Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Life is teetering on the edge of the apocalypse in and around the tiny Washington State coastal community that occupies the center of Firewater, a posthumously released, brutally funny environmental suspense novel.

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Chapter 1 of Firewater


“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, there¹d 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 he¹d 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 he¹d 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. He’d relate in graphic detail how the cancerous chickens would come down the conveyor belts, the workers struggling frantically to clip off the wings and other diseased portions. The way Rupp described the experience, it all sounded like a grotesque parody of an old skit on I Love Lucy. The picture popped in my mind of Lucy and Ethel in their bloodstained smocks, straining futilely to yank off the cancerous portions as the putrid chicken carcasses raced past them and began to clog up the line.

Rupp said that it was pretty easy to tell which parts were cancerous because of all the lesions and sores on the chickens. As long as all the affected parts were removed, the rest of the animal could be packaged and sent to stores as parts. The legs and necks usually went to the Soviets, and the feet were shipped off to China. It was a perfect freebie for the company.

Rupp claimed that he’d never since eaten another chicken, but I don’t think his eating habits were anything to brag about. He was and always will be a white-bread man. But he really did hate chicken. I mean, I don’t think he really hated chickens, per se. But he hated what chicken had become, and the people behind the chickens made him want to puke. He wanted the other workers to feel that need to puke, too. He wanted them to puke right on their bosses and to puke right on the cancerous chickens going by on the conveyor belt. And he wanted them to puke right on the stockholders. It was the only way, he insisted.

Rupp liked to tell me about an action he had once led in a Maryland slaughterhouse to protest something called the one-and-a-half-second rule. He always started laughing whenever he talked about it. He called the whole thing Campaign Sicken, a reference to how people in Delmarva mispronounced the word “chicken.” Rupp had thousands of Sicken stories, and everyone in the lab loved hearing them. He told them all the time in the office when he wasn’t out on the flats, and it kept us all giggling as we worked. And when we weren’t giggling, he had us all gurgling in disgust. Rupp was especially concerned about the effect that something called Larvadex was having on chickens and people who ate them. According to Rupp, there wasn’t a chicken left in the country that hadn’t digested the drug. Larvadex and its components were all over the place, he said.

* * *

Things got a bit dicey in the lab when Harry summoned us all one day to a special “workshop,” as he called them. The topic of the workshop was Rupp’s recovery from colon cancer. Harry ruled the lab and almost always got his way. Harry basically used the workshops to announce changes about office policy and other decisions that he had already made. We were given the chance to discuss the new policies that he announced there. But it was already a done deal, no matter what we had to say, and everyone knew it. It was virtually impossible, given Harry’s background and authority, to challenge any of his decisions. After all, he claimed that he had trained under a famous rocket scientist named Edward Teller, an experience that had apparently made Harry world-famous himself. His German accent, his scientific credentials, his power over all the lab research—there was really no way for us to resist. We normally just did our jobs and abided by his decisions.

This workshop was a little different, however.

We gathered in the middle of the main office where the interns had their work desks and tables. Harry stepped down from his platform and took the armchair to the left of the storage closet. The lab staff all adjusted their chairs to form a circle around him. From opposite sides of the room, Millie and I swiveled our respective chairs to face the center of the circle and each other.

Harry always started the meetings with a briefing about some new research plan he’d concocted or discovery he’d made. Last week, he’d announced that he would soon disclose his plan for new gene research that would allow salmon to jump higher up the ladders at Bonneville. This was good news for both consumers and taxpayers, Harry informed us, because it meant that we no longer had to worry about removing the dams to save the salmon. This was a perfect example of how science could mitigate politics, he explained. It was just one of the many unanticipated bonuses provided to nature by new scientific research.

Today, though, Harry didn’t seem to be in control. He looked even more exhausted than usual, and he was slobbering all over his clothes. He must have been under a lot of stress, I thought. It probably had something to do with that unfinished lab; after all, this old one was about to bite the dust.

Harry looked around the room at all the interns and the office staff. The only missing person was Rupp.

Millie took the opportunity to point this out to him. “But Dr. Teitel, Ruppert Emerson isn’t here,” she said, loud enough for everyone to hear.

“Well, Millie, I sent Mr. Emerson on an errand. I don’t want him to hear this until we can make a decision, have a consensus, figure something out. But here is the problem. I’m very concerned and have put in a lot of time thinking about this. I’ve lost a lot of sleep. I really don’t want Rupp to lose his job. We need Rupp. He pulls his weight. It’s a tough call. I’m really not sure what to do. It’s really agonizing to make a decision. But, as you all know, Rupp has been ill, and he’s still got some problems.”

“Cut the crap, Hank!” Millie interrupted him. “What the fuck’s going on here? Talk straight, Doc. Stop giving us those simple out-of-the-ass rationalizations. I can’t stand it anymore.”

Millie slumped back in her chair in mock exhaustion, fanning her face with one hand and smirking over in my direction at an angle that Harry couldn’t see.

“Calm down, Millie,” Harry countered. “I’m sure it’s not that bad. Maybe we can get them to change their minds.”

“Them? Cut to the shorts, boss!” Millie shouted, jumping up from her swivel chair. “Tell us the truth for once, huh!”

She was really getting hot. I hadn’t seen her this way since her poor old dog, Sparky, was run over by a bulldozer heading down toward the bay. The machine flattened Sparky as he slept and then just kept going. “Hit-and-run is a euphemism for what happened to Sparky,” Millie would tell us later. “This is crush-and-go.” She vowed that she¹d get justice. “I’ll kill those dickheads to get even,” she had wailed, wrapping Sparky in a blanket and putting the dog in the back of her truck. Poor little Sparky looked disturbingly like a large pizza with all the toppings and condiments. It was obvious that Millie was still carrying over some of her unresolved anger and grief about Sparky. I don’t think I’d ever seen her so livid or outspoken in the office.

In spite of Millie’s spirited response, the other interns sat silently at their desks, mindlessly twiddling their pencils, their vacant stares pleading indifference. They were used to having her voice the office concerns for them. Millie, who was about forty-five, headed the local AFSCME. She had been calling the shots on benefits and working conditions for the past ten years. We all pretty much took her leadership and advocacy for granted, I’m sorry to say.

Millie threw me another glance when Harry wasn’t looking. She could tell that she was really getting to him this time. He just sat there in his chair, looking confused. Suddenly, he choked on something and ended up in a coughing fit. He erupted into five or six deep coughs before he could even raise his head to look at us. He appeared as if he were choking to death. The truth was, Harry was staring straight ahead at his immediate future. It was coming, and coming fast, though none of the rest of us knew it yet. I could definitely tell that something strange was going on, though; that was for sure. One of the interns tried to hand him a glass of water, but he waved it away at first. His coughing and choking quickly grew worse, however, and he was soon waving at another intern to give him the water. We sat there in silence while Harry chugged down the contents of the glass. Once finished, he handed back the glass and then just sat there, breathing heavily.

The first intern, whose name was Ralph, was standing back in the shadows, obviously uncomfortable about what had transpired. Why had Harry been so particular about the person from whom he received the water? Ralph was a new intern here. Maybe that was it. He’d only been here for about a week and was still receiving the official treatment for new interns, shit work every day. He got nothing but the worst stuff to do, worse than anyone. He had to keep emptying the buckets placed under the toilets because the sewage pipes under the building were all busted. In the past, the work team had included the seven interns, with me as their team leader and trainer; Rupp and his buddy, Leon; another old-timer named George, who was studying the origins of salmon hybrids and who we could only get to go outside one afternoon a week; and Millie, who wanted to be with us in the worst way but was usually preoccupied maintaining the business office of the lab. We divvied up the work so that each of us shared all the tasks. Whether it involved taking out the shit buckets or tracking green crabs and zebra mussels, we shared it all equally. We all believed in the principle of “one for all, and all for one” and did our best to live it out in our work. But now Harry had started to introduce more specialization into our work responsibilities. Specialization weakened the generalists and destroyed morale. That’s what Rupp always said, and I agreed with him.

Finally, Harry regained his composure and started talking again. He was hoarse, though, from all that coughing, and still seemed to be choking from time to time.

“They’re saying up at the fisheries that Mr. Emerson is not permitted on the tide flats because . . . because . . .” Harry’s voice faltered. He began to whimper. “. . . because his wastes may foul the estuary.”

Harry looked as if he hadn’t gotten any sleep in days. His necktie was crooked, and his collar had come unbuttoned. He probably hadn’t changed his shirt or shaved in about a week. The guy was a mess. I looked around at the other interns. They looked totally numb. I knew the numbness. I suppose in his own pathetic, wishy-washy way, Harry really was worried about Rupp. All the worry in the world wouldn’t help Rupp at this point, though. It just didn’t seem fair, to Rupp or to the rest of us. This place would really fall apart without the guy. And what would happen to him without this job?

Leon Henderson asked Harry if there were any alternatives. Could Rupp work closer to the lab, for instance, so that he wouldn’t have to trek so far in the rough weather with his loaded bag? Could he be reassigned to deskwork until his health improved? A couple of the others offered to share some of the monitoring work with Rupp, if that would help. But none of it was enough, and we all knew it. Like everyone else, I was worried about keeping my own position at the lab. Rupp was being fired by co-option, and if we let it happen that way, then we were all to blame. No one would complain, though, because our jobs were so insecure. Any one of us would be terminated at any moment, we all knew, if we put up a stink. Only Millie had the guts to speak up. She had somehow lasted longer than anyone, with all the scars and calluses from years of fighting and infighting.

Despite my reluctance, I finally decided that the moment had come.

“I agree with Millie,” I said, just loud enough for Harry and the rest to hear me. “It’s really unfair to have this meeting without Ruppert present. We should wait until he’s here.”

Harry looked at me, his face twitching like he was suffering from some type of Parkinsonian affliction. His teeth were grinding audibly. He didn’t answer me outright. “Okay,” he said, vaguely, “let me think about it.” That was pretty good, I thought, a small start, if nothing else.

Harry seemed to be wrestling with the possibilities when the telephone rang. He took the call at a nearby desk, and we all sat in silence while he listened to the voice on other end, hardly saying a word himself. When he hung up the phone, he looked up at us and scowled angrily. The expression on his face reminded me unpleasantly of the reactions on the faces of my classmates in Victoria Hall at Evergreen College, when everyone on the sixth floor ate too many bananas—and then went a little bananas themselves, during the shit-ins. Something was definitely wrong.

Leon tried to continue his questions, but Harry waved him off.

“We’ve got a crisis, my friends. First, the new lab isn’t ready. We have to wait for the new diurnal to put the roof back on. The current legislature just isn’t going to pay for it. They seem to think we can get enough money from a community fundraiser or a garage sale to get the roof fixed. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.”

Harry paused for nearly a minute, looking at all our faces, trying to catch something. He finally grimaced, opened his mouth, and spoke again.

“Dr. Urbanchuk is going to be here earlier than planned. It’s going to be quite a squeeze in here. I want your total support in making his tenure here a success. The National Academy of Sciences is very pleased with the selection.”

He rubbed his eyes and collapsed into the chair where he had been sitting before he took the call, his energy totally spent. He looked as if he might croak at any minute.

“This isn’t about the lab and Dr. Urbanchuk,” Millie said, as soon as Harry had finished. “It’s about us here at the lab and all the work we gotta do. Dr. Teitel here doesn’t get it. We’re goddamn slaves. And it’s not even quality work that we do. It’s just shit work. And if I might say, it’s your highness’ little brown derby, you and your goddamn butt-hole buddies. And then you take Rupp and rip his heart out. And you do it secretly. You send him on some phony errand to get you some fucking pizza, and you tell us he can’t work here anymore. Well, it’s you guys who stunk up this bay, not Rupp!”

“Millie, I won’t have you talking like this. I was being completely honest about the pizza. This is a scientific laboratory. And we must have standards. Our science must come first. Don’t you realize that?”

Harry was starting to sound desperate.

“Yes, Harry, I do realize that,” Millie replied, with great emphasis. “It’s about us, the workers. You and Dr. Urbanchuk, you have these big salaries. You have all these degrees. You have all these discoveries. You’re the management, the big decisionmakers, the big talkers, giving off all this green-slime environmental crap.”

I watched Millie in awe. She was really taking off.

“And totally fuck you, Harry. And you can fuck the pizzas, too. And you can fuck your goddamn buddies who really stink up this bay.”

Millie paused, but not for long. She stood, arching her slight frame so that her face was less than a foot away from Harry’s. She stared him down for at least a minute before she began again.

“I don’t give a shit about you or Dr. Chuko. You’re both total assholes. You’d better give Rupp the break he deserves or I’m going to the union. And don’t start giving me that green crab shit, either.”

“Millie, please,” interrupted Harry, trying to get control of things. It was a futile exercise, though. Millie’s adrenalin must have been spilling all over her body. “Can’t you see that I’m doing my best? I can’t sleep. I can’t work. I feel terrible. Anyway, you can’t go to the union. You’re management.”

Millie wasn’t going to fall for that. She was the office manager, alright, the one who figured out how to get things done around here, even with our low budgets and demoralized, underpaid staff. She’d been here a lot longer than Harry. Way back during the war, her job had been to hand out ration stamps to the people who lived around here. She was tough and smart and she made things work. A real manager, alright.

But Millie made it clear to Harry that she wasn’t going to be roped into siding with management on this one.

“What fuckin’ management is this?” Millie snapped back at Harry. I thought she might explode with anger at any minute. “You can’t even protect our best workers. What you feel and how you feel, Harry, is irrelevant. It’s time to get some backbone. Or the next thing you know, you’ll be out of here on a gurney bed. Elena’s going to be turning your bedpans for the next twenty years at the rate you’re going.”

I thought Harry would faint dead away at the mention of his wife, Elena. I didn’t think she really knew what was going on around here, but every once in a while, she did drop off her husband at the lab and pick him up after work. She drove an old, white ’49 Packard, and we could hear it chugging over the hill a couple of minutes before she arrived. The two of them still seemed pretty affectionate as a couple, I guess, though they had been together for many years. Harry’s quiet years, I figured. She worked about ten miles from the lab at a Costco near the tribal offices, where she did a lot of checkout and stocking work. I couldn’t believe that Millie would bring her name into this, no matter how pissed off she was.

I looked around the lab. Most of the staff was just standing around in silence. Maybe they were all worried that their jobs were on the line. If Rupp went, it was probably the beginning of the end for everybody. Soon, the rest of us would be out on the street. That must have been what they were thinking. I wouldn’t really mind if it ended that way myself. But with the others, it was different. Some of the interns had families, babies on the way, car payments and Visa bills, the whole thing. It made sense that they would be worried now.

Harry and Millie were almost at each other’s throats now. Millie screamed right into his face.

“Harry Teitel, you little fart squirt, show us some guts!”

Harry was withering under the attack. He slumped back into the chair and answered her weakly.

“Millie, you wouldn’t be talking like this if it wasn’t for Sparky.”

Millie’s face turned bright red and purple, all at once. Harry was being intentionally cruel now, I thought, bringing poor little Sparky into this. It had only been a little more than a week since Sparky was mashed and mangled by that bulldozer, after all. I was beginning to get really paralyzed by all the heavy emotional warfare going on between Millie and Harry.

“I want this meeting called off,” said Millie, a bit more calmly now, though clearly shaken by the Sparky comment, “until Rupp gets here and the whole thing can be aired openly.”

She then turned her chair back to her desk and began to rummage through her purse, finally pulling out a Kleenex and wiping her eyes. Leon went over to the desk, put his arm around Millie, and tried to console her. I just sat there, sort of numb, the way I sometimes got when the stress really built up in the lab. I guessed correctly that the meeting was over.

The interns sagged back into their respective chairs and began to correct their paperwork. The venomous anger from Millie and Harry’s confrontation was still in the air, though, and I wanted out of there. I had to get a quick dose of fresh air and sanity. Harry had returned to his desk on the platform, his head slumped over his latest scientific report. The guy was looking worse and worse.

I was still feeling pretty numb when I left the lab some time later to retrieve the specimens from the flats. I really hated getting the baby salmon. I couldn’t stand it, in fact. This was probably the tenth time I had been forced to do it this year. I hated that their little lives were interrupted before they really ever got going, with so many of them mashed up in the equipment. I wished we could have just left them alone out there, to be what they were and to do what they were meant to do. I hated doing this to them, but I went ahead and did it anyway. Just like I always did.

It wasn’t just me who had to retrieve the baby salmon. Every intern had to carry buckets of them into the lab for branding every season. We took turns. There was a special part of the lab where the salmon were branded before they were re-released into the rivers and streams throughout the area. It had been going on for years, but there hadn’t been a single report so far of a single fisherman actually catching one of the marked salmon. If one of the branded salmon was caught, the fisherman was supposed to take it to the nearest fish station for inspection. The notices were posted throughout the area. You got caught with one of those branded ones and, pow, you were in for some big-time trouble. Maybe even prison. Or so they said.

We could only catch the baby salmon in the summer. I carried a very light net and a couple of buckets. The whole thing was completely ridiculous. I had told Harry that I had noticed that most of the babies were punctured and ripped apart as they went through the branding machine, that they were dying right and left.

He always answered me in the same rough, condescending way: “So, little Vrhoda,” he would start in with his fake German accent. “Vos is dat qveschun?”

“And vos is dat?” he might say later, as he looked over my shoulder at my paperwork.

In addition to the fake German crap, Harry would also sometimes use pigeon English when he talked to us. He did it to everyone in the lab, whenever he wanted to avoid some prying question or to get out of offering advice. Harry would also fall into the whole German routine whenever he talked to the senior officials who monitored the lab from time to time. He could really get obsequious with those guys. It could get pretty nauseating after a while. I’m not even sure that he knew what he was doing at times. And I never understood why he did it.

Eventually, though, Harry usually got to the point when he was talking to us about lab matters or retrieving the specimens from the flats.

“Your job is to get the fish specimens and not to ask questions about methodology,” he would say sternly. “You’re wasting your time and mine asking questions and looking for answers. In our science, there are no answers. The logistics of our research make it extremely difficult to carry out with precision; we have to expect some degree of mortality with the salmonids. We’re trying to change the way we do things. I’ve worked hard to uphold, even to raise, the high standards of this lab. And the industry standards are getting tougher.”

And once he got going on a point, like the mangled salmonid issue, you couldn’t get him to stop until he was good and ready to stop.

“For one thing,” he would pace up and down the lab, making sure that he had our full attention, “we’re trying as fast as we can to get the new salmon-branding equipment. I’ve seen the new equipment, and it’s pretty amazing. Believe me. The salmon are herded into tiny tubes.”

He pointed to a small easel set up near the front of the stage and rapped the diagram with his pointer.

“We can push pins through the microscopic orifices and brand the baby as it swims by through the tube. Very little mortality. The salmon really like the tubes, too. You know, Rhoda, we proved that last year. They love it because they know they are part of an important mission. And, Rhoda,” he would say, turning my way for emphasis, “it can be operated by one person. You could run it yourself, my dear Rhoda. Anyone can.”

Well, the lab finally got the new branding equipment, and Harry never let us forget all the strings that he¹d had to pull to get it. When the installers showed up in their big trucks with the new machines, Harry made a point of coming to my desk and announcing that the lab now possessed a special new machine that would save the salmon stocks from extinction.

“My little Rhoda,” he said at the time, “it doesn¹t come any finer than this. You can save your little naturalist fantasies for your Greenpeace buddies at Evergreen. I’m personally flattered that we¹ve been chosen for this assignment.”

As he said this, a small rush of anguish passed through my body and seemed to bog down in my arms, which became, at least for an instant, heavy and immobile at my sides. I had been holding a pencil in my right hand, and it just seemed stuck there. I felt totally paralyzed by Harry’s aggressive words. The other interns, pretending to be engrossed in their paperwork, could feel that something was happening. Everyone finally stopped their work and looked over at Harry and me. They all knew how much I cared about those dead salmon babies. We had discussed the issue again and again in our staff meetings. What right, I continually asked, did we have to mess with nature? But it was too late now. We were all trapped by our training, our quest for credentials, our professional privileges. We were stuck in this mess. And the mess was a lot bigger than we were.

Dr. Teitel would listen for a while before breaking in to say something like, “C’mon, kids. Let’s stop this nonsensical talk. Stop setting up shibboleths. We’re the best science has to offer these days. We’re here to do a job. We can’t really help who we’re working for. It’s not our fault. Someone’s got to take hold and do it if we’re ever gonna get the results we’re looking for.

“Our mission is to bring advanced knowledge and solutions to problems to the public. We apply our knowledge to the problems at hand. For instance, a big problem right now is that Atlantic salmon are escaping from fish farms up the coast. This threatens our entire native salmon stocks. What happens when they mate, the Atlantic and the Pacific salmon? It would be catastrophic. Our economy here will suffer dire consequences if the native salmon gene pool mixes with the Atlantic salmon gene pool. We need answers. How can we mitigate the results? That’s our special duty as scientists. We have agenda-oriented research. We need to find the best way to protect our salmon stocks. It’s a privilege and a duty to serve our country.”