Polluted by Paul Silverman




by Paul Silverman




            He did it with Ainsley just to get rid of his headache. Why Ainsley did it with him was anyone’s guess. Then he got dressed again, took off and headed West in the Saab she let him borrow, in that disdainfully agreeable way of hers – pressing the keys in his palm yet angling her face so he was sure to take remorseful note of the yellow-purple thing still welling up from her cheekbone.

            As hangovers go – and Flip Cullen knew them expertly - this was no pushover. It still throbbed from his eyeballs to the back of his neck a long while after West Side Drive. It kept aching into Erie, and even into Ashtabula County, Ohio. It didn’t give up until he rolled past the clock tower in Rockford, Illinois.

            Flip had been hemming and hawing about how to make the trip, and then they came out with that headline in the New York Post – “Forest Fires Raging. Testicle Festival Still A Go” – and a couple of things jelled in his mind.

            One, he had to drive instead of fly. Just to see how much of everything had changed. Or not changed. And how much of a clenched-ass Easterner he had really become.

            Two, he would use the headline to open his Best Man remarks about Binji –  the little brother who could. Talking about the fire in the belly and all that shit. The line would wake up the pews – have the sons of bitches laughing or shaking their fists at him.

            For the better part of a decade, he had kept three thousand miles between himself and everything Cullen. All of them, his little brother included. But the closer he and the Saab got to Pit City the old shit-flow started up. He considered himself lucky at the Super Eight in Tomah, Wisconsin, when his internet hookup wouldn’t work.

            “Room number, sir?”

            He told the clerk it was 118, and got ready for the usual. Go call Mumbai on some 800 number. Instead she offered to take fifteen bucks off because the room number began with a one. “Building got hit by lightning two weeks ago, sir. I’m afraid the whole first floor system got fried. Sorry about that.”

            He wound up postponing feeding himself till midnight, which was when the clerk said her shift ended. She took him to a booth in a barn that reeked like a dead hen. The waitress hunted up and down for a bottle of Kendall Jackson, assuring them, “Don’t worry, we’ve got it.” When she finally brought it over she announced further complications. “What I don’t have at the moment are clean wine glasses.”

            Kendall and Jackson was followed by some local bottom-shelf vodka, which loosened the gates of memory. With each pour the clerk took on more of a resemblance to Flip’s first cousin Birgit, whom he and Binji used to always call Beergut, for obvious reasons. Beergut began with a fairly trim body, actually, and used to love floating around the home pool on her bimbo-pink inflatable raft, toting some vodka concoction in the cup-hole. After a while Binji noticed she’d stopped wearing bikini bottoms and wore only regular shorts. Then Flip noticed the bulge, the pot belly pushing out the shorts. Then came the yellow skin and the tanning booth trips to cover it up, and the radiologist’s report that Birgit’s liver was so puffed out it went all the way into her pelvis.

            He made a polite escape from the clerk before she gave him the chance to view her pelvis. An act of chivalry, he felt, given what he began to feel deep down.

            The last time Flip returned to Pit City he flew on a bereavement rate. It was the year three hundred ducks landed on the lake seeping from the old copper works, the biggest acid bath in the world, and quacked their last quack. This was the big news at the union and brotherhood halls, where the ancient diggers and riggers shuffled around dragging their nostril-tubed canisters, spiking their O2 with jolts of Old Crow – forever bemoaning Big Copper’s rude departure, how they cut and ran without so much as a thank you ma’am after ripping the town the hugest, smelliest hole in the Western Hemisphere.

            On Birgit’s Wake night her daughter’s boyfriend found the daughter curled up asleep in the bathtub, a quart of vodka and a pint of Gatorade standing like sentries on the shut toilet. The boyfriend was a miner’s great grandson with arms like bull’s legs. When he lifted the daughter from the tub she bit his Adam’s apple like it was a cocktail walnut.

            Not her fault, Binji said. Merely the Cullen DNA on autopilot. 

            Once he had hit the homeland, it turned out Flip had plenty of material for his fraternal remarks. The stuff started percolating as he sat in Binji’s office, marveling at the stationery that said Benjamin Cullen, Managing Partner, even as he creased a paper airplane out of it. “Righto, Binjamin,” he said, picking his teeth with the nose of the plane, “ye made it to the top o’ the heap, ye did. Even if it is a slag heap.” They repaired for a full eighteen at the celebrated golf course, the one with the black sand traps, cornerstone of Binji’s plan to transform wasteland into theme park. Flip got his first up-front look at Erin, who strolled around the clubhouse with them, pre-tee time. Like all of Binji’s girls she was a couple of inches taller, and she had that glowing hair Binji liked, straight out of a Breck ad. Binji’s own hair had lost the trademark cowlick – to the patient hand of Erin, no doubt. Stalking the fairway, Binji looked nearly as taut and fit as in the days he set records on the one all-dirt, no-grass football field in the whole state. No mean feat, considering the likely blood alcohol level at any given hour.

            As they straggled into the church, the wind changed for the worst, turning the sky to a yellow cauldron. No fault of the pit poisons whatsoever, just the annual conflagration in the tall pines, often caused by some match-toting volunteer fireman, itchy for something to do. On the other side of town, the tents were up and they were standing in line for free plates of prairie oysters, deep-fried. Flip joined Binji and Erin at the altar and began, “Did you choose this date on purpose?”

            Even the priest chimed in with a lusty laugh, blowing some dark dust off the stained glass. As it happened, the robed and grizzled dude wasn’t a genuine priest but a married deacon with six kids, twenty-nine grandchildren and fifty-two great grandchildren. “So I don’t just make the rules, I play the game,” he said, when his turn came to bestow pastoral guidance upon the couple.

            Flip went on, reeling it out like a road movie. He told them of pulling the Saab up to a rest stop and coming upon a sign that said, in deadpan government type, “Rattlesnakes have been observed. Please stay on the sidewalks.”

            He shared other tidbits from his re-entry, describing his encounter with the outskirts and their great black mass of cattle grazing in a field so golden, but smack at the foot of the last of the belching smelter stacks. And how he then ran into the pawn shop lady who waved at the great bald spot on the mountain, then pointed an accusing finger at the smelter. She swore on her mother’s soul to have witnessed “mutant animals” skittering around up there. Hence her name for the peak: Mutant Mountain.

            “So not that much has changed,” he told the congregants, “including my little brother. Who else would get married on the day of the Testicle Festival?”

            Having hit the funny bone – and sensing he had hit it enough - Flip duly switched into Hallmark mode. He gave morsels of Binji lore, the old and the new, each depicting how the runt of the litter always ran circles around the bigger, older ones. “He was faster, sneakier, harder to hit. And now this,” he said, with a courtly nod at Erin, “the last straw. I mean how could such a beauty be won by such a beast, and a midget beast at that? It just isn’t fair. You should see his toes…”  

            Arm around the runty, wiry back, Flip looked down at Binji’s pinkly grinning face, in profile, marveling at how it managed to give off that little boy sweetness at all times and still radiate utter bulldog ferocity. He was the kind of dwarf no Snow White was ever made to handle, unless he allowed her to – and then came the exchanging of the rings. The patient hand of Erin reached out – floated out, really – but Binji snagged it like he was one-handing a ball or sealing a business deal. In the blur, the ring bounced this way and that, and the two of them went for it, Binji like it was a face-off at center ice and he could kill to get the golden puck. But it was Erin who retrieved it, with her longer arm - and, glowing patience, she tipped it to him. This is when Flip saw the eyes of his brother narrow like double ice picks and glare at her, for the merest flash, in a way that even knocked the deacon back a step. The Cullen DNA, on autopilot - a look Flip knew. Knew it as far more than a look - but as stuff bubbling up on nights his own clothes stank like a brewery, stuff to kill a shitload of ducks and then some.

            Icepick-eyes, the same eyes he had shown Ainsley that morning on the puke-sopped floor. She had come over to help him up – with a hand in soft float like Erin’s - and he had given her the Cullen thank you … grabbed the side of her face and slammed it into the side of a door.





Paul Silverman has worked as a newspaper reporter, sandwich man, olive packer and advertising creative director. One of his commercials won a Silver Lion at Cannes. His stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Minnetonka Review, The North Atlantic Review, and Word Riot, among other publications.



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