Excerpt from Yellowcake by Ann Cummins, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by Ann Cummins

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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 320 pages
    Apr 2008, 320 pages

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They come at ten o’clock in the morning. Ryland’s wife, Rosy, is at the fabric store with their daughter, Maggie, who’s getting married next month. Ryland goes ahead and opens the door against his better judgment. He always opens the door when somebody rings, though he usually regrets it. He is not afraid of muggers. Muggers, he figures, will leave sooner rather than later. He’s afraid of the neighbor lady, Mrs. Barron, who always leaves later, and the Mormon missionaries, who like to fight with his wife, they always leave later. And Pretty Boy across the street, old Hal Rivers, who waters his lawn in bikini swim trunks, parades young girls in and out, day in, day out, lady’s
man, though he has a gut and a little bald pate — still, the girls like him, which only goes to show that it’s not the looks but the pocketbook. Old Hal stopping by every now and again to chew the fat terrifies him, though Ryland makes sure the man never knows but that he’s welcome.

This man and woman, though, Ryland doesn’t recognize. He lets them in because of the young Navajo woman with them. She has to tell him who she is. Becky Atcitty.

“You know my dad,” she says.

“You’re not Becky Atcitty.”

“Yes I am.”

He stands for a minute and admires the young woman little Becky has become. He tells her that when he first met her she wasn’t any bigger than a thumbnail. Now they sit across from him, three of them on the couch, and Becky begins telling him how Woody is sick.

Ryland shakes his head. He likes Woody. “Your dad was a good worker. Every time somebody didn’t show up for a shift at the mill, I’d call him and say, ‘Woody, got a cup of joe with your name on it,’ and your dad’d always say, ‘Okay, then.’ ”

Ryland looks over Becky’s head out the front window to the ash tree in the yard. The leaves are green-white, dry. Rosy has hung plywood children in plywood swings, a boy and a girl, from the tree limbs. The children aren’t swinging, though, because there’s no hint of a breeze.

“He has lung cancer,” the woman with Becky says. Classy. Dressed like a TV news anchor in one of those boxy suits. Hair any color but natural — one of those poofed-up, clipped, and curled deals that hugs her head.

“Your dad’s a strong man,” Ryland says to Becky. “Don’t you worry.” Becky is sitting between the man and the woman. The man is looking all around, beaming at the pictures on the wall. His hair is pulled back in a little ponytail. Skinny guy in jeans.

Becky says, “We just think that maybe the mill workers should get some of the same benefits the miners got.”

“We’re just at the beginning of this process, Mr. Mahoney,” the woman says. “The mill workers like yourself and Mr. Atcitty are entitled . . .

Tell him about the air ventilation in the mills, Bill. Bill’s a public interest lawyer —”

“I don’t have cancer.”

The woman stops. She blinks at him. He watches her eyes slide to the portable oxygen tank at his feet.

“Of course not,” she says. “We were wondering if you kept medical histories on your workers, and if by chance you still have . . .”

“You people like something? I could put on some coffee. Rosy’ll be home any minute. She’s going to be mad if she sees Becky Atcitty here and I didn’t give her anything.”

Becky says, “They think if you’ve got any records on Dad it might give us some place to start.”

“Mr. Mahoney,” the woman says, “as I’m sure you know, we made great strides when the compensation act passed, but it does us no good if there’s no way for victims to collect. The mill workers like yourself and Mr. Atcitty are entitled . . . Bill, tell him about the —”

Copyright © 2007 by Ann Cummins. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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