By LENORE WEISS
Bryan Thurmond cantered down to the river wearing a pair of khaki twills, a man who knew how to make a stage entrance, a former country-rocker who, for 20 years, had traveled around the country with his band. Music was a young man’s game and life was no joke. He stood over six feet tall with salt and pepper hair beginning to thin on top, a cleft in his chin where his mother used to tell him that God had rested his finger before sending him down to earth. Bryan worked around reclamation ponds, a place where backhoes and four-wheelers piled ash from the dregs of the paper mill into mounds that eventually got covered up with a layer of what his crew called cake. When there were enough layers, trucks covered up the mess with red soil.
Chemicals leached into the water and grew brown spongy things. Wild turnips waved their signature tops as he walked past them. A lot of guys laughed because he didn’t pick the turnips; they didn’t understand why he ignored nature’s free bounty. They were like teenage boys who believed they’d never get sick, didn’t see the green tops as a warning. Bryan made his way down to the water, metering equipment in his backpack. The sun streaked the sky orange and pink in the August morning.
Six months ago Rand-Atlantic had promoted Bryan to Lead Environmental Officer. Up until now, everything had been hunky dory. He monitored readings, kept logs, and submitted reports, a single dad who could almost touch that brass ring—getting his daughter into college. On some days, he imagined Jenny in a black cap and gown holding a diploma. She would be the first in his family to graduate. His supervisor, Vernon Wolfe, told him, “If you keep doing a good job, good things will happen.”
But although he had worked with Vernon these last five years and earned certificates in hazardous waste management, none of that had prepped him for the responsibility of his current position—a paper mill in southern Arkansas at the head of Route 82, where truckers delivered loblolly pines, trees up to 100 feet tall, to meet their death by chemical process. The resulting product, beside tissue and toilet paper, was wastewater dumped into a nearby stream. Hardly anyone remembered when it flowed clean. It used to be called the Silver River. Now everyone referred to it as “the Mud,” which belched forth something like melted big-rig tires along the river’s shore. Not many people came here, except for those who lived along the Mud, or the River Watchers, a group of locals who badgered Rand-Atlantic about plant safety.
Vernon complained that the River Watchers were do-gooders who focused on a single thing without understanding the big picture. Vernon said you had to be a big picture sort of guy, had hired Bryan because he could see beyond the black and white, especially when there were jobs that mattered. But he felt he was getting pressured to overlook certain safety readings. Not directly pressured. The company wouldn’t be that stupid. Encouragements to step over the line came in the form of free passes to the Rodeo Club, and murmurs of a scholarship for his daughter to attend junior college. They had him by the balls. He had just passed probation, but of course, everything at this moment had gone to shit—hydrogen sulfide registering out of the park. If Bryan were going to press his case to Vernon about dangerous levels, there had to be no margin for error. He recalibrated his meter and got ready to double-check his readings. He had to be absolutely sure.
The slow-moving Mud had been transformed from an arthritic elder into a young woman wearing a shining cape. The fog didn’t want to let go of the water, two lovers locked in embrace. Maybe he hadn’t consumed enough coffee, his eyes tricking him into seeing a cache of diamonds. Bryan looked more closely. Fish and Wildlife had stocked the Mud with catfish. That must be it. The catfish floated in a parade 20 and 30 abreast, jockeying with each other to move along to the next row. Fish and hunting clubs would be out in full force this August weekend. They’d have a catfish festival. Outdoor propane stoves would be set up to fry buckets of fish. Maybe he’d drag his Gibson from the closet and get together with Jay to play some of the old songs from their Do Daddy days.
But as he moved closer toward the water, he realized that the fish had gone belly-up, a funeral procession. The stench invaded his nostrils; hundreds of dead fish sickened the air. But suddenly, he heard voices—there were two boys bicycling along the Mud.
“Looks like a war movie.” They cried out. “Bam! Bam! Bam!”
“Got my gun!” The tall boy pointed a fishnet toward the water. “Follow me! C’mon.” Letting go of his handlebars, the boy pedaled down toward the water.
“Lookit these fish, Rincon. Wow! We gonna catch ’em.”
“Wow! We gonna catch ’em,” echoed the younger boy.
“Got that plastic bag I gave you?”
“Slow down, Carson.”
“No, you hurry up!” Rincon pedaled faster, but the front wheel of his bike stuttered on the rocks. “I told you to stay home, didn’t I? Grandma’s gonna kick your ass. ”
“Shut up. It stinks out here. Did you fart?”
“That was you!”
“Who’s calling who a liar?”
Rincon weaved off his bike, his front wheel smashing into a tree. “Dizzy…the smell.”
“Stop playing, Rincon. I didn’t fart. This isn’t funny!” Rincon fell from his bike, his head pointed toward the river. The boy wheezed, tremors shaking his body.
He began to roll back and forth on the ground, choking.
“I ain’t playing,” said the older boy. “Get up! Grandma’s gonna be hecka mad.”
Bryan walked up behind him. “You need help, son?”
“It’s my brother.” The boy’s face was stricken. “He’s being attacked! Attacked!”
“You live nearby?”
The older boy pointed through the trees. “Over there. With grandma.”
“C’mon. I’ll drive you both.”
For years, Bryan had practiced staying calm. He had rescued band members from hangovers and drug overdoses, from cops who threatened to arrest the Do Daddies for smoking marijuana in towns that needed to collect tax revenue. Only on rare occasions did he lose his cool. The sick boy couldn’t have been more than 9 years old, maybe 10. Bryan picked him up, laid him down on the back seat, and quickly pushed an orange hazard vest beneath his head.
“Sit down, son,” he coaxed the older boy, sweeping empty coffee cups to the floor. He put the Tundra in reverse and backed out to the main road, knowing he had to hurry.
“He got asthma bad.”
Bryan nodded. “Your name’s Carson?”
“Make a turn over there. Left.” The boy made circles in the air with his finger.
He sat at the edge of his seat, rigid, almost trying to push the truck forward with his body.
Bryan pulled into the driveway of a wood frame house. There was a single tree growing in the front yard. Several leaves dangled from its branches. Grass grew in isolated bunches along an unpainted fence that separated the house from the Mud River. The path to the door was lined in white round stones. Yellow and red plastic flowers wound around the carport poles.
Before the truck came to a complete stop, Carson jumped out. Bryan scooped up Rincon from the back seat. The boy’s feet and hands flopped over his arms.
Their grandmother opened the screen door. “Boys! Where you been?” She was a tall woman with high cheekbones dressed in a dark pants suit, her hair wrapped in a green turban. “You little scullions, damn you! I’ve told you a thousand times not be out in the morning when the fumes are the worst. Haven’t I? But you never listen.”
“The catfish, grandma, we were gonna—”
Then she saw Bryan holding Rincon. “Oh my God. What’s wrong?”
“Ma’am, I came across Rincon near the bridge. He needs to get to the hospital.”
“Carson, run inside and get his inhaler.” She took out her cell phone. “I have to call.” She shook her head. “They’re not gonna like this. They never do.” She shouted at Carson. “Get my purse, car keys.”
Bryan stood there holding Rincon.
“Where’d you come from? Who are you?”
“Bryan Thurmond, ma’am.”
Carson stuck his head out the screen door. “Don’t know where it is!” He was almost crying, his face pinched, eyebrows almost squeezing his eyes shut. “I can’t find it, grandma.”
“I forgot,” she said. “Rincon left his breather at church!” She looked at Bryan. “Nell Roberts,” she added, introducing herself quickly and turning her attention back to her cell phone. Tall and muscular, she looked to Bryan like an older version of that tennis player, Serena Williams.
“I told you, I have to get him to the hospital. I’m sorry. I’ll be there when I can… No, I’m not making this up…. I’m not your damned maid…. Who did you think you’re talking to?” She threw her cell phone into her purse. “Can you believe it? And they call themselves Christians.”
“Glad to drive you, ma’am,” said Bryan. The hospital was about 20 minutes away in downtown Hentsbury.
Bryan laid Rincon on the back seat of Nell’s SUV. “You okay?”
The boy shook his head, a thread of vomit oozing from his mouth. His skin had turned dusty, sickly pale.
Bryan hoped they didn’t have a long wait in emergency. “I’ll follow,” he offered.
“No, thanks.” She waved at him through the window. “It’ll be all right. My husband is meeting me there.”
Bryan stood in front of the house, aware that several neighbors had opened their doors and pointed at him. He got in his truck and drove back to where the boys had thrown their bikes. He eased them into his truck bed, one on top of the other, then lit a cigarette and watched the smoke spiral upwards like a slow prayer.
With Rincon’s seizure, Bryan had forgotten why he’d driven out here in the first place. Now that he remembered, he got his metering equipment and climbed down below the bridge to where one of the ponds emptied into the Mud.
The hydrogen sulfide levels turned out to be out of the park, over 200 parts per million. Safe levels were at five parts. Men exposed to high doses were lucky not to keel over from convulsions. He’d seen pictures like that in the courses he’d taken. Sure, they were posed pictures, but he knew the symptoms. First, exposed men would get headaches. Soon they’d lose their sense of smell, unable to detect the presence of the gas. But this was no longer textbook stuff—readings were in the red zone. Come to think of it, he wasn’t feeling too great himself.
Bryan returned the bikes to Rincon’s house and drove back to the plant. He moved his crew as far from the wastewater ponds as possible. Vernon had left Bryan specific instructions not to contact him unless it was an absolute emergency. “I’m going to be gone all week,” he’d said. “No cell phone reception.” The company’s corporate environmental team was meeting at a hunting lodge in the backwoods of Arkansas, presumably to launch a new publicity campaign, but hunting and getting fucked up were always part of the program. He found a number and faxed the readings to Vernon at the lodge, hoping he had a mailbox there.
At home that evening, Bryan sat on the couch and watched “American Idol.” Jenny was in her bedroom writing an essay for school. Oh, those lucky kids on national television with promoters waiting in the wings to snatch them up and sign record contracts. His mind drifted back to the boys on their bicycles.
The next day after he’d finished his shift, Bryan drove over to Nell’s house and knocked on her door. “Miss Roberts?”
“Bryan Thurmond. Remember me from yesterday? How’s your boy?”
She came outside. “He’s critical. I’m leaving for the hospital right now. Look, Mr. Thurmond. That’s your name, isn’t it? I know you’re a good man, and I appreciate your bringing Carson over here.” She saw his green parka. “You work for Rand-Atlantic, don’t you?”
“So do I. Tell the company to stop dumping their poisons in our back yard. Maybe they’ll listen to you. They sure won’t listen to any of us who live out here.”
Bryan needed to catch Vernon first thing on the morning he returned from his conference; Vernon had been asked to respond to a new publicity campaign about how Rand-Atlantic was a good community partner. He walked to Vernon’s office around the corner from his own on the third level of the admin building, tapped on the glass door of his office that was covered in shift sign-ups, a puzzlement of boxes.
His boss was a compact man with a collection of scars from scrapes with men twice his size. A clipped lawn of speckled hair covered his scalp. His bare calves were covered with scars, souvenirs from growing up in rough areas of east Texas. He wiped his forehead with a white towel. “Don’t they have air conditioning in this freaking place or what? What a sweatbox.” He asked Bryan, “Your office any better?”
“No, sir. Worse.”
“But what can we do about it, Thurmond? Nothing at all.” They listened to the air conditioning come back online. “Damn thing doesn’t even work.” Vernon lit up a cigarette. “You know how my mother paid electric bills every summer? By forbidding me from turning on the air-conditioning. Whenever I even tried to touch the thermostat, she’d slap me good. Bet you can’t guess what I did?”
Bryan ventured several guesses. Ice baths? Dunks in the river?
“Who do I look like, Thurmond? Hung out in bars from noon until to night and with girls whose parents ran air-conditioning full blast all summer. Back then, I told myself once I left home, I’d be able to turn on the air-conditioning whenever I damn well pleased. Left home as soon as I turned 16.”
“I guess Texas was a lot hotter than Arkansas.”
“Laredo? South central Texas? You shitting me? You know what people say about frying an egg on a sidewalk? I’m telling you, you could barbecue a whole side of ribs on the freeway. Some people brought along homemade sauce. Best ribs ever.” Vernon laughed. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. I didn’t know that getting my own air conditioning was gonna take me so long. Went to truck driving school. Dina and I got married. Then we had Judy. You ever think of getting remarried?”
“No, I don’t think so,” he told Vernon. His divorce from Gail had become final only last year after four years of hell in court.
Vernon shook his head. “Sometimes when I’m sitting on the couch in front of the TV watching the New Orleans Saints play the New England Patriots, I’d like to have a lady at my side. Get a cold beer and turn up the air conditioning.” He looked at Bryan. “You still standing there? How come? Take a load off, Thurmond. Anything important happen while I was walking in the woods?”
Bryan got ready to do his two-step. He wanted to let his boss know exactly what was happening, but he also knew that Vernon was angling for a promotion to Atlanta where the air conditioning worked properly and he’d get his own parking spot. Bryan would never go over Vernon’s head and report readings to his superiors in Atlanta. But there were those boys on their bicycles, and last week, one of his crew members had gone to the infirmary. People were getting sick.
“What is it, man? Cat got your tongue?”
All week, he’d wanted to alert Vernon to what was happening.
“Thurmond, what is it? Another shitload of documentation?”
“Sir, the H2S levels near the bridge are higher than I’ve seen. Ever.” He pushed a report across Vernon’s desk.
Vernon adjusted his glasses, looked at the papers, and pushed them back. “Tell me something I don’t already know.”
“Sir, I’m concerned about these levels.”
“Tell me, Thurmond. Do I really look like I’m stupid? I’ve faxed the first group of readings to Atlanta. Perlson already has them.”
Tray Perlson was the head environmental honcho from the corporate office in Atlanta. The Hentsbury plant was not by any stretch his favorite operation, one of the oldest in the company’s arsenal dotting the United States like polyps.
“Perlson’s no dummy.” Vernon crossed his arms on his desk. “Let me tell you, Thurmond. Less than 50 miles from where I live, back in the 1990’s there was a plant explosion that killed 10 people, plus the shift supervisor. The EPA came in and charged the company with 82 safety violations. All that’s left is a granite plaque with the names of the dead. It’s down near the library. Take a look sometime. See if I’m wrong. Another company stepped in and bought the place, smoothed things over, until no one even remembered the explosion. That’s how it always is. People have short memories. None of this means anything, none of it.
“But I’m no dummy. If I didn’t report these readings, Atlanta would want to know why. The company’s been getting heat lately from those River Watchers, and they don’t want the pilot light to be turned up any higher. You do your job, but don’t tell me how to do mine. Okay? You got it? We got it.” He smiled like a man who had just finished a good lunch. Vernon was focused on Rand-Atlantic’s liability—if it looked like a bunch of lawyers needed to get involved in anything, he called in the big dogs.
Bryan figured he’d better break the news now and let Vernon know. “There’s something else.”
“What do you mean, fish?”
“When I surveyed the ponds in the back 40 the other day, I saw a lot of catfish floating on the Mud River.” To make sure his point hit home, Bryan said, “They were dead.”
“Of course they were dead. Do I look like I’m stupid?”
“No, sir.” It was bad enough if he had spotted shad, perch, or brim. But catfish were bottom feeders, scavengers that could survive anything—that is, except poison. Actually, there weren’t supposed to be any fish at all, which is how Rand-Atlantic had twisted the EPA’s arm so the company could use the Mud River as their personal dumping ground. “I had the crew scoop them out with nets.”
Vernon’s eyes brightened like a child’s. “What did you do with them?”
Bryan hoped this wasn’t a trick question. “What do you want me to do with them?”
“How many fish are we talking?”
“Have your guys bury them in the ash piles. Maybe the stink will cover up the hydrogen sulfide.”
Bryan wasn’t sure about that. “It’ll probably take a day to get them out there.” He couldn’t imagine how the fish were going to smell in the August heat. Bryan knew that those River Watcher people would crucify Vernon, especially if more fish started to float belly up.
“There’s a new company campaign,” Vernon said. “Lots of photos from inside and outside the plant, how we’re partnering with the community. What’s wrong with that? We work at a damned paper mill. Does everyone want to wipe their ass with newspaper like they do in other countries? This is the United States, for God’s sake, the greatest country in the world, where toilet and tissue paper are high-quality stuff. Why would anyone want to blow a nose into the headlines?”
“Of course not. No, sir.”
“Whiners. Don’t let those River Watchers get close enough to anything.”
Bryan could almost hear him thinking about newspaper headlines, email campaigns, church members leaving polite but insistent phone calls, fellow lodge members avoiding him at annual meetings. Rand-Atlanta could easily pacify the EPA by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, but they hated publicity.
“Shut off their access.”
“I’ll see what I can do, sir.” Bryan wanted to make sure there weren’t any more fish floating down the Mud. They would be caught at the lower basin where the Mud fed into the Ouachita near the Louisiana border. He walked outside and the air hit him in his face. Another scorcher.
The wild turnips were lush, growing behind the parking lot alongside the entrance to the plant, bright green tops interlaced with red veins that waved in the afternoon heat like feathers of a peacock’s tail. Flow Gently Sweet Afton. Bryan had seen dozens of peacocks in the parking lot of the zoo where he dropped off Jenny—peacocks strutting like they were collecting fees. Nothing scared them except for the sound of a car’s ignition. Bunkers of turnips survived like that. They didn’t care if the groundwater or the soil were polluted. They flourished in the muck and grew everywhere.
Bryan arrived at the bridge when he saw a woman 200 yards away taking pictures with a telephoto lens. His head hurt, the kind of ache he used to get on the road from listening to the moan of traffic.
“Hello, ma’am. What do you think you’re doing?”
The woman was a head shorter than Bryan, probably in her mid-50s, not much older, a cap pulled down over her forehead, brown hair sticking out like fuzz along the sides of her ears. She looked up quickly, loosened a red kerchief that covered her mouth. “Helping my granddaughter with a school project.”
“Lucky girl. What kind of project?”
The woman shook her head. “Just taking a few pictures, if that’s okay with you.”
He could’ve sworn that she’d batted her eyelashes at him. “Look, ma’am. We both know you’re not supposed to be here.”
She crossed her arms and stood up like a chattering squirrel. “Who says?”
“You’re on Rand-Atlantic property.” He pointed to a sign tacked at the edge of the bridge.
“I’m standing in the middle of the bridge. And Hentsbury starts here.” She pointed to the rotting wood.
“No, ma’am,” he said, beginning to get irritated. The smell was overpowering. He had hoped for a non-eventful Monday. More dead fish, and last week, sick boys. Bryan wished her back over the bridge, could see her white pickup nestled behind a scaffolding of birch trees.
“You work for Rand-Atlantic?”
He took out his ID badge and showed it to her. “Yes, ma’am. I sure do.”
“I’m happy for you. But for your information, this is not company property. It’s public property and I have a right do whatever I want here, and neither you nor Mr. Rand-Atlantic can tell me anything different.” She cradled the camera back inside her backpack and pointed toward the catfish.
“You see those fish? That’s a crying shame.” She picked up her gear and walked toward the car, shaking her head. One last time she turned around. “You better be careful, mister, whether you work for Rand-Atlantic or not. Last week, a boy died out here.”
Bryan watched her drive away. Company property started on the other side of the bridge, but she was encroaching, and he could see she was documenting something, which is why Rand-Atlantic was building a fence that extended east and west of the Mud River. Bryan thought about copying down her license, but she disappeared too soon. Anyway you looked at it, this couldn’t be good—not good for Rand-Atlantic, not for Hentsbury, and certainly not for Bryan.
The crew dumped ash over a layer of cake, dozers hypnotic in a steady back and forth movement; the water below them was streaked orange and lime green. The ponds smelled like a tower of smoldering newspaper with bad headlines.
Bryan removed his sunglasses and wiped them dry, looked at his face in the side-view, a mosaic of dust where sweat had dripped into his eyes and down over his mustache.
He drove back to the break room, which was filled with men and a few women who were emptying packets of sugar and non-dairy creamer into their cups. There was a line at the microwave, the smell of popcorn, and the sweat of burritos. A fluorescent light fixture flickered on and off over a clock on the wall. He picked up a newspaper from days ago that someone had abandoned on a table; coffee circles stained its front page. Bryan scanned it quickly and didn’t like what he saw. He tucked the paper under his arm and retreated to his office.
His desk was braced on either side by a row of grey metal filing cabinets. Inside were records from the past 10 years. What a mess. It was one of his pet projects to create a searchable database. But lately that project had slipped to the bottom of his pile. He studied the map of Rand-Atlantic’s property that was tacked to the wall, a visual of how the plant formed almost two-thirds of Hentsbury. Bryan tried to see where the River Watchers had entered the property without going through a security gate. He traced each division and dragged his finger along a maze of detention ponds and back roads. There was Hentsbury Lake to the west, Millyard Road to the north, Supply Line Drive to the east, and Shields Arena, an outdoor baseball park named after the mill’s first manager, who had master-minded its purchase. Bryan had read the company history. After investors bought an option to build a sawmill, Shields went into high gear, captured acres of land cheap from local farmers so the mill would have a ready supply of raw materials. All the landowners thought that Shields was a mad man. Later Rand-Atlantic bought the mill and took over operations, which is why Bryan’s map looked the way it did. The north wing made tissue paper, another area made coated paperboard. His area was the detention or wastewater ponds that treated the runoff from all those sections.
Bryan opened the newspaper again, just to be sure.
Back page. Obituaries. Rincon Roberts was dead.
Lenore Weiss is enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts Program at San Francisco State University. Her poetry has been published in many journals including Maple Leaf Review, Kindred, San Francisco Peace and Hope, Cactus Heart, Ghost Town, Poetica, Carbon Culture, BlinkInk, The Portland Review, La Más Tequila Review, Digital Americana, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Nimrod International Journal, Copper Nickel, The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Feminist Studies in Religion, and Bridges: A Jewish Feminist Journal. Her books include Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island (West End Press, 2012) and Two Places (Kelsay Books, 2014). Her blog is at www.lenoreweiss.com.