In the morning, Ray Kantlay lies in bed and tries to remember what it is he’s waiting for. He contemplates the overhead fan. His ceiling is cast with a patchwork of glowing rectangles that shift and glimmer as the water moves down by the dock. Marshaling himself, he brushes his teeth (he does not look in the mirror; the cancer in his jaw is making itself seen), sits on the bed as he pulls on pants and pads barefoot across the front hall. The kitchen floor is cold this morning. The branch by the window nods. It casts a shadow on the counter. He presses the button for coffee and waits as the spigot gurgles and spits. The steam rises and dissolves. It is Sunday.
There is a chair by the window where he sits and watches the birdfeeder turn slowly on its string. As it reaches the end of its rotation, it slows, it slows, and then it stops. Ray observes—he waits to see if it is finished. It could be finished. But it turns now, in the opposite direction, and Ray takes a sip of the hot stuff in his mug. He can’t really taste it. The birdfeeder is near empty. It’s Sunday—it must be Faith. That’s it: he must be waiting for Faith to come. She comes every Sunday, all the way down the peninsula, to take care of the house. The birdfeeder begins another prolonged rotation. His mug is empty. Yes, today is Sunday.
These days begin slowly for Ray. Perhaps this is compensation, in his old age, for all those years when he was frightened awake by the sound of his father starting the car. Ray’s father was an early riser, pulling overalls on right over his bedclothes and toeing softly down the stairs while the rest of the house slept. He was careful to make no noise in the mornings, but some things one couldn’t help: the ignition on the red Willy was stubborn before dawn. It took four pumps at the clutch before the motor gritted its teeth and came alive, with a report like a gunshot. In the really early years, before the eye doctor from Ithaca came to poke and prod, the sound of that testy ignition was Ray’s version of sunrise.
He puts his mug in the sink and moves to the screen porch, where he will spend most of the day. The table in the porch has been colonized by the fragments of a one-thousand-and-one-piece jigsaw puzzle. The image on the box shows a color-coded Mercator projection of Pangea. “This is where you would live if Pangea existed today!” it says. Each country is super-imposed in loud primary hues onto the lumpy landmass and labelled, as if the Ivory Coast was so-named seventy million years before it touched the sea. Ray has been working on the puzzle for three months by now, but only the corners and edges have come together to form a royal blue frame of empty ocean. His mission today is to affix Morocco to the Massachusetts coast.
This was easier when Ari was around. Ari never helped, but he would sit across from Ray, smoking tobacco that smelled like chocolate and quoting Cicero with quiet pleasure. He could recite all the Roman lawyers perfectly even when the names of his four children had slipped from his memory. He was an old friend from the Navy. That is all a world away now, but Ray’s recollection of Ari will always swing like a pendulum between two visions at opposite ends of his life: as an old man, sitting in a cloud of smoke and Latin aphorisms on the screen-porch, and as a bare-kneed midshipman, soaking in the sight of the San Francisco harbor with a dumb, sunburnt, squinty-eyed smile as officers in hazmat suits swarmed the deck. Ray has made little progress since Ari died three months ago.
He waits for Faith to arrive. She comes at four on Sundays, but he has called and left a message on her machine to please come early. It will be an easy Sunday for Faith. He has barely touched anything since last week, and the summer showers mean that the garden is taken care of. This leaves the screen porch, whose every surface has accumulated a yellow coat of pollen, and the path to the dock, which needs to be mown. Ray often stands on the porch with his hand on the doorframe and watches Faith in her battered sunhat maneuver the John Deere around the trees and down to the dock. From where he is sitting now, Ray can see the spiny fronds of bull thistle poke out of the grass.
Around midday, he returns to the kitchen and notices the papers on the table. It’s the deed to the house, some bills, his last will and testament. “Go over with Rick,” he’s written, in the top right hand corner. Rick is Kasey’s husband. These probably shouldn’t be lying about, he thinks. He stacks them by the telephone and checks the calendar—yes, it’s Sunday—then settles into the couch by the television. When he closes his eyes, the familiar darkness behind his eyelids pulls him deeper into the cushions, and they seem to go down and down.
Ray learned early on to explain the condition that caused the blindness of his youth: about two millimeters of nerve endings had grown thicker than normal and gummed up the inside of his retina. He only learned the meaning of two millimeters later, when his mother taught him to feel with his fingernail the tiny grooves on his father’s carpentry level. Two millimeters were nearly nothing. That an aberration so small could distinguish him so completely from others struck him as curious, not tragic.
On the day he turned seven and a half, a specialist on his way from New York to Birmingham came through town just for him. He had soft, slightly sweaty hands and a cup that he strapped over Ray’s face to put him to sleep.
That doctor was the first thing Ray ever saw. He woke up from the anesthesia to a pair of watery blue eyes—blue, yes, but the word came later—and a face that was more mottled and stained with sickness than Ari’s fingertips could ever have detected. It blinked and perspired inches from his face. For a brief and terror-filled moment, Ari wondered if this might be his mother’s face. But then its mouth opened and said, with the doctor’s voice, “Don’t mind the yellow around the edges, Miss Kantlay, that’s just iodine. Your boy can look on God’s green earth, bless him.”
The following months glowed with discovery. He loved his cat’s white feet, soap bubbles’ sheen and the sweet cool yellow of the oven door. He fell in love with the newness of the world, but the common fabric of these visions was woven of the same stuff as that first vision of rotting skin and drowning eyes. That day, which marked the beginning of his new life, was colored by decay. This was the price of seeing.
Ray is woken by the bell, and a moment later he opens the door, expecting to see Faith. Instead, he finds a young man with circular glasses and pointed shoes.
“Hello! Are you Ray Kantlay?”
“Hello, I am,” he says.
“Ari Pultman gave me your address. I spoke with him a few months ago. He said you were on-duty together at the Bikini test site.”
Just before he died. Ray lets the man in. He’s a writer—silly-looking glasses, he might have guessed—from a big magazine. It’s the nuclear test he’s writing about. He wants to hear about Bikini.
Ray sits the guest down on the porch (he was just making lunch, would you wait a moment?) and slips back into the kitchen. He’d forgotten about lunch, to tell the truth. He does not eat much besides his English muffins at breakfast and the acidic coffee from the machine, but he is prepared. The neighbors make sure every few months that the bottom shelf of his freezer is full of vacuum-sealed dinners, preserved there for eternity like the Neanderthal that the mountain climbers chipped out of a Swiss glacier. There is mushroom risotto and eggplant parmesan and something called quinoa with cranberries and dill. This absolves them of any responsibility should he die of starvation.
Ray picks the risotto and peels its foil off carefully. One has to be careful. This means scraping away even the tiniest fleck of metal. When he’d first gotten the microwave, around Christmas, he’d neglected to do this, and the entire thing sparked and hissed and nearly ignited before he found the button to switch it off.
He puts the plastic bowl in the microwave and presses “defrost.” It comes alive with a hum. A hum, is that the sound? Magnetic waves express themselves in so many ways, he thinks: the crackle of the ship’s radio, the stovetop’s orange glow, the fury of a star devouring itself in space. The microwave arrived in the mail with a note from Rick. “Now you won’t have any issues with the stove,” it said. “Read the instructions and stay away when it’s going, who knows how much radiation it puts off. Bon appetit! Merry Christmas!”
The bell rings. Ray divides the risotto between two plates and brings it to the porch, where the writer sits with his legs crossed, holding a cell phone to his forehead. His eyes move to the door.
“Hello. Is there any service out here?”
“Only in the driveway,” Ray says apologetically. “They’re going to install a tower in the fall.”
“Ah, well. I’ll send it later. I—hm.” He sets down the phone. “Someone told me that improves the signal, but I don’t believe it, really. It’s just as likely frying my brain. Silly.”
He pulls out a laptop and opens it on the table. “So you are Ray Kantlay.”
Ray nods and takes a spoonful of the risotto. It is barely warm. He wonders with sudden panic whether it is appropriate to retreat to the kitchen to reheat it, whether he should reveal that it came from the bottom shelf of the freezer, as cold and dry as a sliding shelf at the morgue. These thoughts transpire silently. The writer is speaking.
“I wanted to hear these stories before they’re gone. It’s especially important for me to be writing this right now, given the craziness in the rest of the world. The terrible risk of these weapons just gets worse and worse. I spoke with Mr. Pultman before he passed. He told me that you were friends. He said you worked together?”
Terrible, Ray thinks. The word does little justice. Yes, that’s right. They were friends since meeting at the academy. Upon the completion of their first year, the cadets had to place a cap atop a granite obelisk made slick with grease. This required some contrivance of a human ladder, with the really sturdy fellows like Ray, who was just about as wide as he was tall, at the very base. Ari was the smallest boy in the class, so he got the first go. On the way up, he landed a foot right in Ray’s face. “Angustam amice pauperiem pati,” he sang, grinning down at him, a tiny Jewish boy with arms like steel cables. Two sets of shoulders from the top, he fell and broke his leg. Theirs was a friendship built upon justice.
“—due consent, by your judgement?”
“You know, all of the hazards that they only acknowledged afterwards. You must have seen pictures: the fallout, bumps everywhere, those terrible burns.”
“Ah.” Ray notices with relief that the writer (did he say his name?) has no interest in the risotto. “I don’t recall much warning either way. We wouldn’t have been concerned, I don’t think. We had a lead room.”
“A lead room?”
“Concrete, too. The walls were made of lead and concrete. It was way down in the hull. They steered the ship from in there.” Ray had entered this safe room once or twice to deliver coordinates and each time he passed through the doorway he shivered. Those lead panels sucked up the sun. He could feel them swallow his heat.
This excites the writer. He strikes the keyboard and runs his tongue across his lower lip. “Do you,” he says, his glasses glinting like a cat’s eyes in the dark, then shuts his laptop and leans across the table, as if Ray had motioned to confide in him, “do you feel that secrets were kept from you? Given everything we know now. I mean to say—what about your health?”
Ray feels the writer’s breath cut short, dangle, and considers for a moment telling him about the bump in his jaw. But no—if anyone, Kasey ought to hear first, and after all, he promised himself not to tell. All of a sudden, Ray feels very tired.
“I’m old. I get up five times a night and I can’t smell worth a damn thing anymore, but what do you expect,” he says.
The writer sits back in his chair, his ardor extinguished. “Mm. Just one more question, I suppose.” Glum, resigned: “Did you see the bomb?”
The bomb. Of course.
He watched it from the salty deck of the heavy cruiser, a mile off. Ray shifts in his seat and sees the light reenter those round cat-eyes. At first, it was a blinding flash. Then he saw the fireball, like a flower blooming in a silent movie: the crown of petals rose up all aglow and sent white rings of condensation outward into the otherwise cloudless sky. As he watched it ascend, Ray felt the same wonder that had seized him the day he first opened his eyes and understood what it meant to be dying. The heat of the blast passed right through his skin and settled there, and stayed. What seemed like minutes later, a wall of wind knocked him backwards into the railing.
Ray settles into his chair. Even now, he can’t quite make sense of it. All that power, with nothing to destroy. “I was below decks,” he says. “Look! I can’t believe it. You’ve been sitting here the whole time with your plate and I didn’t even get you a fork. I’m really losing it. I’ll be just a moment—”
The writer smiles, clears his throat, and excuses himself. From the front door, Ray watches him slide into the driver’s seat and disappear down the driveway. It’s dark now. He thinks of Ari.
It isn’t ten minutes before the doorbell rings again. When he opens the door, Kasey steps into the house with a baby in one arm, propelled by a tangle of small voices and the twins tugging at her belt-loops.
“Dad,” she plants a kiss on his cheek, which he feels even when she steps away. “I’m sorry we’re so late.”
They were supposed to arrive at six. He remembers now. They were supposed to arrive for dinner and he didn’t want the John Deere going and bothering everyone, so he let Faith take the week off. Kasey’s husband, Rick, pushes through the door with a duffel.
“I hope you didn’t wait up for dinner,” he says. “Has it been a shit-show or what. The highway flooded and the traffic was backed up for miles. And then—stupid, stupid animal.” He is out again. The screen door snaps.
“We hit a buck at the crossroads,” Kasey says, reaching out to touch little Hadley’s hair as she wanders by. “It just jumped out right there, ten feet in front of us. It’s like the thing wanted to die. The fender is wrecked. Fortunately, this one was asleep. Are the beds made? No, you don’t worry about that, I’ll get out the spread.”
In the fuzzy yellow light of the front hall, he sees the sharpness of her collar-bones, the way she stands with one hip cocked to support a sleeping baby, the softness in her fingers. His daughter—she was his daughter once— has settled into another shape. She is beyond accounting for.
Anthony is already asleep on the sofa by the television. Kasey is off, putting Hadley to bath and the baby to bed, and Rick is filling the refrigerator with groceries. The white light makes his face pallid and flat.
“Can I throw these away?” he holds up a container of applesauce. “It expired two months ago. Hey, we passed a rental car coming up the driveway, do you know who that was?”
It was a writer, Ray says. “He knew Ari.”
“What’s a writer here for?” Rick shuts the fridge. Its gasp is swallowed up.
“He was asking about the Navy.”
Ray feels Rick’s eyes in the surprised silence.
“You know, you ought to tell us all these stories sometime. I’m going to have Kasey sit you down one of these days and get them all out of you.” He hears footsteps and Rick’s voice from the door. “Do you drink coffee? I’ll be up early.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
“Don’t hang around too late, we’ve got a lot to get through tomorrow.”
He is gone and the house is quiet. Ray thinks about the buck, eyes like hard wet stones in the ditch beside the road. This sort of thing happens all the time on the peninsula. So many twists and turns, and the cars move so fast. At least it’s over quickly, Ray thinks, feeling the tender bump on his jaw and wondering tiredly when his days of anticipation will come to a close. The buck doesn’t wait: he jumps out into the wet road and looks up, and the lights bloom out of the rushing dark.