“It’s just not safe here, Mamma,” Ella said, when she walked into Hannah’s living room with an armload of empty boxes. “That government man said the poison from the lead mines is still in the air, getting into our lungs. Move to Joplin with us—please. I can get you on at that big catfish restaurant, nothing heavy, just some hostess work.”
Hannah sat in the old blue armchair and looked at her daughter. Ella was wide and worn from taking care of her kids and working long hours at the convenience shop up on the highway. She remembered what a tadpole Ella had been as a kid, racing along the street and rolling down the mountains of mine leavings that the government man now said were so dangerous.
Hannah was glad her daughter and grandkids were getting out of Picher and moving across the Oklahoma border to Joplin. The government had even given them money to do this. “I can’t leave Lilly, and I’ve got to figure out what to do about the store,” she said. “Give me another six months or so. Then I’ll come up and serve catfish to folks.”
Ella shook her head. “Bring Lilly with you, Mamma. Come on, now. I don’t like your cough.”
Hannah pressed the cough down into her throat and pushed up from the chair. Her legs felt thick as Sunday chili as she walked into the kitchen to get them each some sweet iced tea, pouring the drink into the cut glass tumblers Ella liked.
“Hey, here’s another thing about the catfish place.” Ella trundled in and opened up the refrigerator, peering in, just like she had when she was a kid. Hannah bit her lip to keep from telling her to stop wasting electricity. “They have sweet tea there almost as good as yours.” The refrigerator light spotlighted her daughter’s spiked blond hair, which Hannah had worked hard to get used to it. Ella pushed aside the bottles of juice and salad dressing and found a container of leftover spaghetti. She popped open the lid and took a few bites.
After Hannah’s husband, Thom, died, Ella would often come in the evening and they would let the cool air of the refrigerator hum over them as they rummaged among the casserole dishes neighbors had brought, spooning into tuna casserole, potatoes au gratin, beef stew, putting them back, reshuffling, and then foraging again. They had both wasted electricity then, eating right out of the containers, using the worst manners possible, and not caring.
“I’m going to box up more of my old stuff,” Ella said, when she had polished off the pasta. “Mamma, pack up at least two boxes. I’ll take them with me as insurance.”
Hannah went to the bookshelf and put an armload of paperbacks into a box, adding three books from her leather-bound collection of classics, Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, and Madame Bovary. Lilly had sent her these books from London. Hannah was reading mysteries and romance back then, but Lilly told her to read Gatsby first and tell her what she thought. Hannah had actually done that, writing a letter on the back of two placemats from the diner.
Now Hannah traced the thick gold script on Gatsby’s cover, then put it into the box and moved into her bedroom. Even though Thom had died more than five years ago, taken by the lung cancer, the closet still had an empty, unsettled look without his heavy jeans, flannel shirts, and work boots. She took out the long black dress she’d found two years ago at a rummage sale in Bartlesville. She’d bought it to sell at the store for Halloween dress-up.
But Lilly had just come back to Picher, and when she saw that dress, her eyes lit up.
“I have a red one almost like it. Let’s wear them sometime. Just because we live in the sticks doesn’t mean we aren’t as sophisticated as anyone else.” Lilly persuaded her, and one afternoon they swept into the restaurant on the highway—rather, Lilly swept through in her scarlet gown and Hannah strode in after, trying not to giggle, the silky fabric of the dress brushing her legs and almost tripping her.
Lilly smiled at the other diners before she gracefully sank into a seat. Hannah ducked into the booth, quick as a lizard, then burst out laughing.
They both ordered coffee and cherry pie. “You look so elegant in that dress,” Lilly told her, and Hannah sat up straighter.
A little girl wandered over to their table, her thumb in her mouth. She swayed and stared, her own pink skirt shimmering with sequins. “Princesses, Mommie,” she lisped, when her mother came to retrieve her. A man solemnly tipped his John Deere cap and another man, with worn oil- splattered overalls and a toothpick riding his mouth, shook his head and clicked his tongue. Lilly laughed at that. That was before Lilly realized she was sick.
Hannah put the dress in the box, along with two pants suits she never wore and a peasant skirt she should wear more often. If Lilly weren’t still here, if the store were closed, she’d leave for Joplin with Ella and the kids. But she wanted to be with Lilly until her time came, which the hospice nurse had told her could be quite soon now. The store—hers now for the past ten years—was also dying. She wanted to see both these dear departing friends through to the end.
That afternoon, Hannah walked to the store carrying a packet of cold chicken, potato salad, and orange slices. Her walk now was hobbled, and she’d had all kinds of breathing problems. She’d taken in the poison from those mystical, amazing dunes, the mounds of gravel that had ringed the town and transformed the landscape. They had been as soft and sifting as sand. As a kid, she had imagined the ocean out beyond those dunes, tricking and teasing her by keeping just out of sight. She and Lilly had run up and rolled down those dunes. Even now, after the EPA had “cleaned up the place” and most of the hills were gone, a few ethereal-looking mounds still led the way into town.
Hannah’s store smelled of popcorn. Carol had taken a marketing course once at a community college and learned that aromas can inspire sales. Three years ago Carol had wandered into the store. She was playing hooky from her secretarial job in Joplin, she told Hannah. She stopped at the display of T-shirts at the front of the store and carefully examined them, unfolding and folding them again, and she examined the designer shampoos with their many scents, a special from a freight sale. After she had explored every aisle, she asked, “Is this all yours?”
“It is,” Hannah said, smiling.
“This place has potential,” Carol had told Hannah. “If you grouped things together, like putting all the bathroom items in one place, people would immediately think of their own homes. I bet you would sell even more.”
Carol’s hopefulness reminded Hannah of Ella, before her daughter had her third child, before her second husband had turned bad, before she’d been laid off so many times. Carol pressed her hands together and said, “We’ll make this place a destination. If you want my help, that is.”
“I’d love your help,” Hannah had told her. And indeed, Carol had come to work for Hannah part-time and had lured ladies from Joplin down to shop. But after the report that the underground shafts were dangerous and the town might collapse, the ladies stopped coming. Now only a few strangers stopped by on their way somewhere else.
“Maybe we can move the store to Joplin,” Carol said, as Hannah set down her packet of food. Hannah could tell she’d been noodling at the idea. “We could open in one of those abandoned places downtown. What do you think?”
“It’s either that or hostess at the catfish house,” Hannah said. Still, her chest ached at the thought of starting over in the empty vault of downtown Joplin.
She had started this store with a few items when the space was still a diner. Hannah had worked in that diner, waitressing and running the place, and she had organized the glass counter under the register, putting in a row of her old treasures right beneath the candy and gum. People bought them. Soon the owner agreed she could have a whole case of stuff to sell; she’d give him 20%. When Hannah ran out of her own knick-knacks, she scoured thrift stores and garage sales. As the scare over toxins began emptying out the town, the diner closed and Hannah took over the space, the owner giving her free rent in exchange for looking after the building.
Hannah wandered through the racks of clothes, adjusting hangers, straightening price tags, regrouping sizes, passing time until Lilly’s nap was over and she could visit. A woman walked into the shop, tall, slim, with black hair in one of those Paris buns and clothes that looked like they were beyond even Tulsa. “I can’t believe those sand dunes,” the woman said to Hannah. “Where did those come from?”
“It’s gravel, the leavings from the lead and zinc mines,” Hannah told her.
“They’re beautiful,” the woman said. Her voice had the crisp sound of faraway.
Hannah watched as the woman toured the store, past the racks of used paperbacks, the rows of cheap t-shirts, the shelves with knick-knacks rescued from salvage. The woman tried on a gold-sequined stretchy belt, but the interlocking buckle snapped open and the belt flopped onto the floor. Hannah never felt bad that her merchandise was not quite good enough. Her store was about possibilities.
She had stayed in Picher to discover possibilities, and Lilly had traveled the world, collecting possibilities. Hannah smiled as she took the lid off a heart-shaped container and read the word, Harmony, written on the white porcelain. Even when they were countries apart, she and Lilly had always been in harmony. Lying against the dunes all those long ago childhood years, they dreamed of different futures. Hannah wanted to cook and bake and didn’t much care where. Lilly wanted to travel, playing the piano and singing, being somehow vaguely famous.
They had planned to room together at college, but Hannah’s mother got gripped with arthritis and Hannah had to commute to school. Then Thom appeared, moving into town with some big government contract, showing up early one morning at the diner where Hannah had worked since she was 13. His freckles, his languid Kentucky voice, the fact that a paperback peeked out of his jacket, all these things made Hannah refill his coffee cup before it was even empty. She tucked an extra homemade biscuit into his order.
“Will you be working here late, or would you like me to take you out for dinner?” Thom said, when he had finished eating.
“I’ll be feeding my mama her supper,” Hannah told him. “But I can meet you up at the bar later on this evening.”
Sitting with Thom at the bar was like lying in the dunes and talking to Lilly. They saw each other every night for a week. Then Thom offered to come over and join her and her mom for dinner. Her mother warmed to his cottony voice and easy manner, and she fluttered when he adjusted her pillow. Back in Hannah’s bedroom, after her mother had gone to bed with her TV shows, her questions had been erased by Thom’s mouth against hers.
After the wedding, after they both graduated from college, Lilly had traveled, teaching music, making her own way, not bothering with marriage or settling down. Still, they always stayed in touch. There were moments when Hannah felt a stabbing envy for the freedom of Lilly’s life, or the life she imagined Lilly led. But those moments faded away when she held Ella on her lap, or when a customer called to praise the delicacy of a cake, and or when Thom reached out for her in the night.
The out-of-town customer took her time in the store and finally bought an old footstool. As soon as she left, Hannah and Carol pulled up tall chairs and settled around the counter, feasting on the food Hannah had brought. When their meal ended, Carol yawned and said, “Think about what I said, you know, about starting over. It could be just the thing, when the time is right.”
Hannah’s hands felt like leaden dough. Her throat thickened with the cough.
She knew Carol meant, after Lilly has passed on. But Hannah couldn’t think about that yet.
“I’ll walk over with you, say a quick hello,” Carol said. Hannah nodded, glad for Carol’s company. Every day Hannah was surprised at how frail and thin Lilly looked. Every day she readied herself before she saw Lilly. Being with Carol would help her walk into the house more easily.
Hannah locked the store and they began the stroll of five blocks to Lilly’s. The mining museum was closed. On a side road, two cars and three motorcycles sat outside the bar. The gas station was boarded over. Hannah had seen pictures of Picher in its heyday long ago—the shacks, the large mining buildings, the mountains of gravel, the sprinkle of outhouses, the general store. She had grown up here in the 1940s and 50s, with the mining men, including her father, working hard and steady, proud of their work, proud of their contributions to the world.
She shook her head as they passed the large government sign that said, “Be safe. Don’t swim. Don’t play on the dunes.” Of course those government people couldn’t feel the magic of this place or understand how it had cradled her dreams.
Hannah remembered how she and Lilly always said they would grow old together. She could see the two of them, age seven, huddled behind the giant oak tree, boldly pricking their fingertips with the safety pin that held up Hannah’s hem and vowing to be blood sisters for life. But they wouldn’t grow old together; Lilly was only sixty-three. When she returned to Picher two years ago, she’d told Hannah: “You are my true home now. You are the anchor of my heart. But really, you’ve always been my anchor.”
“The hospice nurse said Lilly may not linger much longer,” Hannah said to Carol, her mouth dry.
Carol’s face tightened, and Hannah realized she shouldn’t have talked so casually. Ever since Lilly learned she didn’t have long to live, the two of them had been getting used to the idea of death. At first, Hannah had felt awkward and irreverent, daring to speak about the end of life. But Lilly put her at ease. “Remember how we talked about dances when we were younger? What we would wear, and who we would dance with, and who else would be there?”
Hannah smiled, remembering the easy flow of those conversations. “Now we’re going to talk about death and about life,” Lilly had said firmly. “I’m going to tell you all my stories, the stories you know and the stories you don’t know. You’re going to tell me all yours. We’re not going to let death come between us. Swear?”
“Swear,” Hannah promised, like she had sworn so many years ago. She and Lilly had spent the last months telling their stories and breaking in the idea of death like they were breaking in a fancy new pair of shoes. They’d picked out their outfits for the dying day and clothes for the memorial service. They’d mapped out the poetry, music, food and aromas for each occasion. They were two women planning the ultimate date.
But Carol was a stranger to such dark intimacies. She hesitated as they turned the corner onto Lilly’s block. “I haven’t seen her in more than a week. Is she, I mean, will I, I mean, is there anything I need to know?”
“She’s still very much herself,” Hannah said. “Although pain gets her sometimes. She’ll be delighted to see you.”
As they neared the house, Hannah saw a billow of white in the front yard, like an angel fallen. It was Lilly. On the ground. Hannah’s chest froze and she couldn’t move. Carol ran to her and helped her sit up.
“What happened?” Hannah asked, her voice in tatters. “Are you all right?”
“I was thinking of how we were always lying on our backs, looking up at the sky,” Lilly said. “I wanted to remember how that felt. I walked out here and lay down, but I couldn’t quite get up again. I didn’t fret, though, because I knew you were coming. The clouds, Hannah, the clouds are just magical.”
Hannah leaned into Lilly and breathed in the scent of talcum powder and aging flowers. She and Carol helped Lilly into the house and onto the wine-colored sofa that made Lilly feel like a queen. Carol got a cool cloth and wiped off Lilly’s face and hands. Hannah got her a glass of water with a bendy straw. When Hannah sat down on the prim little chair right beside Lilly, her legs were trembling. They had talked through death so many times that Hannah thought she was ready. But she wasn’t.
Lilly stretched across the sofa, looking fragile. She beckoned to Carol to come closer.
“Tell us some of your life stories,” she said to her. Hannah pulled up her chair so she and Lilly could hold hands, like they used to when Lilly’s mamma read to them. Only now, Lilly’s hand was light as a remembrance, with none of the firm roughness of her youth. Hannah closed her eyes as Carol talked about trying out for the church choir because she had a crush on the new baritone.
“I didn’t make the choir and I am glad. I don’t want to have any more crushes,” Carol told them. “It’s too hard on me. I just want to have oodles of women friends, so I always have someone to talk to, and someone to eat dinner with, and someone to go dancing with.”
“That’s what I did in Paris,” Lilly told Carol. “I went dancing with women. Sometimes I ate dinner and went to the theater with men, but I went to coffee and nightclubs with my girlfriends.”
Soon Carol stood up, ready to go. Lilly stirred from too much pain, and Hannah helped her to her bed. “Get in,” Lilly said, patting the mattress. Hannah eased onto the bed, facing her. So many nights they had curled together as children, talking their way into sleep.
“Tell me about when we were little,” Lilly said. She scooted closer to Hannah. Hannah eased her arm around her. “Once upon a time, there were two little girls who were the best of friends.” She spun a story about the times before the mountains were poison, before Lilly’s cancer and Hannah’s cough, a time when beyond the dunes lay a world as rich as diamonds. Lilly’s face shone clear and smooth. When the story was over, she opened her eyes and said, “You know, Hannah, I’m almost ready to go.”
Hannah’s lip quivered and her eyes flooded. “Can’t you wait a little longer?” she said, trying to keep the sob from her voice.
“I’ll be here even when I’m gone,” Lilly said.
A dullness pressed into Hannah as she wondered how many women it would take to replace Lilly. One to talk about books. One to talk about childhood. One to talk about the world and the arts. One to talk about men.
Hannah closed her eyes and tried to feel her soul. “What if it had been just you and me?” she whispered. The question uncurled itself from under her heart, the bitter, curious question that seemed so disloyal to Thom, Ella, and Mamma. “What if I had found someone to care for Mamma and I had met you in London?”
Lilly’s breathing quickened and she said, “We would have flown around the city, Hannah. We would have outshone the stars.”
Hannah’s throat filled with fluid, and she pressed shut her mouth to silence the spasm.
Lilly kissed her cheek and carefully turned herself over. “Good night dear friend,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”