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Neighboring on the Air

by Caroline Patterson
  
 

One morning in March, Daisy Flick walked into the offices of KAL Radio in Hamilton, Montana, notes, recipe cards, and clipped newspaper items in one hand, a coffee cup in the other. Her two children followed her: Sally who was three, bird-like and quiet; and Stanley, five, a chunky, self-assured boy who had the annoying habit of correcting her and usually being right. She perched on a leather-covered chair, her children beside her, their eyes on the lighted sign that read “On Air.”

In the sound booth, Rose Boileau was finishing her homemaker show, “Koffee Klatch,” with a recipe for Crazy Cake. She winked at Daisy as she slid effortlessly into a plug for Dotty Duncan’s hats. “Ladies are lovelier in hats,” she said, touching the smooth brown wave that swept up from her neck. Then she leaned into the microphone. “Good-bye, my friends,” she said. “Keep your heads high, your smiles wide, and your days will be brighter.”

She set the needle on the turntable and the Singing Pioneers sang “Tumbleweeds.”

In addition to raising four children and helping her husband, owner of Jack Frost Orchards, Rose Boileau was queen of the station’s four homemakers who were neighboring on the air with weekly programs of recipes, gossip, and community news. She’d had her show for nearly 15 years and two generations of women in the Bitterroot Valley had grown up learning to keep house according to Rose. Rose shaped their everyday lives; she determined what they set on their tables. When the Pac and Carry, for example, had a surplus of bananas, Rose came on the air with recipes for banana bread and banana cream pie and the overstock was gone in a day.

Each Christmas the manager of KAL Radio sent Rose Boileau a dozen roses. All Daisy got was a card with a picture of a wreath.

But what Daisy envied most about Rose was her ease. Rose sat at the microphone and recipes, news, and advertisements seemed to flow from her. How did she keep all that in her head, Daisy wondered. How did she move so smoothly from cakes to coupons, from weddings to club news? Daisy could hardly remember what her children had for breakfast, much less the slogan for the Hamilton Merc.

As Rose came out of the sound booth, she touched the cheeks of the children, who looked up at her, terror mixed with awe. “Hello dear,” she said to Daisy in her calm, imperious voice. “I always look forward to your show.”

Daisy entered the room, throwing her coat on the floor, her notes on the table. She settled her kids in the corner, promising popcorn if they were quiet. What was it that Rose enjoyed about her show, she wondered, her bumbling delivery? The botched recipes?

She turned on the microphone and looked at her notes.

In large crooked letters, they said: CALVING. SICK COW. CHICKADEES.

“This is Daisy Flick, your neighbor with news from ‘My Kitchen Sink,’” she started. Her voice tangled in her throat. She took a breath. “It’s calving season, friends. So my husband, like yours, is out there all hours of the night—it’s like living with a new baby and we all know what that’s like. Our milk cow is still sick and her milk’s poor, but we’re rooting for her.”

She panicked slightly, but her notes steadied her. “A family of chickadees has taken up residence in front of my kitchen window. The mama’s making her nest—she seems to be partial to horsehair—and we’re looking forward to eggs, aren’t we, Stanley?”

Stanley looked like he was about to say something, but she stared him into silence.

“This is probably old hat to most of you out there, but I was a town girl and what I grew up doing was talking. ‘Well Daisy,’ my husband always says, ‘When the good Lord gave out the gift of gab, you were first in line.’ ‘Well, Henry,’ I always answer. ‘You got the corner on tact.’”

She went on about the meeting of the Merry Wives Club, the bridge supper at the Klines and then, of all things, the baby shower for the father of a newborn boy, where, it was reported, his friends played a game of pulling clothespins off a line with their teeth.

Her mouth ran dry; her mind blanked. She grabbed the newspaper clipping about the cat who’d been locked in a kiln at the brick company. “When he was found,” she read, “his skin was burned dry as a cracker and his nose was scarred, but he was alive. ‘He always was a tough cat,’ the owner said.

The advertising. She’d forgotten about the advertising and the manager was always getting after her about that. She plugged the Creamettes sale at the Pac and Carry and finished with an elaborate thanks for the homemaker shows’ sponsor: Jack Frost Orchards, “where the apples seem to smile.”

Even though they’d heard this dozens of times, her children stared at her as if that were the dumbest thing they’d ever heard.

A light rain started up on the drive from town and the children fell asleep in the backseat to the wipers’ steady squeak. Daisy drove the narrow highway to the ranch, passing stock trucks and the occasional tractor, until she reached the county line where she turned west. This turn always filled her with dread. Maybe it was the mountains—they were high, jagged, and remote and they seemed to repeat themselves endlessly, like mirrors mirroring mirrors. Maybe it was the bare stretch of the hay fields and the lonely power line. She’d grown up in Bridger, 60 miles up the road, with orderly maple-lined streets, several radio stations, a large department store, where if you got on well with the saleswoman, she’d keep you in mind on her buying trips. Downtown, there was always the hum and clack of commerce, the ringing of tills, the breathy sound of doors opening and shutting, the people on the sidewalks calling to one another.

The ranch was Henry’s dream. After they’d been married several years, his aunt died, leaving him enough to start up a small cow-calf operation. Then the trips to the bank began: for a barn, a tractor, more cattle. They learned everything they could from their neighbors, but they’d lost several cows in the heavy snows last winter and several tons of hay had been ruined by rain. It was then Henry and Daisy named their place the Green Ranch for all the inexperience and money they poured into it.

She pulled up the drive next to the peeling white farmhouse, the midday light slanting across the bare ground. She slung Sally over her shoulder and delivered her to her bed. Then, with a grunt, Stanley. She was loading up the percolator with coffee when Henry walked in, his black hair wind-slicked, his face red, his eyes hollow. He’d been up all night, calving.

“How’re the mamas?” she said, watching the small bursts of water at the top of the coffee pot.

“Restless.” He dropped into a chair at the linoleum table and began tracing flowers on the oilcloth with a square-tipped finger. “I stayed up with that big heifer, who seemed like she’d go any minute, then the rascal lay down in the straw and slept like the dead. I’m bushed. And I’ve got a dozen of these to go.”

“Poor baby,” she said, sliding into a chair at the kitchen table. It was strange, Henry up at all hours, drifting in and out of their bed. The other night, when she was up with Sally, who’d had a nightmare, she had the sense that they were all a tribe of night wanderers, roving from bed to bed in the semi-darkness, never really quite sleeping.

“Well, heck,” Daisy said. “Look at the bright side.”

Henry looked at her, waiting to hear the bright side.

“Tonight, just as you’re settling into bed, she’ll go into serious labor.”

Henry gave her a wan smile and went back to tracing flowers on the oilcloth.
She poured them coffee. Two lumps of sugar for Henry; nothing for her. She’d heard on one of the homemaker shows—was it Rose’s?—that drinking black coffee was one way to lose that roll at the waist.

In the hush of children sleeping, Daisy put her hand on Henry’s and felt his exhaustion roll over her. He smiled at her, his face tender. When they were alone together, they’d grown shy around one another—a shyness not unlike the days they were dating, except that she wasn’t excited by the quiver between them, she was irritated by it. Irritated by what it seemed to ask from her in this rare moment of quiet. Then, at the thin cry from a distant bedroom and the urgent patter of footsteps, the moment was washed away by clean, immediate purpose and she jumped up and poured juice in a cup.

Sally stopped in the kitchen doorway, her hair in clumps, her face moist with sleep, her dress twisted around her thin body. “Mama,” she cried. “I hurt.”

By the next week, there were twenty more calves and, she announced to her listeners, the chickadees had begun sitting on their nest, leaving only for food.

Of course there were no chickadees. In fact, there were pine siskins that fluttered about the ponderosas and never came close to the house, but Daisy thought chickadees sounded better—didn’t every ranch house have a cheerful nest of something at the window? These images of fertility, she thought, somehow dignified their life in the white house with the peeling paint.

Of course, the first time she mentioned the birds, Stanley said, as they left the station, that he hadn’t seen any chickadees in their windows, he hadn’t seen birds at all, but she told him they were magic birds. That kept him quiet for a while.

She talked about Sally’s cold. Did colds ever disappear in a house with children? She asked her listeners. Or did they just visit one family member after another, until, when everyone was well, they circled back for more. Somehow she had a sense that illness was always around, crouched and waiting for a lapse—wet hair, wet hands, wet feet—to pounce.

She read aloud a letter from a Mrs. McLeod who wrote that what the sick cow needed was wool and camphor around the throat. You need that milk, she wrote, you’ve got to get her producing.

Sally started coughing from the back of the room. Stanley gave her something to drink, as Daisy had instructed him to, but the coughing deepened until Sally began to gag. Daisy grabbed a record and put it on the turntable “Night on the Prairie” by Marlene Sue and the Cowbells—then she wrapped her arms around Sally until she grew quiet.

She should have stayed home. Sally had looked pale on the 20-minute drive in, falling asleep almost as soon as they were out the driveway, her blonde hair spread across the seat, and the whole time Daisy wondered if she was doing the right thing. Then Rose put her hand on Sally’s cheek and told Daisy the new baby aspirin was just the thing for fever—besides sleep, of course, in a bed heaped with wool blankets and clean sheets.

Daisy nodded, stung. It was true. She was selfish. She pushed the kids too much, dragging them into town, to the grocery store, the feed store, and the hardware store until they were exhausted and cranky.

She’d considered asking Rose to sub for her, but she was afraid Rose would do such a good job, they’d never ask Daisy back. They needed the $10 she earned, but she also suspected Henry would be only to happy to have her quit. As much as it traumatized her, she needed her show. She loved her show. She loved setting her coffee cup next to the microphone; she loved putting records on the turntable; she loved turning the microphone on and hearing those first few halting words and thinking of the women on the other end: washing their dishes, sweeping their floors, comforting their babies as she talked to them.

She made a deal with herself: if she could do her show, she’d devote her undivided attention to this cold. She’d get up nights. She’d be the soul of patience: playing games and telling stories until Sally slept.

Sally’s forehead grew hotter.

Okay, she thought. A few more announcements, then she’d get the kids in the car, get some baby aspirin at the Pac and Carry, and go home. This was the moment where everything shifted, and suddenly you weren’t trying to fit the illness into your life, you were suspending regular life to accommodate illness.

Back home, she played cards with Stanley while Sally napped. The icicles dripped at the window, the air was pungent with the sharp smell of wet dirt.

“Go fish,” Stanley shouted, slapping his cards on the table, his round face gleeful, when Henry came in and stood in the doorway. His face was pale, his eyebrows drawn together.

“What is it?” she said.

“Fish, Mom,” Stanley begged. “C’mon.”

“One of the Herefords.” Henry kicked the door frame. “She’s having a rough time.”

She was up, Stanley at her heels. She put on rubber boots and an old coat, looking at the clock, thinking Sally would probably sleep another hour so she had no time to waste. She threw on Henry’s old wool coat and helped Stanley into his. Then they trouped into the brilliant April day, the door swinging shut behind them.

The heifer lay in her stall, bellowing, looking piteously at Henry as they walked up. Henry knelt down in the straw, and put his hands up inside the cow. “I can feel the calf but it’s stuck,” he said. “I need you to pull while I try to dislodge it.”

Daisy thrust her hands inside the cow, groped in the slick hot flesh, the uterus contracting around her hands, in and out, in and out, until she felt two stick-like legs.                
“Got ‘em,” she said.

“On the count of three, pull.” Henry looked at her, squinting. “She’ll kick, so watch out. Stanley, stand back—the last thing we need is for you to get hurt.”

Daisy caught Stanley’s eye. He stood at the edge of the stall, staring at the bawling cow, horrified and fascinated, and she wondered, for a moment, if he thought that was what she looked like during birth. And what would she say to him if he asked?

Henry counted to three.

She pulled the thin legs out of the cow, and kept pulling until her stomach hurt and her arms ached. Henry eased the head out, leaping back every once in a while to avoid the cow’s kicks. The mother arched her neck, crying, her eyes rolling back until they were nearly white. Then Henry said to give it a rest, the calf was hung up on something.

They straightened up and looked at one another.

“Green Ranch,” Henry said.

“Should I get the Parkers?” she said, panting. The Parkers, whose family had ranched in the Bitterroot for three generations, lived 15 minutes away and Henry had called on them for help once or twice, when his pride let him.

“No,” Henry said.

They put their hands on the calf again. She could feel Henry’s breath on her cheek, hear him grunt as he knelt, determined. “When she contracts this time, pull like hell.”

“You said hell,” Stanley said. “That’s a bad word, Dad.”

“Heck.” Henry grunted. “Pull like heck.”

“It’s okay because Daddy’s working so hard,” Daisy smiled across the cow at Stanley. “Now help us count. One. Two. Three.”

They pulled and the calf eased out.

“It’s coming.” Henry flushed. “Good job, mama.” Daisy thought he was talking to her, but he patted the cow. “Just a few more pulls and we’ll have it.”

He knows more about this calf’s birth, Daisy thought, than he does about his children’s.

They pulled again and suddenly a wet bundle slipped onto the straw, followed by a sea of afterbirth. There was a tense moment as the cow lay on the straw, exhausted, the limp calf next to her. Then she was up on her feet, licking the membrane from the calf’s nose.

The only sound in the barn was the wet scratch of the mother cow’s tongue.

The calf looked blindly toward them, then swung its head back to its mother.

And there was Sally, standing barefoot at the edge of the stall, coughing.

“My God,” Daisy cried. She draped Sally across her shoulder and ran toward the house. “Get back inside. You’re sick.”

The chickadees, she announced, were still nesting. The male bird seemed to fly back and forth bringing the female food while she sat on the eggs—wasn’t that charming, wasn’t that the way it was supposed to be? She could tell by the fury of their activity that those chicks would hatch any day now.

She saw Stanley look at her, then look down. Magic birds, was that what he was thinking? Or was he thinking that his mother looked worn as an old shoe?  

She was flushed and tired and seemed to be floating above herself and when she started reading the recipe, “Delicious Broccoli and Corn Casserole,” she choked up, thinking of her great aunt, who’d been dead for 15 years, who always made the casserole when she stayed overnight. Stop, she told herself, straighten up, you can’t fall apart now or everything else will. She abandoned the recipe and read a letter from a listener who was concerned about the recent heavy rains—What if the river rose? The woman wrote. What if it flooded the fields and the stock had no where to go?

She turned away from the microphone and wiped her nose.

Stanley stared at her.

It’s okay, she mouthed.

She swallowed, her throat tight. “It’s Sally, friends,” she said. “She’s got a fever of 105; she’s coughing. She’s wrapped up in a blanket right here in the studio and as soon as we finish neighboring on the air, we are going to the doctor.” Somehow saying this made her feel better, more competent. “She’ll be fine, and when she’s fine, I’m fine.”

Daisy could see the blue glint of Sally’ eyes from inside the blankets, watching her.

“Thanks to Mrs. McLeod,” Daisy went on, “the cow is producing again. And the calves keep coming—even yours truly helped bring one into the world.”

She teared again at the memory of the wet scratch of the mother cow’s tongue as she licked the calf’s nose, then she shook her head clear. “A poem,” she said quickly. “We need a poem for this grey April day. She cleared her throat and read from Dawn Williams’ A Cornucopia of Poetry:

Face the dawn and know today brings a lovely thing
For in spite of the clouds and funeral bell’s ring
here is cheer in a heart warmed by a child’s giggle,
A blooming crocus, a puppy dog’s wiggle.
Let us look for treasures in the others we love,
Let’s find delight in blue sky above.

Stanley looked at her, incredulous.

The doctor listened to Sally’s cough, moving the stethoscope slowly across her chest as Daisy waited and Stanley asked questions about stethoscopes. The doctor suggested aspirin and cold baths for fever and wrote out a prescription for the cough medicine. “No pneumonia,” he said, the first words he’d spoken since Daisy came in the office. She felt that he disapproved of her somehow—her mothering, her children, her radio show, she didn’t know what.

“Cough medicine and lots of bed rest,” she repeated as she brought Sally’s dress over to where she sat on the examining table, shivering. Daisy was relieved yet disappointed that the doctor didn’t say name a more specific illness. Daisy wanted the sickness pinpointed, given a name, a long complicated name that raised in others the alarm that she felt.

“A steamer perhaps, to ease the breathing,” the doctor said, his hand on the doorknob. He looked at her, his blue eyes sharp, almost cutting, and then he was out of the room.

That night, Sally was up, her forehead blazing, and Daisy held her, her voice bright and quavery with fever, her hands shaky. Sally talked about the cows and her friend Molly and how she went to the store but they didn’t have her favorite red suckers any more but the lady said they’d get more soon and could they get some, a special treat for being sick? Daisy rocked her as she talked, feeling her body burn against her like a coal, watching out the window as the wind tossed the thick branches of the blue spruce.

“I have good news, ladies.” Daisy smoothed her blue polka dot dress as she spoke into the microphone. She’d dressed in anticipation of meeting Rose Boileau. She had wanted to impress her with her neatly dressed—and healthy—children and her fashionable dress. Maybe Rose had command. But she, Daisy Flick, had lightness and she wanted to cram that down Rose Boileau’s throat.

But Rose had gone home early to oversee the spraying at the apple orchard.
“The chickadees are hatching,” she said, looking at Stanley who was playing jacks with Sally. He didn’t look up. “Two eggs have hatched out into the tiniest chicks you’ve ever seen and we’re watching each morning for the other three. The mama and daddy bird take turns going out for worms.”

She was telling them about Sally’s recovery, when she caught her reflection in the glass. Her face was narrower, carved with lines. She felt an arrow of regret pierce her for the times Henry used to tell her she looked like Myrna Loy with her thick black pageboy and long legs and she’d push him away, laughing. He didn’t tell her that anymore. He told her she was a good mother. A great cook.

She passed into a promo for the Jabber Jaws Cafe, “home of the bottomless coffee cup,” then went on to club announcements and a few items from the paper. When she was done, she thought, she was going home on this glorious day—the sky a deep blue, the air filled with the wet promise of earth—to clean up the morning dishes and uncover her garden, the beds she’d scratched out next to the house where the crocus and daffodils were sending up slender green shoots. But first, she’d stop at the town playground. The kids had been so patient, she wanted to reward them. She wanted to see them run; she wanted to see them shouting.

At the park, they spilled out of the car, Stanley heading for the merry-go-round, Sally for the long, twisting slide. She looked pale and skinny in the spring sun, but her cheeks were pink—and not from fever.

Daisy sat on a bench as they played, listening to their piping voices, feeling the sun loosen something inside her, some knot she hadn’t been aware of till now, till it was unraveling. It was a long winter, longer here than in town where there were so many more distractions. But Sally was well, Henry had successfully pulled—how many was it? 60?—calves. And she’d gotten a fan letter today, from a Mrs. McKinney, who said her corn and broccoli casserole was wonderful, despite the fact that Daisy had left out the onions.

Then it was Stanley. Stanley who had slept the nights while Sally coughed herself awake. Stanley who cross-examined the doctor while he examined Sally. Stanley who amused Sally in the car on the trips to town and chased her around the house while Daisy fixed dinner. That night his fever crept from 100 to 105 and the next night, when it hit 106 degrees, she called the doctor, who advised a cold bath. She stripped him as Henry ran the tub and together they bathed him. Stanley talked about eagles, his teeth chattering, his eyes glassy. How eagles could spot their prey from miles away. How an eagle could swoop down on an unsuspecting rabbit and dig its talons in its back before the rabbit could blink.

The tremulous sound of his voice terrified her.

She wrapped him in a blanket and began to rock him, his arms and legs limp as flour sacks as Henry watched her, silent. As she rocked, she looked down at Stanley’s spiky black hair, thinking of how his body—with its sturdy legs, round cheeks and its healthy dependable appetite—had betrayed her.

He murmured in his sleep, twisting his head back and forth, and she put her hand on his forehead, wishing she could draw the fever to her, wishing that the forehead beneath her fingers would cool and she could go back to trusting his body again.

Several days later, his fever was still high. She canceled her show and stayed by Stanley’s side, reading to him and trying to keep Sally from jumping on the bed. He slept most days, getting up every once in a while to drink some broth or look out the window. His fevered listlessness, his torn-up bed, his damp pillow frightened her. At one point, when Sally was asleep too, she sat at the kitchen table with Henry, numb with fatigue, and looked out at the kitchen and living room. Everywhere she looked was something she needed to do: jelly was smeared on the kitchen table, dustballs collected under the coffee table, clothes were strewn across the floor.

Henry was unusually chipper—five more calves had been born yesterday and the others were doing well—they hadn’t lost any yet. Maybe, he was saying to Daisy, their luck was turning. “Maybe we’ve learned something after all,” he was saying. “Maybe we will make a go of this.”

She didn’t pay attention, she was just listening to the rise and fall of his words thinking how pleasant they sounded, how they seemed to spill from him so easily, so unfettered.

When he stopped talking, he put his hand on hers.

“You know he’ll be okay,” he said, studying her face. “Stanley’s tough.”

“I know,” she said. Henry’s face blurred and she wished she had his confidence.

“He’ll be fine,” Henry said. “Mark my words.”

At the whirring sound of a car in the drive, she wiped her eyes. There was a knock at the door and when she opened it, there stood Rose Boileau a pot of soup in her hands. “Chicken soup,” she said as she walked in the kitchen, taking off the clear plastic rain hat covering her swept-up hair. “I put extra garlic powder in it because it is good for respiratory illnesses.” Rose looked around the kitchen and the dining room and Daisy’s first impulse was to leap up and distract her somehow from the clutter and the dirt. Rose who looked at housekeeping like a science, a matter of finding the right solutions to problems. Instead, Daisy thanked her, took the soup from Rose’s hands and set it on the stove.

Rose settled herself at the kitchen table. As she sipped her coffee, she told Henry apple prices were falling due to the flood of fruit from the Yakima Valley. She told him how hard it was to get good pickers, although the Indians still came down each fall from the reservation and pitched their tepees along the Bitterroot, though you could never really rely on them—they’d be there one day, full of promises, and gone the next.

As she talked, Daisy studied her hands. They were strong-looking and wound with veins and looked capable of anything—hammering, canning, diapering, picking—and her round freckled face that was so sure of itself, so set with the knowledge of her world and her way around it.

Then Rose touched her on her arm.

Daisy had to keep herself from flinching.

“You look exhausted, dear,” Rose said softly. “Last year Janie had double pneumonia and I was up every night for two weeks with her. You feel like life will never be normal again. You feel like you are lost in this sickness—in the coughing and the fevers—and you will never return to normal life.” Rose’s face softened, and Daisy could see all the fear and confusion and powerlessness that she felt, and she realized this chaos was more frightening than anything for Rose—all her poultices and recipes and advice were simply attempts to stave off formlessness.

“It will end,” Rose announced as she stood up, all command and control and efficiency again as she made her way to the door. “It will end,” she repeated and the door snapped shut behind her.

Staphylococci pneumonia, the doctor said after he examined Stanley, who fidgeted on the leather examining table, the paper crinkling underneath him. We’ll have to hospitalize. The hospital? she wanted to scream but she didn’t dare because the doctor would give her one of those icy blue looks and then she would be flooded with guilt.

After she settled Stanley in the hospital, she drove home to pack a bag for him with his flannel pajamas, a pile of books and some games—then it struck her that she was packing his bag as if he were going off to an overnight with his grandparents in Bridger.

That night the doctor called just after Daisy fell asleep. She leapt from bed when the phone rang three times—their ring on the party line—and as the doctor talked, she could feel her heart knock against her ribs. Henry, of course, was out in the barn.

Stanley’s right lung had collapsed, the doctor said. He’d operated to insert tubes in Stanley’s chest to drain the lungs. “He’s fine, the nurses are taking good care of him,” he said, his voice scratchy and distant. “We’ve put him in an oxygen tent and he’s sleeping more comfortably now, so there’s nothing you can do.”

“I’m coming in,” she told him.

She dressed quickly in the dark, speaking quietly to Henry when he came into the house.

“Call,” he said. “Call as soon as he wakes.”
           
The ponderosas swayed above her as she drove down the muddy roads, silvery in the moonlight, and she could smell the earth in the fields, pungent, sweet—a betrayal—and as she thought of Stanley, she felt a familiar tingling in her breasts, the ghostly sensation of letdown.

She pleaded with the nurses to let her in the room, and they finally relented. Stanley was asleep behind the plastic oxygen tent and pale, breathing hard. He opened his eyes as she pulled a chair up next to the bed.

She leaned over to kiss him through the plastic.

“I’m in an oxygen tent,” he said.

“Does it hurt?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “The doctor said the wet air will help me breathe. And these tubes,” he touched two black tubes coming out of his chest, “are draining my lungs. The doctor said my lungs have to be drained just like a water balloon.”

“I want you to breathe better,” she said. She wanted more than anything to run her fingers through the damp hair on his forehead, to rub his back the way he liked but she was afraid to upset the delicate-looking apparatus, so she just stroked his hand. “We have to you to get well, Stanley. We got to get you running again.”

He sat up and looked at her, his face grave. “My lung collapsed,” he whispered.

Sally and Henry met her at the hospital the next morning. This time Henry too looked panicked at the sight of Stanley, fragile and wavery-looking in his plastic tent. This time he didn’t say that Stanley, sturdy Stanley, would throw this off. Instead, he seemed awkward around his son, asking him how he felt and if he had slept and if the nurses gave him ice cream. Only Sally seemed unfazed by the seriousness of Stanley’s condition as she skipped around the room, turning the faucets on and off, shouting, “Stanley is sick! Sick! Sick!”

Rose organized a legion of women to bring in casseroles, and each day at dinnertime a new dish would arrive with the name of its creator written on masking tape. There were scalloped potatoes from Mrs. McLeod. Bean dinner from Mrs. Vann. Hamburger noodle surprise from the Tennyson sisters. Cards arrived at the hospital and at home, and when she dropped by the radio station to say she didn’t think she’d be in for a while, there were a stack of cards there too. The station manager told her not to worry, and Rose Boileau waved from the booth where she was launching into Daisy’s show.

It made Daisy sad to be back in the station, to see the booth, the microphone, the folding chairs—they seemed like the remnants of a life she’d lived a long time ago and that she’d never have again—a happy life sprinkled with small concerns, concerns that seemed so big at the time and so small now, like whether the kids would stay quiet during the show or whether she’d remember to get all the sponsors in.

She and Henry had dinner at the hospital, eating dry roast beef sandwiches and coffee at Stanley’s bedside. A neighbor was taking care of the cows; Rose had offered to stay with Sally but Daisy lined up another neighbor to babysit. It made Daisy queasy to think of Rose in her home, amid the dust balls and dirty dishes.

Stanley and Henry were playing checkers, Stanley sticking his hand through the tent to move his pieces, crowing once when he picked up two of Henry’s checkers in a double move, then collapsing in a heap of coughing, his head against the pillow, tears squeezing out of his closed eyes.

They put the checkerboard away and she read Swiss Family Robinson instead.

That night, after Henry had gone home to Sally, Stanley’s temperature climbed again to 106, setting the nurses off in a flurry. She dampened a washcloth and reached into the tent to mop his forehead as he writhed, coughing and twisting the sheets one way, then the next. The doctor came in after a while—called from bed judging from the jumble of his clothes—and his face was grave as he listened to Stanley’s chest. He talked to the nurse about increasing the penicillin and the oxygen in the tent, then he turned to Daisy and said, “That’s about all I can do, Mrs. Flick. This is not in my hands any more, you know.”

The sounds of shoes clattering and beds squeaking and Stanley wheezing were muffled and distorted as if she were on the bottom of the sea.

She gazed out the window at the dark houses, absently counting the lights. One at Flaherty’s. One at Deschamps’. She wondered what the women in these houses were doing at—what was it? 3 a.m.? Were they drifting in and out of their kitchens, their living rooms, their bathrooms, moving about, unaware of each other, living this nighttime life that was completely separate, subterranean, a life only glimpsed at times when you were thrown out of your own life and you became aware of its shape and everything surrounding it.

Stanley stirred and turned over to look at her. His eyes were still dull with fever but his face looked less flushed.

“Hey buddy,” she said.

“I’m tired of being sick,” he said, looking up at the ceiling.

“That’s a good sign,” she said. “That means you’re getting better.”

 Stanley said. “I see things when I sleep.”

“Its fever,” she said. “Fever gives you strange dreams.”

“The dreams scare me, Mom,” Stanley said.

They were silent a minute, listening to footsteps in the hallway, the hushed sound of the nurses talking and the tick and creak of the building.

“Tell me about the chickadees,” Stanley said finally.

“Well those little chicks grew big, Stanley,” she said. “The chicks ate worms and grasshoppers until they were so big they didn’t fit in the nest and the mama bird knew that it was time to teach them to fly, so those birds lined up—little splashes of color against the black branch—and the mama bird showed them how to fly. Then one by one the chicks leapt off the branch and tried their wings. One fell to the branch below. One flew a few yards then had to land. One even fell to the cat in the yard and they all mourned her passing, but they had to go on. With practice those birds learned to fly and soon enough those chicks were sailing around with the best of them, singing, chick-chick-chick-a-dee.”

“Mom,” Stanley sighed. “Everyone knows chickadees are black and white.”

That night the fever turned. Stanley was in the hospital for another two weeks and then, in no time, he was running about the ranch looking for bugs and gophers. Sally was overjoyed at first but Daisy knew things were back to normal when they started quarreling again.

At the station, Rose greeted her on her first day back with a bunch of red carnations tied with a matching ribbon and lollipops for the children. The owner too came out of his office to tell her that he was glad she was back—two shows a week had simply Rose worn out.

She went into the booth and settled the children with a stack of comic books, put her notes before her—the advertisements for the hardware store and Jack Frost Orchards, the newspaper clippings about calving season in the Bitterroot Valley. She sat for a minute at the microphone, looking at the table, the folding chairs, waiting for a rush of pleasure. She’d waited so long to be back here. She’d missed all of this, even the announcements for the Methodist Women and the Merry Wives Club.

But she felt empty.

Stanley was well. The pneumonia had cleared up, dwindling down into a cough if he over-exerted himself. Calving had gone well—Henry was even talking about buying a few more acres. Her crocuses and daffodils were up; the deer had even spared a few tulips. So what was wrong?

She launched into the recipe for kiss-me-cake, an old recipe of her grandmother’s, rich with nuts and raisins, then followed up with announcements about engagements, a wedding, and the meeting of the Ladies of the Moose. As she talked, she thought about all the women in town—the women in their Cape Codders and bungalows and ranch houses, with mud rooms and well-scrubbed kitchens, these women with their husbands and their children and their radios tuned to her show as they washed dishes or folded clothes. As she talked, she felt the words skating on top of her: collections of syllables with meaning that were little scribbles on the heap of human existence. But as the sound of her voice filled and warmed the room with her news about bridge games and dances and meetings and dances, and something loosened in her chest, like ice breaking in a stream, she thought of her words as flying out of this room and over the airwaves, magic birds, perhaps, linking them all together with their hopes and their sorrows and their near misses.

  
  

Caroline Patterson has published fiction in Alaska Quarterly Review, Epoch, Salamander, Seventeen, and Southwest Review. A Stegner Fellow in Fiction, she edited Montana Women Writers: A Geography of the Heart. She lives in Missoula with her husband, writer Fred Haefele, and her two children.
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