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The well is poisoned, he says on the phone one week; then, another week, it’s drying up.
The story, the beloved story, used to be that under our wilderness, so wild it was unlocatable on any map, was an aquifer deep and pure. It was ours and we drank from the ground with a straw.
Now, when we visit him, it is during the thick and showy summer months, the woods full of breezes and animated green. My father points out a property up the road with oozing tanks, junked cars and trailers, and, between them, scabby animals tied to stakes. He is sure the owners have poisoned the ground and the ground has poisoned the water. He will not have it tested, though, preferring his fear to a number of parts-per-million.
At the well house, he shows us the slackened flow. Too many people, he says, are tapping into it. Ours was not the only straw.
• • •
Home again, we take a long subway ride from our borough to the next to see a group art show called Heat Island, a term meant to describe the urban center as heat trap and sink. Raw sunlight falls on concrete, steel, and brick, where it pools and breeds; heat churns, too, from within—motors, lights, cars, appliances stacked into the sky, an air conditioner dripping from every other window; the heat of millions of animals compounding without release.
We admit we are afraid of heat, we were not raised to be trapped. We throw our windows open all winter. We have the available shade mapped for the time of year, the time of day. The city is unable to breathe and we don’t know how to make lungs—that thought sits on us leadenly. We have come to Heat Island to become fascinated by the ways we can’t help ourselves.
A wall of mirrored bricks is the first piece we see. And then construction materials—cinderblock, drywall, insulation—piled in a heap by another artist. Then a whimsically large fan trained at a whimsically large couch on a platform a few feet from the ground. There are three drums on which we’re invited to pound. Further, a few monotonous oil paintings of housing project exteriors, and a second heap of building materials by a different artist, this one with a blank canvas draped over one side.
We’re won over by the scale of the couch and fan, and we like the intentional monotony of the paintings. But we feel like an extra finicky Goldilocks—this piece is too obvious, this one is too cute, too preachy, too pretty. One over- and one under-determined. Nothing is just right. Or we are not right for them. The corners of our lips fall until our mouths are flat lines, then fall further. Our eyes have decidedly less radiance than the photographs of gasoline puddles.
We had wanted to see something capacious, an invitation for the mind to dig into the body’s conundrums. None of the works feel big enough to crawl into, as when early humans sought shelter in caves but then carefully mixed rust and ochre paints and brought the danger inside, their thumb tips tracing haunch and horn. We wanted to crawl into the heat island or invite it inside, the difference between the two perhaps negligible in the end.
• • •
We leave and notice that we are just across from a river, the city’s most notorious, filled with the scraps of industry, with unpronounceable compounds and the shed skins of 8 million people, rain washing the rainbow surface of the streets down into the water. We walk to the river’s banks and are surprised to find them thickly populated today by fit men and women in stretchy outfits and life vests. They are rowers and we see a heat of boats out in the current testing their speeds against the speeds of others.
Under a gray-black bridge, wide enough to make another sky, a sandy slip cuts into the otherwise-monolithic bank. A few rowers wade into the water, lift handfuls of it over their shoulders, as on this day it is indeed a hot island. It’s startling, to see human beings swallowed to the thigh by this liquid. We watch them carefully, but they register no immediate harm—no one seems to have cut his foot or burned her skin.
Midstream, the rowers’ movements are fierce but touchingly simple as they race toward the open sea. We want to think of this day and remember our daring, fill the well. So we take off our shoes, take off the baby’s pants. Small waves wash in steadily as if this were a real beach. We hold the baby’s hands, walk him into the water and wait for his delight. “Whee,” we suggest, studying his face. “Isn’t this something?”
As semis and subways pass overhead, our canopy booms and sifts grit into the air. The baby holds tight in a worried joy and then we lift him out cool and clean. He comes out clean.
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