Tales From Mephitis. Chapter 1: Off the Mountain
“He who travels far will often see things far removed from what he believed was Truth. When he talks about it in the fields at home, he is often accused of lying. For the obdurate people will not believe what they do not see and distinctly feel. Inexperience, I believe, will give little credence to my song
.....I agree with Siddartha, our wise friend from the East, who once said: ‘Words do not express thoughts very well; everything immediately becomes a little different, a little distorted, a little foolish. And yet it also pleases me and seems right that what is of value and wisdom to one man seems nonsense to another.’”
“The Journey to the East”
“… to really know man, one must ‘Untergehen’”. Nietzsche
He couldn’t help feeling a bit anxious. He had gotten a call that morning to come in for an interview at nine tomorrow for a job at The Florence Transfer Station, the hub of Sombrebois County’s Recycling Program. He was desperate for work. His wife and he would be completely broke by June, a week from now. It had been five years now already since the storm broke on him. While he’d never been wealthy, he’d never worried about money. Whatever he needed he’d always been able to pay cash for. He’d known terrible hunger before and been very poor, but he’d never known poverty like this; a poverty that ground you down further and further mercilessly.
They had no more money to pay any bills and little to buy groceries. The food they put up in the fall was about gone and there won’t be anything from the gardens until July: The wolf of hunger was now at their door. Their credit cards were tapped out. They had no vehicle; it had failed inspection two years ago. Living out in ‘the sticks’ of upstate New York without a car is like living on the moon.
Their oven was dead, two of the four burners on the stove were dead, and the others weren’t far behind. Most of their clothes were patched and their shoes were worn out. You know what real poverty is? Real poverty is wearing patched underwear, cotton blend shirts and socks so frayed the nylon fibers raise rashes. It’s putting cardboard inserts in your shoes because the soles have holes.
He had felt a thrill run through him, a surge of hope when he got that call. It was so hard without a car to get anywhere to even apply for work. He had submitted an application for a job with the County Recycling Program a year earlier. Three days ago he had called to see if they still had his application on file. The woman’s voice told him it probably was. But then she paused in a way that struck him as odd and then quickly, almost urgently, told him to re-submit his application now. He had it in the mail that morning. Now he’d got an interview. This was the first possibility of a break he’d seen.
His wife Melissa talked him into taking a cab in for the interview rather than walking the ten miles so he’d be fresher. She was right of course. It made sense. The only reason he balked was because he didn’t want to spend $22, plus a tip, out of their fast dwindling cash. They had less than $100 now to their names. The cabbie that picked him up at the end of the driveway was a stocky red-headed thirty-something female with tattooed fat arms. But she was at least pleasant and intelligent-sounding. He had her drop him off at the exit gate of the Transfer Station because it was the only one open.
The first thing that hit him was the odor. It was an incredibly heavy, fetid odor that his nose inadvertently pulled back from in distaste. His initial, automatic analysis was that it was a commingling of the reeks of a sulpherous bog, rotting garbage, decaying meat, a New York City back alley on a hot day, and an open septic tank; all bound together with diesel fumes.
As the cabbie pulled away, he glanced up at the dazzling blue sky. He was a tall, powerfully built man of sixty with an intense face furrowed by ancient scars; his hair was white on the left side of his head and iron-gray on the right. His strong brow ridges promised unusual vigor.
Angrily clenching his jaw and setting his shoulders, he hiked up the tarmac lane, looking for the way up to the office, wherever that might be. Everywhere he looked there was litter; festooning the chain-link fence that encircled the twelve acre facility, wet and rotting along the sides of the tarmac, and in the grassy areas surrounding the buildings.
There were three of them that he could see. One, to his right, was a reeking composting facility of some sort of open concrete bays under a roof, maybe one hundred feet long and fifty wide. He passed another one with two truck docks. Looking in the open front of the building, he saw stacks of bales of cardboard and newspaper.
“Must be a warehouse.”
The place seemed totally deserted, but he could hear machinery running somewhere. When he got to the top of the steep drive alongside an open-sided metal building with several forty foot orange roll-off trailers parked under it, he saw there were three cars parked near a door in the main building. He walked over and went in. It reeked in here too, but it was the different, staler smell of unwashed clothes, unemptied trash baskets and old grime. He found himself in a small, dingy hallway with a time-clock of some sort on a wall and four doorways.
To his left one doorway led into a dirty, messy office with two worn, industrial metal desks and a motley mix of dilapidated, half-dead furniture. To his right there was what looked like a break-room containing a refrigerator, a table with a microwave on it, a metal chair, and a padded swivel chair near a water cooler. A map of the U.S. was mounted on the wall above it.
A double set of windows set chest-high in the wall looked out toward another pair of orange roll-offs. One of them was opened up and had a ramp leading into it. Lawn clippings were piled high inside it. The window screens were alive with flies trying to get out. The sill was strewn with the carcasses of their long dead predecessors.
Walking cautiously into the breakroom, alert for sounds of life, he noticed there was a bathroom off it. Walking in, he was met by the smell of stale urine.
“This is NOT a good first impression.” He had never seen so filthy a urinal, toilet, or sink. They were literally black inside. The floor was heavily soiled in a path from the door to the fixtures. Turning to leave, he saw a high shelf on the wall. On it was a mishmash of spare hoses, toilet paper rolls, cleaning materials, and of course, a stack of obviously well-thumbed magazines: The omnipresent porno “reading material”.
He went back out into the hallway between the rooms. Glancing into the office, he checked the clock on the wall. 8:50 a.m. Ahead of him were two doors both marked “Employees only.”
He took a seat in the swivel chair. After what seemed an interminable, silent wait, a paunchy, blank-eyed character with a dark red beard in dirty jeans, blue shirt, and filthy work gloves came in, glanced dully at him without interest, and moved lethargically on into the office.
After awhile he came back out and paused for an instant, turning his head to look toward him. He had seldom seen such eyes; like some emotionless, thought-less fish. They were completely unreadable because there seemed to be nothing behind them to read.
“Here for the interview?” His voice belied his eyes. It was, if not friendly, non-hostile and reflected an at least normal intelligence.
“Feel free to come on out on the bridge and view the operation.” He indicated the other door with a slight movement of his hand.
He stumped stiffly off through the other door, his jean’s crotch down near his knees, and began clumping lifelessly down some stairs.
Curious, Frank got up and went over to the other door. Opening it, he stepped out onto a diamond grate walkway overlooking a scene that made his spirits sink dismally for an instant before he sternly girded them up.
Stretching out a dozen feet below him was an open, rectangular cement-floored space about an acre in size. The shallow pitched metal roof, swathed in rolls of insulation, soared to a peak high over his head.
One of the seemingly ubiquitous open-topped orange roll-offs with a ramp on one end was piled high with reeking, dripping bales of garbage. There was a slimy lane of refuse droppings in the shape of a lazy ‘Z’ leading from the trailer to a hidden alcove like a dingy cave festooned with dusty cobwebs, where he saw a control panel to some machinery.
A small flock of pigeons arose from the top of the garbage in the roll-off and then settled back down on the floor to pick for dainties among the slimy detritus. Others walked along the rafters overhead, or sat cooing in small groups. The stench was pervasive. Wherever he gazed; up, down, right, or left, everything was coated with a thick, greasy layer of grey dust and pigeon droppings.
“My God.” He thought. “The Third Circle of Hell: The fate of the ‘Gluttons’ who spent eternity wallowing in a fetid slush...Christ.”
With a sinking heart and a compensating angry stiffening of the neck, he surveyed the scene further. The walls on two sides were lined with concrete walled bays; the ones to his left were each filled with different, loose recyclables. On his right, except for the two holding loose aluminum foil and soda cans, they were filled with large bales of papers.
The hideous, painfully load whine of a straining hydraulic ram filled the air. A blond, longish haired, bored looking young man was running the machinery. Above him on Frank’s level, partly obscured by the bay walls, he could see what looked like a little bulldozer pushing piles of magazines down into a huge, funnel shaped hopper.
With a roar and a belching of diesel fumes, another black and yellow mini-bulldozer with forks on the front end drove over and into an alcove near the young man and re-appeared carrying a bale, and then placed it on what must have been a scale. The blonde-haired youth put a tag on it, and then the lift-truck pulled away with it. It drove to a bay and lifted the bale to the extent of its boom to deposit it about a dozen feet up on top of another on the pile.
His heart sank deeper as he realized that these were the activities that he would soon be doing, if he were so ‘lucky’ as to get hired. He’d always hated industrial type settings. His face hardened in anger.
“If this is what I have to do; so be it. Life sucks, and that’s all there is to it. I’ve seen enough. If I get the job I’ll be out here soon anyway.”
He turned and went back inside to the break-room and sat down. He felt simultaneously morose at the ugliness of where he might be working, on guard for any signs he could read about what the place was like, and hopeful that he might get hired.
A little after nine, a short, burro-bellied little man with a bulbous forehead came in, glanced blankly at him and went into the office. Leaning on the sill and looking out the window, he began talking on his cell.
Frank took the opportunity to size him up. This one, unlike the first one, was obviously a boss; he was dressed neatly. He continued to ignore Frank, occasionally braying a laugh into his phone. Frank saw his new-looking jeans were too tight for him; probably steadily putting on weight. He dropped his gaze down further. The fellow wore cowboy–type boots with big heels, and more, it seemed he might have lifts in them to ‘boot’.
“Sensitive about his height: That says much about what to expect from him.”
He heard a few vehicles pull in outside. A strange array of men came in and went into the office without even glancing at him. All wore jeans and blue work shirts and all wore John Deere caps. And off of all of them was exuded an ambiance of seeped-in grime.
“What am I? Invisible, for Christ’s sake?”
Just then, one of the ‘Employees Only” doors swung open. The ‘boss’ with the beard heard it and quickly intercepted a scroungy-looking, bald, big-nosed elderly fellow with an unshaven stubble of white beard.
“You’re going to have to help John run the baler. Anton’s got to be in here.” He told him brusquely.
Frank could feel the animosity crackle between the two. The big-nosed one wordlessly turned and went back out.
“Shit. Are they going to fire him? Is that why the interviews? To find a replacement? Great. Nice way to get a job.”
He could hear some good-natured banter in the office about which one was the oldest among them. He heard someone brag he was sixty and the rest of them were just “puppies”.
"They’ve seen how old I am on the application. Shit."
The door to the office closed.
When it opened, the ‘boss’ addressed him for the first time.
“Okay. Come on in.”
“Okay. Showtime. Make me proud, Ace.” He walked in, standing fully upright and surveyed the room.
The long-haired young man was reading his application. The other half dozen men were arrayed in all the various seating places. Except for the long-haired one and a very tall young man with a lantern jaw, they all appeared to be about Frank’s generation; Boomers. No one offered him a seat, so he stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by all of them.
“Nothing like putting the applicant at his ease.” He was determined not to give anyone the satisfaction of appearing in the least awkward. “Okay. Watch that temper. You’re in no position to carry a chip on your shoulder...Okay, okay: But I’m not begging either.”
“Okay.” The boss began without preamble or identifying himself or any of the others. “The job opening is for a part-time laborer, zero to thirty hours a week. It pays $11.11 an hour, and there are no benefits.”
“Shit.” Frank's heart groaned.
“The hours are from 6:30a.m. to 4:30p.m.; a ten hour day. Some weeks there may be no work at all. You’ll be working at all five stations, and you’ll be expected to learn how to run all the balers, and the skidsteers….Have you ever used a foot-pedal controlled skidsteer?”
“That must be what they call that squatty little bulldozer I saw down there.” “No. The last time I used a lift truck was probably thirty years ago and the controls were on the steering column...But I’m sure I can learn quickly enough....This isn’t full-time?”
“Shit.” “Any chance of it becoming full-time?”
‘Shit. “”Okay. To be perfectly honest with you: I have no car. But I checked it out. I know I can walk or ride a bike here, but I don’t know if I can to the other ‘stations’. Where are they?”
The boss rattled off their names.
“I’m sorry. That means nothing to me. Where are they?”
The tall young man got up and handed him a pamphlet off the desk and showed him that it had the directions to all the stations, and then pointed out their locations on a wall map of the county. Meanwhile, there was some joking about if Frank had to ride home from the ‘Turin’ station, by the time he’d gotten home, he’d have to turn around and begin riding back to work for the next day’s work.
“Man, what am I getting myself into?”
“So: What do you think?” The boss, whose name was Ray, interrupted briskly. “Are you interested in the position?”
“I had really hoped it would be full-time. But...This is the longest I’ve been out of work since I was fifteen, and I don’t like it. I need the work: So ...Yes.”
“Okay. Step outside and give us a few minutes.”
A little while later he was called back in and told the position was his.
“At one p.m. report to the Solid Waste Division Office just above Motor Vehicles in the CountyOfficeBuilding, Beatrice will have you fill out some paperwork, then we’ll call you.”
“How long will that be?”
“Don’t know. Depends on how long it takes to process your papers. Maybe two weeks, maybe more. You’ll be told when to report to work.”
“Thank you, gentlemen.”
But it was as if instantly he was no longer there; they had resumed bantering among themselves. He walked out and headed for the entrance. The blonde-haired young man, whose name was Anton Hirsch, called to him; reminding him that gate was closed, that he’d have to use the exit.
As he walked down the road under the hot sun, he bitterly turned it all over in his mind. It was not what he’d hoped for; on many fronts. It was even more degrading and bleak than he had feared. He didn’t know if he had the stamina anymore to attempt something like this, but he had no choice but to try until he dropped dead. And if he did drop dead on the way to or from work, at least his wife Melissa would get a Workmen’s Comp Death Benefit.
And what the hell was he supposed to do now? It was only ten, and his appointment wasn’t till one. Go into town and wait somewhere, skipping lunch? Or go get something to eat? He decided to hitch home, have lunch, and call to see if he could come in the next day instead. That would give him time to think this through.
Angrily, he thought of how life had turned out to be an incomprehensible mystery. The past five years had thoroughly disabused him of all his assumptions, faiths, beliefs, and certainties. He was completely disillusioned and lost at a time in life when he thought one should be finally sure of oneself. All he knew now is that he had to do whatever it took to keep going, even if he didn’t see any reason to anymore. He would do anything to get out of this mess he had brought on himself and his wife.
Life was not for happiness; its only purpose seemed to be to finally make one understand that it is a delusion to think life is desirable. It makes one suffer so much, one is driven to disgust. Life seemed to keep hurling insults at him and then asking: “Had enough of me? Want to escape from all this? Sucks; don’t it?”
He bitterly realized now he had unconsciously, childishly, assumed that after he had recovered all those repressed memories of his childhood of horrors that there would have been some sort of happy ending, a reward of some kind, some sort of justice.
That was the fairy tale. There was no reward, no justice. On the contrary; that process of anamnesis had cost him and his wife everything. A proud man, the disbelief and disinterest in his story by his children, and then winding up destitute, was an acutely painful humiliation. The gold he thought he had found had turned to ashes in his hands.