Read Poison Town Online

Authors: Creston Mapes

Poison Town (2 page)

“Momma had your number,” Travis said. “Remember how she got onto you for spying on Daddy’s customers? Hey, don’t smoke around the food!”

“How long ago did your mother pass away?” Jack asked.

LJ ran his cigarette under water, threw it away, and got into the eggs, eating right out of the pan. “Two thousand and seven,” he said with a mouthful. “These need salt. Want some grub, Jack?”

“I already asked him … but now that you’ve gone and stuck your grea-zee grubs into everythin’ … Sorry, Jack. LJ, mind your manners.”

“Same thing’s gonna kill Daddy that killed Momma.” LJ shook the big spoon toward the window as he spewed the words: “Demler-Vargus.”

“Is something wrong with Galen?” Jack asked.

“He’s in the hospital.” LJ tossed the spoon in the sink. “They’s callin’ it emphysema, and maybe it is, but we know what caused it.” He jabbed a finger toward the window. “That plant. It killed Momma, and it’s killed others. But nobody wants to listen to us poor east-siders. We got no voice in this town.”

Travis calmly tapped and scraped at the remains on his plate.

Jack knew that Demler-Vargus, the massive fiberglass manufacturing plant that employed half of Trenton City, had been the recipient of complaints in the past for emitting hazardous pollutants. But as far as he knew, the corporate giant had only received several slaps on the wrist from the EPA.

“How bad is he?” Jack said.

“He’s gonna be okay.” Travis didn’t look up. “Passed out the other night. Wasn’t gettin’ enough oxygen to the brain. Scared the starch out of us.”

“I thought he was dead.” LJ came over and stood by Travis. “He was purple. Sprawled out yonder in the TV room.”

“Lucky there was no brain damage, they said.” Travis picked at his teeth with his upside-down fork. “It’s my day at the hospital, so LJ will be takin’ care of your car.” He looked up at his brother. “You hear all his Jetta needs when you was listenin’ in?”

“I heard. I gotta take care of the fuel filter on that Volvo first, then I got that little day-care bus out back, door’s busted—”

“But you gonna get to it today, right?” Travis said.

“I might could. But it might be tomorrow.”

Travis craned his neck toward Jack. “That okay?”

“That’s fine.”

“You need a ride to the paper?” Travis stood and took his dish to the sink.

“That would be great.” Jack put his gloves on. “You know, we just ran a feature story about the CEO of Demler-Vargus. He was voted Trenton City’s Person of the—”

“That is
the
biggest load of horse manure.” LJ scowled and pulled at his thick brown mustache that reached to the bottom of his chin. “Don’t get me started, Jack. That man is nothing but a murderer, plain and simple.”

“No, please don’t git him started.” Travis finished rinsing his things and put them in the dishwasher. “I can take you to the paper on my way to the hospital.”

“Great.” Jack guessed LJ was frustrated and looking for someone to blame for his parents’ struggles, but his own curiosity was piqued. He’d come away from his interview with Leonard Bendickson III thinking the fiberglass CEO was intelligent, cocky, and filthy rich. “Why are you so sure Demler-Vargus is hurting people?” he asked. “What do you know?”

“Whatever that plant is spewing, it’s killing people,” LJ said. “It’s in the air and the water. I’ve heard
plenty.”

“Like what, specifically?”

“Uh oh,” Travis said. “Here we go.”

“You know what fiberglass is, Jack?” LJ whirled around like a raging pirate, with his arching brown eyebrows and long, crooked nose. “It’s tiny slivers of actual
glass
. We breathe it in day in and day out in this crummy neighborhood. Momma and Daddy been breathin’ it in they whole lives. Some days we can
see it
on the cars and houses. You know what that does to your innards? That plant shouldn’t be anywhere close to any neighborhood.”

“What did your mom die from?” Jack said.

“Lymphoma, eventually,” Travis said as he hoisted on a heavy blue-and-yellow parka. “But she had respiratory problems the last three years.”

LJ slammed things in the sink. “Her mouth was covered with sores.” He stopped, gripped the sink, and stared out the window. “She had a sore throat for years. Used an oxygen tank.”

“Did she smoke?”

“All her life,” Travis said.

“That ain’t the point!” LJ kicked away the gray cat that was poking around the dishwasher. “Smokin’ don’t make you twitch and break into hives till you itch yerself raw!”

Travis snatched his keys from a wooden key board. “We know people who work in there whose health is broken down somethin’ miserable. They’s some horror stories, how it affects the central nervous system.”

“Big joke at the plant is, none of ’em collect on their retirement ’cause they all dead shortly after they retire,” LJ said. “If they last
that
long.”

“I’ve heard things from time to time at the paper,” Jack said. “But it always sounded to me like when there was any wrongdoing, Demler-Vargus complied and cleaned things up.”

LJ closed the dishwasher with a bang. “Jack, this is dirty, filthy politics and greed and cover-up. Nobody wants to do nothin’ about it ’cause Demler-Vargus employs the whole town. It would cripple the entire city if they got shut down. That’s yer bottom line.”

“Daddy got us a big-shot lawyer.” Travis knelt to pet the cat. “Says we’re gonna pursue it hot an’ heavy. Lawyer says we got a good shot at winning some big moolah.”

“Other people have gotten payoffs from Demler-Vargus, but you wouldn’t know about that down at the
Dispatch
,” LJ said. “Probly wouldn’t write about it even if you did.”

“Sure we would.”

LJ shook his head like a spoiled child. “No sir. I’m tellin’ you, Jack, this here is a can a’ worms. The
Dispatch
don’t cover it, and neither does AM 550; Demler-Vargus is too powerful. They’re Goliath. No one’s got the guts to call ’em out and say what’s really goin’ on.”

“That’s enough, LJ.” Travis headed for the door. “Jack’s gotta get to work, and I gotta get over to see Daddy. Oh, that’s right …” Travis rattled around in a drawer until he found a brown bag. “I told him I’d bring him some biscuits.” He dropped three in the bag and wrung it closed. “That’ll do it. You ready?”

“Yep.” Jack followed him to the door. “Look, I’m not promising anything, but if I can get my editor to agree, would you guys be willing to give me names and details?”

“Shoot, yeah. Daddy’s got all the facts. You need to talk to him.” LJ stretched his long arms and touched the low ceiling, then ran his fingers through his thin hair and snapped the elastic band that held the eye patch in place. “But I bet you a six-pack you won’t do nothin’—beverage of your choice.”

Jack reached his hand out, and it was engulfed by LJ’s massive, calloused paw, clean except for the dirt beneath his fingernails.

“You’re on.”

Chapter 2

It was getting light and snowing when Travis dropped Jack out front of the big
Dispatch
building downtown. From there, Travis rocked and rolled his dark green Jeep Wrangler through Trenton City slush puddles and backstreets, on over to visitor parking at Cook County Hospital.

Up on the modern fourth floor, he quietly entered the dark, sterile-smelling room. Daddy was upright in bed, sleeping. Travis set the bag of biscuits down, then went to the window and pulled up the blind, knowing his father would want to see out when he awoke. His color looked better, more like the ruddy brownish-reddish color he usually was.

Travis ducked back out into the hallway, keeping the door open with his foot. “Excuse me—Candace, is it?” He addressed a plump young nurse in aqua scrubs, whose shiny brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail.

“Yes?” Her eyes shifted and cheeks reddened, as if she was surprised he knew her name.

Shoot, we’ve been here how many days now?

“Has Galen Randall eaten breakfast yet? Right here in 411?”

She looked at her watch. “It should be coming soon. You’re one of the sons, right?”

“Travis.” He nodded. “I know I asked this before, but can he have waffles ’stead of eggs?”

“They should know that by now in the kitchen.”

Travis smiled and went back into the room, doubting they would get the order right. People didn’t care about their jobs anymore. Not like Daddy had taught LJ and him—to do your job well, respect others, please the customer, go the extra mile.

Travis sat himself down in the green vinyl chair. His father was fit as a fiddle for seventy-eight. He stood only about five foot nine, but he was lean and stubbornly strong. His forearms were thick, and his hands were small and tough as metal. He could reach unreachable places on an engine, unscrew things, bend, clamp, tighten, and manipulate a motor with his hands like most people couldn’t do with a full set of tools. And nothing ever seemed to hurt those hands, or him—until now.

His father’s face was full of gray beard stubble. He looked older. Of course he had to be fatigued from all this hospital business. They still had the oxygen tube stuck up his nose, but it looked like they had reduced his IVs from two bags of fluid to one.
Good.

Travis just hoped he could get Daddy home soon, because that house and that garage and that piece of property were his life, especially since Momma died. Daddy’d been going to church quite a bit since then too, and that seemed to give him a lot of comfort, which was fine with Travis. Daddy even managed to get LJ and him to church once in a while, when he promised to take them to Ryan’s afterward for the all-you-can-eat buffet.

It wasn’t like Daddy to sleep late, but he was probably still drugged up. Travis stood, took his parka off, and laid it over the chair so Daddy would see it when he awoke. Then he set out to get a paper and some of the vending machine coffee he “loved” so much.

He had the route down pat—out the door, turn right, down the hall, around the nurses’ station. He admired nurses and doctors—people who helped people. Maybe they didn’t make them like they used to, but most were still compassionate and good at comforting those who were hurting in all kinds of ways.

The cramped sitting room was bordered by red chairs. Only one was occupied, by a middle-aged man with blond hair and a cleft lip that had been surgically repaired—and poorly at that. He wore a black overcoat and sat hunched over, elbows on his knees, cell phone glued to his ear. Several coffee tables were strewn with newspapers and magazines. A TV in the corner blared
Good Morning America
. The vending machines were in a nook off to one side.

The seated man didn’t acknowledge Travis, which Travis thought was rude. But the man looked like he was in a pretty deep discussion—who knew, his wife or momma or daddy might be on their deathbed.

Travis put his money in the machine and hit dark roast. It was as weak as the coffee they served at Daddy’s church, but he needed some go-joe. He picked up the steaming cup from the machine and turned around, and the blond man was gone.
Good.
Travis plopped down on the edge of a chair and went through the reading materials.

Wouldn’t you know it … smack-dab on top was a recent Sunday edition of the
Trenton City Dispatch
,
featuring a huge color picture of Leonard Bendickson III, CEO of Demler-Vargus. And sure enough, it was written by none other than their buddy Jack Crittendon, who had just ridden in Travis’s Jeep!

How do you like them apples?

Bendickson’s picture had been taken as he stood inside the plant in an expensive-looking suit, a roll of blueprints under one arm, a hard hat and goggles on his head, one shiny shoe perched on the edge of a fancy fiberglass boat. Behind him was a massive puzzle of heavy-duty machinery—tanks, air ducts, conveyor belts, tubes, scaffolding, drums, gauges, and a giant furnace throwing flames and sparks. Travis dropped back in the chair and began to read.

Trenton City’s Person of the Year—Leonard Bendickson III
Mastermind of the Fiberglass Universe
by Jack Crittendon
As one might guess from his formal name and expensive taste in clothes, Leonard Lee Spalding Bendickson III, known as Lenny B to his yacht club pals, was reared in a wealthy Virginia home, attended Ivy League universities, and never wanted for anything.
And he doesn’t plan to.
Since taking the helm as CEO of Demler-Vargus thirteen years ago, Bendickson has steered the Fortune 500 company to unfathomable heights. The $7.9 billion corporation has consistently surpassed Wall Street expectations on its way to becoming one of the world’s most prolific manufacturers of fiberglass—all kinds of fiberglass.

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