City on a Spill
May 14, 2010
Late last month, as you’ve already heard — though, unless you live on the East Coast you haven’t given it much thought, just as we Bostonians never gave more than a few moments’ of horrified consideration to disasters in California, on the Gulf Coast, or halfway around the world — an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig caused oil to spill from the Pilgrim well, just off the coast of Massachusetts, a few thousand feet below sea level. Every day since then, as you can see for yourself by typing “Boston” into the Google Earth-powered Gulf Oil Spill Map, between 200,000 and 2 million gallons of crude oil a day (according to which estimate one chooses to believe) have gushed out of the Pilgrim well — and oozed inexorably landward.
Within a few days, the oil had reached New England’s once nearly pristine beaches, damaging (probably for a decade, or perhaps forever) the local fishing industry, and the habitats of hundreds of bird species. Currently, at its northernmost extent the spill has reached Portsmouth, N.H. It stretches southward from there along Rye Beach, Hampton Beach State Park, and Seabrook Dunes, then down along the Massachusetts coast through Salisbury and Newburyport to Boston (via Plum Island, Ipswich, Rockport, Gloucester, Manchester, Beverly, Marblehead, Swampscott, Lynn, Nahant, and Winthrop — quaint names we’ve heard repeated on the nightly news, like a winter school-closing mantra, for weeks now), thence down to Scituate via Quincy, Hingham, and Hull. Hundreds, maybe thousands of seabirds, fish, otters and seals, as well as some whales, float motionless, belly-up, Xs on the eyes, in a sort of foul chocolatey mousse churned up by the dwindling waves.
By April 29, wealthy private citizens in southern Maine and the town of Duxbury, Mass. (to whose rescue the semi-retired rocker Juliana Hatfield has rushed), had mobilized nearly 200 cleanup vessels — including skimmers, tugs, barges and recovery vessels. Over 100,000 feet (19 miles) of containment booms were deployed along the coast; by the next day, this nearly doubled to 180,000 feet (34 miles) of deployed booms. Hatfield helped fund Duxbury’s efforts by convincing Evan Dando and members of the Blake Babies, Del Fuegos, Gang Green, and Slapshot to join her in performing a moperock song celebrating both Duxbury Beach as a major, unspoiled, natural recreational asset, and Duxbury Bay’s active shellfish industry — thus managing to bridge the gap between the previously feuding fisherfolk, conservationists, and tourism industry professionals. The song, “Feelin’ Massachusetts’ Pain,” has been downloaded over 6,000 times, at $2.99 a pop. So far, thanks in no small part to the combined actions of Hatfield and the Bush and Clinton families, the oil spill has been prevented from spreading any farther north or south.
However, these efforts have had, shall we say, unexpected consequences. “Topography,” as the Boston Globe’s Alex Beam parroted, over and over again, “is destiny.” After having saturated Boston Harbor (and its islands), the oil spill — “spill” sounds too innocent, too gentle a word for the horror this phenomenon truly is — bumped up against the mainland.
Curious, we Bostonians flocked to beaches and docks, pointing and gossiping; I’m ashamed to say that some of us even picnicked within sight of the newly formed bitumen. Overnight, however, or so it seems in retrospect, the oily leviathan hunched its dark brown shoulders and o’erleapt our shores. Logan Airport was submerged inside of a 24-hour period. The low-lying coastal areas (a phrase I’ve heard so often, on the Weather Channel, without really thinking about it) were inundated first. Here in Boston, this meant the financial district, East Boston along Chelsea and Bennington Streets, and large swaths of Charlestown and South Boston.
Soon enough, the oil had surged over the Charles River dam, and spilled into Cambridge and the Back Bay. The brown tide extended from Fenway to UMass-Boston in Dorchester. The Mayor, the Governor, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Ben Affleck, members of Aerosmith, Giselle, Jonathan Papelbon, and a woman dressed as (we assumed) Louisa May Alcott appeared on television, reassuring us that everything was OK — while in the same breath announcing that all power to the city would soon be cut off, lest a catastrophic fire get started. Meanwhile, the seaside towns of Revere, Winthrop, Quincy, Hull, and Hingham were evacuated; and once the oil spread up- and down-river, so were Somerville, Cambridge, Malden, Everett, Medford, Braintree, Weymouth, and Milton. Though I wasn’t there to witness the evacuations first-hand, I don’t believe cynical rumors to the effect that wealthier and lighter-skinned citizens were evacuated days ahead of everyone else; or, at least, I’d prefer not to believe them.
Downtown, we saw on television, before the signal was abruptly cut off, the scene was chaotic. Rescuers were scarcely able to move as the oil sucked the boots right off their feet. Trapped dogs and cats couldn’t be removed — so they had to be shot. The black sticky stuff filled cellars for blocks around. Salt water was sprayed on cobblestone streets, homes, and other buildings because fresh water just washed off the stuff. There was looting, rioting, public pot-smoking. Newscasters around the country got their tongues around the word “Massachusettsans.” Molasses Flood jokes wore thin. Still, there seemed no need to panic entirely; no need to join the general exodus.
One morning, Matthew Battles, my coeditor at HILOBROW, and I rode our bicycles from the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain into town — our destination Copley Square. A few blocks away from our destination, the sludge coating the streets and sidewalks to the depth of two or three inches made rolling progress impossible. I should note that we were the only souls venturing in an easterly direction. I should also note that we had to fend off the attacks of desperate men who wanted to commandeer our vehicles. Luckily, Matthew is not only a ferocious intellectual but a fearsome pugilist. I snapped a photo (below) of a hooligan whose nose was caved in by a one-two combination courtesy of the author of Library: An Unquiet History.
Carrying our bicycles above our heads we trudged with great difficulty along the submerged pavement of Dartmouth Street and entered the open door of the John Hancock building, which was all but deserted. The once-gleaming marble floors of this temple of finance were entirely blackened with oil. Ascending via emergency stairwell, after an hour of stiff climbing, we stepped out into the building’s observatory level. From it we could see the streets of Back Bay radiating in every direction, while below us the road was yellow from side to side with the tops of the motionless taxis. All, or nearly all, had their heads pointed outwards, showing how the terrified men and women of the city had at the last moment made a vain endeavor to rejoin their families in the suburbs or the country. Here and there amid the humbler cabs towered the great Hummer of some wealthy magnate, wedged hopelessly among the dammed stream of arrested traffic. Just beneath us there was such a one of great size and luxurious appearance, with its owner, a fat old man, leaning out, half his gross body through the window, and his podgy hand, gleaming with diamonds, outstretched as he urged his chauffeur to make a last effort to break through the press. A dozen MBTA buses towered up like islands in this flood, the passengers who crowded the roofs lying all huddled together and across each others’ laps like a child’s toys in a nursery.
Only one other picture shall I give of the scenes which we carried back in our memories from the dead city. It is a glimpse which we had of the interior of Trinity Church. Picking our way among the prostrate figures upon the steps, some of whom were dead, others covered head to toe in oil and barely alive, we pushed open the swing door and entered. It was a wonderful sight. The church was crammed from end to end with oily, kneeling figures in every posture of supplication and abasement. At this dreadful moment, brought suddenly face to face with the realities of life, those terrific realities which hang over us even while we follow the shadows, the terrified people had rushed into those old city churches which for generations had hardly ever held a congregation. There they huddled as close as they could kneel, many of them in their agitation still wearing their hats. A din of supplication and despair rattled the stained glass windows, which until today only tourists had ever seen.
That was a week ago, and matters have worsened. The neighborhoods of Dorchester, South Boston, the North End, Charlestown and East Boston were drowned in oil; then Allston and Brighton, Back Bay and most of downtown — except for the top of Beacon Hill, which remains above the oily waves for the moment. The southern and western neighborhoods of Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, Mission Hill, Roslindale, West Roxbury, Mattapan, Hyde Park — abandoned, but for a few stragglers like ourselves. Still constrained from befouling the Bush and Kennedy compounds in southern Maine, or the white sands of Duxbury, the oil slick now known as Boston’s Bane has progressed inward and onward. Along the border of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, the towns and cities of Amesbury, Haverhill, Lawrence and Lowell have been evacuated. The territory north of Boston and Cambridge — including Saugus, Peabody, Danvers, Andover, Tewksbury, Wilmington, Lexington, and Arlington — is all but derelict.
Trees and other plant life can survive being flooded by water; when flooded by oil, they begin to wither and shed leaves within hours. Boston’s Common, its Public Garden (whose greenhouse-grown plants were too garish for some people’s taste), the Commonwealth Avenue Mall lined with sweetgum, green ash, maple, linden, zelkova, Japanese pagoda, and its famous elms… blighted. The Back Bay Fens, the Riverway, Olmsted Park — once again, they’ve become a swamp, a lifeless one. The Arnold Arboretum — except for its hilltops — looks like nothing so much as Mordor.
To the west, the oil has choked off Watertown, Waltham, Wellesley, and Needham. To the south, Randolph, Norwood, and Dedham are kaput. However, by dint of a concerted effort involving booms, sorbents, chemical and biological agents, vacuums, and even bagels and croissants, the suburb of Brookline did hold fast for a few days longer than the once-glorious city which surrounded it on three sides. But the constant stream of refugees from Boston quickly made such defense efforts impossible. Newton’s town managers, meanwhile, had for years been secretively spending millions of tax dollars, not on schools or municipal workers’ salaries, but on the latest technology in spill containment — a wireless network that inflates bladders which employ disposable gas cylinders, or something like that. Details about this network are vague, because Newton was wiped out in fewer than twelve hours.
The oil spill now covers 2,500 square miles of earth and sea. Miraculously, or perhaps thanks to the near-daily rainstorms we’ve had this spring, the Flood has not yet been followed by Fire. But… that surely will not be the case for long. The fear-crazed summer residents of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Berkshires are considering a “planned burn” which — according to sane people — will turn into a holocaust, not only for any men and women remaining within the oil slick’s perimeter, but for every citizen of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, even in the unbefouled regions.
Along with our families and a select group of friends, Matthew and I have holed up in a redoubt atop a solar-powered liquor store here in West Roxbury. Supplies of goods that we’ve raided from Roche Bros. Supermarket are dwindling, it’s true, but downstairs there remain crates full of pretzels, cocktail olives, and Red Bull. (Fresh prose is in short supply, too, which is why I’ve borrowed two paragraphs from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt when describing the scene in Boston, above.) The black sludge flows around us on every side, three feet deep. Abandoned cars, uprooted mailboxes, and corpses move past our redoubt. The fumes are intense; although the windows of our fortress are closed, a thin glistening film covers everything inside.
As the photo above demonstrates, our colleague, James, volunteered for the strenuous task of manually pumping oil out of the liquor store’s cellar. Night and day, we can all hear him down there — cursing, sobbing, then laughing wildly and singing “Rule, Britannia.” We think he’s actually enjoying himself, as these are much the same noises he used to make whenever we’d remind him that a deadline for an installment of his serialized novel-in-progress was approaching.
President Obama has called the spill “a potentially unprecedented environmental disaster,” but so far, no helicopters have arrived to bear us to safety. On NPR, experts are debating a long list of interlinked variables, including the weather, ocean currents, the properties of the oil involved and the success or failure of the frantic efforts to stanch the flow of oil and remediate its effects. Let them debate! The editors of HILOBROW will hold fast to our position, surviving on gin-and-tonics, pickled onions, and beef jerky, and posting updates via solar-powered WiFi, until the bitter end.
READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE
Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).
What do you think?
Good lord, his face is like an exploding sun!
I’ll tell you, it’s done wonders for the parking situation. Remarkably though, the meter maid continues to slog up and down Centre St., handing out $15 two-hour parking tickets. I guess we’re all just doing whatever it takes to feel normal.
Yes, I’ve seen that meter maid. I think she saw that Kevin Costner movie about the post-apocalyptic mailman? I tried to get her to carry a note down the street from our redoubt to yours, asking you to send me some Ngaio Marsh novels for my wife, but she wouldn’t respond to my shouts from the roof.PS: James’ face, or the guy Matthew socked? Or Ben’s?
Oh no, Tom meant James’s face. Such a handsome man.
James’ face – wow.
Yeah, I watched her blank faced stare as she put a sixth ticket on the window of a Ford Explorer whose owner, I know for a fact, was dragged under by oil holligans three days ago. Maybe you could attach something to her and I’ll try and grab it when she comes past.
As the remains of the Carboniferous swamp-things explode into their component elements, – and they will – your wildly temporary redoubt on top of a liquor store would seem to add fuel to the fire with a most unfortunate specificity. As Dana and Enfield to our west would advise: evacuate swiftly; eulogize at leisure.
That’s a damn good point, Peggy. The MSM is avoiding the whole issue of exploding swamp-things. But where are you, anyway? You’re one of those clean-footers who left town before everyone else, aren’t you? It’s Evacuation Day 1776 all over again; the Tories have fled for New York.
Since I am sitting in an office in Waltham, Massachusetts (a city that is now funny because they say its name on “30 Rock”), and not in a redoubt in West Rox, I obviously didn’t make the cut. Eff you all, oil-suckers. (Runs, sobbing, into a closet to eat vegan jerky.)
Announced today: a HiLobrow microfiction contest where you post your story to the comments on this entry. Click on link in this comment to read guidelines.
They set the fires three weeks in. At first, everybody wondered what the government would do – but the “government” had abandoned the slicked-over marble walls of the Hill. That was on day three, back to their constituencies. The fires spread from outside the beltway inward, filled the mid-Atlantic air with thick carbonic smog, which fell with the normal May precipitation and forced survivors indoors.
The National Guard, FEMA and a few other aid organizations airdropped food and water through the black clouds, but unless the packets landed on rooftops, the sludge contaminated them too quickly. A lot of people died from hunger and thirst because they were too smart, or from poison because they were too desperate. It got under your skin, into your lungs, all over everything you touched.
Between the “not-in-my-backyard” Virginians and the coldly pragmatic prevailing heads further up the corridor, the consensus was to cauterize the wound before it got any worse. They took a vote and rained thermite on the creeping edges of the mess. Nobody much cares for the back-room dealing and bacon trading of Washington anyway.
The fires spread: scorched the empty, looted shells of row houses and luxury apartments north of Independence and West of North Capitol; made rivers of flame out of the viscous canals of crude that once bore metro passengers into the city; burned down America’s history. Burned us too.
When the conflagration cleared, months later, the acid rain swept clean the ruins of a city.
In the bar everyone talked about the slick. There was plenty to discuss. The toxic, incendiary slime crippling the shipyard. The loss of fishing and jobs. Patrons grumbled that Bremerton wasn’t getting nearly as much assistance as needed, that the fat cats in Olympia only cared about the rich folks in Bainbridge and Seattle.
“So how are the seals?” Mike asked me. He wasn’t as hostile as usual. Normally he only mentioned my work to declare it a waste of taxpayer money.
“Covered in goo,” I replied. “Like everything else in the Sound.”
“So, what do you do?” Trish asked, an unprecedented kindness in her tone. “Clean them off?”
“Pretty much,” I said. I wondered why my brother had asked me to meet him for a beer. Mike never wanted people to know about the liberal treehugger in the family. A few regulars were giving me the stink-eye. I wondered if they gave all newcomers the same look, or only the ones with WDNR written on their jackets.
“Good thing we didn’t by that house on the water,” Trish said, nudging Mike. No one laughed. Sheepish, she examined the label on her bottle.
“Chris, you know about this stuff,” Mike said. “Is it really as bad as they say?”
I knew then why he’d asked me here. He wanted me to say it was nothing a little hard work and elbow grease couldn’t fix. My bootstrapping older brother had run into something he couldn’t control. And it terrified him.
When the spill hit Rochester, no amount of PR or damage control could contain it. The sludge crawled slowly up the Mississippi River and it had turned Iowa into a giant black lake. Crude engorged every tributary, including the humble Zumbro River. The Zumbro cut through Rochester, running mere blocks from the Mayo Clinic.
Cancer victims coughed and hacked, lungs suffused with petrochemicals.
“Suppose we could shuttle them underground,” a nurse said on her break, cigarette perched on her pale lips.
“We could,” a doctor said. “But that would take time. Time we don’t have.”
“Could send everyone to Scottsdale.”
“You’re kidding, right? The entire state’s been under martial law since the boycott went viral. Plus gas is too costly to ship them there.”
The conversation papered over the dilemma they had to face. The sludge, vomiting forward in obsidian brilliance, killed everything in its path. Traffic stopped, people stayed home, and vegetation died. The disaster, a nostalgic horror movie nightmare (The Blob) and blunt economic metaphor, congealed.
The plains represented an ideal: Real America. Or so the advertisements crowed. The flat land became the ideal geography for the oil. No mountains, no pesky cities, and no idea how to counter the spreading ecocidal disaster. Entire fields died under the dark deluge.
In the visitor guides, the churches covered two pages easily, yet no one recognized Noah’s Flood. God had a wicked sense of humor. “Your blood for oil,” He said.
Day 1: We crowd along the water’s edge to watch the stain spread, a solemn black lily unfurling its petals. The Worst Environmental Disaster of Our Time, they’re calling it, but it’s hard not to see a sort of perverse beauty to it: the sun glinting off the iridescent slick and the birds swarming above in confusion (not knowing whether to land on the strange water or head south for the winter or what) and, of course, the potential for profit. Vendors walk up and down the beach selling paper wedges filled with roasted nuts, plastic binoculars, t-shirts that read: “I Survived The Oil Spill!”
Day 3: Dead fish wash up against the oil-choked weeds, bobbing among the usual beer cans and candy wrappers like sad little boats. It isn’t beautiful to watch anymore, nor is it particularly beautiful to smell, so we fold up our lawn chairs and go home to play board games and wait.
Day 5: We wake to find a man floating facedown in the water, sans identification, his lungs full of oil. Where did he come from? We don’t think he’s from here but he’s wearing a t-shirt that says “I Survived The Oil Spill!”, a stylistic irony which is, of course, both funny and not funny at all.
Day 7: Our babies won’t stop crying. On the radio they assure us that the National Guard is working its way towards us, but it’s already been a week and hell if we aren’t getting thirsty.
Evan, P.E., KW, and Other Ingrid, thanks for entering our latest microfiction contest! We’re off to a great start.
The confusion was crossed with an animal. Small Michael Pautlin nudged a black bird that once was white life but was now slick; shiny little feathers in the sunlight. Looking around his town from where he stood, what he could see was covered in crude blankets of synthetic lubricant. It was a small town, but the mess made it…smaller. The blossoms of springtime promise were now choked into sorrow while teams of diligent men and women tried to remove suffocating animals from their slippery, sticky entrapment. Large groups of mask wearing, gloved, goggled, hooded volunteers scrubbed with brushes turned black from use. And small Michael, decked out in his yellow rain boots, told not to leave the front porch, watched his parents clean along with other parents from the neighborhood.
Michael thought of an incident when he spilled a glass of milk in the living room, watching it stretching out in white reaches making the carpet moist and sour smelling. And oh, how his mother had let him have it. But this was not like that. It was like that, but not like that. Michael stood and watched, wondering who would get it for this mess.
Michael’s father was approaching the porch when Michael felt a deep sadness stick as a pit in his stomach. This pit would grow internally to a sorrow tree and the fruit would spread as mighty tears from Michael’s eyes. His father looked just as sad, but older in his sadness. Their dog was missing.
The oil spill was the beginning.
Once we realized the spill wouldn’t stop until the well ran dry, possibly years later, someone set it on fire. The flames spread across the ocean as the oil poured out and dispersed, killing whales, dolphins, fish and other wildlife creatures en masse, along with their habitats.
Then the Oversoul appeared.
It said that we had ruined what wasn’t ours, and transplanted the burning oil to the world’s major cities – all of the black blood flowing out from beneath the earth’s skin would forever be poured upon us. A fiery hell, indeed. A full year went by of dirty, hot, and dangerous living before the collective psyche collapsed and the rioting began, destroying thousands of years of civilized growth in a matter of days – death by humanity’s own hand.
Ten years later and the oil still flows, caking all areas of human population while leaving nature herself pristine and untouched. Most of humanity has died, and those who remain survive in the top levels of what few monolithic buildings that still stand, securing our bleak lifestyle from the sheer physical weight of the hundreds of trillions of gallons of oil waiting outside our doors and windows. The volume of oil is far more than physically possible, courtesy of the Oversoul.
We await our death, but fear for our lives; we ponder whether it’s better to burn or to drown in the fiery doom of our own creation.
When Isaiah’s God at last opened up the fountains of the great deep, it was Japan who was the most prepared.
How could a country with no naturally occurring myth of, religion of, or philosophy of an eschaton have been so well prepared when the oil seeped forth and then flooded forth from the ocean depths? I don’t know, and the Japanese government allows very few in the population to know as well.
Government mandated filtration is the new age. Censorship is so prevalent in the media; Japan may as well be an isolated country again. “More than sixty percent of the Japanese coastline is barricaded by concrete and tetrapods.” and “Japan’s riverbanks and riverbeds are reinforced with concrete,” are the only reasons the media give for why the oil was stopped from penetrating the interior of the archipelago. Concrete and concrete alone! No one believes, but no one knows otherwise.
The new A.D. 70 happened. Japan may not have had an eschatology before but it sure does now. Japan’s new oil eschatology is born from and is rooted in science; the science of obstructing, separating, and cleaning. Except for the stories from the “Black Ships,” as the locals call them, which anchor in Sendai port every few months, I have no news of the outside world or of what could have happened to my family in America. But from what the sailors say, the oil has flowed into every crack and stone of every temple in the world.
Alia usually scavenged the Yerba Buena Cove (the landfill reclaimed when the Ross shelf collapsed [then lost again to oil]). Today, however, as she slid her oil-skatr over the end of Market Street, a boat (rare out on the oil) caught her eye, and soon she was heading to meet the potential derelict. A few long pulls brought her close enough to see it was from Green Peace and (unfortunately) quite inhabited. Crewmembers weren’t visible but the pipes used to filter oil–at least when on TV–were out and the pumps audible. Something was strange though; ripples were moving away from the boat. “They’re fucking pumping it out?” she thought, reaching for her camera. However, while groping for it, dark figures broke through the oil-covered water, completely surrounding the skatr.
Naked and dejected in the boat’s storage room, she puzzled over the situation, concluding that Green Peace use the spill for propaganda, and it must be exposed. After stripping her protective gear and clothes, and sinking the skatr, they left her in the unlocked storage area, explaining she couldn’t reach the shore in the oil, but “They don’t know Alia very well.” With a roll of plastic wrap from the supplies, she covered her chest and everything below the waist, then grabbed some lettuce for her nose and mouth, and mounted the windowsill. “Photos would be nice but the story is hot and an independent, like HiLoBrow, might still take it” she thought, flipping backwards, diver style, into the greasy bay.
Run, my tattoo says. It does that when I’m in the Slick, the barcode etched in my forearm glows the stop sign-red that means mosquitoes with Dengue are close. The Oil Studies people flock behind me, an asthmatic chorus of squeak-toy wheezes and sandpaper breaths. Even behind the respiratory masks the air tastes like a WD-40 cocktail. “You from here?” one of them asks in a voice you save for panhandlers you give a quarter to. Yeah, I say, my boots sloshing through clumps of hydrocarbons that the air turns Threat Level Orange. I’m from here.
Didn’t know much but fishing. Then the Slick took away the shrimp, crabs, oysters. Gone just like that. Gone like rotary phones and typewriters. Now I’m a per-diem shepherd for Up-Northers through a swamp as hot as the Cretaceous was, when all the dinosaurs lived that became the sludge we’re walking through now. The scientists kneel down and take readings, sinking to their thighs as if in a kiddie pool. Later we come up on what looks like white snowballs. “What’s that?” one of them asks me. Northern Gannets, I tell him. “They’re shivering,” he says. “How can they shiver in this heat?” The oil breaks down the feathers, then they freeze to death, I say. “Huh,” he says and goes back to his tests, while the bird melts into the Slick like a marshmallow in a steaming cup of cocoa.
Run, my tattoo says again. Run.
Abermoray recognized Hazel immediately. There was no mistaking the lean of his gait, his tourbillion approach, that thunderous roar she felt when he edged over the horizon. She watched him advance from the same grassy knoll he had left her on sixty years ago. He tore apart her community, left the village in ruin, yet repair had all but erased his memory.
The world has changed since then, far beyond her viewshed. The air is thicker, a dense smog that erodes her masonry. Roads are cut from meadows; priorities are obvious in infrastructure. The once rural village has expanded rapidly, young buildings filling every acre. She watched them grow from the farmland, offspring of cheap material and hasty design. They make her feel old, a beastly relic of Georgian craftsmanship.
Hurricane Hazel left so weak that he was declared dead. Once a monster fallen to the continent, he returned from the abandoned coast an abomination, his strength regained from the tar-filled oceans. A dark swirl, he appears more smoke than water vapor. His toxic winds choke her inhabitants. Sheets of oil fall from the sky, a deluge of blood-brown rain that runs by the rivers and coats every surface. The crude seeps through the cracks of her wrinkled cladding.
When he finally pauses above her hipped roof Abermoray still expects to see him as he once was, a being of nature driven by forces beyond his control.
But in his eye she sees betrayal.
And in his wake: A spark.
To be fair, the Gowanus Canal has never been particularly clean. It’s said that even Peter Stuyvesant enjoyed relieving himself over the side of the canal, and once, while doing some research at the public library, I stumbled across a document from 1667 censuring one Geesjie Van der Zee, a 25-year-old Breuckelen woman, for dumping her kitchen offal, six hundred pounds of it.
The neighborhoods touching the canal have had their ups and downs over the years, but with the recent Brooklyn vogue, it’s been easier to ignore just how filthy the thing is. On every block there was a box warehouse or string factory being converted into a coffee shop cum art gallery or a farm-to-table bistro. Still, we thought this might be our time to change, our turn at a crisis.
Those of us who live in the repurposed lofts along the canal, the welders, craftspeople, writers, and the livery drivers who idle at the carwash on 3rd Avenue, had been watching the huge slick overtake New York’s waterways with knowing smiles. NY1 was doing a bang-up job following the city’s response, police boats deployed to the piers, beaches and ports of the five boroughs, a sparkling display of technocratic majesty by the mayor and his poker buddies at Homeland Security.
And then they announced the plan to save the city—by corralling the oil in the Gowanus. The mayor suggested it might be a net gain for us: “At least we’ll know what’s going on down there.”
“I’m tellin’ you, Junior, even though Galveston’s dyin’ and knee deep in goo, this is our lucky day,” said a reclining Billy-Roy into his cell.
“You’re crazy or drunk,” said Junior. “Probably both.”
“Color outside the lines fer once,” said Billy-Roy.
“Southeast Texas is done. We’re done. We can’t shrimp, we can’t make money. The nickels and dimes the oil company’s gonna throw at us won’t do nothin’ but prolong the inevitable.”
“Member when Hurricane Ike blew all those empty oil drums off of BP’s dock and we sold ‘em back to ‘em for salvage?”
“Not following you.”
“Oil’s going for seventy bucks a friggin’ barrel and it’s warshin’ up on the beach fer free. All we need is to get some buckets, scoop it up, and sell it to the refineries in Texas City. We’ll be livin’ in Beverly Hills next to Jed and Ellie Mae quicker than Donald Trump can find a TV camera.”
The phone went silent. Flipping it shut, Billy-Roy fished between his thigh and the arm of the chair.
“Must be lookin’ for a bucket,” he muttered, popping the top of his latest and most probably last catch. Attempting to counter the oily stench floating in the air, he cranked the dial of his breathing machine to ten. It accomplished nothing.
Hey, Billy-Roy thought, Spinal Tap’s guitar amps went to eleven. First thing I’m gonna do when I get rich is call Nigel Tufnel about his knobs.
We all joked about having to rename the Steelers the “Oilers”. Our Renaissance was about to have its own Renaissance, with the wealth the vein promised. I think that’s where we went wrong. There was more talk about commerce and new parks than there was about surveying the well before the drilling started.
After the fire, the spill started along the bank of the Monogahela, under the Tenth Street Bridge. The river immediately dragged the inky nightmare along the south shore of Pittsburgh and directly into the Ohio River. In a heartbeat, we lost two of our three rivers. No one was ready with a plan to stop an uncontrollable flow at the bottom of such a fast body of water. The oil sloshed across the riverbank and into the city, but it was the worst at the Point. Where the fountain used to be, the city was now a blood soaked arrowhead, plunged into the heart of an invisible leviathan.
We were back further from where we started. The oil caused more economical, environmental, and spiritual damage to Pittsburgh than the fall of the steel industry ever did. The fish died immediately and everything else soon followed. Oil caked pigeons littered downtown and now my city was, once again, synonymous with pollution and despair.
They still haven’t plugged it. Pittsburgh lays contaminated and dying and her arteries reach all the way to the Mississippi.
Before the first oil well was drilled, in Western Pennsylvania, oil came from seeps and whales. Even knowing that, I thought of Texas when I thought of oil. But of course since last month, everyone knows there are hundreds of active wells in the Pittsburgh suburbs.
We live up the hill from the woods where the Penn Hills oil well went to hell. I used to ride my BMX on the dirtbike trail down the hill. We built a jump over that pond that’s on all the aerial maps of the incident zone. Vic was the only one who could clear the whole pond on that jump.
Vic lived down on Cedarbrook Rd on the other side of the woods. They’re saying no one will be able to live there for fifty years. Did you know crude oil stinks? The natural gas carried on the wind smells like farts, the oil like rotting leaves and feces multiplied by a thousand. Multiply that by 30,000 barrels a day which now gush from the growing sinkhole where the pump and the pond and the dirtbike trail were, pouring down Plum Creek. Plum Boro is effectively cut off from us. The five minute drive to church and school is now a forty mile detour. St John’s backs on Plum Creek anyway, so even if you could get there, it’s part of the disaster area.
If the sinkhole keeps growing, the hill will go too. They still don’t have a plan to stop it.
1400 years ago, we were baptized in oil. When the deluge came, our ancestors could not breathe, could not drink, could not sing. Like fiery ink, the oils drenched them all, suffocating the weak and forever changing the lungs of the strong. Bodies writhed and shook, skin rippled and screamed.
For some of our people, the change came quickly. For others, the ebb and flow of time brought its gifts at a slower pace.
We know so little of their lives, of the paths taken by those who survived. The rare voices nearly submerged by the dark waters spoke only twice into the devices, recording only snatches and breaths from their troubled time.
They were feverishly rebuilding a barren land, a sickly population, a shattered sea. They had little time to sing their histories for the benefit of our far-flung ears.
We have made great sacrifices. We have lost much that was once vital. We have changed from a race of builders to a people obsessed with shadows and darker hopes. But we have persevered, and that is all that matters.
It took our people many years to become strong enough to seek the balm. Now, we are ready.
1400 years ago, the oil nearly drove our people to extinction. Today, we take our revenge. We will repay our debts in oil with a river of blood, and we will restore the balance that was lost so many lifetimes ago. Retribution is at hand.
Today, we sing.
Love all these stories — keep ’em coming! Deadline is June 5 at 5 pm (EST).
A Flower is just a flower, right?
Short is life
Leap the wonder
Fresh rose first so simple
Lost in the sea
Drenching budding red
Light tightly wrapped
Around my forehead
My goggles steam
Under the water
Crude oil coating red
Petals, sagging heavy
Dead loons in the sludge
I come up for air
Clenching a thorny stem
And those two
Somebody’s love thought
Breathe to darkness
This is our country
This isn’t their outfitter
The cool still night
Under a starry clear sky
Wading a clammy ooze
Am I going to die for this?
Sick long, long after
Wading through this?
I’m almost 40 but I’m
Still as curious as a kid
When I come to the shore
Gross and content
I turn off my flashlight
Drop the rose on a rock
Place the loons on their bonfire
Lie on the beach
Looking up at the moon
Breathing cool air
For a moment I see
Your beautiful face
In the moon
I close my eyes to dream
Stuart wondered what happened to the electricity. It had been off for days, which was longer than normal. He used to watch the news, but he’d destroyed his television long ago. There was too much that gave Stuart ideas.
He’d limited himself to staying indoors and ordered groceries by phone. He didn’t have a computer because that often lead to him looking up things he shouldn’t. He didn’t like going outside, either. People looked at him funny.
The town seemed dead. Stuart sensed some commotion when the electricity stopped but he didn’t investigate. It was okay if he didn’t know what the emergency was. Stuart preferred keeping to himself. If he stayed indoors, he couldn’t make problems.
He had a need to create.
Stuart had urges to birth the only thing a man could.
Stuart was getting hungry. Cooking was difficult because his diet consisted solely of cold food. He’d ripped out the stove and microwave long ago. He couldn’t handle having such temptation around.
At last Stuart couldn’t handle it any longer. He promised himself he would behave. He thought prison had cured him, but on the outside he realized while locked up he didn’t have access to temptation.
Stuart stepped outdoors and saw everything as far as he could see covered in oil. The prettiest thing he’d ever seen begged to him. Stuart knew satisfying the urge would kill him, but he thought it was better to die in a bright fireball than to fizzle out as nothing.
We first saw the oil on TV. A john had carved on me: GARY HATE. Maybe it was something about the lines and angles in the letters, but it was healing only slowly — in hours not minutes. I watched the slick grow. I liked the way the oil smoothed everything, making it look fused and unfinished, like my own skin as it knitted.
Then I could see it from the window of the upper room. A stain spreading offshore. There was no staunching it, as if they’d finally cut beyond healing. Gary Hate cut deeper too. Above our door a sign reads “For the satiation of perverse desire. By Order” But Gary did not ever look sated to me. I feel no pain, only an itchy, half-pleasurable pressure. But there was something hungry in his eyes still even as he washed his hands clean of me.
The slick hit the shore in the third week. There were scratches on Gary when he arrived. Defensive wounds. One on his face, and a conflagration on his wrists. Afterwards, I returned to the window. I watched the sea lap at the beach, leaving a smear of scum behind each wave.
He was still on the bed, watching me, when I returned to him. I bent down and smiled. I wanted him to see something kind. Then I held my hand over his mouth and nose until he stopped kicking. I counted to fifty, then strolled out to the beach.
Yes, Ahmet is right; it is the color of over-steeped tea. But of course it’s thicker. Thicker than blood, which they say is thicker than water. Thick as thieves. Thick-skulled. We speak in idioms most of the time, he and I. They trip off the tongue, they’re multipurpose; the Swiss Army knives of English.
The tea is in the mosques now. It pools inside the toes of shoes lined up outside the Hagia Sophia. The Golden Horn is filled now with black gold alone, and the fishermen stand idle along the bridge. The children make oil paintings on the walls of aging buildings; they trace shapes with their fingers, toes, noses. They taste it. Women, skirts hiked up to avoid the sludge, wander about with pails of brown, soapy water. The ground shines.
Squeals of the oil-stained children aside, Istanbul is largely silent. The street dogs, who rarely deign to move beneath the summer heat, have found no reason to alter their behavior now. The richest have already fled inland, to Ankara, to Van; the less-rich have taken to one of the seven hills of New Rome.
I, less rich than the less-rich, have stayed in my apartment, which, though near the Bosphorous, is on the fifth floor. I cannot take my eyes off the water. Off what, underneath the oil and detritus and fish, I must believe still to be water. Water is life. Like water under the bridge. Water, water everywhere.
Ernie says he can smell it, and I say he can’t, but he says that’s because I’m not from here. Not really. The Sound smells the same to me—vegetative, rotting and growing at the same time. The soft rain sizzles as it hits the surface of the water, and then there’s the hiss of it filtering past the barnacles encrusted on every slice of rock, pottery and rusted metal that make up the floor of Budd Inlet. “A fucking graveyard,” says Ernie into his phone, as he hauls one fist-sized moonsnail out of the muck with a sucking sound, then leaves it behind, the great muscular foot exposed and feebly undulating. I’ve hauled him down on the beach, off his own pier for the first time in years, to gather some baseline data before the oil hits, but mostly he’s just on his phone, trading rumors of the damage hitting elsewhere. Here at the southernmost tip of the current, we’ll be the last hit. “You people,” says Ernie, and it takes me a second to realize he’s not on the phone, “You come from California and Minnesota because you love the mountains and you love the water. And now look what happens.”
“I’m from Boston,” I say. I hear the chatter of a kingfisher that’s been working alongside us for an hour, kiting high in the air, then diving, over and over, without catching a single fish. “What a waste of energy,” says Ernie.
– Olympia, WA
OK, it’s after 5 pm EST on June 5. Entries into this contest will no longer be accepted. However, feel free to post more stories to this comments thread.
Announced last night: the winner of this contest is A.E. Smith; the three runners-up are Charles Pappas, P.E. Zimmerman, and Ingrid Bohnenkamp. HiLobrow will donate $100 to the Center for Biological Diversity in honor of Ms. Smith’s story, and another $150 in honor of the finalists’ stories. We’re thrilled to report that Ms. Smith has offered to match our $100 donation. The CBD is doing important work — please consider donating!
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