It was spring, and the river bottom teemed with larks. Groundhog burrows along the banks flashed with furry brown, their holes deep enough for fence posts. My older brother Curt and I shucked off our T-shirts and braved the cold gusts of an April morning in Indiana—anything to avoid a farmer’s tan that would label us as rednecks.

Our parents were behind on mortgage payments, and we needed to plow and disk almost ninety acres of rich black loam to avoid foreclosure on the farm, which had never truly been ours in the first place. Our folks had agreed to a high-interest loan with the previous owner and then taken out more loans from the bank to pay for seed, tractor repairs, and diesel fuel. Now there was drought in the forecast. We knew it, and the bank knew it, too. The day’s field work ahead of us was only an exercise in staving off the inevitable. Still, Curt explained to me how we’d get it done: “You take the first thirty acres with the plow, and I’ll follow you with the disc.” He handed me a thermos of coffee, the goose bumps on his pale forearms like sprouts searching for the sun.

Curt was seventeen, and I was fourteen. Going shirtless in the cold spring air and drinking the strong, sugary black coffee was our attempt at manhood. But there was something else going on in our lives more important than our efforts to become men: Curt’s best friend, Randall, had been diagnosed with cancer. His was one of several cases in the western part of the county. A “cluster.” There were rumors that pesticides were the cause: the groundwater laced with them, the poison leaching into wells. We had never heard of a kid who had cancer. We knew of teenagers who’d been killed in farming accidents and at least a few who had been maimed riding ATVs with no helmets, their skulls coming into contact with country roads. But not cancer. It seemed like something that happened to aunts and uncles. Combined with the lack of rain and the impending foreclosure, 1983 was beginning to feel apocalyptic.

Randall and Curt went to different high schools but had met in Future Farmers of America, where they competed in judging swine. Both wore snug blue-and-gold FFA jackets with their chapter names on the back. They looked so similar they would sometimes swap jackets and let people think they were each other. I liked to listen to their talk as they blasted heavy metal and fiddled with the engines of their cars, a rusty Impala and a hoodless Nova that sputtered blue exhaust. It was difficult for me, the younger brother, to watch Curt with his best friend. I sometimes felt awkward around them, as if I lacked some crucial piece of manliness because my pants were out of style and I didn’t know what all their sexual terms meant.

Curt had remained silent on the issue of Randall’s health except once, when he’d told me that, if I still prayed, Randall could use anything he could get. I had attended several friends’ churches in the past, but Curt had never gone. His advice to me about religion made his attitude toward it clear: “Just don’t let anyone make a fool of you, that’s all.” He sounded like our father. I wondered if I sounded to him like our mother, who never lost her faith.

At least when we worked the river bottom together, I had Curt to myself. I lowered the rusted plowshares into the soft, dark soil. The scabs of rust from the plow’s winter hibernation peeled off the metal like maroon petals, leaving a silver so reflective we could use it as a mirror to check our tans. The winds were still strong, but the sun had begun to warm the field. Through a copse of sycamores to my left I glimpsed the river’s dark, undulating surface, lower than usual. Curt gave me a thumbs-up and went to ready his tractor and disc and harrow. Once I had made several passes ahead of him, he’d start to turn the river-bottom loam, readying it to plant. I was strangely sad, but the spring air and the warm sun and the scent of the fecund riverbanks and our torsos bare to the weather were like a balm.

The day ended with the field prepared for our father to plant soybeans on Saturday, when he wouldn’t be feeding the scalding smelting ovens at the Moira Opalescent Glass factory. We pulled on our T-shirts, stood near the tractors, engines ticking as they cooled, and surveyed our work. The field was an onyx tabletop in the setting sun. I knew Curt and Randall were going to see the movie Valley Girl in Marion that night. There was a question I had been thinking about asking, but I couldn’t get the wording right: Was Randall’s cancer going to kill him? It sounded so cruel in my mind that I couldn’t speak it. So I just told my brother our field looked damn good.

We mounted the tractors and slowly climbed out of the river bottom, oily exhaust blowing from the stacks, our headlights catching critters as they crossed the rutted lane. A tomcat—big and orange, with some white, too—blithely made his way across the path, as if he didn’t care that we were steering monstrous machines in his direction. Later, up at the house, I was watching Curt shave when he asked if I had seen the cat: “That guy has got to weigh twenty pounds. You can tell he’s gone wild.” He was more excited about the cat than he had been about anything for a while. “I mean, he’s bigger than any cat I’ve ever seen.”


The next morning at the kitchen table, Dad neatly stacked the bills with his sheet of budget calculations and used a rubber band to bind them all together. He took a gulp of coffee and reached for the cigarette in the ashtray. “You boys got it all in order, then?”

“Yes, sir,” said Curt. “The ground is perfect. We got done sooner than we thought.”

“See you got some sun, too.” He seemed in good spirits that morning, a rarity for him. “Yep, river bottoms are like heaven in the spring.” His use of the word heaven came as a shock, as if he thought maybe such a place did exist. He stood, adjusted his cap, and told us to start on the fifty acres that flanked the long gravel road to the house. The ground there was poor, hard, and filled with old stumps that could rip shares from the plow. The work would be twice as difficult as the day before. Go slow, he said, pay attention, and look out for the old bales of barbed-wire fencing in the furrows: though not as dangerous as stumps and boulders, they could get tangled in the equipment and take hours to remove, flaying forearms and hands in the process.

The day was warmer than the one before, and more than a dozen times we had to dismount our tractors and push and pull rocks, sweating in the heat. Curt used little red flags to mark where the stumps were. It took us nearly six hours to plow and disk the west side. We took a break and ate bologna and cheese on white bread from our lunch pails. Curt told me about the movie from the night before, all the funny comments Randall had made. He even mentioned Randall’s recent doctor’s visit, which had been somewhat positive, though he wasn’t clear about why. We drank warm Pepsi and finished our sandwiches, the white bread soft and tangy with mustard. “We’re going cruising tonight,” said Curt.

It was Saturday. My evening would be like all the others: read a book, maybe take a jog. The disappointment on my face must’ve been obvious, because Curt said, “Hey, why don’t you come with us.” I was thrilled but tried to appear aloof. “Come on,” said Curt. “You know you want to.”

We worked until dusk. At one point our father passed down the gravel lane in his truck on his way to the factory. When we dismounted the tractors and walked to the house, the tomcat from the night before stood on a small swell, watching us, his eyes glowing, a guttural purr emanating from him.


I had spent time with Randall before his illness, and he looked different now. The brown half-moons under his eyes appeared painted on. We rode in the Impala, me in the back. Curt cranked the stereo, and we made the rounds from McDonald’s to the KFC and back again. Wabash, Indiana, boasted, “First Electrically Lighted City in the World,” on the signs at the town limits. “Wabash,” Randall said, “First Blighted City in the World.”

We drove slowly, stopping to talk to people, the streetlights casting circles of light as big as grain bins onto the glassy pavement. Near closing time we went through the McDonald’s drive-through and ordered shakes, fries, and burgers, which we ate in the car while Curt drove. “Remember,” Randall said, “not a word of this to my mom. She’s got me eating so many veggies my insides are probably lime-green slime.” We laughed and shook our heads, and Randall took a long pull on his straw. Then he vomited strawberry shake onto the floorboard.

Curt pulled over beside a closed muffler shop and helped Randall out of the car. We used McDonald’s napkins to clean up the mess, mopping up chunks of burger and fries and something fleshy looking, like little shreds of chicken. Slumped over the hood, Randall kept saying he was sorry, and each time he did, my brother seemed to flinch. Curt tossed the soiled napkins into an oil drum and paused in the murky light before returning. I could tell he was psyching himself up to be positive. With a forced smile he lifted Randall’s arm around his neck and escorted him back into the car. “Just like the time I drank all that peppermint schnapps,” my brother said with a chuckle, but Randall was too sick to laugh.

“How about some Sprite?” I said.

We went back to the drive-through, and Curt paid with a crumpled five-dollar bill, soft and pliable as terry cloth. In the parking lot Randall took a few sips from the soda then threw up on the ground, clear this time. We drove him home in silence.


By July the ground was hard, and the forecasted drought was well under way. The dry weather had turned the soybeans into worthless, rock-hard pellets, and our father told us to be careful with where we parked the tractors: their hot engines could ignite the desiccated ragweed. As we walked the fields with corn knives to hack down weeds, we’d catch glimpses of wildlife searching for water. We had friends who bragged about using .22 rifles to shoot rabbits and groundhogs in the fields, but even though Curt was a good shot—when target shooting with friends, he could graze an egg without breaking the shell from thirty feet—he never shot any critters. Instead we dropped bread crusts and chunks of bananas into the furrows for the animals to find.

We hadn’t seen the tomcat for more than a week when, near a culvert that cut diagonally across the rocky field, Curt grabbed my arm and pointed. Sitting in the opening of the culvert was the tomcat, looking much thinner, its coat matted and greased. It took us a moment to confirm what else we saw: ringing its neck was the rim of a broken mason jar, the sharp edge like a knife to its throat. “He must’ve tried to drink out of it and got stuck,” Curt whispered. “Then maybe he got scared and broke it? I’ll bet he can’t eat or drink much because the glass is jabbing into his neck.” We agreed the tomcat would surely die if we didn’t help. We tried to coax the cat closer with scraps from our lunch, but every time we approached, he’d slip farther into the culvert. “He’ll die if we can’t get the glass from his throat,” Curt said, scowling the way he did when trying to work out a problem, like the correct weld on a wagon axle or the best approach to stacking hay in a mow. Ever since Randall had gotten sick, there had been a kind of rage in my brother that even he didn’t seem to understand. Now his brow furrowed, and the skin between his eyes was pinched, as if he were trying to solve a centuries-old equation that defied answer.


Randall had started different treatments that left him feeling sick, then better again. My brother told me more now about how Randall was doing, as if what I’d witnessed when we were out cruising had given me entry into the private club of their friendship. I was even allowed to tag along on other excursions. One Saturday morning, as we prepared a quick breakfast, Curt said, “Let’s run over to Randall’s and see if he wants to work with us today.”

We drove the grain truck to Randall’s. The country roads were almost melting in the heat, and the tar popped like weak firecrackers beneath the tires. Air rushed in through the open windows. Since the truck didn’t have a radio, we could talk. “Is Randall OK to work with us?” I asked. “It’s hot.”

Curt’s face grew severe. “He’s fine. You don’t have to worry about him. He’s tough.”

I just stared out the windshield.

“I’m serious,” said Curt. “One time he cut his middle finger on a lathe, and he sewed it up himself with fishing line. Another time his front tooth got knocked out playing basketball, and he put it in his waistband and just kept playing.”

We pulled into Randall’s driveway and parked. We’d scarcely gotten out of the truck when Randall’s mother poked her upper body around the screen door, half in and half out. She looked like a person who had survived weeks adrift at sea. Curt motioned to me. It took me a minute to realize that he wanted me to go talk to her. Up until that moment, I had not believed there was anything my brother couldn’t do.

The porch was spotless: freshly painted flowerpots, a swing that seemed untouched, a pristine welcome mat. Corrugated-metal containers held gardening tools with the price tags still on the handles. Randall’s mother was silent, a weary expression on her tanned face. I sensed Curt behind me watching. “We wanted to see if Randall would like to work with us today in the fields. We’re trying to catch a cat that’s hurt. We’re afraid he’s going to die.” As soon as the words left my mouth, my face and neck flashed hot, and my throat threatened to seize up. It was as if I were trying to hurt her.

“Dear,” said Randall’s mother, her voice raspy and weak, “have your folks call me.” Her hand shook as she moved a strand of hair from her big brown eyes. A sparrow alighted on the newly painted porch rail, its eyes bright with life, its beak and feathers catching the sun’s rays. She stared at it in horror, then looked back at me, but slightly to the side, as if addressing my ear. “You boys need to understand . . .” I saw the muscle in her jaw pulse, and I became scared on top of feeling guilty for how I’d spoken of the tomcat. Randall’s mother’s eyes welled up, and she muttered an apology before disappearing back inside the house.

In no hurry to face my brother, I watched the screen door slowly ease shut, the hinges squeaking. Inside the house I could hear a television set. My brother had trusted me to find the right words, but mine had been all wrong. I thought of the barely contained anger my brother carried around with him.

I forced myself to turn and go down the three concrete steps from the porch. Curt stood against the grain truck, waiting. “Well?” he said. “Is she getting him?” My brother looked smaller to me then, standing there in the hot sun outside his best friend’s house—not in some metaphysical sense but actually shorter and more vulnerable, a boy whose heart would only be protected for so long. I went to the passenger’s side and heaved myself onto the seat, the vinyl upholstery cracked with tufts of gray filling sprouting like dirty snow. Curt opened the door and got in, too. “What did she say?” he asked, irritated.

“I’m sorry,” I said, but my voice caught. I had wanted to confess the stupid thing I’d said about being afraid that the cat would die, but I was ashamed. I never told my brother about it. He backed the grain truck up expertly, careful to make certain we didn’t mess up the grass. Then he sped home. As he turned onto the gravel lane of our farm that would soon be foreclosed, he was telling me about the time Randall had jumped some hay bales on his dirt bike. “You should have seen him, man.” I wished I could have, because most of the images I had of Randall were awful.


It was a hot Saturday later in the month, and the metal shed roofs were shimmering. The corn was already taupe from the drought, the silk at the tops of the ears like a dead person’s hair. After the scene with Randall’s mother, Curt and I just stopped talking about him. I understood my brother was prone to silence—preferred it, even—but still it was odd. I knew they had talked, but I’d resisted eavesdropping. I reminded myself over and over not to ask him about Randall and instead focused on trying to save the cat. We were using an old live trap we’d found in the haymow, baiting it with filched cheese and peanut butter. The tomcat would approach the trap to sniff but then back away. His ribs were visible, and though he had to have been getting at least some food and water, he clearly wouldn’t last. Curt had brought along a .22 rifle he’d borrowed from a friend so we could look through the scope. The paper-thin corn leaves crackled in a slight breeze.

“He looks bad,” said Curt, peering through the sight. He lowered the rifle and looked me in the eye. “I gotta go see Randall in the hospital. He’s got low white blood cells. Come with me, please?”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t want to go alone.”

“I meant why does he not have white blood cells?”

“From the chemo. He’s got a bunch of sores in his mouth, so he can’t talk on the phone.” He handed me the rifle so I could view the tomcat. Through the scope I could see how weak the cat had become. It eased down next to the trap, and we tried taking tentative steps forward, but as soon as we got within twenty yards, the tomcat loped into the undergrowth at the fence line.

We went back to the house to put on clean jeans and polo shirts handed down from our cousins. On the way to the hospital we talked not about Randall’s illness but about our grandfather’s death from black lung. We’d both been young the last time we’d visited him at our grandparents’ home in Terre Haute. “Black lung” sounded so ominous that I imagined my grandfather’s chest to be actually made of coal, as if he were more smokestack than human being. Grandpa used to tell us, “Just think, I’m touching things every day that in a million years could be diamonds.” His eyes would flicker with excitement as he gave us each a small chunk of coal, telling us to be patient in life, reminding us that things which at first seemed dirty and worthless could end up being valuable if we were patient.

On the final day of that last visit, near dusk, we all sat with Grandpa and Grandma at their kitchen table, talking, sipping sassafras tea, and playing tic-tac-toe. Our mother rubbed Grandma’s back. Grandpa looked out the window to the backyard, squinting, then whispered to us, “You kids are in for a treat. There’s a doe and her baby out there. Come quiet now.” We all tiptoed out the back door and sat down in the grass. The deer and fawn were pretty far away, but we could see them moving slowly along the fence line. Grandpa rocked our little sister in his lap and whispered, “That mother deer leads her baby to the greenest grass she can find.” One of us coughed or fidgeted, and the mother deer’s head shot up. For a while she and the fawn just stared in our direction, stock-still. Then, in one swift bound, they disappeared into the woods. “There they go,” Grandpa said, using a regular voice now. “Off into God’s forest.” He smiled but seemed tired. He handed our baby sister to our mother and then pulled Grandma to his side, under his arm. “Let’s go inside and have some of your rhubarb pie, Dutch,” he said.


The parking lot at the hospital was being repaved, and the smells of creosote and yellow line paint made me light-headed. As soon as we entered the cold air of the building, the strong scent of ammonia hit us. We walked slowly, as if trying to show respect. On the third floor Randall’s door was open, and we were surprised to see him sitting up in the bed with an IV in his arm and an oxygen mask on his face. “Where’s your mom?” Curt asked him. Randall smiled behind the mask and mimed that she was getting something to eat. Randall turned up a baseball game on the television, and Curt and I stood and watched. Figures slipped past in the hallway, pushing a wheelchair or carrying an armload of charts. Randall’s faded Levi’s and T-shirt were neatly folded on a chair. Soon he had fallen asleep. His neck looked like a child’s. A nurse came in, smiling the way the vet did when one of our calves had to be put down. A guy we knew from the grain elevator had died from the same cancer Randall had. My throat ached, and I touched my brother’s arm and pointed to his sleeping friend. Curt looked at Randall for a few seconds, then walked out. I followed him to the elevators.


It was dusk, and the tomcat was back by the live trap, drawn to the food he couldn’t lower his head to eat. He sat regally in a shaft of late-summer sun, the scent of pine strong, dust covering the dry ground. Curt put his finger to his lips. I was scared for what he planned to do. Earlier at the house, as he’d loaded the rifle, he’d told me, “We can’t let him suffer. This is the only way.”

We lay on our stomachs, Curt using the scope. After what felt like an hour, he released the safety, and the shot snapped through the dusty air and echoed across the scorched land. A flock of blackbirds dipped and swiped the field, then flitted back to roost on the old oak fence posts. “I think I killed him,” Curt said, and he let out a quick sob.

We walked over the fallow field to the spot. As we got closer, there was no body in sight, no blood, only broken glass. Curt picked a piece up and inspected it. We searched the landscape, along the culvert and under the thistles and brambles. Nothing. Then Curt pointed toward the poplars. He raised the rifle and peered through the scope before handing it to me. Through the scope I saw the tomcat and his yellow eyes right before he bounded into the woods. My brother had broken the glass at his throat with one shot.

We strolled home, wordlessly happy and thoroughly sad. On the way we paused to look at a tree riven by a lightning bolt, blackened at its center. Then we walked on, the damaged tree growing smaller behind us. At the house we ate and talked about my brother’s shot, because the words we truly needed to speak were not yet known to us.