Mark Bowen

 

"Contamination"

 

"How fanatically his mother the War must disapprove of her beauty, her cheeky indifference to death-institutions" – Thomas Pynchon

     

Woods. Beauty. Things that are dead.

The sick pines lay as blisters on the shade. Fresh, wide clearings wheel from the trees. Roots, moss, creamed in black soil, smoke shyly to the sky. Workers pace the mile-long shadows, sawing the rot, blinding the mind.

The beetles bleed the pine woods of Georgia, Tennessee. They scale the hills like fish, bone the pines into weeds. The summer struggles to hold its green. Whole mountainsides in Tennessee fall bald in its wake.

Orchards of brown spread by the day.

Every 14 years. Mate, breed and die, Mate, breed and die.


* * *

Contamination

If I could stand there again in the street, then what should have been in my head? Should I twist my heel until it falls off? Drop the spigot from the leg? Or rinse the blood, clear the mind. The car lights off. The night draining through the trees.

I'm going down with the ship. Search the wreckage for something brave.


* * *

411 and bypass


It is a daughter this time, lost in her steps, circling, glancing, picking things up. She doesn't look like she could tell me her name. She fishes things from the smashed car—keys, cell phones, half-sipped Cokes. The blood-stained pillow sits in the backseat. The cars break past. You would be surprised how much someone can tell you under this kind of stress.


* * *

Contamination


May 23, 2002

EPA Waste Management Division Director Richard G---- to Georgia Environmental Protection Division Director Harold R------

subject: Federal intervention at the corporation's Rome site.

Efforts to address PCB issues were not "progressing adequately, and state oversight may "no longer be in the best interest of human health and the environment," G----- wrote.

Two months later, R----- consented, saying the EPD had waited patiently for 15 years for the corporation to get substantial cleanup effort moving.

"Despite all the efforts of EPD, contamination on and off the plant site remains largely unaddressed," R------ wrote.

R-----s' letter cites four major considerations—groundwater, sediment and soil PCB levels outside the plant that stretched as high as 95,000 parts per million; significant, ongoing sources of contamination onsite; contamination of nearby waterways and fish; and an appeal of the company's hazardous waste permit.


* * *

Rome


Rome was not built in a day. The waters spilled through before the human touch, while the grass still bred thick and straight. Whether the Etowah or the Oostanaula first licked the clay not even Wayne Jones could see through his fattened age. Now they meet just west of downtown, where they sell tomatoes and franks at a stand that smokes like a train. Twin rivers push through the young earth, seeking confirmation, the assurance of not being alone. Nothing is done once unless it's done twice.

The brook on Big Texas Valley edges the road. Strong waters slip across polished rocks. Pines rattle from the banks, stretch south, more south, down to a lean highway that wiggles through the hills. The car would seep into the water, if the air drove me to sleep. The way the water laps the rocks. There is nothing beautiful here that does not come with suspicion. Not a leaf that can fall at your feet that you would put in your mouth.

Summer. Afternoon. The heat seeps into a cool place. The windshield holds it as it crosses through. The tickle of my hand as it passes the warm face. Has it captured something pure? Heat through glass, like testing a witch. Throw her in a pond and see if she floats.

The heat is the last thing here that remains itself. It's the last thing here that I would trust.


* * *

Paige came and death came with her. Of this there is little doubt and frighteningly available statistics. The coroner blamed her without a smile and said she was working toward being an official cause of death.

We laughed as if this were a joke.

She sat on the porch draining cigarettes, cheap ones that fit her style. She didn't make a lot. She'd rather spend it on drinks to drive things away.

"What's the total since you took the cop beat?" I asked.

"I think it's seven," she said.

"It's got to be more. You did that many in February. That's when you took down the space shuttle."

I remember the shuttle debris across the fields and scrubs forests, and the way my name rolled off her tongue in anger, fleshy, certain, the drag of the desire to follow. The way we held hands, the windows frosted in, the radio releasing in wisps. The way she hustled into the woods, the date in the toxic waste, me left dizzy in her trail, my coughs, my fears of death, the thought of lead soaking into my shoes.

"A couple of plane crashes too,"

"Who could forget the plane crashes."

"Or the space shuttle."

"Or the space shuttle."


* * *

Contamination


Jan. 8, 2003 memo

company lobbyist T---- P---- e-mail to incoming governor's chief of staff:

"What (EPD) has been doing is not only screwing [the corporation], but it is making the state look like it can't handle its environ(mental)

issues," P----wrote.

The EPD was "trying to pull a fast one" on the corporation, P---- wrote, and the agency needed to "terminate" the EPA's involvement "so that we and the state can properly handle it."

On Jan. 15, the governor's staff met with R---- and Jim U------, a hazardous waste division program manager, who defended the agency's strategy.

R----- said the corporation had been "formidable to deal with and not timely in their cleanup work," according to a memo. R----- said the process had to pass a "straight-face test."


* * *

On Sundays, the bells from hilltop churches reign over empty downtown streets. They are long, consistent, the ice of time. A silence bottles the doorways of bars. Cars left lonely by the night's secret rides wait for return. The sun pursues its timeless rise.

The cold ate at the woods that day. The light soured as it moved through the trees.

"We used to fish here," she said.

The deer had bounced off, as quickly as it appeared. Our feet dug beneath the fallen leaves. A blanket of coal ash, decades thick, lead, arsenic, smothers the earth. The way that a pillow turns slowly to a gun.

"Who is we?"

"Me and my father. In the creek." Paige said. "We'd go home and . . . just . . . fry 'em up. God knows what we ate. I'll be growing a new leg by the time I'm your age."

The drainage ditch holds an unearthly color, silvery, fluid, as if it ran out of a nose. There is a pond on the far side we haven't seen yet. The fish there bob at the surface. Marijuana plants, hidden by the brush, grow firm, defiant, pissing out their toughness. But the arsenic is building in their roots, hiding, wakening.

This is a hell of a first date. She is in the woods, full paces ahead, a baseball cap, a pair of warmups, all vibrance armed with certainty and wonder. She wants to see. All day I have tried to catch her, corner her, draw to her lips. But she is always on the move.

"Paige, stick with me."

Wading into the water with a four-foot-tall pole, her small arms steadied by a large man so many years ago. Holding the fish to his eyes. An image of fishing. An image of trust spoiled.


* * *

We are a plague. We gather and spread and milk out the life. We should come with our own Red Cross chapter. People die as we go.

"Tornados follow me," I told my brother one. He was also a reporter, and I was visiting him while trying to decide where I should go next.

"What do you mean?" James asked.

"Everywhere I've lived there's been a tornado, shortly after I move.

The first time was with a tornado warning in Lubbock. The meteorologist said we've detected some circulation. He said 'Right about here' and pointed to a map. He was pointing at my apartment."

"So you ran for the bathtub."

"Quick. But it started there and it moved with me. Arlington too. It skittered down the Turnpike and went the other way. Scariest night of my life. In a bathroom with water soaking up my ass. And in Tuscaloosa, a huge tornado. 12 dead. In Fort Lauderdale it was a tropical storm. Calhoun this year, although those may only have been straight line."

We are in an office with a history. Other editors have passed through the paper, tried to seize it with family pictures, and ultimately left without taking their plant. So many editors, so little time.

"I've spent more time in a bathtub than I could ever want," I said.

James’ chair dipped with subtle leans. He spoke quickly, as he does.

"We all have something like that," he said. "For me it's people dying."

"You're an angel of death."

"Well, sort of. Well. There's nothing angelic about it. Trust me. This paper I worked at, we had this young female reporter. Young girl, gosh she wore very open clothing and . . . well . . . she could wear that type of thing.

"This was many years ago. She's a writer now. One day we sent her out on an assignment out in California. We didn't hear a thing for a couple of days. We finally decided that something had to be wrong. She was young but hardly irresponsible.

"It turns out she had been raped by two men, tied up, thrown around, beaten up, the whole bit. Thrown in the trunk and driven up and down the state a couple of times. They finally let her go. Never caught them.

"She then married a guy, an Italian guy, we made jokes about him being in the mob. He was killed on her honeymoon."

After he said all of this, my brother returned to some copy that was waiting for his attention.

I knew what he was talking about. We cross the country, defy the landscape, cover our contagions and beg for more.

Like the way I forgot to call home for a whole week once, while I was travelling on assignment, and the tone of his voice when I finally did call. He was pleased to hear from me. He said he'd been ready to "send someone out."

We know ourselves well.


* * *

Plowing through your crisp hair, fish-bowl drunk, with no way to your lips in the dark. The way you told the guys you'd show them your boobs if they drove you to McDonalds. The way I pulled both ways as I told my friends that you were so young.

You are more the mouth than anything else. The cell phone surged from it like a tree. Smokes and drinks, cracks and cocks, worry and delight. The words for friends not to hear. The vomit charging from the stomach like a childhood disclosed. A hole in the earth. The way it thrilled me to lick it wet. The way it ordered me to give in. The soft pulses that hide as it closes to the world.

And how it must have scared you growing up. Your mother chopping the horns off dolls, calling it Christ's love. Your father growing, growing, eating through truck cabs like a child eats through clothes. The weight of your wide shoulders in the mirror. The way I smelled vomit as we kissed.

Why should you be left to me, my mind so limp to stretch around you? Can justice come from my seeded head? Literature has no taste for a second source. What did you say that time on the porch, my eyes rolling back into my head, as if in death, watching ideas in a stream? "Why don't you stop being a freak?" Thought as threat. The last thing you want from me is to be known. You wanted to move on in peace.


* * *

411 and Bypass


It's hard to find the miracle in an overturned logging truck. But there it is. The logs stopped dead by a well-placed Honda before they could smack the tour bus. A miracle, as long as you weren't in the Honda. The young man who just left jail, the young couple headed for their parents' home. The usual right turn. The usual curse.


* * *

Contamination


And that time over rural Georgia Italian, the plainest of sauces leaking through our plates. And what were we by then?

"So your friend had a subservient mother and now he's looking for a dominant wife," you said.

"Well, no. His last girlfriend was nice and mousy."

Twist the fork farther in the ravioli. Think it through. The wheels turning in your swallowing eyes.

"Well, maybe he's looking for his opposite."

"His last girlfriend was strong . . ."

More fiddling. More eyes. More music to blame.

"Well maybe he alternates between dominant and . . ."

"I hate to say it, dear," I said. "but I don't see much method in your methodology."

And you, who used to date an FBI profiler's son, mining psychology from everything. Our acts pregnant with experience, our thoughts clouded by life. And me denying such things exist, clinging to cigars as cigars.

"Why do you think you date women seven years younger?"

"I've lived in small places. If the women have brains, they've cleared out of those places by my age."

"Don't you think it's strange that every girl you're interested in is 23? Like you feel that you missed out when you were young?"

"Not when considering the circumstances."

Your eyes went straight past my answers, to the sharpened letters, the rumpy hair, the ink stains on the back of my sleeve that I don't bother to clean. Do you think I know where it comes from? The things you would call me. The things I would call you. The way I wonder if you were right.

If I could stand there again in the street, then what should have been in my head? Twist my heel until it falls off? Drop the spigot from the leg? Or rinse the blood, clear the mind. The car lights off. The night draining through the trees.

I'm going down with the ship. Search the wreckage for something brave.


* * *

And now it is not Paige I talk with, but Yvonne.

Yvonne and I were on the way to the airport when these things came up. The Georgia pastures played dead for the car windows. Brown grass and brooding cows. The water freezing, the sun crawling low.

Yvonne tells me about the cancer rates here, how everyone blames all the plants, how her reporters have found one street split between ground and city water. Cancer is high on one side. Cancer is low on the other.

It follows me everywhere.

"I had a guy who investigated me once," I said. "I mean, not criminally. Just looked into my past employment. Scoured me for some dirt. Sent a deputy to ask questions. Good thing there was nothing to find."

"I told you about the reporter that used to work for us but now works at the AJC. She was convinced—convinced—that her phone line was tapped."

"I've thought that before. Just for a minute, but yeah . . ."

We met eyes and shared one laugh each, stumbling onto a brotherhood, the shoptalk of snoops. The relief of finding someone else bent with the same doubts. Who would believe our polluted thoughts?

The way the Explorer hauled through the dimming Georgia day. The way we think we're nuts for being reporters. The way an interesting life contaminates a mind.


* * *

Mark Bowen is a native Texan who spent four years living and working in Alabama and Georgia. His work has previously appeared in Circle Magazine.