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Water Rights

by Lynn Mann

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

I see the torturer’s face under his kind mask. He will force me to relive it all, every agonizing moment. I will offer up all my pain for his pleasure, hoping in return he will give me what I want.

I look down again, take a deep breath. “Paul was an engineer with a small firm called McMaster’s. He worked there for over twenty years. As I’m sure you know, the drought caused almost every privately held company to fail, including McMaster’s.

“It was a gradual process; no one thought this would go on for so long, no one believed it was permanent. Eventually they had to start letting people go, at first lay-offs, then firings. After two years of reducing staff and using his personal capital to keep the company afloat, George McMaster closed the doors for good in ’26 and moved to Canada, where he had family.

“Paul was devastated. There was no work for middle-aged civil engineers. He was forced into a workfare program, where, in order to receive the paltry sums doled out by the government, he agreed to be retrained.” I try to restrain the bitterness in my voice.

“He had no choice. Matty was working part time and applying to colleges. Jenny was a child, and we still thought this was just a horrible weather cycle. Surely, some day, life would return to normal and our children would have the lives we’d hoped for. There had been droughts before, maybe not as bad as this, or as long, but they’d eventually ended. So every day, Paul walked to the Training Center. We’d long ago given up his car and he tried to save the bus fare, if there were even buses running that day.

“At first he dressed for a day at the office, suit and tie, then he stopped bothering with the tie, then with the suit. By the end of the first month he looked like any casual day laborer.” Another glass of water miraculously appeared before me. I sipped at it, almost without noticing. I no longer sat in an airless cubicle telling my story to a stranger, I saw it all unfolding, helpless to stop or change it.

“Paul was so miserable. Do you know what they were training him for? My smart, talented husband? To sew soles onto shoes for export to China. American workers had become cheaper than Chinese slave labor.” I cannot hide the bitterness, I don’t even try. “Worst of all, when the benefits ran out after six months, his ‘job’ barely paid enough for the bus fare he used getting to and from the factory.

“He lost weight, wouldn’t talk to anyone, was so exhausted by the time he got home that all could do was sleep. He told me he was eating at work, that was one of the reasons they paid so little, but I later found out that, too, was a lie. All he ate all day was the bit of dry toast and weak coffee I forced on him in the morning.

“His shoes fell apart from all that walking; yet he, who worked in a shoe factory, couldn’t afford new shoes. He just wound duct tape around his shoes and trudged on.”

I pause, too overcome with anger and grief to continue. Dr. Quinones sits silently, letting me gather myself. After a few moments of bitter thought I finish the story.

“Paul died of a heart attack at work. A heart attack, Doctor, at age forty-nine! I later learned that when he collapsed, the foreman had him dragged off to the infirmary, where he lay until the nurse returned from her break. She called an ambulance but it didn’t arrive until almost an hour later. No one even tried to resuscitate him, they just let him lie there.” I am crying again, mourning more than my lost husband.

“When he didn’t come home that night, I was frantic. He was always so good about letting me know when he was working an extra shift. I had the numbers of a few friends from the plant, I started calling. The first claimed not to know anything, the second eventually told me that ‘there’d been an accident’ and Paul was in the hospital, although he didn’t know which one.

“I panicked, I called every hospital in the factory’s general area until I found the right one. Naturally, they wouldn’t tell me anything. Matty drove a little scooter to and from work, and when he got home I sent Jenny next door to the neighbors and I made Matty drive me to the hospital.

“I discovered that George McMaster had done one last kind thing for his employees: he prepaid their life insurances for one year after their termination. It wasn’t much but it allowed me to bury my husband and have a pittance left over.”

Dr. Quinones waits but I have nothing to add. “And your children?” he prompts.

My children. I look at him, no longer ashamed of my tears. Let him see.

“Matty never did go to college. After Paul’s death we both took full-time jobs. Had the house not been paid for we would have lost it for sure. Jenny’s high school closed before she could graduate, and she found a job, too. They both married and moved away, Matty to Boston and Jenny to Denver. I haven’t seen either of them in years, and rarely speak with them. All I have are a few pictures of them. After Petey died Matty withdrew from everyone who cared for him. Cathy divorced him and I have no idea where she is.”

I have nothing more to tell. Was it enough? I wait for his verdict, a rabbit trembling between a cat’s paws. Finally Dr. Quinones clears his throat. I look up and meet his eyes. They are soft and sympathetic. How often has he listened to such tales of misery and loss? How has he not yet turned to stone?

His hands clasp mine. His skin is soft, his nails clean, in contrast to my haggard hands and broken nails. “Lucy,” he says quietly, “are you sure this is what you want? Maybe I should call your children, see if you can go live with them? Don’t you want your granddaughter to know you?”

I shake my head. “No, this is the best gift I can give her now. I know what I want. If I were going to change my mind I would have done it out there. There isn’t anything else to do, while you wait in that line, just endless time to think. I’m sure.”

His hands squeeze mine. “Lucy, isn’t there any other choice for you? You aren’t sick, and you have a home. Maybe there’s a friend you could live with?”

Anger courses through me, making me reckless. “What do you care?” I cry harshly. “You don’t know me, don’t know what my life’s like. This is my choice, right? I’ve made it. The law says I can. Have you found me incompetent in any way?”

“No, Lucy, I have not. But I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to die without at least trying to offer other choices.”

“Choices?” I bark angrily. “What choices? The same choices those people in the Chinatown Gigaplex had? What were their choices again? Oh, yes, they could stay in their seats and burn to death or jump from the roof and fall to death.

“Or the people in the Statehouse lobby, when Lloyd George Wilkes came to visit? They got to choose between waiting for the bomb to detonate or a bullet between their eyes. Great choices all around. All with the same end, though.

“Alive, I have no value to anyone, myself included. Before I came here I sold my house, and sent most of the money to Jenny, in trust for Annabelle. Once I’m dead, Annabelle will inherit my water rations, too, and that, at least, has some value.

“Isn’t that the point to this exercise? Not zero population growth, but negative population growth. The government makes a bargain with us: in return for one last day of sybaritic pleasure, we volunteer to die. Half our rations go to any family member under thirty, and half reverts to the government. Reduce consumption, cull out the old and infirm, and conserve at the same time. Maybe some will survive.“

“Lucy, I’m a doctor. I’m just trying to help you. And you are neither old nor sick.”

“Doctor, If you really want to help me, then sign the papers. I’m tired and just want it to be over. As a citizen over the age of fifty it is my right to decide, and I have decided.” Only recently had the age been reduced to fifty, another factor in my decision. I could do this now, not wait another miserable, interminable decade.

He looks at me, studying my face. “Perhaps you’d like to discuss this with a priest? We have several on staff, they’re very good listeners.”

I breath deeply, trying to calm myself, amazed at the hot rage his words invoke. “A priest? Are you serious? Are you one of them? A lifer? Like those damned missionaries outside?”

He doesn’t answer. I yank my hands away from him, as if burned. “Those people are evil, Doctor, you know that? They are the worst sort of scammers. Because they sell false hope to people. They lie, and tell us that there’s a god who loves us, who wants us to be happy. But there isn’t. There is no god, Doctor. Or if there is, he’s a sadist who doesn’t deserve my worship. What kind of god would allow this to happen, would sentence people to die like this, by inches, with no hope of rescue?

”Those people, they talk of sin, as if prayer will bring rain. That’s a joke. When Indians performed rain dances they were condemned by these same people who today tell us to pray and god will provide. What a bunch of hypocrites. And tell me, what becomes of all those idiots who buy into their nonsense? How long will the church provide for them? Believe me, if prayer could have ended this drought, it would be long gone by now. No, Doctor: no priest, thank you very much.”

I am panting with anger, and gulp down a large, incautious sip of water. As the rage lifts I am struck with a thought. “Was that also a test, Doctor? Did I pass?”

He nods slowly, then smiles weakly. “Yes, it was, and yes, you did. But I must confess, it saddens me deeply to lose someone with your passion and intelligence. Is there no other choice for you at all?”

I shake my head, completely calm now. “No, Doctor. This is what I want. It’s time. I want to go.”

He sighs, nods at me and straightens up, his tone becoming officious. “Lucy Davenport, do you swear and aver that this is your decision, and yours alone? That no one has exerted undue influence upon you in this matter? That you understand that this decision is irrevocable and, under law, cannot be changed once you have signed the final papers?”

“I do.”

He passes the papers across the table and I fill in Annabelle’s name and Jenny’s contact information. I sign and initial and return the papers to him. Dr. Quinones repeats his question. “Are you sure?”

I try to keep the anger out of my voice. Why can’t he understand? “Yes,” I answer, adding silently just sign and leave me be. Then, just like that, he signs the papers, rises from his chair and exits the room. I am alone again, with only my ghosts for company.

I finish the water in my cup and wait, unsure how this works. It’s not like a lot of people have come back to explain the process, and the Water Boards have drawn a heavy veil of secrecy over it. In the name of National Security, of course. All they tell is that for the last twenty-four hours of my life I’ll be surrounded by water. I can drink it, bathe in it, swim in it. I’ll have clean clothes and clean hair and good food.

They don’t, naturally, describe the end of those twenty-four hours, but they allow the impression that it is swift and painless. I wish I’d had the wits to ask the doctor how this works.

Emily, the lab tech, returns and asks me to follow her. Down another long, sterile hall, to another reception area. On the left wall the sign reads “Men” and to the right “Women”. There are four narrow doors under each sign.

Emily gestures towards the doors on the right. “Those are the changing rooms. Leave your clothes there, put on a robe and slippers, then go out through the other door. The people inside will tell you what to do.” She leaves me there, walking swiftly away.

I should be overjoyed. This is it, what I’ve waited for all those long, hot, miserable days in line. All those months I debated, wavering, trying to decide. As I reach for the doorknob, I realize I am holding my locket. I hope there is a heaven; I miss Paul still. And eventually Matty and Jenny will join us and we can be a family again. Surely heaven will have water?

Copyright © 2008 by Lynn Mann

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