This is from my novel-in-progress, Pulp Into Paper.
Brenda Shawn trained her flashlight on the ground and landed in the water on something soft and squishy. She shook her boot loose from gunk. Moving along like a small tractor, she checked the view between trees that led to the road. No one there. She put her backpack on a rock and pulled out an insulated vest, black so she couldn’t be recognized in the cold Arkansas morning. The only other sound was the hum of katydids and smaller crickets. The land was thick with loblolly pine creating an elaborate maze above her head.
There was an oppressive stink, something like a convention of cigar smokers, a ghostly vapor that clogged her nostrils. She tied a blue kerchief over her mouth and nose, started to assemble a water-sampling kit. A single gold wedding band jiggled on her finger as she ripped opened a cellophane package, her hands lined in a tributary of blue veins. You can do this, she repeated to herself and looked at her watch. It was four in the morning.
All she could hear now was an occasional faint tweet. She spotted her pickup, a fast walk away. Why hadn’t she insisted that someone come with her, at least wait in the car? The River Watchers thought she didn’t need any help, when the reality was, she didn’t know how to ask. She’d always been on her own, and once again, here she was.
She’d been to this place before, but never so early, and never by herself. She was starting to get nervous, had volunteered to collect water samples for the River Watchers, prove to the Arkansas Environmental Board that there was a health crisis in the southern part of the state. Up until to now, every agency looked away, had certified Rand-Atlantic’s tests and called them clean. But why? Water laced with chemicals. High levels of noxious gases. The local news station ran stories assuring the public that emissions from the plant met federal guidelines. Letters and phone calls did nothing. And the worst part was the people in charge didn’t seem to care, tried to make the River Watchers out to be California crazies. But how could you deny that children were being diagnosed with rare cancers, that the area had the highest rate of stroke in the state?
It hadn’t always been that way. As a young girl, Brenda had played along the shore when it was still called the Silver River, a shining stretch that ambled between the Little Cosatott further upstream and the Ouachita that made its way to Louisiana. She couldn’t wait until her Grandfather Leo got her on the weekend. His truck was large enough to haul a lawn tractor or anything else that required fixing. He’d pull up along side the road and cast for rainbow trout and black bass, eating baloney sandwiches thick with mustard. He taught her about the waterfowl that made their home along the river’s bank, dozens of egrets stalking the water with eyes as red as Christmas; she knew different times of the year for rails, gallinules, and snipes. But her grandfather wasn’t a hunter. He preferred to watch, not shoot birds. There weren’t a lot of birds around anymore, not like when he used to lift her by her waist so she could climb into his truck where the seat was split down the middle, orange foam spilling out from its insides like fish eggs.
“Look up, girl!” he would point through the windshield to the sky above them. “See them!” Sometimes a wild turkey would wander out from the brush.
Whenever her college friends from up north teased her about not using her biology degree to apply for a big city position, she told them without hesitation, “I’d be too far away from home.” She came back to Monroe to teach high school biology. But now times were different. She listened to the katydids and watched a sliver of moon patrol the sky. What was she doing out here? She could get into trouble. They were getting crank phone calls. People at church looked at her funny. Maybe she should’ve listened to her husband, Gerard, who had sat down one evening at the kitchen table to discuss how they would spend the rest of their golden years together, now that they were both retired and freed from day-to-day responsibilities.
“Maybe we can visit Paris. See the Eiffel Tower. Walk along the Champs Elysees.” He had taken out visitor guides from the library and wanted to share them with her. She wasn’t listening. Her mind was on other things. There was a dirt racetrack that had been built across the highway from where they lived. The noise was unbearable, especially on weekends. The noise made the horses on their ranch nervous. The geldings wheeled back and forth along a corral railing to escape the high-pitched whine. Brenda wanted to get to the bottom of this insult to herself and to her animals.
“You go,” said Gerard. “I’ll stay home and take care of Cleo.” Their oldest dog was just back from the vet’s.
“Sure you don’t want to come along?”
There was a college football game on TV—LSU versus Texas. “No, go ahead.”
She left and paid the entrance fee at the dirt track races.
Brenda saw that many people had brought along their own chairs and positioned them right against the track railings. Kids sat around, ears covered with mufflers. Once the pack got the “green” go flag, there was the noise of nine motors vying for first spot, shooting out along the edge and then allowing centrifugal force to shove a car back to the inside track where cars hugged the curve to block other competitors. The sound was deafening.
She decided to pay the local police jury a visit to find out exactly how this dirt track practically had been built in her back yard, especially without her knowing. Reading through microfiche, she came to discover that the permit for the track had been awarded by the police jurors, the parish’s governing body, to one of the member’s son-in-laws. It also happened to violate zoning regulations. Brenda attended a meeting. Most of the chairs were empty. After the secretary read the minutes, she raised her hand.
“Yes, ma’am? Can we help you?”
“My name is Brenda Shawn. I live a half mile from that dirt track.” They all nodded, proud that they had invented a project to inject tax money into the parish. But they’d never seen this woman before. They usually handled their business in relative anonymity. What was she doing here?
“Isn’t your son-in-law Geoffrey Howard?” Brenda waited for a response.
“Yes.” Geoffrey Howard stored his butchered deer meat in his father-in-law’s garage freezer. Geoff was a decent father and a good husband to his daughter. The juror had no reason to deny the connection.
“Didn’t you award the racetrack contract to him?”
The juror blinked at her, sucked on a Tootsie roll lollypop that protruded from his cheek in a large lump. He didn’t think there was anything wrong with helping out a family member. He was a good Christian. “Yes.”
“But that’s a conflict of interest.”
“We didn’t have any conflict about it at all.” He laughed at her naiveté. But sensing a growing discomfort among the other four jurors who sat around the oak table with an American flag draped behind them, he asked, “What exactly are you getting at, ma’am?”
“This is a residential area that prohibits commercial development. There’s a zoning ordinance in place.”
All five jurors looked at each other and shrugged. They thanked her for her comments and hoped to god that they would never see her face at another meeting again as long as they served as police jurors. But they were wrong about that, too.
Brenda kept showing up, and to make matters worse, she brought more people along with her. It was as if the dirt track had been a cannon shooting her off into a career of activism as she saluted the people waving to her from below. From that time forward, whenever local people were having problems with a water bill or plant emissions, dumping, or any other shenanigans, Brenda was the one to call.
“She’ll help you,” they said. “Get in touch with Brenda.”
She was an encyclopedia of back-room deals and crooked politicians. She could tell you about citations and payoffs. Brenda’s reward was a certain perverse pleasure in informing the local Napoleons from parishes and counties throughout Louisiana and Arkansas that they were prancing around butt naked. Take that!
She told her husband, “I’ve never had so much fun.”
Gerard was worried. They were getting crank calls in the middle of the night. He wanted to win the lottery and take them both far away.
But she looked the other way. If something happened, she would handle it. Generations of her family, including Brenda, had voted Republican. One uncle had been elected as a mayor in Arkansas. Her family had taught her to pursue the harder right rather than an easier wrong. Many of them, like her Grandfather Leo, had served in the U.S. Army. Her party allegiance was beyond reproach, contiguous with her devotion to the horses, dogs, and cats that roamed their property. Every morning she got up to feed the horses. It used to be her boys’ chore, but now it was Gerard’s practiced opinion that once she retired (if she ever did), she should sell her nags, including her favorite mustang, and just worry about the cats and dogs roaming around the place. Instead, she had figured out an ingenious way to skirt retirement altogether. Now she had a second career as a gadfly.
“As long as I don’t have to set my alarm to feed the horses at five in the morning, you can do whatever you damn well please.” Gerard knew that Brenda was going to do whatever she wanted no matter what he said, which is exactly how they had remained married for twenty-five years. He offered no opposition.
“Honey, are you sure?” She knew Gerard well enough to know that the discussion was not over, but that she had only won a temporary reprieve. He’d find a way to turn her around. Gerard always told his friends that being a horse trainer was the best preparation he ever had for a lifelong marriage. Gerard had his own projects, volunteered to mow the lawns of several widowed members of their church where Brenda taught Sunday school. What kind of world would her students inhabit if they didn’t understand right from wrong, if they didn’t know when someone was shooting them a discounted load of horse shit?
That very evening, Brenda watched him go to the refrigerator. These days he was drinking less beer and more iced tea. He popped open a can. “Honey, do what you want. I’ll be here.”
She knew he would be. She knew something else. He was proud of her. She and Gerard had folded their differences into a neat pile and set them aside to put away later.
Brenda was feeling more confident now. Everything was ready. She began to sample and test the water. She removed the reagents from her test kit, dipped a plastic cup in the water and placed an ampoule in the cup, tip down. Her eyes were burning, her throat tight; she snapped the tip and filled the ampoule. That was the easy part. Then she used another cup and got busy testing for arsenic, this time with several scoops of a reagent. She repeated the steps with several other reagents and stored everything in a freezer container. Lately, she was getting a lot of practice collecting samples, trained by scientists in Baton Rouge to follow an exact procedure. She worked quickly, zipped up the backpack. But then she heard rustling, footsteps. Oh shit.