By Richard Lutman
The line in which stood had become both boring from its familiarity, and as warm and comfortable as a country kitchen. The women, burdened with their plastic containers, moved into the hallway of the pumping station, and took their places, as they waited for Tom Cassidy to start the daily water allotments.
Mary Barger, however late she came in, always took the corner seat on the wooden settlement, easing her bulk down, stretching her swollen legs, complaining, but cheerful. She could have only a gallon a day, she and Joe Barger living alone, while tiny Rita Collins was burdened by having not only George her son and her two youngest married daughters, Min and Jen, and their babies, who had moved in when the shortage became so acute.
Babies, of course, received extra water, so that at least once a day they could be properly washed. What became of their bathwater, either before or after their baths was nobody’s business. The villagers lived on an island, surrounded by bay water, with the open ocean at the southern end. Water in plenty they had—but not for domestic use.
For many weeks the hot sun still blazed down upon slopes and fields now burned dull brown or red with fox grass. The sky was pale and high; no one could believe autumn could last so long, for it was almost Thanksgiving, and there were still thickets of leaves outside the pumping station, festoons of pale yellow bittersweet vines, and deep crimson where Virginia Creeper clung. Back inside Mary Barger fussed about her feet.
“I need to soak ‘em,” she said with determination. “I need a deep tub of hot water to cool down. Summer, I could ease the pain sitting on the shore, feet in a cold pool. At least that kept my feet clean and the heads, that fret my kids,” she said. “My two girls, they’d wash their hair twice a day, after swimming—hours they spend showering and rinsing and setting. Now all we hear day and night is how we gonna look nice using only a synthetic hair cleaner?”
“With us, it’s baby bottoms,” said Angie, her hair in a scarlet bandanna. “My Jim’s don’t respond to Desitin, or Johnson’s oil; and the rash just never clears up. The little biddy water we get for him don’t help one bit.”
“You tried baking soda?” asked Rita.
“Tried everything’” Angie said with a sigh. “He cries all night sometimes. Not quite so bad now that temperatures are down.”
“We never gave it a thought,” said old Annie Crow, her white hair covered with a scarf. “When folks in California were having shortages a few years back we just wondered how their toilets stank, flushing only once a day. Once a day. We can’t even use our toilets now.”
“Now, Annie, don’t fuss and think back,” said Rita. “There’s lots of places stuck the way we are. They say the government’s going to start convoying water in, pretty soon.”
“Not here, it won’t,” said Angie with annoyance “We got water—only thing is it’s not enough.”
“How do we know—maybe there’s plenty; they’re just keeping us short, in case.” Mary Barger said. “Since I was a girl, the reservoir never ran dry; still had some water in it. We used to say it had no bottom, went down and down, and we’d laugh at the way people fussed when the water dropped.”
“No laughing now,” said Rita with a frown.
“Ladies.” The door had opened from the hallway to the office of the station, and the two men brought out the pump and the weighing paraphernalia to start the water allotments.
By now, the line of men and women reached well out into the parched hard driveway. Rita remembered when there had been an attempt to divide the island in half, and alternate water days by areas. This had brought cheating—if the men were not careful, some people could slip in every day with their bottles. Now the water was handed out every day, in smaller quantities, but everyone had access to it this way. The long process began: stand in line; show your card; have your name checked; move ahead; shuffling step by step; wait for the men to fill your single gallon container, or two; then move quickly out the side door and away. Every day the same, and every day no more or less water.
Rita Collins needed help with her jars, for her daughters were too busy with their babies to help her carry and the other children were at school.
Two of the older men helped her to her car. “Now Rita, take it easy,” they said in soothing tones. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” She flashed her old grin at them, slammed the door, and drove north to the nest of shacks and semi-ranches where her tribe lived. No one was quite sure on what they lived—though the daughters with babies presumably were married to the two young men who drank beer, fiddled with their car engines, and fussed with fancy fishing equipment.
“Her Tracey needs watching,” commented one of the men. “Only tenth grade, and pretty as a picture. Knows it too.’
“Rita was prettier.” This came from down the line from another senior citizen. “Had my Bill on a string for years. Had to go in the Navy to get away.”
Back in her car Rita knew when she was gone the line would move on, slowly but without pause. After all, the same procedure had been going on now for four months—and before that, before the wells had gone dry, and the whole island community depended on the two reservoirs, those on town water had been restricted. Their meters were read once a week, and fines for those who had overrun their quotas. But it was different now; everyone rationed. The neighbouring communities on the mainland had some limitations as well; artesian wells helped supply the thousands of homes within driving distance from the city. Here, once it was found that people cheated, manipulating their water meters, the state government went to huge expense to install locked meters with electronic controls that shut off water after daily allotment had been used.
Rita was afraid of the meter men who carried small handguns and were permitted to make out summons or arrest homeowners if they ran across irregularities. Everyone feared corruption; older persons remembered rationing during the Second World War and remembered its abuse when thick juicy steaks and gallons of gasoline were available on the black market.
Rita knew well that water was different. It was God’s gift, it was a necessity to man; no one should hoard it for their own use, or fail to share what little they had. Emotions were surface close, and near boiling on the subject of water. And yet they were surrounded with it—today, with its November wind grey, disturbing the surface, it held familiarity, but no menace. She had heard the talk of giant desalinators being built in the west. But that too had brought problems and violent protests; if they started using the ocean for water, what would be left when they run dry?
Rita had reached the north end where her land ran through blueberry patches, scruffy bay, and oak, but had stopped for goat’s milk at a neighbour’s for the babies. Water being hard to come by, goat’s milk was better than mixing drugstore milk substitutes with water. Farm animals had water priorities. This seemed odd to Rita, why some old cows could drink their fill from special tanks, while her kids had to watch out for the last drop, and the babies had to depend on goats for their sustenance. It was hard for her to figure out who made the rules, and why; if Tracey was to do well at school, she must look clean and neat. Tracey was her last chance, for the other two girls had been pretty and too willing, but Tracey was pretty and bright, and willing to get ahead as fast as she could, and out of the north end even quicker. She was a little fighter, and possessed a sturdy determination, totally belying her small size and pink-cheeked innocence.
Rita wished she could get Tracey on the Beauty Pageant circuit—even a Junior Miss prize could give her a chance at scholarships, nursing school, even secretarial school would be a start. But how could she win anything if her hair weren’t shiny clean, her face glowing, fresh-scrubbed with the island’s soft swamp waters? Rita remembered the years she had saved rainwater in barrels to wash first her own, and then her children’s hair. Rain. When was the last time they’d seen rain?
Summer had brought weeks of steamy clouds, fogs that were heavy with city dirt and dark pollution—but no sweet hard driving rains. Rita had stopped her car and unloaded its contents onto the back porch of her section of the group of shacks that housed her tribe. The girls, Min and Jen, babies on hip or at heel, ambled out to take their water and their goat milk.
“Mom,” one of her daughters asked. “Can you mind the kids—we’ve got a chance to ride into town—there’s a sale advertised on TV for snowsuits.”
“Snowsuits?” Rita wasn’t pleased. “Who’s taking you?”
“Some fella that knows Tom,” said Min. “We’ll get the kids lunch and down for their naps first.”
Rita snorted. “I suppose you’ll be held up, so I’ll have to give them suppers, and you two show up past midnight, and with enough liquor breath to knock me down, and all wore out with dancin’.”
“Oh, Mom,” They started to whine. “We got this chance to take showers and really wash our hair—this fella Tom knows has his own well—lives way out in the woods somewhere, and it’s not registered yet. We gotta take the chance.”
“What about the snowsuits? When do you two ever tell me what’s really so? Showers. What else will he give you?” Rita glowered but knew her objections were futile.
The girls would go where the girls wanted, do whatever came into their heads, moved by whatever instant spirit moved them. Pretty as pictures, both of them, even without makeup and false lashes, even with untidy heads of unwashed hair—Min and Jen were pretty enough to make her proud of them. But they were nothing to Tracey, and she was determined to set Tracey on a different road than the flowery path her two sisters had taken; married or divorced or annulled, neither had finished high school. Tracey must go on after graduation to a better life. And in the meantime, where was she? Hopefully, safe in the Earth science classroom.
Tracey, along with the Earth science class, had been taken by bus to the University’s Earth Science department on a field trip. There they had picked up a graduate student who was to guide them imparting all the information he had learned in the last weeks about the causes of the water shortage — why this year, and why in this part of the country; why so extensive; what it meant for the future; what change of jet stream miles above the Earth had caused the change of water fall. As he imparted his knowledge, which he did as they reached the bleak reservoir, with the grey, baked mud beaches, and the vast drop from its dam’s steep sides to the trickle of water going through, she found that he was talking to her. She had only to look intently at him and her net was thrown.
Nod Brace, short for Nottingham Brace the Third, was known to her. He was one of the summer people who, because he was attending university, had become a winter islander, and Tracey knew him by sight: his leggy blondness, his craggy face that was not handsome (it could not be with its beaked nose), his diffident gentle manners. Tracey had served him Cokes and cones when he came into the Island Conery shop, but as he was not one for small talk and passing the time of day, the exchange had been only of cost and change. She didn’t think he’d ever seen her, until now with unblinking eyes, she followed his every word. How glad she was that she’d worn her precious Irish sweater today. It looked perfect with her russet corduroys. She began to scour her brain for a good question to ask when he’d finished his spiel, something that would show she’d listened, but still wanted more information on some salient point. But she didn’t have time, for once he’d finished, and the group broke up to walk back to the bus, there was Nod beside her.
“Haven’t I seen you somewhere?” he said, not even using an original gambit.
Tracey wasn’t quite ready to let him know she was just an Islander, so she said instead, “Have they had any success with seeding the clouds? I mean the jets that go way up, to precipitate rain?”
“Nothing conclusive,” he answered. “Experimentation doesn’t seem to lead to specific results. There’s always the danger of destroying the prevalent patterns. Do you have to go back to school now? I mean, on the bus?”
Tracey decided to take a gamble. “No, we’ve no more classes, this was a lab, sort of.”
“Can I take you somewhere for a soda or something?” he asked.
“Let me tell the driver I’m accounted for.” Off she went, and told some story, but giving her friend Bonnie Lee the facts. She came back to Nod, who put her in his car, not a VW, but a Jeep, for which he apologized. “I have to go way back in the woods and where the roads are not good, just ruts and bumps. But it gets me places.”
And so they drove off, through the oak and pine woods, where the long grasses were russet and pale brown, with cedar’s dark accents, outcroppings of rock on the roadside. Fronds of honeysuckle, still green or fluttering yellow leaves of bittersweet made patches of colour against the leafless trees.
Tracey told him she was born and bred on the island, and though she sensed a small pause and a slight change in his manner when he found she was a Collins from the north end of the island, it didn’t seem to change his appreciation of Tracey.
Tracey would never even try for Junior Miss Rhode Island. Just knowing Nod ended all that. She was already on a step far above the ladder of beauty pageants — being in his old Jeep, and he in his worn jeans and jacket, driving through the backwoods of the university campus.
She, a high school senior, was out with a university grad student, and not just an ordinary one—one with the patrician background of a summer colonist on the island. Tracey did not feel inferior to Nod, nor that he was condescending to her; her Collins blood came direct down from the early settlers on the island—there had been a Governor Collins, somewhere before the Revolutionary War, and several Collins were sea captains of old wooden lumber schooners, and she was proud of this part of her origins.
To be like her sisters was not within her compass, for they were easy-going, pleasure-loving, lazy; they wanted a good time, and the good time to continue as long as possible. The annoyances of having babies, or having a husband, were incidental to their life philosophy—take it easy and have a good time. Her mother still had some grit in her, but the battle for bread and meat had worn her down. Tracey’s father, though handsome as a portrait, worked in a toll booth on the bridge. Lacking vitality, too proud for labor, he had let his house tumble into slovenliness. He always put off mending the roof till he felt better, or till he was a little bit ahead on his bills. He put off fixing the potholes in the lane until they broke the truck’s springs. Then put off fixing the truck until he’d mended the potholes. And later quietly died, rather than make an effort to recover from pneumonia.
That was when Min and Jen really began to run around; until then Rita had held them in hand by threatening them with “I’ll tell your father,” as though that handsome wreck of a man could in any way hold back their growing restlessness for womanhood, for men, for sex, life’s tangled richness. But Tracey, looking up to Nod’s profile, listening to him talk, knew that she was different. She was not Min or Jen. Her meeting with Nod was somehow preordained, by whose hand or how she did not question. It was her destiny, for ill or fair.
He was so serious. He had to keep talking about serious subjects, mainly the water problem. He was very scientific and sure of his facts, yet would give a quick look sideways down to her that for all his bigness and shyness was tinctured with awe.
“If a big storm came,” she was saying, “I mean a really huge one, like a hurricane or typhoon or something, could that bring rain and change the drought pattern?”
“It might be cataclysmic,” he answered. “Not one of the hurricanes in the last three years has come up the coast as they used to—all have gone eastward across the ocean or a few across the Gulf. But oddly, there have been fewer than normal. No explanation we can figure out.”
He pointed out the once marshy-bottomed woods were now dry, and the foliage and wildlife therefore changing. Dust clung to leaves and stone; they could not drive fast, or the dust clouds rose almost at their approach. Fire was a terrible hazard, Nod told her. With the winter coming, and people using wood for stoves, living on the edges of wooded areas, the danger of fires increased. The towns and cities all worked out a system to pump saltwater from the nearest source—this was easy, as the bay waters and little salt estuaries cut deep into the area. But that did not help communities further inland, the tracts of state forest and old farmlands turned housing developments. They were suffering more than the cities, with wells running dry, and ponds and streams dwindling.
“What’s going to happen to all the turtles, frogs, and salamanders and things,” asked Tracey.
“A lot have gone already.”
They had come out into the main road, and Nod turned into the parking lot of the Indian Queen. They entered showing their ration card registers as student and teacher, which permitted them eight ounces of fluid at two coffee break periods. Tracey took a Fresca, and Nod took a beer. They went on talking and talking, about the drought, although that was not their chief concern. “How will you get home? I’ve taken you off your bus ride.”
“Just drop me off after you cross the bridge,” she said, not really wanting Nod to see the north end complex too soon.
“I have another lab to take, can’t go until six.” Nod looked puzzled. “Could you sit in the library for an hour, then I can pick you up and take you across the bridge?”
Tracey would have sat in the library for hours to be picked up by Nod. “Okay, I can do my homework while I wait.” And so it was arranged.
Only, once in the library, the two boys at the table Tracy chose fooled around and talked and kept her from even opening her Earth science book. Then Nod came, and they went off into the gathering dark.
The Town Council was to meet that evening with the ghastly problem of no water topping the list of usual issues, licensing, zoning, school budget, etc. There had been violations of the new water laws. A few people who still had water in their wells were hoarding it. The new privy regulations had to be okayed and put into practice. Plumbers came out ahead financially whether there was water or not. The new privy designs were very advanced, utilizing solid waste procedures. All the expensive leaching fields were, of course, useless without water, although some chemical companies were coming up with fluid substitutes at a terrible expense. No one quite knew what was ahead. Would the drought get worse? Was there a chance it would ever end? Would water be trucked in from the south or Midwest? New York was already arranging piping to come down from the Finger Lakes and above, at tremendous expense, by providing labor, they counteracted the many jobs that lack of water or water shortages had curtailed.
All the New York window washers were out of work; the streets were no longer cleaned; car washes were a thing of the past; rinks for ice skating were being concocted of synthetic ice rather than threaten the profession of hockey, entertainment, and instruction. So the Town council sighed, and its president Marve Bolder went through his agenda without verve, grim and unsmiling. The latest suggestion that the town build and organize communal baths, as it already had communal toilets in the village itself, had to be thrashed out. In the summer, of course, there was no problem, with the blue and sparkling waters of the bay. Was it possible to set up a communal shower complex, heating salt water in the winter, so that at least there would be plenty? It seemed a sound idea, and one worth following through. The waste, of course, could be hooked into the toilet system, which being made of plastic, would not be damaged by salt water. The meeting ended on a positive note; money would be appropriated; bath hours like the fresh water at the pumping stations would be set up and regulated. Marve could even chuckle.
“Some hadn’t bathed for years would now have to take their turn willy-nilly,” he said to himself.
And indeed, many of the old-timers, salty old fishermen, tough and ancient wives, might not welcome this newest regulation.
The three ministers of the three churches had sent a joint request for a special Thanksgiving Day of Prayer, with a procession from each church joining to march to the site of the old town spring, where once a horse trough had stood. They wanted permission to restore the trough as a symbol of the hope that water would sometime flow into it again. The trough had been found intact in the town hall’s shed; it was a nice one of hewn granite.
Beside the three choirs there would be the school band, and the three congregations would form a circle around the old spring and join in prayer on Thanksgiving. The Town Council gave its permission, only ascertaining first that the expense of installing the trough was to be taken care of by an anonymous islander. The thought of a parade and its publicity and excitement brightened the members of the Town Council considerably, but also made Marve forget to bring up a rumour he’d heard that the pumping station was giving out for unmentionable, extra water to some of the island women.
Corruption on the island, real corruption, existed in the past only when a builder to make a sure and fast buck, had sent a present or passed an envelope to his own member of the zoning board, or the building official; or the state health department for passing a questionable perc test. Corruption on a large scale did not exist, mainly because the village was too small and everyone knew each other too well. A sudden affluence, a new car, or a new powerboat, and questions would be asked: death in the family? Wife started work? But to take bribes for water, crystal clear and scarce water, what kind of corruption was that? How could Marve prove a rumour and one that involved the moral involvement of the island wives? People were just so suspicious these days, anyhow.
He’d talk to his wife about it, Betty, his plump and jolly Betty. She’d find out for him who was giving her you-know-what for more water than she’d been assigned. His Betty, dark and comfortable, always a good meal on the table and on time; the kids in order, and no back talking. He’d been glad when, with the two children in school, she’d gone back to her accounting job off the island; part-time it was, but it kept her busy and gave her a little more spending money.
She had been looking better lately—spruced up her outfits, had her hair restyled. Into his trusting heart there flew the arrow of suspicion –why the new hairstyle? Why the new outfits? What she already had was good enough for sitting at that back office desk. Who was she trying to please? What time was she picking up their water containers? Was she late from work? Marve groaned. Not Betty—the water chief wouldn’t dare. Marve visualized Baker Collins—the same good looks as Rita’s Bowen; but more ambition, more ability. He’d run the waterworks and pumping station with efficiency, open to suggestions from the town, or from state authorities. He’d been the good Collins twin; good or bad, the brothers were both known for womanizing, and with Bowen gone, Baker had to keep their reputation flying.
Marve was relieved now that he had not brought up the rumour to the council. When he discovered more of its truth, he would be in a better position for its discussion. What was the matter with the world, upside down as it was with no man’s wife safe from outside temptations—or in truth, from her own yielding or going out to find temptation? This miserable women’s right thing. Set them all thinking the wrong things and searching for their self-fulfillment. Didn’t give in and make way for their husbands the way they used to. But his Betty—he could not think of her in that way. Jolly and open, talked to everyone, strong in opinions, pleased with her life—why would she debase herself for water? Well, she probably hadn’t; it was just worry and the strain of the drought that brought such things to his mind.
The line in which she stood had become both boring from its familiarity, and as warm and comfortable as a country kitchen. The women, burdened with their plastic containers, moved into the hallway of the pumping station, and took their places, as they waited for Tom Cassidy to start the daily water allotments.
Copyright© 2021 by Richard Lutman