Tales From Mephitis. Chapter 21: The Awakening Begins
“If one is sick of sickness, then one is not sick. The sage is not sick because he is sick of sickness. Therefore he is not sick.” Tao Te Ching
On June first Anton came back from his leave of absence.
A new part-timer that had been hired for the summer began that day too. Anton and he knew each other from a couple of years ago when he had worked a summer at Mephitis. His name was Gill Massaro, Haji’s younger brother. He was twenty five years, about 5’6”, handsome, with a dark complexion, very white teeth, very dark eyes, and close-cropped dark hair. He sported a few blue tattoos on the insides of his arms. There was a monkey-like air about him with the way his slight body moved. His quick, mocking wit was delivered in a disarming way.
An Iraqis war vet, he had been assigned calling in air strikes over there. The Army tried very hard to entice the soldiers to re-enlist with fat bonuses. But he’d had enough; after his two year hitch was over, he was out.
His girlfriend, whom all agreed was a knockout, worked in Wings Falls Hospital as an MRI tech. They lived in one of the new apartment complexes in the area.
He was living off the $1,500 a month GI Bill housing stipend he got, and going to college for a Criminal Justice degree. All his education was paid for by the Army.
He also bartended at night in a pub in Milan, where he often saw Toad in a condition that could only be described as: Blotto.
The bar was a hangout for the locals and there was little trouble, just a few ‘colorful’ regulars. Like the ninety year old woman who always asked for her “usual” when she first got there.
“You don’t have a usual, Mo.” He’d tell her every night.
“Well…Gimme sumthin different then, smart ass.”
She stayed there all night till closing.
“Buddy! You’re home! My son has come home to his Daddy!” Rodney announced gleefully, spreading his arms wide and coming in for a hug when Anton arrived.
“Get the hell away from me. Don’t touch me. I mean it. And stay out of the breakroom while I’m changing.”
“Didn’t you miss me, son? I’ve turned over a new relief!”
“I can assure you, you are the one person I did not miss at all.”
“Ooooooph! Ya stabbin me buddy! I can feel the knife in my back!”
Anton told Frank later when they were out by the trays “I said to myself that when I came back, I was going to handle Rod differently this time...Having to work with him over all these years from since I was a teen-ager...makes me nauseous just to think of it. There is nobody I’ve ever met who is as bizarre, as sick, as he is.”
“Well, how did you like your time as an intern? How did it feel to be in such a different world?”
“It was great!” His face lit up with enthusiasm, and for the first time that day he seemed alive. “I can’t describe how great it made me feel to be part of something so superior to what I had to come back to here.”
“I’m curious. From what I’m hearing and reading, there seems to be a populist trend developing. It’s been a long time since anything like that has been seen in this country. Did you notice anything like that in the State Assembly?”
“Definitely!” He asserted. “There’s a sense among the politicians that their constituents are fed up and want real change.”
“Interesting. Think they’ll try to short circuit it, or use it?”
“They’re politicians. They’ll use it. But I think a lot of them also honestly feel the people are right.”
Gill and Anton got along well with each other. The way Gill’s rapier wit skewered Rod constantly delighted him. Rodney was defenseless against it and his only response was to threaten Gill with a “Whammy”, or to plaintively whine: “You’re not nice.”
Frank was getting thirty hours a week now steadily, even picking up a few forty-hour weeks too, all of which eased the worries over finances a bit.
Now he wanted to take a step to correct a past mistake and make sure Melissa was not left destitute if he suddenly died.
He began checking into life insurance on himself. He found one through Geico, whose monthly premiums he could easily afford and which would pay out $100,000 to her upon his death.
First, he had to have a physical. Geico arranged to have a nurse come right to his home and administer the tests.
He wound up getting “Preferred” status because he exhibited none of the problem signs like obesity, high blood pressure or cholesterol. Coverage was due to begin at the end of July. Another worry off his mind.
A copper-colored Porter pulled in and a large young woman got out. Ox-jawed, with thick shoulders and a heavy gut, she did not look amiable. Frank reached in the trunk and took a box of newspapers out. He turned and saw her bend over to pick up a box on the front seat. “Super Bitch” was tattooed across the fat pad on the back of her neck in big, deep blue lettering.
“What possesses people to have things like that permanently etched upon themselves?” he wondered.
His mind shot back to another young woman he and Melissa had seen in the parking lot of a convenience store.
She too was bent over, getting something from the back seat and her shirt had ridden up revealing a ‘plumber’s butt’ and the word “Skank” emblazoned in block letters over the crack of her ass. “What does that say about your self-esteem? Do they ever think about what they may think of that in future years?”
Personally, he had never gotten a tattoo because he never wanted to identify himself with whatever message it stated for his whole life. He didn’t believe in anything that strongly that he’d like to proclaim it for an entire life.
But people don’t have to only get tattooed to display their bad taste. He remembered an obese woman in the dentist’s office wearing a T-shirt that had two large peanuts printed over her prominent nipples and the invitation “Rub My Nuts” printed above them.
“How are you today?” a man asked Anton pleasantly as he helped him.
“Fine.” He answered with a testy gloominess. He helped the man wordlessly.
“Thanks for your help. Have a good day.” The man breezily bade him fare well. “See you next week.”
Anton didn’t answer. He walked back inside the building, stripped off his gloves and threw them on the tray. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water.
“It’s so f**king stupid.” He spat vehemently.
“What is?” Frank asked, leaning his forearms on the railing.
“’Have a nice day!’, ‘How are you doing?’ It’s all meaningless. It’s just empty words. They don’t mean any of it. I wonder how many times I’ve had to say those stupid things over these years. Words I don’t mean, words they don’t mean. Words that mean nothing, that are a waste and a fraud.”
“It’s just ‘Social Grease’.”
“It’s what?” he said, turning to look quizzically at Frank.
“’Social Grease.’ Melissa can’t stand it either, like you. It does have a function though, and a meaningful one. But the words are not the meaning.”
“They serve to acknowledge the presence of the other person’s existence, and to both signal their own peaceful intentions and to ascertain your intentions. Ever see two dogs meet? All the tail wagging and careful approach? Not much different.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“Tell me something. I haven’t had a computer since ’96. I know a lot has changed, and if you and Gill don’t mind I’d like to pick your brains as I enter the 21st century.”
“Sure. What do you need to know?”
“How powerful are laptops? Do they have word processing capability?”
“Unless you’re going to play those computer games, a laptop can do anything you’ll need. You have to buy a word processing program if you’re using Microsoft. I’m an Apple man myself, but I think all computers come with Word installed, free for forty five days or so. Then you have to buy it. I think its a hundred and fifty dollars or so.”
“How about storage? They’re not using floppies anymore, right?”
“No. CDs, or you can use a small plug-in module called a ‘thumb drive’ or a ‘jack drive’. They cost only a few bucks and they hold anywhere from two to six or seven gigabytes.”
“Jesus.” Gill said, joining them and looking back over his shoulder. “What an asshole.”
“See that pick-up with cap and the Vermont plates? I went over and asked him if I could give him a hand, and he told me to ‘Stay away from my f**king truck! Don’t touch anything!’”
“Whoa. Touchy, touchy. F**k him. Let him do his own sorting then.” Anton observed.
Rod came in, looking wounded.
“Boy is that guy mean. All I did was reach for something in his truck. I was gonna help. He told me ‘Keep your hands off my truck!’”
The atypical Vermonter was there a long time. Frank saw his truck bed was filled with piles of non-sorted rubbish. He was of that school of customer who felt it was a waste of time to sort recyclables at home; easier to just toss it in the back of your truck and sort it later at the recycling center where they can spend an hour or so blocking traffic.
“Where does this go?” he asked Frank curtly. He was about average height, maybe in his thirties, wearing “earth shoes”. His truck windows were papered with democratic and liberal bumper stickers, the kind of knee-jerk liberalism that Frank detested, as it showed no thought; only parroting.
“We don’t accept that here. That’s a #5 plastic.”
“We don’t take that here.”
“When I lived in Buffalo and Vermont they took it there at our recycling centers.” The fellow challenged.
“This is neither Buffalo nor Vermont. This is Sombrebois County. I’m sorry, but we do not accept it here.”
“What am I supposed to do with it?” he asked in irritation.
Frank resisted the temptation to tell him exactly what he could do with it and merely said “You can either throw it in the garbage as trash or take it back with you.”
The man looked like he was going to retort, but Frank held his eyes and the fellow decided to be quiet.
“By the way, I understand you do not want any help from us in sorting. One of the reasons we help is to keep traffic from jamming up. If you are going to insist on doing this yourself; would you please move your vehicle over there, out of the way of other people who would like to leave?”
“Oh, right. Sorry. Of course. Right away.”
“Hey. Do me a favor, you guys. If someone drops off a working laptop, save it for me will you?” Frank asked the others when he came back inside. Anton and Gill agreed. Rodney stayed silent, he got a “finder’s fee” from one of his people who picked them up from him, made simple repairs and sold them.
“How’s your day goin, Buddy?’ Rod asked him the next day as soon as he left the morning office “circle jerk” and joined Frank out by the trays.
“Good, good.” He said absently.
“That’s nice. Mine’s not.”
“Oh, yeah? Why?”
“My car got totaled by some guy.”
“That’s too bad….”
“I was at the corner of Blake and Roper and I wanted to pull out. There was a car coming with his blinkers on for a right turn, so I looked to the right and pulled out. Bam! He hit the front of my car with his passenger side. He hit me so hard he went about a hundred yards down the road, twisting and turning all over till he wound up in a ditch. Then he gets out and I gets out an I start cursing him out. Then he starts yelling at me, telling me to shut off my car and asking if anyone was hurt! Turns out he’s the Fire Marshall of Wings Falls…I’m gonna get screwed.”
“No my grandson was in his car seat. But he totaled my car.”
“Wait a minute. It sounds like you hit him.”
“Yeah, but he was signaling.”
“But…Never mind. You get ticketed?”
“Yeah! I got two tickets and I’m gonna fight them.”
“Well, who knows what’s good luck; who knows what’s bad luck, huh?” Frank told him. “Aren’t you glad you have that truck now?”
“No. I don’t like driving it, and Della won’t let me drive hers. Says I’m unsafe. And my son’s wife won’t let me drive with my Nathan anymore either cause she says I’m unsafe. When I called Della and told her to come get me, she starts yelling at me, then when I’m cleaning all my stuff out of the trunk and trying to hide it, Della sees all the porno I keep there. Ooooohhh!”
Frank wondered exactly what Della did think of those magazines. He had noticed that the only ones he kept for himself were the hard core ones with a lot of pictures of penises being ‘serviced’.
Out of the 120 cars or so that came in that day, Rod buttonholed the occupants of about a hundred of them to give his version of events. Prefacing each rendition, he posted himself in front of his victim, looking hang-dog and pathetic.
“How’s your day going?...That’s nice. Mine’s not.”
Frank found the way he twisted and invented ‘facts’ breath-taking. It’s a profitable experience to watch the process by which a pathological liar evolves a self-serving creation. He spent ten years married to one before he met Melissa. By the end of the day Rod was the innocent victim of a treacherous crooked local politician, “who probably was talking on his cell phone, actually, yes he was, he was talking on his cell phone, and he wasn’t signaling a turn, also; he tried to speed away from the scene of the accident.”
Rodney stood there like a little boy, soaking up the sympathy of the old ladies who cooed over him, asking if he was really alright; shouldn’t he go to the hospital for a check up? The males all saw deep, suspicious plots at work by the government and agreed with him that he was going to get screwed by the system. A local ambulance chaser, who Rod had been cultivating just in case he ever needed an attorney, offered his services; at the standard fee of course.
“Oooooh. He told me he can probably get it reduced to a non-moving violation. But it’s gonna cost me five hundred dollars, maybe more!”
“That’s too bad.”
“Hi. How’s your day goin?..That’s nice. Mine’s not. A guy totaled my car illegally…”
“You f**kin T-boned him!!” Hoppin’ John’s voice bellowed out across the trays.
“What the f**k you telling people, Rod?!”
Frank got sent out twice with Little Tom to train on the “White Truck Run” that month. The simple routine began right after Tom got his orders from Ray at 6:40. He called each of the other stations to see what they had for him to pick up and what they needed by way of supplies; gloves, bottled water, plastic bags, cups, etc.
“Hoppin’ John used the truck last. See how he raises the seat so his head brushes the roof? Makes him look taller.” Tom giggled.
Frank didn’t get any pointers from Tom other than that he preferred to wait for 1900 rpms before he shifted. He gossiped non-stop, laughing the whole time.
He went out once on the White Truck run with John, who actually gave him a few pointers. Hoppin’ took his work seriously; he dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s.
“You can start in second gear; you don’t have to be in first with this truck.”
“Don’t take route 58; the truck’s too high for the bridge outside Venice, you’ll get stuck or strip off the roof.”
“The road’s chewed more on the right on this strip. Ya gotta stay more to the left.”
“When you fill out the intra-station transfer sheet ya gotta put in the weights. A Barrel of glass deposit bottles is eighty pounds, aluminum cans are twenty pounds, a bag of plastic deposit bottles is ten pounds, and a bag of deposit cans is ten.”
After the County’s annual DPW meeting at Augustine Park, Ray had Frank and Little Tom drive over with the White Truck to pick up some folding chairs and bring them back to the County Center.
When they got there, Ray told Frank to back the truck up a steep, grass-covered hill to the pavilion where the chairs were.
Puzzled, he looked at Tom, who shrugged, raising his eyebrows. There was a nice, level, asphalt road that ran up to the building on the other side.
Frank examined the route up as he got the truck in position. Not only was it up a steep, slippery turf, but he’d have to maneuver backwards in and out between a half dozen large pines, and at the top he’d have to squeeze between a pine tree and the roof of the pavilion.
“Either this is a test, or he figures he’s going to humiliate me, or he’s dumber than a box of rocks.”
He succeeded; having only a little trouble at first with the tires spinning on the wet grass.
That was the extent of the road training he got. The rest of the month he made do with practicing at Mephitis whenever he could get away. Anton was very cooperative about that because it gave him a chance to hang out alone with Gill. The two got along very well, being the same age and with similar interests.
Frank set up his Road Test for the earliest date available, in the beginning of August, and then informed Ray. He got his assurance he’d have a truck and driver available for that day and time.
One Saturday he took some more time to practice backing up to the docks and parallel parking. It occurred to him that he had no idea where the registration for the truck was. That was something he might be asked for on the Road Test.
While rummaging blindly for it in an overhead compartment in the cab, he felt a packet way in the back and pulled it out. It was a six inch by eleven-inch catalog of hard core gay porn; really hard core gay porn. It disturbed him, not just because gay porn repulsed him (male gay porn repulsed him; like most heteros, female gay porn didn’t at all), but because it reminded him of his first impression about a year ago that there was some sort of a hidden gay sub-culture there at Mephitis. He had forgotten about it, having dismissed the idea as an erroneous explanation for what he noticed.
But apparently there was something unhealthy and unsavory going on at Mephitis hidden from sight. Whose was this catalog? There were only two, maybe three drivers who drove the White Truck. It had to be one of them. Whoever it was, was “in the closet”, in this day and age. He wondered what it must be like to have to masquerade as something you know you’re not for an entire lifetime. It had to be warping.
Rod was planning on taking almost all of July off and wanted to find homes for all the feral cats’ kittens before then. He had convinced himself that Stan could not be trusted to feed them.
Not that it made any difference to Rod, but it was not true at all; Stan Jones took good care of all the cats. He liked their company so he made sure they had food and water. And he left the door to his office shed open a crack in the winter so they could stay warm. It always irritated him when Rod would go into his office and move stuff around.
He was the only man working in the composting facility. Very few other people would go there: It stunk too badly. Especially when the waste treatment plant’s sludge trucks and the septic tank trucks, like the one that advertised on its side that it contained “Yesterday’s Meals on Wheels”, pumped out their rank contents to be mixed with shredded wood and composted.
“The judge said he’d pay ta have them spayeded and neutered. They’re just babies. They should have homes. They shouldn’t have ta live outside.” He had attached himself to Judy; she of the inbred-looking children.
“He will, huh?” She asked, looking up from her hunched position over a box of cans she was sorting onto the trays. Her sharp eyes narrowed. “Okay. I’ll take a couple. Where are they?”
“They’re at the other end of the station where they do the compost. We can trap them in the office there.”
“Alright. You let me know when you got them and I’ll bring a pet cage.”
“That’s nice. I’ll show you where it is.” He turned to Frank. “I’m gonna just go show Judy where the office is. It’ll just take a minute.”
“Right.” Frank knew damn well he’d be gone for an hour. And he was. Not that he minded. It always felt better, cleaner somehow, when he was gone. “Cleaner. Now there’s an odd thing to say in a dumps.”
The next Saturday morning Rod came into the office excited as a schoolboy. He’d stopped off at Stan’s office on his way in after opening the exit gates and found all the kittens inside. He’d shut the door, trapping them.
“I gotta call Judy!”
“Rod. It’s 6:30 in the morning. Maybe you should wait awhile.” Frank cautioned, wondering what could she have been thinking to have given him her phone number.
“Oh, no! She said ta call when I had them.” He pulled out his cell phone and wandered off to call. Frank watched him in the distance. All of a sudden Rod lurched to the side away from his phone, almost throwing it away. Frank smiled.
“Ooooooh! Was she mad! She called me all kinda names! Said she just got ta bed at 3:45!”
“Who you going to call next?”
“The judge. I’ll let him know he’s gonna have to pay for some spayededing and neutering.”
“This boy don’t learn too fast.”
A little while later he came back, indignant as an insulted debutante. “I got the judge’s wife. Boy is she a bitch! She yelled at me and wanted to know how I got their number. Also: She didn’t know the judge said he’d pay for all that. Ooooooh! I think I got the him in trouble!”
Judy showed up around nine with her pet carrier.
“I’ll be back in a little while, buddy.”
“Stan was really pissed off at you.” Anton demanded of him on Tuesday. “He found you and that woman and her three kids crashing around in his office. What the f**k were you doing?”
“I was tryin ta catch the kittens…”
“He doesn’t want you in his office at all. If you go in there again he’s going to take it up with Ray. Stay out of his office, Rod.”
“How about if I stay out, but let Judy go in?”
“But we gotta get the cats, they got away!”
“Forget the stupid cats!”
“How about if I go in alone?”
“NO! Stay out of his office!”
“How about if I lean in the door, but I don’t step inside?”
“Can her kids go in?”
“Are you f**king deaf!? Stay out of his office!”
“How am I gonna feed the cats?”
“Stan feeds the cats.”
“I don’t think he’s doin it right. Can I go in to just feed the cats?”
“How about if one of her kids goes in and we all wait outside?”
“Goddamn it! NO!!!”
The phone rang, and he absently picked it up, still muttering to himself.
“Florence Transfer Station. Anton.”
He listened quietly for a minute.
“Where are you?...Ma’am, I have no idea where you are. How am I supposed to know where you are? Don’t you know where you are? No?… I’m sorry, but I don’t know where you are, so how can I know the name of the road you’re on?…Yes; I know where I am….Yes, I know where the Florence Transfer Station is. It’s right here where I am…Listen; do you see any road signs?...What? A lot of fields?...No, look for a sign…Okay, that’s good. You have to turn around and drive about a mile. We’re on the left hand side of the road you are on. Yes; you passed us…That’s alright. You’re welcome.”
He hung up the phone shaking his head.
A rattling car showed up after a few minutes.
“Wow! I thought I’d never find the joint!”
The driver was a young woman, not bad looking, with disheveled purple hair and wild eyes. She half fell out of the car in her enthusiasm. She straightened up, smoothing her hair, and assumed an elegant posture.
“Thank you for telling me where I was! We was driving around forever! I thought I was lost!...” She abruptly wheeled and addressed the young male in leather on the passenger side in a high pitched scream. “Shut the f**k up! Didn’t I tell ya you was all f**ked up!?”
“How much will it cost to get rid of these televisions?” she suddenly asked Anton and Frank mercurially sweetly, smiling gently.
Then: “I told you to shut the f**k up! When I wanna hear sumthin I’ll ask for it!” She swung a backhanded left at him awkwardly but with feeling.
“There’s no charge for televisions under twenty-six inches.”
“Oh! Cool! I don’t know what happened, maybe solar flares, I don’t know, but all my TVs sh*t the fritz at the same time and the trailer park landlord told me he wants them off the porch.”
“We’ll take care of them. Have a good day.”
“Thanks so much.... Shut…the…f**k…up!” With each word she punched down into the car. She jumped in and slammed the door, still shrilly cursing as she put the car in gear, screeching off down the exit road.