Admitting defeat and saying yes, I need help to feed my children wasn’t hard enough. There were forms to fill out which needed to be taken to an office located inside an intimidating building. The ribald man I asked for directions pointed the wrong way – possibly on purpose. Following a narrow hallway, I pushed open a door and found myself in the parking lot. I gazed around, looking for some back entrance. The potent heat and stench from the blacktop overwhelmed me; my grip on the handle loosened. I had to walk all the way around to reenter through the front, to be rescreened, requestioned, and once more have the wand waved over me because of the pins in my leg.
My shift at the Waffle House started in an hour. I considered giving up, trying a different day, but the hunger tears running down the pale brown skin of Isabel and Miquel’s cheeks that morning guided me. I had to try. Meinko wasn’t supposed to work that day, could have taken her entire lunch hour; retired three years ago. Instead, she waved me in and asked, “How can I help?”
Relieved at finding someone to listen, I blubbered like a frat boy caught trying to dine and ditch. Once she calmed me, I explained how I’d been waiting on my husband’s return, then any word from him. How I accepted the obvious truth, that he’d been disappeared. Meinko’s voice was a comfort though her questions were probing. She typed until her computer said I qualified for SNAP, HEAP, and other assistance. I looked at the clock; I’d make it to work on time.
My gratitude was effusive.
“Come to my house,” she said, handing me a bus schedule with an address on the back. As if reading my mind, she opened her desk drawer and slid me a twenty. “Bring your babies.”
The dust was finer, lighter on her farm than the soot of the city. Cara, her daughter, watched my angels while Meinko and I walked the perimeter of her fields. She’d fought the state to keep a bypass from being built. She’d lobbied for thick trees to be planted as a buffer between her property and the Monsanto killing chemicals her neighbors insisted on using. “A strong back,” she said, tapping my spine. “A good vocabulary and belief in a just God. You’ll need those to make it here.” I clung to those words as I rose up, vertebrae by vertebrae — not just for myself, but for my children.
She and I visited often, shared nourishment from her vegetables, apples, blueberry bushes she covered in netting so fine it resembled a spider’s vast web. I learned to tend tomatoes on the square of patio of our apartment, studied the definitions included on the word-a-day calendar she presented to me for one Christmas. She corrected my occasional misuse and misunderstanding of a cultural reference I’d heard. Meinko encouraged me to take the free classes whenever I could, for both knowledge and making connections.
Like the snake oil preachers before them, natural gas drillers infiltrated our tiny corner of a large state. Greed took over most of her neighbors and they succumbed to deals saner men would balk at. Meinko was the lone holdout. Her place was surrounded by vacated homes. She still said no.
The day they started to drill, she and I held hands, watched the rough boys with tanned necks and red forearms burrow under the earth’s skin. A foreman walked up, said there was nothing to fear. We all felt the shivers under our feet.
Cara came to my apartment a week later, her face as pale as the icing I swirled onto cupcakes at my new job.
“What happened?” I drew in my breath. It took her a long time to say.
Meinko had gotten up to get a drink. The faucet screamed. The well casing had cracked. On tap was gassy oil. It was too much.
“There’s only so many battles — ” Cara cupped her hands over her face.
I hugged her close and something aural occurred, but in my heart. It was my turn. I needed to take up Meinko’s fight. Spread my knowledge. Petition. Pray a different disaster might be prevented.
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