This is one chapter from my current writing project “The Environmental Wars”. The novel has currently reached a word count of 40,440 and focuses on water issues around the globe caused by anthropogenic climate disruption and human avarice. I’ve been deeply moved by the tragedy in Flint Michigan, this chapter is about that sorry event. I’m seeking feedback from any who are willing to provide it.
Janice Brown, mother of three young children, has lived in Flint Michigan most of her married life. She and her husband Claude moved here from Detroit shortly after things became untenable in the ‘Motor’ city. Detroit is one of several cities in the USA that have been termed ‘Sacrifice Zones’ by journalist and author Chris Hedges.
The Browns believed they were escaping the worst of Detroit’s downward spiral by removing themselves and their children to Flint, they couldn’t know that they’d just gone from the frying pan into the fire.
“Come on James, it’s nearly time for the bus, you’re gonna be late!” Janice admonishes her eldest son James, named after that iconic ‘60’s singer showman of the same name. Janice’s son James is six years old and headed off to first grade, if he gets ready for school in time.
Janice will remain at home with her two younger children Sophia and Rose, who are two and four years old. Daycare costs are prohibitive for two children that age so Janice stays at home rather than spend money the family doesn’t have just so she can work at some low paying position, if she could find one that is. Claude hasn’t returned home yet from his job cleaning offices in downtown Flint. The company he started has contracts for cleaning services with several large corporations and State Government buildings but he still must work along side the few employees he has working for him. The Browns are a low income family although Claude is a hard working man who is diligent in his duties cleaning the offices of the white folks he never sees.
“Hi honey, is James ready for school it’s almost time for the bus to arrive? If he’s ready I’ll walk with him to the stop.” Claude greets his wife and asks about his son.
“Mornin’ Claude, how was work? Your son is fiddlin’ and diddlin’ as usual, it would be great if you could motivate him to get a move on?” Janice asks.
“C’on Buddy I’ll walk to the bus stop with you if you hurry up.” Claude says to his recalcitrant son.
“Daddy, I don’t feel good, my stomach hurts.” James complains.
“Your stomach hurts? Well let me see here, I’ll bet you just don’t want to go to school, do you, son? You know school is important. You need to get a good education to get ahead in this world. Now show me where does it hurt?” Claude asks.
James pulls up his shirt and points to his abdomen. “Here daddy.”
“When was the last time you went to the bathroom?” Claude asks.
“I don’t know.” James responds.
“Well you’re not dying and you haven’t got a fever so you’re goin’ to school, ya hear. We only stay home from school if we’re bleeding and need stitches, throwing up, or have a fever. You don’t look like you’ve got any of that goin’ on so get your lunch bag, give your momma a kiss, and let’s go.” Claude states with parental authority.
Returning from seeing James onto the school bus Claude kisses Janice affectionately and picks up his daughters in turn.
“And how are my precious flowers this mornin’? Claude asks his two daughters.
“This water tastes funny, daddy.” Sophia comments expecting her dad to fix it.
“You know I’ve noticed that m’self recently. How about you Janice, water taste nasty to you too?”
“Drink your juice instead honey.” Janice says to Sophia.
“I have Claude, the water tastes metallic or bitter especially in the mornings. What do you make of that?” Janice asks.
“Dun’ know, maybe we should ask the neighbors if they’ve noticed a change, probably just this old house, the pipes have got to be sixty to seventy years old, you’d taste funny too if you were that old girl.” Claude teases.
“Shut your mouth Claude, I’ll taste just as sweet as always ‘til the day I leave this world, and you didn’t seem to mind the last time you got busy.” Janice teases back.
The next day Claude asks one of his employees about the strange tasting water.
“Sam, have you noticed anything off about the tap water lately?” Asks Claude.
“Naw, I don’t drink the tap water if I can help it.” Sam replies.
“How about you Henrietta, you notice anything about the water in town?” Claude asks again.
“Oh hell yes, the water tastes all bitter and looks funny too. Don’t know why though.” Henrietta responds.
That evening at diner the water discussion continues.
“Claude honey, please pass the mashed potatoes?” Janice asks.
“Here you are. By the way, I asked Henrietta and Sam about the tap water today. Sam said he doesn’t drink it and Henrietta complained about the taste and the color. You notice anything about the water color?” Claude aks.
“No just the taste but I asked Mischell next door and she said the same thing, even showed me a glass of her water; I wouldn’t drink that, it looked really nasty. Oh-oh there goes Rose again, that child has been fussy for days, I don’t know what’s wrong with her, she’s too old for teething and she’s got all her teeth now anyway, maybe she’s coming down with something.”
“I’ll get her, you go on now.” Claude states getting up to attend to his fussing youngest daughter.
“You know Janice, I’m worried about the kids, James didn’t want to go to school today because he said his stomach hurt. You don’t suppose one of them has got a bug, do you?” Claude asks Janice while holding Rose who was now settled down. He is starting to worry that the kids are coming down with the flu.
“Strangest flu I ever heard of, no fever, no vomit. No I don’t think we need to worry about the flu, not yet anyway.” Janice states confidently but still concerned.
By the end of the week Claude and his crew are cleaning the State of Michigan’s offices located at State Office Building, 7th Floor 125 E. Union Street Flint, MI 48502.
“Alright then you all know what to do, Sam you start in the Men’s, Henrietta you start in the Woman’s, and I’ll take the kitchen.” Claude instructs his cleaners, and they all start with their assigned tasks for the evening.
After an hour or so Claude puts his mop in it’s bucket and walks to the water cooler for a drink, giving the kitchen floor some time to dry before resuming his work. The water bubbler is located out in the main office area accessible to all the seventh floor workers. When he gets to the bubbler he notices that situated adjacent to the regular water fountain is a new top-loading bottled water dispenser. Thinking it strange that this office would have both right next to each other gets him wondering. None of the other offices that he cleans have these additional water systems only the State Offices. Claude chooses the bottled water and thinks to himself how fine this water tastes versus what the water from his kitchen tap tastes like, there’s a world of difference, how fortunate to be a State employee.
At the end of the night, just as dawn is breaking and Claude finally reaches the welcome sight of his own front door his incident at the water cooler is almost forgotten.
“ Mornin’ Claude, how was work? Can I fix you something to eat?” Janice asks of her weary looking husband.
“Fine, we were at the State Building, same ol’, same ol’. How are you? I’m not hungry my tummy has been a little off lately, but thanks just the same.” States Claude as he reaches for a glass and turns on the faucet for a drink of water. When he brings the glass up to his lips the memory of his earlier sip of bottled water comes to the forefront of his mind and he immediately recoils from the glass in his hand, struck by the disparity.
“Janice a very strange thing occurred at work last night.” Claude recounts his bottled water tale to his wife who is also amazed by the oddity.
Weeks go by and finally the horror is revealed, the lives of the Browns, and everyone of the thousands of residents of Flint Michigan will be irrevocably altered because of the actions and inactions of a few city managers more concerned with reducing costs than the wellbeing of the citizens they were elected or appointed to serve. This is not an environmental issue, there is ample fresh water just miles away, held in the Great Lakes Fresh Water system, this is all on the human beings who failed each other.
“What do you mean by irrevocable brain damage, Doctor Lopez? They’re just little kids surely they will recover. Isn’t there some medicine that can help?” Janice takes the diagnosis of her children’s Lead poisoning very hard just like any loving parent would.
“I said there is a possibility of adverse neurological issues Mrs. Brown. Now I have some information that I can send home with you outlining some treatment recommendations. There are therapies that may mitigate the worst of your children’s health problems but I’m afraid this will be a lifetime effort; of course more testing will need to be done to fully know the extent of the damage. Right now I’d like to approach treatment through sound nutrition and education. Vitamin C, iron and calcium—all important in a healthy diet—also reduce lead levels.” Dr. Lopez attempts to instill hope, sorely needed in the community, along with what aid he can but with the thousand of young children affected in Flint he and his staff are overwhelmed.
Claude, mouth agape in shock, places his big arm around his wife’s shoulder in an attempt to provide comfort to her and himself at the news that all three of their children have been diagnosed with medium levels of lead poisoning from drinking the contaminated public water delivered to their kitchen, bathroom, and household faucets by a State Government more concerned with austerity programs than protecting the wellbeing of the citizens they were elected to serve.