Featured Prose | October 03, 2014
v.i.prose: "The Dreamers," an essay by Jonathan Fink
In “The Dreamers,” Jonathan Fink takes a hard look at the controversial practice of fracking and its effects on the west-Texas city of Midland. The essay emerged as Fink’s own response to an assignment he gives his nonfiction students to write an investigative piece exploring both sides of a conflict. “The Dreamers” appeared in our winter, 2013 issue (36:4).
You can listen to the audio version here.
By Jonathan Fink
“Oil and gas people are, by nature, dreamers.”
—Midland City Councilman Jeff Sparks
Midland Reporter Telegram, July 24, 2011.
1. YOU KNOW WHAT GOES WITH A BOOM, DON’T YA?
“My husband and I have lived here for forty years, and this is the craziest thing we have ever seen,” Jodi, a seventy-five-year-old cosmetology instructor from Midland College, says from an adjacent chair at the Chrysalis Salon in Midland, Texas. Mechanical rollers travel slowly up and down my spine, and my feet are submerged in a footbath that resembles a mini-hot tub. They soak like two pork tenderloins as Jodi continues, “I always ask people, ‘You know what goes with a boom, don’t ya?’ and most of the young people don’t know you’re supposed to say, ‘A bust.’” The young woman filing Jodi’s calluses nods along. “This one just feels different,” Jodi says, and her gray bouffant bobs slightly. The hair on the back of Jodi’s head has been cut to less than an inch in length. I can’t tell if her choice in hairstyles is aesthetic or medical, but her hair frames her face in such a way that it reminds me simultaneously of a lion’s mane and white petals circling the eye of a daisy.
“I bought my house for $41,000 twenty-five years ago, and now it’s worth over $180,000,” Jodi says. “It’s all kind of funny money, though. All the other houses cost the same amount or more—some much more—so the only way you can make any money is by selling your house and leaving town.” As Jodi says this, Rachel returns to check on my feet. Rachel appears to be in her midtwenties. She has a piercing just above her upper lip and a dyed-blond curl that dangles amid her brown locks. When she isn’t speaking, she tongues the piercing subconsciously. I ask her what stands out to her about the economic boom in Midland, and the first thing she mentions is the terrible service at restaurants. “It’s an hour-and-a-half wait,” she says. “You have to go to dinner at 4:30, or else you won’t get seated. No one wants to work service-industry jobs when they can go work in the oil fields and make a lot more money.” As Rachel says this, she produces what looks like a shrimp fork from a small tackle box and begins plucking at my cuticles. “I’m a single mom, and the only good thing about the boom is that my child-support payments have tripled over the last four years,” she says. “My son is in fifth grade, and his school is at capacity. Because his father and I are divorced, my son has two addresses to choose from for school, so that helps.”
“My husband worked in the oil fields,” Jodi says. “It’s a very dangerous job. In the old days, the men would be gone for a week or two, and you wouldn’t hear a peep out of them. It’s just a man camp out there. You wouldn’t know if they were alive or dead. My husband would sometimes come home with burns from putting tongs on a pipe, or he would tell me about how they almost dropped a pipe on him in the hole, things like that.”
“Those guys are under a lot of stress,” Rachel says. “Some of them work twenty-five days straight and then have five days off. They’ve got all these deadlines, and if they don’t make them, their whole team might be laid off or switched out with another one. When I first started dating oil-field guys, I didn’t know anything about the business. They’d talk about ‘TD,’ and I thought they meant touchdowns, but they were talking about total depth. The guys you have to stay away from are the ones who work two weeks off and two weeks on. That means they usually have a whole other family in Houston.”
“Honey, let me give you some advice,” Jodi says to Rachel. “The first time you marry, marry for love. The second time you marry, marry for money.” All of the women within earshot laugh and nod when they hear this. As Rachel rubs lotion into my feet, a woman appears at my right and starts shaking a piece of paper at me. Her hair borders on what I would call plumage, and her eye shadow is robin’s egg blue. Word has spread through the salon that I am writing about the economic boom and that I’ve scheduled the pedicure (my first ever) to be able to talk to the employees and patrons of the salon.
“You should go here and write about this,” the woman says as I look over the flyer she has handed me for the Elegance Ballroom. A highly pixelated image of a dancing couple has been printed above dance lesson rates (five sessions for $35). “INTORDUCTORY SPECIAL” splashes across the middle of the page. Dance styles include foxtrot, rumba, tango, 2-step, and “walts,” among others. “I go every Friday,” she says before turning on her heels and doing a solo paso doble to her hair station at the front of the salon.
“Okay,” Rachel says, “all done.” As I slide my feet back into my socks and boots, Rachel tells me to be careful when I am walking around barefoot. “Sometimes people slip and fall when their calluses have been filed off. It can be slick.”
2. A RISING TIDE LIFTS ALL BOATS, SORT OF
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Midland posted a 3.1 percent unemployment rate for December 2012—the nation’s lowest. Bismarck, North Dakota, one of the nation’s other cities experiencing an oil boom buoyed by hydraulic fracturing technology, also hovers around 3 percent. Odessa, Midland’s sister city, posted a 3.7 percent unemployment rate for the same month. The high wages of the oil and gas industry, combined with the industry’s willingness to train employees with no previous experience, creates an employment vacuum for the rest of the city. Virtually every business in Midland unrelated to oil has a “help wanted” sign in the window.
Because the oil boom is entering its fifth year, many of the businesses not connected with it are becoming more creative or more desperate (depending on your point of view) in their recruitment of new employees. On my way to Walmart to interview a manager, I stop to purchase gas beneath a ten-foot-long nylon banner that advertises a $2,000 bonus for new hires. Slits have been cut in the banner to keep it from turning into a sail, yet it still whips in the wind as oil-fieldworkers on their way to and from the rigs hustle in and out of the gas station. To a man, every oil-field worker wears a red, blue or brown coverall and a sweat-stained baseball cap. When I pay for my gas, I ask the employee behind the counter—a young man who has painted his fingernails black and wears a hint of eyeliner—about the $2,000 bonus. “If you work here for a full year, they give you a $2,000 bonus,” he says. I ask him if anyone has stayed long enough to receive the bonus, and he shrugs and says, “Not yet,” as he hands me my change.
The pull of the oil-field jobs doesn’t just affect the small and medium-sized businesses. The large chain stores are also forced to adapt. “We used to pay eight dollars an hour to new employees,” Mallory, a Walmart manager to whom I spoke earlier on the phone, tells me as I walk through the brightly lit superstore. She pauses to arrange a display of coffeemakers as she says, “Now, we start people out at fourteen dollars an hour. We went from getting ten applications a week to getting over one hundred. But the problem is that the quality of our employees didn’t change. In some cases, it got worse. We receive a lot of transfer employees because their spouses work in the oil fields. People keep trying to find a place to live, but most apartment complexes have a waiting list anywhere from six months to a year. Trailer parks are going up everywhere. We’ve had lots of employees, some of them even managerial, living out in trailer parks. People just start living farther and farther out. I’m thinking about moving to Big Spring and commuting in, but they just discovered a big shale field, and prices are going to continue rising there, too.”
When I ask Mallory if she thinks the boom is good for Midland, she responds by placing her hands on her hips and smirking. “Frankly,” she says, “I don’t know. There seems to be a lot of mixed feelings. Just about everyone’s family is connected to the oil business in some way, which is good, I guess, but all the negatives are really high as well. Here’s an example I heard the other day: Cracker Barrel has had such a hard time retaining employees that they’ve given up and just turned their restaurant here into a training facility. It’s like a merry-go-round of trainees. Maybe I’m not supposed to say that, but that’s what I heard. They bring people here for a short time, train them and then move them out of the area.”
3. ARGUABLY MIDLAND’S MOST FAMOUS RESIDENT (IT’S NOT WHO YOU THINK)
One of the striking components of driving through Midland is that the doubling and—as in Jodi’s case—quadrupling of home values isn’t reflected in the upkeep of many of the neighborhoods. The weathered, one-story, 1950s ranch home remains the dominant architectural style. Only downtown Midland boasts many buildings that are over two stories in height, and while downtown Midland does contain some buildings that are ten to fifteen stories tall, the overall aesthetic is similar to other West Texas towns such as Lubbock (where I was born) and Abilene (where I grew up). The Midland city council is currently considering plans for building a fifty-four-story “energy tower” downtown, but, for now, the city’s skyline resembles that of other West Texas cities: visible from twenty or so miles away and red-tinted at sunset, as if encapsulated in a dust-filled, color-saturated snow globe.
As I drive through what appears to be one of the poorer neighborhoods in Midland, trucks on blocks fill every other driveway or lawn and rusting screen doors slap closed as kids run in and out of houses. I stop in front of one of the houses. The hood of a 1980s Ford F-150 is raised in the driveway, and two dream catchers hang above the front door, which stands open behind a closed glass storm doom. Tejano music plays from a boom box across the street, where three children are drawing with chalk on the cement. They look up for a minute, then turn back to their drawing when I exit my car.
As I knock on the storm door, a young girl who appears to be three or four years old regards me from behind the glass. Wearing a Superman T-shirt that hangs to her knees, she looks at me and pets a dachshund puppy in her arms. A woman leads the girl away from the storm door, opens it halfway and asks if she can help me. I explain that I am visiting Midland to write about the economic boom, and when I ask the woman if she knows the history of her house—that she is living in a famous house—she brightens and steps from behind the storm door to her front steps.
“Yes,” she says, “you must mean Jessica McClure—Baby Jessica. This is where she fell down the well. She actually just came back and visited the house this year because it was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the accident. She was so nice. She’s married now. She still lives in Midland, and she has a young son of her own.” As she says this, the woman extends her hand and says, “My name is Susan.”
“I was twelve when it happened,” I say, “and I remember being transfixed. I was at piano lessons, and the teacher and I just stopped the lesson and sat on the floor together in front of the television.”
“My husband and I were living in New Mexico then, and we had just gotten married,” Susan says. As if on cue, Susan’s husband appearson the other side of the glass storm door and steps out onto the front porch.
“I’m Jack,” he says and, shifting his cigarette from his right hand to his left to take a drag, shakes my hand. “We’ve lived here for six years, and we have people come by from time to time to inquire about Jessica and the house, and we always enjoy talking to them.” As he talks, he walks over to the truck with its hood raised in the driveway and steps up on the front bumper and disappears halfway underneath the hood. With a wiry build and close-cut salt-and-pepper hair, Jack, like Susan, appears to be in his late forties or early fifties. I can’t tell if Susan’s heritage is Hispanic or Native American, but her straight black hair, through which runs a three-inch-wide swath of white, hangs almost to her waist.
“When Jessica fell down the well, her great aunt was living here,” Susan says. “They were using the place as a day care. When Jessica came back last year with her son, she said she doesn’t have any memory of the event, and she frankly doesn’t see what all of the fuss was about. I told her that when she fell down the well, she was about the same age as her little boy is now, and she stopped and reconsidered. Then she said, ‘Yeah, but he’s a lot chunkier than I was. He never would have fit.’”
When I ask Susan and Jack how they’ve been affected by the boom, Jack snorts from underneath the hood of the truck and says, “What boom?” Climbing down from the front bumper, he wipes his hands on his jeans and says, “I worked as a driller for a long time, and most of the people who are making money seem to be coming from out of town. The locals are the ones who get squeezed.”
“Our rent was stable for the first three or four years we lived here, and then the landlord decided he needed to raise it $350 a month,” Susan says.
“I can’t let you go in the backyard on account of the dogs,” Jack says, “but if you have a camera, I can go take a picture of the cap on the well. We didn’t even know this was the house when we moved in, until someone like you stopped by and showed us where the well is located.”
As I hand Jack my cell phone and demonstrate how the camera works, Susan continues, “But the thing about Midland is that when it comes to neighbors needing things, they pull together. Everybody has a hand out for everyone else, and they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. There are no mountains here, but if there were, neighbors would climb them for you. When there’s a drop in the bucket, so to speak, in the economy, everyone bands together.”
When Jack returns with my cell phone, he says, “I tried to get a couple of good ones.” I tell Jack and Susan how much I appreciate their help, and as I reach for my wallet, I say that I’d like to buy them dinner for their time. They both laugh in unison when I say this, and Jack says, “No need for any of that nonsense,” before telling me goodbye.
In my car, I inspect the photos on my phone. There are two accidental photos—one of Jack’s feet and one of a dachshund—but the photo is clear of the cap on the eight-inch-wide well. The covering is as nonornamental as it could possibly be. In what looks like hand lettering welded or hammered into the metal cap, someone has written: FOR JESSICA, 10-16-87, WITH LOVE FROM ALL OF US.
4. MIDLAND’S OTHER MOST FAMOUS RESIDENT (IT IS WHO YOU THINK)
The George W. Bush Boyhood Home and Museum—A Presidential Site is located approximately two and a half miles from the home where Jessica McClure fell down the well. “This is the only home in the country that once housed two future presidents, two future governors, and a future first lady at one time,” Dotty, one of the museum employees, tells me as she leads me into the home. I’m the only person on the tour, and Dotty says she’s a little rusty and that I should just interrupt if I have any questions. “This house was built in 1939 for $5,000,” Dotty says, “and the Bush family bought it for $9,000 in 1951. George was five when the family moved in. The Bush family lived in Midland for nine years while George H.W. Bush worked in the oil industry. All of this was before politics, of course, and before he became the director of the C.I.A.
“We’ve tried to restore the home so that it’s like stepping back into the 1950s,” Dotty says. The front living room and dining area both have varnished, natural-wood floors, walls and ceilings. Polished to a high shine, the rooms make me feel as if I am standing inside a giant honeycomb. A black-and-white television cycles through video clips of Elvis singing at Midland High School, children lined up to receive their polio vaccine sugar cubes and episodes of Ozzie and Harriet. “There was only one television channel, of course, when the Bush family lived here,” Dotty says. “When this place was named to the National Register, George H.W. Bush, Barbara and Jeb came back to visit. George couldn’t come then because that was when he was president, although he was able to come later. Barbara said she used to extend the long table here in this room and have lots of meetings: school board, PTA, you name it. She was very active in the community. She was also very proud of the curtains she made for this room. There’s not much to them, but she was proud of them because she wasn’t much of a seamstress.”
As Dotty leads me through the rest of the house, she points out the “newness” (for the time period) of the linoleum in the bathroom, how the pattern on the plates in the kitchen matches the pattern on the wallpaper, eclectic kitchen utensils such as an angel-food cake slicer and a baby-bottle warmer and a period phone book with the Bush family listing. George’s boyhood room has the same lacquered veneer as the front rooms of the house, and his twin bed is partially built into the wall-length bookcase and desk. Dotty points out the paraphernalia from George’s membership in the Cub Scouts and the Roy Rogers Riders Club, and a framed photograph on the desk that shows a postpresidency George W. Bush grinning broadly as he inspects the room. As we move to the next room, Dotty says, “It was a sad time then for the family, too. This room here without the door was probably his sister Robin’s room. Robin was diagnosed with leukemia during that time, and the family probably didn’t want a door on this room so they could be close to her. They didn’t have the medical technology that we have now, and Robin passed away when she was three and a half years old.”
“This last room,” Dotty says, “was probably used as a mud room when they lived here, but we’ve converted it into a baseball room because that is George’s favorite sport.” As I peruse photographs and memorabilia from baseball legends such as Ted Williams and Roberto Clemente, Dotty points out a photograph of George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium during game three of the 2001 World Series. Wearing an FDNY jacket, Bush stands alone on the pitcher’s mound. “When he was here,” Dotty says, “he told me that his security and his advisors didn’t want him to do it. This was right after 9/11, and they didn’t want him out there so exposed. He told me he’d insisted on doing it, and that with all the things going on in the world at the time—how everything seemed to be in turmoil—he only had one thing on his mind at the moment, and that was to get that ball over the plate.”
5. A TALE OF TWO CITIES
Twenty miles separate Midland from Odessa on I-20, and though a casual observer would notice little difference between the two cities, to the residents of the Permian Basin, Midland and Odessa project distinctly different identities. “Midland is white collar, and Odessa is blue collar,” Justine, an International Baccalaureate English teacher from Odessa High School, tells me from across the table at the Barn Door steakhouse in Odessa. Justine has taught for sixteen years in the public school system in Odessa, and Martin, her husband, works as a counselor at a local Baptist church. Our waiter (he looks like he is about fifteen years old) shakily removes three giant iced teas from his tray and places them in front of me, Justine and Martin on the red-and-white-checkered tablecloth as Justine continues: “Here’s an example: In Midland, they have a Barnes and Noble; in Odessa, we have a Hastings. I don’t think they even sell books at Hastings. It’s all music and video.”
“We had two Walmarts before they even had one, though,” Martin says, to which Justine says, “True,” squeezes her lemon into her tea and stirs the drink with her straw. When I ask how they met, Justine takes a sip from her drink and gives Martin a look that I interpret as, “Go ahead and tell your version of the story.”
“We met in college in Brownwood about twenty years ago,” Martin says. “We were in class together, and that’s how we got to know each other.”
“I was furious at him in that class,” Justine says. “I won’t go into details, but he had done something to really make me angry, and I decided that I was going to give him the silent treatment.”
“I didn’t even know she was mad at me,” Martin says. “That’s how oblivious I was. I didn’t even know I had done something wrong. I introduced myself to her, and we started dating.”
“It took a while for me to come around, though.” Justine smirks, her semiseriousness breaking into a sly smile as whatever historical slight evaporates into the air of their sixteen-year marriage, and she returns to my questions about education. “Permian High School and Odessa High School are the two high schools in Odessa. Odessa High, where I work, has always been known for academics, and Permian has always been known for athletics.”
“I was in high school when the Friday Night Lights book first came out,” I say. “I remember it being very controversial in West Texas at the time. This was long before the television show and movies.”
“Boobie Miles, Brian Chavez, I grew up with all of them,” Justine says. “They were always treated so reverentially. Young people used to think football was their ticket out. Now they think the oil industry is their ticket out. It’s very hard to make a case to a fifteen-year-old student that education is his ticket out. The oil boom is the perfect storm for the adolescent need for immediate gratification. Students will often say, ‘What do I need an education for when I can go make more money than my teachers by working in the oil fields?’ And that’s not an exaggeration. I have a nephew who graduated high school, and that’s it. He always struggled in school, but he now works in a secretarial job in the oil industry and makes the same salary I do. And even if students don’t drop out, many of them get jobs at retail businesses and restaurants in town because the businesses are desperate for employees and have to pay a decent hourly wage to retain people. Businesses aren’t supposed to be able to hire anyone under sixteen, but students will lie about their ages. At Sonic, you can work when you turn fifteen. I have lots of students who work thirty hours a week after school. They leave school at three and then work each weeknight from five to eleven. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for homework.”
As Justine says this, our waiter returns and distributes our plates. It’s Wednesday, and Martin has come directly from the evening service at his church. A Bible in a leather, zippered case rests beneath a small notebook and pen that Martin has placed next to his plate, and he asks me if I mind if he blesses the meal before we eat. When I say I don’t mind, he and his wife join hands, and they each extend a hand to me, which I take, across the table. When Martin prays, he does so un-self-consciously and without lowering his voice. The public prayer is a reminder, for me, of the ways in which religion is the animating force in the lives of many citizens of West Texas—how all decisions, be they economic, cultural, familial or political, are filtered through and shaped by religious devotion. None of the other patrons in the restaurant seems fazed in the slightest by the public prayer, and when Martin finishes, both he and Justine say“Amen” before Martin continues the discussion:
“It’s a scenario where you really have to see the glass as half full or half empty,” he says. “We’ve experienced lots of growth in our church—at Stonegate we now have four Sunday services each week—but traffic has really been awful between Midland and Odessa. There isn’t enough infrastructure to support the population growth, and when you combine overcrowded roads with overworked drivers who are falling asleep at the wheel, you get a lot more traffic fatalities.”
“We’ve lived here for a long time, and we are well aware that there has always been a bust that follows a boom,” Justine says, “but no one is planning for a bust. Everything is about today. In some ways, the argument we are trying to make to students about the value of an education is the same argument we are trying to make to the city: Reach for more than what is right in front of you.”
When the three of us exit the restaurant after dinner, I ask Martin and Justine for directions to what they would designate as the poorest and wealthiest areas of Midland and Odessa so that tomorrow I can talk to some of the citizens on the opposite ends of the economic scale. As Justine and Martin debate for a moment before giving me my answer (does “wealthy” mean new money or old money, new construction or country club; does “poor” mean penniless or poor in spirit?), they are framed by one of the most brilliant sunsets I have seen. At dinner, Martin and I had agreed that the landscape of West Texas—the way the horizon spreads unbrokenly so that you can see (or at least feel you can see) the curve of the earth itself—is inflating. “You feel immense within that expanse of sky,” Martin said, “as if all things are possible, and no argument can convince you otherwise.”
6. HEAL THE LAND
My hotel in downtown Midland costs 250 dollars a night. Built in the 1960s, the hotel, and its amenities are utilitarian. A quick Internet search reveals similar prices for lodging in Paris, Manhattan and Rome. Even at this price, a continental breakfast is not included, and, after showering the next morning and collecting my materials for the day, I stop for breakfast at a small donut shop beside the hotel. A sign above the cash register reads, “We Use RO Water.” “RO stands for ‘reverse osmosis,’” the owner explains. “The city water in Midland tastes like mud and oil. It overpowers the taste of everything, even coffee.” Midland’s water problems are not limited simply to taste. Drought has led to perpetual water rationing. Several billboards around town advocate 2 Chronicles 7:14 as a solution: If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
In addition to the drought problems, a hexavalent chromium plume has been discovered in the groundwater of some Midland citizens’ property. Sissy Sathre, the unofficial spokesperson for the affected community off Cotton Flat Road, has agreed to speak with me. I first learned of Sissy Sathre through the Erin Brockovich-produced documentary Last Call at the Oasis. The documentary investigates global water shortages, and Midland’s water problems figure prominently in the film’s reportage. Running south from I-20, Cotton Flat Road is a few miles west of downtown Midland. Schlumberger Well Services is located on the opposite side of I-20 from Cotton Flat Road. According to its company website, Schlumberger (pronounced “Schlum-ber-zhay”) is “the world’s leading supplier of technology, integrated project management and information solutions to customers working in the oil and gas industry worldwide.” In 2012, the company reported 42 billion dollars in revenue and employed over 120,000 people in 85 countries. As alleged by the citizens of the Cotton Flat Road community, Schlumberger is also responsible for the hexavalent chromium contamination of the community’s groundwater.
“We’re not after money; we’re after safe drinking water,” Sissy says to me from a stool on the opposite side of her kitchen island. Sissy’s college-bound granddaughter, Jennifer, sits on a stool beside me, and Sissy’s ninety-year-old mother rocks in a recliner in the adjacent living room. I’ve asked Sissy to tell me the story of how they discovered the hexavalent chromium in their groundwater. “It was actually just like in the Erin Brockovich movie, which was funny because I didn’t see the movie until after all this happened,” Sissy says. The gravelly rasp of her smoker’s baritone, which I first heard on the phone, is ever-present in Sissy’s voice—as is the warmth she extends to her mother and granddaughter. “My granddaughters kept having these persistent rashes. We tried everything we could to get the rashes to go away, but nothing seemed to help. Then about four years ago we went on vacation for a few days, and while we were away, the rashes miraculously cleared up. At that point we said, ‘Something seems fishy here,’ and when we returned from our vacation we had a letter waiting from TCEQ [the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] that said there was evidence of hexavalent chromium in our groundwater. It was just like in the movie. When I finished the letter, I looked out the kitchen window, and I could see the girls playing in the aboveground pool. I just dropped the letter and ran out there to get them out of the water. You do everything you can to protect your family, and it just terrifies you to think you might inadvertently do something to hurt them.”
I ask Jennifer what the water felt like, and she says, “It really stung! We used to say, ‘Grandma, the water itches!’” Jennifer is an honors student at Odessa High, and she is heading to Marquette University to study drama in the fall. (When I asked her if she was ready for the cold in Milwaukee, she said, “I can’t wait! I’m going to pick out a lot of new outfits.” I also asked her if it was a coincidence that she chose a college without a football team, and she laughed and said that most of her friends at Odessa High were the honors students, but she doesn’t hold anything against the football team. She’s just indifferent.)
“It wasn’t my grandmother’s fault about the pool, though,” Jennifer says and touches Sissy’s hand. “My sister and I are fine now.”
“The TCEQ has installed and maintains water filtration systems for drinking water anywhere the chromium level is above 100 micrograms per liter,” Sissy says. “They have to change out the filters every two weeks. All the water we drink in the house is bottled. We use the filtered water for bathing and washing clothes and dishes. When they tested the wells that draw from the Ogallala aquifer, some of them had more than fifty times the acceptable level of chromium. Here at the house, we had over 350 parts per million. The area a couple of blocks away from us—the area we call ‘ground zero’—tested at 2,300 parts per million, and that number is rising. A recent test showed it at 5,000 parts per million. When the Erin Brockovich film crew was here, they were hesitant to touch any of the water. They would pause before washing their hands and ask if it was safe. Chromium is odorless and tasteless, but it does have color. You have to get depth to see it. I’ll take you outside in a minute and show you what it looks like coming out of the hose.”
I ask Sissy how long they have lived in the house, and she defers to her mother. “We bought the house in 1965,” Sissy’s mother says.
“We’ve had lots of health problems from the water, too,” Sissy says. “My mother came down with breast cancer at eighty-seven years old. Have you ever heard of a woman coming down with breast cancer at eighty-seven? I’ve also been diagnosed with health problems related to the chromium, and one of mom’s dogs passed away from lymphoma. That’s one of the sad things, too. You would normally never stop to think about the animals drinking the water. The water contamination here is at higher levels than in Hinkley, California, where Erin Brockovich won the court case. She’s been very helpful in speeding up the process by drawing attention to the problem. Some people went from waiting four months for filters to only having to wait two weeks. But there’s not much anyone can do. To resolve the problem, we’d like to see the city run water lines out to us, which they’ve been reluctant to do. This contamination goes back twenty to fifty years—long before the current fracking boom. It will take another hundred years for it to correct itself. We’ve been officially declared a Superfund site now, but there are over 1,200 Superfund sites in the United States already, and many of them aren’t being attended to.”
As Sissy and I head outside, I tell Sissy’s mother and Jennifer that I appreciate their help. Jennifer says, “Our pleasure,” while bending down and kissing her great grandmother on the forehead. Outside, the sun has climbed to its noon apex, and I shield my eyes as Sissy retrieves a plastic bucket and shoos the cats away from the hose. “From the road, you used to be able to see where Schlumberger dumped some of their chemicals. There was a big pit, but now they’ve closed off the area and filled it in,” Sissy says. When I ask her why Schlumberger allegedly dumped material there, Sissy explains that all of the hydraulic materials necessary for drilling have to be mixed on site. “As I understand it,” she says, “you can’t return the excess back to the supply. Schlumberger claims that they currently use chromium 3, not chromium 6—chromium 6 is the one that contaminated our water—but all of that industry information is protected by what’s commonly called the ‘Halliburton Loophole.’ Bush, when he was president, and Cheney, basically exempted oil companies from having to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking. You can look it up to get all the details, but the effect is that the EPA has a hard time regulating or even knowing what chemicals are used in the process. I also bet I don’t have to tell you what oil company Cheney was the CEO of before he became vice president.”
As Sissy says this, the hose sputters to life and with a hollow ringing sound fills the plastic bucket. With depth, the water’s tint is pale emerald, resembling diluted Gatorade. “When you run it through the filters, it turns blue,” Sissy says. After I take a picture on my cell phone, Sissy tells me to stand back as, with her boot, she tips the bucket over on the grass. “I don’t want to leave this sitting out, or else the animals will get into it. There’s something in it they like, and they’ll drink it all if I leave it unattended.”
The signage for the Schlumberger Well Services buildings on the north side of I-20 is surprisingly (or not surprisingly) understated. I have to double-check my GPS to make sure I have arrived at the correct location. The building looks like a cross between a strip mall and a heavily secured retirement home. When I press the buzzer outside what I assume is the entry door, a voice crackles, “May I help you?” through the speaker box. I briefly explain that I am a professor from Florida and that I am hoping to speak with one of Schlumberger’s PR representatives. When the person on the other end of the intercom buzzes me in, I enter through the metal door. The hallway is only a few feet wide, and there is a second locked door that marks the entry point into the rest of the building. Ruby (according to her nameplate) sits behind a receptionist window, and she blinks, owl-like, through her thick glasses. “I couldn’t understand what you were saying outside,” she says.
I explain to Ruby about the hexavalent chromium plume and say I want to get Schlumberger’s side of the story. “Oh,” she says, sounding surprised, “let me see if I can find someone for you to speak to.” Instead of picking up her phone or talking into a headset, Ruby begins typing on her computer. “We’re on instant message here,” Ruby says as she types, reads the screen, and then types again. Nodding toward the computer, Ruby tells me, “She’s asking why you are here.” As Ruby types with one hand, she reaches over and buzzes in two oil-field workers who wear bright blue Schlumberger coveralls. Without speaking, the two men walk past me, stand in front of the second door and, when that door buzzes, disappear into the building.
“If you’re from around here, you know all the security that goes with the territory,” Ruby says. “I just asked her if she knows who the PR person might be, and she’s kind of freaking out on the other end. She’s saying, ‘First of all, how did he get in the building?’ I used to work over in HR in the corporate offices, and she must think I’m still over there and that you are inside a secure area.” I ask Ruby to express to the woman on the other end of the instant message that I’m just interested in hearing Schlumberger’s side of the story and that I don’t have an agenda. As Ruby types, she buzzes two more workers into the building, and they pass through the second door. Resting her fingers lightly on the keyboard, she leans in closer to the computer screen. Three unpacked softball trophies protrude from a cardboard box, and Ruby taps her foot against the side of the box as she reads. When finished, she looks up at me from her chair: “Unfortunately, she says there isn’t anyone here for you to talk to. She can’t think of anyone at all who would be a good fit.”
8. FASKEN OIL, THE VINEYARD AND THE GREEN TREE COUNTRY CLUB
Fasken Oil and Ranch Ltd.’s recently completed 60,000-square-foot corporate headquarters rises from the company’s 165,000-acre C-Ranch, just west of the Green Tree Country Club. Fasken Oil owns both the mineral and development rights to the land, and fully operational pump jacks bow unceasingly a short distance from the richly appointed slate, stone, metal and glass headquarters. While the building is operational, the landscaping is still under construction, and when I pull into the parking lot, one worker, directed by another, lifts a palette of sod with a forklift as two other workers lean against a Bobcat and eat what look like homemade sandwiches wrapped in wax paper. The parking lotis full of pickup trucks—no cars—and I nestle my rented Hyundai among them before approaching the building.
Fasken Oil recently celebrated its centennial anniversary, and the interior designers of the corporate headquarters juxtapose the new construction with paintings and images of the Permian Basin’s past. In one painting, several roughnecks secure sections of casing together before lining a drilling hole. In another, observers hold their hats in hand as an oil well spews into the sky. When I ask the receptionist about Fasken Oil’s residential building project, the Vineyard, she smiles and says this new corporate headquarters is only ‘Phase 1’. Because the full project is still in the development stage, they don’t have any materials to distribute to potential residents, but I should keep my eye on the website for forthcoming information. She says the completed community will consist of the corporate headquarters, apartments, single-family homes, community walking paths and even a school—all built on Fasken’s land and fully synergized with the company’s values. I ask her if nonemployees will be able to purchase homes in the development, and she says, “Absolutely. It’s going to be the crown jewel of Midland. All our administrators are off to lunch right now, but you are more than welcome to call back if you would like more information.”
When I exit the building and pull out of the parking lot, I pause before the long expanse of dirt fields. Truthfully, the residential project is not hard to imagine in this space. In fact, it’s easy to imagine. Except for the pump jacks rising intermittently in the future residential neighborhoods, the development will most likely be indistinguishable from virtually any wealthy subdivision across the country. Whether or not there will be an actual vineyard, the receptionist did not say, but I imagine one rising from the soil—the long vines extending above walking paths, the grapes rich and dark for the residents to pluck at their leisure.
Green Tree Country Club, the wealthy area of Midland that Martin and Justine suggested I visit, is a short drive from Fasken Oil’s new headquarters. Martin had initially referred to the country-club neighborhood as “old money,” but Justine said it’s also “new money,” and as I drive the wide, winding residential streets, I see that both Justine and Martin were correct. Well-appointed, 1960s brick homes look modest by comparison to the new-construction homes interspersed on every third or fourth lot. At one new home, workers secure the fifth carriage-style door of a six-car garage. Several trailers filled with sago palms, agave plants and yuccas, line the circular drive. The large front entry has yet to be installed, and a mousehole-esque entrance for the workers has been cut in the twenty-foot-tall temporary plywood facade.
When I park in front of the country club, two middle-aged women in tennis skirts with foam weights in their hands go speed walking past my car door. A sign outside the country club asks visitors to please forgive the alterations and growth; the country club is in the midst of remodeling. When I enter the club, the receptionist, who looks like a sixty-five-year-old version of the Fasken Oil receptionist, inquires if she can help me. Behind her, there is a glass-walled office where a man talks on the phone while leaning back in his chair and propping his ostrich-skin boots on the desk. When I explain my project to the receptionist and ask if she has any membership information I can review, she hands me a prepared folder from a stack of prepared folders. “We have two types of memberships,” she says. “We have the basic membership without golf privileges, which is available now, and we have the membership with golf privileges, which has a waiting list. We’re only allowed to have 800 golf memberships, and that’s what most people want, so there is a long waiting list.” I ask if most of the members are connected to the oil industry, and she looks over her shoulder at the man on the phone in his office, then curtly says, “We are not allowed to release any information about our members, but yes, many of them work in the oil and gas industry.”
A member enters through the front doors, and the receptionist waves him over to her desk and begins talking with him as if to signal that her conversation with me is now complete. Back outside in my car, I peruse the membership folder. In addition to detailing the requisite golf, swimming and tennis offerings, the materials describe “Wine Road Trips” to wineries in Lubbock and Fort Stockton; a Valentine’s “Sweetheart” dinner; Mardi Gras night; the “very popular Easter Candy Hunt”; BBQ on the veranda; and, at Christmas, “Cart Caroling,” a hay ride and “Sunday Brunch with Santa.” The director of member services concludes the “Dear Prospect” letter by stating, “We look forward to serving you and your family. Our goal is to surpass your every expectation.”
9. THE PHENOMENON FROM OUT OF THIS WORLD
When I asked Martin and Justine to direct me to an area that was the antithesis of the Green Tree Country Club, they suggested Moss Road—an outgrowth trailer-park community ten miles west of Odessa. After exiting I-20 and making two turns, I quickly find myself on a country road where the dirt and gravel kick up dust behind my car. Approximately forty trailers—some new, with air conditioning units built into their sides, and some old, with grease-stained windows and rusting metal skirts—spread out on one side of the road. On the other side, two horses rest on their knees in the shade of the only tree I see in any direction. No one is outside, and everything—trailer park, road, sky and air—is perfectly still. From where I’m parked on the side of the road, I can see two burned-out trailers in the distance and a car chassis hanging from a salvage-yard magnet. A sign forty feet in front of me points to “The Odessa Meteor Crater: The Phenomenon from Out of This World,” one mile ahead. Though my plane for home leaves in two hours, I head toward the crater.
Outside the meteor crater museum and gift shop, a large plaque reads:
The Odessa Meteor Crater, second largest in the United States and sixth in the world, was formed some 20,000 years ago when an iron meteorite believed to weigh 1,000 tons crashed into the earth southeast of this site. Impact was so great that 4.3 million cubic feet of rock was expelled or shifted, forming a cone-shaped crater 500 feet wide and nearly 100 feet deep. Action of wind and water during subsequent centuries filled the cavity with silt so that today its concave surface is only five to six feet below the level of the surrounding plane.
A trail traverses the surface of the meteor crater, and after paying a nominal fee and reading the instructions (“We ask you to stay on the path to preserve the crater and because there are a lot of rattlesnakes out there—those snakes are awake!”), I descend the path. There are a few signs along the quarter-mile walk, but the evidence of the meteor strike is mostly indiscernible except for the gradual dip in the ground’s curvature. At the crater’s vertex, a fenced-off and covered shaft descends 165 feet into the earth. I try to imagine the meteorite tearing through the atmosphere, but my mind wanders to the snakes. When I exit the crater, the museum docent navigates a push broom along the sidewalk that leads to the parking lot.
“Not a cloud in the sky,” I say as I pass.
She pauses, squints upward and replies, “There’s one wispy one hanging at the horizon, but I don’t think it will bring us any relief.”
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