My husband says I should have walked right the hell away from the Chemgard bullshit after I first saw the frog down in the pit of the Wastewater Treatment Plant.
“Is it worth it?” He asks, spooning with me in bed that night, his hand under my gown, stroking my leg.
“Look what that place did to that thing,” he says. “It might do something to you too.”
His fingers trail the inside of my thigh.
“What if we want more babies?” He says.
“We don’t want more babies,” I say, opening to him anyway. I’m just shy of fifty, stopped bleeding months ago. I doubt I could conceive a child, let alone carry one to term.
Plus we have three already. The youngest has her first orthodontist appointment next week.
He manages a gas and convenience store on the southbound highway out of Santa Maria, and moonlights doing construction bids. He makes a decent living, but still. We need the money from the Chemgard job if we want to do more than feed the kids.
Kids. Bills. Life. Have to work and work hard, no way around it. Jobs are a bitch to find in Wendigo County, doesn’t matter about experience or a college degree. The Wendigo is only about supply and demand, doesn’t give a rotten fuck about skills or education. The Wendigo will crunch you up, choke you down, and spit out your bones.
Pickings got even slimmer after the floods started. We think about moving sometimes, but I hear it’s the same all over the country.
After each flood, some neighborhood recovery and rehab jobs pop up like fungus, but most disaster relief teams are state and nationally funded corporations with their own crews. They don’t often hire locally.
Wendigo people can fill out tons of applications and stand in line for months, but the floods devastate rather than stimulate our rural economy.
Pritch first points the frog out to me. He trains me for the tour all graveyard shift Chemgards have to make, twice a shift at the WMD. Two guards, four tours between zero and oh eight hundred hours.
Pritch is a short man, retired military, slim, with sand colored hair and moustache. He does things by the book. That’s the way he orders the chaos, doing things by the book.
“Look down into the pit,” he says. “Do you see what I see?”
I look. The thing is almost as big as a full grown cat, and the vivid green of tree leaves in the sunlight before a summer rainstorm. Except for its flat black pop eyes, which are looking back at us. “What the fuck is that?” I ask.
“Came in on a flood a few years ago,” he says. “Wasn’t as big back then. He’s grown some.”
“Good sized bastard, “ I say. “Is that natural?”
He shrugs his narrow shoulders. “Who knows anymore?”
The floods have changed many things.
A week after I have started doing tours on my own, I meet up with that green bastard again, when I enter the Waste Water Treatment Plant a little after 0140 hours. A huge sheet metal and steel beam construction, the plant houses the Treatment Manager’s office and computers, aeration pumps and monitors, earth moving machines, a closet full of raincoats and galoshes, and a small dinghy with oars, in case the manager has to go out on one of the three half acre cessponds next to the building.
A Chemgard has to touch a toko wand to the button key next to the aeration pump monitors, making sure three little lights are glowing green. The lights just indicate the pumps are on and functioning. The button key and the pump monitor lights are on a wall next to the pit.
When I let myself into the building, I scan the room, by the flickering and murky nighttime light, and then I see the frog, crouched down on the cement floor between me and the key I have to touch.
I have to touch the key to get the points I need to get paid every night. The entire tour is computerized and recorded, the record printed and scanned by my supervisor and then emailed to a district manager miles away in a district branch office.
We touch about a hundred or so keys throughout the two mile facility tour, all in different locations, and every key is worth a certain amount of points, which are worth a certain amount of money.
It’s a commission job. You don’t touch a key, you lose points. You lose points, you lose money.
“Piss off, “ I tell the frog. “Go back to hell where you came from.”
It doesn’t budge. Its pink tongue pokes out of its slit mouth like a sticky wad of bubblegum, and it looks at me with those popped out eyes.
I take a few steps to the left, thinking I’ll go around it. It also hops to the left, leaving a water smudge on the grey concrete floor where its pale belly pouch has rubbed.
I eye a tempting arrangement of shovels and forks stowed on a wall mounted rack. I know I am imagining this, but I swear it is looking at the rack too.
I radio Pritch, back at HQ. “Chemgard mobile to Chemgard base.”
“Chemgard base to Chemgard mobile. What’s your twenty?”
“Building 74. Frog problems.” I transmit.
“Find a landline. There’s one in the office. Chemgard base out,” he replies. He’s really hinky about saying anything on the radio.
I back step to the Treatment Manager’s office, half turn to unlock the door. My hands are shaking as I fumble with the ring of keys, find the right one, insert it into the lock. Once in the office with the door relocked behind me, I punch in the HQ extension on the desk phone keypad.
“Can I kill that fucking thing?” I ask Pritch when he answers.
“Blocking you?” He asks. He has laughter and compassion in his voice. He’s been where I am now.
“Yeah it is,” I say. “We’re going mano a mano pretty soon here. I’ll be a little late what with the cleanup. I bet it’ll make quite the splat.”
“Don’t kill it,” he tells me. “Feed it. It’s hungry.”
“What?” I say. “Feed it what?”
“Just about anything,” he says. “Nightcrawlers’ll do. Ought to be some tonight.”
The rain falls constantly anymore. Global warming. At any given time, the asphalt covering most of the ground at the facility is thick with crawlers.
I flip the frog a dirty bird.
“Hold on, little buddy.” I tell it.
Outside I bend and scoop up a handful of half drowned crawlers. Like the frog, they are bigger than they used to be, bigger around than spike nails. They writhe slimy in my palm.
Back inside, I scrape them onto the concrete in front of the frog. Even before I step back, that pink wad of tongue is out and snapping, snapping out, snapping back.
When the mouth first opens, just before the tongue appears, I swear I see little pointed teeth. In less than a minute, the dozen or so worms I have gathered are gone.
I am then able to check to see the pump monitor lights are on, touch my wand to the key, and continue out of the plant and on with my tour.
As I pass the cessponds, breathe in their poison stink of shit, chemicals, and decaying barley grass, I shine my little spotlight on the surface of each, checking to see if it is bubbling vigorously. I feel a slight chill at the back of my neck, wondering what might be swimming around in that water.
B’wana, our Chemgard supervisor, didn’t tell me that the job was dangerous. Neither did Joe, the Assistant District Manager who interviewed me.
He ran the standard fingerprint and drug scan in the lobby of that company owned abandoned river’s edge industry next county over in Herkimer.
“You’ll be working 3rd shift in Santa Maria, at the WMD facility,” Joe said at the interview. “You start training tomorrow. Hope you last because most don’t there.”
“They don’t want to work bad enough,” I told him.
“Atta girl,” Joe said.
I could smell the acrid bite of mold during that interview. The cracked and loosened floor tiles, and three foot up the walls of that lobby, were thick coated in greasy brown river silt.
I took my inhaler out of my jacket pocket and puffed on it. Just about everyone I know carries one these days.
Joe gave me the standard Chemgard uniform, black boots, grey pants, light blue long sleeved button down shirt. The next day I went to the facility for training and met B’wana, a big blond gorilla of a man, the silverback we call him. He was waiting for me, standing at the edge of the visitor parking lot, smoking a cigarette.
“Building 45 is the hardest part of the tour, “ he told me. “Sometimes it seems like a maze in there. You can get lost if you don’t know what you’re doing. But you will get the hang of it. Just choose landmarks to go by.”
Building 45. Hallway after interconnected hallway of offices, labs, mechanical and electric rooms. A Chemgard checks all the hallways and the most dangerous of the rooms, listening for audible alarms and looking for the strobe alarms.
We also look and smell for smoke and spillage, read oxygen levels, pressure gauges and thermometers, and record the readings. If there are overnight experiments being conducted, we make sure they are the right color, consistency, or are percolating as they should be.
We listen to the sound of machines, or systems of machines, like the HVAC systems with their air handling units, and learn to differentiate between the sounds of a healthy machine and a malfunctioning one. We don’t have to diagnose, just differentiate. If necessary, we call the appropriate personnel, either facilities maintenance or scientist.
At first, to learn my way around, I take B’wana’s advice and choose landmarks–a potted tree, a cappuccino machine, the mass spectrometry or atomic lab, a water cooler, the break table where office ladies always put cookie or cheese and cracker plates for office parties. I landmark a bulletin board, pinned with safety alerts and a few yellowing scientific humor comic strips.
Most of the time the landmarks point my way.
But sometimes the landmarks won’t be in their usual places. Other times they will just disappear.
“What’s wrong with me?” I ask Pritch, the first time it happens.
He smiles under his reddish moustache. “You’ll get used to it,” he says.
I sit down in one of the two chairs in the Chemgard HQ, a small cinder block and plexiglass structure at the entrance to the facility, big enough only for two guards.
“I don’t understand,” I say, pouring a cup of strong black coffee from my thermos.
“Call me on the radio if you need to,” he says.
So if I get lost, I radio back to HQ for help, and Pritch guides me through it. All the landmarks are in their right places on the CCTV monitors, just not in the building itself.
“Is it the frog that’s doing that, too?” I ask.
I am standing with him as he smokes, outside HQ.
“No, he says, smiling. “Dave is the one doing that.”
“Who’s Dave?” I ask.
Pritch tells me that Dave was a facility safety and health officer who committed suicide a few years before I started working there, about the time of the first major flood. Ate a round right in his facility office.
“Course he wasn’t supposed to have a weapon inside the facility,” says Pritch, lighting a second cigarette. “Too dangerous. Flash points everywhere, unstable substances. Too many boom boom zones. About anything can blow everything sky high in there.”
Some of the HQ guards carry weapons because of the terrorism threat. They are trained in the Appropriate Situational Use of Firearms, and make a lot more money than we do. But they work day time hours, and patrol only the perimeter. Mostly they just sit at HQ and make sure no one crosses the line.
“Why’d he kill himself?” I ask.
“Some say he had cancer, wanted an early out. Others think he caught some sort of virus from the facility.”
“What kind of a virus?” I ask.
“A bad one,” Pritch says, laughter in his eyes again. “One he didn’t want to live with.”
“Course his wife coulda found out he was gay,” he says. “There’s always that.”
“People don’t off themselves anymore because they are gay,” I say. “Married or no. You’d think we’ve progressed a little farther up the evolutionary scale than that.”
“That was just one of the rumors,” Pritch says. “The reason was never made official.”
“You might see Dave,” he tells me. “He’s an older man, everyone always see him wearing safety goggles and a brown cardigan sweater.”
But I never see him, although I look everywhere. A few Chemgards besides Pritch see him regularly.
Other weird shit goes down at the facility after twilight, and different Chemgards experience different things.
One, a real young guy who doesn’t last more than a month, gets respiratory distress inside two places, a warehouse for a popular dry chemical shipped from Japan, and a small freestanding storage building for extremely unstable chemicals.
Twice he has to radio HQ for assistance, and his partner has to call an ambulance and the facility hazmat team both times. When the hazmat team tests air quality minutes after he’s hauled off to the emergency room, the air quality is just fine, for anybody, even someone with a sensitive respiratory system. Like I said, we all carry inhalers anymore.
It’s the monsoons. They produce lots of mold, fungi, and pollen from new growth.
“It’s just those two places,” the young guard says. “I can feel it before it happens, like the air gets thicker or something. And then I get lightheaded. Next thing I know, I’m on the floor, choking for breath.”
Both times, when he goes to the hospital, the ER personnel can find nothing wrong with him, nothing in his system that shows exposure to anything.
He is transferred to another facility, a lobby assignment, where all he has to do is look pretty, run a switchboard, greet visitors, hand out temp badges, and half ass monitor ingress and egress.
The other guards get nervous after that, like maybe the facility is lying about the air quality tests, even though we’ve all seen the results on paper. I file the original in a red binder, to be kept right there at HQ, while a copy goes to OSHA.
One guard starts holding his breath when he tours those two specific areas, moving through them as fast as he can.
He catches shit about it.
“Why not take up deep sea pearl diving?” B’wana suggests. “That way you could learn to hold your breath for the entire tour.”
B’wana is a realist. You’d have a hard time convincing him you saw a deer by the lilac trees.
Only the lilac trees aren’t the same anymore. The blossoms are different, larger, like narcissi, and they bloom constantly. We don’t have winters to speak of anymore.
When I first started working at the facility, we still had winters. Once in the frozen stillness of a river night, I watched an owl eviscerate a rabbit on a snowbank.
“Hey,” I told the owl, but it took the rabbit and flew off, its wingspan huge and loud and dusky, blending into the dark and shadows of the trees.
I was filled up by the moment and later, when I told B’wana about it, he narrowed his pale blue eyes against the smoke of his cigarette.
“You’re full of shit, girl,” he said.
But then, after the morning has lightened to grey the snowbank with its stain of blood and fur, he said, “Well, I guess you saw something.”
So I don’t tell him much because he won’t believe it. He doesn’t even know the frog is there, has never seen it.
I don’t tell him that I see blood dripping down the walls of what used to be the exsanguination room, where any surviving beagles and rhesus were drained to death after participating in the chemical and biotoxin experiments.
I don’t tell him about the sick dogs crying I hear in the abandoned kennels, now used for storage. We only have to go in there once a week, to make sure the roof isn’t leaking or steam pipes haven’t burst, or a transient hasn’t climbed the back fence, and somehow found a way in, looking for a spot to bed down for a while.
I sing to the dogs who are no longer there, tell them I am sorry, whenever I hear them.
No animals are kept at the facility anymore, rather non clinical experiments are contracted out to southern facilities, where animals are bred for such purpose.
I don’t tell him about the strong gut wrenching smell of decay in the hallways of the old freezer building. The freezers in there keep vials of human and animal blood, the tissues and organs of bygone testing, when the facility made medication and not weapons, decades ago.
The freezers in that building are always working fine, but often enough when I’m in there I smell soured blood, rotten meat.
I haven’t told B’wana that I am pregnant, either, but I will have to, soon, when I start showing.
My doctor says she can hear four heartbeats inside me. Four. I’ve never taken fertility drugs in my life and multiples don’t run in my family or my husband’s. It’s a little odd.
“You are having a litter!” my doctor says. “Don’t worry, it’s rare, but it does happen. I’m ordering you an ultrasound for next week.”
I’m going to work as long as I can, because with four more coming, we need the money more than ever.
I learn to carry bologna or tuna sandwiches to appease the frog, part of mine or Pritch’s lunch, peanut butter cookies, apple pie, cheese and crackers, anything.
It’ll eat other more normal sized frogs as well, and toads, which are both starting to reappear. They vanished for three or four years after the first major flood at the facility, when biotoxins leaked out of Storage Building 86 because the administrators weren’t prepared for the quick and drastic water rise.
The frog eats the large pale blue moths that have recently begun to cover the walls of certain buildings, and the featherless bruised fledgeling birds I find on the asphalt under the lush upstart of semi tropical trees.
Surprisingly, it also relishes rats that have eaten poison bait and keel over dead in the Treatment Plant. The poison doesn’t bother the frog at all, probably acts as some kind of tonic.
Sometimes I still think about bludgeoning that frog.
“I don’t know,” Pritch says, “might be harder to kill than you think.”