Why did he say the cancer was her fault?

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A VG Serial: ToxiCity

Episode 64

Three Years Earlier


Nothing mattered after TJ died. The sun might have come up in the morning; it might have set at night, but Maggie didn’t care. She wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. She wanted to shout but the screams died in her throat. She wanted to die, but a punishing God condemned her to life. Most of the time she sat in the white wicker rocker she bought when TJ was a baby and rocked. After a year of rocking, Greg gave up and moved out.

One day she went to the playground and sat on a swing. Dusty found her at dusk and brought her home. Another time he found her at the Church pre-school, the one TJ would have gone to, studying the children’s faces so hopefully that Dusty told her later he knew she had no idea where she was in space or time.

Afterwards, she didn’t know how they managed. It must have been Dusty who went out for food, threw a load of clothes into the washer, and changed the sheets every now and again. Almost sixteen, with earrings in both ears and tattoos on his arms, he had evolved from a responsible kid to an overburdened teen. She came to feel guilty about robbing him of his youth, but during the dark days, as she referred to them afterwards, she was only dimly aware of the sacrifices he’d made.

Over the years he developed a talent for drawing, but he hid his sketchbook, only bringing it out once in a while. She forced herself to look at his charcoals: detailed illustrations of the woods, small animals, plants. She tried to lavish what she hoped was high praise. He’d done some pen and inks of TJ too, but she couldn’t bear to see them.

While Maggie struggled, Art Newell, the lawyer they’d met with months earlier, got his seed money and filed suit in the circuit court of Will County. The suit charged that environmental contamination caused the cancer and subsequent death of TJ and Tracy Yablonski, who died a year after TJ. Illinois Edison, Prairie State, and Feldman Development were named as co-defendants. The families sought millions in damages.

The lawyers asked Maggie if it was okay to talk to TJ’s doctors. She must have said yes, although she didn’t remember. They asked her to go through the entire timeline of TJ’s illness. She must have done that too, but had no memory of it.

The lawyers talked to experts in toxic waste, leukemia, and neuroblastoma. Their argument was that the tank with the coal tar residue had been leaking for years and had deteriorated so badly that it was an accident waiting to happen. To prove it, more tests were conducted at Meadow City. Engineers and scientists took samples of soil, the water in Maggie’s home, and just about everything else in or on the ground. Experts rendered opinions, but through it all Maggie seemed on the periphery, hazily operating on autopilot.

Awareness finally kicked in during her deposition, almost two years after TJ died. It started when she drove into Chicago on a cold, gray morning. She hadn’t been downtown since TJ was at Children’s. As she walked from the parking lot to her lawyer’s office, one of those fancy places on LaSalle Street, she passed the SGF Development building.

Fragments of long-buried memories surfaced. The book-keeper who had come on to her; the pretentious woman who told her how lucky she was to be living there; the architect who wouldn’t listen to anything Greg had to say during construction. Tremors shook her body as she headed to court.

Art had warned her the deposition would be tough, but the first part went smoothly. She managed to keep it together as Art led her through events from the time they moved to Meadow City until TJ died. Then it was the other side’s turn. A young, well-dressed attorney with moussed hair and a silk tie rose. A cool confidence radiated out from him.

Wasn’t it true, he began, that prior to marrying Greg, she’d been into drugs, booze, and gambling? Maggie’s eyes widened. That was none of his goddamned business. But her lawyer nodded, a signal they’d arranged when she was unsure how to respond. So she told them about the track, the plant, and the way it was with Richie. No big deal, she said. It was the Sixties.

Next the lawyer zeroed in on her life with Greg. Wasn’t it true that visitors who came to the house were largely smokers, boozers, druggies? And didn’t Maggie smoke over two packs a day herself? She told him that she quit when she was pregnant with TJ, but the lawyer shot back that hadn’t been until her fourth month. Didn’t she know that the first three months were critical to the health of the fetus?

Maggie’s pulse throbbed. The cords in her neck grew taut. The lawyer was trying to make TJ’ s cancer her fault. He asked about the chemicals and sprays she used to clean the house. Whether she knew that her new carpeting, the carpeting TJ crawled around on during his first year of life was filled with potentially carcinogenic substances. He confronted her with Greg’s background, demanding to know whether she was aware that Greg’s father died of stomach cancer and that heredity plays a significant role in the disease. By the time it was over, Maggie had a lump in her throat and a twitch in her eye. She asked Art who the lawyer was. Art said he worked for SGF Development.

The case ground on for two more years, years in which more motions were filed, more depositions conducted. Studies were done, the results analyzed and re-analyzed, then debated again by both sides. Maggie went to work waiting tables at Al’s Steak House. Dusty finished high school and started as an electrician’s apprentice. He moved into a trailer with his girlfriend.

Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.

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