Salt of Patriots
SALT OF PATRIOTS shines light on the nuclear industry’s early days at the Feed Materials Production Center (FMPC) by focusing on ground level workers in this rural Ohio uranium processing plant. During the optimistic, buttoned-up 1950s, Fernald employees pledge to keep their work quiet, even from their own families. But they’re no whistleblowers. Jeter Burns and Evan Wunder are just happy being some of the highest paid chemical operators in the state. Not to say there’s no danger in and around the plant because that would be a lie. But it’s life beyond the gates– in the house, in the yard, in the bedrooms and kitchens and bars—where accidents and betrayals are bound to derail a man’s plans and spark his hopes.
The sky let loose what tears Patrice couldn’t manage as she stood outdoors in the rain, watching men rip, shake, and rearrange the wet acres of the neighboring farm. Their machines chewed the land and spat it back out. Patrice gripped the barbed wire that boundaried her family’s small acreage. Papa had taught her to count seasons according to bloom and harvest, all of it so necessary even corn stalk stubble held a particular beauty. He said sudden flatness after a summer of waving green offered eyes rest. Could there ever be a case of too much rest?
Patrice held onto the fence. The pain overrode the helplessness she felt in watching the men scar the meadow. The cuts on her hands were immediate and they would distract her from strangers tearing the land – they, and thoughts of her dead father.
Greater change than winter into spring was erupting as George Fuller’s men dredged and rolled and roughed the land into a new shape. No secret that families who didn’t care to sell had been strong-armed into vacating. The government appropriated a thousand acres surrounding Fernald to support a manufacturing site. The little town had a railroad and that, they said, was key. They claimed eminent domain. They bought what wasn’t for sale.
Jep came loping from the woods when Patrice whistled, as soaked as she; his fur matted and his ribs outlined. She squatted to look into the setter’s eyes, and when she did, Jep shook and splattered her. She thought she ought to get back to the house and douse her hands with peroxide, but instead, she let the dog warm her skin with his rough tongue. The open cuts burned while his tail rewetted the legs of her dungarees.
Then he shot off, zigzagging away, lured by scent into the woods. She followed, holding her hands open to the rain. Deeper in the woods, she stomped down dead winter bushes, half expecting to come across her papa’s body. The wide mouth of her papa’s galoshes flapped around her calves and she slowed down, scolding herself. This was no scavenger hunt, but she couldn’t help hoping. She wished only to lay eyes on him, to give him a proper last hug, maybe a hymn. Her world, like the small dams in the creek, had washed out from under her.
Sick all summer, Papa had worked, planting, hoeing, checking when the corn tasseled, then picking the ears and selling full baskets to Vic’s Farm Stand. Patrice and her mother had cleaned and frozen enough sweet corn to last to the next harvest.
They watched as Papa’s cough dogged him through the house. By fall they took his rasping for granted. He’d excuse himself from the table, shouldering the cough like a child on his back until he got out in the barn and could gag or spit or cry if he wanted. Patrice and her mother sat with their dinner plates half cleaned, their appetites faded. The doctors claimed Papa would get no better; he said the clinic was a joke he was tired of laughing along with.
One day he took to his bed, and the next morning he’d gone off to who knows where. Her mother said this as she chewed her lip and cracked eggs for breakfast. Every meal from then on had been the two of them, women waiting at a table beside an empty chair.
Her mother’s hair turned white overnight. But maybe not. Patrice hadn’t been paying attention to her during the months she’d been watching sickness polish away her papa’s rough edge. Her mother sat facing the window, as if her gaze might bring him back. She wore her frightening new wig of hair. “He means to spare us,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” Patrice knelt and gripped her mother’s knees through her robe, wanting to shake her out of her trance.
“Has he left us for good?”
She began thinking of Papa on a horse journey, because as a girl she’d loved horses and wished for one of her own. She was seventeen and she still sometimes daydreamed of her father wearing a cowboy hat and teaching her to ride. He’d be wearing that hat tilted now, baring his forehead to the sun, the brim shuddering against the back of his neck as he coughed, riding off, fading to a speck. He had never worn a cowboy hat, didn’t own one.
“Look at me.” Patrice grabbed her mother’s hands in her lap and shook them.
Her mother wouldn’t take her eyes off the landscape.
Patrice slapped the hands, folded as if for praying.
Her mother spoke one of her stupid old wives’ tales. “A sick dog will go off in the woods, when it knows, to seek its end.”
Patrice was unable to rein in her voice. “Are you saying Papa went off to die?”
She stood, then spun on her heels. It put the kitchen off-balance but the burst of wind felt grand. She laughed. “Papa’s just gone to find drink. We’ll call Venice Castle or Les Flick’s. He’s probably sleeping it off.” She rushed through the hall to the front entry. Her hand lifted the telephone as she imagined a scuffle in Flick’s parking lot at closing time, as she saw a stranger finger the trigger of a gun. Or maybe Papa did it himself.
The dial tone buzzed and she shook her head. Maybe nothing so clean and violent. She remembered their dinner interruptions. Papa might have coughed the life right out of his lungs.
She replaced the receiver without making a call. “We need to report he’s missing.”
“Who besides us will care?” Her mother struggled to stand and moved slowly to her room.
She would not speak, would not rise when Patrice called her for dinner or for the next day’s lunch.
The doctor came by to examine them both. Other than the shock, he said, her mother was healthy for her age and she’d shake off this thing when she was ready. Her papa had had no praise for the man when the doctor pointed out he wasn’t a miracle worker.
He was shrugging into his coat as Patrice stood near the telephone, stroking the smooth curve of the receiver.
The doctor said, “Your next call should be to the sheriff.”
She looked at him; she did not want to move forward.
He said, “You. Are you needing something?”
Of course, he meant a pill to help her sleep, to help her wake, to help her concentrate on her schoolwork. She thought of lying down for good, considered her papa’s way out, but she could never leave her mother on her own.
“I’m all right.” She walked to the front door, ushering the doctor along.
She heard neighbors at Calvary Baptist’s Sunday services gossiping. The phrase “… girl and her mother …” broke from the words under their breath. It sounded as if they were talking about a still life.
Patrice’s teachers were sympathetic; they gave her high marks in bookkeeping and typing. She couldn’t remember a single class after Christmas vacation, when she’d returned to school half-orphaned. She mimicked her mother’s trances and went somewhere else while her fingers flew. Her typing speed tested in the expert range.
By the time she reached the house, the downpour had lightened to a mist. A pitiful sight she greeted in the glass of the back door – a drenched girl, bangs plastered to her forehead, her ears surfacing through her braids. She let herself and Jep into the kitchen.
The thin, familiar voice called from down the hall. “Is that you?”
“Who else?” Patrice thought of her life, with her mother as her only companion. She could hear Jep slopping water from his bowl in the kitchen while her mother talked. With that reedy voice of hers, you had to be near her to catch the sense of what she said.
Patrice slipped into the bathroom, closed and locked the door. She leaned back in her wet clothes. The door lent support until she could stand unaided. She stripped and rubbed her gooseflesh with a rough towel, then used it to blot the water from her hair. From inside the bathroom door, she took her robe and knotted the belt around her waist. In opening the medicine cabinet, she avoided her reflection.
One year until she graduated. The Feed Materials Plant the government was setting in the soil out there would grow as fast as the sweet corn. The plant would want the kind of office skills Patrice had. With temporary buildings erected, already it was drawing men from across the river in Kentucky and southwest Indiana, from the cities: Cincinnati, Hamilton and Harrison. Traffic idled, moving slowly to enter and exit the plant’s north access, parking all haphazard. Workers tried to avoid the mud, though she heard every day someone needed a tow truck.
She touched cool peroxide on cotton to her palms, and the disinfectant bubbled as she sucked in her breath.
“Are you all right?”
Patrice screwed the lid onto the medicine. “I’ll be out soon.”
“Who said anything’s wrong?” She blew onto her hands.
“You locked the door.”
“Can’t I lock the door now?”
“What are you hiding?”
She opened the door and bumped head-on into her mother.
“What were you doing?”
Patrice lifted her sopping clothes. “Getting out of these.”
“I smell antiseptic.”
“Just cleaning up.”
It was a small hallway and her mother had planted herself in the middle of it.
Patrice was freezing. “Will you let me get by to dress?” She pointed with her wet clothes in the direction of her room.
“Give me those.”
Her mother pulled at them, but Patrice held on. “I don’t want you doing those stairs alone.”
“I’ll drop them down the cellar steps.”
Patrice let her mother win so that when she turned to the basement door with the laundry, Patrice could dart into her own room. She dressed quickly, afraid her mother would try to wash the clothes herself. The woman hadn’t done laundry since Papa disappeared, and she lacked steadiness, especially on the narrow cellar steps. Patrice worried for her mother’s old bones, and was just as fearful her mother would walk in on her half-naked. She worked at untangling her hair, but halfway through the job finally just pushed the mess back in a headband.
Outside the door she found her mother. Patrice clasped her hands behind her back and smiled. “Spying?”
Her mother scowled.
Patrice smelled detergent. “Did you go downstairs?”
“I did not.”
Her mother followed Patrice, stepping on the back of her heels. Patrice stepped right out of one loafer and stumbled against the sink, then took off her shoe, straightened the heel of her sock, and put the shoe back on. She kept her fingers curled to her palms.
Rain clicked against the windows.
“You’re a fool to step out in this flood.”
From his mat beside the back door, Jep thumped his tail. Patrice rubbed him as dry as she could, then put on her papa’s cardigan they’d left hanging inside the back door.
“You’ll be sick,” her mother said.
Jep thumped his tail but his noise couldn’t cover up the groan of her mother collapsing into a chair. Patrice turned to the cabinets and the stove. She took the chuck roast out of the refrigerator, cut it up, and began browning it in a skillet.
Her mother pointed. “That flame’s too high. The meat’ll stick.”
So the woman meant to watch her as she prepared their dinner, to advise the right way after Patrice had done it wrong. Patrice took three steps between stove, sink, and table, careful not to waste energy, working on that still life the church women had mentioned. Such a tiny world, this kitchen.
They ate a meager supper. Patrice had clipped this one-pot recipe from a magazine, thinking a different taste might do them good. She had looked forward to making it, but the dish called for paprika, and here, after she’d sought out the spice at Carson’s Store, neither she nor her mother cared for the way it mixed with sour cream. They pushed the food around, their forks carping so they wouldn’t have to waste their voices.
Her mother spat a half-chewed piece of meat onto her plate. She never would have done that if Papa had been at the table.
“What is this goop?” she said.
Patrice sighed. “Hungarian Goulash. It sounded interesting.”
“I know.” Patrice had to agree, and because distaste was the one thing they managed to share, it made her laugh.
The way her mother watched, suspicious and beady-eyed, in the way a bird’s sight was divided, one eye left, one eye right, how it had to jerk its head to keep everything in range, and Patrice couldn’t stop laughing.
Her mother cocked her head and blinked, and then a smile cracked open her mouth so she laughed too, showing where her teeth were turning brown. That tooth decay sobered Patrice. She abruptly started weeping, shoved back the plate, put her head on her arms on the table, and cried. Jep whined and rose from his place; she heard his nails clicking on the linoleum. His tail swished next to her as he sat and waited. Her mother cut her laughing short, making Patrice think maybe she’d flown off.
Head still down, she went to dig a handkerchief out of her sweater pocket, her papa’s cardigan pocket. His handkerchief was in there, soft and balled up the way he had left it. She squeezed it in her palm, brought her hand to rest on the table.
Her mother pried open each of her fingers and said, “Let me see your hands.”
Patrice released her fist and the handkerchief bloomed like a flower on the table, a cowboy kerchief, red as a poppy, the one bright spot in the kitchen.
Her mother could have balled it back up, she could have touched it, claimed it, stole it from Patrice – they both had been pocketing small belongings of his they’d managed to scrounge up, the few things they’d not had to sell. They hoarded these treasures from each other, but her mother didn’t pounce. Instead, she kissed Patrice’s hands and the cuts that could have been the lifelines of an old woman.
A year would pass before they found him, a year during which her mother slid downhill. The National Lead Company, or Fernald as folks now referred to it – the whole town subsumed by the atomic plant until you couldn’t think of one without the other, until one became the other, until there was no longer a town but a sprawling wired-off complex and the homes that clung to the countryside around it – when they were putting in trees to supplant all those they’d bulldozed during construction, they discovered Patrice’s father’s remains.
He had a habit of walking the woods. Perhaps a little drunk after downing a few at the Venice Castle, (where her father had been noticed, the sheriff did investigate), he’d twisted his ankle in a creek bed. No murder or suicide, just a sink hole that burned dry in summer and that rain swept through come fall. It had kept him in one place.
Patrice felt a bit cheated. She could toy with the ‘what ifs’ and they toyed with her. She’d walked the woods, pretending exercise and good health, while holding her breath and praying to stumble on his bones. Supposing endlessly about his death had kept him with her.