Spring four years ago, I was offered a job at a local environmental research center to test samples and run machinery. That was before the center’s budget cuts were announced and my coworkers were laid off one by one, a process I escaped from. Now it’s just Andrew and I in a white building filled with empty desks and computers, all an off-white that looks like the yellow of old age, but is really just the yellow of someone’s design choice. Andrew and I work in the lab of the building, a constantly humming set of rooms that, I think, might have given me tinnitus.
I work next to a river that runs a deep gray-blue in the spring and freezes over a pale turquoise in winter. Some areas are swampy with reeds growing twice my height and a plastic pathway mowing them down; some areas are foaming and white, with stones atop of rushing water that flows through man-sized pipes underneath.
The first week I came here, I bought a pair of leather boots to keep the red dirt surrounding of the waterbanks out of my socks. Almost immediately I had formed a habit of taking walks around the area after work, and sometimes before. The very first day I stood on the plastic pathway sturdy above the lapping water in an area freed by the reeds, mesmerized by the way the water ran so dark and reflected light in even domes, never staying still. I felt an urge to let myself fall in to touch my palms to the moving mud at the bottom of the river, even though I’m deathly afraid of drowning. Some teenagers found me once, torso half-draped over the plastic railing, just looking into the moving body. They must have thought that I was crazy.
Over the course of my weekday walks in the past four years, I’ve seen a lot of dogs, fishing rods, and older women gossiping in pairs that venture through the river. I’ve only met another person so transfixed with the water as I am once, last year. He was tall and disheveled, and his name was Jackie. He always had a smell in his hair, something like grease but a little like car engine. The first time I saw him was after work some time in February, when the January chill was relenting and the ice caved in around certain portions of the river.
He always had a smell in his hair, something like grease but a little like car engine. The ducks hated him. I saw him after work. Sometimes we talked about baseball, which he really knew nothing about, and sometimes we talked about the river. Sometimes he would turn his gray face down towards me and exhale something colored, always musty and pungent.
“Why do men fish here?” Jackie once asked.
“For sport,” I answered. “We warn them not to eat any of their catches.”
“Sport? I thought sport was baseball.”
“Sport is entertainment.”
“The fish die.”
“The men get diarrhea.”
It is now a bit after my one year anniversary of meeting Jackie, if you can call it that. He has greeted me every day after work in the same exact spot week after week, season after season. And as we approach summer, Jackie has been smelling stronger of gasoline - I decided gasoline was the name of the odor that always surrounded him after I discovered that my car suffered a fuel tank leak a few weeks ago when I went to get it washed. I thought it came from the slicked-back, shiny black hair he always sported, but the occasional whiff has spread throughout the air around him. I think it would be a bit rude to point it out. Instead, I yesterday all I mused about was the coming heat. Summertime is approaching. Summertime, when the river runs heavy and bright, full of active life and movement. The air gets hot and holds onto sharp smells closely. Birds are aplenty, and people of all ages come to stand by the rocks. Yet nobody is ever around when I meet Jackie.
A job of mine and Andrew’s is taking samples of the river water and soil every season for river quality check, and we chose today to do the deed. Andrew, a man with a dull sense of smell and the clumsy hands of a toddler, commented only on the refreshing feeling of dunking his arms into the water as a release from the humid, pulsing air around us. Summer had hit us with full force. Yet as the motorboat roared us through the river, all I could think about was the pungent smell rising from the water we touched. Feces, gasoline, and a whole array of chemicals I couldn’t name wafted up in the air and into my skin.
I left the white building today with sterilized hands (soap and sink water) and a fuzzy mind, exhausted from standing against the wind of the motor boat all day. Yet I still took my sweaty walk alongside the river. Jackie was there.
“Why the long face?” I asked. Jackie never really smiles, but his complexion is unusually dark today. His eyes bulge out of his face when he stares at me.
Before I can ask another question, Jackie says, “I must be going soon.”
“Huh, even river freaks like you have appointments?” Honestly for all I knew, Jackie never strayed from his spot by the river. Although he technically isn’t allowed to stay in the area after dusk.
“I suppose an appointment is what it is,” Jackie says before the sides of his neck slit.
“The dissolved oxygen levels are low today,” I say. Andrew and I took them that afternoon when we were on the motorboat.
“I will do what I can to breathe.” Jackie’s skin reflects the summer sunlight. I wave goodbye and the water ripples.
Man to fish, dust to dust. The river runs black. My samples peak in the GC.