Muck Dam

by Bonnie Roop Bowles


As Frank crests the final hill into Henrytown, Emmett looks back in his mirror to make sure Jake isn’t standing up in the back of the truck. All he sees is his own wavering reflection, and thinks if Mildred could see him now it’d only reinforce her belief that he was a worthless fool, a drunk babysitting a drunk.

Going down the grade the truck’s lights bounce up from the pavement, and Emmett makes out the Holston River, snaking dark and impenetrable beneath the towering shadow of the earthen wall. He remembers back a year ago when he’d shown Mildred the wrinkled scar on the dam where his Pop had died. He explained how he was a fourth generation Man-Eater and that he couldn’t just pack up and leave, but she had that face on that told him she wasn’t listening.

They pass the ten or so frame cottages lining both sides of the road. Their windows are dark, but the house nearest the river is still lit up. Emmett thinks back to last night when Mildred called, telling him she wasn’t coming in between semesters. He wanted to tell her he’d saved back some money, looked at some building sites, but he could tell by her voice that she was wearing that face again. Frank takes his foot off the gas and lets the truck drift up Jake’s driveway. Both men look for Mama Revere in the squares of window light. They see the boxy flicker of her TV playing against the glass at one end of the house.

“She still waits on him.”

“Some things will never change,” Frank answers.

At the end of the driveway, Frank veers the truck up into the grass, close to the front of the house, and stops at an old wooden sign put up by the townspeople. “Still standing,” he says, pointing. Beneath a chipped and peeling picture of a woman riding sidesaddle is the inscription the weather has nearly erased: “Mama Paul Revere, Townspeople of Henrytown.”

Looking at the cut wooden shape Emmett is reminded of the nativity figurines he’d carved for Mildred their first Christmas together and the way she’d painted on the detailed features his knife couldn’t shape. But now, she isn’t into painting things he understands; she paints pictures that make no sense, pictures of smeared colors and lopsided people, and he’s sorry he’s let her seep into his mind.

“She warned a lot of people,” Frank says, pointing to Mama Revere’s cartoon likeness on the sign.

That’s what she is famous for, but Emmett knows her warnings came too late for his old man. People say that the lime will eat you, but he’d heard his Pop wasn’t disfigured at all, even though he’d been one of the last ones they’d found. It was a month to the day, Jan 24th, when they’d dug him out. He’d washed right around the corner of the house and lay there, buried under the sticky muck, until the dye in his red shirt leached through the white caustic waste. He’d had a closed coffin, so Emmett didn’t have a chance to see if the lime-eating tales were true. The real shame is that he can see the red wool shirt as plain as day when he closes his eyes, but no amount of recollecting can bring his Pop’s face back to memory.

Frank turns off the motor and the lights. “Let’s get him in before Mama R. comes out.” Frank steps out of the truck and squashes his cigarette against the sole of his shoe, then lowers the tailgate.

Jake lays spread-eagle on the tilted truck bed, his head pillowed on a paint-splattered tarp. Emmett grins, imagining the drop cloth hanging on a wall somewhere and Mildred and her new artsy friends studying it and saying words like “abstract” and “evocative.” Emmett pulls on Jake’s ankles and slides him to the edge, and then grabs hold of his forearms and sits him upright.

Jake tries to stand and mumbles, “You hurt?” Emmett thinks how bloated Jake’s face looks with the imprints of the plastic folds on it.

“Hurting about as much as you,” he answers.

Frank and Emmett’s hands go up under Jake’s armpits and they half-drag, half-carry him up to the house. His one-shod foot clicks all four steps up to the covered porch. Frank turns the knob; the door isn’t locked. The front room is dark but they can make out the form of a couch and swivel rocker enough to pull Jake between them. “Where you taking me?” he asks, trying to buck away from their arms.

“To bed,” Emmett says.

“This ain’t my house.” He looks around, then drops his head onto his chest, becoming heavier in their arms. They pass through the lamp lit kitchen containing a Formica-topped table, portable radio, and a yellowed newspaper clipping splattered with grease, hanging on the back wall. Beside it is a photograph of a younger Mama Revere and the wooden cutout, brightly painted.

Outside the kitchen the hall is short, and they pull him by the first closed door to his bedroom at the end of the house.

Frank whispers, “Watching Johnny Carson,” giving his head a quick jerk at the TV sound echoing through the wall. Frank eases Jake onto the single bed. He loosens the laces of his shoe before pulling it off. Sandy grit falls from his sock onto the Linoleum. “I’m going back and see if the other shoe’s in the truck,” Frank whispers. “Stay here ’case she comes in.”

As soon as Frank goes out the front door, Emmett hears her coming: the turn of a knob, the squeak of a door, the scoot-flop of soft slippers down the hall. Mama Revere pokes her head into the room and stops. Emmett can’t see her face, but by the tone of her voice he knows she’s surprised someone is still in the house, “I thought you done left.”

“Frank went to get Jake’s shoe.”

“He all right?” she asks, moving toward the bed. When she bends over Jake, Emmett makes out her wrinkled face in the light edging sideways across the bed from the part in the curtains. She’s aged a lifetime since he last saw her. Her hair is white, parted down the middle and pulled tight into two braids. Bracing herself stiffly with her left arm, she reaches out and tucks Jake’s hair behind his ears. White scars slash up her arm. “He’s sweating.”

“Drunk too much.”

She turns to Emmett. “You Man-Eater’s boy?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She straightens, grimacing with pain. “I knowed it soon as I saw you.” Her milky eyes are so pale they look silver. “You want a soda-pop or something?”

“No ma’am. I got to be going soon as Frank gets that shoe.”

“You look just like your daddy.”

Emmett takes off his cap and nods his head, then wonders if she can see him in the dark.

“Mildred still off to Georgia?” she asks.

“For three more years.”

“Well, she was always itching to leave.”

Jake groans then flops over onto his back. His eyes open wild and the whites shine like twin moons, rolling in their sockets. “Buttermilk, buttermilk,” he moans. His arms tremble and his fists grip the bedspread as if he’s trying to hold on. Mama Revere bends over and pushes her elbows into his shoulder blades, pinning him to the mattress. “Where’s the kids at?” he yells, arching against her weight.

“Hush,” she says. The flannel gown strains over her back, her hunched shoulders. “Hush. Ain’t nobody hurt.”

Jake’s hands loosen from the spread. Mama Revere lowers her voice and speaks to him like he’s a child, “Them little children’s safe in bed, waiting on Santy Clause.”

She puts her palm to her back, and straightens slowly, trying not to make the springs squeak. Emmett sees Jake’s mouth agape in relaxed slumber. “Dreams ’bout the muck drowning Santy Clause and little kids ’bout every night.”

Emmett turns the band of his baseball cap around in his hands, hoping she wouldn’t go into telling him about the muck dam breaking, about his Pop being too caught up in the current for her to save him.

Jake lets out a long, staggered snore.

“Well,” she says, then shuffles over to the door. “Sweating’s to be expected. Cover him up good, so he don’t take cold.”

Emmett doesn’t move until he hears the door down the hall close and the TV noise go quiet. The house is so still he hears the bullfrogs drumming up from around the river, and he’s reminded of what Mildred said after he’d first kissed her: “I’m finished kissing toads because I’ve found my prince.” And now she won’t come home for break. He hates when she talks like that, like she’s living in some damned fairy tale. The whole room begins to close in with the fruity and sour smell from Jake’s wide-open mouth. Emmett puts his cap back on and pulls the folded afghan from the bed’s end, up and over Jake’s socked feet, dirty-kneed pants, pressing the tasseled ends under his chin. A thin snail-trail of saliva glistens down the side of Jake’s cheek.

Emmett pushes back the sackcloth curtains, murmurs under his breath, “What’s taking you so long?” He could’ve made a pair of shoes by now. The blue lights of the plant glow from across the river, and he can almost hear the flow of chemical wastes spurting and shuttling through the pipeline, dumping downstream from the plant, lapping up behind the chinked crust of the earthen dam. One time when they were night fishing, his Pop had told him the blue lights put him in mind of a Jewish Christmas. Emmett never did understand that one, and wishes for a second he could ask his Pop what he’d meant about that.

Emmett rubs his eyes, and then lowers them down to the lip of the sun-baked wall of dirt that protects the two lane road and one-story homes. The one-hundred foot wall binds a lagoon brimming with the spent products of limestone and brine. The plant’s lights tremble on the surface of the slick pond in long quavering rows. He was only eight years old when it happened, but Emmett imagines what his Pop saw: the chalky muck swelling and frothing behind the dam, the earthen scar seeping, then wrinkling open, collapsing from the pressure of a thousand-ton wave of jumbled chemicals. He pictures the foamy path the muck tears into the river, up through the village of Palmertown, wrecking homes, crumbling barns, folding fences, sheering shrubbery off at the ground, and uprooting saplings. He hears the crash and shrieks as the burning slime whitewashes the lowlands and the people.

He imagines Mama Revere, child in arms, running and screaming warnings along the disappearing shore of Henrytown as the great tumbling alkalitic chunks rush at her, rumbling along like icebergs frozen around homes decorated in tinsel, wreaths, and bows. He sees the muck splattering her arms, burning Jake’s delicate skin as he clings to her chest, her face stricken with shock as a man, his father, facedown shoots by her, spinning on the fierce current’s surface as if trying to swim. But now, there’s nothing left but Jake and his dreams and Mama Revere’s painted sign in the yard. Useless.

Useless of course, unless he counts Mildred’s mural she painted on the Saltbox’s back wall of her interpretation of the disaster. Swirls of colors overlaid with white house paint make no sense to anybody, especially the splashes of color that supposedly stood for the nineteen victims in some weird artsy-fartsy way. She cried when he didn’t shit all over himself because his Pop had been reduced to a splotch of rusty paint. Claude pushed a booth up to the decorated wall, and now all that peeks above the rounded vinyl back is gobs of bird-shit looking paint. Emmett closes his eyes and presses his palm against his nose to pinch off the smell of Jake’s breathing.

The front door opens then closes. Frank comes in and puts the shoe beside the other one under the bed. “She come in?”

“No,” Emmett says, and yanks the curtains closed.


***


Back in the truck Frank pulls a pack of papers from his pocket, “Smoke?”

“After this week you gotta ask?”

Frank smiles, looking over his shoulder. The truck drifts backwards down the driveway.

“What in the hell took so long getting a shoe?”

“Had to piss like a racehorse.”

The truck comes to a stop. The engine sputters, dies. He turns the key off and then back on and grinds the motor. The sound echoes through the hollow, across the river. “Locks up sometimes,” Frank says.

“Sounds like the starter.”

“Yeah,” Frank says, turning the truck toward the dead end of the street. Emmett braces his hands against the dashboard as Frank pulls into the cul-de-sac, rocking up and over the boggy ground that butts up against the North Fork of the Holston. Frank stops the truck, turns off the motor, then the lights. The linking branches of the maples growing along the bank make the plant’s lights look like frayed lace on the water. Emmett pushes back his seat, stretches his knees out full and tries to forget the dam, Mildred, and times long past.

Frank takes out a baggie from the glovebox and shakes it. He lays it on one knee, the thin paper across the other. The wind stirs and Emmett smells the wet mud, hears the whippoorwills calling somewhere off in the trees. His first time with Mildred was on the bank of this river. He’d told her about the custom log house he wanted to build, the four boys he’d like to have. They were close then, had the same dreams. But after last night’s phone call, the tone of her voice, he can picture her laid up as easy on a different bank, making dreams with some other guy.

“Look here,” Frank says, picking a hairy green bud out of the baggie. He waves it in front of Emmett’s face. “Plant was seven feet ’fore I cut it.”

“Somebody’ll find it out.”

“Naw. I plant it in twenty gallon buckets. Move it ’round. Here today, gone tomorrow.” Frank cups his hand and lets the twisted paper catch fire. Then he takes three sharp draws.

Emmett takes the joint and draws a long trembling breath until he coughs.

“It’s kinda harsh. Hit it easy.” Frank shoots the smoke from his nose up toward the truck’s ceiling. “By spring I hope to have a new truck with the money I get from selling this shit.”

Emmett pulls on it easy and slow, watching the curl of smoke rise lazily from between his fingers.

“Two hits’ll have you tore up,” Frank says, smiling dimly, taking the joint. A thick gray curtain hangs between them. “We could partner up. In a couple months you could buy a new trailer. Have something to surprise the ol’ shit out of Mildred if she comes back.”

If. Emmett hears that word loud and clear. He hears it over and over like a goddamned broken record. He knows what’ll piss Frank off, so he says while holding his smoke, “How you plan to make a fucking nickel with so much free stuff floating around?”

Frank laughs like a bullfrog’s croak. “Free stuff?” His face grows red; smoke escapes from his mouth, his nose. “Oh, ain’t nothing free in this world . . . for God’s sake . . . don’t you know that yet?” He takes the joint, settling himself, talks through clenched teeth, “Free stuff my ass!”

Emmett doesn’t join in the laughter, but nods, knowing there’s truly nothing in this world that doesn’t come without a price.

When the joint gets too short to put to his lips, Frank breathes the smoke from the end. Emmett watches the fire fall from the roach’s end onto Frank’s leg. Frank beats the ash cold with his hand, then rubs it into his jeans.

“I wish I had Pop’s old peace-pipe,” Emmett says, picking the roach from the floor, careful not to burn his fingers. His father had lost it, showing it around, claiming they’d descended from the Paleo-Indians. Another tale he’d like to ask his Pop about.

“I bet ol’ Cuttler’s got one. He’s got a crystal ax-head.”

“I ain’t interested in no fairy’s ax, just a pipe.”

Frank holds the baggie open and Emmett drops in the tiny butt.

“I bet I know what you’d be interested in.” Frank opens the glovebox and stuffs in the baggie.

“What?” Emmett asks, catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror. His face looks swollen and sleepy.

“Some of that Chilhowie pussy that showed up Saturday night at the Saltbox,” Frank says.

Junior’s band always drew pussy. That was nothing new. “Why when I’m finally free from my old lady would I study on a new one?” Emmett asks.

“Lose one, get another one,” Frank says. “That’s my motto.”

“Mildred’s the one that’s lost something. That’s my motto.” Emmett tries to laugh, but it hangs at the back of his throat.

Then they both sit quiet and still, watching the moon’s reflection playing on the river as the last billows of smoke sink deeper into their lungs. A mosquito flits in front of Emmett’s eyes then bends its long legs as it lands on his arm. He feels the itch of it drawing on his skin. Mildred rubs herself down with an Avon lotion that keeps mosquitoes away. The lotion smells too pretty for a man to use. Emmett doesn’t move at first but then with one swipe, he smacks it dead, and leaves a bloody print. He closes his eyes and hears the buzz of others outside the truck.

“Tell me, what’s wrong with this?” Frank asks, spreading his left arm out the window toward the river. “I got a nice house,” he gives the dashboard a pat, “and truck.” He looks at Emmett and gives an easy smile. “And, come fall I’ll have a better one.”

“You got it good, alright,” Emmett says.

“Job at the plant pays enough so I can keep what I got. My side work will allow me the extras.”

Emmett looks down to his hands. He turns them over slowly as if it were the first time he’d seen them. “Lecroy just got on. Now, Sterling says next year when he turns sixteen, he’s gonna start work.”

“That’d make your Dad proud.”

“I told them they needed to finish high school first.”

When Emmett keeps his eyes on Frank’s face, he looks away, out the window.

“You know what Lecroy said?”

Frank keeps looking out the window, shakes his head.

“He told me anybody who wants work at the plant doesn’t need to finish school and for me to mind my own goddamned business.”

“I’m sure no aspect of the plant is beyond him. He’s a smart boy.”

“That’s not it. He needs to finish school.”

“You didn’t,” Frank says, looking at him now.

Emmett’s mouth pulls into a frown.

“Sounds like you think getting on the plant is a bad idea,” Frank whispers.

“Maybe I do,” Emmett says. He slings open his door and puts his legs to the outside.

“Well,” Frank says, talking loud to Emmett’s back, “they did right by you, letting you take up where your daddy left off when you got of age. Trading out that pike land for a town house.”

Emmett stands, then slams the door shut. His mother gave up the land generations of Man-Eaters had worked, for a company house with two running-water faucets and a toilet. If his Pop weren’t already dead, it’d kill him. Emmett leans on his elbows, talks through the window, “The only reason Mom’s got running water, and I got a plant job, is to convince people like you they aren’t the sons of bitches they are. You really think they care one shit about some hick that died because he was too stupid to know when to get out?”

Frank sits back in his seat.

Emmett straightens, works his shoulders back and forth, then moves around to the front of the truck. “I gotta piss.”

He walks down the slope of rough ground, slips through the brush toward the water’s edge. Unzipping his pants, he arcs his stream toward a clump of cattails. The moon reflects down like cut crystal, but disappears around the bend under the looming ten story shadow. A car’s engine sputters to a start. He looks over his shoulder past Frank’s pickup to the road. Across the street from Jake’s house a car backs down the driveway and turns its yellow lights to town. Through the quavering beams Emmett thinks he can make out a woman in the driveway. She has her arms crossed over her chest, standing just like Mildred had stood when she told him she was leaving, but before he can be sure the road becomes dusty-black again.

A breeze blows over the river, bearing a faint sulfur reek. He can’t taste it in the water, but Mildred swears she can taste the poison. If he ever went off to college he’d study new ways to make chlorine, carbon dioxide, and soda where there wouldn’t be so much muck waste. But he’d dropped out of school before it was his turn to take chemistry. He can’t even explain what he does with the chemicals and byproducts he handles at the plant everyday if it killed him.

As he zips up his pants, he suddenly feels dizzy. He looks ahead, trying to steady himself. A veil of fog lifts from the river, and the pines become patches of green, the dam a muted brown, the river a misty black bed. A ringing in his ears brings his father, spinning soundless over the river, holding Christmas gifts they will never open. All hint of light is sucked up in the looming half-mile earthen semicircle. His knees go soft. The earth turns beneath him.

A door opens then slams. Footsteps crackle over the ground.

“Emmett,” Frank yells, “you all right?”

Emmett sits up into the darkness. He sees the white gleam of Frank’s ankles, then looks around as if he were a new thing to the world.

Frank hits the Pall Mall pack twice on his wrist, takes two of the protruding cigarettes. He lights them both and hands one to Emmett. Frank reaches down and takes Emmett’s cap from the ground and sets it on his head. “Shit knock you off your feet?”

Emmett bites the cigarette between his teeth and reaches up and straightens his cap.

“Told you not to take more’n two hits.”

Emmett stands. Frank presses his hand to his back. “Let’s go sit by the river.”

They sit down on the spongy bank. The haze eases from Emmett’s mind and he hears Frank blowing out his cigarette smoke. He shakes out the weakness in his legs. “My cigarette went out.”

Frank hands him the matches.

Emmett lights it easy. His hands are steady. He pulls in deep then points his cigarette to the plant. “They killed Pop.” He blows his smoke out in a straight hard stream, waiting until Frank looks back at him.

Frank looks at him but the dark hides his face. “You can’t blame the plant ’cause of a freak accident. Hell, that muck dam mess happened some twenty years ago and it’s still eating you?”

“You remember who they blamed for blowing up the dam?”

Frank nods. “I remember. He blew it out with dynamite. Yeah, I remember. He used two sticks. A year later he hung himself in the county.”

“His wife said he never left the house; he was putting a bike together when they heard the explosion.”

Frank looks at his cigarette burning short.

“Think about it,” Emmett says. “Would you leave Frank Jr. on Christmas Eve to go blow open the muck dam?”

Frank laughs, “No, but I ain’t some crazy that has it in for the plant.”

Emmett stands and brushes away the loamy decay dampening the seat of his pants. “Fucking worthless.”

“Nothing you can do. Nothing nobody can do,” Frank says, starting back to the truck. “You getting like ol’ Mama Revere, living in the past, looking for things that ain’t there.”

Emmett pinches the fire from the cigarette tip with his fingers, and hears a lone frog croaking up from around the river and thinks, fuck the past. He can take a Greyhound to Georgia tonight and find Mildred if he wants to. He can tell her he’s tired of being a shift worker, tired of the company town, tired of working the bottom rung of the ladder. He doesn’t have to let a muck dam disaster lock him into a life that was and a life that’ll never be.

The truck’s motor turns over and the headlights shine across the river, illuminating the wall that stands between him and years and tons of waste. Emmett tosses his cigarette into the river, picturing his father—a young plant worker, walking along the bank, trusting that three generations of loyalty would protect him. Emmett watches his cigarette hit the moon’s reflection, quivering a bit in the ripples before moving on into the darkness and knows his mistake was believing faithfulness would keep him from being hurt.