“Is disease something we’re born with and prone to, or the result of a life lived in a place that can make anyone sick?”
By Lori Jakiela
A creek in my hometown—Trafford, Pennsylvania—used to run orange with sulfur and mine drainage, and the air near the creek smelled like rotten eggs, some days more than others. The fish that came from the creek were catfish, deformed, pox-ridden, with huge, panicked eyes. My friends and I would find them washed up dead. We’d poke them with sticks until they’d spurt.
This was our childhood. We thought it magic, whatever. We’d find abandoned refrigerators near the creek and try to commandeer them into boats that would take us away—where, we had no idea. The refrigerators sank. Everything we found that we thought might float sank into the muck and orange of the polluted water of our home.
Older people we knew fished in the creek anyway. I don’t know if they ate the fish. They probably did, because many people were out of work and living on government butter and cheese back then, in the 1900s, the 70s and 80s and 90s specifically.
My friends and I waded and swam in that creek.
One of my oldest friends Donnie, who has MS now, has the best collection of sulphur creek glass ever. Sulphur-creek glass is beautiful, like amber, but it’s mostly broken brown beer bottles and broken green beer bottles worn smooth by toxic water. Our people’s version of sea glass.
Worthless, people say, about beautiful things that can’t be converted to cash.
There is no such thing as a natural sulfur creek, though I didn’t know that growing up.
Our town’s creek has a real name: Turtle Creek. Sometimes my friends and I found box turtles near there. Sometimes the box turtles were deformed like the fish. There was a rumor that someone knew someone who knew someone who found a turtle with two heads, but I never saw that.
We knew it was important to never move a box turtle from where we found it. Box turtles travel only a mile in their lifetimes. If they’re moved from their birthplace, they wander forever, heartbroken, trying to get back to that one mile that first gained access to their hearts.
“The purpose of all art,” Camus said, “is to gain access to what first gained access to our hearts.”
I love Camus. I repeat him like a mantra.
I keep repeating things I love because those things tether me to this life. Do not ever move a box turtle from where you’ve found it. Thank you, amen.
“You Pittsburgh people,” a man in a bar in New York told me once, “You’re homing pigeons. You go away. You go back. You die in the place you were born. End of story.”
I wanted to tell him “box turtles,” but I was drinking and didn’t feel like explaining much.
My friends and I always came out of the water, our refrigerator boats sunk, our skin stained orange. We thought sulfur creeks were something natural—fresh water, salt water, sulfur water. Such is the life of kids growing up in a dying mill town.
We didn’t think much about the future because planning was for the rich. That guy in the New York bar? He was drinking $12 martinis. He wore a scarf, a silk/wool blend probably, not itchy like it should be.
And yet I am back in the place where I started, as he predicted.
“So what,” Andy Warhola, who rose from Pittsburgh soil but wanted the world to believe he was from New York, said.
“Whatever,” Andy Warhol said at his Factory, after he dropped the “a” from his name.
My mother couldn’t have children of her own. That’s what people called it then: children of her own. My aunt couldn’t have children of her own. Many people I knew couldn’t have children of their own, and many of my friends growing up were adopted, like me.
Everyone from our town seemed to end up with health problems—lupus, thyroid trouble, MS like Donnie. Most people born here die from cancer, with drunk-driving accidents a not-close second.
Who would ever care about a turtle wandering lost from Turtle Creek?
Kids used to glue glitter and sequins on the backs of turtles they’d found. They’d weigh the turtles down with bedazzling and Gorilla Glue, then set the turtles free, left to wander, glittering, lonely, longing for somewhere familiar, somewhere like home, somewhere safe to die.
When you’re waiting for a call about cancer, your mind wanders. Forgive me my indulgence. These are the kinds of things you think about. Or I think about. I say you because I want to not be alone in this. I have a lot invested in believing I’m not alone in this.
Those poor turtles.
I can barely swim.
The EPA declared my hometown’s Westinghouse plant a Superfund clean-up site in 1997. The EPA swooped in and did EPA things. We were, supposedly, clear after that.
But in the 2000s, our town got money to build soccer fields where the EPA clean-up happened. The contractors put down layers of concrete, many feet deep, to make the fields safe for children to play on. The plant life around the soccer fields is oddly lush, a brilliant alien green.
In his great book Hiroshima, John Hersey writes about the plant life that sprouted up after the atomic bomb. Some plants thrive on nuclear waste. Panic grass. Feverfew. Both are abundant in my hometown.
Feverfew looks like fields of daisies, all those petals to wish on. Panic grass looks like it’s screaming.
My friends and I used to play on the site of the old Westinghouse plant, long before the EPA stepped in. In winter, the Westinghouse plant parking lot would freeze over, and we would ice skate and think how lucky we were to have such a glorious thing in our backyards.
“In service to mankind.” That was Westinghouse’s motto. George Westinghouse would be heartbroken to think the site of one of his plants may have poisoned children.
I live here still because home is home, because I somehow love this place, because I inherited this house from my mom when she died, after my dad died—cancer, cancer—and my mom loved this house, and my dad wanted me to live here forever. I told my parents I didn’t want it—the house, the inheritance—but when it came, I was grateful for it, because I had kids and little money and all these memories, and I couldn’t (and can’t) afford to move.
Some days I think I can smell my father’s cigarettes.
Some days I still reach for a saltshaker where it hasn’t been for decades.
Some days I try to sit on a chair that hasn’t been there since my mother died and I nearly fall.
The mind knows things the body forgets. The body knows things the mind forgets.
Sometimes I hear my mother’s voice in our house.
The cigarette smoke is unfiltered, Pall Malls. My father’s brand.
The Pittsburgh area in general, and my hometown Trafford in particular, have a lot of coughing-emoji bad-air days, and so for now, I care for my lungs—which are not the issue, but which are in the vicinity of my breasts, and it’s easy to consider cancer as a game of checkers, all jumps and king-me—by going to a twenty-four-hour gym once or twice a week and strolling on a treadmill.
At the gym, I watch Netflix or play Words with Friends while I stroll. I think Words with Friends helps ward off Alzheimer’s more than weed does, and I tell my husband, Newman, this.
“Justify it however you want,” Newman says. “You’re addicted to your phone.”
“I’m addicted,” I say, “to winning,” and try to figure out how many points the word addicted could be worth.
“You really are an asshole,” Newman says, but it sounds like I love you.
I love him so much.
LLately, Newman’s been doing more research on marijuana and cancer cures. He works as a medical researcher. He’s smart. He looks like an alcoholic ex-athlete who stocks shelves, but he’s smart. Over the past few weeks, he’s been sending me links every day to articles and studies.
I haven’t thought about how all of this waiting has affected him.
He doesn’t seem scared, but maybe he is.
I don’t feel scared, but I think I am.
We stand in our bedroom.
“It can’t hurt,” Newman says, and hands me a mug of weed-laced lemonade or a puff off the vape pen he calls his Gandolf stick.
Newman has a long goatee. It’s grey and black and red and wiry and makes him look wise, kind of Gandolf-ish in Lord of the Rings. Or more like a peaceable biker, maybe.
When he’s nervous or writing or thinking hard, Newman pulls his goatee into a point sharp enough to dip into ink. It curls at the bottom, like a question mark. He doesn’t like me to mess with it, so of course I mess with it.
When I think of things I would miss most in this life, this is one of them.
The images that first gain access to your heart, Camus said.
My husband’s sweet, sweet face.
I haven’t seen his chin in twenty years, but I’m pretty sure it’s lovely, too.
Newman gets his weed from a friend of a friend of a friend named something like Scoobie. Scoobie procures his weed on the West Coast, then distills it in vodka. The drops come in pretty artisanal bottles, like essential oils.
Scoobie’s a gifted artist as well as a weed entrepreneur. His art looks a lot like Ralph Steadman’s art. Steadman is the guy who illustrated Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which seems right.
Scoobie gives each weed strain its own name—Afghani Pop Tart, Botswana Boogie, Grim Reaper. Scoobie hand-draws the labels for each one, then colors them in with crayons. Total artisanal, weed-farm-to-stoner-couch stuff. The illustration for Grim Reaper is a praying mantis with bulging red eyes.
Death has nothing on a praying mantis for scary.
I’ve tried Scoobie’s drops, but they make me nervous, the opposite of what they do for my husband. When Newman does a Scoobie drop, he sings in his sleep.
Newman makes a living as a social worker and a health scientist, but he’s really a writer. He writes songs as well as novels and books of poetry, and the songs he sings when he sleeps sound like truth.
Newman wrote a song for me once. The chorus goes like this: “We’ve had a lot of good years, with years to go.”
I like to think when he sing-sleeps, this is the song he’s singing.
Nature vs. nurture. Forget I may have cancer. Remember I’m adopted.
Is disease something we’re born with and prone to, or the result of a life lived in a place that can make anyone sick? Both, probably. Either. Neither.
When faced with mortality, the questions are always why and how, as if figuring out the answers makes any difference.
“This world is not a perfect system” is my go-to answer for my children when they want to know why people are mean, or why people suffer and die, or why nothing seems fair.
I want a better life for my children, but this is the world we have been gifted, if gifted is the right word. Most days I think it is. Most days I think of this life as a gift.
“Tell me,” the great poet Mary Oliver said, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
As a kid, I wanted to see Paris, Vienna. I wanted to see the Northern Lights. I wanted New York and Madrid and love, most of all. That.
I have seen Paris, Vienna, the Northern Lights. I lived in New York. I spent months in Madrid. Once I stopped moving, I found love. Most of all. That.
With my one wild, precious, middle-aged life, I’d just like to stick around a while. I’d like to play it as it lays.
The highest-scoring word in both Word with Friends and old-school Scrabble is osyphenbutazone. Osyphenbutazone will, if played in a perfect moment, score you 1,778 points in Scrabble and 1,674 points in Words with Friends.
Osyphenbutazone was the name of a bad and obsolete medication—an anti-inflammatory that suppressed white-blood-cell production. It was basically chemotherapy before chemotherapy. I don’t think Osyphenbutazone ever saved anyone.
I would love to find a word that would save everyone. How many points would a word like that be worth? ■
Lori Jakiela is the author of four books, including the memoir Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe (2016), which received the 2016 Saroyan Prize, was a finalist for the Council of Literary Magazines and Small Presses Firecracker Award and the Housatonic Book Award, and was named one of twenty Not-to-Miss Nonfiction Books of 2015 by The Huffington Post. She directs the undergraduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, where she is a professor of English and Creative/Professional Writing. Her author website is here.
Cover image by Njaimeh Njie, created from creative commons images via Wikimedia and Dirk Duckhorn.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month.