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Authors: Charlotte Rogan

Now and Again

BOOK: Now and Again
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For my parents

Do it or don't do it—you will regret both.

—Søren Kierkegaard

If you were to measure east to west and draw a line down the center of the country, the line would not pass through the town of Red Bud, but it wouldn't miss it by very much. Most things missed Red Bud by a lot more than that.

—Robert “Buddy” Hutchinson, Mayor

There wasn't any warning. One day Maggie was gossiping in the lunchroom with the rest of us, and the next she was all righteous and judgmental. It was like she was born again, but not in a good way.

—True Cunningham

It started when she realized we were making bombs. She had always known that—of course she knew it. But you can know something and not really know it, if you know what I mean.

—Misty Mills

Word got out that something important was missing from Mr. Winslow's office. Whatever it was, I don't think Maggie would have taken it. I mean, she was trying to do something good in the world, and that wouldn't include stealing.

—True Cunningham

I could get in a lot of trouble if anyone knew I had misplaced a top-secret report, so I decided to keep it to myself.

—August Winslow

The word “depleted” is inserted to make the uranium sound harmless. Believe me, it's not.

—Professor Stanley Wilkes, Oklahoma State University

M
aggie Rayburn had just come from eating birthday cake in the employees' lunchroom when a document sitting in plain sight on her boss's desk caught her eye. It was one o'clock, and a shaft of late-winter sun was stabbing through the plate-glass window behind the desk, blinding her enough so that at first she wasn't sure exactly what was signified by the thick red border on the document's cover or by the stern capital letters or the string of acronyms and slashes. Curiosity—was it a useful trait or a dangerous one? But who isn't curious, she thought as she lifted the cover and peered inside:
Discredit the doctors,
she read.
Flood the system with contradictory reports.

Footsteps sounded in the corridor, causing a shiver to prickle her neck. She glanced out the window and cocked her head to listen. It was getting brighter out—or no, it wasn't really, but now and then a band of light cut through the pervasive cloud cover and illuminated the stretch of farmland she had been looking at for what seemed like a thousand years. It was gray and frozen now, but in a few more months it would burst with life, aided by the antlike tractors that crawled along the corn rows and the spindly wheeled irrigation contraption and, a few months later, the big green harvesting machines. And in the distance…

But she didn't have time to think about the distance, where the corn gave way to wheat and where a phalanx of oil rigs were drilling into the sub-shelf of the Arkoma Basin, and beyond the oil rigs, Oklahoma City, and beyond that…

Beyond that, an entire world she had never seen.

The footsteps were coming closer, pausing—surely they belonged to Mr. Winslow, who would have finished up his meeting with the army brass by now—and anyway, there was never time. There were documents to be typed and filed, telephones to be answered, an outfit to be chosen for the special birthday dinner Lyle was planning for her—in secret, he thought, but Lyle was an open book. The more furtive his movements, the easier it was to guess what he was up to. All of the hours in the day were spoken for!

Unless she made time. Unless she announced: “Thursday evening you boys are on your own” and went to get her nails done or meet up with True and Misty for a girls' night out.

But today something was different. Whatever it was caused Maggie's heart to clench with a dangerous possibility, and before she knew what she was doing, the document was in her hands, and then it was tucked up inside the baggy sweater Lyle and Will had given her that morning for her birthday—Lyle, who had no fashion sense! Will, who wanted her to be presentable, but not the kind of mother his friends eyed from under the brims of their baseball caps. Where had the years gone? She might as well slap a used-up mother sign on her forehead if she was going to wear a sweater like that.

But as she stood in a stray shaft of February sunlight, watching the distant oil rigs pump their greasy dollars out of the ground, she wondered if certain seemingly indelible aspects of her life and personality might change. If Lyle might become her accomplice in whatever lay in wait for her as the earth made its lonely way around the sun and Will spun off into ever-farther orbits and she took another step along the Path to Becoming, which was something she had read about in a magazine she had bought herself as a birthday treat just, coincidentally, the day before.

She was thirty-nine. In another year she would be forty—she still had time. Time for what? was the obvious question, but like all the other big questions, it couldn't be easily answered, if it could be answered at all. The author of the magazine article had stressed boldness of action in the process of becoming, so Maggie, who had been struck by the aptness of the advice for her stage in life, heard Mr. Winslow hesitate and reached for the document almost without thinking. Almost without realizing that the acronyms and slashes referred to control systems and compartments, which were divided into sub-control systems and sub-compartments as part of a security clearance system she knew about but didn't completely understand. Almost without looking over her shoulder to make sure she was alone, but in the back of her mind picturing a letter she had received out of the blue several weeks before.

She moved some papers into the blank spot where the document had been before scurrying back to the secretarial bay, and at the end of the day she took it home with her and hid it away in the tall mahogany chest of drawers that had been handed down from her grandmother to her mother and from her mother to her, not daring to look beyond the cover with its red
TOP SECRET
banner for another week and a half, but now and then catching her own eye in the mirror that sat atop the old chest and seeing there—if not exactly boldness and youth, then not timidity and middle age either. She had never been timid, but maybe she was a little too predictable. Or a little too content. A little too willing to be what other people wanted her to be.

  

On the first Saturday in March, Lyle announced that he was going to drive Will to the tryouts for the baseball team just the way he had always driven him, but instead of quietly acquiescing, Will planted his feet on the speckled linoleum and said, “Thanks anyway, Dad, but now that I have my license, I can drive myself.”

“I'll tag along,” said Lyle. “You know I like to watch.”

“Okay, Dad, okay. But after today, I drive myself.”

“Unless I need the truck,” said Lyle, winning a small battle in the unwinnable war of keeping Will from growing up. “Or maybe you happen to have a little money stashed away and can buy your own set of wheels.”

“Don't make me laugh,” said Will, sounding just like his father as he said it. The money from his summer job had run out months before, and now that baseball season was starting up, there was no chance of working on the weekends for a little pocket cash.

Maggie listened to the sound of the tires spinning down the gravel driveway and out onto Old Oak Road before sitting down on a scrap of carpet she had hooked in what seemed like a previous lifetime. Her hands trembled as she opened the bottom drawer of the dresser and tried to understand the difference between alpha particles, which persisted in the environment upon detonation, and gamma and neutron radiation, which quickly dissipated but were extremely destructive before that point. The document, which was called
Countering Misconceptions,
made the point in no uncertain terms that the weapons manufactured by the company she worked for had no unintended health effects on the people who made, transported, or deployed them. They were perfectly safe. People who said otherwise were misguided or politically motivated or, in some cases, mentally ill. Here were ten talking points on the subject along with four things to do if a colleague poked his nose where it didn't belong.

That night, Maggie and Lyle lay with their arms around each other and talked about their son. “He's all grown up,” said Lyle wistfully.

“Yes,” said Maggie. “He certainly is.”

“He's a nice young man,” said Lyle. After a moment he added, “I think we've done a good job at being parents.”

This was not a new conversation, and always before, Maggie had gone to sleep feeling satisfied that she and Lyle had done their best. “He's a fine-looking boy,” they would remark in the darkness of their bedroom, and occasionally one or the other of them would say, “He's an old soul. It's almost as if he's been here before.”

But now Maggie sweated and tossed and thought about the world Will was entering, how filled it was with hidden dangers. She wondered what it would be like with Will gone off to college or wherever his own path led him—would she be able to escape the gravity of her role as wife and mother, or would she collapse into herself, becoming hard and dense and dying? She thought about the article on becoming, which stressed the need for agency, and about the letter from a person named Dolly, who had decided not to sit idly by, and about how any person could point to a handful of moments that changed everything: The first was when her father had slammed out the door for the last time. The second was the evening she had taken her sister's turn at washing dishes so that she could wash them with Lyle, who up until then had been her brother's friend. The third was the moment the footsteps paused, giving her an opportunity to take the document that now lay pulsing beneath the sweaters in her bottom drawer.

D
olly Jackson worked as a midwife at a women's health clinic, and because of the clinic's location near a large VA hospital, it attracted a lot of veterans and veterans' wives. She loved her job despite the fact that her family had tried to dissuade her from entering the field. “You're doing a doctor's job, but you're getting paid worse than a nurse,” they said when Dolly went home for Easter or Christmas.

It was true, but Dolly didn't care. More and more women were joining the armed services, and she liked to think of herself as soldiering bravely on the battlefield of women's rights. She also liked to think she was helping her boyfriend, Danny Joiner, who had enlisted in the army when his college scholarship ran out and whom she hoped someday to marry. Her work allowed some of the women to have their babies at home, where Dolly lit candles and soothed them with soft music. “I'd like to see a man go through this,” she'd whisper to the women, and when the babies plunged mewling from their mothers' wombs, their first glimpse of the world was softly lit and rose scented and the first thing they heard were the violins and cymbals of
Appalachian Spring
if they were white babies and the Oklahoma City Gospel Choir if they were black. “It's a beautiful world!” Dolly told the babies. “Me oh my, it's a beautiful world!”

She taught the husbands and boyfriends how to help the women breathe, and then she wrapped the babies up in soft cotton blankets and placed them in their mothers' arms. But lately, Dolly's work had taken a frightening twist. Three babies in the past year had been born with horrendous defects. One had been born without a face. The head was the size of a grapefruit; its only feature was an open mouth, and out of the mouth a tumor protruded, purple as a plum and big as an orange. She deserved to go to hell for wishing the baby would die. She wished it would die quickly, before the mother saw it. What else could she wish for?

Over the next few days, she tried excising the thoughts as neatly as the pediatric surgeon had excised the tumor, but ugly images kept penetrating her resolve. She saw ripe fruit everywhere, even in her sleep. She sat bolt upright in bed with the words of the attending obstetrician ringing unbidden in her head: “Why in the world did you let the mother see it?” As if it were somehow her fault for wanting everything to be perfect in a world where nothing was.

I wish that baby would die, she had thought then, and she thought it again whenever the horrendous image of a baby with a head like an orange and a grapefruit stuck together popped onto the screen of her inner vision. It had been the worst moment of her life when, in the soft winking light of the candles, with Copeland's magnificent crescendo evoking the thrust of new life from the earth, she had said to the mother, “We need to call the doctor,” and the mother had taken the baby in her arms and screamed and fainted, and only Dolly's quick thinking had prevented the baby from falling to the floor.

The grandmother, who had been waiting in the next room, rushed in when she heard her daughter scream. “What's going on here?” she shouted as the father grabbed at the soft bundle, and Dolly had allowed him to take it from her.

She was glad when the baby's tiny weight was no longer in her grasp. She had hurried out of the room to use the telephone—to call the doctor, of course, but also to evade the family's dawn of understanding. When she returned, she announced, “The doctor will be here in twenty minutes.” During those long minutes, Dolly didn't know what else to say. She pretended to be busy with her bag of instruments and then with the mother and the blood pressure cuff, but she could tell that the family blamed her for the baby's condition—not because it was her fault, but because there was no one else to blame.

Dolly wished the doctor would hurry. She knew he had a new car with a powerful engine, and she wished he would use it as aggressively that night as he used it to get to his weekend trysts in Norman or Shawnee. She wanted a second set of shoulders for the burden of blame the father and grandmother had handed over the way she had handed over the baby, but she wondered if they would feel the same way about the doctor, who hadn't been complicit in the actual birth—and also, the doctor was a man. Dolly knew people preferred to blame women if there was a choice. For one thing, women were smaller and presented a lesser physical threat, and for another, the women she knew, herself included, were more than eager to blame themselves.

That had been the worst night of her life until the sunstruck October evening less than two months later when a baby had been born covered with a cracked white coating, a coating like a potter's glaze, a powdery white crust crazed by deep black gashes where there should have been skin. Dolly could hold her tongue no longer. “Don't we need to tell someone?” she had asked as carefully as she could. Long ago, she had learned which things would encourage the doctor to speak and which would cause him to say, “So you can see that I'm a busy man, with no time for idle chatter.” She kept her voice low, which made it hard to get the tone right. “About the birth defects, I mean. That's two now, just eight weeks apart.”

“I know what you're thinking,” said the doctor, stroking the stethoscope that hung around his neck and giving the appearance of listening.

In a normal conversation, that's when Dolly would have said something, and the conversation would have proceeded with the usual back-and-forth rhythm. But Dolly didn't have normal conversations with the doctor, and she knew silence didn't mean he was waiting for her to speak. He was merely pausing for effect. He was merely letting the tension build to make adequate space for his next pronouncement. But she liked it when he talked as if she wasn't there. That was when she learned things.

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