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Chemical Valley

Chemical Valley I kneel down and reach for the nearest bird, hydraulics buzzing in my teeth and knees. The pigeon doesn’t flinch or blink. No blood. No burn-smell. Sal’s there in seconds, his face a blear of night-shift grog. He rubs his bigger eye, squats by the carcasses. Behind him the river wends and glimmers, slicks through refinery glare. “Poison you figure?” Sal thumbs his coverall pockets. “Leak maybe.” Suzy appears next to Sal, seeping chew-spit into her Coke can. She leans over and takes a pigeon in her Kevlared paw. Brings it to her face. “Freaky,” she says, bottom lip bulging. “Eyes still open.” She wiggles her rat-face into a grin, a frond of tobacco wagging in her bottom teeth. I can’t afford to say it: “Saving that for later?” Suzy flares: “What?” “The chew.” Suzy puts a hand over her mouth, speaks with taut lips: “Enough of your guff.” I snort. “Guff?” She sets the bird down, hitches her coveralls. Lips closed, she tongues the tobacco loose and swallows. “Clean ’em up,” she says, nodding at the pigeons. She spins and walks away, trailing chew-spit across the unit. *** What you might find, if you were handling a dead pigeon, is something unexpected in the glassy cosmos of its eye: a dark beauty, a molten alchemy. You might find a pigeon’s iris looks how you imagine the Earth’s core—pebble-glass waves of crimson, a perfect still shudder of rose and lilac. What you might do, if you were placing a dead pigeon into the incinerator, is take off your Kevlar glove and touch your bare index finger to its cornea. What you might do before dropping the bird into a white-hot Mordor of carbon and coke is touch your fingertip to that unblinking membrane and hold it there, feeling a mangle of tenderness and violation, thinking this may be the loveliest secret you have ever touched. *** I’m telling Eileen how I want to be buried, namely inside a tree. We’re sitting in bed eating Thai from the mall and listening to the 6 p.m. construction outside our window—the city tearing up the whole street along with tree roots and a rusted tangle of lead pipes—and I’m telling Eileen it’s called a biodegradable burial pod. Mouth full of cashew curry and I’m saying what they do is put your remains in this egg-looking thing like the xenomorph’s cocoon from Alien: Resurrection but it’s made of biodegradable plastic. I’m telling Eileen it’s called “capsula mundi” and what they do is hitch the remains to a semi-mature tree and plant the whole package. Stuff you down in fetal position and let you gradually decay until you become nitrogen, seep into soil. Contemplating panang, Eileen asks where I got the idea about the burial pod and I tell her Facebook or maybe an email newsletter. “You click on that shit? Why are you even thinking about this now? You just turned thirty-four.” I don’t tell her about the basement, about Mum. I don’t tell her about the pigeons strewn out on the concrete and then going supernova in the incinerator, don’t mention how it gets me thinking about flesh, about bodies, about waste. I don’t tell her about Blane, the twenty-nine-year-old long-distance runner who got a heart attack sitting at the panel in the Alkylation unit. Blane didn’t die but he did have to get surgery and a pacemaker and that sort of thing gets you thinking. Which is how you end up lying in bed at night checking your pulse and feeling like your chest is shrinking and thinking about the margin of irregular and erratic. Picking a bamboo shoot from her molars: “Since when are you into trees?” She says it smug. She says it like Ms. University Sciences and nobody else is allowed to like trees. I don’t tell her how we’re all compost and yes I read that on a Facebook link. I also do not tell her about the article’s tagline: “Your carbon footprint doesn’t end in the grave.” Reaching for the pad thai, I tell her about the balance, how it’s only natural. How the human body’s rich in nitrogen, how when you use a coffin there’s a lot of waste because the body just rots on its own when it could be giving nutrients to the system. Not to mention all the metals and treated woods in coffins. I tell her how the idea is to phase out traditional graveyards entirely, replace them with grave-forests. “Hmm,” Eileen says, gazing out the window—the sky a caramelized rose. “Is this a guilt thing, from working at the plants?” I tell her no, maybe, I don’t know. An excavator hisses its load into the earth. “Is this why you were so weird about your mother’s funeral?” I ask what she means and she says never mind, sorry. “Do you ever imagine they’re ducks?” Eileen asks what and I tell her the loaders and the bulldozers and the cranes. Sometimes I imagine they’re wildlife, ducks or geese. And maybe why they’re crying like that is because they’re in distress. Like maybe they’ve lost their eggs and all they want is to get them back and when you think about it like that it’s still bad but at least it’s not just machines screaming and blaring because they’re tearing up old sidewalks to put new ones down. “Ducks,” Eileen says. “Probably still be one working for every three scratching their guts for overtime pay.” She stacks the containers and reaches for the vaporizer on the nightstand, asking if I love trees so much why didn’t I become a landscaper or a botanist or an arborist. I shrug, not mentioning the debt or the mortgage or the pharmaceutical bills. Not mentioning that if I wanted to do something it would be the comic store but there’s no market in Sarnia anyway. I tell her it’s probably too late for a career change.

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The netting that lined Miranda’s skirt bunched underneath the dark blue dress, sparked electricity from her thick white tights. A brooch, a circle of plastic pearls, fastened her white collar. The sleeves were too short, showing her wrists. She flicked her wrist and the cigarette spattered ash along the bodice. Her eyes were suspicious and crafty behind little glasses . She was seventeen and I was eighteen, standing together in my bedroom. I had a scholarship and so had a room to myself. It was a small liberal arts college that held on to antiquated distinctions, as mannered as Miranda’s aspirations to Victorian girlhood. She came to my room sometimes to smoke cigarettes. Everything in my room smelled like smoke. This was when you could still smoke in a university residence, if you kept the window open. “Have you accepted Christ?” Miranda asked. “Yes,” I said, and giggled. “Those who have accepted Christ will be lifted up.” She pulled hard on her cigarette, frowning in satisfaction at the thought of those others, who had not accepted Christ. She was the first person I had met (that I knew of) who believed in hell. I was studying Classics and English. The afterlife in my cosmology was twilight, the river Styx, philosophers and minor heroes wandering dark banks, forgetting. Hell was too literal, too sharp: nothing forgotten, nothing forgiven. I was the first queer she’d met (that she knew of, I added). We regarded each other with a small jolt of excited disgust. The smoke came out of her mouth in yellowish wisps. *** We met in the university chapel. She did not belong with or like the catty Anglican divinity students who made up the scant congregation and performed adjacent ceremonies (flower arranging for Easter, drinking sherry after the service, typing newsletters for the elderly minister, who held tightly to the railing when he walked down the chapel steps, his black robes rendering his heavy body sexless) that, like the university itself, had become self-conscious long before they were born. The young men wore vests and ties, the women long cotton or woolen skirts, their hair brusquely pulled back, striving for the haven of middle age, though their cheeks and foreheads were still pocked with acne. They carried baby fat and moved with adolescent angularity, standing on one foot, one hand over the other around the delicate stem of their sherry glass. She sat beside me in the pew. Her light brown hair was furred at the back of her head. Layers of sweater over an old t-shirt, the circle brooch I grew used to, old jeans. We were alone in the pew; everyone else had gone to take communion. Miranda did not take communion. I found out later that her congregation, in the small town in Maine she was from, was much more fire-and-brimstone. I’d never been inside a church before, except for my uncle’s wedding. Going to chapel was an aesthetic experiment, like reading Ovid and Plato and Auden. I loved the stained wood and the smell of the hymnbooks in the same way I loved old movies and vintage clothes and museums. The incense from the gold censer had nothing to do with God. It was a vision of beauty, the murky pendulum of the swinging world. I stuck out as much as she did in my maroon velvet jacket, black jeans tucked into combat boots, my head shaved so close my scalp shone blue. I painted my nails dark purple and wore a purple neck-kerchief. I was clownish and half knew it. I smiled and she smiled back, showing the tips of her little teeth. “Can I have one?” she asked, standing afterwards on the grass in front of the chapel steps. “How long have you been doing that?” I asked, watching her cup her hand unconvincingly around the cigarette as though it would go out. “Do you like the Iliad?” she replied. I’d taken the paperback out of my bag, hoping to look occupied in case no-one spoke to me. I said it wasn’t something you liked or disliked. She told me not to be rude. I hated being called rude, rudeness was for children, I was trying to be abrupt. I talked about the lists of names in the Iliad, and Simone Weil’s essay on The Iliad as a Poem of Force, which I had read but not understood, and whether Weil was anti-Semitic, and how she’d starved herself in solidarity with the French troops, because at that time her death interested me more than the deaths in Homer, even though they were the same: laudable, useless. Perhaps, when she died, she thought of those lists of names. Weil’s faith was something I wanted and wanted others to have. I venerated people who could not navigate the world. I didn’t want to fail, but I liked the idea of failures. They seemed to come closest to poetry. Miranda told me her name, I told her mine. She held her hand out. I was not used to shaking hands. Her nails were dirty. *** In my bedroom, she dropped her cigarette into the ashtray on the windowsill. Outside it was dusk. I was still giggling about accepting Christ. “Don’t make fun of me,” Miranda said. “I’m not making fun of you,” I said. She noticed the ash on her bodice and brushed at it, leaving a smear. “Oh, fuck” she said, enunciating a word she was trying to get used to. “Where are you going anyway, in that dress?” “The Christmas service, aren’t you coming?” “No,” I said. I’d stopped going to chapel weeks before, was beginning to make friends, had found a desk in the back row of my Iliad course on which someone had painstakingly carved we read to know we are not alone and decided I didn’t need the incense, I could find that feeling of significance elsewhere. “You should come,” she said stubbornly.

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