“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 River. 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 watching for the movement of a mallard. There was nothing like hunting with his retriever. The dog understood every wave of his hand, and knew him better than most people.
But his father-in-law complained every 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 his wife 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 in his pockets for truck keys. Bryan wasn’t a bad guy. He 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 bunch of crap.”
Bryan also was concerned about Mark’s wife who had just given birth. “I thought you’d want to know.”
“Thanks. I’ve got it covered. 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 that respirator. It made him feel like Darth Vadar on another planet with cakes of ash covering the hillside, stuff that clogged your nostrils and stuck beneath your fingernails.
As Bryan watched his car leave a trail of dust, he thought that there was no question about the hydrogen sulfide levels. They 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. They were posed pictures, not for real. But this was getting real. He ticked off the symptoms. First, exposed men would get headaches. Soon they’d lose their sense of smell, unable to detect the presence of the gas, which could lead to heart and respiratory problems. 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, look at 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?”
“I can take the readings myself. Then we can be…”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
The supervisor took a deep breath. “Rand Atlantic has a permit to exceed target hydrogen sulfide levels. The permit has been issued by the EPA.”
“I don’t care who it’s been issued by,” said Bryan. “If anyone dies out there, it won’t be on my watch.” He couldn’t understand why Vernon, who was the big environmental cheese at the company, didn’t get it. “It’ll be on the company’s head. Lawsuits.”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
“I guess not.”
“By the way, how’s your daughter doing? Keeping up her grades?”
“She’s doing great.” Jenny was so close to the finish line. They couldn’t fuck up now.
He drove to the ponds where Rand Atlantic discharged its 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.
“I’ve already faxed your first group of readings to Atlanta.”
“But I thought…”
“Never mind what you thought. I have to make sure that the men who are working for me are doing a job. You’re a good man, Bryan. If you keep doing a solid job, you never know what might happen.”
He went home and was glad to find out that his daughter had passed her English exam. He 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.”
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, went outside to the ponds carrying his gas meter, past the turnips that were soaking up sun.