Making the Water

By  |  August 23, 2016
Untitled by Andrew Kodama Untitled by Andrew Kodama

Cooking with Chris


 

Thirty years ago, after traveling all night across the desert, I reached the West Coast and promptly jumped into the Pacific Ocean. My plan was to meet a slew of fabled California girls, who’d be deeply impressed with my country-boy resourcefulness and reward me with sexual favors. Instead, the cold undertow pulled me out to sea, and began pushing me far from my pile of clothes. (In those days I didn’t own a towel, an unnecessary expense that would occupy too much room in my pack.) I flailed away and eventually managed to make landfall a mile from where I’d begun. My legs were too wobbly to stand. I collapsed on the sand and brought forth brine from sundry openings in my wrinkled body. My luck with California girls was no better than with the Pacific, which quite frankly lacks any pacifying aspect whatsoever. I suppose the name is ironic, something I wish I’d known at age twenty-three.

When bottled water first made its appearance, I realized that French marketing had triumphed over the intelligence of wealthy Americans. Perrier cost a lot of money and the only folks who drank it were financial show-offs, the same people who’d pay a tailor to shorten their shirt cuffs in order to display an expensive watch. Not only did I lack the funds for bottled water, I scoffed at those who did—until hearing about “smart water.” It was more expensive, which guaranteed greater legitimacy. Even the water’s name was enticing: Did only smart people drink it? Or would drinking it make me smarter? After a month of expensive guzzling I understood that I truly needed smart water. After all, I was dumb enough to believe such a thing existed.

I don’t recall when regular water became widely available in plastic containers, but it was around the same time I read an article that said youthful experimentation with dirty psychedelics left pockets of cyanide permanently lodged in your spinal cord. At any moment a speck of poison might begin roaming my body. If a leftover fragment of LSD was attached, I was in for a toxic flashback. I became concerned, then extremely paranoid (a product no doubt of the aforementioned youthful experimentation). Thankfully, I recalled that Batman had once thwarted death by deliberately developing an immunity to cyanide. His archenemy was mighty surprised that a lethal dose didn’t drop him like a ton of bricks. During childhood, my own indefatigable foe lived across the creek. He told me that poison ivy wouldn’t bother me if I ate some. I didn’t believe it and he asked if I was calling him a liar, then threatened to kick my butt. We promptly found some poison ivy in the woods and I ate a few leaves. Fortunately my throat didn’t swell to the point of asphyxiation, but the fact is, poison ivy never bothered me again. I can bathe in its oil and scrub my body with its leaves. It’s a kind of personal superpower, like those found in comic books. (Incidentally, my hair will repel water, a minor power of its own.) 

 

During the 1960s in eastern Kentucky, there existed very few stores to purchase goods beyond the staples of vienna sausages, ammunition, fishing tackle, and truck tires. Most families used mail order catalogs. (For my younger readers, think of these catalogs as a primitive Internet.) The Sears and Roebuck catalog was especially prized due to the number of pages it contained. Most outhouses held a copy for those dire times when the toilet paper roll was empty. That may sound bad, but it was much worse when you’d completed your business and discovered that the only pages left were the slick ones with color photographs of merchandise. 

Adults had catalogs, but children had the ads in comic books, our only exposure to the exotic world beyond the hills. I pored over these tiny offerings, most of which seemed to come from New York. The advertisements included a photograph of the purchase, a coupon for ordering, and an exciting description of the product. Most items cost about a dollar, which was a fortune to me, but appeared to be a bargain for a Frontier Cabin big enough for 2-3 kids or one hundred plastic soldiers packed in their own footlocker. For $1.39, a Tiny Midget Camera allowed you to take secret pictures. A portable typewriter cost $2.95 and was described as inspirational. I was drawn to the Charles Atlas before-and-after photos, and often fantasized about learning Yubiwaza, a one-finger self-defense system, with which I could paralyze the guy who’d encouraged me to eat poison ivy. 

After careful perusal and examination, I settled on the promising allure of Sea-Monkeys. The four-color ad claimed they were full of surprises. They would swim, play, scoot, race and do comical tricks. Best of all—they could be trained! I recognized a certain artistic license taken with drawings of the adorable Artemia monica lounging about, ready to gallivant at my command. The mother demurely crossed her elegant legs while the father’s long tail fin concealed his personal region. What convinced me of its authenticity was the human family looking cheerfully into a bowl of cavorting Sea-Monkeys. A mere $1.00 would make my family happy. I walked creeks until I gathered fifty pop bottles, worth two cents apiece, exchanged them for money at the general store, and sent it off to New York City. For two weeks I eagerly awaited the mail, imagining the changes that Sea-Monkeys would bring to my life. Maybe I’d get my own room! At last I received a very small box containing a manual and a packet of eggs. I filled a jar with water and dutifully prepared the mixture. The packet of eggs sank like sludge to the bottom. No amount of stirring hatched them. Disappointed, I gave the water to my dog who lapped it in a frenzy of joy. 

The marketing of Sea-Monkeys was the brainchild of a Memphis man named Harold von Braunhut whose inventions included X-Ray Specs, which I also ordered from a comic book. The ad showed a man looking at the bones in his own hand, but I hoped to see through female clothing. Like smart water and California girls, the X-Ray Specs didn’t work out for me. Von Braunhut’s most brilliant scam was selling genuine Invisible Goldfish. For the usual dollar I got a tiny plastic bowl, a poorly printed pamphlet, a pack of fish food, and a money-back guarantee that I would never see the fish. That claim came true. 

 

When I was a kid, conventional plumbing was not as common in the hills as it is today. One neighbor drained her dishwater into the dirt road beside her house. Others added bathrooms, usually off the kitchen for proximity to the water pipes. Our family had plumbing but some time in the past an outhouse had sufficed. It was situated at the top of a narrow holler between two steep hillsides, a practical location since it could drain down the gully, dissipating the grim contents. When it came time to dig a well, a water-witch armed with a willow dowsing stick found a suitable place at the foot of the hill. The drawback was having to pump the water back up the slope, thus reducing the pressure to a trickle. 

Our hot-water tank was woefully small for a family of six. Filling the bathtub halfway depleted the hot water. For several years my siblings and I were forced to bathe in the kitchen sink. As our bodies outgrew such confined quarters, we shared the bathtub. When age made us more modest, we began taking turns; however, there was never enough water in the tank for a fresh tub. Whoever went first got the clean water, but had to be very quick. The last child could languish in the tub as long as he wanted—in filthy water. 

We never had enough water to perform two actions at once. If Mom was running a load of wash, nothing came from the faucet. We were forbidden from using the sink if Dad was in the shower. All actions involving water had to be planned in advance and announced at large. It was common to hear shouted commands of “Don’t flush!” drifting through the house. In summer, Mom took a pragmatic approach: my brother and I stripped in the backyard and she hosed us down before allowing us to enter the house. Again, going first became paramount. The water in the coiled hose had been heated by the day’s sun, but that spray ended quickly, followed by a steady cold blast from deep in the earth. Faced with this multitude of seasonal cleanliness dilemmas, I pretty much gave up bathing altogether until a couple of years ago.

Because we were rarely as clean as my mother hoped, she adopted a short-term solution for public. Before allowing us to leave the car, she’d spit on a tissue and then wipe our faces. As usual, going first was important, creating the unusual situation of four children vying for a spit bath. Ever thrifty, Mom used only one tissue. My youngest sister pretty much got her face smeared with debris cleaned off the rest of us—food, dirt, lint, dog hair, and the like. Mom’s capacity for saliva was a superhero power, which reminds me of a joke: “Why is Aquaman the most optimistic superhero? Because his glass is always full!” (Get it? He lives under water.) 

Like all rural children, we were plagued by parasites: ticks, lice, fleas, pinworms, and scabies. The entire school often smelled like Kwell shampoo, the first line of attack for tiny bugs. After repeated testing, my parents learned that our water was contaminated with sewage. It turned out that drilling a well at the foot of a gully topped by an outhouse was not the best plan after all. Piped water from town was unavailable and our family’s only option was a form of purification.

As firstborn, the responsibility of making the water fell to me. Once a week I filled a dozen gallon jugs with tap water and a special serum made of bleach. We drank that all week. The jugs filled at an inexorably slow pace, which made me resentful of the chore. My concern was how to speed the thirty-minute eternity. Many factors came into play, chief among them avoiding a spill which would not only have to be cleaned up, but would require another filling of the jug. If one overflowed, water seeped along the sides and pooled on the linoleum and I got in trouble. Each lid had to be tightly screwed on, or I got in trouble. All twelve jugs had to be filled or I got in trouble. It was laborious work under pressure. The fate of the family’s health rested on my spindly shoulders. Too much bleach and I killed us all. Too little and everyone got sick. 

I brought an intense focus to the effort, a kind of meditative practice, that is alleged by many to teach patience, humility, and the value of diligence as its own reward. None of that happened for me. I remained sullen and angry at everything—my parents, the well, even water itself. But I did figure out that my beloved Sea-Monkeys had died choking on ancient outhouse waste. In my boredom, I hatched one of the plans that marked me as a genius in childhood (a level of intelligence clearly squandered). It was my vague understanding that my youngest sister had emerged intact from Mom’s belly, and I concluded that our bleach-cleaned water might make my own stomach hospitable to Sea-Monkeys. I ordered another batch of eggs, dumped them in the water and drank it. To my disappointment, I did not give birth. 

After a week I forgot about Sea-Monkeys and began saving my money for a Ventriloquist Device that would fit unseen into my mouth, or maybe a Hypno-Coin with which I could amaze my friends. I knew better than to invest in a Hover Car or a seven-foot Polaris Nuclear Submarine that fired torpedoes underwater. Even though they were more expensive at $6.98, I’d learned my lesson. But I still had to make the water every week, which I did until I was seventeen years old and left home. 

 

Recently I succumbed to the need for social approval. Every six months I buy a bottle of alleged smart water. After drinking its contents (and zipping through a few sudoku puzzles to test my cyanide-addled brainpower), I refill the container with tap water and carry it in public, a proclamation similar to wearing a fake Cartier watch. I’m rich and dumb! 


 

Making Water

— Add one tablespoon bleach to one quart of water. 
— Shake well.
— Add one tablespoon of mixture to a gallon of water. 
— Shake well.
— Drink. 

Sea-Monkeys

— Fill container with water. 
— Add sachet of Water Purifier.
— Let stand 24 hours. 
— Add Instant Life Eggs Powder.
— Watch intently. 

Immunity from Cyanide

— Eat small amounts over time. 

Immunity from Poison Ivy

— Eat leaves once.  


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Chris Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky. He is the author of three books of fiction and three books of nonfiction. He also wrote screenplays for True Blood, Weeds, and Treme.  His work has been included in many textbooks and anthologies, including Best American Essays, Best American Short Stories, and The Pushcart Prize 2017.  He lives near Oxford, Mississippi. Reach him at offuttchris1@gmail.com.