June 1, 2015 by The Citron Review
by Debra S. Levy
I see her in her blue chenille robe and matching house slippers, standing in the kitchen. She’s cradling a Corelle coffee cup in her hands.
“Honey,” she says, “Come here.”
It’s 1964. I’m seven years old. I’m a reluctant, obstinate child, an only child – a trait that defines me to others (later, to myself). I’m spoiled. Most days, I play alone. I know myself as other.
“Honey, hurry up.”
I pull myself off the living room couch, where I’ve been half-dozing, half-eating my breakfast, and half-dreaming. My legs are numb. I hobble into the kitchen, half-awake.
“Look, in the backyard.” She points out the window.
I’m just tall enough to see green grass, silver hurricane fence, brown wooden electrical poles in the easement, black wires draped between them. And there, dangling from a wire, stirred by the wind, I see it.
We’re outside in our robes, looking up. She won’t let me get too close – though I want to run into the easement, stand beneath the dangling ropes.
I ask what it is.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Looks like a balloon.”
“Why’s it up there?”
“I don’t know.”
Early morning, sun rising, her hair, which she’d tinted Fabulous Fawn only the night before, glints in the new daylight. I’d watched her as she’d leaned over the kitchen sink, a plastic cape safety-pinned around her neck so she wouldn’t drip on her clothes. To me, she’s beautiful, even with gray roots.
Caught in the electrical wires, the dangling canvas balloon reminds me of her cape.
We go inside and she calls my father at work; he tells her to call the City.
Then we call the City; then, we wait.
The man from the City turns out to be a man from Indiana & Michigan Electric Company.
“They sent me because of the wires,” he says, pointing up at the obvious.
Before he climbs a ladder to cut it down we ask him, Why a balloon?
“I don’t know,” he shrugs.
Years later, I see her in her pink nylon robe, the one with a worn out spot over her right shoulder blade. It’s 1988. She’s saying, “Do you think that spot has anything to do with it?” “It” is the cancerous tumor growing in the pleural cavity between her lung and lining, exactly beneath the worn spot. She wants to know why she got cancer, lung cancer, when she’d never even smoked – “Just a couple of puffs as a teenager, that was it.” Because I believe in research then, I go to the library and read about probable causes other than cigarettes: air pollution, asbestos, radon gas. We have the house tested; no asbestos, no radon. I don’t know what to tell her. Bad luck, I guess.
I see her in her coffin, wearing the peach dress she bought for my wedding. Unlike most corpses, she is beautiful – hair perfectly coiffed, though gray. The last days of her life, as she filled up with fluid, her wrinkled, sagging skin took on a new, translucent fullness. Lying there, she wears no death mask. Her face is swollen with life.
Six years later, in 1995, an article appears in the local newspaper. From 1964 to 1966, the Army Corps of Engineers dumped the toxic chemical zinc cadmium sulfide over select cities, including our hometown. A controversial Cold War “experiment,” the Army was trying to simulate biological warfare and used cadmium as a tracer to show how weaponized chemicals might spread over an area. Most of the fallout had been released on the north side of Fort Wayne, where we lived. Many citizens, the article says, are blaming their own cancers, or those of their (deceased) loved ones, on the experiment.
Years later, in 2004, The Center for Research Information, Inc. prepares a report for the National Academies suggesting the “greatest risk from inhaled cadmium is to the lungs, causing lung cancer.” However, in the same document, some pages later, the report refutes the chemical’s deleterious effects due to “insufficient evidence.” I don’t believe the research. Finally, after all these years, I understand the dangling canvas had been a weather balloon for measuring data – for measuring how toxic chemicals might one day be used against unsuspecting, defenseless Americans. Benign research, those scientists must have told themselves; except, it wasn’t. I know that now, but it’s too late.
Like I’d said, Bad luck.
Debra S. Levy lives in Indiana. She has had fiction and nonfiction published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Columbia, Hippocampus, The Pinch, and others.