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Spill by Eric Cipriani

Eric Cipriani’s work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Barely South Review, Booth, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and currently lives and works in West Virginia.

They’ve finally done it, found a way to kill us all. 

This is how my father greets me on the phone this morning. “It’s on Channel 7,” he says. “Everyone is in danger.” He tells me to turn on the television and I remind him I don’t have one. I’ve just woken up.

“You have a TV. You watch those shows. You and your sister talk about them.”

“What’s on the news?”

“They’ll never give a damn about us,” he says. “Never have. We’re not even human.”

“Dad—”

“The water! They’ve poisoned the goddamned water!”

“They who?”

“If you’d put Channel 7 on.”

I tell him I will. I tell him I’ll get back to him.

“You need get to the store. You need to get me some water before they sell out. For yourself too. The government won’t help. These accidents aren’t accidents. Don’t shower.” 

He hangs up.

After two decades away, I’m back home in West Virginia’s sulfuric northern panhandle teaching intro criminal justice classes to soccer players at a liberal arts college out in the sticks. It’s hardly where I thought I’d be at 40. Neither law and order nor teaching are particular passions of mine, but there was the job. Back home. Close to the old man.

Dad, like every other guy his age in a 50-mile radius, is a retired steelworker. He lives on a pension that was once the envy of the world. After decades of company bankruptcies, sales to foreign corporations, it’s unclear how secure that pension is. Unlike his peers, Dad does not feel betrayed by the company or the government or the union. He does not feel let down by the American dream. He’ll tell you he knew the jig the whole time. Nothing was ever secure. Nothing is as they say it is. He used to repeat the sins of the powerful like prayers. The government poisoned 10,000 barrels of liquor during Prohibition to discourage drinking. In 1950, the Navy intentionally infected the San Francisco Bay area with Serratia marcescens, causing at least one death. This was the soundtrack to my childhood, the music of my house, and it only grew louder after my mother died.

I check Channel 7’s website on my phone. The headline at the top of the page reads, “GOVERNOR DECLARES STATE OF EMERGENCY IN NINE COUNTIES, WATER SUPPLY CONTAMINATED.” So he was right, they really did poison the water. Only we’re not in any of the nine counties listed. The closest affected area is about 160 miles south of us, down in coal country. They get it bad down there. Gas explosions, mine fires, streams full of heavy metals, now this.

I call Marcie, my sister. She’s up in Pittsburgh, has two kids I hardly know. It’s because of her that I decided to be closer to Dad, though she bristles at the suggestion that she could be responsible for my return. “You should be living your life,” she says, “not worrying about him.”

But it was she who told me he had gotten into the habit of pulling out old photographs, laying the albums out on the kitchen table, pointing out dead relations she never knew, recalling bygone family dramas from before she was born. It was charming, she said, strangely so, because nothing he had ever done before was particularly charming.

It was charming, that is, until he began to make mistakes. While he could recall facts from over half a century ago, faces sometimes eluded him. Once, holding out a small, aged photograph of a bride and groom, he said to her, almost angrily, “Who’s that?” as if someone had slipped these two strangers into his album as a prank. Though they were younger than she’d ever known them, Marcie recognized the couple as our grandparents, his in-laws. Then, upon seeing a sepia photograph of my mother as a baby, he laid a finger on it and smiled at my sister. “There you are,” he said.

Marcie rationalizes this. The photos are small and blurry, his eyesight poor. She and Mom looked alike as babies. She’s not wrong about any of it. But sometimes things are as bad as they seem.

She answers. I ask if she’s talked to Dad and she says not for a few days.

“He thinks his water is poisoned.”

“What else is new?”

“It seemed different. He sounded scared.”

“So go check on the old loon.”

“Yeah. I will.”

“Anything else?”

“The water really is poisoned, but not his. It’s on the news.”

“Just don’t indulge him, please, for the sake of us all. Set him straight.”

How can I set him straight, I think, when the world is slipping steadily away from him? 

“I will,” I say, and we agree to talk again later.

I drive over to Dad’s house and walk in the back door without announcing myself. He’s in his recliner in the corner of the living room, the local news on, not Channel 7 anymore, Channel 9. “UNKNOWN QUANTITY OF COAL CHEMICAL SPILLS INTO ELK RIVER” is blazed across the bottom of the screen in huge white letters.

“Look, I told you,” he says. “Get the water out of your car. I haven’t had a drink all morning, not even a cup of coffee.”

“I didn’t buy you any water. You don’t need it. The Elk River, you know where that is?”

He points into the kitchen. “My throat is liable to close up if I drink from that tap in there.”

“Jackson County, Dad. Nobody north of Jackson County has to worry about this.”

“Water flows, son.”

“It flows south.”

He grumbles and looks back to the TV. I sit down on the couch across from him. We don’t talk as he flips from channel to channel. I’m waiting for him to go to the closet and pull out some old pictures, but he doesn’t move. The spill has made the national news now. All the cable channels are showing clips of empty grocery store shelves, interviews with scared residents. There’s been an eruption of emergency calls, reports of blisters, nonstop vomiting, asphyxiation. A strange smell in the air like licorice. Here are the government types with no clue; there are the chemical executives refusing to comment. One-third of the state without water, 300,000 people.

When we were kids Dad never took us to the dentist. He didn’t believe in them. He believed in a lot of other things though. He believed, for instance, that dentists made cavities. Whether he thought this was a business ploy or something they did for the mere sadistic pleasure of it was never clear to me. He is opaque. To look into him is like staring at a pile of bricks. Back then, I sometimes wondered if I was myself not the victim of some conspiracy of his design. Was he really my father? The one thing he made me certain of was that we were all suffering at the whim of unseen forces and desires, that no set of circumstances was as it seemed. So how could I know for sure? Dentists made cavities. My father was not my father.

In fact, after my mother’s death I began to think that maybe my real parents were aliens and that I was living in a simulation of planet Earth. I theorized that I was in this Earth simulation as part of some intensive cultural immersion program whose ends I could not know. But I was certain that I would meet my alien parents, presumably aboard their alien spacecraft. I had clear images of their faces: large eyes, green skin, extended circular mouths like the bell of a trumpet. I needed no more proof than this. How else could I have known their faces?

.  .  .

Dad hammers the remote with his thumb. He doesn’t want to look away from this, but it’s time for game shows on the networks and the cable guys are moving on with their lives. Someone died of bird flu in Canada, a Venezuelan beauty queen was murdered. He gives up on the news and settles on an old boxing match. The bell has just rung and the camera shows the fighters in their corners, both of them bleeding and swollen around the eyes, one worse than the other. His fascination with the sport is a mystery to me because he despises professional athletics generally. He once told me that football fans wore their favorite players’ jerseys because they’d been stripped of their own identities by corporations and advertising agencies. Maybe he sees something more honest in a boxing ring. Two fighters, one simple goal. For a man who sees ulterior motives everywhere, I imagine that could be a great relief. 

I often have a hard time conjuring up my mother — her expressions, the sound of her voice, the feel of her hand — but I remember vividly that she didn’t like it when Dad watched fights. She’d use words like atrocious and debased, only she’d speak with this little smirk on her face so she seemed to be saying, I don’t understand your barbarous taste but I love you anyway. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve made this up entirely. The rest of her is so fleeting it calls everything else into question.

Dad’s grumbling again, pushing his tongue around his mouth like he’s trying to pry something loose.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

“My mouth is a mess. You know I rinsed my teeth with that water this morning, before I knew about it.”

I don’t have the energy to argue with him about the water again. I watch the men on TV fall into each other and collapse.

“That’s a story,” he says, “how I got these dentures. Was only a teenager. I go to the dentist for a toothache; he says it’s abscessed. So far gone it’s unsalvageable — that’s the word the dentist used, unsalvageable — so he yanked it out. Stuffed my mouth full of cotton and sent me away. A week later, I was almost dead with a fever. You could wring the sweat from my bedsheets. That dentist was a hack. The infection just spread right across my mouth. Mom and Dad couldn’t find the guy, so they took me to the hospital. A surgeon ripped out all my teeth to keep me alive.”

I nod the whole way through the story. I’ve heard it maybe a dozen times.

When I heard it for the first time, I was home for spring break. Twenty years old, four semesters into college, and thinking myself a budding intellectual. I listened, enthralled. He had never told me about his childhood and I had never asked. I felt like I should have been recording his voice on a cassette. I imagined writing it all down. We’ll need proof, I thought. (We who? Proof of what?) He told the story absently, as if it were nothing, the TV remote in his hand. The news was on and I remember they were doing a sort of roundup of the past week’s world events. David Koresh’s compound in flames, an IRA truck bomb in the middle of London, Srebrenica under siege. That’s what Dad was looking at, these endless shots of rubble and fire, not at me, not at my eyes as I was him. 

He told me the dentist stunk of liquor. He told me the anesthetic was so strong that when he stood to leave, his cheek swollen with cotton, he fainted, and the dentist woke him with smelling salts. He told me the man was not a local, but that he traveled across the band of mills and factories that constituted such a huge swath of the northern United States then, treating the children of immigrants and the long residing poor.

“Like a circuit preacher. Only half as smart and twice the liar,” Dad said.

“Is that why you never took us?” I asked.

Now he looked at me. “Huh?”

“Is that why you never took Marcie and me to the dentist?”

He put the remote down on the arm of his chair, held his arms out, beseeching. He looked at me as if I had just suggested that the world meant us well, even as we watched it engulf itself in flames in our living room.

“Why do you think everything is so simple?” he said.

.  .  .

No one knows when the water downstate will be safe to drink. They can’t say that it’s safe, they can’t say that it’s not safe. No one seems to know anything about this particular chemical — not the water company, not its manufacturer, not the CDC or anyone else. They don’t know when the leak started. There could be 5,000 gallons in the river, there could 10,000. It might have leaked into the soil; it might not have.

The manager of a Wal-Mart called in the police to guard a water delivery. FEMA and the National Guard have descended on the state to manage the chaos. The riverside storage tank from which the unknown quantity of this mysterious chemical leaked hasn’t been inspected for 23 years. A U.S. Attorney with his eyes on the governorship has opened an investigation.

Marcie calls me this time.

“Did you set him straight?” she says.

“He’s okay.”

“That man has never been okay.”

“There’s a first for everything.”

I hear her say something stern to someone else in the room with her. One of my nephews, I guess. They have names, but I’m not sure of them.

“Well,” she says, to me now, “if you say so.” 

We agree that I will visit them in Pittsburgh.

Yesterday, after he told the story of his teeth, Dad did bring a photo album out from the closet, but he didn’t show me anything in it. He sat with it in his lap, his hand on the cover, like a man swearing an oath.

“You ever think about your mother?” he said.

“Of course,” I said.

“It was this place, you know. It was this place that killed her. Shit just like this, chemicals in the water. Recipe for cancer.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I know that. You don’t know how it was when we were kids. Could hardly breathe some days. The smoke. Ash on the windowsill. We knew what that did to a person. We saw the fish dead in the water. We weren’t ignorant. But we didn’t have a choice. Still don’t.”

Then he said, gesturing to the TV with the remote, “They make sure of that.” But it was just boxers on the screen, tired, listlessly swatting at each other. “She wanted to leave, your mother. Move south, someplace warm. We never did.”

In the days leading up to my tenth birthday, my first after her death, it dawned on me that this would be the day I was woken from the alien simulation and brought into the real world. I stayed up late the night before tossing with excitement. To my dismay, I woke up on planet Earth the next morning. In previous years, I would have heard my mother gently swearing to herself downstairs as she destroyed the kitchen trying to make me some elaborate breakfast. But the year was 1983, it was my tenth birthday, and she was dead. I had only my father.

He gave me a copy of Chariots of the Gods? as a present. It was a cheap paperback, short and fat with thin, brittle pages. He told me it was something to get me thinking about what’s out there and left me to myself while he read and chain-smoked in the basement. For a long time, I stared at the big red letters emblazoned on the cover, intrigued by the title’s question mark, so unlike the authorial certitude I’d learned to expect from the stories I consumed — there was no room for a question in The Empire Strikes Back, and especially not in its inverse, Return of the Jedi. And then there was the book’s subtitle, Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, promising, if not answers, then at least, well, mystery. By the time I finally cracked the book open and flipped to its first page, I was primed for a great revelation. I was not disappointed. I read the first sentence over and over: Is it conceivable that we world citizens of the twentieth century are not the only living beings of our kind in the cosmos?

So there it was, as if I needed any more evidence. What could this be if not a message from my parents? The aliens the book spoke of were my people, a great people. Not only had they mastered intergalactic space travel, they built the pyramids. They were gods. Tomorrow, then, would be the day I left the simulation. I informed Marcie, who was seven, of my imminent departure. She looked up from her coloring book, cocked her head, and with an air of erudition she would perfect as a teenager, began questioning my logic. If this were a simulation, then exactly who did I think I was saying good-bye to?

“You don’t think I’m real. You don’t think Mom was real,” she said.

“You’re not.” And then, faking indifference: “She wasn’t.”

The next day came. I sat and stared at the wall of my room. My father came in and ordered me to take a shower. He may have been largely absent in the years immediately after our mother’s death, but, minus the dentist appointments, one thing he remained a stickler for was our personal hygiene. I refused to get up. He grabbed me under my arms and lifted me to my feet, pushed me to my open bedroom door. “Go on.”
I didn’t move. “You’re not even real.”

“That may be so, but you stink.” He pointed to the door. “Get in the shower.”

We went back and forth a few more times. He commanded; I refused. He never really appeared angry until he was stripping off my clothes. I kicked and squirmed and screamed, but he got them off. He picked me up under the arms again, carried me naked into the bathroom, and plopped me down in the tub. Marcie watched us from the doorway. I clutched my hands over myself and sobbed, eyes clenched shut. I felt the hot water spray my shoulder, heard the metal shower curtain rings scrape across the rod. The door clicked shut. 

.  .  .

That may be so. An odd way for a father to answer his son’s accusation of irreality. For 30 years, I haven’t thought much about that day, had forgotten about it really until he mentioned my mother. It got me thinking about that book. I don’t think Dad believes or believed aliens have visited Earth. He reads all kinds of things. I remember seeing him read Silent Spring and Walden, other books with titles like The Population Bomb and The Waste Makers. I asked him what that one was about. He closed the book and pulled me up on his lap. “Mindlessness,” he said. “Moneymakers turning us into zombies.” Mom was still alive then. She walked into the room. “Leave the boy alone, dear,” she said. 

But I think Dad liked the idea of visitors from space, maybe for the same reasons I did when I was ten years old. It pointed to the possibility of something greater, something more than mills and pollution and double mastectomies and dead mothers and wives. 

When I left his house, I dug the book out of a box in the basement of the duplex apartment I’m renting and flipped through it; it’s all nonsense, somewhere between new age pseudoscience and the ravings of a schizophrenic, but it’s not without its quotable passages. At one point, von Däniken says we must admit our insignificance by looking to the cosmos for answers: Only then shall we realize that we are nothing but ants in the vast state of the universe. 

And, not surprisingly, he thinks like my father, insisting everything is evidence of intention or design. Could it really all be mere coincidence? They’ve finally found a way to kill us all.

On Monday, my students want to know if I think someone will go to jail for the chemical spill. I say that it’s often hard to establish any one individual’s culpability in these cases. What did they know? When did they know it? I explain that because the chemical was grandfathered into a 1970s toxic substances law, it’s not considered “hazardous” and no one was required to prove otherwise, which means it’s A-okay that the facility hadn’t been inspected for decades.

They seem personally affronted by my answer. Kevin even looks up from his cell phone to express his view that it sounds like a bunch of bullshit to him.

“Some would agree,” I say, and ramble on about the differences between criminal negligence and criminal recklessness.

Later in the week, the company receives multiple citations from the Department of Environmental Protection. They file bankruptcy a couple days later. It doesn’t look like anyone will go to jail, but I convince Dad his water is perfectly safe to drink.

.  .  .

Evening, I’m outside his house, the house where I grew up, where with my ear pressed against a door, I heard a hospice nurse named Sally console my father as my mother took her last breaths. Where I imagined waking up on a different planet, in a different galaxy, my old existence not just behind me, but erased, negated. Sometimes I still picture the faces of my alien parents, exactly as I did as a kid. I see their big green heads and strange mouths. When I think of my mother, the real one, who wanted to move south for a better a life, who saw through my father’s stark exterior an honest man worthy of love, I have only flashes. Disturbances in the corner of my eye. Fragments of sentences. Scenes with the central parts missing. I wonder if this makes me a bad person. Marcie never talks about what she remembers; I never ask.

The house is dark, but I know he’s home because he no longer leaves. Though I’m surprised not to at least see the television flickering through the window. It’s been almost a month now, but every day there’s still news about the spill. There was a second chemical no one knew about. Schools closed when people again smelled licorice in the air. Residents marched on the utility company because they were billed for contaminated water.

Inside, he’s at the kitchen table bent over a photo album. He slides a picture out and holds it up to his face, almost so it touches the tip of his nose.

“Dad,” I say, “why don’t you turn a light on? It’s nearly pitch black in here.”

“I can see, kid.” He puts the picture down on the table and taps it with his finger. “My father. You never knew him. He was crippled. The Parkinson’s. Stuck in the fetal position by the end of it. It was only me and your mother to take care of him. We were just married.”

“You’ve mentioned that before.” 

“He grew up on a farm. Well water full of pesticides.”

There’s a slur in his voice. He’s not wearing his dentures.

“Sit down,” he says.

“Can I turn a light on?”

“No.”

I sit down. He flips through the photo album. He points people out, names names, gives me dates, occasions, weaves together a whole unified story of births and deaths and marriages, holidays and vacations, lost dogs and alcoholic aunts. Even if I could see the pictures, I’d have no way of knowing if anything he’s said is correct. It’s all alien to me and maybe just as elusive to him, I don’t know. Near the end of the album there are photographs of my mother.

“I still think about her,” he says.

“Of course you do.”

“She always wanted to move someplace warm.”

“I know.”

On my tenth birthday, after I came out of the shower, damp and clean, we went on as normal, Dad and I. Meaning he came to the top of the basement stairs and gave me a look that said: Let’s never speak of this again. As a teenager, I dreamt of screaming at him at the top of my lungs. I’d wake up terrified and hating him for it. I said that I once believed he was not my father; the truth is I merely wished he weren’t. I’ve never had his power of belief, that faith in my own conclusions about the world.

“She was a good woman,” he says. 

Then I ask, for the first time, “Why didn’t you move away?” 

“You get a job one place,” he says. “You get a house one place. Your kids go to school one place. You get settled. I never saw the point.”

I watch him linger over the pictures. He’s a shadow, and so am I, hardly even there. I’ve never seen him without his teeth before, and even in the dark, I can see the change in his toothless face, the smallness of his head, his loose skin stretching and contracting like accordion bellows. He closes the album, gets up without another word, sits in his chair in the living room. The TV comes on, flashes its light across his face. It occurs to me that he is the saddest person I have ever known. I imagine telling him this. What would he say? That may be so? I try to resist feeling sorry for him because, somehow, it seems the respectful thing to do, the loving thing. Then I imagine him disappearing, the way my mother has. What will I remember about my father thirty years from now? Which images will survive? Will any of them be real?

I hear a female news reporter’s voice. There’s a new virus epidemic in west Africa, unrest in Ukraine. Dad’s eyes are closed. By the rhythm of his chest, I can tell he’s already fallen asleep. I get up, turn off the TV. Put a blanket over his lap like he’s a child. It’s the least I can do. It’s all I can do.