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Home > The Appeal(5)

The Appeal(5)
Author: John Grisham

Chapter 2

Jeannette Baker was taken by her relatives back to Bowmore, her hometown twenty miles from the courthouse. She was weak from shock and sedated as usual, and she did not want to see a crowd and pretend to celebrate. The numbers represented a victory, but the verdict was also the end of a long, arduous journey. And her husband and little boy were still quite dead.

She lived in an old trailer with Bette, her stepsister, on a gravel road in a forlorn Bowmore neighborhood known as Pine Grove. Other trailers were scattered along other unpaved streets. Most of the cars and trucks parked around the trailers were decades old, unpainted and dented. There were a few homes of the permanent variety, immobile, anchored on slabs fifty years earlier, but they, too, were aging badly and showed signs of obvious neglect. There were few jobs in Bowmore and even fewer in Pine Grove, and a quick stroll along Jeannette's street would depress any visitor.

The news arrived before she did, and a small crowd was gathering when she got home.

They put her to bed, then they sat in the cramped den and whispered about the verdict and speculated about what it all meant.

Forty-one million dollars? How would it affect the other lawsuits? Would Krane be forced to clean up its mess? When could she expect to see some of the money? They were cautious not to dwell on this last question, but it was the dominant thought.

More friends arrived and the crowd spilled out of the trailer and onto a shaky wooden deck, where they pulled up lawn chairs and sat and talked in the cool air of the early evening. They drank bottled water and soft drinks. For a long-suffering people, the victory was sweet.

Finally, they had won. Something. They had struck back at Krane, a company they hated with every ounce of energy they could muster, and they had finally landed a retaliatory blow. Maybe the tide was turning. Somewhere out there beyond Bowmore someone had finally listened.

They talked about lawyers and depositions and the Environmental Protection Agency and the latest toxicology and geological reports. Though they were not well educated, they were fluent in the lingo of toxic waste and groundwater contamination and cancer clusters. They were living the nightmare.

Jeannette was awake in her dark bedroom, listening to the muffled conversations around her. She felt secure. These were her people, friends and family and fellow victims.

The bonds were tight, the suffering shared. And the money would be, too. If she ever saw a dime, she planned to spread it around.

As she stared at the dark ceiling, she was not overwhelmed by the verdict. Her relief at being finished with the ordeal of the trial far outweighed the thrill of winning.

She wanted to sleep for a week and wake up in a brand-new world with her little family intact and everyone happy and healthy. But, for the first time since she heard the verdict, she asked herself what, exactly, she might purchase with the award.

Dignity. A dignified place to live and a dignified place to work. Somewhere else of course. She would move away from Bowmore and Cary County and its polluted rivers and streams and aquifers. Not far, though, because everyone she loved lived nearby. But she dreamed of a new life in a new house with clean water running through it, water that did not stink and stain and cause sickness and death.

She heard another car door slam shut, and she was grateful for her friends. Perhaps she should fix her hair and venture out to say hello. She stepped into the tiny bathroom next to her bed, turned on the light, turned on the faucet at the sink, then sat on the edge of the tub and stared at the stream of grayish water running into the dark stains of the fake-porcelain bowl.

It was fit for flushing human waste, nothing else. The pumping station that produced the water was owned by the City of Bowmore, and the city itself prohibited the drinking of its own water. Three years earlier the council had passed a resolution urging the citizens to use it only for flushing. Warning signs were posted in every public restroom. "DON'T DRINK THE WATER, by Order of the City Council." Clean water was trucked in from Hattiesburg, and every home in Bowmore, mobile and otherwise, had a five-gallon tank and dispenser. Those who could afford it had hundred-gallon reservoirs mounted on stilts near their back porches. And the nicest homes had cisterns for rainwater.

Water was a daily challenge in Bowmore. Every cup was contemplated, fussed over, and used sparingly because the supply was uncertain. And every drop that entered or touched a human body came from a bottle that came from a source that had been inspected and certified. Drinking and cooking were easy compared with bathing and cleaning. Hygiene was a struggle, and most of the women of Bowmore wore their hair short. Many of the men wore beards.

The water was legendary. Ten years earlier, the city installed an irrigation system for its youth baseball field, only to watch the grass turn brown and die. The city swimming pool was closed when a consultant tried treating the water with massive amounts of chlorine, only to watch it turn brackish and reek like a sewage pit. When the Methodist church burned, the firemen realized, during a losing battle, that the water, pumped from an untreated supply, was having an incendiary effect. Years before that, some residents of Bowmore suspected the water caused tiny cracks in the paint of their automobiles after a few wash jobs.

And we drank the stuff for years, Jeannette said to herself. We drank it when it started to stink. We drank it when it changed colors. We drank it while we complained bitterly to the city. We drank it after it was tested and the city assured us it was safe. We drank it after we boiled it. We drank it in our coffee and tea, certain the heat would cure it. And when we stopped drinking it, we showered and bathed in it and inhaled its steam.

What were we supposed to do? Gather at the well each morning like the ancient Egyptians and carry it home in pots on our heads? Sink our own wells at $2,000 a hole and find the same putrid mix the city had found? Drive to Hattiesburg and find a spare tap and haul it back in buckets?

She could hear the denials-those from long ago when the experts pointed at their charts and lectured the city council and the mob packed into a crowded boardroom, telling them over and over that the water had been tested and was just fine if properly cleansed with massive doses of chlorine. She could hear the fancy experts Krane Chemical had brought in at trial to tell the jury that, yes, there may have been some minor "leakage" over the years at the Bowmore plant, but not to worry because bichloronylene and other "unauthorized" substances had actually been absorbed by the soil and eventually carried away in an underground stream that posed no threat whatsoever to the town's drinking water. She could hear the government scientists with their lofty vocabularies talk down to the people and assure them that the water they could barely stand to smell was fine to drink.

Denials all around as the body count rose. Cancer struck everywhere in Bowmore, on every street, in almost every family. Four times the national average. Then six times, then ten. At her trial, an expert hired by the Paytons explained to the jury that for the geographical area as defined by the Bowmore city limits, the rate of cancer was fifteen times the national average.

There was so much cancer that they got themselves studied by all manner of public and private researchers. The term "cancer cluster" became common around town, and Bowmore was radioactive. A clever magazine journalist labeled Cary County as Cancer County, U.S.A., and the nickname stuck.

Cancer County, U.S.A. The water placed quite a strain on the Bow-more Chamber of Commerce. Economic development disappeared, and the town began a rapid decline.

Jeannette turned off the tap, but the water was still there, unseen in the pipes that ran unseen through the walls and into the ground somewhere underneath her. It was always there, waiting like a stalker with unlimited patience. Quiet and deadly, pumped from the earth so polluted by Krane Chemical.

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