Short story from the 2012 issue.
All The Goats Are Born in the Hills
By Leslie Jamison
Their first kiss was at a truck stop and their first and only sex was in a truck. He was the oncologist treating her son’s expanding cancer. They were old for this, she knew—not for extra-marital sex, but for sex in a vehicle. Though their aging bodies didn’t thwart them, there were hints of what would come: Evan’s dark hair was flour-dusted white, the corners of Molly’s mouth had bloomed into spidery wrinkles. Her small breasts bore her age well, at least, an older woman’s consolation prize for the fruitless pleas of younger years: Grow bigger, grow bigger, grow bigger.
Evan’s hands were rough for a doctor’s. Later he would explain that he’d done other things before medical school: fished in Alaska, cleared trails in a forest. Now they were going to send themselves, as her grandmother might have said, “up a gum tree.” This from a woman who’d also been fond of saying, “you never miss a slice from a cut loaf,” which meant that once a woman had done it once, it was all the same how many people she’d done it with.
Molly had done it with plenty of men before her current husband—her first husband, for starters—but she’d never been unfaithful to anyone. It would have been wrong to say this budding affair with Evan—not quite an affair, not yet—had started innocently. It was more like guilt had been rendered irrelevant by a grief so fierce it seemed to banish everything else.
When Evan, Dr. Atlas to her then, had told her about Simon’s leukemia, she’d felt her whole body shrivel into her clothes. Her son was sick and might die. This knowledge was close. Everything else was far away: the chair, the sleeves of her dress, the air itself. The doctor seemed like some speck on a distant horizon. This was the most important conversation of her life, but it was hardly this way for him. In a couple years, she knew, he might not even remember it.
Simon, who was ten, had started calling her “mother,” as a middle-aged man might have done. The place had aged him. “Mother” seemed like how you’d address somebody you wanted to invite for tea. Simon had started drinking tea but he could only stomach herbal, on his bad days, and on his good days he didn’t feel like tea at all. He liked ginger until ginger made him sick, and then he liked mint.
Why did this seem so wrong to her, this drinking of tea, more wrong than his vomiting or the bald white lantern of his head? Ten-year-old boys should be begging for sugary juice from the fridge, their legs muddy and battered from lawn soccer.
He would do all this someday, she told herself. There was still time for him to rot his teeth. At night, she watched the full moon of his face in the darkness and imagined the halving of his cell counts, hour by hour.
One day, Simon explained that he’d been terraforming his bed. He’d begun speaking like this, in the language of his science fiction novels. He wanted her to see the land he’d built from supplies. He pointed at the small foil tubs of peanut butter scattered across his rumpled sheets.
“These are the goats,” he said. “They have terrible fevers.”
“All of them?”
He nodded. “They’re born with it. And if they don’t do anything about it they just smoke away and die.”
She rummaged through his language, as she always did, for coded allusions to his own illness. Had he been on any medications that might have made him feel flushed? He’d taken so many drugs—from endless nurses holding paper cups, or new bags for his hand-stuck IV. It was hard to remember what he’d taken. Best to stay with him now, stay with what he was telling her.
“What can they do to get better?” she asked. “Is there anything?” “All the goats are born in the hills,” he said, pointing to white sheets bunched into a pile near his feet. “That’s where it is really hot and they are really hot.”
“Over here,” now he pointed to a blue blanket folded over the edge of the bed, “they get to go in the ocean and that’s how they get better.”
“They have to get to the coast?” she said, “then they’re okay?”
Already her mind was calculating: could they get him on a plane to California, in his condition? She pictured him sunning on the sand, gulls swooping low over his smooth head. She’d have to put sunscreen all over his scalp.
“Bingo,” he said. “They just need to get out of the inside.”
Sid arrived with a plastic shopping bag. Sid was Simon’s father. Molly realized that she’d been thinking of Sid this way—as Simon’s father, not her husband—for a few months at least. Now he looked nervous. She knew that look. Something had been requested from him, and he wasn’t sure he’d gotten it right.
Simon looked up, alert. “What flavor?”
“Ah,” Sid smiled. “The question is not what flavor I got.”
Simon narrowed his eyes but didn’t speak. He wouldn’t play.
“The question is,” Sid continued, “is there a flavor I didn’t get?”
He pulled glass jars of jam from his plastic bag and started dropping them on the bed. Molly gasped. Simon could still joke around, sure, but he was also a kid who had cancer in his bones. His legs needed protecting. They didn’t need jam jars dropped on them.
Simon didn’t seem to mind. He picked each one up in turn. “Not strawberry,” he said. “Not strawberry, not strawberry, not strawberry.” He looked up, finally. “You didn’t get strawberry?
Molly felt her own anger rising. What kind of idiot forgot strawberry?
Sid grinned and pulled another jar from his pocket. “Don’t worry guys,” he said. “I got strawberry.”
So there was strawberry jam, in the end. Simon didn’t want to put it in his mouth but he did want to smear all over his tiny packets of peanut butter to make, in his words: “bloody goats.” It was part of the vision. These bleeding goats were the ones whose bodies had been ruptured by fever. The sheets got sticky and had to be changed.
As Sid watched the smeared linens carried off, he began to cry, almost silently. Molly could see it in his body: lips bitten, spine straightened, cheeks quivering. She didn’t need to ask what he was crying about, because he would tell her. He always did. He accused her of growing impatient with him, and she had—she did still, over and over, she couldn’t hide it. She was surprised by his physical capacity to keep producing tears.
He said the sheets made him imagine Simon’s blood. She wanted to say: If he dies on us, it won’t be bloody. That’s not how it works, this disease, there’s nothing cut, it just grows bigger until there’s too much. She was tired of Sid’s dramatics. She was reminding herself to ask the next nurse for more peanut butter.
By the time Simon’s second hospital stay rolled around, Evan was no longer Dr. Atlas. Molly had seen him in the hush before dawn, monitors beeping quietly in the darkness. She’d seen him tired, with traces of ketchup like a rash around his lips. She opened the door for him when she wouldn’t open it for anyone else, because he was the only one who might have something useful to say.
He’d seen her, too. He’d seen her snarl at the nurses out of tiredness, and eat an entire box of cookies while sitting next to a son whose mouth was wall-papered with sores.
He was on call the night before they were due to get the results of Simon’s one-month T-Cell count. He stopped by her room to suggest coffee. It was three in the morning. She said yes. She told him she wanted to get out of that room, which was only part of the truth. How did it go? Get out of the inside. She also wanted to get away from Simon. The urge came sometimes, and she’d learned it was best to obey it.
There weren’t many places open, Evan explained, but there was a truck stop he knew if they wanted a break from the cafeteria. Molly wasn’t a fool. Coffee was just the word they were using for something else. They took his car, which was a van, and he never explained why he owned a van, or even acknowledged that it was something that might need explaining. Molly wondered about the back-story, but only for a moment. He was infinite, just like everyone, full of memories and causes, but his infinity just made her feel tired.
The only radio station that got reception was playing Christian rock. Somebody was waiting; someone was opening; someone was catapulting. Someone was getting blackmailed in the heart.
They passed a long string of darkened strip malls. There were Christmas lights strung through the trees that looked like small cold fireflies against the bare knobbed branches. Molly trained her gaze on them. She was trying to notice things that would give her an excuse to feel sentimental. She imagined these sparkling lights blurred by tears, but her eyes didn’t even well up.
Maybe she felt nothing because she’d earned this indiscretion; the deep grief of her life made it, if not excusable, at least understandable. But Molly suspected the parched feeling in her, where remorse might have been, went deeper than this—that it had to do with having resigned herself to a life in which things were done wrong, or went wrong. She had no energy to fix this; it was her lot. Might as well follow things to their conclusion.
The truck stop was like a little Las Vegas rising from the darkened cornfields. They pulled off into the brightness and parked outside a diner.
“We don’t have to get coffee,” she said. “In fact, maybe we shouldn’t.” She was staring out the passenger-side window.
“What are you saying?” he said. “You want to go home?”
“I’m saying why are we in front of this diner? What did we come here for?”
Her hands were resting on the thighs of her jeans, still mittened, and through the fabric she could feel his hand on hers. “Look at me,” he said. “I’ve never done this before.”
“Neither have I,” she said. “I’m not some expert.”
He cupped her cheek and turned her to face him, and then he placed his fingers over both of her earlobes and pressed, very gently, until the Christian rockers’ voices sounded distant and watery, as if she’d been dunked under the surface of a swimming pool.
He kissed her like this, after placing her in this delicately muted world, and she came to him hungry, feeling the strangeness of their soft tissues meeting and feeling, also, the strangeness of this phrase— soft tissues—which had risen into her mind unbidden and oddly medical, as if he’d passed it from his mind to hers by way of their mouths.
They drove to a motel called Sleep Tite, with a lobby carpeted in threadbare mustard. They got a “room with a view” because that was the only room left. Molly couldn’t imagine what the view would be. She could barely imagine them, upstairs, two sour-breathed strangers talking dirty against the neon-razored darkness. The thought of taking an elevator to another mustard-colored hallway made her physically ill. She watched a trucker coming through the lobby doors, headed toward the reception desk. He had long silver hair under a denim hat. He tipped his hat as he passed. She offered him their room key in exchange for a night in his truck. He didn’t even ask why, and neither did Evan. Both men bowed to her plan as if its wisdom lay beyond sense or questioning.
She’d hoped the truck would make them feel, in its absurdity, a kind of separation from their own lives, like its altered physics were a dream that could be woken from.
She kept thinking in terms of a joint experience, like they were in the same boat. When she touched Evan’s skin, she felt she was touching her own past, the portion of her life spent being a person who loved herself more than anyone. As he still did, she imagined—with no wedding ring, as he must.
They settled into an untenable straddling. She perched on his lap while he gripped her hips. But this position forced them to look at each other. Their faces weren’t close enough to blur and this blurriness was what she wanted. He turned her around and folded her body into the seat like a child. She could feel plastic scratching her back, probably a wrapper from one of the driver’s midnight snacks. It was hard to believe that her body in this truck, under this man’s hands, was the same body that had made Simon—the nipples he’d fed from, the tissue he’d broken with his newborn body.
His fingers on her skin made her aware of how her body had fallen to mush: the rumpus of her hair, the sheen of her unwashed scalp, those dry and flaking legs that were the ashy hangover of years of moisturizer. Her fingers seemed fatter to her gaze, these days, or perhaps it was simply that she looked at them more often, mainly when she looked away from other people and their eyes.
Their sex was short but it was also loud, which deepened the silence that followed. She played her fingers along the dusty creases of the stick shift. He asked her how she felt. She said she felt fine. He said he hoped she didn’t feel guilty. She said of course she felt guilty. He asked her what he could do to make it better.
She said: “Tell me how it gets cured. Be specific.”
He’d already told her everything about Simon’s illness, of course, but the strange language of his medicine had passed through her like powdered sugar through a sieve: most of it fell through, dusty, while a few hard clumps of code remained—early Pre-B, WBC—that didn’t make much sense on their own. When he’d said 15-17—at one point, a range of risk—she hadn’t known whether he was talking about hundreds or thousands. When he explained her son’s diagnosis, this time around, it was the beginning of the story rather than the end. He knew how to fix. Her husband only knew how to cry.
It wasn’t hard to get dressed because she’d never undressed. She pulled up her jeans from her knees, so they no longer felt like shackles, and reached behind her back to find the plastic in the seat. It was a pack of vanilla cream cookies with the cartoon of a grandmother’s face on the front. Up a gum tree, indeed. What had felt like advice now felt like admonishment. She tucked the cookies in her pocket.
Evan offered to take her home. She wasn’t going home, she said. She was going back to the hospital. Right, he said. That’s what he meant. He’d ring the nurses to bring a cot. She said there was already a cot, annoyed he didn’t remember this. Their tones were curt. This part of their lives was over, the intersection, and now they would lead separate lives again. She would have a child with cancer and he wouldn’t. He’d have a van and she wouldn’t.
When he dropped her at the hospital, he gave her a papery kiss on the cheek. She explained herself to the security guard and took the elevator up to 5-B, tired and glad for it. Her husband wouldn’t be expecting her at home because she was supposed to be with Simon. The convenience of this excuse felt like an accusation in its own right. Simon was awake. His eyes were white almonds in the dark. She came to his side and stroked back his hair, speaking softly. She knew her fingers smelled like sex but it didn’t matter. Touching him mattered, touching his skin.
“Awake for long?” she asked.
“No,” he whispered. “Just a couple minutes.”
“Oh good,” she said. “That’s good.”
“Where were you?”
“Nowhere,” she said. “Somewhere.”
She smoothed the ocean folded over the side of his bed. She lifted one of his hands and closed it around the package of vanilla cookies. She could feel skids of dried jam on the back of his palm. “Where I was,” she said, “I was getting you this.”
He sat up and unwrapped the package in the darkness. He offered her a cookie. He took a cookie for himself. She watched him, this brave boy. He’d eat from her hand and make goats of what he couldn’t swallow. In a few minutes he was heaving and she held a bowl under his turned head. She knew he’d known, before he ate, he would get sick. She’d known as well.