My editrix and I both love the following scene, but we’re debating about whether to leave it in or pull it out for inclusion in another book. It is one of my darlings, as in ‘kill your darlings’. We’re meeting later this week and I’ll let you know.
“Esther, why do Dad and Lloyd fight so much?”
Esther leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes for a minute before she answered. “Two different worlds, sonny. There’s always been problems between folks who make their living off the trees and the rest of us, fishermen and oystermen. The sawmills were never all that good for the fish, but ever since your dad’s paper mill came in it’s been killing off……Gahdammit!”
Esther put down her glass, launched out of the chair, and stomped across the concrete floor toward Jimmy Basket, an Indian kid about my age, who had just kicked over a five-gallon bucket of fresh-shucked oyster meat onto the floor.
“Gahdammit! Cultus siwash!” Jimmy cringed. From his embarrassed look I figured he’d been called a worthless savage more than once. The shuckers lined up at the long metal table hooted and shouted good-natured abuse at him; they’d all been on Esther’s bad side at one time or another.
Jimmy looked over at his mom for support, but she just shook her head and turned back to her work. She was a short, quiet Indian woman with thick black hair that hung down in a long braid. She divided her time between shucking oysters during the winter and weaving baskets of cedar bark and local grasses to sell during the rest of the year. When things were really busy she brought Jimmy to the oyster shed to clear empty shells off the shucking table and take them out to the yard. Esther said it was as much to keep Jimmy out of trouble as to help. He wasn’t slow or stupid, just clumsy, the way I’d been a couple years earlier.
“Git on over there and wheel those shells outside! No, leave these oysters alone; I’ll clean ‘em up. Miserable, heathen…….”
Her voice trailed off. She retrieved the spilled oysters and carried them across the room to the deep sink, rinsed them, and dropped them in a colander to drain. Then she came back and plopped herself down, breathing hard. “Swear to God, if it ain’t cockroaches it’s piss-ants. Hand me that bottle. Okay, your dad and Lloyd. How much do you know about the mill and oysters?”
“Only that I heard Uncle Lloyd talk about there not being many oysters the last few years. He says Dad’s mill’s the problem. Dad says no, and Lloyd says yes and then they start arguing again. What’s the mill got to do with it?”
“Can’t rightly say.” She poured a little brown liquid into her glass, held it up to the light, then added a little more. “All I know is that the mill uses chemicals to turn trees into paper and there’s some nasty stuff left over when they’re done. The mill dumps it in the bay, the tide brings it down this way and the oysters die. Gotta be a connection somehow.
She took a long sip and set the glass down. “When I was younger, we used to harvest mostly Olympia oysters. You know Mark Twain? Tom Sawyer and all that?” I nodded. “Well, he loved to eat Olympias. Said it was the closest thing to heaven on earth. Now they’re pretty much all dead and gone and we have to farm Pacifics. Shut that door, Jimmy!”
Jimmy wrestled the full wheelbarrow through the shed door and outside, but not before the wind had sucked most of the warmth out of the shed. Esther grumbled and told me to stoke the fire in the stove. Outside a gasoline engine coughed into life. Immediately there was the sound of wheels creaking – the conveyer belt leading up from the shore to an opening at the top of the shed – and another load of oysters came rattling down the silo and onto the shucking table. Uncle Lloyd came through the door and the workers picked up the pace.
“Rain’s letting up a bit.” He gave me a smile and a nod, stripped off his rain gear and stepped over to the stove. “I grabbed Jimmy; sent him down to fork some oysters off the barge. You need him inside?”
“Nah. He’s been losing me money in here. Will’ll help out if it gets too busy.” She turned to me. “You should ask Lloyd about the mill and your Dad.” Lloyd’s smile faded. He pulled off his wet gloves and draped them across the dome of the stove.
“Not any secret,” he said. “You mind?” He took Esther’s glass, poured it half full, and drained it. “I always thought the mill runoff was killing the shellfish around here. I been working the beds since I was younger than you, so I know the pattern. The mill runs full speed ahead and the next season half the oysters are dead or dying. And we’re having the same problem this year.” His face was grim. “Your dad doesn’t see it that way; says there’s no evidence. But he only looks at the tests they do at the mill. I walk the flats every day and smell the stink of dead oysters.”
“What’s gonna happen?” I asked. I had a sudden picture of empty smokestacks, my dad’s favorite smell of sulfur gone from the air, the mill whistle silent at noon. What would Dad do? What would we do?
“Gotta come to a head sometime. I don’t know how the two sides are gonna figure this one out. The mill’s been talking forever about doing something with the runoff; even tried trucking it to pits north of town but it still leaked into Goldsborough Creek and back out to the bay. There’s just too much of it and they don’t want to spend the money to get rid of it properly. And your dad and I aren’t the only ones arguing about this. Yeah, I think something big’s gotta happen, and soon.”
The engine outside sputtered to a halt and the sound of oysters rattling down the chute faded away. Lloyd grabbed his gloves and rain slicker and headed for the door, giving me a friendly squeeze on the shoulder as he went by. Esther pushed another stick of wood into the stove and I sat there, sick to my stomach with worry .