Tales From Mephitis, Chapter 16: The Wasteland
The wind whipped his eyes as Frank sped down the slope. So far, the weather had been better than he’d expected. But it wasn’t even the solstice; winter had yet to begin. There was no pleasure for him at work, but he and Mel were breathing easier now because of the money. And he still was angry at what he now saw as the raw deal life had dealt him.
It just didn’t seem fair. It was as if his mother’s ‘Witch’s Curse’ had been taken up by the Furies. Like Orestes, he was being hounded for killing his mother, even if it was her favorite son and her husband that actually pulled her plug.
“I’ll be damned.” He thought as he pulled into the entrance.
“The Witch’s Curse. I never saw it that way: I’m STILL seeing the world as I did before all this. I’m still seeing the world as personally malevolent, out to get me. I’ve learned nothing from the anamnesis: I’m still angry, I still have the Weltanschauung of The Black Mood, I’m still always pushing, still doubting, still reacting as I always have, still denying and trampling on my feelings. I haven’t changed a bit.
So, it comes down again to THE central question: Is change really possible?”
As December moved toward Christmas, Frank noticed an increasingly naked greediness in Rod; it was building into a feeding frenzy. Such, raw, crass avarice he had never seen. He watched him closely, both repelled and fascinated, like a scientist observing a newly discovered species of fly.
Rod’s method was to simply drop very broad ‘hints’, sometimes he just put in an ‘order’, for what he wanted and when he wanted it. He bluntly confided in Frank that he deserved ‘tips’ because he spends the whole year cultivating those he believed were good for tips; and ignoring everyone else.
He understood finally that Rod expected to get tips, not for helping people, but for talking with them; ‘befriending’ them. He found it all grotesque, appalling, and so blatantly transparent, he wondered why these people played along. Maybe they were lonely and liked to have someone to talk with, even if it’s at the wasteland of the Dumps.
“The Wasteland. That’s where I am, The Wasteland.”
“I use ta dress up like the Salvation Army Santa at Christmas to get more tips. I found a bell here an I useta ring it and I had a bucket for tips…They made me stop though.” Rod reminisced wistfully.
Toad was in a different situation entirely: He wasn’t at his usual station, so he was not getting his accustomed ‘tips’; which were cases and cases of ‘Keystone Lite’ as well as cash. He bitterly complained about it constantly, and was insanely envious of Rod’s larder. He dropped all pretense of work to constantly spy on him and monitor him to see what tips he’d gotten. More, he lobbied Ray hard to move Rod to Genoa or Milan so he’d lose out on his tips. Ray told him nobody at those stations wanted him.
For Rod‘s part, every time he got something he scurried gleefully to his car with it, to lock it away with the rest of his daily hoard. Or if Toad was around and he’d gotten cash, he’d hold it over his head and wave it around, crowing triumphantly. You could hear Toad’s teeth grinding across the room.
“”Ha Ha Ha Ha!! A lady just gave me this card with ten dollars in it!! Don’t you wish you were in Genoa!?? Ha Ha Ha Ha!!”
Later the garbage baler suddenly stopped when Frank was running it,. Looking up over his shoulder and sighing, he saw Rod grinning maniacally and holding a bill in his outstretched arms.
“Look!! A twenty! I got another twenty!! Nyah-nyah! That’s one hundred dollars so far today!!”
“Fine. How nice. Turn the baler back on, Rod. I’m working.”
Often Frank saw him and a customer do what for all the world looked like a drug purchase; a patron slipping Rod a tip on the sly so he didn’t have to share it with the other workers. And his fellow workers were very vocal in their feeling that Rod should share his tips; they felt that if they didn’t do all the other work that had to get done, thereby leaving Rod up there alone to schmooze, he wouldn’t get anywhere near as much.
“I shouldn’t have to share any tips. I work hard saving things for them, an doing little things I know they want, and they want me to have the tips, not anyone else. I used to work at the Civic Center serving beer, and the others got mad at me too because I wasn’t sharing the tips.”
“Why were they mad? Were you supposed to?”
“Yeah, but they was my tips.”
“How did they want you to do it?”
“They all pooled the tips and di-videoed them up at the end of the night. They started not helping me, you know, not giving me breaks, or not supplying my station with beer or cups, so’s I’d run dry of beer and the customers would go to the other servers.”
“Why’d they do that?”
“Cause they watched and found out I was taking most of the tips and only pooling a few.”
“So, they caught you and punished you.”
“Yeah. It wasn’t fair. I wound up quittin cause they only paid you minimum, only the tips made it worthwhile.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have cheated.”
“It wasn’t cheatin. Those were my tips.”
“Forget it.” Frank was idly browsing through an Oxford Dictionary that had been tossed. He stopped and read more closely.
“Mephitis: ‘An offensive smell, a stench, a foul odor or gas of decay.’ Fits this place perfectly. The Wasteland, the ‘Dumps’ just got a new name: ‘Mephitis”.
When he was walking past the 55-gallon drum filled with dead batteries later, something caught his eye. Frowning, he picked up the slim black rectangle and turned it over and over in his fingers. He thought it might be a cell phone, but wasn’t sure. “Samsung” was printed across the top.
“I’ll be damned: A Trakfone!” It had a dark screen and a couple of buttons, but no keyboard. Pocketing it, he went back out. Whenever he had a moment to himself, he tried to unlock its mystery.
“How the hell do you work this?” he wondered. “Okay. It doesn’t unfold, not in any direction. How about sliding?” He had tried several different grips, when suddenly the top slid upwards revealing a keyboard. He felt like he’d unlocked the riddle of the pyramids. It seemed to be dead though; no power, maybe busted. After all; it had been thrown out.
Toad and Rod were discussing Hoppin’ John when Frank joined them. John was leaving early on Friday to bring Tina down to Syracuse again for a laser treatment.
“F**k. He shoulda f**kin dumped her as soon as he found out she was goin blind.” Toad squirted snuff juice through his teeth.
“I woulda kicked her out as soon as she lost her job.” Rod sniffed. “Now he’s stuck with her.”
“Yeah. Blind and a Jesus Freak.”
“Oh, you guys are beauts.” Frank said as he passed them.
“You heard me.”
He picked up a book off of the top of the Gaylord. “Dante’s ‘Inferno’. Perfect.” Taking it with him he walked outside. The sky was bleak, the wind bitter. He stared moodily at the iron grey frozen waters of the swamp. Looking down at the book in his hand, he opened it idly at random.
“’This dreary streamlet makes a marsh, that is named Styx, when it has descended to the foot of the grey malignant shores.’” He snorted, gazing out over the sluggish marshy stream. “Perfect. I’m looking at Styx. What are the odds of that?” He closed it and re-opened it. “’This marsh, which breathes the mighty stench, all around begirds the doleful city.’”
“No. I’m not going there. Not again.” Without a backward glance he threw it over his shoulder into the hopper.
“What da frig!” Rod pushed open the door and came outside. “That f**kin Toad!
Ya know what he…Brrrrr. It’s cold out here! Aren’t you cold?”
“Ya know what Toad did? He got Ray to change the schedule and make me work in Genoa for the last week before Christmas! What about my cats? I’m gonna get people to call Barrator and complain.”
“Chase your dreams, baby.”
“If I was as big as you, ya know what I’d do ta him? I’d be Plutus and stuff him in a can like he did to Popeye!”
“Who did you say?”
“Plutus. Ya know. That big guy that always beats up Popeye profusionally.”
“Brutus. His name was Brutus.”
“Whatever. Brrrrrrrr. I can’t stand this. I gotta go in.”
He watched the door close behind Rod.
“Mephitis in winter: Cold, damp, dank, windy. The scientists have got it all wrong. Cold is not experienced merely as the absence of heat. It is itself a force…The winds are in the second circle of hell, aren’t they? Sh*t. Why did I throw that book out? I’ll have to dig out my copy at home. I don’t have the ‘Purgatorio’ anymore though I think. Just The Paradisio and The Inferno”
He pulled his collar up higher.
He thought of one of the first movies he’d found here and brought home.
“ Ang Lee’s ‘Hulk’ was more than just a fun film for me. I was stunned to see that the premise was one of repressed memories. I’m still not used to that idea. I had never even heard of them before I re-lived my ‘father’ strangling me to death.
What did Jennifer Connelly’s character say in the film? ‘Physical injuries are finite. They heal. But emotional traumas live on, and on, and on.’
I know my anger lives on. There is a cave in me where it seethes. All my anger has a root down there. That adrenalin rage that came over me when he broke my nose again that night when I was five… that lives on.
That’s why I cannot see or speak to him: It would loose that Rage and I’d kill him like I tried to do that night fifty-seven years ago…And I would love it.
Those memories will never heal. They will never fade. Ironic. For forty-nine years they were entombed alive as repressed memories. But as soon as they scented the light of day they erupted with all the raw power of when it happened.
But even when I couldn’t remember, had no idea what happened to me, I reacted characteristically to similar situations: Enraged, I would charge, fight,,.and never stop.”
He looked up at the sky. It looked like it might snow.
“So, what do I do now? I mean: Where does this go from here? Anywhere? Or is it all over? I just had the misfortune to remember? Is that it?
Can’t tell. Can’t know. No one knows what his life will bring till the end.
Ask Croesus. He thought he was Cock-Of-The-Walk, the richest man in the world. Solon told him he couldn’t tell yet if Croesus was the happiest of men, because it was too early. Only when one is dead can his or her life be judged. Too many twists and turns.
And doubtless Croesus would agree, because it sure looked like the Delphic Oracle set him up with that amphibolic prophesy that if he attacked he would destroy a great army. Turned out to be his own. Wound up Cyrus’ prisoner. Better than being killed though, and he eventually wound up as Cyrus’ most trusted counselor.
When he complained about what he thought was ill treatment by Apollo, the Oracle’s response was that, while yes it did seem like he was set up, it was necessary to pay the debt his ancestors had incurred.
Karma? Karma: Chronic: Comic. A ‘Divine’ Comedy? No, just a bad joke. Small comfort.”
The last workday before Christmas was very slow day at Mephitis. Slowest Frank had seen yet. A quarter of an hour or more would go by with no cars.
Ray was off, so Toad didn’t assign Frank and the other part-timer, a college kid named Marvin, any work except for loading a semi with cardboard.
Rod had been banished to Genoa: Toad had vindictively succeeded. Unknown to him though, when Rod saw the schedule he told, and even called, “his people” and told them to wait till January to bring in his goodies.
The vote whether or not to join the Teamsters Union had been held that Tuesday. Little Tom and Toad had laughingly filled Frank in on Hoppin’ John’s performance after he had left to do a pull at Genoa.
“Day of the vote, about six o’clock Hoppin’ John stomps into the Union Hall, he don’t say nuthin ta nobody. He stops in his tracks and he explodes! He just f**kin exploded!” Tom was laughing so hard he was choking at the recollection. “He starts cursin, yellin that he don’t want no c**ks*ckin union.”
Tom stopped to cough. Toad finished the story.
”The Union Rep tells him ‘That’s fine, that’s your right; you can vote no.’ John tells him ‘I ain’t voting for no motherf**kin union!’ and the Rep tries ta tell him again it was his right ta vote no, but John won’t hear it. He keeps yellin an cursin he ain’t voting. Then he just turns and stomps on out!”
“So, what was the result? You guys vote to join or not?”
“Oh, yeah. Except for John, it was unanimous.”
Marvin was either not a talker or uneasy around him, so Frank had time to sit in the frigid darkness and think quietly amidst the decay and detritus piled on the dank, cold concrete.
“Where am I? Where am I in this, whatever the hell it is?
Goethe had said the aim is ‘Entsagen’: The renunciation, abdication, release of any claim. Is that what I’m supposed to do? Accept my lot as it is? Stoically accept this? Say ‘YES’ to this?”
He gazed out at the dismal, frozen swamp.
“Bullshit. ‘Das Evige NEIN’, the eternal NO: THAT is my response to a Malevolent Universe; and it’s response to me.
The Center of Indifference is supposed to be at the center of Hell, where I am no longer affected by the malevolent universe. I no longer care if I live or die.
Which is when the 'YES to all the Universe throws at you’ is supposed to come, right?
After my egocentricism is waived. The ego needs to be shown perspective.
You can’t create a new self unless you first are reduced to ashes. It is the dark night of the soul all lonely wanderers must go through.
We think we deserve a certain quantity of happiness.
I am not at the stage of “The Eternal Yes’.
I can’t see how I will ever be.”
He got up stiffly and headed for the breakroom.
“Hey. Marvin.” The young man’s head looked up from his phone. “Be back in a minute.”
He nodded once and his head dropped back down.
Frank walked down the bridge. On the last of the inside trays, he noticed an old issue of Look magazine that someone had dropped off.
He picked it up, curious. It was from 1950. On the cover it claimed to have a new poem inside, called “You” by W.H. Auden. He opened to the page and read through it.
It was delightfully ironic; he tore out the page and took it with him. He read again the stanzas:
“Must I, born for sacred play,
Turn base mechanic so you may
Worship your secular bread
With no sense of the value of time?”
He smiled, thinking how times had changed in this country, if back then poetry in a magazine was considered a draw.
He looked around himself, pulling his wool cap down further over his ears, and wrapping his arms around himself. He thought of so many other Christmas holidays when he’d been alone; either on the road, working…or in the hospital as a boy.
Seemed like he’d always been alone; even in the midst of people.
A car pulled in. Frank motioned to Marvin to relax, that he’d get it. Marvin settled back down, huddling in his coat, both thumbs moving around his phone’s screen.
He recognized this silver SUV; it was always a light load. He waited patiently at the back hatch, staring at the ‘I love my Golden Retriever” stickers.
The rotund middle-aged man, as always expensively, but tastefully attired, came around back. By his recyclables Frank knew the guy was wealthy, in management somewhere. And by his soft, pampered hands and carefully dressed hair, just showing some silver, and slightly effeminate air, Frank guessed the man had always known comfort.
He was polite, but distant; one of Rod’s. Frank silently took care of his things, and as he was turning to leave the man spoke up.
“Oh, here. I almost forgot this stuff up front.” He handed Frank a small plastic grocery bag full of transformers and wires. “Maybe somebody can use them.”
“Merry Christmas.” Frank told him as he clambered into his car.
“Oh.... Thanks.... You too. Merry Christmas.”
Frank looked into the bag as he carried it to the building. He stopped in his tracks and fished the dead Tracfone out of his pocket. He flicked open the charging port with a thumbnail and pulled one of the transformers out. It slid right in.
Frank looked up at the car receding around the bend, and then went looking for an outlet. After leaving it charge for an hour, he slid it open and read the screen.
“I don’t believe it. This says I’ve got 97 minutes of time left.”
He went to find Marvin. “Hey, Marvin. Do me a favor.”
“Sure. What?” the tall, lanky kid asked.
“Give me your cell number. I just found a Tracfone, and it works, but I want to know what its number is. I’ll call your phone and then you can tell me what number shows on your screen as an incoming call.”
“Okay. Got it.”
“Hey, thanks.” Frank wrote it down once Marvin read it off to him.
“Sure.” His head and thumbs went back to the screen.
Frank went outside for some fresh air; even in the cold the air inside was rank. As he stood there in the icy wind suddenly something occurred to him, crystalline in its clarity and power.
“I understand now that I’ve been unconsciously feeling like a victim of circumstance for the first time in my life, not as someone in the middle of a helluva story.
By accepting that who I am is accounted for merely by a random, soulless universe of hereditary, genes, and early childhood: I am reduced to an equation. Add this, add that, take away this, multiply by traumas, and there I am: A victim.
Not someone who brought anything to this life; but a passive victim. Anyone else who goes through that same equation would come out the other end of the equal sign identical to me.
I don’t accept that. I brought ME to my life. My story is MY story, not anyone else’s. And it’s a Goddamn good one!
I’ve been concentrating on how unfair it all seemed. When you’re immersed in the midst of the pain of the journey it’s easy to lose track of your epic, your glory.
It’s only by talking to yourself about what is happening to you, that your story takes form, becomes visible.
Our life is only an adventure when it is told, even if only to ourselves. Every one of us is unique, not the uniform product of a calculation.”
Later, Frank came back from lunch, letting Marvin go. The young man laid down the Playboy on the tray and took off, leaving Frank alone. There were no cars.
Idly, Frank glanced down at the open magazine as he passed, then stopped. He looked quickly around guiltily, and then looked deeply at the image.
It was The Sex in Cinema issue, and there on the page was a photo from a movie entitled "Melancholia" , of a blonde actress lying bare-breasted on the grass in the moonlight near a stream.
He looked around again, feeling like Actaeon having seen Artemis bathing. She was lovely; cool-eyed, and pale as the moonlight.
He wondered why he felt guilty. He was mature enough to know that enjoying the beauty of another woman’s body was not unfaithfulness to his beloved Melissa. And this wasn’t voyeurism; she had posed in that film knowing it was meant to be seen.
Yet, there it was; like he had lifted the veil of Isis.
There was that something that strangely pulled something inside him achingly.
He wondered why.
When Frank pedaled swiftly out into the icy darkness at the end of the day, he passed Marvin closing the entrance gate while his mother waited for him in her car. She always drove him to and from work. He could tell she was startled by his sudden appearance. Looking back, he saw her obviously asking him who that fool was riding off on a bike into the blackness.
As he rode through the darkness he found himself wondering what it would have been like to have parents like Marvin’s, who actually loved and cared for their child…instead of trying to kill him.
Then he began to smile, shrugging it off.
“I got me a cell phone. I can talk to Mel whenever I want now, and she can call me in case she wants to talk or has an emergency.
Feels good, Goddamn it. Step by step I join the 21st century. Next goal; a car.
I already feel blessed, despite myself, that our tax bill is only slightly higher than last year’s and we almost have it all already, and there’s still two more paychecks this month, plus it looks like we might get a $500 Fed refund this year.
Hot damn! “
"While we think we can change the drama of history, and of our own lives, we are not awed by our destiny.
But when the evil is irreparable, when our life is lived, a strong spirit has the sublime resource of standing at bay and of surveying almost from the other world the viscitudes of this."