In the middle of July, the turnips were lush. They grew alongside the entrance to the plant, bright green fronds waving in the afternoon heat like feathers of a peacock’s tail. Bryan Thurmond had seen dozens of peacocks in the parking lot of the zoo where he drove Jenny, his daughter—peacocks strutting like they were collecting fees. Nothing scared them except for the sound of a car’s ignition. The turnips survived in the dirt like that. They didn’t care if the groundwater or the soil were polluted. Turnips hugged entrances and exits and tempted employees to pick them for the dinner table—plants that grew in spite of everything. And who knows, maybe he should’ve joined the crowd. Why not? He’d never seen such tall, beautiful plants. They thrived in muck. He pulled his Toyota Tundra into the parking lot. A lot of guys laughed at him, didn’t understand why he chose to ignore nature’s free bounty. They were like teenage boys who believed nothing could ever happen. They didn’t see the green fronds as a warning.
Management got it. They knew he was a single dad and couldn’t afford to step away from a full-time job with benefits. Six months ago Rand-Atlantic had promoted Bryan to Lead Environmental Officer. But he was getting pressured to overlook certain safety readings. Not directly pressured, of course. 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 spent evenings qualifying for a bunch of online certificates in hazardous waste management. Of course, he had an undergraduate degree from Arkansas State in political science, but none of that had prepared him for the 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 and the groundwater. After years of abuse people had stopped calling it Silver River. Hardly anyone remembered when it flowed clean. Now everyone referred to it as “Mud” River depositing brown slime around the pigweed that grew along its shore. The local newspaper had started to report concerns of the aquifer being “compromised.”
It was mid morning and Bryan was in the break room getting a cup of coffee. “Hey, Big Guy,” said Jay. Ever since his promotion, Jay called him that, reminding his buddy not to take his authority too seriously, especially when it came to friendship.
Jay was the real big man standing at 6’2” and proud of a gut that he had cultivated from drinking beer and eating barbecue. He worked in the finishing plant where paper was cut and stacked into 500 ream packages making their way to a palletizer where paper was wrapped in plastic and fork-lifted to a staging area for shipment throughout the country. He had a collection of t-shirts from crawfish festivals and wore a different one every day. Today’s read, “Whose Your Crawdaddy?”
“Big storm coming in.”
“No telling when it will get here,” said Bryan. “How was your weekend?”
“Drunk and fucked until I was blind and helpless.”
Bryan laughed. “More like cutting back your lawn and sleeping through the game on Sunday.”
“Got me there. What’s happening today, Big Guy?”
“Waiting for Mark. He’s still learning the equipment.”
“Good luck. I hear the guy’s back on drugs.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“From the same guy you work for.” Mark’s father-in-law (sort of kind of) was Bryan’s boss. Jay emptied two packets of sugar into his Styrofoam cup. “So have you decided?”
“I have to do something. People are getting sick.”
“That’s nothing. I’m sick of this place all the time.”
“C’mon, man. You know what I mean. They hired me to do a job. To watch the safety levels.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Big Guy.”
Jay hurried to the finishing area, glad it was getting warmer and that he didn’t need to freeze his buns off working outside. Over these last six months, he’d watched Bryan change from a cheery guy who was always excited about his daughter, to a man who looked like his mother had died in a car wreck. He hated to see him so twisted up. Bryan was the kind of guy who found a lizard running across his lunch sack funny, plus he’d been through an ugly divorce to teach him how to walk away from something that was broken.
Jay missed the old Bryan. He liked to tell the story of how his friend had mooned the Shreveport Junior League. It wasn’t the kind of thing they expected to happen at the annual fundraiser for the Children’s Hospital.
For the last several weeks, Bryan had been subbing for a bass player who had broken his wrist, but was returning to work soon. Bryan had to line up more gigs. He got up early, glad to leave the stifling confines of a studio apartment that had a scenic view of garbage cans from one window, and a parking lot from another. It was too warm to remain inside practicing, and it was too early to meet up with his musician friends. Fundraisers were good places to meet people he told himself as he picked up a flyer he had left on the kitchen table, dressed in a cowboy shirt with a blue yoke and yellow cuffs and made his way into the building whose hallway was festooned with American flags and photos of past VFW presidents.
Inside the building were women in white broad brimmed hats, a garden of paisley and flowered dresses, silver sandals on manicured feet with painted toenails and men in seer sucker suits. There were others wearing khaki pants with woven leather belts, boots, and cowboy hats, lots of drinking and milling around and the smell of grilled hotdogs and the whining of children who were tugging on their parents’ hands to lead them outside to the lawn where there were balloons and face-painting.
Bryan brought his guitar along, carrying the case slung over his shoulder.
A woman took the microphone. She smiled, cool as a cup of frozen yogurt and oblivious to the fact that it was 95 degrees. She introduced herself as the chair of the Sustainer Advisory Board who was there to make an award to Sandra Morgan as the 1986-87 Sustainer of the Year. The League chairwoman said, “Sandra is an enthusiastic supporter of education, presiding as President of the PTA four times and volunteers as an adult literacy tutor and Sunday school teacher.” The woman retrieved her award and sat down as several people hugged her thin shoulders.
In the meantime, Bryan drank on an empty stomach and waited for the musicians to take the stage.
A radio announcer from KDIK introduced a woman who wore a large rhinestone “M” around her neck, brown hair held back with a rhinestone headband. Her hands were festooned with rings that glittered as she sang and played guitar.
After the set, the announcer straightened his tie and encouraged people to bid on any of the fine Silent Auction items, including a hosted birthday party at a miniature golf park, which caused several families to run up to the table where they eyed each other suspiciously. Others liked the spa packages or the rental of a hunting cabin for a weekend in the Ozarks. All the money would go toward helping the Children’s Hospital.
Bryan was getting dizzy from the heat. He slumped against his guitar case. The announcer straightened his tie and asked the crowd, “Ladies and Gents, are you ready to hear more music?” Recognizing his cue, Bryan ran up to microphone and commenced to sing “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places,” a good song for the bar crowd, but not exactly right for Shreveport’s Junior League. Someone from the Silent Auction tables walked to the front and whispered into the radio announcer’s ear and he in turn, walked up to Bryan and reminded him that he hadn’t been invited.
Bryan continued to sing until two security guards, one of them Jay, approached from the back of the room. Now he moved fast, turned around and dropped his pants, shaking his bootie in front of the assembled crowd. A loud cry arose from League members who were standing closest to Bryan with a full view of his exposed buttocks, which caused considerable spilling, slipping, and subsequent ankle twisting.
He was escorted outside to the parking lot. Jay’s partner said he liked Bryan’s voice and suggested that he contact his cousin who ran a honky-tonk on the Bossier strip. The next day, Bryan and his buttocks made the front page of the newspaper. Everyone wanted to hear him sing “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places.”
“There you are. I thought maybe you went home to plant watermelons.”
Mark climbed out of a truck. “What’s bugging you? You told me to check the readings. I did.”
“Great. So what does it look like at the ponds today?”
“Slime and black pockets of water. It stinks to high heaven.”
Rotten eggs. The smell was an immediate give-away to the presence of hydrogen sulfide gas. “You have the readings?”
Mark handed them over. He had sampled the air quality where the runoff from the plant fed into the Mud. He didn’t know why Bryan was making such a big fuss. He was counting the hours until he could get away from all this stupid smelly shit and head south for a duck-hunting trip in the Atachafalaya Swamp. Last time Mark went out, he had bagged his limit of ducks, and was hoping to do the same this weekend. He liked sitting as still as a cypress tree hunting with his retriever who understood every wave of his hand.
But his father-in-law (if Judy ever agreed to marry him), complained any time Mark went duck hunting. Vernon said all Mark knew how to do was to get high and sit in a duck blind. Mark had done his share of getting fucked up, but that was over. He had come close to losing everything he loved and didn’t like the way it felt, not one bit. Maybe he’d have to put off that hunting trip— he forgot that Judy was talking about introducing her grandfather to his new great-grandson, Raymond.
Bryan frowned. “You sure they’re right?”
“Sure, I’m sure.” He covered his annoyance by digging into his pockets for truck keys. Bryan wasn’t a bad guy. Mark was learning skills, better than being stuck in the finishing plant where his weekends on recreational drugs had extended throughout the week and everyone talked about it.
Bryan thought he should know. “Some people are saying stuff.”
“How you’re fucked up on meth.”
“That’s a load of crap.”
Bryan was also concerned about Mark’s wife, who was Vernon’s daughter. “I thought you’d want to know.”
“I’ve got it covered. But thanks for the heads up. What about the rest of the day?”
“Get a mid-day and afternoon reading. Put them in my box before you clock out tonight. And Mark, don’t forget to wear your respirator.”
Mark drove off. He hated the respirator. It made him feel like Darth Vader on a planet covered with ash that clogged his nostrils and stuck beneath his fingernails, ash that rained down from smoke stacks and layered the ground with white snow no matter what the season, dust that ate up the hoods of cars, air conditioners, and water heaters. He couldn’t wait until he made enough money so they could move back to Bossier.
Bryan watched Mark drive off and thought there was no question that they were getting poisoned. The hydrogen sulfide levels were out of the park, over two hundred 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 his courses. Sure, they were posed pictures, not for real. 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. He reminded himself that when he took the job, his predecessor had told him good luck. He needed that now.
He went to the safety office on the third level of the plant and saw his supervisor, Vernon Wolfe, who was studying the readings. His heavily lined forehead folded into furrows. “Who took these?”
“Mark. Gave them to me less than ten minutes ago.”
“Thurmond. I don’t want you to worry about this. Do you understand?”
“The way I see it…I can take the readings myself. Then we can be…”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
“By the way, how’s your daughter doing? Keeping up her grades?”
Jenny was close to the finish line. They couldn’t fuck up now. He drove to the ponds where Rand-Atlantic discharged millions of gallons of paper-mill waste. Fish had stopped spawning here, especially bottom feeders, catfish that fed on sludge flavored with chemical compounds, a salad bar filled with ammonia and chloride metals like zinc and mercury. Bryan turned on his meter. The readings were higher than Mark’s. He brought them back upstairs.
“Cool your heels, Thurmond. I’ve already faxed your first group of readings to Atlanta.”
“But I thought…”
“Never mind what you thought. You’re a good man. If you keep doing a solid job, you never know what might happen.”
Bryan had been warned about taking the lead position, but maybe Vernon wasn’t such an asshole after all. He was glad to find out that his daughter had passed her English exam. He found a beer in the refrigerator and watched American Idol before he fell out on the couch. When he came to work the next day, he saw Jay in the break room.
“Did you hear? Mark’s been laid off.”
“I won’t say I told you so.”
“He’s not a bad kid.” He wondered why Vernon hadn’t said anything.
“And since when have you become his number one fan?”
“I’m short-handed. And as far as I’m concerned, the kid does a decent job, and he’s entitled to his mistakes. I didn’t have my shit together until I turned thirty, and as far as I can remember, neither did you.”
Bryan went back to his office on the third floor of the plant. Stuffed inside his box were readings that Mark had taken yesterday. He faxed in an order for new respirators and ear plugs, and went outside carrying his gas meter, past the turnips that were soaking up sun.
Vernon Wolfe surprised most men with his strength. He was small and olive-skinned with a collection of scars from scrapes with men twice his size; for example, an eight-inch gash on his scalp that was now covered by a clipped lawn of speckled hair, and bruises on his calves that looked like he might’ve been in a rodeo, but were souvenirs from growing up in rough areas of east Texas. Vernon had been raised by a mother who paid the electric bill by forbidding him during the summer from turning on the air-conditioning. To stay cool, he sidled up to bars and next to girls whose parents did not enforce the same restrictions. Vernon vowed one day he’d be able to turn on his air-conditioning whenever he damn well pleased, which for him, meant years of driving a truck across country listening to people tease him about being a “red neck” until he opted for night school where he collected several degrees. Vernon hoped that if he played his cards right, he’d be promoted to the national safety team in Atlanta.
“What happened to Mark?” Bryan had just come upstairs with the news. “I need every hand I can get.”
“Mark’s gotta go,” said Vernon.
“But he’s doing a good job. He gets to the work every morning a half hour before anyone else. I can tell he’s not using.”
“Lemme think about it.” Vernon already had contacted Atlanta to ask them to send over some honcho to see what was going on at the mill. But he wasn’t counting on Bryan being so damned vigilant. In fact, the Lead Environment Officer was starting to annoy him. “Mark doesn’t need to be out there. Atlanta is coming next week to look at the readings. The finishing plant may be able to use him.” Sure, Bryan was his best environmental officer, but sometimes he did his job a little too well. It was important to know how to lie low and keep covered. “What are the H2S levels like at the back pond?”
“Not great, but better.”
“Transfer everyone.” C’mon, Bryan, he thought. They worked in a damned paper mill. There was no avoiding the black liquor created from separating lignin from cellulose fibers. Did everyone want to wipe their ass with newspaper like they did in other countries? This was the United States, for Christ’s sake, where toilet and tissue paper were high-quality stuff. Why would you want to blow your nose into the headlines? But he knew this was an older mill where the recovery process didn’t come up to snuff. Most mills burned the liquor in a recovery boiler to produce energy that was constantly recycled inside a plant. But processes at the plant had not been updated to meet federal standards. The way he saw it, someone was going to have to pay the price and it wasn’t going to be Vernon who was a sharp cookie. He had his eye on an office job located in downtown Atlanta and wanted Bryan to stop hounding him about readings. Why did everyone around him have to make everything so difficult? He was trying to keep everything simple. The company paid enormous fines to the EPA. Wasn’t that enough? Plus, if everything worked the way he planned, after a few months Mark would self-destruct in the finishing plant and Judy would wise up. Maybe she’d move back home with the baby. Her boyfriend was a red-neck, a loser. Vernon wanted his prospective son-in-law to be someone with polish and education, someone like a lawyer, for instance.
“Hi, sugar.” Vernon answered his phone.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“You can ask me anything.”
“How come you keep fucking around with me and Mark?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I think you know.”
“How’s the baby?”
“Don’t baby, me. Why did you lay him off?”
“I keep my business and personal life separate, and you should too.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
“Honey, I wish you wouldn’t use that kind of language.”
“How do you expect Mark to support us if he’s not working?”
“We don’t need him at the ponds anymore. That’s all. I can’t make special accommodations because the two of you are living together.”
“Like hell you can’t. I remember when you promoted that two-bit lunatic in the shipping department because his cousin was a member of City Council. And how about that kid who missed work every Monday? You did nothing because you were screwing his mother.”
“I know a lot more about you then you think. So what’s it going to be?”
“I need to think about it…”
Vernon decided that he’d go by her house tomorrow evening and calm her down, bring over a present for the baby who had been named after his wife’s father, Raymond. That usually worked for most people. Presents.
“And don’t come by the house. You don’t care one iota about my family. And in case you’re wondering, that means not one fucking bit.”
Judy slammed down the phone so hard, she nearly woke up the baby who was sleeping in his bassinette on the kitchen floor. She paced back and forth past the dirty dishes and the microwave oven, heated up a cup of coffee and then decided to spill it out.
He was waiting to get a call from his boss in Atlanta. It already had been 24-hours.
Vernon had faxed the H2S report to Tray Perlson, the head environmental honcho who did not like to visit the mill, one of the oldest in Rand-Atlantic’s arsenal dotting the United States like polyps. Of course, other places were equally responsible for introducing carcinogens into the water supply and jacking up cancer rates in local areas. Why, less than fifty miles from where Vernon lived, back in the 1990’s there had been an explosion at Plant Number 53 that had killed ten people including the shift supervisor. The EPA had charged the company with 82 safety violations. What followed were closed-door meetings with union and family members. Granite plaques were installed to memorialize the deceased. Another company came in to smooth over things with a safety campaign, until several generations later, no one even remembered the explosion.
But the mill located in Hentsbury had its own set of rusted keys.
E. K. Hentsbury had built the place around the turn of the twentieth century, pairing it with 40,000 acres of yellow pine that provided the raw material for everything. In the olden days, Vernon had driven trucks along the southern Arkansas route stacked four-feet high with logs; the fruit, so to speak, of Hentsbury’s partnering with the Federal Forestry Service to create a sustainable harvest of ready-made trees. But to his credit, Hentsbury had pioneered the notion that it is possible to replant what you saw.
All in all, the man had maneuvered well, thought Vernon, even more reason why he was not looking forward to his discussion with Atlanta. Of course, he didn’t want to recreate a Plant Number 53 scenario, which wouldn’t look good for anyone. But he also knew that Tray Perlson, his boss who scheduled reservations for Mardi Gras two years in advance, did not suffer surprises.
“What’s this shit about?” Perlson growled over the phone.
“We’ve been getting these readings for the last couple of weeks.”
“What does Safety say?”
“They say protective gear is in place and they have fresh respirators located at every station. It’s not their problem. That’s all I hear.”
“Did you ask them to check to make sure that the pipe system isn’t clogged?”
“And what did those mother-fuckers say?”
“Why am I not surprised? Whose your Lead Environmental Officer over there?”
“Bryan Thurmond. All week he’s been waving readings in my face. He’s hot under the collar. The crew at the ponds is getting dosed up on hydrogen sulfide.”
“Call a meeting for this Thursday, 8 a.m. I’ll send someone over.”
That gave them two days to prepare. “I’ll do that, sir.”
“And be sure to keep this under wraps. Those River Watcher people would love to get their mitts all over this.”
“They’re planning a press conference.”
“God dammit, Wolfe! Why didn’t you tell me sooner? When?”
“I just found out,” he lied. Actually, he had known about it for several days. “They’ve been using their own meters out there. That’s what Thurmond says. Don’t know about the actual date.”
“Who the hell gave them authorization?” He hung up, and left Vernon to stare at the icons on his cell phone.
Vernon knew he needed to get into high gear. This wasn’t going to look good for a promotion, especially if those River Watcher types got involved and blew this out of the park like they always did. What did it take for them to understand that jobs were more important than the occasional hydrogen sulfide emission? Vernon wanted to put this to bed as soon as possible. He wanted to know what was happening and if that asshole head of the Safety Department, Dwayne, was going to do anything beside duck and cover. Guys didn’t sign up to be gassed by H2S, not even in the military. It was Vernon’s job to strike a balance between outward concern and minimal action and he was good at doing both.
“Get your ass in my office immediately.”
In a few moments, Bryan tapped on the glass door of Vernon’s office, which was covered in shift sign-ups, a puzzlement of boxes with arrows that moved in several directions. “Come in.”
“Don’t they have the air conditioning turned on in this place? It’s hotter than a witch’s tit in here. Thank God! There it goes again.” Both men listened to the roar of a system coming back online. For a moment, they were silent. Bryan stood in front of Vernon’s desk, sweat zig-zagging down his forehead. “Sit down, Thurmond, and take a load off.”
Vernon’s eyebrows met in storm clouds over his blue eyes. “In two days Atlanta is coming here to get with the environmental team about the sulfide readings. I want you to pull everyone together for Thursday, 8:00 am sharp in the conference room. No exceptions. Got it?”
“What about Mark? He registered the first group of readings.”
“Why do we need him?” Vernon’s pronouncement of him sounded like a stale cracker sinking into a hot bowl of soup.
“He’s another witness who can validate readings.”
Vernon didn’t like it, but he would have to. “Yes, invite the son-of-a-bitch.”
“He’s laid-off now.”
“Reinstate him. Bring him back on line.”
“And there’s something else.” Bryan hesitated. He knew this wasn’t good.
“What do you mean fish?”
“This morning when I surveyed the ponds, I saw catfish floating on the Mud River.” To make sure his point hit home, Bryan said, “They were dead.”
“Of course they were dead. Do you think 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 a dumping ground.
“Thurmond, did you ever wish you could press the reset button and start your week over? This Monday is a bitch.”
Bryan’s Monday wasn’t starting out great either. His daughter’s mother was resurfacing and her appearance always indicated trouble. “I had the crew scoop them out with nets.”
Vernon’s eyes brightened like a child’s following a balloon in the sky. “You mean they’re gone?”
“What did you do with them?”
“What do you want me to do with them?”
He thought for a second. “How many fish are we talking?”
“Have your guys bury them in the ash piles. Maybe the stink will cover up the hydrogen sulfide.”
“Maybe so,” said Bryan, who wasn’t sure about that, but it might encourage the turnips to grow bigger. “It’ll probably take a day to get them there.” He couldn’t imagine how it was going smell in the August heat.
Vernon’s worst nightmare was coming true. Those River Watcher people, local citizens who made his life a living hell, would crucify him and everything he had worked for if fish started surfacing with one eye floating on top of the water. That was something they could get a hold of, publicity. “Do it now,” he said, “and let me know if there’s more.”
“And Thurmond, how the hell did those River Watcher freaks get to monitor anything? I hear they’ve been taking their own H2S readings.”
“They must’ve come at night after the shift was over.”
Vernon groaned. He could see newspaper headlines, more 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.”
First he called up Mark and told him that he wanted him to report for work now. Yes, he meant right now and Vernon had approved it. Mark sounded thrilled and thanked him twice and said to give him an hour to get there. Bryan figured that Mark could assist in giving the fish a proper burial. Then he went around to the members of the environmental crew and told them about Thursday and said if any mother-fucker didn’t show up, he could forget about coming in to work the next day. Good thing the meeting had been scheduled for a Thursday. A Monday or Friday would’ve made it impossible to round up everyone. He phoned to see if he could get more information about the River Watcher press conference and heard they were going to release a report in a few weeks, made a note to let Vernon know, then put that out of his mind. Men were calling in sick. He wasn’t feeling great himself with a bad headache; to top it all, he had a message on his cell phone from his ex, Gail. Damn. How did she get his number? Most likely, his daughter had given it to her. After years, the two of them were getting together again. He moved out of the way. It was about them. He didn’t want to become involved.
Thursday the men piled into the environmental safety team room that was conveniently located around the corner from the coffee machine. There were no windows. Everyone wore standard issue blue Rand-Atlantic work shirts with two loblolly pine embossed over a right shirt pocket in a cross. They sipped coffee. Surprisingly, Dwayne from Safety had slipped in the door and sat down next to Mark who smelled of fish. All of them had the same headache that had been dogging Bryan for the last several days, big men with large chests and arms festooned with tattoos from their twenties before they needed to feed families or pay child support.
Vernon introduced everyone in the room including Chad Sweeney from the Atlanta office. No one had seen him before. Sweeney had been transferred from the West coast, a man whose brown hair was combed sideways to disguise a large mole sitting on the top of his head. He smiled to reveal a cluster of front teeth that were piled inside his mouth like a logjam. Every so often, he had to redirect his tongue that whipped out from the side of his mouth.
“I hear you’re having some kind of problem.”
“Something must be going on inside the mill, but no one’s talking. We’re getting high hydrogen sulfide readings.” Vernon said.
“Isn’t that a presumption on your part?”
Men were sick and fish were floating on top of the water. A presumption? “I don’t think so, sir,” he said, trying not to sound like he was pissed off with the fucking asshole.
“When did this start?”
“Last week,” Mark chimed in. “I handed in the first set of reading and they were off the charts.”
“I see,” said Sweeney. “It could be your equipment.” He raised his eyes to meet Bryan’s.
“Your equipment,” he repeated again. Mark gave Bryan a quick look from across the table. “Probably not calibrated correctly. Did you ever consider that?” he asked in a tone indicating that he thought he was dealing with a group of half-wits who didn’t know that their dicks hung between their legs.
“Our team has a bunch of portable Sensorcons and we’ve been getting the same readings,” volunteered Dwayne, who had pushed his coffee cup to the side. “The monitors are screaming any time we go out there.”
Vernon slowly wiped his glasses with a green cloth that he had produced from his pocket. Where had Safety gotten authorization to buy that stuff, calibrated meters that cost thousands of dollars? They were state-of-the-art.
“Both Safety and Environmental groups have compared notes.” His eyes were two gimlets drilling into Dwayne letting him know that he had everything covered and to keep his trap shut. This was no time for them to bicker. They had plenty of time to do that.
“What do you recommend?”
The asshole had flown four hours to give his recommendation and now he wants us to tell him what to do, thought Vernon. “Maybe consider a mill-shut down to flush out the system.”
Sweeney was not sure he wanted to board that plane. It would cost thousands to close down operations. “I’ll let Tray know.” He left. The meeting had lasted exactly twenty minutes and everyone returned to work.
Vernon caught Dwayne on the way out. “Thanks, man.”
“Safety and Environmental. We’re a team.”
“Right. Do you think you could lend us those Sensorcoms?” If he said yes, Vernon wasn’t planning on returning them anytime soon.
Sure he was sure. “I’ll have Bryan get in touch.”
“Not a problem. I’ll be expecting his call.”
Mark waited outside the door and watched Dwayne as he walked past him, shaking his head. He stopped Vernon on his way out. “Hi, sir.”
“What is it, Goshen?”
“I appreciate your calling me back to work.”
“I had nothing to do with it.”
“Bryan said you did.”
“Bryan needed an extra hand. That’s all.”
Mark knew nothing happened in their department without Vernon’s say-so. He was a freak when it came to authority and Mark respected him for that much. He ran a tight ship even though he was a bastard. “Anyhow, I wanted to say thank-you.”
Vernon turned toward his office. He stopped. “How’s the baby?”
“The doctor says if he keeps it gaining weight, he’ll be a linebacker.”
Vernon smiled. “And Judy?”
This was the longest conversation they ever had. Mark reassured him that she was doing fine.
“You tell her I said ‘hi.’”
“Will do, sir,” and he began to walk away, following Bryan who was several meters in front of him.
“Goshen, one more thing. Ask her when I can come by and see the baby.”
Vernon waited a week before he received a call from Tray Perlson. In the meantime, Bryan had relocated his entire crew to another detention pond located on the other side of the plant. “Is that okay with you sir?” he asked. “The way I see it is…those H2S levels are killing us.”
Vernon didn’t like it, but he told Bryan to go ahead. In the old days, he’d just tell the crew to suck it up. But too many eyes were watching him.
“I want this problem to go away now,” said Perlson. “Not tomorrow, or next week, but now. Do you read me, Wolfe?”
“Flushing out the system will cost thousands. You’re talking about shutting down operations.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Just cover up the open ducts from the plant so the gases don’t escape. That should do it.”
“With all due respect, sir, that won’t change anything. It will concentrate the H2S when it comes outside to the clarifier,” which is where water was squeezed out from the processed mash. Perlson was breathing on the other side of the line, listening. He had a golf game lined up in the afternoon and needed to pick up his clubs. “Then there are lawsuits. Thurmond says there’s a report on its way from those River Watchers, which might be what their press conference is about.”
“From that group of psychos?”
“The same.” Vernon knew any mention of the River Watchers would bring Tray’s blood to boiling, never mind what it would do to his blood pressure. He persisted.
“Get in touch with this guy Lopez from inside the mill. I’ll email you his contact info. I hear they’ve instituted new robotics that may be causing the problem. And we’ll flush out the system per your recommendation.”
“Starting when?” asked Vernon. Now they were getting some place.
Bryan didn’t know how he was going to keep the River Watchers from showing up. The truth was he was glad they were calling attention to what was going on. He didn’t want to have dead men on his hands. But he had a job to do. Actually, Bryan had lasted longer as Lead Environmental Officer than his predecessor, Joe Nicholson, who had wished him good luck on his way out the door. Joe’s dismissal had something to do with his ordering hazmat gear without checking in with the big boss. Joe’s only defense had been, “I didn’t think it would be a problem.” Turns out, it was a problem, a big problem. Vernon didn’t want anyone to forget who was in charge. If Bryan wanted to keep his job, he had to report anything that rustled in the bushes.
Bryan walked to his office, another room on the third floor of the administration building. His desk was braced on either side by a row of grey metal filing cabinets. Inside were records from the past ten years. It was one of Bryan’s pet projects to scan the records and file them in a searchable database. But lately, that project had slipped to the bottom of his pile. He studied a map of the Rand-Atlantic property that was tacked to the wall, a visual of how Rand-Atlantic itself formed nearly two thirds of Hentsbury. Bryan tried to see where a group of community leaders, elected officials, scientists and news media could enter 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 by finding a group of lumbermen from the mid-west with deep pockets. Everyone donated to the cause with Hentsbury chipping in the lion’s share. After investors bought an option to build a sawmill, Shields went into high gear, buying up 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, and in his own way, he was. Later Rand-Atlantic bought the mill and took over operations, resulting in Bryan’s map. Each building on the property specialized in a different kind of production. The north wing made tissue paper, another area made coated paperboard. He worked in the settling or detention ponds, treating mill run-off from turning pulp into paper.
Bryan honed in on a small bridge at the far west end of the property. He saw it now—the only public area. Of course, there were a number of homes in the western section and an elementary school. But that had to be how the group was getting access. It was the only place where any truck, car, or vehicle of any kind did not have to pass through a security gate. Everything else was sealed off. They could easily stand on the bridge and take pictures and meter gas emissions. The company had never built anything out here simply because production units were located closer in town. There was nothing to get access to, nothing of course, except if a person wanted to take a stroll around the stink on a hot evening with the moon in the sky. Bryan could think of other ways he’d rather spend his time. Right now, he called Vernon.
“It’s me, sir.”
“Bridge W-42. That’s how they’re getting access. It’s the only area open to the public.”
“I’ll take a drive and check.”
Bryan got into his truck, turned on the radio and head out to the bridge. He remembered when he had been his own boss, a musician who traveled eleven months out of every year. Now he had custody of his daughter who for years had refused contact with her mother. Sure, he had taught her how to recognize every make of car from 1965 through 1975, all the cars he loved. She could rattle off five different kinds of pipe wrenches and knew how to build a model airplane from scratch. But now that she was getting older, he didn’t know how to teach her about men and women. He was Mr. Mom, all right, but there were a lot of things he didn’t know how to do, and Bryan was a man who liked to excel at everything.
He approached the bridge and called Vernon to report that they would have to dismantle both ends. Vernon gave him the go-ahead to put together a crew.
“Dwayne?” Vernon was on his cell.
“Hey, what’s happening, Vernon?”
“I need your help.”
“What do you need? We’re a team.”
Sure they were a team, just as long as Dwayne wasn’t trying to stab him in the back. “I need a crew to work with us tonight.”
“Uppers or lowers?”
“Funny guy. We have to dismantle a bridge.”
“That doesn’t sound like any of Safety’s business. Why’d you call me?”
“If we don’t do this, your ass and mine are going to be on a shooting range, and Mr. Tray Perlson will be the first one to blow us away.”
“It’s these River Watcher crazies. We have to cut off their access.”
“I read you. But is this legal?”
“When has that ever been your concern?”
“You do whatever you want to do. My team always follows regulations.”
“Don’t give me that stupid shit. I know where you got money to buy the Sensorcons. Those meters cost thousands of dollars.”
“C’mon. Didn’t you ever hear about good budgeting?”
“Dwayne, you couldn’t add up a column of numbers if your life depended on it. You got those babies from the Rand in exchange for some dirty work you did last year.”
“I think you should watch what you say.”
“Signing off on papers to make everyone look good. You can’t fool me. Who do you think you’re talking to? I know how the game is played.”
Dwayne paused. “What time did you need us there?”
“And Dwayne. Don’t forget to bring enough pizza for the whole crew—mine and yours. We’re a team, right?”
The safety and environmental crews met at W-42 at a run-down stone bridge about two hundred feet long spanning a stream. Congealed black goop lined its banks, lava-like in appearance. The crew passed around slices of pepperoni pizza and cans of Cokes. They ate inside their trucks; some topped off the meal with a cigarette, others stood around holding their cell phones, hoping for a call. They finished and got to work, glad to be getting paid overtime. The plan was to do everything as quickly as possible. They were going to knock out concrete pilings on either edge of the bridge and push the rubble and rebar off into the stream. Wouldn’t be elegant, but it would get the job done.
Later that evening, two boys approached on bicycles.
“How are we going to get home?”
“This sucks, man.”
“Looks like a war movie.”
They made a loud shrieking noise together, their idea of an exploding bomb. “Bam! Bam! Bam!”
“Did you fart? It really stinks out here.”
“That was you!”
“No. That was you! What a smell!”
The second boy fell off his bike and swooned. “I’m dizzy,” he said, and landed on the ground.
“Stop playing, Rincon. C’mon. I didn’t fart.” He didn’t move. “This isn’t funny.” He shook his brother’s shoulder. “ I didn’t fart! C’mon. We gotta go!”
Rincon didn’t respond. Several times his brother called for help. No one answered. He dragged him from the concrete rubble to a tree trunk and peddled as fast as he could to tell his mother.