She sits on a plinth, eyeing the flood of empty Pepsi bottles creeping over the cracked earth, sticky brown residue clumping the dirt. The tractor’s metal claw cups mounds of plastic Yoplait containers, flavors strawberry banana, rum and pear. Janine places an elbow on a knee, wide brown gaze coaxed down by gravity, its melancholy, its charm. She waits. Another Caterpillar howls as it swoops for a styrofoam sea. Since six they’ve been working, the pious machines, wearing out their oilthirsty joints carrying the gallons, the gallons. At night in the yard their lined up yellow crowns lower in prayer toward a vacant moon.
He had brought her there last fourth of July. Alone with the overflowing dumpsters and smoky afterscent of firecrackers, he’d said “I love you” for the hundred thousandth time, weathering the phrase as he does, saying it and saying it and saying it, as if eventually he might reel her into him with the sheer pledge of repetition—a puerile hope grown arrogant with time. In the car, under the crackles of reds and greens and golds bedizening the heatstricken sky (caught between celebration and gloom, for a couple falling buzzards chequer each year the memory of colonial dislodgement) he had slid his salty tongue between her thin pink lips. She’d grown suddenly sad, seeing visions of her clay-skinned Momma home alone with all those vials of Alprozalam pellets, bloodstream lachrymose, Lola coiled up thin and milkthirsty on the dusty lemonwood chest.
Hungry, she sighs into the metal maelstrom, taking in shallow breaths of the sultry polyethylene-infused air. “Looks like we got one more comin’ in. Jerk don’t know the fill closes at three,” John mumbles, bending over the grousers, the chrome. Janine lifts an elbow off a knee, stretches her arm toward the bald pink sky, challenging its slumber-portent yawn with her own, wider, less interested one. “I’m tired,” she thinks. She thinks, “You promised me a cone.”
She wraps a band of glossy red hair around her finger, twirling it now this way, now that. Time broils, gelding her on her slab of stone. The habit of twirling, unfurling her hair has been with her for so many years now, touch too now escapes her. The world has begun to yield to the insensate exterior of hands leathered with memory, no longer piquing her through her fingertips as it once did with its myriad textures, its seashells, its treebarks, its cold creams whose newness belong only to the newness of childhood.
A series of ripped-up family photographs taken at a summer barbeque, a crumpled letter, a litter of cereal box top cutouts someone has meant to send in the mail gurgle below waves of less recognizable rubbish. Beer caps and soiled diapers, congealed ziti and melting Crest tubes steam together under a neutral sun, cooking in the seasonable heat. Janine hears her stomach among the rumbling of the tractors, comforted by the opportunity to judge something, even if only the irreverent moans of her digestive fluids.
“Those full? ” John yells, approaching a parked van. A man is carrying cans out of the back of his truck. John hurls his voice over the boister of the tractors with the precision of someone who has grown up with noise, someone who has been raised with the Cold Planers and Knucklebooms, Pipelayers and Bunchers, someone who has dawn after dawn after dawn held a callused palm to his left breast, swearing allegiance to each inch of the sun’s schizophrenia.
“You gotta dry out the cans if they’re full. Take ‘em to the HHW. Township says we can’t have the oil-based stuff leaking on the roads.”
The man ignores him, walks back to his U-Haul truck and slams the door. Janine’s expression remains poised, a sheen over her upper lip conferring with the ripe August. Her eyes remain furrowed somewhere beyond the men, dazed in the democracy of colored plastic and mud-caked metal limbs slicing the air at esoteric angles. “Household hazardous waste collection!” John yells, perking to the syllabic cluster, of feeling it roll off his tongue into the smug virility of his voice. The tumid beads quiver and burst, streaming and burying brine into her heart-shaped cheeks. The truck veers off. As if on cue, an old computer tumbles down from a mound of trash. Janine stares at the humiliated motherboard shattered near her dangling feet, its north and south bridges bearing an unconscionable separation, sockets stunned, wires hanging, lightly grazing the dirt.
In the yard, the tips, the welded blades continue to bury last week’s plastic with otherworldly care, compressing the town’s indestructible feces under discreet layers of soil, inhaling small melancholies as they submit to compaction density formulas.
“Bastard,” John mumbles after the retreating van, returning to the post to change, worsted by something larger than the heat.
“Rubbish i’nt somthin’ to think of, darling,” Momma had said a year earlier when she’d started dating John. Janine had tried to describe what it was like to see all the garbage piled out there on the land like that, like an ingrown hill of everyone’s soiled underwear. She’d thought if the whole town could just stand there around the fill looking at all their trash pressed into each other’s that way, if they could see it—the violent anonymity of it all, a torn up pair of Nikes doused in dinner’s bloody entrails, next to a dozen empty pill vials and some teenager’s darksoaked maxi pad, the spread of human waste would brim with silence. She didn’t know why that kind of silence attracted her. She didn’t even know what that kind of silence was.
“Rubbish i’nt somthin’ to think of darling,” Momma had repeated, leaning her curved spine back into her tattered maroon armchair, looking to her TV set for a consenting nod. In any case, it was a responsible type of boy, one who sorted people’s garbage for a living. Most men didn’t know a thing about their dumps. They didn’t know you couldn’t just bring the paint like that, brimming oily to the tin rims with the solvents and the resins at three pm on a Friday when they should be closing early, as John points out in the car. There are certainly yellowing living room walls which could have made use of those leftovers, just a coat of it, he adds, as if she doesn’t notice he might be talking about the living room in her Momma’s house.
Their first date he’d picked her up in his truck and taken her to the restaurant on LaRousse Street with the green awnings and the outdoor patio tables, but it had been crowded with middle-aged women clinking ice in dimming mint-muddled mirth, so they’d had to compromise for the McDonald’s down the block, the one with the gold-themed corridors and indoor playground for the children. After a long study of the board above the cashier’s impatient cap she’d ordered a fish sandwich with no mayo and a side salad with raspberry vinaigrette and chosen the booth at the very back near the restrooms, the one tucked under the large gold mirror on the wall. Janine liked the mirrors there, liked to watch herself chew. It was always ugly, an eating head, jaw chucking up and down, but she felt better when she could keep watch over her face, could tame the movement of her doughcake cheeks with the forced elegance of a ballerina’s calf, with an adagio that hurt, a stymied rhythm that missed altogether the flavors of her breaded cod’s cousin—generic and unsavory as they were.
They’d sat on the same side of the booth. John had been staring at the mirror the whole time, but she knew his eyes weren’t watching her. With one hand she’d been fingering a small tear in the red-vinyled cushion of her seat, her bare thighs suctioned into the warm plastic. With the other she’d held the pinstriped straw staked into the opaque lid of her diet Sunkist, squeezing the straw’s hard middle after each sip, overtaken by a vaporous anxiety that couldn’t be seen in the mirror, but felt pressing down on the opening of her small intestine. “Watch,” John had said, nodding to the mirror. Behind their booth a family of four was taking synchronic bites into their moist hamburger buns, yellow cheese dangling off the pillowy sides. They were silent as sharks, even the little one, excitedly fishing pearls out of his cardboard seaworld. When they were finished with their food, the father had crumpled four silver hamburger wrappers together and stuffed them into the empty French fry cartons, along with a few untouched ketchup packets, gnawed straws, a stack of wrinkled napkins, some with brown stains, some still white, and stood up to feed their supper’s indiscretion to the swinging mouth of the trash bin—like a compliant wooden mail post, Thank You engraved across its maw. The man had put a hand on his overhanging middle, a private signal to the rest of the clan to shuffle out and follow, absolving themselves in the innocence of familial routine. John had nudged Janine as the youngest trailed behind, vroom vrooming his motorcycle’s silver spinning wheels in the air.
“I don’t get what’s so funny” Janine had said, annoyed, suspecting a drop of mayo polluting her small piece of Pollock—caught in the meshes of some midwater trawl she didn’t know where or in what sea of time. John put a hand on her thigh, taking his opportunity to touch her skin. “Nothin’ babe,” he’d said, undampened by her mood. The familiar regret of nearing the end of a meal was gelling Janine’s thoughts a greenish brown substance much the way her pepsin must have been churning the ground fishmeat and lettuce somewhere under her loose-fitting tee shirt, a variation on beige. And then she’d become suddenly angry that she was too pretty for him, she’d become angry that she didn’t like him touching her thigh, because she wanted to want him to, and she didn’t hide her annoyance, the way she was always hiding everything else.
They list shoulderblades against opposite sides of the truck in stiff symmetry, John fingering the knobs in hunt of sound to satiate the post-supper hunger between them, she fingering the chain across her neck with one hand, nursing her slightly distended stomach with an other, uneasy palm. “I love you babe,” he says, appeasing the audacious rumble of silence, impenetrable and bottomless as it is, hooking his arm around her neck as he parks beside her mother’s lawn—mustard crusted, spotted with lion’s teeth. She mulls over the endless caloric possibilities in her now digested fish sandwich. She palms the sides of her waist and feels betrayed. And the silence lingers.
“We’re having guests over tomorrow. I need to help Momma clean up,” she says after a moment, relieved by the facility of her own lie. She releases a red tangle from her hand, shifting in her seat before he can remember to touch her for too long. Two hundred thirty, she counts, three hundred, four hundred, six hundred, seven fifty. For a long time now, stopping has not been simple.
A Lucille Roberts bass emanates from inside the mangy parlor. She hears it even before she enters, through tears in the screen nibbled over the years by the gnats. “For twenty dollars a month…” Janine presses a button. Neon green spills across the bottom of the screen, then absconds just as listlessly, one line dying across the next. The air weighs heavy and stiff, dank with animal fur and tobacco, but she barely registers the change. Lola is perched on the kitchen counter near the dried tomato sauce-gilded tupperware, Momma dreaming off in her armchair, riding the octaval range of some gameshow host’s ebullience—inviolable the two dormant creatures in their doze. Humidity seeps in through the cracks in the windows above the stockpiled sink where Janine rinses a bowl, skimping on the last drops of dish detergent. Instinctively, or simply out of the sheer repetition of habit, she treats herself to a small portion of whole milk and Chocolate O’s. Just this little bit, she promises herself. She’s not hungry, but the food is an adequate glass of red wine, deadening the distinct flavors of her diurnal sobriety.
Above her vanity the mirror watches her as she enters the bedroom. Looking into it is like being bitten. Something has been sneaking through her bedroom window night after night and injecting a hard lardlike substance under this skin, stealthily bloating her symmetry, pulling each side of her hips toward opposing directions in space. Janine spoons her milk-soaked cereal into her mouth, lets it stew on her soft palate, the familiar textures allaying her tongue and sotting the emotion smeared along the inner lining of her nostrils. Nine hundred ninety calories; a neverending game. The mirror looks away as Janine’s spoon hits the barren concave of her melamine bowl, the dying particles of wheat starch and beet powder, yellow number five disintegrating into new oblivions. She is veering slowly toward a familiar nausea that has come to associate itself with night.
Her bowl is empty. Janine carries the box of Chocolate O’s back to her bedroom, where she pours the rest of the now crumbly brown mixture of rice and oat bran into a final puddle, shoving it between her two rows of teeth, quickening her chew until the rhythm takes her over and she no longer tastes the alkaline-processed cocoa or fear. In distant fields of her mind, something far more whelming than the bolus of saliva, ground cornmeal and sugar crystallizes, something like Sonny the Cuckoo’s ecstatic cardboard smile, some region of celestial intimacy she has never, will never, achieve with John. She wants to love him, she wants to love someone, herself, to create something new there, something like love to occupy her—buried all alone in her flesh as she is. She chews quicker. The morsels, the fluids that drizzle down her esophagus plunge deep into her stomach, stimulating her liquids, bile, traveling down like a wave of outer space through her small intestine.
Janine is out of O’s. In a somnambular state, for she has developed an addiction to the quick and constant movement inside her chest, she creeps back to the kitchen. In the refrigerator she finds a half-eaten Yoplait container of soured yogurt, no longer a flavor deserving of its name, old cheese and a Tupperware full of lasagna. The freezer door holds itself open for her as she dips a fork into a carton of dense brown cookie-dough spotted cream, spooning it onto her tongue. She holds it out, the interior now half-melted. Her taste buds grouse for balance, salt. In a cupboard she finds a half-full canister of Planter’s, stale roasted cashews, peanuts, pecans, brazils. She has needed something, hard and brittle as tinder to accompany the ever-quickening rhythm falling on her incisors—accelerando—and now she interjects here and there with a small rest, a silence of soft cold cream, parsing out the relief of the sugary cold on her tongue’s buds.
The cardboard is sogged. She gropes the salty floor of tin, feeling cheated by the charming peanut shell winking at her in his tall trilby, his safe black-rimmed spectacles. Her stomach expands with moan. Except for two small wefts of dirt on the balls and heels of both feet her soles are clean; bent down on her knees in front of the refrigerator, her eyes absently probing the mildewed shelves, her fingers dip into a jar of old peanut butter. She licks them clean. Becoming frantic, sensing something moribund and grey happening inside her cecum, she swings open the rest of the cupboards on their hinges, standing on tiptoe to see that no piece of prey cowers from view. There is nothing new, nothing but a stale half loaf of sliced wonder bread and crusted boîte of beeswax honey, preserved under dubious temperatures. She whisks the items off their shelves, pulse quickening, pulling the knobs of the drawers she has also pillaged numerous times the night before.
Out of spontaneous glee, an impulse for sharpness, she steals the small wedge of cheddar from its seat within the inner ear of the refrigerator, where an entire bar of butter has lain the night before. She briefly tastes the memory of that butter, melted in the microwave and doused over bowl after bowl of Chocolate O’s—the first half of the box. Now it begins to throb everywhere, in her ears lobes, behind her eyes, her glands, every pore of her skin needs something. She slices off a hunk of cheese, lays it on a stiff piece of bread and drizzles it with honey, placing it on her tongue, where it will disappear into her, later rising in painful heaves, ecstatic, cataclysmic, rancid as cold lemon pulp and spoilt milk.
Yes, over a porcelain throne gurgling with microbes, she will tell her story again, the same noisome, plotless story, bellowing into the sewer and reclaiming her throat in throes—God that she is, wasteful and broken as thunder. The confused afterhum of the toilet confirms her inevitable swim toward the sea.
Momma snores, the amused orange tipped tail ascends, lands, recoils under the flickering image of glistening olive bellies, synchronized karate kicks. Drunk with sugar and fat, having abandoned her senses along a familiar but deserted region of death, Janine is incapable of intuiting the eyes probing the wire-meshed holes, the loud knock, the creak, the encroaching boot vibrations. Sweating and blood rushed, a daub of warm honey smeared across the right side of her head, she looks up: a startled fawn recognizing only the brightness of light.
He stops in the doorway, letting in the moon, letting it leak onto the pallid pink carpet, creating a semi-permanent pool upon dust. “You left this in the car,” he says, approaching with a closed fist. Wraithlike, she lacks a trembling nerve. “Door was open,” he continues.
Something is not well, he suddenly senses, something is not well. He notices the blank cartoon faces cluttered across the wasteland of the kitchen counter, eyeing each other in loud cardboard tones no more or less animated than usual: gums, crumbs, milk beads dotting the scene. “Seems like someone was still hungry,” he says after a moment, seeing her, not sure himself why he must force his smile. He waits for a sound from that body across the room, tranced as it is inside the lunar candescence. Then he moves back, leaving the necklace tangled on the black plastic skull of the television, under which Lola parts her sleepy eyelids, having been sole witness to the crimes of the night. Momma wakes herself with a bumptious snore, is comforted by the low din of the television, falls back asleep.
“I Gotta be up at five,” he says, taking another step back. “New day…new trash.” The screen screeches as John swings it back open, satisfying the moon with another voyeuristic peer, letting it spill, letting it spill. “See you tomorrow?” he adds, stepping out, deciding at the last moment not to look back.