Tales From Mephitis. Chapter 3: The Gorge of Morbio Inferiore
“Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
Though much is taken, much abides,
And though we are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and Heaven,
That which we are, we are.
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and Fate, but strong in Will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
The alarm went off at 3:45 a.m. Neither of them had slept well. His back was killing him from cutting wood and turning over the potato field with a shovel; the Troybilt rototiller had died five years ago too. It was spasming with every step. Mechanically, he went downstairs and started the coffee before pulling on some work clothes. Melissa made a lunch for him. He had splurged and bought a jar of peanut butter on his way back from the drug test.
“I can’t believe you’re going to do this. Look outside: It’s pitch-black.” she told him anxiously.
“It’ll be lighter soon. And it’s only the end of May; it’ll be getting lighter and lighter earlier as time goes on.”
“Yeah. Then it’ll be getting darker and darker earlier as time goes on.”
“What choice do we have?”
“I can’t believe no one told you until it was too late that you were supposed to start yesterday.”
“I know. Makes you wonder how the place is run. The guy that called me said he figured that the boss would forget to call. And he was right.”
At 5:00 he stepped out the door. It was just becoming lighter; he could make out the road now. He found his way to the barn and flicked on the lights. Fastening his battered old daypack containing his lunch and some water onto the platform he had fastened behind the seat, he took a deep breath.
He waved goodbye to Melissa as he pedaled up the driveway to the road. A quick glance around, and he was off down the hill. He was still rusty with the gears; the last time he’d done any real riding was over twenty years ago. He had test ridden the bike twice. Once down to the convenience store a couple of miles away and back, and once the twenty miles or so to WingsFallsHospital to apply for a job and then back.
As he picked up speed he concentrated on the road ahead, looking for obstacles, barely trusting the ancient ten speed bike to hold his two hundred and forty pounds. The wind roared in his ears and he felt a rush of excitement at the careening downhill flight.
He made a mental note to remember how cold forty five degrees feels at thirty five miles per hour: A short sleeve shirt was not enough. His speed leveled out when he got to the flat area between hills, then for the first time he had to begin to pump as he climbed the next hill. His thighs were burning before long.
“I gotta get in shape. I haven’t done this in God knows how long. I stopped running fifteen years ago because I got tired of these damn hills out here.
No choice now. Gotta get in shape. This is my last push. I don’t have much left in me anymore, not like the ‘old days’. Gotta harden more. Gotta harden more.”
He walked the bike the worst of the hill up to the top, took a long look at the valley below the slice of a moon, and remounted. He figured he must have hit at least fifty miles an hour going down that hill. The turn onto the highway at the bottom had to be fast enough to give him momentum for the next hill, but yet keep from going out into traffic until he saw what was what.
He crossed over as soon as possible by the run-down Auto Body shop, from where it was another downhill fly into South Gotham, then another short, tough, hill up to the corner of the State Highway. He was beginning to sweat; he could feel his shirt sticking to his back.
He could coast down past the ancient, banal Fish and Game club, but it was a hazardous section as the road’s shoulders were narrow and weed-choked here and he had to keep alert for vehicles coming up behind him.It was a fairly easy pedal up to the hill just before the golf course. He dismounted half-way up and walked it, panting. There were only a few pick-up trucks on the road now and again at this point.
The air was thick with the fragrance of the mown hayfields. Some were winnowed, others already baled into huge rolls. The sky was soft with a faint pink haze.
Time and again the heady fragrance of the wild roses in bloom enveloped him as he passed their impenetrable hedges. Near the marshes the Dogwoods were flowering, their flat heads of dozens of little florets a promise of fatty berries for migrating birds this autumn.
His pride galled him to be seen walking rather than riding up any hills, and he grimly kept pushing himself to keep going until there were no cars around; then he’d dismount and walk, panting, panting. Before he mounted and set off, he scanned behind him to see who was coming and how far they were away.
The ride down the steep hill past the golf course was fast. Before the next hill he had to start pedaling again, his knees screaming, and this next hill was a repeat of the previous one.
He kept a close eye out for dogs. On his test ride in he hadn’t seen any, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any.
Funny thing about dog ownership: He had noticed it was not only fad-driven but also an economic indicator. With the “Great Recession” came a solid drop in the amount of people who kept big dogs: Small dogs were now in the fore.
Except for that Saint Bernard he now found lived on this route. He heard him as he pedaled past as it cut loose with a frenzied deep baying.
“Oh, great. ‘Cujo’ lives again.”
At the top of the next hill, he once again scanned behind him before taking off. The shoulder was narrow here again, and the tarmac rough.
Now there was a flat stretch past houses and the deserted Gospel church on the other side. Then it was around the bend to where the road climbed gradually for a stretch. The next steep hill was fast and dangerous; there was a curve at the bottom, the road was broken up, and now there were more cars; the SUV commute to Syracuse was beginning.
Then it was up two short hills, the “Snake Hills”, he had to get off and walk the top half of each. At the top of the second, he reached the crossroads of ‘Evetown’. From here on out there was much more traffic, but the shoulders were pretty wide, and it was downhill for about a whole mile.
As he pedaled, taking a deep breath in relief that the worst was behind him, his nose wrinkled in appalled disgust.
“Oh, Jesus!” The fragrance of the early morning was gone; the smell of decay, rotting flesh, and sewage had overpowered it. “How many years have I driven past here and never noticed that stink before?”
He was coasting effortlessly now, still not quite believing this skinny old bike was going to hold up under his weight. He tried to have a little faith and just concentrate on not being hit and not hitting any of the debris on the shoulder.
As he sailed past “The Great White Cowboy Church of the North”, he took in the marquis sign’s warning with a sardonic smile:
“America is Ground Zero! Marriage is one man one woman! Repent! ”
He had to pedal again now at the old “Firefly Fields” which had been filled with pre-crash spec houses, some of which had finally sold.
Then it was across the bridge over the creek. The shoulders were very narrow there, and it was hard to see anyone coming in front or behind. The stench had grown as he had come closer, and now it was almost overpowering.
No one was there when he arrived drenched with sweat; the entrance gate was locked. He had no watch, so had no idea what time it was. He pedaled down to the exit gate and found that there was room between a gate post and a cement stanchion for him to just squeeze past.
He walked the bike up the steep, eroded tarmac hill, past the sodden heaps of paper to the office.
“Now what? There’s no goddamned place to sit.”
The air stunk incredibly badly. He leaned the bike against the building, undid his backpack and took a swig of water. The sun was beginning to rise over the swamp next door, infusing the mist with a beautiful rose hue in jarring juxtaposition to the rank odor.
“’Abandon all hope ye who enter here.’ ‘Through me is the way into the woeful city, Through me is the way into eternal woe, Through me is the way among the Lost People’... No. I gotta stop thinking like that.... What the hell did Virgil tell him? Something about ’putting aside all divisions of spirit and gathering your soul against cowardice.’... Yeah. Right.”
He looked around him.
“Nope. No Virgil... I’ve gotta stop this crap. I gotta stop thinking I’m Parzival, like there is some sort of meaning to everything that’s happened to me over these six years. What I am, is as stupid and delusional as Don Quixote was.”
He reminded himself again too, that he had to keep a steel lock on himself; not get drawn into internecine squabbles, not let anyone get under his skin. He’d had too much trouble in the past anywhere he worked with both coworkers and bosses.
That was one of the reasons self-employment suited him so well; he could be alone most of the time.
Some time later, an SUV pulled in at the entrance gate. Anton, dressed in Khaki shorts and a clean white T-shirt, got out and opened the gate wide, then drove up to the office.
A green minivan pulled in behind him. The occupant had a hard time getting his massive girth out of the seat. The car seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at the loss of its burden as it groaned back to level.
Fat-faced, with an ox-like jaw grinning below piggy blue eyes that Frank sensed could go malicious in a twinkling, he rolled from side to side on spindly legs as he walked to the door, looking like a beach ball on two sticks. Frank guessed he’d go about four hundred pounds on an average height frame: All fat. His heavy hands looked like they’d seen much work though.
The ‘boss’, Anton, said nothing, just went on in with a morose, impassive face. Neither one even glanced at Frank.
“I’m still invisible.”
A bright red Ford Escort pulled up, colorful bead necklaces swinging from the rearview like on a high school girl’s first car. The long-nosed, scruffy old man stepped out glumly, locked his car with a beep from a button on his keychain, and went inside carrying a MacDonalds’ bag.
Frank leaned his bike against the building and followed them in. No one said a word. One at a time they each punched some numbers into the wall mounted time-clock called "Kronos" as soon as it read 6:27, and then laid their forefinger on a sensor. The sound of beeps assured that the system had accepted them and they were punched in.
He stood, watching and waiting. Still no one said a word to him, or even looked at him. The long-nosed one went through the “employees only” door, Anton went into the breakroom, and the beachball waddled into the office and dropped himself with a grunt onto one of the beat-up couches, and began noisily slurping a coffee through the hole in the lid.
Frank found this behavior incomprehensible. When he was a foreman, the beginning of a shift was always fast, furious and all business, but there was no way he or any other foreman would have let a new hire just stand there without getting him or her oriented and assigned a trainer.
These guys seemed to be strangely not ‘at work’; it was more like doing time. He heard a series of loud metallic bangs, like something heavy being dropped about ten times.
The big-nosed fellow returned and picked up a plastic cup of iced coffee and leaned his elbow on the window sill until ‘the boss’, who had changed into jeans and a uniform shirt, came out of the breakroom, then he and the beachball followed him wordlessly out through a door.
Frank stared after them silently, then shrugged and went out too. They filed along the catwalk to a concrete driveway that went the length of the building. Here the stench was, if possible, even stronger. It emanated from a pyramidal-shaped hopper behind waist high cement walls which was over half-full of trash bags and loose garbage. Still no one spoke.
He looked around. Up against a tall chain link fence that overlooked the pit below, was what seemed to be a grotesque parody of a living room.
There were two battered padded office chairs of different colors and styles on either side of a dirty coffee table on top of which sat a stereo and speakers. A pink princess phone hung off the fence. There was an old “dorm room” refrigerator on a rickety yellow table, and two filthy easy chairs. A battered lamp next to the stereo completed the homey atmosphere, as did the absolutely gargantuan pair of pink bikini panties strung across the fence.
If one sat in one of the chairs, he faced a concrete walkway that led to a doorway to the outside with a window that was opaque with grime twenty feet away.
To the right of the walkway was the garbage hopper, to the left was a chainlink fence overlooking a bay full of plastic bottles.
Outside, to the right of the door was a waist high concrete wall, providing the public’s access to the hopper.
“This is bullshit. If no one’s going to do anything, I’d better.” Frank thought.
He walked up to the boss and introduced himself, then did the same to each of the others.
The big-nosed one was Rodney Minos, and the beachball was Tim MacGruber, who was also a part-timer and usually worked in the Genoa station.
Anton, the ‘boss’ still gave him no overview or directions. Once he got them started talking, they were all friendly enough and seemed relieved and put at their ease by his initiative.
It was lucky he had brought a pair of gloves, because Anton told him there was no way to issue him a pair today as they were all locked up for the weekend, and no one there had a key except for Ray and someone called Tom.
“No one has a key to the supply closet? I don’t believe this.”
“Okay, so...what do you want me to do?” He asked.
“Stay with Rod... Rod; you show him what to do; even if you don’t know yourself.”
“I know you think I’m uncapable of doing it, but I’m not.” Rod replied with a goofy grin.
Frank looked at him in amazement. “What did he just say?”
‘The boss’ just left.
It was easy to see that Rod was treated with complete disdain and contempt by Anton, which bizarrely, he seemed to enjoy. As soon as Anton spoke to him derisively, he actually lit up; transformed from the sullen demeanor Frank had only seen him wear so far.
Later Frank would see that the more the abuse was piled on Rod, the more he glowed. Tilting his head back and spreading his mouth wide in a rubbery grin that revealed no upper teeth, he looked like the goofy little vulture “Killer” from the old cartoon, “Bugs Bunny gets the Boid”.
Everything about him seemed to be slumping downwards like soft wax: his shoulders, nose, and shallow chest, even his legs bowed out and his ankles looked collapsed. His eyes were an unusual, washed-out light yellow-green. His skin had that unhealthy, slack, tallow-like quality which is somehow disquietingly repulsive because it was indicative of decadence. He often had food remnants stuck to his whiskers and the occasional booger hanging from his beak
In this newly revealed persona he cheerfully showed Frank what went on what tray and into what barrel. It turned out he liked to talk and now that he had a chance, a reason, and a captive audience; he was effusive.
There were nine trays he told him, each for a different type of plastic or paper. Each had a sign above it denoting what that tray was for. Corresponding to each of the outside trays, there were ones inside the building as well.
The engineers who designed the facility in the ‘90’s wanted to allow cars to drive into the building to recycle their trash during inclement weather, so at each end of the building were huge overhead doors leading into and out of the building. A cement lane just large enough for a car or small truck went the length of the building on each side. The idea never worked well; it was too easy for the traffic to get bottled up, to the irritation of the patrons.
As they walked down the line he pointed out each one of the trays. All the glass went into one hopper, tin cans went into another; clear #1 plastic, colored #2 plastic, neutral #2 plastic, cardboard, boxboard, newspapers, and magazines, each had their tray.
There were also six barrels for the different types of deposit beverage containers, and aluminum foil and non-deposit cans. Frank was told that he had to constantly police all the trays, making sure the right things were on the right trays. A tray that had the wrong items mixed in with what really belonged there was called “contaminated”.
When a tray was full, he was to lift it up, letting the contents slide down into the bunker below. There was also two barrels for unwieldy pieces of scrap metal. When these were full, the contents were dumped into the bucket of a skidsteer and deposited in the “Metals” roll-off. There were three lanes painted on the tarmac paralleling the trays for the cars as they pulled in.
But the main thing, Frank was told, was to check to see that the customers had the right number of stickers for the trash before they threw their garbage bags in. Rod said the Board of Supervisors was breathing down their neck, saying they weren’t reporting the right number of stickers.
For a lawn and leaf size bag it was two stickers, for one half that size; one sticker. The stickers were purchased either at the county building for $2.25 each, or at several local stores with a bit off a mark-up.
Serving as a desk was an overturned barrel with a clipboard on it, on which he was to add the stickers he took to a running total. Next to it on the barrel top was a kitty litter container for household batteries. It was simple, menial, and disgusting
When the first customer drove in, he went out to meet the truck. As it pulled up, the bristling heads of three German Shepards lunged out the window for him. Instinctively, his fists flew up, but he caught himself before he launched a punch. The dog he was aiming at flinched and jerked back.
“Anton around?” The bald, tattooed, wiry little man asked pleasantly. “I wouldn’t go near those dogs if I were you: They’re trained security dogs.”
“Thanks. I’ll remember that. He’s inside.” He looked at the dogs staring at him intently. “I don’t believe this.” “Morning, ‘Cerberus’.”
About an hour after opening, a green pickup with a cap pulled in. He went out to meet it and stood waiting for the driver to get out.
“Oh no. Great. Now it begins: Humiliation time.” He thought when he saw who it was. “Hey, Jeff...How ya doing?” The man was a beekeeper who used to set up alongside him at the Farmers’ Market in Wings Falls for years. “Won’t take long for the word to get out now.”
“Huh!...Hi, Frank...What are you doing here?” The man asked, grinning. He was about seventy, an old, stove-up, sour Scotsman. His Schadenfreude would get a real kick of seeing him here.
“I just got hired part-time.”
“Huh... Just in time to get laid off.”
“Huh. Didn’t you know? The Supervisors have been trying to shut these places down for years, and it looks like this year they’re going to do it.”
Frank changed the subject, asking how his bees made it through the winter. They compared notes on how their hives had done. Jeff didn’t ask him anything about him or Melissa.
As soon as he left, Frank approached Anton and asked him what the story was. He concurred that the Supervisors had been trying to shut these places down.
“A lot of the Supervisors think the county shouldn’t be doing this, that it’s government interference in free enterprise.”
“Nope. Fass’s said that ‘If it’s in the Yellow Pages; the government shouldn’t be doing it.’”
“Who the hell is ‘Fass’?’
“Hal Fass. GothamTown Supervisor. He’s on the Board.”
“What the hell does he care?”
“Because he’s ‘Tea Party’, and some sort of minister or something.”
“So it’s ideological? He wants to shut down these recycling centers because it doesn’t fit his beliefs? Do all the Supervisors feel that way?”
“No, it’s about fifty fifty. Fass and the others think we’re depriving private enterprise trash business.”
“Are these places?”
“We have about twenty seven percent of the waste business in the county. The private haulers are drooling to get it.”
“The ‘Tea Party’: Twenty to one not one of them knows the real reason behind the Boston Tea Party. It wasn’t a protest about a tax on tea; it was Colonial tea businessmen pissed off England was offering less expensive tea to the colonies than they were selling. This 'Tea Party': A bunch of poorly educated, idealistic, paranoids led cynically by the richest of the rich. They’re being used again. I can’t stand zealots; those who are willing to sacrifice real people for an abstraction.” He thought as he slung bags.
His impression of these men he was working with was that they were harmless; but dull, dull, dull.
The first time at any new job, one has to be alert and size up who you’re working with, because that’s just what they’re doing to you. There’s always a pecking order, and newcomers are tested early and assigned their place. The initial impression you give over the first few days or weeks is hard to alter.
He was used to this; it had always been this way. He strove to maintain a reserve, to keep a distance, and he demanded to be treated with the same respect he’d show the others.
“Tim from Genoa” approached him during a lull in traffic around nine a.m...
“You like to fish?” He asked him with a strange gleam once he got close.
Frank was alerted by his strange intensity and answered truthfully, hoping to short-circuit any conversation. “No.”
That seemed to disappoint him only momentarily, and it didn’t stop him. He informed Frank he did; he loved to fish, lived to fish. But only Trout; not Bass.
“Bass are stupid. Yessir. Bass are yer stupid fish. Anyone can catch Bass. Know what I’m tryin ta say? Now, yer trout...That’s a smart fish. Yessir. I been fishin for trout since I was a tyke...Been on T.V. too.”
“Oh, yeah?” He felt obligated to say something, if he had no choice but to listen.
“Yessir. Roger Mudd was in Genoa for a story or sumpthin, and someone told him about the big Brookie I caught. Yessir. Had me on the news.”
Thus self-encouraged, he launched into a detailed, extended description of his self-proclaimed legendary fishing prowess.
The only time he stopped, and it was only momentary, was when the next car came in and Frank excused himself to go deal with it. But Tim was right on his heels as Frank hauled the bags of garbage to the hopper and sorted the recyclables for the lady.
Tim didn’t help him with the customers, he just followed him as he worked, talking all the while about his exploits outfoxing trout and showing up other so-called ‘trout fishermen’.
“Yessir. Hate Herons. Ya know what I’m tryin ta say? Eat all the trout, the bastards. Hate em.”
“Why don’t you eat them then?”
“Romans considered them a delicacy.”
“I work three nights a week, midnight ta six in the mornin in Manning cleaning three buildings. Yessir. Work as a ‘contractor’ for a woman who runs a cleaning firm. Ya know what I’m tryin ta say?”
Within the hour he realized that “Tim from Genoa” had a ‘quirk’. After telling an anecdote once or twice, that strange gleam appeared and he compulsively repeated the same story over and over.
By the end of the day, Frank thought he’d have to kill “Tim from Genoa” if he heard one more time about the Corvette his son bought on-line in Tampa, or another word about trout.
He began praying for cars to come in so he could get away from him. Made for a long day. He got a break from Tim when Anton came out asked him to go run the garbage baler.
“Sure thing, Boss.” he confidently replied with a knowing, self-satisfied smile, as if to say “I hear you... You’re choosing me because I’m the best there is.”
Rod smirked and picked up a sixteen foot 2x4, and lowered one end down onto the garbage pile.
“When someone runs the baler, we have to poke it down with this...” he indicated the long pole “Because it plugs up and the bags don’t slide down right because it was made wrong.”
While Frank pondered that one, Tim casually ambled downstairs and fired up the baler.
A horrendous whining filled the air. Anton stared down through a gap in the chain fence alongside the hopper at “the best there is” like a hawk. Frank wondered at his concentration as much as at Rod’s smirk. Suddenly Anton began to scream at him at the top of his lungs over the hideous wail of the baler.
“No! Tim! Leave the strapper on AUTO!...Tim! No!”
Tim looked up at him, confidently smiled and nodded, and went right on doing it the way he was.
Frank went over and stood beside Anton, curious at what was going on down there. He saw Tim standing at a filthy console with one meaty hand wrapped around a joystick, while with his other, he repeatedly jabbed a sausage-like finger on a button, all the while staring off to his left.
Frank leaned over further and saw a disgusting looking block of compressed, dripping garbage extruding like a shit from the machine and disintegrating onto the floor.
“NO!! TIM!! LEAVE THE STRAPPER ON AUTO!!”
Rod’s smirk grew and he came over to stand next to him.
“I don’t like running that. I don’t know how to. I always screw it up. Anton hates that.” He indicated Tim with his receding chin. “He screws it up all the time too.” He went back over to the end of the hopper and jammed the long 2x4 down onto the mess of bags here and there with great gusto.
Frank could see eventually that at the bottom of the hopper there was a rectangular chamber about six feet long and about four wide.
By the way the piles of garbage pulsed, he gathered that a ram was going back and forth slowly. After each push forward it retracted, leaving room for more trash to fall into the chamber; or to get prodded in by Rod. After what seemed an eternity, the hopper was empty of garbage.
Rod then pushed a button mounted on a wall and an overhead door rose up exposing “The Pad”, a roof covered cement slab where bulky, over-size items were dropped off. They were added in after the hopper was empty, so as to make it less likely that it would hopelessly jam up.
Rod indicated to Frank to go out there and start throwing the stuff in. Rod told him to watch him, that he’d tell Frank what to feed in and when to.
One by one Frank pushed under the guard rail and into the hopper several couches and easy chairs. The unseen ram below chewed them up with a horrific crunching. There were several mattresses piled up, and Rod indicated which ones to throw in.
“Not that one!” he yelled over the din. “Too big! It’ll jam! Those two! Not that one!”
When it was all in Frank went back over to watch Tim with Anton through the fence, who was waiting to catch his eye.
“TIM!!” he bellowed.
He looked up placidly at Anton, who slashed his finger across his throat. Tim nodded and shut down the baler.
Frank heard an engine start up and walked over to the short wall topped with the chain link fence overlooking the floor two stories below. One of those squat-looking forklifts with Tim filling the cab drove into the cave below and scooped up a bale of garbage and carried it off.
Frank watched as he drove it, dropping a trail of crap all the way, into the roll-off. He could see the bale being lifted higher and higher, and then watched as Tim struggled to scrape it off the forks onto the pile of the other ones. He seemed to be having trouble.
Frank asked Anton if the baler was as difficult to run as Rod said.
“Tim is used to Genoa’s. It runs different from this one. Rod just screws everything up.”
“Hey, how do you work lunches around here?” It seemed unsavory to even bring up eating after watching and smelling that baling procedure, but it was 11:30 and he was hungry.
“Take it whenever you want. We take turns. It’s supposed to be thirty minutes, but we stretch it to forty sometimes, and Rod always tries to take an hour.”
“Yeah, right!” Rod interjected. “I do not!”
“Well, in that case, if it’s alright with you, I’ll take mine now then.”
Frank sat down in the break-room gratefully, and was just tucking into his peanut butter and jelly sandwich when Tim showed up and shoved a plastic container of some kind of goulash into the microwave. Inwardly Frank sighed; he just wanted to be alone even for a little while. This was the first time he’d had peanut butter in over two years. Then Rod appeared too and hovered by the window watching him as they ate.
“Who the hell is minding the store? I thought we were supposed to take turns?”
Between and during mouthfuls Tim started talking politics. He surprised Frank by taking a populist stance; blaming the country’s current woes on the greed of bankers and the “Rich”. When he announced that JFK had been the victim of a conspiracy, Frank nodded his head in agreement with him.
“Thank you.” Tim replied, smugly satisfied as if vindicated, as he knew he had to be, because he had the truth by the forelock. He had the appalling habit of constantly emitting little farts as he ate, which did not contribute to the enjoyment of Frank’s food.
When Anton took his lunch, Rod took his turn cornering Frank. He realized Rod had decided to make an ally of him.
“Watch what you say around Little Tommy, he’s a snitch.”
“What do you mean?” “Who the hell was ‘Tommy’?”
“He’s a snitch. Everything you say around him gets back to Ray.”
“I never say anything I wouldn’t tell someone to their face: Period.”
“That’s nice. Yeah, well, that’s fine but Duck Dodgers don’t like me. He wants to fire me.”
“Ray. Ray Dodgers. I just call him Duck Dodgers. Y’know, like ‘Duck Dodgers in the 23 ½ century!’ ...Remember that Daffy Duck cartoon?”
“Yeah. So why does he want to fire you?”
“Cause I told the supervisors what was wrong here at a Board meeting. I got on TV and everything. I told them they should come see for themselves. I used to work in the warehouse at Syco for thirty years. I know how a warehouse should be run. My boss, well, one of them, used to let me run it all cause I was so good at it.”
“What do you mean you ‘told the supervisors’?”
“I mean: Why would Ray be mad at you for telling them that?”
“Cause I told them he wasn’t doing his job.” he laughed leaning his head back. “I got called in the office with him and Paul from Personnel. When I was at Syco I got writ up more than anybody else ever.” He proudly noted. He looked around carefully. ”Don’t tell anyone...I recorded it. I got it on this little recorder I got, fits in your pocket and if he tries to fire me I’ll get the people to write more letters about how good I am.”
“I almost got fired cause people wrote letters to Dane sayin how good I was...”
“Wait a minute. Who’s ‘Dane’?”
“He had Ray’s job then.” He said, looking at Frank as if he should have known. “He said if I got one more letter he was firing me. I had to tell the people to stop writing.”
“Why would he fire you because you got letters praising you? That doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t know. He hated me. He used to get so mad at me.” He laughed. “I didn’t tell them to write. I told the people he hated me and they didn’t want me to get fired, so I said ‘You could write a letter’, and they did.”
“So why would that bother him?”
“The others were jealous cause I got letters saying how good I was and they got none. I like to help people. When something comes in that I know someone would like, I set it aside for them...I put stuff for people over here, on this tray.” He patted the tray in front of him. On it was piled a flea market array of silverware, bottles, and gee-gaws.
Frank looked around, deliberately now, at the conglomeration of objects everywhere; there was a reason it all was here choking the area. There was so much ‘stuff’ on the floor, against the wall, on the trays, that it looked like a junk dealer’s place of business.
He began to grasp that in many ways, it was: This was Rod’s personal fiefdom. He collected coupons off cereal boxes and kept them in a candy tin on top of the fridge and he saved Playboys to exchange for a break on price when he had his tires changed, but any hard-core he kept in the trunk of his car.
He had several big barrels set aside for liquor bottles he collected for a taxi driver. The Cabbie took them and scanned the bar code off them, then returned them for more. Rod kept a list, which the cabbie updated from time to time, on what brands he wanted. He surreptiously slipped Rod a twenty each time he made a return and a pick up.
He also collected fishing rods for a man who fixed them up, electronics and laptops for another man, cutlery for another, glass vases for a florist, egg cartons for poultry farmers, and a host of other items as they tickled his fancy.
He indicated the battered old dorm-fridge “Anything you see up there is mine. That’s where I put stuff that I’m saving for me. If you want something, find someplace to put it away. The Drivers’ll steal anything on ya....
“So we’re allowed to take things too?”
“Technicratically; no. But everyone does. Duck Dodgers don’t mind. Just don’t take copper or car batteries.”
“How about books?” He had been eyeballing the two big cardboard bins on pallets near the overhead door at the entrance. Each was four feet to a side; one was for hardcovers, the other for soft.
“Sure, if you want. Why? You sell them?”
“No.” Frank looked at him quizzically. “I read them.”
“Really.” It was Rod’s turn to look at him quizzically. “I never read a book in my whole life.” he told him proudly.
“You’re kidding me. How about in school?”
“How did you get away with that?”
“They thought I was ‘Art-is-tic’”
“You know, I couldn’t concenbate.”
“Ohhh.” It flashed. “They thought you were ‘Autistic’ because you couldn’t concentrate.”
“That clock doesn’t work?” Frank indicated a scrounged wall clock hung from the chain link fence overlooking the pit next to the filthy American flag.
“Why is it still there?” It was bedecked with ancient layers of dust and pigeon droppings. Rod just shrugged, bored.
“What’s with those?” Frank indicated the incredibly mammoth pair of panties hung from the windchime on the fence.
“That was Troy’s joke. He thought it was funny.”
The last half an hour was quiet; little traffic. Anton, Tim and Rod engaged briefly in an animated discussion about basketball. It was the only sign of vehemence and engagement Frank had seen out of them all day.
He took the opportunity to silently stroll away to take in the scene across the grass on the other side of the property line fence. A meandering creek sluggishly flowed north toward the State Highway in a shallow valley. Cattails grew in clumps along the edges; Arrowheads had begun appearing above the surface like emerald barbs. Melding with the voices arguing basketball, the redwing blackbirds were squawking, mewing and trilling their own arguments, and ducks milled about busily talking over each other.
“No real difference between us all. We all think what we have to say should be heard. Each species just has its own language, that’s all. To us they sound like squawks; we do to them too no doubt.”
He reflected on his initial impression of the tension he saw between Ray and Rodney when he came in for his interview.
“I had it right, but only in a sense. I picked up on an animosity between those two, but I ascribed the wrong reason to it. We are pretty damn good at sensing things because that’s objective; it’s when we try to assign a reason for what we see, the subjective, that we often go wrong. And so often we refuse to admit that our subjective reason is different from our objective senses.”
There was one bird sitting on the fence that he realized never moved. He looked closer at it. He couldn’t place it. He knew most of the indigenous species to the area, yet this one was odd. Robin-sized, it had a white head and breast and black wings. And it absolutely never moved.
“Anton put it there four years ago.” Rod said from behind him. “Gotcha, didn’t it? You should see how many people see it and try to creep up on it.”
“It had a red head when I first put it up there. “ Anton added. “I found it here. Someone dumped it off.”
“Good idea. See how many people are even observant enough to notice it.”
“Someone’s at C and D.” Anton noted “I’ll get it.”
“That’s fine.” Rod whined with nasal boredom.
“Better you than me, boss.” Tim opined. “That’s a long walk. I like Genoa better. The C and D’s right there. No walkin.”
“So, what is this ‘C and D’?” Frank asked.
“Construction and Demolition. It goes in that roll-off over there under that roof. They gotta pay to get rid of it. You know, things like shingles, wood, sheetrock, bricks.” Rod fuzzily explained.
“How much is it to get rid of?”
“It costs a lot more than garbage. It’s seven stickers a yard. Twelve stickers for a level pick-up bed. People get really pissed off when you tell them how much it is. I tell them to call Duck Dodgers or Barrator and complain, not me, I only work here.”
“So you just go get the stickers?”
“Yeah. You have them throw their stuff into the roll-off.”
At 4:25, Frank watched as the three automatically took up positions along the trays. At precisely 4:27 Anton gave the signal and they lifted the trays up, pulling forward an angle-iron and wedging it as a brace to hold them up. Then they all filed inside, heading for the timeclock.
As they went down the walkway, Rod and Anton pushed a series of buttons along the wall, dropping overhead doors down over the opening for the trays. Once inside, they stood silently staring at the Timeclock’s LED display, waiting for the numbers “4:30” to show up. Frank glanced at the name of the Timeclock.
“Kronos; who devours his offspring. Time; which devours its creations.” He thought.
“No sense you waiting; you’re not on Kronos yet... Take off if you want.” Anton told Frank absently.
“You sure?...Okay, I’m off then. See you guys on Friday?”
“I got the entrance.” Rod announced.
“Whatever.” Anton acknowledged, bored.
Frank secured the knapsack on the bike with crisscrossed bungis, and mounted up. He felt relieved and somehow proud; and it felt good to be getting out of there. “Free at last. Thank God almighty. Free at last!..Funny way to feel after your first day of paid work in six years.”
He was again surprised at the speed the bike could put out in the higher gears. He swept through the entrance gate fifty yards from the building and onto the shoulder of the Highway. He knew the ease of his ride wouldn’t last long; the hills would begin soon.
He crossed the bridge over the creek as cars whizzed by him without warning. He hated that. He’d rather see what was coming than trust in other people’s good intentions or abilities blindly. After a quarter mile or so the long incline began and he had to gear down; all the way down. Then he had to walk; he just couldn’t do it. It was a good two miles to the crossroads at the summit.
The endless procession of speeding vehicles flew past him ceaselessly. He felt eyes on him and burned with resentment that they all saw him so publicly defeated by this hill.
Once up at the crossroads, graced with the name of a settlement that didn’t exist anymore, the road leveled out for a bit, and then it was into the snake hills that he had to walk up eleven hours earlier.
This time he was going down them, so there was less pedaling. But the shoulders here were at their narrowest and their tarmac was badly inclined and broken up, with vegetation growing up out of it. It was a tense stretch, flying at forty miles per hour, with cars a foot away doing fifty five past him. He began to wish he did have one of those sissy bike helmets.
Then came the climb up past the field with the shaggy Highland cattle. He had to walk the last bit here too. Then there was a flat stretch, with a slight decline. Then it was around the bend and a fairly easy pedal until the two hills by the golf course.
It was here where the bitterness of having to pedal while dead tired was at its worst, as all these other people flew past so blithely, so effortlessly. He found himself hating people who had leisure time, who didn’t have to exert.
“Do they appreciate those cars? Do they know how much they need them? Do they realize that if it wasn’t for them, they’d have to walk on those puny legs with those fat asses? How far do they think they’d get? If I can’t get up these hills...yet...what do they think they’d be able to do?...Bastards...And so what am I? They got cars. I’m stuck pedaling and walking. So who’s smart and who’s the dumb f**k? At least they have enough money for a car. What do I have? F**k You, God. F**k you.”
He stopped halfway up both hills and walked to the summit. The stretch past the farm-stand, the concrete septic systems fabricator, and the Fish and Game Club was the last flat stretch. The shoulders were terrible here, all chewed up and the weeds and brush stuck out into the road treacherously. That signaled the beginning of that long climb up to the intersection that he had flown down so effortlessly this morning. He got off and walked again.
By now he was getting really fatigued. He walked across the intersection, mounted up, and rode through the little cluster of houses there. After another hill, he got to the intersection a mile from home. He waited there for a break in the traffic to let him cross.
“I swear to God one of these days I’m GOING to have a car again.”
He tried to take as much momentum as he could with him off the highway and onto the road home, but he still only made it about fifty yards up the steep hill before having to get off again. He was panting, and the sweat stung his eyes. It was a long, slow walk up to the top.
With every step he cursed his existence. He felt condemned by a Fate or a God, yet it was something he knew actually didn’t exist. Like Job, he felt the treatment he’d received was not just or fair. Unlike Job, he had no God to blame. He was existentially free and thus condemned to bear sole responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Either that or the Universe was run by a Malicious God.
Either way it sucked. He felt his whole life has been an error; that how he chose to live was fueled by an unrecognized childhood of traumas. Unlike Thoreau he didn’t go into the woods deliberately, he was impelled by unconscious forces.
Then it was down the hill, taking the turn at the bottom fast, trying to use the momentum again to carry him as far as it could. The next short hill was tough, as was the next. The road itself was busted up here, and there was no shoulder.
He had to get off the road whenever cars came, and wait till they passed him, before he could re-start. As soon as the road was clear for a minute, he went down the next hill, and then walked up the last, steep hill to their driveway.
That ride home took him an hour and fifteen minutes, and having to crane his head upwards to see gave him a hell of a headache. He jumped in the shower, feeling an almost desperate need to clean that place off him. When he got out and toweled off, he blew his nose.
“Oh, Christ!” He stared at the handkerchief in disgust and disbelief. It was black with slimy soot. “Oh, God! All that’s in my lungs now too?” He kept blowing his nose and blowing it until there was no trace left of the blackness.
But Tolstoy’s “Arbeitskur” kicked in by the time he ate dinner, and he found himself exulting that he’d actually done it. And now he knew he could do it, and therefore would do it; nothing was going to stop him. They were on their way.