Volume 31, Number 1

I’m Not Much Fun at Cocktail Parties Anymore

As soon as someone asks what I do
and I tell them
about the blue-green algae I study
about the toxins they emit into the water
and how this year I detected those toxins
even in air—
they walk away
in search of another martini
People at cocktail parties don’t want to hear
how millions of years ago
blue-green algae produced the oxygen
we breathe
but now pose a threat
when fed by fertilizer that flows
from acre upon acre of crops in perfect rows

Few know what I mean when I say “bloom”
how these single-celled organisms grow and divide
so rapidly and in such number
they become visible to the naked eye
their gas vacuoles floating them to the surface
where they present themselves
in swirls of verdant green
streaks of cyan blue
sometimes thickening to a scum
that bubbles and browns
like tarnished copper

I’ll admit there’s a certain beauty to it
(if I hold my nose)
when the wind blows and the water
oozes liquid turquoise

That’s when I dip my sample bottles
set up my air pumps
note how my Secchi disk becomes shrouded
just below the surface

In my lab I count the blue-green algal cells
using a compound microscope
colonies of Microcystis
filaments of Anabaena, Aphanizomenon
there may be hundreds of thousands in a single
less than a child’s mouthful of lake water

Yesterday as I took photos from a bridge
of a lake below in full bloom
I spied a young boy on a motor boat
with his father and fishing rods
chugging up to the landing

The boy was brave
held the boat in place near shore
while his dad got out and backed their truck
and trailer into the bottle-green water
the boy hit the throttle just right
and when everything was secured
he jumped in
for one last swim

I wanted to tell his dad about the toxins
about the likelihood of a rash
about an older boy
who died not far from here
after swimming in a golf-course pond

I walked quickly to the end of the bridge
but had to wait for a break in traffic
and when I got to the landing
the boy was on shore
poking a dead bluegill with a stick

I stopped
and watched him stoop
to examine the cloudy eye
the scales painted an unreal color
until he was called into the truck by his dad
and they pulled away—
drops of fluorescent green
staining the concrete behind them
like a spilled green-apple martini

—Elisabeth Harrahy