A posthumously released, brutally funny environmental suspense novel.
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By Edward Cohen
Akashic BooksISBN: 1-888451-43-2
"URBANCHUK'S ON HIS WAY HERE, BOSS," Harry whispered into the telephone, pulling his chair around so that he could monitor the view from the big picture window in front of his desk. The landscape beyond the window stretched to the south, across the deep, shit-brown tidal flats, the brackish pools of water, the low-slung oyster reefs, past the tangled marsh grasses down below. The sky had darkened from the constant downpours, and a dark new clump of storm clouds was brewing to the south.
Something dark and unsettling was brewing inside of Dr. Harry Teitel as well. The guy was really acting strange, far more anxious and paranoid than usual. The truth was, he was freaking out, and he knew that he was freaking out. And I knew that he knew it. And from the way he looked at me, I could tell that he knew that I knew it, too. He just didn't seem to be able to do anything about it.
The whole thing was starting to make me feel very nervous. Something was clearly wrong here. Harry looked way too tired and way too desperate, like he could lose it at any moment. I looked across from him and searched my friend Millie's eyes to see if she had noticed it, too. She was sitting at the opposite side of his desk, correcting some paperwork for him, her angular seasoned face and grayish wolf-green eyes focused on the sheets of paper strewn across the desktop. It didn't take long for me to get her attention, however, and to see that she saw it, too. She looked first at me, then at him, then back at me, and I could tell right away that she was as worried as I was that Harry was about to come apart at the seams.
Millie gave me a knowing little smirk that seemed to say: "Our resident doctor/director here at the fish lab is a total mess goner. He's acting like a piece of shit sliding down the hill into the bay."
The two of us passed the time like that for a few minutes, signalling each other telepathically about our worries concerning the inevitable tumult to come. Telepathically and sympathetically, I might add, since Harry really wasn't a bad guy, as far as bosses go.
I knew that it would be difficult to protect myself and the rest of the interns if the director was shoved out. Millie might even be forced out, too, in spite of her undeniable importance to and knowledge about the lab. She'd been at the lab for more than twenty-five years, somehow lasting through eleven directors in the process. Harry had actually lasted the longest of any director - twelve years - but it was beginning to look, from his recent behavior, like his days were numbered. This was definitely the worst I'd ever seen him. And if Harry blew, there'd be problems for everyone, especially us interns. But, hey, for all I knew, it might just have been hemorrhoids. No need to panic until we knew for sure what was up.
Suddenly, Millie jumped back from the desk where she had been working and looked desperately toward me as Harry lurched over to the edge of the platform, just above Rupp's desk, and vomited right down into Rupp's open briefcase. It was a total disaster. Rupp was still out on the flats, thank goodness. We all sat there in stunned disbelief, totally knocked out, as Harry continued to vomit down from the raised platform stage that housed his office right onto the workspace below. Rupp's belongings were completely covered in dark, green bile, but the vomit continued to pour out of Harry. Though Harry's convulsions didn't stop, the vomit finally did, as he began to labor with rough, gasping spasms of dry heaves, his body still dangling wretchedly over the platform railing.
I was totally flabbergasted. I mean, what a disgusting display. I looked out toward Stop 8 where Rupp and three of the interns were busy picking up specimens. I could hardly see them in the rainy haze. All morning, the outer-perimeter fencing and everything beyond it had been obscured by a dense, heavy fog, even during the brief periods when the rain had temporarily subsided. Before things exploded inside the office, I had been waiting for Harry to send me out after the crew so that they didn't get stuck out there and waste any of the lab's precious overtime allotment. Harry normally had this thing about overtime, especially the past few weeks. But now, in his present state, I wondered if Harry would even think about it.
Suddenly, a lightning flash cut through the haze and illuminated Rupp, along with the others, out near the steel barrier fence. Rupp was crouched down and trying to apply to his aging shoulders the harness from the sled that we used to haul in the specimens. Egg-sized raindrops and hailstones pelted the poor guy from every direction, smashing unmercifully into the mudflats and everyone and everything near them.
Needless to say, these endless July storms made it difficult for any of us to work out on the flats. But we were having a clam shortage this morning and badly needed three buckets of clams to continue our work in the lab. The clams had been a lot harder to find lately, since they were mostly dead and the ones that weren't dead weren't reproducing according to schedule. There had been a lot of mortality on the flats. Harry insisted that it was only a temporary aberration for the estuary, but most of the interns agreed that the clam people had been badly overusing the tidal flats and that we were all paying for it now.
In response to this little emergency, I had sent out three of the younger crew with Rupp, who was the most experienced employee in the lab. They all carried five-gallon buckets, pulling the lab sled through the mud to where we thought there might be some usable clams.
* * *
Ruppert Leonard Emerson was an older man, probably in his late seventies, but very well preserved for his age. Everyone called him Rupp. He loved to work, and he loved to talk about all the work he'd done during his life. He bragged that he'd been working ever since he'd been a little kid. He had worked, at one time or another, in grocery markets, in a rendering plant, in a chicken-processing factory, just to name a few. He had worked to support himself, his family, his neighbors, and his friends. He'd worked at various times in the government, in the press, and in the private sector.
Rupp claimed that he'd even worked for a while in the place where they'd started making Jell-O. He especially liked to talk about that experience. He called it his guns-and-butter days. He described how he and his coworkers took the hooves of animals and melted them down into gelatin. Some of the gelatin went into Jell-O and some of it was used to make explosives.
Rupp had worked during the New Deal for a lot of different organizations with names that were acronyms. Leon Henderson, another old guy who worked at the lab, had also worked a lot during the New Deal. Leon was a colorful character and sort of a gentle, homespun economist. Leon was a little younger than Rupp, I'd guess, probably in his mid-seventies. A really wonderful old guy, he reminded me a lot of my granddad.
Rupp and Leon loved to list all the places they'd ever worked, and they especially loved to recite those old New Deal and wartime acronyms, the ABCs of government and business, Rupp called them. In World War II, for instance, they were both in the WPB, the LRC, the TRB, and the "yu no vut," as Leon liked to say. During the Korean War, they'd pushed papers in the Commerce Department. Strangely enough, the two of them had apparently worked for the Labor Department during the Vietnam War in the very same building. They hadn't realized it at the time, though, and both thought it very strange that they never ran into each other. That would have been kind of unlikely, I thought to myself every time I heard the story, since they didn't know each other back then. I didn't say anything, though. No point putting a damper on their reminiscences. They were both such nice old guys.
* * *
A bad thing happened a few months ago. Rupp suddenly became very ill. He had been out doing some harvesting, searching for oyster drills over in the western mud flats. One of Rupp's main jobs was to pull the sled full of specimens back into the lab. It could be quite an ordeal, depending on the day's load. He did it without complaining, though, each time literally bending over sideways to get the leverage to pull the sled through the thick mud. As he trudged past, colonies of ghost and burrowing shrimp would retreat into their cavernous underground tunnels. No matter how many shrimp were killed, though, each time the sled butchered up their beds, there would always be plenty more to take their place. At least, that's what Harry said. Rupp and I weren't so sure.
This time, Rupp spent nearly eight hours out there between tides, only returning with five specimens from the oyster drills. Harry had asked for an even dozen, though, and was plenty mad when Rupp came back with only five. But Rupp could hardly stand up by the time he made his way back to the lab. He was tottering around the office, the dark mask of his face streaked with yellow. Something was definitely wrong.
Harry stood up on the platform and announced the results to the rest of the lab.
"I can't stand this," he moaned. "We're being decimated by this critter, and you people seem to just be farting around out there and then claiming that you can't find any. I know they're out there."
Millie looked over at me with a frown, a deep crease forming across her brow, as if to say, "What's going on with Harry? He knows the bay's a dead zone. The guy must be going bonkers."
Meanwhile, Rupp was still trying to steady himself. He leaned against the wall in the back as Harry lashed out at the rest of the workers. I could see that he was really ill. Millie walked over to where he was leaning, took his arm, and helped him to a chair beside the aquarium, near where we stored the fibula.
In the days that followed, none of us could find any more oyster drills, no matter how hard we looked. After a while, Harry seemed to get the point and finally lightened up on the tirades. I thought that the matter was closed. Then Rupp started getting even sicker. He was out for nearly two weeks. At first, Harry acted more concerned about Rupp's health than the missing oyster drills. I knew, though, that he was getting more and more worried about what he would say to the front brass. I mean, even I knew that he couldn't submit a report with a baseline of five oyster drills.
Millie had already typed an initial draft of the report a couple of days earlier. When she was finished, she held it up for all of us to see.
"Harry," she cautioned, "if I were you, I wouldn't send this in. You haven't got any baseline to speak of. You need a lot more than five oyster drills for this study. We ought to wait until Rupp gets back. Then he can go out again and try to find the rest."
What could he do, though, I wondered, with the state people pressing for the report?
Meanwhile, I stopped by to see Rupp and find out when he was coming back. The old guy lived about a mile from the lab in a little cabin off the road. He was able to greet me at the door, but he didn't look well at all. He was gaunt and fragile; the lines of his face had deepened into sad distress since the last time I saw him. He told me how awful his recent illness had been. The whole thing was apparently just terrible. He told me that he'd been diagnosed with colon cancer. Now, he'd have to undergo a colostomy, which would keep him from returning to work for at least another month.
"I ate too much white bread," he said, trying to make sense of it all.
When Rupp finally did get back to the lab, everyone was really glad to see him again. We were all disturbed by his condition, though. He had lost a lot of weight; his tall, thin frame looked even more string-beanish than usual. His skin had taken on a jaundiced, yellowish cast, and he just didn't look right to me at all. But he showed up with his bucket and his rubber gloves, and he seemed to think that he was ready for work. Just standing there by my desk, though, I could see that Rupp was starting to turn from yellow to green. Really, by anyone else's standards, the man was not in good working condition. He should have been excused.
Harry had other ideas, however. He gave Rupp a once-over and said, "Good to have you back on the team, Rupp. Make sure you get those little oyster drill fellas in here today so we can finish the report. Please bring your sled back to the shed when you're finished."
I loved Rupp for what he did and how he did it. He was a very gentle man. He had been around the lab for about five years when I first got there, and he had trained me to be the lead intern. He had been in some think tank before joining the lab, a follow-up to some top-secret work that he'd done for the government during the 1930s. Still, management regarded him as a low-level, blue-collar worker, probably for payroll reasons. He really should have been running the lab, if the truth were told. It would have been great. People would really have worked hard for him and without a lot of complaining. As things were now, it was just another job for me and the rest of the interns: get food money, get back to college, get graduated, the usual.
Dr. Harry Teitel? He was okay, too, I guess. But recently, he had been extremely worried and unhappy. Some bad stuff was going on that apparently had something to do with the unfinished lab across the road, which was supposed to have been completed last winter. I was only planning to work at the lab for another eight months, and I was glad that I would be leaving soon.
But it was really a mess, I'll tell you. And it seemed to be getting worse and worse in the days since Rupp returned to the office. It had been particularly rough on Rupp. The pressures were just coming too fast for him, especially in his present condition.
Since he'd gotten back from the hospital, he'd been working full-time for two weeks, dragging the sled across the tidal flats. The sled was weighted down with specimens from the specified areas where Harry wanted us to work. It was too much for an old guy. Rupp was always completely exhausted by the time he got the load back here. And couldn't make it out to the clam and oyster beds and back without having to change and empty his colostomy bag at least once, right out there on the flats. But if he couldn't work the flats and retrieve the specimens, he wouldn't get a paycheck. No paychecks meant no rent, no food, no medicine, more suffering, a short painful future, and finally oblivion with a busted gut. Not exactly a pretty picture.
According to Rupp, his present circumstances were nothing compared to some of the things that he and his coworkers at other jobs had endured in the past. He could be extremely poignant and persuasive when describing working conditions. He told us some really grisly tales about his experiences with the meat processing industries.
Excerpted from Firewater by Edward Cohen Excerpted by permission.
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