Donna D. Vitucci
Daybreak, March 1956


        As if the Fernald Plant were a magnet, every possible blame flew to it and stuck, the impossible and especially the inevitable. Evan lost his wedding ring during an accident on a Sunday shift when he hadn't even been scheduled there. Just before dawn, a hospital nurse called to say an ambulance was ferrying him home. An all-night rain had settled over the county, so when Patrice watched the road for Evan she saw the driveway erupt in ripples the shapes of snakes. To pre-empt whatever her mother's ghost would surely have to say about such a sign, she ran out in the weather to mark a path for the driver the minute his ambulance red shrieked upon the blacktop. Rivulets sluiced over her shoes. Her rain-matted hair lay heavy down the middle of her back. It felt as if a small animal cowered between her shoulder blades.
        “My love,” she said to Evan. She'd never spoken so romantically. Her words had always been useful, parsed, aimed for sensible interpretation, conservative. Her papa'd taught her not to waste. Patrice took that so far as to apply it to her speech, to what fell from her mouth, even kisses. Until now she'd been stingy.
        “My love,” she cooed again, pelted by rain as she helped the driver bring Evan to the house. They were three drowned rats paused under the porch roof to gain back their breath. The downpour sprayed them as it shot up off the concrete. This teeming curtain needed parting, but the porch was good and safe for the one moment they pretended the world could be calm, and that they had some control over it.
        Evan, glassy-eyed, observed his house as if he'd newly come to town. When his roving gaze landed on Patrice he said, “Where's your coat?”
        The ambulance driver poked her shoulder. “You're in charge,” he said, then dashed out to his next emergency.
        She assisted Evan by means of his good elbow, leaned her hip into the screen door to stretch it open wide as they both stumbled inside. Mazie stood barefoot on the mat.
        Patrice said, “Shoo. You're blocking your daddy's path. And mine.”
        “Hi, sugar,” Evan whispered.
        Mazie hopped back in the bird-way she had about her.
        “Close the door against that storm,” she said to the girl. “You can at least do that, can't you?” Patrice felt petulance branching through her and would not shut it off.
        Evan's face flickered gratitude, then fear, the shift of a brave flame from blue to yellow. She thought he might poof and leave them in the dark. Did he suppose she would accuse him, with his pallor now washed pale as the flour she had out in the kitchen counter for mixing up pancakes? She'd intended a sweet breakfast for his return from Fernald, to rinse from his mind her vinegary voice begging him not to go to the Plant when that foreman called during Sunday dinner.
        “Don't cave in to them,” she'd whispered as Evan lingered on the phone. And then later, as he escaped out the door, she said, “Took you right from our supper table.”
        Past experience proved he'd rush to the job when Fernald crooked its finger. Patrice's opinion: they felt too easy about calling him in at a moment's notice and Evan was too affable in accepting. He'd been layed off once by them, and then rehired, said he intended to never know such bottomless-ness again.
        Pancakes were her peace offering. But then the machine and he had grappled, and the machine won. In that light, how paltry pancakes seemed. She thought of prophets sacrificing rams on piles of brambles to curry favor. She briefly worried what the Almighty would insist she give up, just to keep Evan safe and with her.
        Evan tried a smile with more grimace than joke in it; both motivations seemed gripped inside him and fighting for supremacy. “My finger's broke and cut some,” he said. “Doc says the tendon's ripped but good.” The hospital wrapping wound past his elbow though it wasn't injured, just attached to the injury which incapacitated the whole arm.
        Patrice wondered, should she not only cook the pancakes, but cut them up, dip them in syrup and get them to his parted, now-chapped lips? She didn't wish to insult him, but it was her nature to serve. The sedative they'd administered at the hospital was drying his mouth.
        “Do you want water?” she said.
        Mazie said, “What was it ate you, Daddy?” They'd all three shuffled to the living room and his two girls were hemming Evan. Patrice thought he might collapse before he reached the couch. She suspected Mazie wanted to launch her weight into his knee so he might nudge her back in the usual footsie game they played, but Mazie held herself in check. Her little-girl reserve, so early on this morning especially, impressed Patrice.
        Even doped up, Evan turned his voice bear-like to play and entertain Mazie. “They call it a Gridley,” he growled. In a regular tone he said, “Yeah, I'd appreciate a drink of something.”
        “A griddle?” Mazie said. Then she announced, “Patrice is making pancakes. They cook on top the griddle.” She roared the word “griddle” as he'd growled “Gridley.” Of their three laughs, Evan's was the weakest. Mazie managed to color everything almost normal.
        “We'll pause the idea of food for now,” Patrice said. She could imagine never eating again. What was hunger, anyway, but the body insisting one urgent need ahead of a stack of others? She held the glass to Evan's lips as he sipped water. She let her fingers scatter his black hair from his eyes turned glittery from drugs. She felt the shape of his skull. He faltered when she touched him, or maybe he was just swallowing.
        “Well, you go on,” he said. He waved his good hand as he winced and began reclining on the cushions. “Go cook breakfast. I'll just rest.” His hand, padded and gauzed past his elbow, prevented his arm from bending. He propped it tall above his head along the back of the couch like a white flag.
        Patrice's mother's ghost, never fully banished, spoke from the far corner of the room: So this is how you two go at it? How you spar, how you finish it up? She laughed a pitiful laugh, pity meant for Patrice, pity Patrice never failed to hear.
        As a small girl, Patrice had gone weekly with Papa to Carson's Store. He ambled back to talk with Ned Carson at the butcher counter, while Ned sliced for them chops or meat for stew. Except for the worst winter days, two old men sat right inside Carson's front door on metal potato chip and popcorn drums, a perpetual checkers game set up between them on empty stacked tomato crates. In her head she called them Old Coots because that's what they called each other. She never spoke to them, even when they said, “There you are, girlie. How are you today?” In their greeting had been something like pity, though she couldn't have defined the sentiment then, and even as an adult she wondered why they'd pity her when surely she should have been the one sparing them pity.
        Their laughter wheezed as they chewed their shrunken mouths. Their chins grew stubble and their hair sprouted greasy lanks from under their caps. Their leaky eyes locking on her the way they did set off squirming in her belly. So began Patrice's habit of crossing her arms over her stomach, to hold herself so no one else could. She was standing at the stove this way while Evan's pancakes cooked.
        One Old Coot said, “Man's downfall will always be a woman.”
        “Quit pontificating, Old Coot, and king me,” said the other.
        Old Coot did, then he said, “All the way back to Eve.” His yellowed teeth worked at nibbling his bottom lip. He gave Patrice an evil eye and a wily, colluding smile. All his eyebrows were awry and their statick-y look scared her. “Eh?” he said to her. “Eh?” His touch, she was sure, would electrocute.
        The Fernald Plant was dangerous and alluring, like a woman, a woman with secrets. If Jesus Christ claimed the Church his bride, the U.S. government's girl was Fernald, a gal with secrets galore, all those SOP's hole-punched and filed in binders thick as the Bible, dozens alone in the office where Patrice once worked. There must have been hundreds throughout the maze of the Plant, all hushing quiet the code names they used for the products they manufactured and the processes they devised.
        By the time she was old enough to start remembering and asking their names, both Old Coots had vanished. She sometimes wondered if she'd dreamt them. She followed these crazy thoughts strung one to another like backyard party lights. In Evan's kitchen, she felt the confusion a squirrel must as he zigzags among forest branches until he stops and cannot see the start from where he's ended up.
        Acrid smoke from the griddle called her back. She flipped the pancakes but the undersides were beyond crisp. Patrice scraped the pan-ful into the trash.
        Her mother said, The first batch always burns. You're seasoning the skillet, still playing with the temperature. So utterly unlike her mother, this spate of encouragement.
        Evan's voice trailed slowly to her from the other room: “You burning the house down?”
        “Just caught daydreaming,” Patrice called back. She poured a second batch on the griddle and vowed to watch it. Once she set down the utensils, she stared at the batter bubbling up and firming. She held her stomach, couldn't tell if she felt sick from hunger or just plain sick.
        Mazie talked with her daddy in the other room. Patrice's hearing picked apart the sounds and concentrated until their babble formed words.
        “Tell me a story Maze,” Evan said.
        That would delight the girl, the switcheroo in their storytelling roles. Patrice smiled and inched to the kitchen doorway, but not so close they could see her. Angled where she stood, her view included the end of the couch where Evan rested back and Mazie knelt on the floor next to him.
        Worshipful little thing, Mazie put her finger to her mouth and exaggerated pensive thought. Her finger rested in the spot awaiting a tooth, alongside the one recent adult tooth that previewed the mouth she'd grow into.
        Mazie said, “The Infant of Prague wears a dress.”
        Evan rose from his stupor, up on his good elbow. His eyes bugged with amazement. He said, “A dress?,” silly and mocking and delighting Mazie. Delighting Patrice.
        Breakfast, her mother reminded.
        Patrice left off watching those two and flipped the pancakes. These were smooth and golden and as big as saucers for cups.
        Mother, in her corner, nodded. Set the coffee brewing.
        “Yes,” Patrice said aloud, used as she was, to doing what she was told.
        Evan's voice pulled at her, too: “Something sure smells good.”
        She made a point of standing in the doorway and looking right at him and pointing the spatula as she said, “It's all for you.” Then, embarrassed by the untempered gratitude and need that washed across his face, she fled back to the griddle, where she'd learned how to deal with a hot frying pan. The coffee hissed inside the percolator. Outside, wind speckled the window pane with rain. Pancake edges were browning. Too many things needed watching. Her eyes felt like they were spinning inside her head. Even the bottle of buttermilk seemed to be curdling before her on the counter, making her want to retch.
        Your own husband scares you, her mother observed from her corner.
        Patrice ran the water hard and loud from the faucet, splashed some across her closed eyes. When she shut off the tap and wiped her hands and blotted her brow with the dish towel, Mazie and Evan were back at discussing the boy statue dressed as a girl.
        “Sister assigns us each a turn to change his clothes,” Mazie said.
        Evan said, “Have you done it yet?”
        Mazie groaned. “It's alphabetical.”
        “Ah, honey,” Evan said. He'd saddled her with the last name Wunder. “I'm sorry.”
        Then Mazie said a surprisingly grown-up thing. “It can't be helped.”
        It's what the nuns probably told her at school, and now Mazie was teaching Evan this lesson she'd learned about the way the world worked, the world outside her reach, outside Evan's reach, too. Evan took whatever Fernald served up; Mazie made the best of a tiresomely late last name.
        “Food's ready,” Patrice said, cajoling wedged alongside bravado.
        Her mother scoffed: Now you're serenading him?
        Mazie ran barefoot into the kitchen, and Patrice pivoted her by her slight shoulders in the direction from where she'd come. She said, “Get some slippers on.”
        Then she crossed the living room to sit beside Evan stretched out on the couch. “Do you feel like some breakfast?” She tapped his hip.
        “I feel like…” He fumbled, he drifted.
        She didn't know if he was coming back to finish the sentence. Drugs for pain were maybe clouding his mind. She watched his eyeballs jitter underneath his shuttered lids.
        He said, from inside his private dark, “I feel sorry that I went in to work at all.”
        She wanted to say apology accepted, or I told you so, or none of it matters but that you're all right, or Mother's been wrong before and I swear I'm not listening to her.
        She said, “Your pancakes are turning cold,” and “Should I bring a plate to you here?”
        During her mother's final days, she'd spoon-fed her before she refused eating altogether, and Patrice resisted categorizing Evan in the same blood-sucking light.
        “Christ, honey,” he said, “I can fork them up myself. Just give me a minute.”
        He opened his brown eyes, the pupils dark and so very enlarged from whatever the hospital had given him. She hadn't meant to sound pushy, and she felt whipped by his whiny tone.
        “Take as long as you like.” Give him time, she thought, and it wasn't her mother speaking, just her own common sense. He might not even remember today tomorrow -- this homecoming, these pancakes, the uneasiness tied to who'd accept blame and who was at fault.
        He was struggling under his pain, enthralled by medication, still on the hook of some terrible accident details she couldn't grasp. She bent and kissed him, she gulped at the medicine taste on his lips and the smell of machine oil embedded in his hair and his clothing. Evan grasped the back of her neck, where her still-wet and tangled hair chilled her. He held her mouth to his and would not let go, his good arm stronger than she expected. His tongue probed, hers lolled, until she felt drowned in this. While she gave Evan her dearest, last breath, Mazie might show up any second, but Patrice couldn't care. His fever heavied her limbs, it blanketed her skin. She would accept him, and accept him again. She would bear illness and convalescence, she would drag him alongside her through whatever crabby days of recovery lay ahead.
        “What about the pancakes?” Mazie said. The girl pressed warm between them.