“Slow Poison,” New Era, May 1998, 32
When our bus rolled in, we didn’t realize Silver Lode was a town with a crisis. But then, our bus had a crisis too. And we didn’t exactly roll into town, either. We sputtered in and coasted to a very dead stop in front of the local Ben Franklin store.
We untangled ourselves from our Walkman headphones, bags of snacks, and the wadded-up jackets we used for pillows. One by one we stumbled on stiff legs off the Clark District school bus and into bright sunshine. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” somebody muttered as we looked around.
“Okay, everybody, just listen up for a minute, please.” Mr. Watkins, our band director, stood in the shade of the narrow awning over the store window. He looked even more rumpled than usual, trying to tuck in the tails of his short-sleeved plaid shirt. “The driver’s gone in to phone the district garage. And then we’ll try to find a mechanic here in town. Go ahead and stretch and walk around, but please don’t go far, stay in groups of at least three, and be back here at the bus in 30 minutes.”
The director turned to talk to Vince and Betty Scholes, parents who had volunteered to chaperone our small high school jazz band for this trip to the Northwest Band Festival.
“Gee, a town this big and this exciting, and we only get 30 minutes.” Mike Forsgren’s voice bulldozed into my consciousness as I looked in the variety store window at faded displays of work clothing and school supplies. “I’d like to spend a couple of days, see a few shows, visit museums. Hey, Reed,” Mike raised his voice. “C’mon with Harrison and me and we’ll check this place out.”
Clint Reed is one of the most perfectly named people I know. He’s as thin as one—a reed, that is—and he plays the clarinet. Mike’s favorite line is “Hey Reed, step out from behind that thing so we can see you.” Mike, on the other hand, is beefy, with a reddish face and big hands that make his trumpet look like a toy.
So we flipped a coin to determine the direction and started off down the main drag of Silver Lode. Mike, Clint, and me, Josh Harrison, a very average-looking guitarist.
Like most of the towns we had passed in this part of the state, Silver Lode wasn’t much to look at. It was just off the interstate, small and narrow, squeezed on two sides by rolling, forested mountains. The hills were blighted here and there with rusted machinery and the yellow-brown streaks of mine dumps. The side streets held old homes, widely spaced among big old trees. The old main street, which used to be the highway, had a small city hall with an old war memorial in front, an appliance store, a shabby real estate office, a tavern. And half a block away, on the other side of the highway, the Bluebell Cafe.
Cafe. The word leaped out at three guys who were always hungry. As we approached, we could see a hand-painted sign in the window.
“We serve and cook with only pure, bottled water,” Mike read aloud as we stood in front of the cafe. Then, before we knew it, he was inside at the counter, ordering in his loudest voice, “A glass of your finest, pure, bottled water, please.”
They have good ice cream at the Bluebell, and we were just finishing our cones as we got back to the bus. When we were all gathered, Mr. Watkins told us the part for the bus wasn’t available anywhere nearby. Another bus was on the way, but we would have to spend the night in Silver Lode. The Scholeses were back at the motel we had passed when we left the freeway, arranging for rooms. “I’m sorry we’ll have to miss the first day of the festival,” Mr. Watkins said, “but at least we’re not scheduled to play until the second day.”
It took a while before the Scholeses got back, and lugging our suitcases and instruments to the motel was hot work. The motel sign touted free coffee and free cable TV. We had to share rooms, of course, and Mike and Clint and I opted to stay together. As we stood at the desk to get our keys, there was another hand-lettered sign: “Bottled water is available for drinking. Please ask clerk.”
“What’s with the bottled water in this town?” Mike asked.
“Well,” the clerk said, “about four months ago the state found heavy metals in the water here. The stuff leached into the water supply from all of the mine dumps and tailings.”
“Heavy metal! Whoa, that’s not for us,” Mike said, looking over his shoulder at me. He turned back to the clerk, leaned forward as if in confidence, and said quietly, “We’re into jazz ourselves.”
The clerk looked blank for a moment, gave a half smile, and went on. “Tap water’s fine for bathing and for brushing teeth and things like that. There’s no bacteria problem. But they don’t recommend drinking it until they hook us up to another source.”
We each got one free one-liter bottle and headed toward our room. It was small, but it would do for one night. Clint immediately turned on the TV and began channel surfing, while Mike grabbed the TV listing to see what was on today. “Hey,” he said, “at nine o’clock Carnal Killer is on. I’ve been wanting to see that.”
“What’s it rated?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“It’s rated R, but some guys I know saw it and said it was just for some language and a few scenes. It’s nothing you haven’t seen or heard before.”
“Face it,” Clint added, “it can’t be worse than the stuff we see and hear in the halls at school.”
What could I say? Clint was right. I had seen and heard some pretty raw stuff, and so far I still had a testimony. I was still planning on a mission. And I hadn’t killed anybody yet, or even committed any serious sins. So I didn’t argue. Clint and Mike went back to channel surfing, and I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth because my retainer had left my mouth tasting kind of foul.
The bathroom had glasses “sanitized for your convenience,” and I unwrapped one, got out my brush and paste, and brushed teeth and retainer. I rinsed several times, spit, and out of habit took a drink of water. Here in this mountain town it was cold and refreshing. Not until I went out and saw the bottle of water on the bed did I remember.
I groaned out loud in disgust. “I just realized, I drank the local water.”
“How was it?” Clint asked. “Did it taste more like mercury or lead?”
Mike sipped from an imaginary glass, gargled, and swallowed with a loud gulp. “I also detect iron, copper, and zinc, with overtones of trout. Obviously the finest stream water money can buy.”
Then Clint jumped in again. “With all of that metal in you, you’re probably a better conductor than Mr. Watkins.”
And so we laughed and joked all the way down to our practice session, crammed into the motel’s small lobby. The clerk really seemed to be enjoying it, except for the few times he had to give us the hand-across-the-throat signal to stop so he could answer the phone. Afterward, it was time for dinner, and as long as we stayed in groups and were back by dark, we had our choice of the Denny’s-type chain restaurant next door or the Bluebell, half a mile down the road. We chose the Bluebell because it was different. And thanks to Mike, we were known there.
In a booth with patched red Naugahyde seats and gray Formica tabletop, we studied the menus while our waitress poured water. Mike put his hand over his glass just as she was about to pour his, and she dumped about a cupful on the back of his hand before she could react. “I’m sorry,” Mike said, “but could I have your assurance that this is pure bottled water?”
I thought she would get mad, but Mike turned on his famous 500-watt smile, and she smiled back. “Believe me, this place would get shut down if we served tap water.”
The waitress finished pouring Mike’s water and reached for my glass when an idea hit me. I reached out and covered my glass too, and everybody shot me a quick this-could-get-old-in-a-hurry look. “Wait,” I said, “what if I don’t want bottled water. I tasted the tap water in this town earlier, and I liked it. One glass isn’t going to hurt me, is it?”
It was a slow night at the Bluebell, so I guess she had time to be patient with an obvious idiot. “No, I don’t suppose one glass will hurt you. Heck, you could drink a pitcherful and it wouldn’t kill you. But the metals build up in your body. It can’t get rid of them. I’ve got a five-year-old and a seven-year-old, and they tested high, so they need special treatments because those poisons are even harder on kids. I get tested tomorrow. Who knows what it’s done to me all these years.”
The Bluebell’s specialty is fried chicken, and it really was fine. Clint had the meatloaf to see if it was any better than his mom’s. “Maybe there’s no such thing as good meatloaf,” he said thoughtfully as we walked back to the motel.
In the distance, the motel’s sign was brighter in the dim light of dusk. Free Cable. Free Coffee. “That free coffee sounds kind of good, doesn’t it?” I said. “Maybe I’ll drink some of that free coffee while we watch the free cable.” Mike and Clint didn’t even bother to reply. They knew I didn’t drink coffee, and neither did they. It wasn’t even an issue.
An old pickup went by, spewing blue smoke, and there was the smell of diesel fumes from a tractor trailer rig idling nearby. “I know one thing,” I said as we stood outside the motel for a minute. “I’m going to drink cold tap water tonight. I mean, it’s not like I haven’t drunk it before. Besides, there are lots of pollutants around. I wouldn’t be taking in anything new.”
I stopped talking and looked first at Clint, then at Mike. Finally Mike rolled his eyes. “Okay, Guitar Boy, I get your message.”
Clint looked from Mike to me and back again. “What?”
“The movie, Carnal Killer,” Mike said with exaggerated patience. “We were talking about how it didn’t have anything we hadn’t already been exposed to in the halls at school. Now Guitar Boy here,”—he put a catcher’s mitt-sized fist on my arm and shoved—“is saying just because we’ve been exposed to some pollution, that doesn’t make it smart to take in more.”
“I remember reading for a report in a health class,” I said. “Those heavy metals stay in people’s tissues. And then I thought about the images and jokes and words I wish I didn’t remember, and how they settle in the brain.”
Clint didn’t say anything, just nodded. And we went to report in to Mr. Watkins.
I wish we had cable TV at home. Those old Mary Tyler Moore shows are kind of fun.