Up the River

Excerpt of a chapter from my work-in-progress novel, Up the River. The event here is inspired by a real conversation with my southern relatives. I am actively working on the novel. Expected publication date: 2021.

News of the oil spill trickled through news channels, first local and then national and international. Talk about it was also going on around town, at church, at bars, on the front porches of storefronts and in the backcountry homes that were tucked away into the wildflower-covered hills. It was, Mosstree found, big news. A section of pipeline built near the Overmountain Creek, a few miles north of town, had busted. The tear was ten feet. Duffy Amburgey, who lived right next to the spill, caught the smell first, and by the next morning other neighbors also reported it to Sheriff Earl Jaggers, who sent Ezra, the emergency services manager, out to check out the river. Sure enough he had found dark, heavy oil seeping into the Overmountain Creek, and the oil was running south with the water, emitting some terribly foul odors all along the way.

About a quarter mile downstream, the river forked, with the western, smaller stream going down toward the Collins pond and the main tributary heading southeast, feeding into the South Fork of the Kentucky River, which led to the Gibson Aquifer between Booneville and Cowcreek. The aquifer was named after Rosie Gibson’s great-great-grandfather, who had helped settle the area along with the Collins’ ancestors–both families tracing back to Scot-Irish folks who had come here in the 18th century. The aquifer was the main source for drinking and agricultural water for miles, feeding into wells from groundwater below and filtered by permeable rocks.

By the time the local folks had figured out what was going on, the company up in Canada, Pristine Energy, had been alerted twice from their automatic warning system, but had misread the alerts and did not think anything was serious. By the time Ezra found the spill, hours after it began, Pristine Energy finally realized there was indeed an emergency and assembled a team to send down. They’d also hired, with the help of the EPA, a local temporary crew to get started on the river cleanup and assessment, and that’s how Jack and Bobby’s group fit in. A day after Lily met Jack, the town was buzzing with reporters and television crews and cameras. Hundreds of people in white hazmat suits, from the EPA to the locals to the Pristine Energy teams, roamed the river banks and nearby streets of Mosstree. Dozens more from the media followed them around, at least as much as possible. No regular folks were allowed near the river at all. All the hotels were completely full, and people like Mammaw were appreciated for allowing crews to stay at their houses.

It all was big news because of the dangerous ramifications of the oil spill heading to an aquifer but also because there was a big portion of the world that had been warning about this kind of spill, and these warnings had fallen on deaf ears in government.

Lily biked into town the day after she had been mesmerized by this new man named Jack–and it was a hot, relentless day that felt like rain any minute. She was a little tired from the late night before. When she had awoken, Jack was already gone but he had left a butterfly weed on her hammock. The wildflower normally did not bloom until mid-summer, but here an entire month early it was fully orange-red with a tiny yellow eye in the middle. She had carefully placed it inside on her desk that overlooked the delicate summer beyond her lacy curtain-framed window.

It took Lily half an hour to reach the main town’s outskirts, and by then she was sweaty with perspiration dripping across her olive brown skin. She was headed to Rosie Gibson’s house for a monthly pizza party. Lily did not like going to this event, even though Mammaw always lectured her on the importance of being social. The only reason that Lily went today was because Rosie’s house was on the main street that sidled through Mosstree, population 895. Rosie’s house, on Kindling Road, had a big front porch, and from there Lily would would be able to see all the newcomers.

Lily saw that the town was completely alive with strangers. They had come in work trucks, television vans, and rich-looking cars. Kindling Road ran from the pine-covered hills, through town, and back to the hills again. You could stand at one end of the main street and see to the other end of it, or as far as it would go through town, for it was a straight shot, from the kudzu-covered cliffs and their summer waterfall trickles to the storefronts of Mosstree. The Collins lived northeast of town, and when Lily got to Kindling Road, she could first see the Piggly Wiggly, which, due to its large parking lot, was set up to be a camp for everyone coming to see what was happening in this normally sleepy little place. On down was the Dew Drop Inn, the sheriff’s office, a general store with a post office, a church, and a bar. Down the western half of the street were the large stately homes, like the Rosie’s.

Mammaw had driven here separately, leaving Pappaw at home, for which he was eternally grateful, and Lily noticed that Rosie sat on the front porch wearing blue jean shorts and a red halter top. She reminded Lily of a younger Juliette Lewis, but was not as good-looking. Rosie still wore braces, and she chewed gum open-mouthed. The rest of the ladies would be inside.

“Well, look what the cat drug in,” called Rosie, chewing her gum bigley and staring at Lily through narrow eyes.

Lily set her bike next to the porch and walked on up. She did not particularly like Rosie, but if there was one thing Mother and Daddy had taught her, it was to be courteous and pleasant with everyone, no matter their differences.

“Meow,” said Lily, deadpan.

Mother and Daddy did not say you had to extend a visit with people you didn’t like, however, so Lily just went on in the house, noticing a brood of ladies already fanning themselves around Mrs. Gibson’s living room, with another smaller peep setting the table and gossiping in the dining room. The Gibson’s house was more cluttered than the Collins’ place but had enough room for everyone if you could just try to ignore the doilies, blown glass figurines, gourds, and antiques ranging from old books to ancient-looking rifles that had been used a long time ago in the civil war. A few cats sauntered here and there but dashed away whenever Zula Beth Gibson began talking. She was Rosie’s aunt–her father’s sister who had only been married once, and was now a widow who would never be married again due to old-time religious viewpoints fused with modern-day disgust with men.

Rosie had come inside after Lily entered and said, “Wanna beer?”

“No thanks, Rosie,” said Lily. Though she did like the taste, especially on a hot day, she didn’t drink it often due to her mother harping about it so. But boy did a slight buzz sound good to Lily. It might help her get through what was normally a dreadful meeting of women she had nothing in common with. She would withhold for now and took her canteen of water off her shoulder and drank that instead. She was still too hot from her bike ride over, but had taken off her shoes and only wore a simple sleeveless dress like usual.

Mother came up to Lily and said widely, “Well, look who I beat here!” and kissed her daughter on the cheek; you would have thought they hadn’t seen each other for ages even though Mama had yelled at her to get ready to go this morning. The rest of the ladies began to dote on Lily too, just as they had all her life, because she was really pretty even though insufferably backward and shy. Lily could feel herself groan and her eyes roll as the ladies all came up to look at her as if they had never seen her before. Lily felt badly for Rosie who never got this kind of attention.

Lily finally found her way to the dining room table where Rosie, Mother, and Zula Beth sat as well as Rosie’s mother Ellen and a lady from church named Annabelle Whippers. Annabelle was an older, elegant woman who had lived in Mosstree all her life. She was tall and thin, with bird legs. Annabelle wore a neat periwinkle blue dress sporting a starched and ironed lacy collar. She sipped iced sweet tea adorned with a fleshy sprig of mint and a juicy lemon slice.

The pizza arrived, and Lily did not move from her spot at the table. She intended to get the social progress out of the way as quickly as possible so that she could ride around town and observe what was happening. She had hoped that the conversation would be about the oil spill, but the ladies didn’t talk about it for very long. Lily had not attended many of these gatherings, but she knew that the parties revolved around local gossip. Lily sensed today, however, that the town’s recent activity had stressed the ladies out to a degree, and though they did not immediately admit it, it became obvious that someone had sneaked something special into the tea, and it was not just sugar.

The hint began when Annabelle said, “Lily, I wish I was more like you. But when I was born, God was lacking in the boob department.”

Mother’s gasp silenced Annabelle for a moment, but then Mother said, “Well, Lily’s ain’t that big, Annabelle. It’s not as if she was over-endowed. Thank the good Lord for what you were given.”

Zula Beth, who was round-faced, short, and dressed in blue jeans and a saggy t-shirt, piped up to say, “I just can’t wear bras in this weather, can you?” She was talking to nobody in particular, but everybody’s eyes went directly to the lady’s chest. She had her graying hair up in a ponytail, and sweat was dripping down her neck and onto her t-shirt. A couple drops had ended up in an inopportune place on the left side of her t-shirt, right around where her nipple would be. Sure enough she was wearing no bra.

Rosie giggled like a little girl and chugged her beer. Lily felt her eyes widen at Zula Beth’s nonchalant expression.

Mother said, “Well, Lily gets her boobs from me. God first, but then me.”

“I still say God wasn’t quite fair to me,” Annabelle said. She was partially deaf, so nobody knew how much of the conversation she was actually following or if she was just being random and stating facts. She was just old and being perfectly frank, almost philosophical.

Ellen, Rosie’s mother, unlike her daughter, was a quite beautiful woman, for her age. She had the same dark and rich hair as Rosie, but with less of a scrunched up face. Like Anna, and unlike her sister-in-law Zula Beth, she was proper and trim. She wore a summer pantsuit, including full nylons, which in this heat made no sense to Lily. She still liked to put on too much make-up, lost in the 1980s, when she was a teenager, and a powder-puff blue color across her eyelids brought out her baby blue eyes, which were complemented by seashell pink lipstick.

Ellen said, “I’m afraid that I am somewhere in the middle, but it suits me fine. I am not sagging yet and don’t know that I ever will be.” She took a long sip of her tea. “And Rosie takes after me.”

Anna suddenly turned to look at Lily and said, “I like your arms. They are like Michelle Obama’s. Perfect.” Though this same group of ladies had sworn President Obama was not a US citizen when elected president, by the time his two terms ended, they had changed his mind and absolutely adored the first lady. When they saw her dancing on television, they had popped up and danced too.

“Yes, wouldn’t I love arms like that,” complained Zula Beth. She rolled up her t-shirt sleeves and jiggled her arms. “I mean, if we want to complain about what the good Lord gave us, then I got the saggy boobs and the saggy arms. Y’all have no sense in being unhappy about what you have.”

“Can you even see my boobs?” asked Anna. She straightened up in her chair. It was true that her chest seemed almost flat.

“They look like a Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie with one chocolate chip only, right in the middle,” said Zula Beth.

“Oh, Zula Beth,” said Ellen. “I was thinkin’ more like a Hershey’s chocolate kiss.”

At this point, Rosie burst out a laugh and spit her beer into a piece of pepperoni pizza, which had been served on fine China.

“Good Lord, Rosie,” scolded her mother. “What’s gotten into you?”

“Into me?”

Lily excused herself to get a paper towel for Rosie in the kitchen, and while there she eyed a bottle of bourbon sitting next to the pitcher of tea. She thought that might be quite the concoction, and returned to the dining room, which, despite the attempts of central air, was damp and too warm, especially with all these woman eating hot pizza and talking. The other ladies in the living room were just background murmur with an occasional joust of laughter or shriek of disbelief about something.

Now Ellen was going on about George Perkins, who one of her great aunts had dated in high school. He had recently died of lung cancer, and it was a surprise to everyone he had lived to such an old age since he had worked in the coal mines and smoked. He died at age 97 just last week. Ellen said, “I went out to the cemetery with his wife to put some flowers on the grave. Do you know that her grave will be on top of his? Not next to it. But on top.”

“That’s what they do to save money, Mother,” said Rosie with a groan, as if she expected her mother to know these things.

“They do say the men like it when the woman’s on top,” said Annabelle, proving she had heard the conversation.

Only a slightly prolonged pause of disbelief passed before Zula Beth piped up, “In the old days, but not so much anymore.”

Annabelle lifted her arms, using a napkin to dab her pits, which were sweating. “Well,” she said, speaking of her late husband, “Charles Lee is on the bottom too. I reckon he’ll like me after death as much as in real life.” This time there was a twinkle in her eye.

“Goodness gracious, Annabelle, you are ornery today,” said Ellen.

Annabelle did not hear, or pretended not to hear, and said, “Anyone want more of this tea? It is extra flavorful this afternoon.”

Everyone said yes, including Rosie and Lily.

Mother poured the tea, and when she was done, Lily saw that Zula Beth had gotten a hand towel from her gigantic purse and was swabbing her face and neck. Meanwhile, the women had finished the pizza and Mother went back into the kitchen to retrieve her humble offering for the gathering: homemade Devil’s food chocolate cake. It had three layers, and there was just enough for everyone, including the living room ladies, to have a thin slice.

“Mmm, mmm,” stated Annabelle. “This cake never ceases to amaze me and tempt me. Hey, Mayme,” she said to Lily’s mother, “Who is this Jack fellow staying at your house?”

“Jack? He’s part of the crew, I guess. He came down with Bobby and the boys. But he’s not a local. He’s from Louisville.”

“I saw him on T.V. this morning,” explained Annabelle. “That boy is hot, I tell you.” Every tiny part of Annabelle, from her perky little nose to her cute but small blue eyes gave no indication that she leaned toward the crude in any way. Perhaps she was going nuts, thought Lily. She was in her 80s. The mind could only last so long.

“I saw him too,” Zula Beth said. “Yes, he’s a looker. You know, he said some of the oil was sinking to the bottom of the river. What kind of oil does that? Sludge. But he says it ain’t sludge.”

“What in the good Lord is sludge oil?” asked Annabelle.

Everyone else seemed to know that it was coal waste, on account of of them remembering the 250 million gallon spill over in Inez a few years back. They began talking at once, trying to trigger the elderly lady’s memory, but poor Annabelle just couldn’t place the spill, though she could tell anyone, in detail, about her old dog Leroy who she had trained to give you a high-five or a high-ten. Lily felt a stab at her heart. Usually she didn’t really think of these old ladies as interesting, more like gossipy hens, but Lily felt a glimmer of forgiveness in her heart toward Annabelle and the others for being boring old church ladies. They were bigger than that, Lily realized, even though it might have taken a little bourbon to bring it out.

Finally, Annabelle, flustered, with her face turning pink, said, “Well, this Jack fellow said the oil was dilbit. They call it diluted bitumen.” The old women seemed to redeem herself with this more recent memory. “It floats at first, then sinks to the bottom, because it’s so heavy. It’s so heavy they have to mine it from the ground; they can’t even pump it. They have to dilute it with liquid hydrocarbons.” She looked especially pleased at herself for remember what Jack had said, for it was so technical to her, and she wasn’t sure she really understood it herself, except on a basic level. It was like with molasses, she thought. She remembered her sister Allie’s husband diluting molasses with warm water and spraying it on their lawn to help with the thatch or mixing it with their horse feed. Otherwise, you couldn’t work with the stuff.

Lily had not watched television that morning, nor ever watched it–though she might make an exception if Jack was on. She said, “The chemicals it’s mixed might stay on the surface and eventually evaporate, but you’re right. The oil itself is so heavy that it sinks to the bottom. There is no real way to clean it all up without completely destroying the area. Like with dredging.” Lily repeated what Jack had told her last night.

She felt all the surprised faces settle on her like dew on grass. It was an uncomfortable, humid feeling, and Lily figured that maybe the tea was getting to her too, though it had tasted awful. She had squeezed extra lemon in just to balance the taste out.

“See?” Annabelle said, “Lily knows too.”

Rosie snickered, looking purposefully bored.

Mother said, “What kinds of chemicals is it mixed with? I wonder if that’s why that smell is so bad.”

Lily felt her normal silent wall fall down again. “Nobody really knows exactly. The company tests everything. But their data is proprietary. They don’t volunteer to share it, and they don’t have to.”

“Well, I don’t think they have the right,” Zula Beth said loudly. Meanwhile, one of the tabby cats that had come into the room and was eyeing the food on Ellen’s buffet scooted off quickly. “When they built those pipes, none of us really had a say. Oh, someone must’ve, but it was supposed to bring money into the town and that made it a no-brainer. I say these rich corporations are taking advantage of the small poor folks. Already Duffy and his family have had to move out for who knows how long. The oil is comin’ down the river, and if it rains like it’s s’posed to, it’s gonna affect a lot of others.”

Lily saw the irony. At least at this table, there were some old-money richies sitting around, and even though they might be penny pinchers, they had everything they needed. Most of the town, and the county, were poor, though, with many at the nation’s poverty level. Lily thought of her brother Bobby, and the little shack he was living in due to the fact he couldn’t find work but had too much dignity to live with his parents (except now it was cool because he had to be closer to the river site for the job). Or her brother John and his wife, with their new baby and two other small kids, only being able to just afford a mobile home rental and sometimes having to donate plasma in Winchester just to buy diapers. Or Cletus, the first to graduate college, with no job prospects in sight and loan debt to pay off. And then there was Jimmy, who always had said he wanted to leave this godforsaken hole and go to California. Only, out there he was just shacking up with friends, surfing, and taking odd jobs, with hardly a dime to his name. Mammaw and Pappaw would always help, they said, but they’d also taught their children to be resourceful with what they had, and the kids were too proud to ask for help. It’s not like the Collins had a big savings, either. They owned their house and their land, and the furniture and other assets had been second-hand and passed down and come along when Pappaw worked. Now they just paid taxes and utilities, but added their social security and retirement funds into their savings and hoped to god they didn’t have a major medical emergency.

“I just couldn’t get over his body,” Annabelle blurted out. “Those black ringlets and dark handsome eyes.” She said “eyes” like “ahhs”. She oohed and ahhed over them.

“What in the devil are you talking about,” Mother said, softly slicing through her cake.

“Jack Emerson,” Annabelle said dreamily. “I looked at his pants on the television. He’s hung. You can tell.”

“Annabelle! That’s enough,” claimed Ellen. She slammed her fist on the table. “Too much tea for you, young lady.”

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