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May 27, 2024


By Jim Bates

Park Ranger Jill Douglas took a break from shoveling, shook an American Spirit out of her crumpled pack and lit up, savoring the taste. She blew out the smoke and watched it waft over the lake, dissipating in the summer breeze. The tobacco aroma smelled good. Better than the stench of the rotting fish surrounding her on the shoreline. God, it was the worst thing she'd ever smelled in her life, and that included cleaning out clogged sewers when she was seventeen and had taken an ill-advised summer job ten years ago working for the sanitation department in Durham. That had been bad. This was lots worse.

To get away from the putrefying fish, Jill moved down the shore and found a log to sit on so she could relax and smoke in peace. Yeah, that sanitation job had been pretty bad, she had to admit. Plus, she'd had to deal with the macho idiots on the crew, each and every one of them wanting to sleep with her. What a bunch of jerks. All she'd wanted then, like now, was to just find a decent job, work, save money and buy a little home where she could write her poetry and live in peace with her dog Sammy and her calico cat Marti. Was that asking too much?

She gazed out over Lake Bellows, the centerpiece of Bellows State Park, one of the more picturesque parks, in Jill's estimation, in North Carolina. The lake was small, around forty acres in size and lined with maple and birch trees, giving it a closed in feel of security that appealed to her. Rolling hills stretched into the distance, and to the west she could just make out the hazy outline of the Blue Ridge, part of the Great Smokey Mountains chain.

Jill had grown up in the area in the small town of Rock Springs not ten miles away. She felt a kindship with the land. And the lakes, too, for that matter, having swum in this very lake when she'd been young and her father had taken her and her brothers and sisters swimming on hot summer days. Jill smiled at the memory and snubbed out her smoke. She picked off the leftover tobacco, dropped it to the ground, scuffed her boot heel over it making it disappear. Then she put the butt in an old snuff can she kept in her back pocket for just such a purpose.

Nearby, the raucous call of a pair of blue jays caught her attention. It was followed by the cawing of crows. Something was up.

Jill stood up and looked behind her. Coming out of the woods were two adult males: one, a man who looked to be around fifty, and, the other, younger, around twenty-five, close to her age. They started crossing the sandy beach, walking toward her, each of them wearing a day pack.

She walked up to great them, meeting them half way. "Hi," she said, taking off her park ranger hat and wiping her brow before putting it back on. "Sorry, but the beach is closed." She pointed back in the direction the two had come from. "You should have seen the sign."

The younger of the two men spoke first. "Hi," he smiled.

Jill was cautiously at ease with him. He had a clipped beard, intelligent eyes and was average height, dressed in a white tee-shirt and tan cargo shorts. His baseball cap was dark blue but Jill couldn't make out the insignia. He wore worn hiking boots, like the guy next to him.

The older man had a grey beard, floppy hat and wore a light green tee-shirt and faded blues jeans. He had on dark glasses and his hand was casually draped through the younger man's arm. Oh, my, god, Jill thought to herself, I'll bet the old guy's blind.

Turned out he was.

The younger man pointed in the direction they'd come from. "Yeah, we saw the sign," he said, and gave her a self-effacing grin. "Sorry about that." He pointed to the older man, "It's just that my dad and I have driven a long way to get here."

"All the way from Minnesota," the old man added.

"Right, Dad. Anyway, again, hi," he smiled, looking at Jill. "My name is Sheldon and this is my dad Abe." He put out his hand to shake, and Jill shook it.

"Nice to meet you," she said. "Both of you. But, like I said, the beach is closed."

"Yeah, I know," Sheldon said. "It's just ..."

Before he could continue, Abe interrupted him, "What's it closed for?"

Jill pointed. "See the dead fish. We've had a big die-off. I've got to clean it up." Oops. "Sorry," she apologized. She'd forgotten he was blind. It was no matter, though. The older guy ignored her.

"God, I was wondering what the stench was."

"I know," Jill pulled up her bandana over her nose. "It's been happening all summer."

Sheldon spoke up, "Something in the water?"

Jill was impressed. Most people would have turned and hurried away, scared the contaminated lake would somehow contaminate them standing on shore. These two men seemed genuinely interested. "Yeah, it is. It's selenium poisoning."

"Like arsenic?" Sheldon asked.

Jill smiled, thinking, Interesting. This guy is no dummy. "Actually, yes, it is. It came from a coal burning powerplant that used to operate in the area. It's been shut down for nearly forty years, but while it was in operation the runoff seeped into the groundwater and eventually made its way here. The high levels in the lake have gotten into the fish and it's killing them."

Sheldon looked down to the beach where piles of fish lay, rotting in the sun. "That's horrible," he said. "And, also, very sad." He turned to his father. "Did you hear her, Dad? Selenium poisoning."

Abe turned petulant, "Of course I heard her. I'm not deaf."

In spite of herself, Jill had to smile. Sheldon caught it and smiled, too. "So, you get to clean this up? Is that it? All my yourself?"

"Yeah. It's mid-July now and this has been going on since May. Every couple of days I come down here and get my workout in, shoveling dead fish into the back of my pickup," she looked at him and grinned, making a little joke by mimicking shoveling. She didn't know why, but she liked the two of them. They seem harmless enough. "So, you two. What brings you two all the way to North Carolina from Minnesota?"

Sheldon turned to his father. "Dad, you want to tell her?"

"Is it really any of her business?" he said to his son, ignoring the fact that Jill was standing right next to them.

Patiently, Sheldon said, "Well, yeah, Dad it is. She's in charge of the park, you know."

After thinking about it for a moment, Abe addressed Jill. "Okay, right. Sorry about that. Well, here's the deal. My father grew up in the area. He loved it here but after he moved away, he never came back. He always told me about this lake, and how much he loved to fish in it and swim in it."

"It's a beautiful place," Jill said, and was about to add about her experience in the area growing up, but Abe continued on like he'd never heard her.

"Dad passed away last week and his final wish was to have his ashes scattered in this lake." He paused and looked toward Sheldon. "That okay? Anything to add."

Jill grinned, appreciating he was a feisty old guy, kind of like own dad.

Sheldon smiled and placed his hand on his father's shoulder, "Yeah, that's fine." Then he looked at Jill. "So that's why we're here."

Out of the lake a loon suddenly called. All three of them turned in the direction of the sound. Sheldon asked, "With that selenium in the lake, is there a problem for the loons? They eat the fish, right?"

"Right," Jill said, looking concerned. "We're hoping that they won't eat enough to harm themselves. Plus, like I said, the powerplant has been shut down for nearly forty years. The selenium level is lower now than it used to be."

"Well, that's good," Sheldon said, then changed the subject. "So, I have to ask. Is it okay for my dad to scatter his father's ashes? In the lake? I know there's supposed to be a law against it in most states."

Jill hated to be put in this position. Sheldon was correct. Scattering human remains was against the law in many states, including North Carolina. But she liked these two. "It's against the law, but I'll tell you what. I'm going to take a lunch break in a couple of hours and go back to the office for a little while to catch up on some paperwork. If you're around then, you'll be on your own."

Sheldon smiled at her. "Thank you so much." He turned to his father, "Hear that, Dad?"

"I did. And thank you." He gave a slight bow in Jill's direction. Then he said, "Well we've got some time, why don't we help this young lady with this fish cleanup?"

Jill interceded, "But, Abe, you ...you ..."

"I can't see?"

"Well ..."

"That's okay," Sheldon said, "Dad's good at supervising. Aren't' you Dad?"

"The best," he said, grinning.

Jill smiled. It was against park regulations, but what the heck, these two guys were all right. "In that case, I'm all for it. Come on with me. I've got some extra shovels in the truck."

They worked the rest of the morning. When Jill took her lunch break and left them alone, Abe took a box containing his father's ashes out of his day pack and he and Sheldon walked down the shore and scattered them in the calm water under the spreading branches of a huge maple tree.

When Jill came back after lunch, she and Sheldon spent the rest of the afternoon working and talking while Abe ignored them and sat in the sun, listening to the birds and enjoying being where his father had grown up. By the end of the day, he said, "How about if we hang around for a while? I kind of like it here."

"Even with the fish smell?" Sheldon asked. Truth be told, in spite of the stench, he wouldn't mind staying either.

"Yeah, even with the smell."

Jill added, "There's a gas station out on the highway that sells all kinds of supplies. Get yourselves a couple of bandanas there and you're good to go."

"Here that Dad? Bandanas."

"I heard." Jill waited for him to add, 'I'm not deaf, you know' which apparently was a running joke between the two of them. But not this time. Instead, Abe just responded with, "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go get 'em. I'm all for it. And I get dibs if there's a red one."

Jill grinned at Sheldon and he smiled back at her.

The next day the two of them came back with their bandanas, a blue one for Sheldon and a red one for Abe. Sheldon shoved fish with Jill while Abe sat nearby in the sun reliving the memories of his youth. And for each of them, in their own way, it seemed like the right thing to do.

Jill didn't mind either, especially working with Sheldon. In spite of the rotting fish.

Article © Jim Bates. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-06-07
Image(s) are public domain.
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