by Jeffery Higgs
How much fish can a river hold? How many could it expel? With their dull gray pallor, frozen unseeing eyes and shredded spider web fins, they covered the entire shoreline. It was impossible to set down a foot without crushing innards that squirted out a putrid odor of death.
All along the shoreline the boys worked, rakes in hand. It had been this way as long as anyone could remember. Ball caps shielding their faces from the sun. Bandannas covering their noses and mouths. For four weeks every fall there was no baseball after school. No lollygagging. No fun. Only… the fish. At times, a boy would come upon one whose eyes were bulging, mouth and gills flaring open and closed fighting suffocation. But what is there to do when a life cannot be saved?
In silence, sweat coating their pubescent skin, the boys worked until the sun went down. Then, their forearms aching and with the fish gathered into three to four foot high mounds, the boys doused them with gasoline and set them on fire. Against the twilight sky, the shoreline appeared aglow with a mysterious light. But the smoke and stench of burning fish disproved the illusion until all that year’s abominations had been destroyed.
It was sweltering hot throughout the house. All was still except for the repetitive hiss of the machine in Little Tommy’s room. Stuart peered through the crack between the door and its frame. Miriam was asleep in the rocker next to Tommy’s bed, her bangs plastered to her forehead by the energy-sapping heat and humidity. From the hallway, Stuart could not see Little Tommy but knew he must be sleeping. Otherwise, Miriam, though exhausted, would be awake, keeping vigil.
For years, Stuart and Miriam had had difficulty conceiving as well as having a pregnancy go full term. After suffering a number of miscarriages, they’d decided to give up trying and adopt. That’s when Miriam had become pregnant with Little Tommy. Her nine-month pregnancy and Little Tommy’s birth had been uneventful. But everything changed just before his first birthday. He wasn’t thriving and had developed respiratory problems. Since then, every breath he drew depended on the machine pump’s unceasing hiss. Watching his son struggle to breathe was like reliving the days of his youth spent clearing the shoreline of fish with the other boys every fall.
Stuart considered going into the room to check that the breathing tube was free of mucous. He’d have liked to kiss the wisps of light blond hair on his son’s head. But not wanting to risk awakening Miriam or Tommy, he quietly closed the door and tiptoed down the hall.
Tonight was the annual meeting of The Club. Though it had no governing charter, officers, or monetary dues almost everyone in town was a member. Membership was for life. The original event had been a picnic for the families of the Johnson Paper Mill Company when the mill had been the lifeblood of the town. Now, decades later, it had become the annual meeting of The Club.
The mill’s original owner, Harry Johnson, had the brick mill built on the banks of the town river when the surrounding area was little more than a mud hole. At the time, the first depression was in full force, so the locals regarded the venture as pure stupidity. But the first World War came along, the hard times ended, and Harry became a very wealthy man.
Determined to transform the area into a vibrant community, Harry established a police department, fire department, and school system. He also spearheaded the construction of housing and roads. In gratitude, the locals voted to name the newly created young town Johnsonville.
Shortly afterward, incomprehensible hardship, the great depression struck. Businesses everywhere failed. People in bread lines were a common sight throughout the nation. But Harry kept the mill running and though it was operating at a loss, he continued paying wages to his workers. Unfortunately, the inescapable stress took an irreversible toll on his health and Harry died on the brink of the nation’s entry into World War II. Ownership of the mill then passed to his only child, Harry II and once again, a war effort rescued the residents of Johnsonville.
After the war’s end, Harry II decided to modernize the mill. He added a multi-level addition with a tin roof, installed state-of-the-art equipment, and updated the production line workflows. To recoup his investments, he signed a host of new contracts and began operating the mill 24 hours a day.
Due to its strong revenue flow, the business was very profitable and the workers well paid. But the new operation also introduced blaring horns announcing the start of work shifts, lunches, and breaks day and night. And towns downwind complained endlessly about the rotten egg smell from the chemicals, dyes, and sewage discharged into the river.
Inside the mill’s cavernous rooms, honking forklifts, beeping tow motors, chugging sorter machines, thunking pulp mixers, and shrieking conveyor belts produced a deafening racket and kept the air thick with fumes and caustic odors. Whenever it rained, the tin roof amplified the sound, forcing the workers to shout to hear one another. And on sunny days it magnified the heat of the sun’s rays, making the entire building a furnace.
The challenging work conditions and constant disorientation caused by their weekly rotating shifts led the workers to present Harry II with a list of grievances that he ignored. That generated talk of unionizing, so he threatened to lock them out. Frustrated, they walked off the job.
With contracts to honor and suppliers to pay, Harry II bused in replacement black and Latino workers from adjacent towns. Each day, as the buses arrived at the mill’s spike topped gates, the strikers allowed them entry without incident. With winter approaching, the picketers seeking warmth around small fires in 50-gallon drums watched as Harry II had barracks thrown up to house the replacement workers. Now, besides paying them less than the strikers, he’d eliminated his transportation expenses and become their landlord.
After a few months on the job, the replacement workers’ productivity had improved and the mill was functioning profitably. With their bills piling up and their savings practically
exhausted the picketers laid down their signs, giving up the fight.
Harry II rehired all his former workers except the ones who had tried to organize a union. Unable to find work in Johnsonville, they were left with no alternative but to uproot their families to seek employment elsewhere. With life in Johnsonville back to normal, things continued on in this manner until demand for the mill’s products declined. Shortly after that, Harry II died leaving no will or heir.
Easing his pickup onto the edge of the grass at the town common, Stuart saw kids and dogs chasing each other among picnic tables filled with food. As he turned off the ignition, he checked his front pocket. Reassured that the stone from his yard was still there, he climbed down from the pickup’s cab and waved to his friend, Bobby.
“You look like you could use some help,” said Bobby strolling over, a smile on his dark brown face.
“Much obliged,” responded Stuart. He clasped Bobby’s hand in his and they hugged. Then Stuart grabbed the handle of a large cooler and slid it to the end of the truck’s bed.
Wheezing loudly, a drop of blood trickled from Bobby’s nose. He quickly wiped it away and lifted the cooler.
“Sounds worse, buddy.”
“Luis says I sound like El Viejo.” Bobby shook his head. “Jesus, you afraid we’d run out of beer?”
“Tonight there’s no such thing as too much beer,” replied Stuart. He balanced another cooler against the truck’s body, slammed the tailgate shut, then followed Bobby over to the picnickers.
“Big turnout this year,” said Bobby, sitting the cooler on the ground beside his wife Ann.
“Yeah. Even though the town continues to shrink.” Stuart kissed Ann on the cheek. Bobby flipped open the cooler’s lid and took out a cold one.
“How many’s that?”
“Three,” replied Bobby. He popped open the can and took a long deep swig. “You’ve got some catching up to do. Right Luis?”
“Sure do,” responded Luis, walking over. He exchanged a bear hug with Stuart.
“How’s your mom?” asked Stuart.
“Eh…. Some good days. Some bad,” replied Luis. “But you know mi Madre, still
running the old neighborhood.”
“We were going to leave the kids with her, but they wanted to see Bobby Jr. and Suzy,” said Luis’ wife, Magda, joining the group. She kissed Stuart hello.
Throughout the boys’ youth, Luis’ house had been the neighborhood gathering spot. His mother loved having a house full of children and treated Luis and his three best friends as if they were all her sons. When El Viejo, Luis’ father died following a short, painful illness, she’d been their anchor as the boys dealt with the sudden cold reality of human mortality for the first time in their lives. Then, when Jimmy died of a rare cancer their senior year of high school reducing the “Four Musketeers” to Three, she’d once again been a steady source of strength and support. Now, many years removed from high school, with early deaths having stolen their parents one by one, she was the lone survivor, the last connection to their parents.
“Where’s Miriam and Little Tommy?” asked Luis.
“Yeah. Where’s your better half?” asked Ann, flipping over a burger. Its grease hit the barbecue grill’s flames, making them flare.
“Tommy’s having problems adjusting to the new medications,” replied Stuart.
“Sorry to hear that.” Luis crossed himself. “Thank God our two are OK. I’ll ask my mother to say a prayer for him.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” said Stuart nodding. “Thanks.”
“Well, at least they figured it out,” said Bobby, running a hand between his nose and upper lip. “When my old man got sick, nobody knew nothing,”
They all shook their heads. Bobby took a final swig of his beer, crushed the empty can in his hand and tossed it into a nearby trash can. Then he reached into the cooler and pulled out two more. He tossed one to Stuart, the other to Luis.
“Hey, what about me?” said Ann.
“And me,” added Magda.
“One beer for the love of my life,” said Bobby, handing a can to Ann. “Senora, Magda,” he said, bowing, then passing one to her.
Ann scooped a burger from the grill and slid it onto a bun. Bobby snatched it up and too a big chomp out of it. Ann shook her head.
“Honey, can you see the kids?” asked Magda.
“They’re somewhere over there,” answered Ann, waving a spatula in the direction of the freeze tag game underway near the flagpole and plaque commemorating Harry Sr’s donation of the park land to the town. She scooped another burger off the grill. “You want one?” she asked Stuart.
“I’ll go for a chicken wing,” he said, plucking one off the grill. He bit into it, the heat practically searing his lips and tongue. Luis chuckled.
Ann looked toward the playing children. “Suzy and Bobby Jr,” she yelled, “You all come and eat!”
The game continued without interruption. Hands on hips, Ann assumed a solid stance and called out, “Suzy and Bobby Jr! You better get on over here and eat! Don’t make me come get you!”
Bobby smirked at Stuart, who looked at a chuckling Luis.
Ann’s spatula whacked Bobby’s forearm with a resounding slap. “Will you please go get
“If they don’t want to eat, more for me,” he said, snagging another burger. “I’m a
Ann rolled her eyes. “Yeah? Well, you’re growing the wrong way. Besides, the burgers are for the kids! The chicken’s for the adults!”
As they all chuckled, Bobby began choking, tears filling his eyes.
“I’m good,” he whispered, holding up a hand. He wiped at the tears and coughed a few times to clear his throat.
“Luis,” said Magda, nodding in the direction of the children.
“I got it,” said Stuart. He took a few steps toward the kids, stopped, and yelled for the kids at the top of his lungs. The game momentarily halted as they separated from the rest of the group and began sauntering over.
The picnicking continued well into the evening. As darkness settled in, the lights in the common came on, framing the park with a soft glow. The women and children began packing up and the men headed to the cemetery across the street.
Though the cemetery was shrouded in darkness and deep shadows, the men knew their way. They moved in silence until they reached the headstones. There, standing in a semi-circle, they stared at the barely visible names carved into the stones. “God bless you, sir,” said one of the men stepping forward and placing a stone atop Harry Johnson Sr's headstone. He then stepped back into the semi-circle as another man stepped forward, the words and action being repeated until each man had performed it.
That done, they all turned and faced the second headstone.
“All of Johnsonville’s wells have been shut down,” said Stuart. “The chemicals you
continued dumping after they made you stop pumping them into the river, leached into the town’s groundwater, contaminating it. That’s what’s caused all the sickness and death.”
With a deep guttural growl, Stuart hawked up a big one. As he launched the thick lugee at the headstone, in his mind he saw those he’d known dead on the shoreline. Then the silence was broken by a muffled splashing sound. Zipping up, Stuart stepped aside as one by one the other men repeated the annual ritual.
“Same time next year?” asked Bobby after the last man finished.
“Wouldn’t miss it,” said Stuart, wrapping an arm around the shoulder of each of his two best friends as they left the cemetery.
J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. The primary goal of his writings is to create a greater understanding between racial, ethnic, and religious groups in America.
He has been published in over 20 magazines including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
He and his wife currently reside outside of Boston as do their son and daughter.