind. She turned to her mother, went to the bed. "You kept it," she said, feeling something brand-new open up inside her. A kind of hope—not the spit-shined little-girl variety, but something tarnished and worn; more reflective of who they were and where they’d been. Still, it was there, under all the rust and discoloration: hope. "You know how to hold on to a dream, too, don’t you, Cloud?"
She sat down on the molded plastic chair by the bed. Now she had a genuine question for her mother, and she intended to get an answer.
Sometime around four o’clock, she slumped in her chair and fell asleep.
The trilling of her cell phone wakened her. She unfolded slowly, painfully, rubbing the crick in her neck. It took her a moment to realize where she was.
She stood up. Her mother’s bed was empty. She wrenched open the closet doors.
Empty. The bag was crumpled into a ball and left behind.
Her cell phone rang again. She glanced at the incoming number. "Hey, Edna," she said, sinking back into the chair.
"You sound awful."
"Bad night." She wished she’d touched the necklace now; already it was taking on the blurry edges of a dream. "What time is it?"
"Six, your time. Are you sitting down?"
"Coincidentally, I am."