In David’s memories Lily’s demeanor was always serene, her smile contented, a Mona Lisa, as if she, too, had been let in a secret she was unwilling to share. But now, as he pulled into the driveway of her farmhouse, he found her standing in her garden with a scowl on her face, a look so unexpected for a moment he wasn’t even sure it was even her. With the sound of David’s rental car, she glanced over and shielded her eyes, and smiled in the way he always remembered. “You’re late,” she called out as he exited the car.
“I’m kidding.” She had on a white tank-top splashed with dirt stains, and jean shorts cut just above the knee. She hopped her way through the maze of the garden and to his surprise, she hugged him. Her wispy white-blonde hair smelled of musky humidity, of Iowa in August. He had lived in the southwest so long he had forgotten that smell. She stepped back, holding his hands. “Let me look at you.” She was still facing the sun and had to squint. “You’re none the worse, I guess.”
“You still look like a teenager.”
“Well, I’m not,” she replied, laughing. Her laugh hadn’t changed in the twenty-plus years since he first met her, so long ago, as a freshman in high school. Lily was his best friend’s wife, or as he would sometimes call her, his biggest rival. “Go in the house. Zach’s waiting.”
David went around to the sun porch and found several garbage cans lying on their sides, with flies dive-bombing the strewn garbage. “Hey, Lily?” he called out, to no answer. He righted the cans and entered, working his way through the large farm house to find Zach sitting at the dining room table. He was feeding the youngest baby something yellowish and thick out of a small plastic bowl. “Hey,” David said, “Your garbage cans are turned over.”
“Are they?” Zach kept shoveling food into the baby’s mouth.
It was 5:00 in the evening; had they not noticed it all day? But something kept him from saying it, and instead asked what the baby was eating.
It was creamed squash. Lily’s homemade version, right from the garden. The toddler, Hunter, sat at the table next to his father, squishing peas between two surprisingly elongated and dexterous fingers. “Eat the food, Hunter, don’t play with it,” Zach said. David had forgotten how booming Zach’s voice was. He felt comfort in the confidence. And he felt comfort in Zach and Lily’s house, even though it was the first time he had been to visit. It was flirtatious with hardwood floors and built-ins, whitewashed walls and overstuffed furniture. The dining room was surrounded by bookshelves, loaded with books and toys and photos. As Zach rose to hug him, David spied over Zach’s shoulder a picture hanging on the wall. It was of their twenty-year-old selves, arms around each other’s shoulders as they stood on the beach of the Coralville Reservoir. A picture taken by Lily, David recalled. A picture taken eighteen years ago. They had been youthful and confident, happy, sure of the future.
“Dude, I’m sorry about being so late, but the plane…” David began, but Zach waved him off, not letting him finish his sentence, much like Lily a moment earlier.
“Hey, it’s fine. You’re here.”
The baby upended the squash and called out “Nah nah nah nah nah” while running a series of tiny fingers through the glop on the tray. His scant amount of hair was matted with sweat against his skull. David had forgotten how little babies were.
“Okay, I guess we’re done here,” Zach said. Hunter, now just spying David, skittered behind his father’s legs, which were like tree trunks in cargo shorts. “Hunter, this is David. This is Dad’s best friend; remember I told you about David?”
Hunter eyed David with suspicion and poked a thumb in his raspberry-shaped mouth. “Hey, Hunter.” David crouched to his level. Hunter, curious now, stuck his free hand around Zach’s kneecap. “I have a present for you.”
Curiosity veered into all-out inquisitiveness as Hunter asked, around the thumb, “A toy?”
“A book.” David stood. “Is that okay?” he asked Zach.
“You did?” Zach’s face was open, his disbelief honest. “You didn’t have to bring him anything. As you can see,” Zach spread his left arm towards the living room, which stood on the other side of dining-room, “we have more than enough.” It was scattered with toys, more toys than David had seen in a long time. With a seamless and swift motion, Zach removed the tray of the high chair and plucked Joe from his perch. “Let me go change him and I’ll be right back.” He disappeared into the kitchen behind them and David was left with Hunter.
“Where my book?” Hunter asked, as he trotted into the living room.
“What book?” David replied. He could not remember the last time he was alone with a three-year old. It surprised him how easily it came, the bantering with a child. “Who said anything about a book?”
The boy smiled, his teeth like a row of white corn. He had a head of brown hair that reminded David of Zach’s when he was young, “The book! My present!”
“Oh, right!” David said with a drawl. “Righhhhhhhhhhhhhhhht.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, watching Lily through the front window. She was a statue holding a running hose, just standing there, as if she had forgotten what she was doing.
The child giggled. “You silly.”
“Who me? Silly? Who?” David took a stuffed giraffe and asked it, “Is he talking to me?” He turned to Hunter as Zach came in with the baby. “You talking to me?”
“Nice job, do a Taxi Driver imitation to a three-year-old. Like he’s going to get it.” Zach set the shirtless Joe in a large, round, plastic toy. It held a seat for the baby to prop himself up in and immediately the boy swung round and round.
“I think he gets it, man,” David said. “You get it, right Hunter?” Hunter, though, was now watching a muted cartoon on the flat-screen TV at the end of the room. The baby began to jump, and the toy rattled. “What is that thing?”
“That, my friend, is an exersaucer. It saves lives. Seriously. Didn’t they have those when your kids were little?”
Lily entered the house before he could answer, and David was thankful, because he and Zach both knew the answer to the question. If they did, I wasn’t around to see it. Lily offered him an iced tea, urged Zach to get David’s suitcases, and then took David up to where he would sleep. The attic guest room was small and stuffy and decorated with a large quilt that hung on the wall. When David asked if Lily had made them, she just shrugged. “Oh, a long time ago.” David recalled something Zach had once said of Lily, “I make the living and she makes the living beautiful.” At the time, David thought he had never heard anything so ludicrous. But now, divorced, estranged from his wife and children, he felt a spasm of jealousy. And their life was beautiful, David saw this. They purchased the house and the several adjoining acres years earlier, and Lily had redone the floors, painted the walls, and refurbished the basement with her own two hands, all the while raising the babies mostly alone as Zach worked endless hours as a civil engineer.
They returned downstairs, and Lily put out a platter of cheese and sausages, all of which were fingered by Hunter within five minutes. David presented Hunter with the book and learned immediately “I already have that.”
Lily gently took it from David, “See, but now you have two of them,” she said. “We can keep that old, beat up one in the car.” She smiled at David. “This one we can keep here, in your bookshelf.” David felt that he had lost that glimmer of hopeful connection with Hunter.
“Is this enough for now?” Lily asked. “They’re serving dinner, right?”
“Drinks at six, dinner at seven.” Zach glanced at his watch. “You want to take a shower before we go? We can skip the drinks part. Maybe even the dinner part.”
Lily said to Zach, although she meant it for David, “He thinks it will be lame.”
“Right,” Zach said. “This was all David’s idea, anyway.”
Going to their 20th high school reunion, David thought, was actually an idea that came up on its own. They had received the postcards in the mail and both had laughed about it. As if they’d be interested. But then they got to talking; maybe David could come up to Iowa from Phoenix, maybe he could stay with them. Zach had even offered to pay for the trip, including the rental car. After all, so much had changed since the men had last seen each other ten years earlier, when Zach and Lily had come for a visit to Arizona. David, still drinking then, had behaved like an ass, as usual. Nothing like later when the drinking turned to rages, just his typical drunken bullshit, making fun of Meredith and Lily, thinking he was hilarious.
“You want a drink now?” Lily asked Zach, but Zach shook his head.
“Have a drink. Don’t not drink because of me,” David said. “I just need to take a shower before we go.”
Lily said, “If I have a drink now I’d never stop.” She picked up her dewy glass of iced tea and drank half. “I’ll stick with this.”
# # #
After his shower, David crept down the stairs to find Zach and Lily in the kitchen, wrapped in a hug. She was crying. “You need to go, you need to go,” she said. “I want things to be just as we planned.” David stepped back before he hoped they saw him, but they broke apart, and she wiped her face as Zach said, “You ready?”
In the gleaming black SUV, Zach popped in an XTC CD. David waited for Zach to say something about Lily but he just turned up the volume. They listened, without speaking as he drove into the city. David had come directly from the airport to their house, and now took the chance to scan the changes in Cedar Rapids, a town he had not set foot in for over fifteen years. “Things have changed,” he said, feeling stupid. Things had changed, but they were the same as any city he lived in the last several years: strip malls with motels, and ice cream shops, low-lying brick buildings housing doctor and insurance offices.
“Things have.” Zach said. His hand grabbed the top of the wheel. “A lot.”
“Yeah, what else?” David eyed the corner of First Avenue and Collins Road—what used to be a large outdoor bar was now replaced with Best Buy and Petco.
Zach gripped and re-gripped the wheel several times. “Hey, you know, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to go and see all the old assholes from school.”
“Fine. Let’s drive. I miss those days, you know, sometimes,” David said. “Before. You know, when we’d just do this.” When they were kids, they lived next door to each other, both only children of single mothers, both alone most of the day and evenings as their mothers worked various odd jobs, waitressing, clerking at the convenience store, whatever. Throughout the years David and Zach memorized every inch of their neighborhood by riding their bikes up and down the streets, parks, and strip malls near home, and then later as teenagers driving around in Zach’s beat up Nova, expanding their circle to the entirety of the town, their curfews self-directed at best. By the time they were teenagers it was apparent to David what track they would each take. Zach graduated fifth in their class, went to Iowa State to study engineering on a full-ride while David dropped out before the end of his junior year, his life a series of odd jobs just like their mothers had. He looked to Zach, who had changed so immeasurably, saying, “Don’t you? You know, just able to drive around and not have any worries?”
“Did I tell you that I have another court date next week?”
“I’m done with the anger management classes. I’ve paid her back; I’ve done everything she’s asked me to do. Maybe she’ll let me see the girls.”
Zach said, angry, “Jesus Christ, your life is fucking mess, you know that? You’re thirty-eight years old. Are you never going to get your shit together?”
David glanced out the window, too stunned to speak. He had come because he felt the need to prove to Zach that the sobriety was working, to prove to him that he had changed since he stopped drinking, now going on two years. Despite everything, Zach had been David’s constant over the years, the one person who believed in him when no one else would. They spoke on the phone daily, they emailed constantly. If David didn’t have Zach, he wasn’t sure where he would be. Dead, he had thought more than once. I’d be dead. David was not allowed to see his children anymore—his ex-wife had been sure of that, her and the judges. Working the program wasn’t enough for Meredith, David presumed, and he couldn’t blame her. He’d done enough damage there, and then rehab and the time in jail. Zach had listened, been like a mentor and a supporter, believing in David when his whole world had crumbled around him, by his own hand. “Jesus, man,” David said. “I’m trying.”
“You always say that,” Zach said. “You always say I’m trying when in fact, you don’t seem to be trying at all. So what your life is hard, everyone’s life is hard. You didn’t go to a fucking spa, man, you went to jail. It’s been a six months since you’ve been out. Get over yourself. You get up, you get out of bed, you pay your ex-wife and you see those girls who have no other father in the world, you get that?”
David was surprised by this outburst, unsure as to how to react. “I am doing that,” David said. He swallowed hard. “I am.”
“Sure, right,” Zach said. He slumped back in the seat, as if exhausted.
“Hey man, I am.”
The CD skipped, and Zach clicked the radio off. “Lily has breast cancer.”
“Lily has breast cancer.” They were driving right past the convention center now, and then over the river that had flooded so massively two years previous that, according to Zach, the city would probably never fully recover.
“Holy shit. Didn’t her mother die of breast cancer?”
“Yes, but she was fifty-six. Lily is thirty-seven. She had her first mammogram last month and they called her in twice for retesting. Last week we had the biopsy, and yesterday they told us she’ll need a mastectomy.”
“God, what are they…what are they saying?”
“They’re saying it’s really aggressive and that we have to be aggressive.”
“Listen, if you want, I can get a hotel and…”
“Lily wouldn’t have it. I told her, I told her that we didn’t need you there right now and she said, ‘Can we at least keep things normal?’ As if that’s possible.”
David was silent for a moment, considering. “We’ll make up an excuse. You know, act like I needed to see some other people while in town.”
“She’ll know,” Zach said. “Anyway, who else could you possibly be seeing?”
David said, “The last person she needs to see today is me.”
Lily had made the joke once, back when she and Zach had visited Meredith and David in Phoenix, before everything. Lily had said, laughingly, “They love each other so much that if the house was on fire and Zach had to make the choice to save only one of us, he’d hesitate.” It was just the way it was between them, even though she had always taken the high road, had never said anything cross when they had met up the few times since school. David figured that whatever Zach thought of his behavior, of his lifestyle over the years, Lily must have thought even worse. Why wouldn’t she, a woman so dedicated to her family, to her spouse? David had never been nice to her, had never really considered her. She was just an impediment to his friendship. If she had issues with him, she hid it well. Like earlier, hugging him like that. A lesser woman, David thought, would have never done that.
As if in confirmation of this, Zach said, “She’d be offended.” He sighed deeply. He pulled into the pebbled lot of a dinky dive bar. “Right now I just need a beer. I’m sorry to tell you that, but there it is. I just need a beer.”
The bar was dark and tired, stuffy with the humidity of the day and the smell of old beer. They sat at the counter where Zach immediately ordered a beer and a shot of Jack. “Oh, shit,” he said, after his second shot. “I’m the worst kind of friend, asking you here.” He drank apologetically, as David sipped his soda, sickly and sweet going down his throat.
“You’re not,” David replied. “It’s okay.” He stared at the television over the bar showing NASCAR, the announcers piped in over the sound system. It was so loud he felt the need to shout over the screech of the tires and the excited and high-pitched tone of the men calling the events.
“All I keep thinking is, what if she dies? What if she leaves us?”
“She won’t,” David said. “She can’t. They can treat cancer; it’s not a death sentence.” What did he know, anyway? He knew nothing.
Zach proceeded to get drunk, alternately apologizing for bringing David there and moaning about Lily’s fate. David murmured answers, but anything he said was pejorative in nature, and he felt helpless in Zach’s increasing melancholy. Right before midnight, Zach had his head on the bar, and shortly following midnight David decided to take him home.
Halfway between Cedar Rapids and Zach’s house in Springville, Zach threw up on himself. The puke spilled down his pants and on the floor of the SUV. “Oh, God,” Zach said, his hands dripping with the strands of vomit. “Oh, God, I’m so sorry.”
“You think I haven’t done that a million times?” David asked as the mephitic stink overwhelmed the air conditioning.
David pulled the car onto the gravel driveway, and eased Zach out of the car and into the house. He took moaning Zach into the first floor bathroom, and shoved him, clothes and all, into the shower. Neither Lily nor the boys woke, a miracle, David thought.
After cleaning him up, David settled Zach on the living room couch. “Bet this is what you were like, right?” Zach mumbled into the hand-stitched pillow. “At your worst, right?”
“I was not like this,” David replied, but Zach didn’t seem to hear him. He turned his body towards the back of the sofa.
David went outside and took several moments to find Lily’s hose from earlier, coiled in the front yard, still dripping water. He hauled it into the car and sprayed the seat and floor, realizing long after he had begun that the seats were most likely leather and he has probably ruined them. He left the car door and windows open to air out. After he was finished, he paused for a moment, glancing at the sky, blissful, silent, and clear.
Back inside, after showering, he checked on Zach, who was snoring on the couch. David clicked off the light and stretched out on an easy chair, covering himself with what was probably one of Lily’s blankets. The sound of the ceiling fan rotating lulled him to sleep.
In the morning, he woke to the sound of the baby crying. Zach was lying on his side, asleep, mouth wide open. David heard Lily turn the stairs and figured she spied them in the living room before she went directly into the kitchen. She turned on the water and cooed to the baby. David’s neck throbbed, and he struggled to remove himself from the deep chair. The room was pink with morning-glow, and David glanced at the clock over the television, which read 4:57 A.M.
In the distance he heard a rumbling and it started to rain. The coffee in the kitchen was percolating, and after going into the bathroom and peeing, David entered the kitchen. Lily was nowhere to be found. David opened a few cupboards to find a coffee mug, and heard from a window that overlooked the porch outside the kitchen, “Zach?”
“No, it’s David.”
“I’m feeding the baby, otherwise I’d get you some coffee. Help yourself. There are cups in the cupboard over the coffee maker.”
“Thanks,” David said. He found a cup and poured himself a mug-full, and then opened the screen-door. Lily sat on a rocker, feeding Joe from a bottle. The rain had ebbed to a mist and in the resulting fog the tomato plants sagged.
“Wow, I forgot about this smell,” David said. The fog was so dense and close he feels as if he could touch it, grasp it in his palm.
“When it rains here, it’s like a clearing.” David sat on a deck chair opposite her. “I forgot that it smelled like that here.”
Lily smiled at him. Her hair was in a ponytail, the entrails escaping around her forehead like a ring of cotton. The baby grasped at her top, angry, but she just cooed to him before saying, “Doesn’t it do that in Phoenix?”
“No.” David sipped the coffee, which was perfect; a combination of nuttiness and sweetness. “When it does rain, it just returns back to the dry state almost immediately.” The porch was dry, a miracle after the rain.
The baby continued to grab at his mother. “He wants to nurse, but I’m trying to wean him. He hasn’t had a bottle once.” Joe, as if in response, pushed the bottle away. “He was doing okay for a bit, but every so often it’s as if he realizes it.” She gave him the bottle again. “Sorry, Joe. This is it.” The baby took the bottle and drank. She glanced at David. “What were we talking about? Oh, right, the rain. It just went straight down,” Lily said. “We have this awning that covers everything, anyway.”
“Did you make it?” he asked, and she nodded.
In the distance they could hear several cows mooing. A number of cardinals raced over the field, dancing in delight. “It’s beautiful here.”
“We like it,” Lily said. The baby pushed the bottle away again. “Maybe you have gas, huh?” She held him to her shoulder, rubbing his back. He burped loudly, and both Lily and David laughed. Joe turned and laughed too, his chin wet from milk. He swiveled his whole body, more interested in David than his mother’s shoulder. She held him on her lap so he can see David full on.
“Lily, Zach told me. I’m sorry.”
She shrugged. Joe wanted to be on the floor, and Lily placed him on his stiff feet. He gripped her forefingers in his hands. Lily sang, “Are you going to be an early walker? Are you going to be an early walker?” The baby drooled, with more laughter. The sound cut right into David’s heart, and he blinked and drank more coffee. “Did you guys have fun last night?” Lily asked. “I fell right asleep before the news, even. I was exhausted, and luckily this little one gave me a full night.”
“I have to admit, I’m a bad influence, even now. We went to a bar.” He waited for her to ask if he drank, but she didn’t. “That’s why he’s on the couch.”
Lily freed the baby and he crawled to David, grabbing his legs. David picked him up. The baby put his hands in David’s mouth, in his eyes, his ears. “Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah,” Joe intoned. David repeated it back. The baby chuckled again.
“And the car?” Lily asked.
David shrugged. “Well, you know.”
“Wow.” She sat back. “It’s been a long time since he’s done that.”
“Has he ever?”
She smiled again, this time with a wistful edge. “Of course.”
“But not for a while, right?”
“It’s hard to be hung-over when you have two kids.” She reddened. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“God, don’t feel bad,” David said. “That’s not even close to being a mean thing to say.” Lily inhaled, opened her mouth as if to speak, but then didn’t. “What?” he asked.
“No, it doesn’t matter.”
“It matters,” David said. The baby turned and sat on the crook of his lap, and reached out to his toes.
“I was going to say that you used to be so mean to me.” She took a sip of coffee. “Even the last time I saw you, you were so mean.”
Joe shoved a fist into his mouth, gnawing on it. David said, “Lily, I’m sorry.”
“I used to say to Zach, get rid of this guy. He’s nothing but a drag on you.” She pulled a knee up to her chest and laid her chin on the knee. “He’d say, ‘You’ll find no one more loyal.’ And that would be the end of the discussion.” They heard a cry from an upstairs window and she glanced up. “That’ll be Hunter. I better get him before Zach wakes.”
“It’s okay. Let him wake. He can take care of kid with a hangover.” Joe put a hand on David’s arm, squeezing. “I did it. I mean, not very often, but I did it.”
She stood. “I’ll get him. It’s okay.” She stopped at the door and glimpsed at David. “I’m glad you have it together, David. I really do.” She opened the door, hesitated, and said, “It’s good for Zach to have you here.” David didn’t look at her face, kept his eyes on the baby, who blew little spit bubbles. “Will you watch Joe for a second?”
“Of course,” David said. The screen door slammed as she entered the house.
The sun, a little dot, peeked through a thin layer of the cloud cover. Joe, tired of David’s lap, tried to squirm off. David kept his hold on him, stood and walked out into the garden. “Let’s check out the tomatoes,” he said to Joe. “You want to?” The baby smiled and drooled. The sweet smell of the rain still clung to the air. Under David’s bare feet, the grass was dewy, and the mud of the garden seeped through his toes. David said to Joe, “Look at these. Nothing better in the world than a fresh tomato.” Joe reached into the vine, grabbed a cherry tomato, and squeezed it. He looked at David with confusion as the seeds and pulp ran down his arm. “You’re supposed to eat them, kid,” David said, opening his mouth wide. Joe took another one and shoved it into David’s mouth. David chewed the tomato, the juice immediate in its sharpness. He didn’t lie to Joe. There really was nothing better in the world. Joe grabbed David’s cheeks as he chewed, and laughed, as if in agreement.