Kori and Jack lay huddled together, partially-clothed, a single throw covering them. A soft click preceded the quiet, familiar musings of NPR’s Terry Gross. They had failed to draw the curtains before retiring for an hour or so of love and sleep and Jack cracked one eye open and peered out the window into the expectant night air. Snow flurries added to the soft blanket already on the ground and he groaned at the menacing, orange-grey sky. He rolled over and checked the alarm.
“Kor. Wake up.” He nudged her gently, but she didn’t respond. “Kori. It’s time to go.” He bit her shoulder gently and her eyes flew open.
“Huh. What?” Kori sat up on one elbow and blinked, trying to orient herself.
“What day is it?” Kori stared wide-eyed out the window, her unseeing eyes darting to and fro across the night sky. Jack grinned.
“It’s Thursday. You have to bake an apple pie.”
“Apple pie?” Kori turned to look at him, but the darkness hid his features.
“Two of them.” This time he laughed and Kori woke up. She checked the alarm and fell back down on the pillow.
“Oh, the public meeting.” She rubbed a hand over her eyes and coughed. “I really didn’t know where I was for a minute.”
“I could tell.” Jack lay back down and pulled her in close. “And you said you’d bake me two apple pies.” He kissed her then rose to pull on his jeans. In their earlier haste, they had removed only the bottom half of their garments.
“Where you goin’?”
“To work.” He buckled his belt then sat down to put on his boots.
“I thought you were done for the day?”
“Installing home brains, yeah.” Jack nodded toward the window. “But now it’s snowing. People’ll need me to plow them out.”
“It’s barely a flurry.”
“They’re calling for another four to six inches.”
“By tomorrow. Not in the next two hours.”
“Hey. I gotta make money, right?”
“Jack!?!” It’s a side business, for Godsakes. You said you were only going to do it until your other business got off the ground. Well, it’s levitating. You can stop now.”
“Not tonight, I can’t.”
“You’re just doing this to get out of coming to the public meeting!”
Jack laced up his boots, leaned over and kissed her on the head.
“I’ll be back after I’m through.”
“Don’t bother.” She kicked at him, pushing the blanket off herself in the process, and stomped past him, retrieving her clothes as she headed for the door.
“Kori, come on.”
“Bastard,” she said, and slammed the door behind her.
The public meeting wasn’t scheduled to start until seven, but the controversy surrounding the landfill and the effectiveness of the citizens group, helped along by the flurry of Kori’s afternoon calls, brought the crowd out early and in droves, snowy weather notwithstanding.
The high school auditorium had seating capacity for two hundred people. Kori, Avery and Gil stood at the back, scanning the room for seats together, a commodity in short supply.
“Can’t I just go home?” Gil asked.
“Gil, what’s the big deal? It’s a couple hours of your life,” Kori said. She turned to face Avery in an appeal for assistance. He shrugged.
“He wants to watch Star Trek ,” Avery said, at present feeling more inclined toward his brother’s sensibilities himself.
“Star Trek is on fifty times a week on seventeen different channels,” Kori said. She bent down, coming face-to-face with her brother. “But this – this chance to make a difference – this only happens once or twice, and it’s really, really important. So come on.” She dug in her pocket and pulled out a handful of Tootsie Roll Midgets. Gil smiled and reached for the proffered sweet, but Kori snapped her fingers shut.
“I was saving these for later, but I guess we need them now. If you take them, you have to stay and not whine and complain about wanting to leave. Okay?”
Gil nodded and she opened her hand. He grabbed every last one, accepting her gift as a compromise. Avery held out his hand and Gil reluctantly handed over a single Tootsie Roll. So buoyed by chocolate, they followed Kori down the aisle in search of seats.
They found them near the front. Aunt Stella’s coat, scarf and brilliant red hat lay draped in varying states of repose across four seats where Aunt Stella sat as border guard. She waved madly when she saw them, her knitted brow relaxing. Kori glanced around, scanning the auditorium again, looking for something a little farther back – in the event Gil started acting up, she wanted to be able to make an unobtrusive getaway – but the place was packed to overflowing with groups of people lining the walls. She turned to say something to Avery, but the boys had already made their way into the aisle and she had no choice but to follow. Gil took the seat next to Aunt Stella who always traveled with treats in her pockets.
Kori leaned over and gave her a kiss. “Thanks for saving seats.”
Aunt Stella waved it off as if it were no big deal, but given the general mood in the house, Kori knew it was a feat almost Herculean in nature.
“Where’s Jack?” Aunt Stella asked.
Kori shrugged, defeated.
“Excuse me? Is this seat taken?” Kori jerked around to see a handsome young man standing there.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
“Should I?” Kori asked.
“Chris Kane. We went to high school together.”
“Oh my God.” Kori gave him the once over as surreptitiously as possible. Whatever resemblance this guy had to the Christopher “D, for Dork” Kane that she knew in high school had long since passed. “You look…”
“Different?” He nodded. “That’s what everyone says. Late bloomer, I guess. Plus I started working out.”
“I’ll say. What are you doing now?”
“I’m a correspondent for The Philadelphia Inquirer, ” he smiled, holding up the notebook in his hand.
Kori gave him a “hmmmmm” and nodded in acknowledgment. She turned to find Aunt Stella’s old crone smile and felt the blush rise in her cheeks. Gil and Avery were too engrossed in Aunt Stella’s candy to notice so she turned back to Chris Kane, a bright, full smile on her face.
Kori spent the next thirty minutes engrossed. Chris proved engaging and a good listener, something Jack was not. Jack always nodded politely, interjecting when he thought appropriate based on Kori’s non-verbal cues, but this guy consumed her words. He even took notes. Kori felt a thrill run through her abdomen. She stole a glance at her brothers: Gil was working a Gameboy while Avery and Aunt Stella, their heads bowed together, spoke in conspiratorial tones.
“So. What’s your take on all this?” Chris asked.
“Do you really want to know?” Kori responded.
There was so much she wanted to tell him, stuff Ruth had weaned them on, always talking to them like they were smaller versions of the adults they would become. Since Kori could talk her mother had held nothing back. Discussions ranging from the world’s political machinations to the nature of life and death were commonplace. Ruth was no artist, but it was her love of it that set Kori on her chosen path. In that instant, Kori was no longer sure where Ruth left off and she began and suddenly realized that was the way of it. We either become our parents, their prides and prejudices, or we run far and fast in the opposite direction. And right now, Kori, like Ruth, was finding it hard to keep her mouth shut.
Apparently everything Kori told Chris Kane was fascinating because he’d recorded all of it in his notebook. She talked about everything from the birth of the landfill and the spread of the deadly plume of noxious chemicals to her own personal tragedies, including the mysterious death of her parents and her current position as head of the house. She concluded with the tragic, but as yet unverified, death of her brother.
Chris wrote at a furious clip. “Whew. Alright, give me a chance to catch up.”
Kori waited for him to pause and when he did, he looked at her with new eyes, ones that said they wanted to stuff her in his pocket and keep her safe.
“Okay,” he said. “Go ahead.”
“It’s these corporations that are the problem. And the government’s in bed with them. They make it cheaper to buy virgin products by giving no incentive to buy used, like we’re never going to run out of the new stuff. It’s a pain to separate the wheat from the chaff of recyclables, I know that, but it could be a lucrative pain with the right incentives. And what about the trees? They recycle all our carbon dioxide? The fewer trees we have, the harder it is to breathe. Is it any wonder asthma in children is at an all-time high?” She bounced her knee up and down involuntarily. “People act like the environment is negotiable. Just wait. Freak weather is only the tippy top of the iceberg. Floods, droughts, water shortages. The collapse of the honey bee. Talk about end of days.” She snorted as her mother’s blood rushed through her body, and folded her hands in her lap, concluding her tirade.
“But the science is contradictory. Maybe they just don’t know,” Chris opined, smiling.
“Bull. If the government really wanted to change the way the world did business, rather than continue to let the few loot the common resources of the many, it could give tax breaks to the high-minded companies, the ones that did business with sustainable development in mind. Don’t even get me started on public lands. The government is selling our public resources at pennies on the dollar to the corporations that curry the most favor, i.e., that donate the most election dollars. Those are our lands, our children’s lands. They shouldn’t be for sale, dammit.”
She felt the truth of her own words and believed them with a force she’d never experienced before this moment. And whether it was this force or the fact that Kori felt woefully inadequate to carrying on Ruth’s legacy, she closed her mouth, because if she said one more word, she would break down and cry.
Lucky for her, the public meeting began as a speaker from EPA stepped to the podium.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. If we could have your attention.” The EPA representative, Stefanie Pierson, stood at the podium as the remaining individuals took their seats. The murmuring of the crowd died out like ripples spreading across a pond. A half dozen agency officials sat on stage with Stefanie, each with a microphone.
“As you know, we’re here tonight to lay out our findings with regard to the Stahl landfill and to draw you a road map as to what you can expect in the future. You, as the public, have a right to be part of these decisions and we would also like to encourage you to exercise that right by expressing your comments either here or in writing.”
“What about our right to clean drinking water?” Andrew Dodd shouted. He was a first cousin to Jim Stahl. He sat way in the back, but his voice carried far and away over the din of the crowd. A general murmur of agreement swept the room like a wave.
Stefanie Pierson didn’t flinch. “You absolutely have every right to clean drinking water, clean air, clean soil, a clean environment. That’s the law. But you’ve got to help us help you.”
“How the hell you gonna help us? That damn aquifer’s so polluted even the fish can’t live in it.” The crowd rumbled in agreement, the din in the auditorium growing louder.
“Sir. First of all, an aquifer is below ground and fish don’t live in it. Microbes, yes. But not fish. I do take your meaning, however. And if you could just give us a minute to run through the chosen alternatives that came out of the ROD. That stands for Record of Decision.”
“A minute?! A minute!” Jim Stahl burst into the room pushing a wheelchair, amidst a cacophony of bottles and tubing. Gasps shot through the room when the audience got a look at what had become of the once healthy and vital Vera Stahl.
“I’ll give you a Goddamn minute. But who’s going to give that minute back to my wife, huh? Is it you? Or you?” Jim pointed an accusatory finger at each of the government representatives. “How about you?” He was only halfway down the aisle, his progress hampered by the many bottles hanging from the wheelchair: salines, antibiotics, and, from the looks of Vera Stahl, morphine. Vera looked one step away from needing a hospice nurse and clearly didn’t know where she was which is probably why Jim got away with displaying her in such a vulgar and obtrusive fashion.
It was at this point in the proceedings that – to use that time tested cliché – all hell broke loose.
The public meeting ended sometime after 11:00 p.m. with both hosts and participants showing signs of exhaustion. Jim Stahl’s tactic of putting his wife on display worked well initially, getting the crowd riled to a fever pitch, but the blame worked its way around again and when neighbors suggested that if Jim’s father would have complied with any one of the missives sent from Pennsylvania DEP the Hickory Hills development might not be sitting atop a despoiled aquifer. Kori was grateful the evening hadn’t been reduced to fisticuffs. In fact, real progress had been made as the EPA and DEP outlined their plan. The water in the aquifer would be pumped out of the ground, run through a carbon filter and returned, clean, to the aquifer, the same theory Marty had used on the family’s in-house filtration system. The downside was that the treatment would likely bring the cost of the remedy up to the forty million dollar range and may take as long as twenty-five years to complete.
EPA told the residents of Hickory Hills that they were to continue drinking and cooking with bottled water while their well water was to be used for the rest. Kori wondered about the wisdom of this – daily bathing would mean daily absorption of contaminants through the skin – and was about to raise the issue when Vera Stahl began a violent coughing fit. When she regained her composure, Jim gave over to the evil glares and took her home.
Gil had fallen asleep during the meeting, a deep REM sleep which followed his inhalation of a handful of Tootsie Rolls, taffy, and half a dozen mini Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, courtesy of Aunt Stella. Aunt Stella had not plied Gil with that much chocolate. He’d found the mother lode while she was chatting and worked it until her coat pockets sagged, depleted. Aunt Stella turned after a long discussion with a neighbor to see a pile of wrappers in Gil’s lap and him out cold. She flashed Kori a guilty look, collected the trash and covered Gil with her coat.
Gil was in the car with Avery now, wide awake and fidgety. He’d have trouble falling asleep tonight, but Kori would worry about that when she got home. Chris Kane had followed her out to the parking lot and waited while she started the car. They stood in front of Ruth’s minivan, awkward and antsy, trying to say goodbye. Gil honked the horn and Kori jumped. He was showing signs of driving away himself so she turned to Chris Kane.
“It was great seeing you again, Chris. I hope you do our meeting justice.”
“Which meeting would that be?” Chris asked.
Kori blushed, and turned away, embarrassed.
“Would you mind . . . I mean, I was thinking that a story on your brother and his, what did you call it? A TDU? That a story on his machine would make good copy for the business section. What do you think?”
“I’m not sure.” Kori looked back at Gil, jumping around in the back seat more like a monkey than the young man who held keys to the world’s better future. “I told you someone set our porch on fire. We’re don’t know if those two things are related. I don’t want anything else to happen.” For the third or fourth time tonight, Kori intuited that Chris Kane might want to lean over and kiss her, but maybe that was just wishful thinking.
“If you’re worried about it, the best thing you can do is get it out in the open. The more people who know about it, the better chance you have of staying safe.”
“Can I think about it?” Kori asked.
Chris nodded. “I’ll call you in a couple days then.”
“Okay,” Kori said, looking over her shoulder “I gotta go now.”
“Sure,” Chris replied. Kori extended her hand, but instead of shaking it, he kissed it.
to be continued. . .
This is how we got here