Environmental Scientist. Writer. Mother.

Field Work

Sampling someone’s drinking water can be an intimate experience: you are invited into their home and within three minutes you are standing at the kitchen sink like an old family friend.  You’re looking at photos on the walls, children’s artwork on the fridge.  Prescription bottles on the windowsill, to-do lists by the phone.

To get a fresh sample from someone’s well, I have to run their kitchen faucet for ten minutes to drain their storage tanks.  It feels odd, standing in a stranger’s kitchen, listening to the water run, so I always ask them questions.  So… have you lived here long?  Are those pictures of your kids?  How did you and your husband meet?  Yankees or Red Sox?  They almost always prefer the Sox.

One elderly man tells me the story of how his wife waited for him during the war.  They have spider plants hanging from the ceiling and oak-framed pictures of their grandkids on every inch of their pale blue walls.  Another time, I run the faucet in a young woman’s kitchen while she stands at the front doorway, sending her son off to school.  I turn and pull the tap as high as it will go, busy myself with filling out labels.  “I love you infinity!” the little boy calls out. “I love you infinity, too!” she sings, over the sound of flowing water.

They rarely ask why I’m sampling.  They don’t understand the science.  Most of them worry about paying their bills, and with a well, their water is free.  They don’t want to know that there’s a ground water plume from the dry cleaner or gas station around the corner, and that I, working for the State Environment Department, am worried about what they drink.

Oh, how I worry about what they drink.  When the test results appear in my in-box, I sort through the papers, matching addresses and chemical concentrations to their faces in my mind.

Lately, I’ve gotten into the habit of nicknaming the homeowners whose wells I regularly sample.  The Skeptic gives me the hairy eyeball every time I come to test.  He’s convinced that I work for the water company and am trying to force him to connect.  The Veteran likes to flirt with me and has flags all over his house.  He has no idea that I bristle at the conservative politics his faded bumper stickers proclaim.  The Bachelor works the night shift, and answers the door with rumpled hair.

My favorite is The Plumber’s Wife.  She always offers me food.  Once when I am out sampling at about seven months pregnant, she rises from her indentation on the couch to touch my swollen belly.

“You’re having a boy,” she tells me.  “Carrying high and round, like a basketball.”  Then she offers some freshly baked cookies.  I am starved, unable to resist the smell of melted chocolate.  So I gobble one down and then stand there, parched, amidst the sound of pouring water.

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