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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Print Excerpt

“He doesn’t have to tell me anything,” Ryland says.

The woman blinks again. She smiles.

The lawyer gets up and walks over to the pictures on the wall. “Is this your family, Mr. Mahoney? Handsome family.”

Ryland stares at the man staring at his family.

The woman says, “This is simply about workers who were continually exposed to toxic —”

“Your daddy doesn’t know you’re here, does he.” He peers at Becky, who leans back into the couch. They had a party when she was born. He brought cigars and cider to the mill. Sam Behan, his old chum, teased him. “During working hours, Ry?” Sam said, and Ryland said, “Who’s the boss?” They all raised a glass and toasted this girl’s birth.

Ryland leans forward. The girl stares at something over his shoulder. He can’t read her. Navajos. Never could read them. But her dad, Woody was a good man. Didn’t truck with unions. When they wanted to bring the union in, Woody said he had a family to support. This Ryland knows for a fact.

“Don’t you worry about your dad,” he says. “He’s a strong man.”

He looks at the news anchor lady. Her eyes are as bright as a child’s, and her grinning teeth are blue-white. Her hands, laced in a fist on her lap, are white, too, and the skin pulls so tight it looks like her knuckles are about to bust through.

“One of the best men I know,” Ryland says to her. “Woodrow Atcitty. This girl’s dad.”

But Rosy catches them as they’re leaving. Now the four of them sit around the kitchen table drinking coffee. Ryland sits in his chair in the living room. “. . . little chance the Navajo miners with legitimate claims can file. The red tape is prohibitive,” the lawyer’s saying.

On the TV a fancy man is breaking eggs into a dish. The man uses one hand to break the eggs — egg in the palm of the hand, little tap, then presto! On the egg-breaking hand, the cook wears a Liberace ring. One of those rings that stretches from knuckle to fist.

The lawyer says they’ve only just begun to organize. He wants to have community meetings. He wants to educate and motivate. Moneygrubbing lawyer. Ryland would lay bets that guy’s on the clock. The man isn’t sitting at his kitchen table out of charity.

Liberace says, “Whisk it up good.” He’s making a confection.

Ryland watches him stir sugar into eggs.

Rosy wants them to know about Ryland’s handkerchiefs. “All those years that he worked in the uranium mill, his handkerchiefs were always stained yellow from mucus he blew out of his nose. I have many questions and no answers.”

“We all have questions,” the lawyer says. “Maybe you’d like to join us next week. We’re identifying key people in the region who might form a planning committee.”

“Sure,” Rosy says. “Any day but Tuesday.” She says something about a doctor’s appointment Tuesday. Ryland strains to hear. He hits the mute button on the channel changer. She’s saying he’s got some sort of test scheduled.

“What test?” he calls out.

The kitchen goes silent. Ryland can feel them looking at each other. Then Rosy yells, “I told you about it. We scheduled this a month ago, Ryland.” He stares at the thick confection as Liberace pours it into a bowl. Now he hears a chair skidding on the kitchen linoleum, and he watches his wife’s reflection in the TV screen as she comes into the living room. “You agreed to it,” she says quietly. She says that Dr. Callahan recommended this test, that they’re going to take a little tissue from his lung. That’s all. “It’s just a precaution,” she says, and he turns, giving her a look. “It wasn’t my idea,” she hisses, her dark eyes fiery. He wonders about that. “Don’t you remember?”

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

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