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  • Writer's pictureThe Stardust Review


Roger S. Gottlieb

“It’s hopeless, isn’t’ it.” Daniel’s face was serious, but also a little childlike, as if he was hoping she could make it all better.

“Probably, but we’ll see. You can’t tell.” They were at 30,000 feet, cruising towards Martin’s home—or what was left of it after the mountain top removal coal mine had made it look like bombs had fallen on every side. “Sometimes you get something from the EPA, sometimes from a local politician who hasn’t been bought off.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, everything. We win a little, but the big things” he hesitated, they both knew what the big things were, “we won’t stop them, we just won’t.”

Sarah glanced up from her Mother Jonesarticle on the Koch brothers and patted his hand. He gently bent over and kissed the back of her wrist, his frizzy gray hair brushing her forearm. They had been lovers for only a short time, and it was still a mystery to him how this lovely, younger woman could be bothered with his pot belly, lousy wardrobe and perennially anxious, grieving, or angry expression—not to mention his extended livid rants about dying coral reefs, carcinogens in newborn babies, and how the snow at the top of Mount Everest was too polluted to drink.

Sarah smiled, the expression most likely to be seen on a small round face framed by short brown hair. Then stretched—her compact body twisting right and left in the cramped plane seat. “It’s been almost twenty years now. God knows how many campaigns I’ve been on—how many losses. But we’ve won a few. Slowed down that awful dam complex in India. Stopped some of the worst pesticides and got all the water bottle folks to brag that they are BPA free.” She chuckled at that one, her green eyes gleaming, as if getting carcinogens out of objects of daily use was a delightful lark.

Daniel sighed, thinking of ten bad things for every good one. And how even the good ones were too little too late and easily overturned.

“But.” he started, feeling the familiar, bitter anger that made his body rigid and his eyes widen. She put a finger to his lips, made a soft shushing sound.

“It doesn’t really matter, does it?”

He stared at her, dumbfounded.

“Suppose you had a crystal ball and could see, oh, thirty years down the pike. And suppose all the terrible things happening now had only gotten worse. Drought and storms, wars over water shortages, the ocean even more fished out. Political breakdown with all the economic losses. And the cultural pollution even fouler—though that one is hard to imagine.

“Would you stop doing what we’re doing? Stop caring? Stop trying?”

Daniel felt his body soften, then took her hand and kissed it again. She was right, of course she was right. It was the work, the struggle, which mattered. Not his feelings. But sometimes he just wanted to be in some other world, one where people didn’t poison the earth and themselves. And if his rage, which he knew just wasted his energy, and only stole, yes, his peace of mind, would bring that other world a fraction of a fraction of an inch closer, he would feel it as deeply as it could. And if it was useless, well, more reason to feel it, just out of spite at the world for being what it was.


Later that day they were in Richwood, West Virginia, Martin’s hometown, or what was left of it. The hills were so steep, and so close to the road, that the sun was only up for a few hours a day—the rest of the time everything was in shadow. Run down houses, small, tired-looking stores, beaten up cars and pickup trucks and beaten down people collected in tiny towns usually next to a small river or a large creek—population a hundred, or three hundred or, if it were the largest city around, maybe three thousand. As they’d flown into Charlotte Sarah and Daniel had seen the beauty, and then the wreckage, of Appalachia. Green hill after green hill, separated by small valleys shaped by twisting waterways. Not really mountains, not like the Rockies, or even the Whites or the Greens, just an endless series of raised humps, maybe six, seven, eight hundred feet higher than the roads that wound through them, topped with small trees and thick underbrush, graced with streams and the occasional tiny pond.

And then, brutally exposed, rent by bulldozers the size of houses with tires twenty feet tall, and surface clearing drag lines the length of a city block, the planet’s bare skin without the green—a series of pits and ravines, where the life and fertile earth had been ripped off. Daniel reached over and grabbed Sarah’s hand as they stared out of the plane window. He saw her close her eyes and whisper something under her breath, then lean closer to take in the sweep of devastation. Just from her side of the plane through the tiny window they could see more than twenty sites, brooding scars upon the land.

They met Martin at the last remaining store in Richwood, still in shadow at nearly ten in the morning, a combination of gas station and tiny general store, where people came for gas and coffee, beef jerky and the occasional candy treat for the kids. Martin was waiting for them outside, leaning against an outer door with a ripped screen. He was a big man, with rough looking hands, dressed in old jeans and a tattered plaid shirt, who spoke in a low monotone. He’d come to Sarah’s office, having heard that she “helped people like me.” People, that is, who were causalities of The System: money, power, everyone’s endless thirst for electricity, and political authorities who played along because, after all, you need big money to get elected and stay in office; and outside of the crazy tree huggers who really gives a shit if people are displaced and the little home towns poisoned and the tops of the little hills blown to bits so more coal could be burned?

Everyone else had moved out of the hilltop settlement—everyone but Martin. This was his place and he loved it and so far financial offers and threats hadn’t moved him. His well water had turned brown, dishes toppled off shelves as the ground shook from explosions, the air was unbreathable half the time, and the machinery noise was maddening. Finally, he realized he couldn’t last without help. So he came to Sarah, having heard from a distant cousin how she’d mobilized a small town in Pennsylvania to resist fracking. And for the last few months, after their accidental meeting in the White Mountains, coming to Sarah meant having Daniel tag along as well.

Martin sat in front as Sarah drove the four-wheel drive rental, with Daniel, pensive and clearly out of his normal ecosystem, sitting uneasily in the back. Martin’s long silences made him uncomfortable; and his obvious lack of education left Daniel worried he might use words Martin wouldn’t understand. He suspected that Martin probably thought that an overweight, overeducated guy who let a woman call most of the shots wasn’t much of a man. Then he silently cursed himself for the stupidity of the whole line of thought; and wondered how Sarah, who quietly joked with Martin, or sat contentedly during the long silences, seemed at home with everyone.

They followed the main road for a few miles, then took a side road into the hills, which soon became hard packed dirt, and then, as Sarah downshifted into the series of bumps, gullies, and ruts, hard packed dirt alternating with mud, sand, and rocks. Aspen, white ash, and birch lined the road, gradually giving way to hemlock and pine as they slowly climbed, the late March sun glaring off the occasional puddles, finally making it over the sharply angled horizon. Sarah drove calmly, never rushing, sensing when to let the forward momentum of the car carry them across the larger ruts and mud patches, clearly knowing that sometimes going too slow was as liable to mess you up as going too fast.

The road angled up once more, steeply rising and covered in loose stones. Sarah gunned the engine just enough to handle the slope, then muttered something under her breath as they had to make a hairpin turn across a series of sudden, narrow ruts.

Abruptly, painfully, the woods just stopped. As far as they could see the earth was scraped away, scored with dirt tracks on which the monstrous machines moved. In several places craters, hundreds of yards across, impossible to tell how deep, made bowl shaped markers in the ravaged landscape: Here, they said, here there used to be coal. But we’ve taken it out and left this. You don’t like it? Stop buying the coal. And turn off some of your goddam machines.

They got out of the car, Martin pointing to where the forest had been, where springs had bubbled forth from rocks, where he’d seen deer, where there used to be a sudden, unexplained patch of dogwood that would flower in early spring.

“Gone, all gone.” His face, his tone, flat, expressionless. What was underneath all that, Daniel wondered. Underneath the dust in his mouth, the muted threats from the company’s thugs and lawyers. What enabled him to hold on like a pit bull that had to be beaten into unconsciousness before you could pry him off whatever he’d sunk his teeth into?

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Martin cautioned them, as they entered the mining area. “Where the woods end, that’s it.”

“Oh well,” Sarah said, “let’s just see.” She took a small, extremely expensive, digital camera out of her lightweight windbreaker, set the telephoto to wide angle, and started shooting pictures: of the woods behind them, of the enormous pits, the thirty and forty-foot-high machines which even in the distance showed up fine when she changed the camera to telephoto. She kept walking at a brisk pace further and further into the area, stopping to aim the camera, then moving on, the two men following behind.

Daniel felt like a fool, trailing her, not having the faintest idea why he was here. He could track stories on the web, look up government reports, collate statistics on lung disease from coal plant emissions. But this? What in God’s name could he do that local groups, or the Sierra Club or Greenpeace or God knows who else hadn’t tried already? He felt terrible for Martin, for everything erased by the coal company. But what could he and Sarah offer, except to pat Martin on the arm and tell him they were sorry?

Sarah kept moving, taking pictures, walking towards the giant pits. Then she draped the camera over her shoulder on its long strap and took a small digital recorder out of another pocket. As she walked she spoke quietly, holding it up to her mouth. Her voice was so quiet Daniel could only hear fragments: “Forested area. Effects. Water. Air quality. Mental health. Community. Loss. Destroyed. Destroyed. Destroyed.”

Daniel was so focused on the pit, and on the way Sarah was swapping the recorder for the camera and back again, that he didn’t notice the bright red pick-up truck bearing down on them, a late-model 4x4 with the Beta Coal Company logo—the sun rising over a field with cows and a happy family. Martin cursed under his breath, Sarah took pictures of the truck, and then of four very large men dressed in jeans, work boots, and denim jackets, with baseball caps pulled low over their eyes. Two of them carried baseball bats and a third had a large pistol hanging off a belt slung low on his hip. The fourth man left the truck last. He was a little smaller than the rest, but still as big as Martin. He carried a silver travel coffee mug in one hand. In the other was a smart phone, into which he quietly talked. He sighed, balanced the mug on the hood of the truck, swiped the phone off, and walked slowly up to Sarah, Daniel and Martin.

“Good morning folks, out for a little sight-seeing? And Martin, so nice to see you again. I trust you haven’t changed your mind about our generous offer. Or have you? And you’re just showing your friends around as a kind of farewell before you sell and,” the voice suddenly became harder, a little threatening, “get the hell out of our way.”

“Not selling to you sons of bitches. Not to anyone. If I’m in your way, I’m damn glad.”

“Not surprised. Some folks just don’t know what’s good for them.” He turned to Sarah and Daniel. “Do you know you’re trespassing? And.” again the tone changed. He moved forward and leaned towards them, “we’ve got laws against this sort of thing.” He gestured at their bodies, at Sarah’s camera.

Sarah smiled at the man. Daniel knew she had been through this sort of things before. “First they’re polite,” she had told him, letting him know what could happen, “then they threaten, then they get angry, but then—if they don’t punch me in the mouth like they did at the oil refinery in Baton Rouge, or take a tire iron to my rented car, like in a uranium mine in Utah—I take what I’ve come for and get out fast.” He had listened, his jaw dropping a bit. “You up for this?” she’d asked. “Look, really,” and she’d put her hand over his, “no shame if you’re not. There’s so much to do, if you don’t want to do this, there’s plenty else.” He had swallowed, twice, unwilling to play the coward in front of her, putting memories of schoolboy fights out of his mind. “I’ll come, wouldn’t miss it,” he’d answered, hoping to God he didn’t pass out or piss his pants if someone took a swing at him.

“Sarah Carson,” she said, holding out her hand. “Friend of Martin, but also representing a variety of environmental groups located in several states, including this one. Here to make sure everything fits in with West Virginia’s well-constructed and carefully applied environmental regulations. I’m sure you can imagine how important that is for all of us, your employers included.” She smiled again, waited for him to shake her hand. He didn’t move. She lowered her arm, the expression on her face never changing. “What’s your name?” she asked brightly, her tone friendly, as if they were having a casual encounter at a restaurant or a ball game. Then she turned and looked directly, still smiling, at the other three men. “What’s all your names?” When no one answered she took out her recorder and help it up. “Come on guys, I gave you mine. How about you give me yours? Only fair, right?”

“I’ll give you fair,” the leader muttered under his breath, and faster than Daniel thought possible he lunged forward and ripped the recorder out of Sarah’s hand, opened the back, took out the batteries and threw them over his shoulder. Then, staring right at Sarah, he dropped it on a large rock by the side of the dirt track and ground it to pieces under his boot.

“Hey,” said Daniel, moving up towards Sarah. His heart pounded in his chest, his hands started to shake, and he felt his stomach clench. For a split second he had an image of his living room, with its books and cds and worn, comfortable chair, and wished for nothing else than to be sitting there, reading yet another environmental magazine. But on top of that image was a single compelling thought: protect her if you can. He tried to put his body between Sarah and the man who’d destroyed the recorder. The man just stared at him. Then slowly raised his arm and snapped his fingers once. With practiced efficiency the three other men quickly moved forward. One of them faked a jab and Daniel’s head and when Daniel instinctively threw up his hands to defend, punched him low and hard in the stomach. Daniel bent in half, suddenly seeing only the ground and fighting the urge to throw up. Then a short, anguished scream burst from his throat as the man kicked the side of his knee. He collapsed, feeling stones scrape his hands and face. Through the haze of pain he could see the other two men surround Martin, one of them drawing his gun and pointing it straight at Martin’s head.

“Be a shame,” the leader said, walking over to Martin, “after all we’ve been through together, to see you die for threatening Beta’s employees, bringing people to help you sabotage the mine. On the other hand, you piece of shit, make one move and I’ll be real glad to have my associate here put one right between your eyes.” Martin was silent and unmoving. Daniel prayed he would stay that way. He knew the two blows had finished him. But what would they do to Sarah? A tense silence built among the seven of them, until Sarah broke it.

“I take it,” she began calmly, her hands thrust into the pockets of her windbreaker—was that to keep them from shaking, Daniel wondered—“you’d like us to leave.” The leader walked back to her, slowly moving closer until his body was almost touching hers. With a swift, smooth motion he swung a fist at Sarah’s face, stopping just in front of her eyes. She didn’t move.

“I don’t like men who hit women,” he said slowly, drawing out each word. “Not what a man should do. But I’ll tell you somethin’ else. I don’t like women who mess around in men’s business. Who try to stop something that puts food on my kids’ table. And does that for a lot of us. Get out of here. Don’t come back. Or I won’t stop. Not my fist, not those bats, not his gun. Got it?”

Once again there was an extended silence. Daniel clenched his teeth in fear, hoping that Sarah wouldn’t do anything foolish. Slowly, staring calmly at the man’s eyes, Sarah raised her hand and gently pushed his fist away from her face. “We will leave. For now.” Her voice was quiet, neutral, without tremor or supplication. “You have fists and bats and guns. Good for you. We’ll see what we have.” She turned, slowly walked over to the man holding the gun on Martin. “Please put that away. He and I have to help Daniel back to the car.”

And slowly, painfully, that is what they did. One arm over each of their shoulders, Daniel tried to muffle his groans that wrenched through him with every step. The only other sounds were Sarah’s heavy breathing at the effort of supporting him and Martin’s whispered curses, over and over, too low to hear the words.


Two days later they were back in Boston, having left Martin with his loss and lack of hope. In Sarah’s combination office and apartment Daniel nursed his sprained knee with Tylenol and bourbon. Sarah, fresh from the shower and swallowed by a plush white robe, took a sip of his bourbon and started humming as she brushed her short brown hair.

Daniel stared at her, a question lurking in his eyes.

“Yes?” she smiled.

“How do you do it? You didn’t seem scared. You don’t go crazy thinking about it, like I do. You’ve done all this work and yet you don’t hang your head or smash something. Down there you kept it all together. And now you take a shower and have a drink and come out singing.”

Sarah smiled even broader, her obvious affection welling out of her eyes.

“Oh, I don’t know. I was scared up there, for sure. But I wouldn’t let the bastards see it. And crazy? Well, not any more. Or, at least, not for a while.

But let me tell you a story.”


There had been a time, six years after she’d finished college, that it had all become too much. She’d gotten a rare paid position—not paid very much, none of them were—at a small but highly respected NGO focusing on clean water. The despair seemed to have snuck up on her, masquerading first as fatigue, and then as an anger that boiled to the surface far too often. She could date the exact moment when the wheels came off completely.

It had taken weeks to get the appointment with Peter Caralin, a third-tier EPA staffer, to discuss her findings of cancer clusters, respiratory ailments, and birth defects in a large mid-western state. Before getting to him she had been shuttled and shuffled between local, state, and federal departments, all of which seemed to have several possible relevant agencies. Was it water quality? Department of agriculture? Industrial regulation? Interstate commerce? Local zoning? She had filled out countless forms, sat in gray toned waiting rooms with bored or hostile or chatty secretaries, even once fallen asleep after being told for the fourth time that “Not too much longer dear, sorry for the delay, you know how busy he is…”

Today Sarah had arrived early, waited in a small, crowded anti-room with two secretaries, a whole wall filled with regulations, announcements and warnings of what government workers could or could not do or say (“or think, no doubt,” Sarah mused). Her usual working clothes of jeans and open collared fleece sweaters had been replaced by tailored gray slacks and perfectly pressed light blue blouse; the usual trail running shoes by black leather pumps with wedge heels. She had even borrowed her boss’s briefcase, thinking that her daily Jan Sport would betray the efforts she had put into her clothes.

After brief hellos, she started in. “As you probably know, Mr. Caralin,” she began, with just the slightest smile to offset the rage that she been carrying ever since she’d seen the figures, “the water quality in the U.S. is, well, just horrible. Forty percent of the rivers, streams, and lakes can’t support aquatic life. Yet here, here,” she repeated, jabbing and the small map indicating which counties were worst hit, “it’s nearly twice as bad. We’ve found a staggering variety of toxic chemicals. Often in concentrations dozens of times higher than EPA regulations.” She paused, waited. Hoping that Mr. Caralin—not too much older than she, dressed in worn chinos, corduroy suit jacket, and black shirt with a gray tie, top shirt button loose, a bland face topped by short black hair, eyes seeming to focus about three feet to the right and above her head—would register some emotion. But Mr. Caralin, who might have been preoccupied with a fight he’d had with his girlfriend this morning, after she’d accused him of being emotionally distant and uncommunicative, didn’t seem all that interested.

“Yes,” he answered, “too bad. Probably, I can’t be sure of course, some combination of agricultural runoffs, non-source point pollution, and maybe particulates from power plants upwind. And don’t forget,” he added, “local people and their outboard motors, dumping wastes in the local waters, tossing in tires and letting motor oil seep into ground near the neighborhood creek.”

Then he yawned. Looked at his watch. He’d either heard all this before or was hearing it for the first time and didn’t care.

“But, but,” Sarah’s tone started to rise, she leaned forward in her chair, trying to keep herself from standing up and throwing the report at Caralin’s face, “what will the EPA do? How can we stop this?”— “this” in her mind being the dead waterfowl, polluted trout, and four year olds with brain cancer.

“Well,” Caralin yawned again, “well, well well…” He pointed to a large pile of folders on his desk. Then pointed at the right wall and indicated a cluster of four drawer gray metal filing cabinets, three feet deep, packed so tight that the two top drawers couldn’t close, pushed open by gray hanging files, each labeled in bright red marker.

“That, Ms. Carson, is my in box. This here,” he tapped with two fingers on a small pile of perhaps five or six folders, neatly arranged in a plastic desk top tray, “is what I’ve done this week. Since it’s Thursday, at,” he consulted his plastic running style watch, “almost four, you get an idea of how fast this is all going. So…here…” He reached into a drawer under his desk, pulled out a gray hanging folder, attached the little plastic slot that held a label, carefully wrote “Water quality, Midwest, Preliminary studies” in red marker and pushed the folder over to Sarah. “Put all your information in here. And I’ll get around to it just as soon,” he stopped, nodded briefly at the pile on his desk, and then the bulging file cabinets, “as I can. Thanks so much for your contribution to our…. work.”

Sarah’s eyes widened in shock, then narrowed as the rage hit. She stood up, leaned over Caralin’s desk, and yelled. “No! Not o.k. Not by a long shot. This,” she shook the folder which now held her information, “goes to the top of the pile. Get it?” She leaned further towards him, clear now that she had his full attention, enjoying the growing fear in his eyes as she reached into her large square briefcase to pull out, not the gun or knife that might have flashed through his mind, but a large, lined pad. On the pad were notes she had taken interviewing mothers of desperately sick children. Clipped to her pad were some of the pictures of those kids—bald headed little boys and girls trying to smile for the camera, holding teddy bears or Get-Well balloons or the family cat. She put her materials in the folder he’d given her and passed it back to him.

As she started to reiterate her demand Caralin got to his feet, and she suddenly noticed that he was several inches and probably at least fifty pounds larger than she. Part of her felt a quick tremor of fear and doubt, but another part, the part that had been ground down by loss after brush-off after loss, didn’t care.

“Well?” she demanded, her eyes narrowing, her mouth a thin line of rage, her hands clenched in fists, and her shoulders slightly twisted, as if the wrong answer might set her off to slugging him.

“Well what?” said Caralin, seeming reassured that she hadn’t pulled a weapon out of her briefcase. “You think I make the rules? Talk to the head of my department, who can go to the head of the agency, who can go the Congressional committee, who can go to the chemical and gas and oil and meat packing industries who give them campaign contributions. In case you haven’t noticed, it wasn’t the environmental types who won the last election, it was the guys who’d like to abolish”—he stopped, waved both hands at his office and all the other ones— “the EPA completely. Who only think about something called job creation. Who don’t believe in global warming. So you can yell and pound and demand all you want, lady, there’s nothing, just nothing, to be done.”

Sarah felt the rage fade, the despair rise, the utter futility wash over her, like a bucket of water dousing a small campfire. She sat back down, leaned her head in her hands, and began to cry. But then, as suddenly as a stroke of lightening or an unexpected heart attack, the rage came back, stronger than ever.

“Rules, is it? …Really?” The words hissed out of her, and then in a scream she repeated the single syllable, the one she’d heard from too many officials, bureaucrats, assistant vice-presidents, and mayors of medium sized cities for the last four years:

No we can’t pass that law.

No to that proposed regulation.

No you can’t have access to those files.

No, you can’t inspect our facility.

No you can’t speak to him, he’s talking to the representative of (fill in the blank) corporation.




“No, no, no.” she repeated, louder each time, and suddenly her right arm extended violently, and she swept everything on his desk onto the floor. Then she whirled to face the cabinets, yanked open the drawers scooped up handfuls of files and dumped them on the floor, screaming, “No No NO.”


“Pretty crazy, right?” laughed Sarah, the remains of a large fruit salad and a bottle of white wine they’d just shared littering the floor.

“What happened?” Daniel asked, finding the whole story unbelievable. Calm, determined Sarah? He hoped this didn’t end with her smashing Caralin’s head against the file cabinet or some federal marshal breaking her arm.

“Oh, Caralin called in security. Didn’t hear what he said I was making so much noise, though I did catch something about “crazy bitch.” So security came, a really big guy and, as luck would have it, a woman about my size. They had clubs in their hands, guns on their belts. The woman sized me up and could sense, I guess, that I wasn’t much a threat. She just slid in between me and the files, put her hand in the middle of my chest and said, quietly: “Won’t help dear, and you know it.”

“That was that. I stopped, still mad as hell but at the same time wondering what had happened to me. Judge sentenced me six months in federal prison, then suspended it, winking as he mentioned he was a life-long Sierra Club member. My boss gave me a little unpaid leave; and when that was over told me my services, as wonderful as they’d been, were no longer needed. NGOs and crazy women, he said, just don’t mix.

“So there I was. Late 20s. Unemployed. I’d saved some money and didn’t need to work for a time. Used to take long walks, looking up at some of the bigger office buildings—and I’d think, what gives them the right, the right, to sit in their offices and poison people? To poison the whole earth? I even started to look into homemade bombs, thinking that maybe I should just blow something up—because, after all, why not? They were killing a lot more people every day, every year.

So it went like that for a while. Mad, mad all the time. But one day I took a walk by a river, and I was feeling, you know, bone tired. Could hardly life up my feet. So I sat down next to this big tree. What kind was it? O God, haven’t the faintest. Never could keep most plant names straight in my head. Some environmentalist! And I leaned against it and then I noticed that some joker had scratched something into the bark. “Timmy and Carla, Forever.” I got mad again, thinking of how some adolescent jerk had felt it was just fine to cut into the skin of something beautiful and alive. I put my hand on the names, on the scars, and I started to cry. I sat there, bawling like a kid, for, I don’t know, some really long time. Tears and snot running down my face, sinuses clogged with pain, coughing out how terrible I felt. I could tell underneath all that rage, throwing poor Caralin’s files around, dreams of bombs, underneath was just grief.

“And then the strangest thing. I leaned even more into the trunk, and looked up, and I mumbled a kind of apology for all the awful things my species was doing. And it was like I heard a voice, or not a voice, just some thought in my head; but not really a thought, not with words, anyway. I know this makes no sense, but it’s what happened. I saw the bright leaves soaking up the sun, the thinnest branches dancing with the wind, the places where birds had nested, and felt how solid and strong the roots were, holding onto the earth, soaking up the water and the minerals. And I realized, simple and clear: the tree would do what it had to do to survive, as long as it could. But it wouldn’t waste a hundredth of a second being angry at people who cut into it, or picked its leaves, or even cut it down. And it wouldn’t be sad when it died. All the energy into life and not a bit for death, or resentment, or regret. And I saw it, clear as day: I could be the same…and besides,” she smiled, widened her eyes and raised her eyebrows in a ‘get it?’ expression, “I just didn’t want to give the fuckers the satisfaction of seeing me go down.”

She waited. Smiled some more. Was there a slight tear in each eye?

“Took me awhile to find my feet again, but I did.

“One thing I was sure of then, and still am. There’s every reason in the world to be angry. But there’s no reason to take it out on other people—or file cabinets. Or myself. So I learned what my anger could do and to use it. It’s like coffee or speed—keeps you going through the night, through the boredom and the waiting. Gets you past being intimidated by fancy lawyers, paid off scientists, even the bully boys they hire to scare me. But I don’t turn it on myself anymore; and if I need to cry, well, that’s fine too.

She stopped. Knowing that something else was coming, Daniel waited in silence.

Her calm, reflective face turned into another smile, then broke into full mouth grin. “But I’ll tell you one more thing.” She leaned over towards him, ran her tongue around the inside of his ear. “It…felt…just…great. Better than sex. Well some sex, not all. But just as good? Oh yeah. I never had to do it again, but I’m not sorry I did it once.” And she pointed to a small frame hanging on the wall just to the right side of her desk, a frame Daniel hadn’t noticed before. In it was a gray, hanging folder, its identifying tag marked with the neatly written words “Water quality, Midwest, Preliminary studies.” And under that, in a large, untidy, scrawl: Crazy bitch.

Roger S. Gottlieb is a professor of philosophy with 21 authored or edited books.

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