From his usual spot at the counter, Carter Bingham followed the waitress as she made coffee, first shaking the contents of a metallic pouch to one end, then ripping it open with the bright colored talons of her fingernails. Lime green today, a color that reminded him of antifreeze. Carter never tired of seeing her do this. Sally had a way of eviscerating a coffee pack in one quick motion to tumble the grounds into a new paper cone.
He ordered what he always did, two eggs scrambled, dark toast. Across the room, the insurance agent manned his customary booth by the window; the tree warden shared his with the Warmth Without Worry! oil delivery man. It still surprised Carter that over time, like everyone else in town, he had become a man of habit.
He’d settled in Tupney because of Nan and though they didn’t last, he’d come to love her little town with its minuscule business district of brick storefronts and angle parking, neighborhoods of Victorian wraparound porches, the ever-widening circle of outlying newborn developments like spokes radiating from a wheel.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, Carter was a regular for breakfast at the Greek diner on Main Street. Sometimes, a paperback novel kept him company, yellow legal pad at his elbow for recording ideas about his cases, but today he was reading The New York Times, idly scanning columns of print, when his eye came to rest on a local story at the bottom of a narrow field of type beside a lingerie ad. A surly model in a lace bra glared at him with smoldering annoyance. Shifting his gaze to the news, he had to read the paragraph twice.
Environmental officials today confirmed two hundred rusting barrels unearthed last week during housing construction in Tupney may contain toxic chemical waste. Samples taken from the site near the former Liquid Chemco plastics factory have been sent to the state lab for testing. Results may take several weeks.
Carter laid the paper down beside his breakfast plate. “Did you see this?” he said to no one in particular.
“What’s that, sugar?”
A wiry smoker with a year-round tan, Sally called everyone “sugar.” Usually that brought a smile to Carter’s face. Now he read the brief story aloud for all to hear.
The insurance agent shook his head. “Tupney?”
“Where in Tupney?” the tree warden asked.
Carter said over his shoulder, “Up near the plant.”
Sally topped off his coffee. “It’s gotta go somewhere, don’t it?” The waitress shrugged as if to say, that’s just the way it is.
The insurance agent went back to his breakfast. “Pretty soon, there’s no place left that won’t be polluted.”
The tree warden nodded, “That’s the truth.”
Carter turned back to his eggs and toast but his appetite was gone. Consolidated Liquid Chemco was still in business when he first came to town. The Brite Pak plastic division occupied a sprawling factory out on Highway 10, just after the Lions Club billboard. Colored picnic dishes, molded ashtrays, short-lived toys; the whole world seemed unbreakable then.
”There’s a lawsuit for you, Carter,” the insurance agent said.
“Not me. I’m real estate law. They’ll get somebody else for that.”
Carter left a five-dollar bill by his plate and pushed through the screen door onto the street.
“Have a good one,” Sally called after him.
“Yeah,” he said. “You, too.”
For a moment, he stood outside the coffee shop, looking up and down Main Street. After fifteen years, he knew almost everyone in town, knew what they’d paid for their houses, what they owed in taxes, whether they were buying or selling, inheriting or sitting on property. Percs and points and minutes of the last Town Board meeting rolled around aimlessly like loose marbles in his head. All of it rendered achingly finite now, in the wake of liquid poison.
Rumors and accusations would soon fly in the barbershop and Jake’s Hardware, phones ring off the hook in Tupney’s quaint little town hall. As an attorney, Carter knew a case involving a company like Liquid Chemco could be tied up in court for the next five years, ten years; who knew how long the legal process might take? Days and weeks, years stretched ahead. Corporate counsel would see to that, the type of law that had made his classmates wealthy, the attorney he’d vowed never to become. Carter had gone to law school to save the world; he fell into real estate by accident. An opening in the office of a friend of a friend.
That afternoon, he had an appointment with a client who lived near the old plant and Carter found himself driving down Highway 10 looking for the dump site. A padlocked chain blocked the gravel road leading to the old plastics factory. A yellow John Deere earthmover stood idly by, no one in sight. When he got out of his car, a blue jay’s cry broke the silence. Carter looked in the trees above, but could not see it.
Tomorrow or the next day, he supposed, someone would post an official warning on the cyclone fence. Caution! No Trespassing. When Carter was young, that would have been an invitation. Probably still was for his son and his friends. No Trespassing! What a joke. At least high school kids could read the warning. What language would you use to alert people in a hundred thousand years?
Through closings and title searches, while reading the fine print in Purchase and Sales, Carter couldn’t stop thinking of the quiet of that dump site. When he ran the faucet in his kitchen that night, he pictured toxic scum gushing into the sink. Staring at his face in the bathroom mirror as he shaved, Carter didn’t want to think how many glasses of water he’d consumed from that tap.
By Wednesday, he decided he had to something and dialed the number on a flyer he’d begun to see around town announcing a weekend protest in front of Town Hall. The girl on the phone said they were having trouble obtaining a permit.
“I’m a lawyer,” Carter offered. “Let me help.”
Although public policy was not his area of law, he could certainly procure a permit. He was surprised to hear himself offering to go down to the city clerk’s office to pick it up. He arranged to meet the girl that afternoon in front of the health store. Her name was Valerie, an environmental studies major over at State. He arrived early and watched from across the street as she hopped from her boyfriend’s car. They kissed chastely on the cheek and she dashed across the road, waving as she ran.
“You saved the day!” she told him more than once, admiration welling in her eyes.
Carter said he was glad to do what he could.
Her exaggerated response struck him as heartfelt and dramatic, painfully young. Standing beside her at the corner as they parted, Carter Bingham caught a glimpse of the college activism of his fading youth and for a moment, he imagined having the type of legal career where lives were truly won or lost. Not for the first time, he viewed the circumstances of his life with the detachment of an observer, baffled at the forces that had led him only dimly aware into adult existence.
Now, he imagined himself through the girl’s eyes, The Attorney. His hair starting to gray at the temples, his suit well cut. Carter had always been fond of his Italian briefcase of good cordovan leather, one of the last gifts from his ex-wife.
When they married, he and Nan had used wedding gifts for a down payment on a ten-room Victorian on Mt. Pleasant. Five thousand down and his support checks would be paying off the mortgage into the new millennium, but today the place was worth a fortune. Carter liked to think about that at the end of the month, counting up change to see if it would carry him through coffee and a roll, the newspaper and yogurt for lunch. His wife and son’s house was worth half a million dollars.
He was still savoring the awe in Valerie’s young voice Friday evening, replaying their conversation to himself as he picked up his teenage son, Roy, at Nan’s house. The Attorney. Nan had never looked at him with such blind trust. They’d been divorced ten years. Gazing into the yard of his own little ranch, he downed his second Scotch in the kitchen, the evening light changing quickly.
His son was in the back room, his weekend accommodations, watching TV without sound, listening to music under headphones. Carter knew he should go in there and re-establish contact, the two of them make a plan for the weekend. Maybe Roy might tag along with him to the rally the next morning? As he stood outside his son’s door debating the invitation, Carter allowed himself to imagine Roy would finally understand: his father was against the world, too, only in a different way. He still functioned in it. That was the price, if you grew up.
Roy sat propped against a postered wall, his skin faintly blue, luminous, the color of a pale grape in the TV’s light.
“How’s it going, Dad?”
“Not bad,” Carter said.
“What’s up?” his son asked, not lifting his eyes.
Stepping inside the room, Carter was vaguely aware of an acrid sweet smell. Pot? Incense? Long ago, in another lifetime, he used to toke up at his parents’ house, too. Home from college in their apartment in the city, he’d blow the smoke out the window, stuff towels under the bedroom door, spray aerosol deodorant all around the room, blissfully unaware of the fluorocarbons, the damage he was wreaking on the ozone layer. He’d brush his teeth and wash his hands, then sit beside his father on the sofa watching the eleven o’clock news.
Still, the idea that Roy would actually smoke pot in his house seemed vaguely threatening. Even across the room, Carter could hear the reverberating base pounding through headphones. He felt himself an intruder entering the inner sanctum. Last summer for a time, he actually did fear Roy might be into some kind of devil cult. The cross earrings and candles, the outfits on his girlfriend, Melody; she looked like something that crawled out of the grave.
You’re getting old, Carter told himself, get a grip. He’s just a kid.
He tried to remember how way-out his own parents considered him once. Looking at pictures now, it seemed hard to believe. The Beatles in their little Prince Valiant haircuts and collarless suits, that was the wild look in 1964.
A music video flickered across the screen without sound. Carter watched his son slip the headphones around his neck, the gesture of a pilot reluctantly abandoning mission control.
Carter asked, “What if something comes on you want to hear?”
The boy shrugged. “I turn it up, man.”
He knew he ought to draw the line. Or was that just his son’s way of being friendly? These awkward weekends home, just the two of them, always wore him down. “I was wondering if you have plans for tomorrow? Saturday,” he added in case his son might not remember the day.
“Nothing special,” Roy said. “Melody and I will probably connect. I dunno. Why?”
“I was thinking maybe you’d like to come somewhere with me.”
“Where somewhere?” Roy did not look up.
“A rally tomorrow in town. About the waste dump. You remember?”
His son met his eyes with a glazed expression. “This town’s a waste dump.” Roy laughed harshly, swiveled back to the TV and turned up the sound. “Some frickin pep rally on the village green has nothing to do with me, man.”
“Not that I can see, Pop.”
Pop. That was new. His son must think he was already senile. “I want you to stop and think about something,” Carter said. “Say that stuff leaks into the watershed. Maybe not next year, maybe not even five years. Say your kids are the ones to grow up and drink it.”
“Forget it, Dad. Save it for a courtroom. I don’t have kids and if I did, you can bet I wouldn’t be raising them in this sink hole.” Roy reached beside him for a can of Coke on the floor and took a long swig. “Listen, why don’t you sit down or something? I can’t see through you, and this one’s pretty cool.”
On the screen, a bare-chested singer with wild matted hair and heavy eye make-up advanced upon a cowering buxom model, his lowered microphone alternately held like a phallus or a weapon. Carter hesitated. The conversation with his son was clearly over. Still, Roy said sit down. Was that an invitation to stay, have a dialogue?
A woman in high heels and red lipstick, diaphanous veils billowing behind her, cringed in an arched Mediterranean doorway then fled down a narrow flight of white stairs, the band screaming threats over a pounding base.
When had misogyny come back? It seemed to Carter only a few short years ago women had finally won equality. Strange that rock’n'roll, the great liberator, now gloated in their oppression.
“Well, let me know if you change your mind,” he said, turning to leave.
His son looked up, bewildered, far away. “About what?”
Stepping into the darkened hallway, Carter closed the door. The Every Other Weekend Father. His ex-wife couldn’t understand their son either. Both of them shrinking before their own offspring, the stranger, the shell. If they’d had a daughter, maybe Nan would have taken a stronger hand. The boy mystified her. To Carter she always said, “That’s just the way kids are. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Don’t blow it out of proportion.”
In the kitchen, he opened the freezer. Chicken fingers, potpies, macaroni and cheese. They could eat out. Roy used to like that, when he was little. A few weeks ago for his son’s birthday, Carter had invited Roy and his girlfriend to a restaurant, then watched from the car as his son slouched down the long gravel driveway to Melody’s house. Roy’s girlfriend appeared wearing what looked like a long strapless bra, tight-fitting neon stretch pants, a lot of heavy cheap jewelry, her crayon-colored hair pulled atop her head with some kind of lace netting. Carter took them to Hamburger Haven and neither of them sensed it was an odd destination for a special evening. On his cell phone in the men’s room, he canceled the reservations he’d made at the Hearthside.
Now, circling back from the freezer, Carter picked up the cordless and dialed his ex-wife. He pictured her answering in their old kitchen. She would be eating a salad from The Greenery, wearing a sweat suit. On Fridays, Nan ran with the other agents at Benniman. She’d sold a house last month, so at least she would not be asking him for money.
“Roy weirds me out,” Carter said. Hoping to start off on the right foot, his conversations with his former wife often opened in jest.
The expectant cheer of Nan’s hello vanished once she recognized his voice. “Oh, Carter,” she said.
Ten years ago, his wife had run off with a fellow realtor. The affair was soon over; the man who broke up their already failing marriage moved away to Florida, but Carter bore him no real grudge. He and Nan were finished long before she took up with Charlie Hennessey. Of course, it would have been cheaper, easier all around if they still lived together as a family under one roof. Maybe he’d be a better father to his son. He wouldn’t be having this conversation, leaning against the barren refrigerator in his claustrophobic ranch, Roy hunkered down in electronic exile in the back room.
“The kid doesn’t look you in the eye,” he said. “When did that start?”
“He watches a lot of TV,” Nan sighed. “He’s a teenager.”
“That’s all he does, Nan. Sits back there with his headphones on listening to music, watching TV.”
“Didn’t you ever listen to rock’n'roll? Come on, Carter. I know you did.”
“Is he gonna come out and eat? Do I have to shove a tray through the door, or what?”
“Nan, do you see what I’m saying?”
In the silence, he thought he heard a page turn. She’d be reading a magazine at the counter. Cosmo or Vanity Fair.
“So what do you expect me to do about it?” she asked after a while.
Wasn’t there something two parents could do about their own son? Couldn’t they even talk about him? Carter was trying to formulate this into a polite question when Nan said, “You think you could be a more effective parent? Be my guest. Maybe you should live with him seven days a week, not just every other weekend. What do you think, Carter, want to give that a try?”
“Two weekends a month and child support is nothing. Do you realize that? It’s nothing.”
“Nan,” he said, “do you ever think maybe our boy is turning out to be a loser?”
“You want to know what I think? You are a terrible father, that’s what I think. What kind of parent says that about his own son? No wonder he’s so screwed up.”
“Come on, I’m kidding.”
“I don’t think that’s funny.”
He pictured her sneaking another quick bite of salad, perched on a stool by the counter, sharing her dinner with a floral pencil holder and a matching can of bills. Her days spent obsessing about money, calories, grams of fat, the agonized sale of other people’s houses.
Carter had been the one to introduce his wife to a career in real estate, although he still had trouble trying to envision her at it. Coaxing prospective buyers, encouraging peeks into empty rooms and corners. Imagine life unfolding in all those new houses, she who had such trouble arranging her own.
“So what do you do to bring him back?” he asked now. “For supper? Say I want to communicate?”
“You were calling me for advice, Carter?”
“Wow. I guess not.” He laughed once more without purpose. Most of the time, for reasons he could not explain, conversations with his ex-wife left him feeling vaguely moronic. “Maybe I’ll see you Sunday when I drop him off,” he said.
“I take it you won’t be keeping him for the week then?”
“Oh, come on. You’re the one with the three-bedroom house. I’m hardly ever home, Nan. I see clients at night. You know that’s true.”
“Uh-huh,” she yawned. “I work at night, too.” He could see her stretching in her sweat suit, already rising from her stool to replace the wall phone. “Maybe I’ll see you Sunday, Carter.”
“Sure, maybe,” he said. “Take it easy.”
As soon as he hung up, the little house pressed in on him once more, airless and dark. Never any place inside he wanted to be. The living room’s Scandinavian design looked more at home in the furniture show room than arrayed around his own four walls, inviting as a doctor’s waiting room. He pictured Nan finishing her salad and magazine in the yellow light of their old kitchen. The same magnets on the refrigerator, another generation of African violets under the grow lamp.
Down the hallway, Roy’s closed door eliminated all natural light, the television turned up loud. As a baby, Roy had the most delighted laugh. When his son learned to walk, he held both hands straight up in the air, toddling across rooms like an elated prizefighter. Carter stepped through the kitchen onto the little deck above his yard, which he noticed needed mowing. A dotted landscape of covered gas grills, the smell of an early wood fire, the cries of children echoing from a neighbor’s swing. In fifteen years, Tupney had turned into a regular little suburb.
With a pool of poison seeping into the earth. He pictured it percolating through soil and rock and ground water. Drums of toxic waste dwelled as underground cities all across the planet now, barrels accumulated like fossil layers beneath the sea; why should Tupney be spared?
Stretching out his hand against the redwood finish of the picnic table, Carter examined his skin in the waning sunlight. Patterns of cells from forefinger to thumb coiled round like a braided rug. Aging. Viewed another way, those tiny criss-crossing lines of his hand formed a maze, an intricate map he studied for a clue.
In the morning, he left without waking his son, secretly hoping the sounds of his shower or the coffee maker might rouse Roy from sleep. For a long time, Carter had stood outside the closed door, but heard no stirrings from his son.
He found a parking space in the lot behind the library. Walking to the town green, he heard the amplified sound of a woman’s voice carried in the breeze, a small crowd cheering. A puddle of muddy water from Thursday’s rain pooled at the edge of the parking lot. Patterns of oil in iridescent green and pink swirled like merry spirits of pollution dancing in the sun.
He spotted Valerie from a distance, and she looked up to wave. With her lanky wary-eyed boyfriend in tow, she came over to pump Carter’s hand, happily introducing him to a circle of students gathered near the plywood speaker’s platform.
“Here’s the man who made it happen,” she repeated to each in turn.
What had he done? Submitted papers to obtain a permit. The truth was if he wanted to, a man in his position could do much more. Carter didn’t even know what stopped him. For too long, he had lived as though nothing he could do made much of a difference. Now, through Valerie’s eyes, he recoiled from the reckoning of all those wasted years.
The girl and her friends soon moved on, and Carter stood by himself through several speeches. In the morning sun, the protesters’ hand-lettered yellow banners looked buoyant and hopeful. A professor from State made ardent denunciations over a faltering sound system as Carter scanned the faces of the small crowd.
He spotted his son leaning against a brick storefront across the street, Melody beside him. Roy’s arm was slung around her thin shoulders protectively, tenderly, their heads together, laughing. Catching sight of them this way, Carter glimpsed the heartfelt affection between his son and another human being, and he was suddenly deeply glad. They smiled at him in their fashion and Carter took that as a signal to cross the street.
“Hey, Dad,” Roy nodded. “We had nothing better to do. We thought we’d check it out.”
They stood for a while all three together, their arms crossed, listening in delicate silence. Carter knew that before long, they would go their separate ways, but for the moment while it lasted, proximity to his son and his girlfriend gratified him, a crack in his own lethargy filling him with a giddy, foolish hope: the earth saved, his boy grown, alive in the world and the world went on.