THE WHOLE TIME I was in Fallon, I couldn't get a photo from the Lahontan Valley News out of my mind. It was of an ancient, sun-shriveled individual sitting in a crowded auditorium, being honored as "Eldest County Resident." Here must be the town's foremost survivor, I thought. Here was a person who had thrived while drinking poisonous water. I felt that I had to raise a glass of Fallon's finest with her.
Her name was Penelope Venturacci. An Italian immigrant, she had lived in Fallon since 1927, when she and her husband Edward came west to start a ranch. Now, at 99, she spent her afternoons at her daughter Rena Bell's home, on D Street. On my last day in town, I grabbed the two wax-paper-wrapped glasses in my room at the Lariat and drove over to Rena's small ranch house.
Penelope was inside on the wraparound couch, perched in front of the big-screen TV, a bottle of Aquafina at her side. She couldn't talk to me, really. A stroke in 1993 reduced her voice to a scarcely audible squeak; she now communicated mostly in Italian, through her daughter, but the language barrier somehow afforded us a warm rapport. Gradually it became clear that there were two distinct chapters to her life: the years before "the accident," a time of hope and of hard work on the ranch; and the years since, a time of sadness and loneliness, and of grimly following her doctor's orders to drink only bottled water.
"Is it OK," I asked Rena, "if she just has a sip?"
"Oh, it's OK," said Rena.
I unwrapped the glasses and filled them up at the sink. And then—why not?—I exclaimed, "Salute!"
"Salute!" Penelope responded.
We drank. And then Penelope Venturacci choked. Her eyes bulged, and she began to cough violently. I watched in rapt terror as her daughter slapped at her back—whap, whap, whap—until eventually the old woman sat upright and, smiling, squeaked one more time. Her daughter translated.
"That,"she said, pointing at the Aquafina, "comes in a bottle; it's filtered. But that"—she pointed now at the tap water—"it is good. It comes from the earth."
Bill Donahue related the strange tale of Lloyd Pye and his Starchild in May 2000.