At the end 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, to volunteer—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 Monte Carlo 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. 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 their 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 shirt 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 he’s back on drugs.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“From the same guy you work for.” Mark’s father-in-law 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.”
“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.”