Moving Up in Life
From Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories (Excerpt)
If you enjoy stench, spilled guts and sights too horrible to imagine, it was a dream job. Not a cash cow or silk tie kind of thing, but it kept me out of trouble, paid the bills and satisfied my sliver of sanity.
I had the honor, no the privilege, of driving the county roads to pick up dead animals that had been dismembered, disemboweled or squashed like aluminum cans after they had followed an arousing scent or been running from a perceived or real danger.
The blue and white van I had been provided was a mockery to survival itself, but came with the territory. With brakes that required savage pumping to avert running into a brooding oak guarding a curve and lights that flickered on and off like a firefly, it was a matter of faith and fatalism that kept me roaming the roads like a vulture.
“Sure John, we fixed the van,” the mechanics at the city yard would reply with a smirk. “A little gum and masking tape did the job.”
They enjoyed their friendly razing, not realizing their haphazard maintenance was abetting my undercover mission to obliterate my self and obtain absolution for having the gall to keep living.
The early morning ritual of driving the two-lane roads in a death trap was actually quite therapeutic and made me acutely aware of the precariousness of my existence. The sad eyes of a dead raccoon, the resigned look of a possum or the dilated pupils of a terrorized deer strengthened my daily revelations.
I began to see their deaths as sacrifices for their species; not unlike the human sacrifices made in ancient cultures in which it was believed that offering up someone’s soul every now and then would somehow please the gods and protect the rest of the clan.
Staring into the trees, driving along the blacktop at a crawl, my lights returning just in time to see the center line, I would glance out my bug-splattered side window and imagine the beasts of the forest at their nightly gathering.
“It’s your turn,” the eldest skunk would tell his brother, the one he’d always hated. “It’s your turn and everyone knows it.” The young sibling would stare in disbelief and frantically argue.
“What?! My turn? There have been more of us stinking up the road since last winter than there have been rabbits in a blue moon.” Turning towards the rabbits, his nose in the air, he snarls, “Why don’t they put up for a change?”
I’m not sure how they make their selections. Most of the animals that sacrifice themselves aren’t virgins, though I doubt that matters as much to them as it has with humans. I had a strong feeling their decisions weren’t reached by consensus.
My mind tended to play tricks while I was shrouded in morning’s dark shawl. Just before sunrise I would lose track of where I was and became blissfully disoriented. The thrill of being lost and abandoned, with a load of dead carcasses, made me feel like a kid who has just been terrorized from seeing a monster in the closet. Chills of helpless agony caressed my spine, leaving a pungent residue of powerlessness that lasted until I returned to the county yard and dumped my scavenged cargo.
To my surprise and disappointment, the excitement and unique perspective the job provided began to fade. Instead of adrenaline or anticipation numbing my senses, I became jaded and morose. It became commonplace. My lovely nightmares had ceased and I began to look forward to my days off.
After weeks of concentrated contemplation I applied for an opening in waste management. They must have been desperate. Within days of turning in my application I was offered a job at the landfill three miles from town.
It seemed that good fortune had struck twice and unlike lightening this was something I looked forward too. A feast of garbage awaited my attention and it was being served on a government platter with higher pay and benefits; though the health coverage and retirement fund amounted to a big fat zero since I didn’t expect to live long enough to enjoy such entitlements.
They started me out at the sorting machines for recyclables, but that was too clean and tidy for my tastes. Luckily I got in good with Gary, the boss and it wasn’t long until he granted my request and demoted me to a better position.
“You sure you want this?” Gary grumbled, as he took the five bucks from a city resident entering the yard with a truckload of junk. He didn’t like sitting at the gate all day, but Leslie was out taking care of her sick husband and I was a flunky when it came to handling money.
“You bet,” I said, staring at the ground to make sure he didn’t see me grinning.
“OK.” He handed the driver their two-bit change and receipt then looked my way. “It’s your life.”
As I put on my gloves and headed towards the screeching seagulls that made the landfill their home, he hollered, “If you change your mind let me know and I’ll put the next new guy on it.” I waved.
I quickly wadded into the middle of the filth to search for valuables that had been dumped along with the refuse. Whatever we found that was of any value we set aside for the city to resale or recycle, but everyone knew we could take the occasional prize home for our own enjoyment or consumption.
One wet drizzly fall day, after slogging through a pile of decomposing lettuce and coffee grounds, I came upon a large black and white stuffed dog as big as a small horse. I brushed off the fur, removed my gloves and felt it from head to tail. It only had one small tear, the stuffing seemed intact and it didn’t smell too rancid. I turned it around to look at the front and felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach. The eyes were dark shiny half-shelled marbles that looked exactly like my mothers.
I was a child when she left her limp body on the bed, but the vacant expression in her eyes had been scorched into my little mind forever. Now, in the city dump, up to my knees in trash, I held my find above the waste and saw my mother staring back from her glassy-eyed, opium-filled refuge.
I whistled and waved at my sorting colleague Sammy, to indicate I was taking my break. He waved back and nodded. Sammy was the only guy I knew who liked garbage as much as I. He always offered to cover shifts for the rest of us. He was afraid he would miss the find of the century the one day he was off work.
I walked to my oil-stained motorbike parked in the corner of the yard and tied the dog on the back of the ripped leather seat with a tattered budgie cord. It looked like a carpetbag slung over a pony’s saddle and left little room for my sorry ass on the ride home.
That night I washed, combed and brushed the fur, stitched the tear and polished the eyes. I was lost in those eyes when the phone rang. I didn’t answer. It was probably Annie. She’d been hounding me for years. “You’ve got to move out of the city. Come live with me.” She called once a week from her parent’s home telling me how much she loved and adored me.
Annie and I had met in high school. Her best friend Sylvia had been killed in a freak auto accident the day before graduation. She came to me for comfort. I listened. She interpreted my silence as love and tethered herself to me like a goat to a stake. I have no idea what love is. When her friend had died I just didn’t know what to say and figured saying nothing was better than mouthing off a bunch of cliches or condolences. If I’d known she would become so possessed I would have told her, “Everything will be OK.” Or, “I understand. Don’t worry.”
Now there was nothing I could do but wait. I don’t know how to say good bye; other people do that.
There I was with my stuffed dog and my mother’s eyes. The neighbor’s door slammed and the TV in the apartment below squawked like a rap song on downers. The water in the pot I’d put on the stove was boiling, the shrieking whistle increasing in velocity. I looked in those eyes, saw my reflection and wondered out loud, “Why did you leave? Where did you go?”
I went to the stove, turned off the kettle and poured what little water was left over my oolong tea. I turned up the volume on the radio, which I must have left on went to work. The announcer said the guy playing the violin had once played for change on the streets of Paris and now graced the stages of concert halls around the world.
I returned to the recliner, put the dog in my lap and hugged its neck. I closed my eyes and drifted off, as my reassuring nightmare gracefully returned.
The snake-eyed woman oozed out of the festering sore, her hands and bony fingers reaching for my throat. She whispers, “Die my love. Die a slow death. There is nothing but pain and sadness.” Her cold fingertips tighten on my Adam’s apple, as I flail with clenched fists to beat my way free, my knuckles smashing into her skeletal face without any impact. Her face changes into a tornado, sucking me in and spitting me out between her thighs. My heart muscle has been shredded into little pieces and is being flushed down the sewer.
My hand slid off the armrest and hit the floor. I found myself sitting in a chair, holding a stuffed dog with marble eyes. The phone was ringing again. I answered.
“What? Oh, hi Annie.”
“What’s up?” she asked.
“Where were you? I called earlier.”
“I must have been in the shower.” I lied.
“How’s your new job?” she asked, disdain seeping through her cheerful “everything is always great” voice.
“OK, I guess. I found the coolest dog.”
“A dog?!” her voice raised an octave. “I thought animals weren’t allowed . . .”
“No, they aren’t allowed here. Not a dog dog . . . it’s a stuffed dog. It’s in great shape. I can’t believe somebody threw it away. And it’s big. I mean really big! If I stand on end it almost reaches my head. And the coolest part is its eyes. They don’t look normal. They’re all glassy, deep black and vacant like. They remind me of . . . well . . . they’re very cool. You’ve got to see it.”
“I’ve got Springer,” she replied, “a real dog. Why on earth would I care about a fake one from the dump?”
“Well, no. I guess you wouldn’t.”
“You could have a real dog,” she pleaded, “if you weren’t so stubborn and moved out here.”
“Well . . . I’ll just have to enjoy my ‘pretend’ dog by my old stubborn self.”
“Don’t go all sad and sorry for yourself on me. You know what I mean.’
“Yeah, I know. Grow up, right?”
“You said it, not me,” she laughed.
She always wanted me to be someone or somewhere different, but she kept calling and seeing me anyway. If I could mint how many times she’d said, “Grow up.” I’d be a billionaire. I have grown up! I like my life just fine. It’s safe, secure and pathetically terminal . . . except for my nightmares. They may leave me sweating in terror, but they’re consistent, predictable and more painfully present then anybody I’ve known dead or alive. She keeps hoping I’ll change. She’s like that, full of faith and seeing the good in people. Some folks can’t help it.
“Why don’t you come stay with me this weekend? We could take Springer to the lake, go fishing and camp out at Crescent Cove.”
“Sure, but I’ve got to work Saturday morning. I’ll drive out in the afternoon. Maybe we could get in a little hook and sinker Sunday morning.”
“I guess that will have to do. See you then.”
“Later,” I said and hung up.
The truth be known, I could only handle being with Annie for a day, two max. Something about her always made me feel inadequate, like I was lacking some prime ingredient for her stew.
I looked at the chair and saw the dog had fallen on the floor. I picked it up, brushed it off and found myself staring at those eyes again. They held me like a voodoo curse. I shook myself free and placed it by the wall, under the window with the dirty blinds I never open.
It’s been a year since I started working at the dump. Annie finally got smart and left me alone. I heard she’s hooked up with some organic strawberry farmer who loves the country and has lots of “real” dogs. I’m still living in the same immaculately disastrous apartment, enjoying a Sunday to myself and reading the paper. The stuffed dog I found last year is still lying under the window, sagging a little more in the midriff, obediently collecting dust. I pick it up now and then, whenever I need a good shot of collected misery.
I put down my cup of cold coffee and am drawn to an interesting add.
WANTED. NIGHT DRIVERS. NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY. WILL TRAIN. REFERENCES REQUIRED. CALL SEASON’S MORTUARY. 639-4518.
“Well now,” I say out loud, “talk about a dream job. I think I’ll call them first thing in the morning.”