Tales From Mephitis. Chapter 12: The Unknown Land
“Hi, ‘Buddy’...How’s your day goin?” Rod asked pregnantly as Frank leaned his bike against the building and untied his knapsack.
“Fine.” He knew Rod didn’t give a damn about his day, his ride in, his life, his ancestors; nothing. It was just the opening protocol for him.
“That’s nice. Mine’s not goin so good.”
“Oh, yeah, and why pray tell is that? How was your vacation?
”Fine. But my credit score has dropped.”
“We bought a new camper to go camping with, and we took out a loan. Our bank said no. So we went to another one who gave it to us.”
“Well, at least...”
“I don’t see how they can lower our scores like that. It’s not my fault. I thought the Sears card was all paid off, so I didn’t make any more payments.”
“Also; I had a bad time with some kids in the other campsite. When their parents left, I heard them saying they were going to kill the chipmunks when they came into their campsite. We feed them, they’re so cute. I got mad and told them that if they touched a chipmunk I was gonna kill them. They told their parents, and we almost got kicked out of the campground!”
“How old were they?”
“I don’t know...Maybe eight or nine.”
“That figures.” Anton broke in, approaching. “If they would have been teenagers he wouldn’t have said a word. Would you have, Rod? How come you didn’t tell him about the teenagers throwing rocks at the chipmunks in the other site? You didn’t say ‘Boo’ to them, did you? No, ‘Big Rod; Defender-of-Chipmunks-From-Little-Kids, But-Not-Teenagers’”
“Della wouldn’t let me! She told me not to say anything!”
He turned to Frank. “Looks like you’re going to Venice today. Tonto just called, seeing if we could spare a man. They’re short-handed. Ray fired Carl for threatening Tonto, but never covered him.”
“You can take 502 if you have a license.”
“I have a license, just no car...What’s ‘502’?”
“The orange County pick-up out there.” He indicated a battered old Chevy, maybe twenty years old. “It should have gas. But the gauge doesn’t work, so I’m not really sure. Take your time, there’s no hurry. Tell Tonto you got to leave at 3:30. And tell him I’ll cover your time on my time-sheet.”
“These guys all assume I’m riding a bike because I lost my license, probably for drinking. That’s what’s commonplace in their experience. What’s never heard of is someone falling into such a deep hole that he’s not got a vehicle, and with no one to help him out.” He thought as he walked out to the old truck with his knapsack and water. “This should be interesting. How long has it been since I drove? Two years? It’s about time.”
It was as if there had been no lapse in his driving. It didn’t feel strange at all; in fact, it felt good to be finally behind the wheel again. He thought about the directions to the station that Anton had sketched out for him: Should be no problem. He was familiar with the roads already. He turned on the radio and tuned it into the only classical music station around and settled back to enjoy the ride in the morning air.
“Wonder what the expression on the next guy’s face that drives this will be when he flips on the radio and hears Sibelius’ Seventh or something?”
He found himself luxuriating in the rough comfort of that old truck as he effortlessly climbed the hills, realizing his attitude toward the internal combustion engine had changed forever.
He either had taken a vehicle for granted like everyone else, or in his youth when he couldn’t afford one, he distained them. Later, as his environmentalist and Luddite tendencies gained, he saw it as a challenge to find ways to live without one.
Then circumstances took him up on it and taught him a brutal lesson. He truly came to understand how in this society to not have transportation means poverty and dire limitations. He glanced at the dashboard.
“Yep. Fuel gauge looks stuck....And the speedometer doesn’t work...Ugh...Headlines.” He switched off the radio in disgust.
As rarely as he heard the “news” anymore, or other people’s regurgitating back what they heard on the “news” as their own opinion, it still irritated and disgusted him. All of it was jingoistic, self-serving propaganda and distortions. It didn’t matter substantially whether it was NPR, FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS…whoever. They differed only slightly, regardless of what their partisans thought; because they all accepted the same basic premises.
Orwell’s “1984” was either prescient, or the State Department and the Intelligence community used that novel as a textbook.
He got a kick out of telling people that Ossam Bin laden’s real name was “Goldstein”. Sooner or later they’d claim to have killed him, but no body will ever be seen, he was sure of that; simply because he no longer existed. Hadn’t for years.
A part of him, like The Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, still wanted to see all those errors and lies corrected...which is an absolutely futile wish and task; and the people are just too gullible.
He was drawing closer to his destination. The Venice Transfer Station was at a crossroads between two back country roads. All of these other stations were less than half the size of the Florence facility, but set up on the same basic principle.
The people came in one gate, nearest where the C and D was dropped off. Here that debris was simply thrown over the side onto the floor far below, or piled on the slab near the overhead door and then pushed in with a skidsteer to the floor below.
When it built up down there, someone drove down with the grapples and picked it all up, load by load, and carried it over to a roll-off and dropped it in. It was an incredibly idiotic way to handle it, and an incredibly dusty job.
The air was thick enough to cut with a knife, and no one wore any protection; they merely coughed all day.
He parked the truck and went toward the office. Unlike the one at Florence, it was a tiny room and situated right next to the garbage hopper. A sliding glass window overlooked it, God knows why you’d put a window there. Apparently for the ‘pleasure’ of the view he supposed.
The bathroom was the size of a closet, but somewhat cleaner than Florence’s. But the small refrigerator and microwave were disgusting.
“Tonto”, Anthony Geryon, who was the lantern-jawed young man there when Frank was interviewed, nodded at him, smiling.
A mouth-breather, he was a couple of inches taller than even Frank, so he towered like a Titan over his crew and most of his patrons.
Like most boys who had been large all their life, he had no physique; his mere size being enough to deter most aggression. His physiognomy for such a tall person was not common though. A good part of most tall people’s height is due to long limbs. Tonto had relatively short limbs and a long torso, which seemed even longer because his pants were always almost falling off. He had a way of tilting his head back and appearing to look down his nose at people. Most of that effect was due to his close-set eyes.
Though Frank found him respectful and easy to work with that day, Tonto had a reputation of being a pain in the ass to work for. Though he himself was considered lazy, he pushed the other workers brusquely and lorded his position over them as if they were cattle.
He had angered two of the employees enough for them to threaten to kill him; which Tonto promptly reported to Ray, which resulted in their firing.
He was also renowned for being dumber than a box of rocks. On a prank, Anton told Frank he’d once called Tonto pretending to be a customer, and asked how many stickers he needed to drop off a fetus. Tonto had answered blankly “One.”
Before he had been promoted to foreman, he had worked at Florence. He and Rod used to be called “Dumb and Dumber”. They all constantly pulled pranks on each other in those days.
They would moon each other, de-pants Rodney, or pull off his shoe and throw it into the garbage roll-off. Grease would be squirted into someone’s gloves, or the door handle of a car would be greased, or the steering wheel. Tonto clandestinely squirted ketchup into Rod’s soda one day, and Rod puked all over when he took a swig. So, he put a dead mouse in Tonto’s sub.
Frank introduced himself to the other two fellows there.
One, a tall, rangy, young man in a “John Deere” cap, was Roger Christian. He too breathed through his mouth and was difficult to understand because he spoke softly and as if he had marbles in his mouth whenever he did speak, which was rarely. Frank noted that the beeper attached to his belt kept up an almost non-stop stream of broken-up chatter.
He was, as he guessed, a volunteer fireman and proud of it. He’d been a full-time employee until a year ago, when the Department of Public Works started cutting back manning at the stations under pressure from the Board’s budget hawks. He went from forty hours a week and full benefits to twenty hours and no benefits.
He seemed to be surprised that Frank talked with him, and appreciated being treated as a human.
By the end of the day he had warmed to Frank enough that he told him quite a bit about himself, even if Frank couldn’t make out half of what he was saying.
He also quietly warned him just in time not to reach into the back of a red SUV that pulled up: The driver always brought his dog with him, and it was vicious.
The other young man Frank sized up instantly as “Trouble”. It was written all across his pudgy face, and in the way his shifty, narrow eyes took things in. He was in his twenties, stout, average height, with orange hair, and something ‘soiled’ about him. At first Frank took him to be just another part-timer like himself.
“Roger, you go do cardboard until eleven.” Tonto told the tall young man. He turned to the other one. “Darryl, you work up here. See? And you thought I was gonna make you go poke your last four hours, didn’t ya?”
The orange-haired kid groaned anyway, but didn’t make any moves.
“What did he mean your last ‘four hours’? You quitting?” Frank asked him between cars.
“Nah. ‘Alternative Sentencing’. This is my f**kin last day. All I got left is four f**king hours and I’m outta here for good! I can’t f**kin wait.”
“How long did you have to do?”
“A year’s worth of Saturdays.”
Before he left “for good”, Frank saw him talking quietly with a pick-up load of young men. Every once in a while, he saw one of them sneak a glance at him with cold, measuring eyes.
“He’s right. He ain’t coming back here again: Next time he’s doing REAL time. He’s hanging with the wrong crowd; but it’s where he belongs. There’s no changing that one or where he’s heading.”
His eye caught movement over the trees across the road. A Great Blue Heron majestically flapped its way slowly across the skyline, looking like a Petrodactyl.
“F*ckin cranes. Filthy birds.” Tonto said, following his gaze. “They’re all over around here. What we got here is cows and cranes, cows and cranes, cows and cranes.”
“It’s a Heron.”
Tonto had a stereo and speakers rigged up outside and Country and Western music blared out over the trays for the benefit of the clientele. Frank had never liked pop C and W music, and by 3:30 he had a full day to reconfirm that.
The three themes of all of it consisted of: Getting drunk, love gone bad, and the hard-economic times causing the loss of the “American Dream”.
It’s THE music for “angry white men”, ones who can’t figure out what went wrong. All they know is they’ve lost their country, and their jobs, and somehow anybody that doesn't have the same skin color as them, their sexual orientation, their religious background, or is 'Liberal' is behind it all; and all funded by the U.N. of course.
Frank did his best to get to every car, working himself up into that dynamo state.
Once again, he gathered from the patrons’ reactions that sort of help did not usually occur here.
The people were younger here for the most part than at Florence. They seemed to fall into roughly two groups that had only one thing in common: Country and Western music and dress.
One group wore “Camo” Country and Western dress. Those were mostly young males with shaved heads and tattoos packing side arms; 9mm automatics seemed to be the favorite, or large ornate sheath knives. They acted like they were looking for trouble; though none offered any to him.
The other group seemed to be small-scale farmers and ranchers, and quite a few of these were younger women.
And there was a smattering of slight, frail looking professors from the nearby elite college. They seemed ill at ease, and kept their eyes down, especially around the pistol-packing “Rambos”. That is, with the exception of three formidable female professorial types, who issued orders and demands in loud, strident tones. They too seemed to be looking for a fight, or vengeance, for some reason.
It seemed like everybody there was angry just under the surface, and itching for a scratch to let it out.
The couples he saw that day all seemed to be fighting too. He remembered what a hellish existence a marriage that consisted of fighting was like. He gave a silent prayer of thanks to ‘Nobody’ for Melissa.
Apparently, no one who worked there could add. Instead of keeping a running total of the number of stickers taken in, they just kept writing in the number of stickers each patron gave them, then at the end of the day Tonto added them all up with a calculator.
Several times Frank saw a trash hauler come in with a dump-truck load of bagged garbage. No stickers changed hands for those loads. Curious, he unobtrusively watched the driver and Tonto in close confabulation, Tonto’s back blocked Frank’s view of what their hands did. Every once and a while, one or the other of them would glance around like a drug deal was going down.
“Run the baler.” Tonto told Roger after the first load was dropped off. Without a word, he turned and complied.
Frank poked while Tonto pushed in the mountains of trash with the skidsteer. When all the bags were in, he pushed an easy chair in that got hung up. Unlike at Florence, they had a hook here.
Tonto jumped out of the machine and easily snagged the chair with the hook. He hauled and hauled on it, swearing and cursing as he turned purple, but the chair barely moved. Frank went over to help.
“Hang on. I’ll give you a hand.” He grabbed hold of the rope with one hand and tugged. The chair flew up at them and fell back in to be chewed up by the ram.
Tonto looked at him in disbelief, and Frank returned the look for a different reason: he couldn’t believe Tonto couldn’t lift that with two hands.
Later that day, when it was time to run the baler again and Tonto was about to make Roger go down again, Frank told him he’d run it if he wanted.
“This one runs the same as the one in Florence, right? No differences?”
He headed down the two flights of cement stairs to the baler station. These stations didn’t have doors separating the ground floor and sub floor. The roll-off for the garbage bales was only a dozen feet from the cavern of the baler, adding to the claustrophobic sense.
He glanced around: Every bit as filthy and unkempt as Florence. They even had the same sign affixed to the baler in ages past: “No one under eighteen is to run this baler.”
“Why put a sign up about age restrictions? Did they think these were going to be installed in Kindergartens?...Oh, well...It looks the same as Florence’s...Here goes.”
He flipped the pump switch on, held in the start button until the claxon had wailed nine times and the machine started up. He put it in ‘semi’ and hit the cycle button. As the ram crescendoed, he watched the indicator lights. Only two came on.
“Okay...The bale is just starting. Got about another ten pushes.”
The stink was every bit familiar. Each time the ram squeezed a mouthful into its innards, the excess flopped out the small view port. Unlike Florence, which had bars across that port, the ones here had long ago been broken off.
He hit the cycle button again. He heard the ram go into eject position. He glanced down and saw the “Full Bale” light lit and confidently waited for the bale to be automatically kicked out and strapped in increments of stop and go, just like Florence.
It didn’t. To his complete shock, it never stopped for the first strap to be strapped, it kept on ejecting at a stunning speed.
He shot a glance at the strapper light; it wasn’t on, but the strapper was in auto, as it should be. Before he could throw it into ‘manual’ and stop it, the ram vomited out the full unstrapped bale, which once freed of its confines, mushroomed out into its full unsqueezed dimensions at a horrifying speed. He slammed on the E-stop.
Everything ceased instantly, eerily quiet except for the drooling of the garbage seeking level. He stared at the incredible mess.
“The same as Florence, MY ASS!”
He had no choice. Before he could run out another bale, he had to get rid of the mess. He jumped in the skidsteer with grapples and began grabbing huge mouthfuls of the ton of garbage, spinning around, driving it into the roll-off, and dumping it.
“I thought you said this one runs the same as Florence’s.” he confronted Tonto when he finally got back upstairs
“Doesn’t it? I never ran that one.”
“You never…This one doesn’t strap automatically?”
“Oh, no. You got to run the strapper in manual, and do it manually.”
“Now I find out. Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Tonto’s real role there seemed to be “Greeter”; and he was popular enough with a certain type of ladies.
Quite a few times an old pick-up with two or more western-garbed women in their early to mid-thirties stopped to chat familiarly, flirtatiously, with him.
These ‘cowgirls’ looked worn, squeezed into dirty jeans far too small for them despite their having no butts, their bellies slopping over the almost buried-out-of-sight waistbands. Their hair was lank and thin and their eyes baggy. But they were a cheerful lot, wanting to know if he was going to be at the field party in O’Hara’s south pasture that night.
From what Frank pieced together, it was a local practice for these over-age kids to hold drinking parties over the weekends. The locale changed each week and they kept to the back-country lanes to avoid the local constabularies.
It was their solution to the quandary of needing to get drunk, and yet not getting DWIs because they all needed their licenses. So, they got sh*t-faced in some farmer’s hayfield until they couldn’t see, then drove home...somehow. They laughed reminiscing over not remembering a thing.
At about three that afternoon, his left arm was aching at the inside of the elbow where the biceps insert. It’d been a long day of hauling bags, one in each hand to the hopper and throwing them in.
Tonto told Roger to go do the C and D before Frank left them. The kid never changed expression all day; just blankly did as he was coldly ordered. Frank found himself feeling sorry for the gawky, silent figure, and wondered what the rest of his life was like. He knew he had a girlfriend; he had mentioned that much. Frank hoped they were happy together, because it sure didn’t look like life had given him much else to be happy about.
It was a relief to get in the truck and head back to Florence and away from that damn Country and Western music. And it felt good too to sit back and relax, to not be on his guard, nor have to worry about taking care of all the customers.
He was sorry to see his drive back coming to an end. The quiet and ease of riding was enjoyable, but now he had almost another hour of work, listening to Rod caterwaul about something or other and then an hour’s uphill ride home.
When he parked the truck, tossed the keys on the desk, and went out to the trays, Rod was still informing all he could corral about his vacation. Anton was morose and silent after being stuck alone with Rod all day. Frank took his place out near the trash hopper and started right in again helping people.
When he had a chance, he asked Anton about the Alternative Sentencing program.
“Almost all of them are young, in their twenty’s. ‘White trash’ usually. Drinking or drugs conviction. The drug offenders work like hell, because we have to fill out a report on how punctual they were and how they worked.
If the report is bad they go straight upriver. They all seem skinny, with somehow gray complexions and dirty looking clothes.
Some young females ‘teens’ were used here once when the station was closed to pick up all the trash on fence lines. John saw them and said they looked hard, and when they were bent over they didn’t care that their thongs were hanging out. He said one of them had ‘SKANK’ tattooed over the crack of her ass in big blue letters.”
Frank noticed a fellow, could have been his age, probably younger, with a receding chin, a portly figure, mottled complexion and straw-like, sparse gray hair sticking out from under his ballcap at obtuse angles, watching him. Frank thought he knew him from somewhere.
Rod had approached him familiarly; obviously the fellow was one “his people”. They seemed to be talking about him. The customer broke away from Rod and excitedly walked up to Frank.
“Frank? You’re Frank Novak, right?” He turned to look back at Rod. “I told you his last name was Novak!” He turned back to Frank. “I knew it! You haven’t changed at all! After all these years you still look the same! You recognize me? I’m Will Sommers. I used to work at the Mill with you. You were my first foreman.”
“I thought you looked familiar. How are you doing, Will?”
“Good, Frank, good. Rod tells me you’re working here part time?”
“I told him you were the best foreman I ever had.”
“No, really: I mean it. I really appreciated the patience you showed me, and the time you took with me to make sure I knew what I was supposed to do and was comfortable with it.”
“Thanks. Still at the Mill? Who opened it back up?”
“Some outfit out of Texas. Name of Sterling Paper. Some of the other guys are still there. Not many, but a few were hired back. Non-Union now, ya know.”
“Yeah. They laid everybody off and then hired back only the ones they wanted. Now they’re beginning to hire some more permanent. They’ve hired five, they say the total’ll be thirty; they say. All they’re doing is beginning to replace the Temp workers they’ve been using for years. You know; even lower pay, and no benefits at all.”
“Yeah. Figures. Thirty? Far cry from the seven hundred that used to be there.”
“Boy, ain’t that the truth! I’ll tell the guys I saw ya, Frank. Jees, it’s good to see you again after all these years!”
“Good seeing you again, too Will.”
An old supervisor had once told a group of young foremen at a management seminar that they would never know how often they are the topic of dinnertime conversation among their crews’ families.
Frank always remembered that and tried to keep it in mind when he dealt with the people under him. He was glad Will thought well of him. Made him feel he did his job right.
But he also knew he was now in for more gawking, good-natured or otherwise after Will told the others he was here.
After Will went back to earnest conversation with Rod, Frank tried to place him more clearly. What he remembered most was that he had seemed like a good, eager-to-do-well kid, one that might lack fire and brilliance, but would be a good, solid, dependable worker.
But it wasn’t Will he found himself thinking about as he rode back home up the hills: It was that silent young man, Roger.
“What does somebody like him think about?”
He wondered sometimes about people he saw. There was a couple who lived in the small, ancient, rental house down the road from him and Mel. Probably his age. Silent. Especially him. He was grotesquely fat and spent most of the day sitting in a chair on the little porch. Just sitting. Expressionless. He didn’t work; Frank thought the skinny woman maybe did.
In the other old rental house nearby lived a family consisting of a huge woman, maybe forty, her equally huge sister, and her getting-huge young teenage daughter with dull eyes. Born-Agains. None worked. On their walks Mel and Frank would often see the heavy young blonde girl sitting on the porch, motionless.
“What goes through the minds of people who sit like that? Are they reminiscing? Making plans? Stewing over past injuries? What? Did they ‘talk’ to themselves? Could they articulate what was bothering them, if something actually was?”
He realized that most of his life he too had been inarticulate with himself. He had come to understand that it’s only by reflecting, articulating to yourself, actually talking in your mind to yourself, that you become conscious of what you’ve experienced.
And that’s critical, because what is not made conscious to yourself is simply as if it never happened. It cannot be learned from.
The Unconscious is the grave, the receptacle, for all those unlearned-from-experiences. They wait there, like spirits of the dead, hoping to eventually be noticed and released from their Shades of Hades half-existence.