by Scott Beard
“I have done you better service
than to be slighted thus.
Miserable age, where only the
reward of doing well is the doing of it.”
—John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi (I.i.)
“I don’t give a damn how much of a hurry you’re in, don’t leave the cart lying over in my yard you idiot!”
Not apropos for Kings Deer development. Not refined enough. However, Steven A. Rovic referenced his training manual for protocol on dealing with the general public: Article A, Section 2, Guideline 1: Professionalism – “All employers of Tri-Lakes Sanitation will present the company in a positive and respectful light when dealing with anyone or anything from the general public.”
Steven didn’t even have to feign congeniality this time. After four years of picking up shit for the university elite, he was used to it.
“I’m sorry, sir,” his gait as calm and empty as a swimming pool in February. “Sometimes the carts land a little hard from the lift. We’ll get it.”
But the young man, black-rimmed glasses, t-shirt three sizes too small, bald eagle trapped in a coffin inked on a forearm, continued his self-seeking soliloquy across the emerald wasteland of fertilizer and fescue. “Of course you’ll get it. And the tin cans that rolled into the curb, and those papers that are blowing their way across my lawn. Don’t act like you didn’t see them.”
Steven kept busy, pushing the hydraulic lift switch and eyeing the garbage can from ground to bin ten feet above him. The sonority continued, an outlier of the general attitude in the upper-class residential gem tucked into the pine trees just a mile off of Highway 105. “You think you can just do whatever the fuck you want, well, how about I call your supervisor?”
Finally the bin landed back on asphalt. Steve unhooked it from the lift, wheeled the plastic tub back to the driveway. At least it was Friday. “Have a good one.”
The man wouldn’t let it go. “Oh, so now you’re gonna be all patronizing about it huh? Well, you don’t know who the fuck you’re messing with motherfucker.”
Steve closed the passenger door, shot darts at the assailant. Scowls reciprocated. Powell, his usual route driver, put the truck in drive and fired up the air conditioner, perpetually set at a frosty fifty-five degrees. Unabashed, he started the discourse. “Typical asshole feeling entitled. Some things never change.” They drove another block in silence.
Steve broke the awkwardness. “Yeah, I guess there’s always a few of them.” He turned back the AC just a notch, certain his words had puffed vapor.
Powell laughed, “And I further deduce, he’s never worked a day in his life, because the rear plate of his silver BMW says PLSEME.”
Steve shot a glance driver’s side and they both laughed. This was what he loved about this job. You had no reason to act refined, cultivated. Why fake it? It’s not like a dinner party with the First Family.
Powell jostled the truck along in low gear — too many hills and too much trash. “You know, that little bastard kinda reminds of Agamemnon.”
Steve frowned. “Seriously, that grumpy cocksucker is Agamemnon?”
“Sure as shit,” Powell explained as they bounced along. “Thinks he can say and do whatever he wants, like Agamemnon, brings that bitch back to his wife’s house. Well, she didn’t put up with that crap. Stabbed him in his own shower.”
Steven guffawed. “You’re confusing Aeschylus with Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s murder was in a shower, Aeschylus’s was in a Grecian bath. Besides, what the fuck does getting cussed out by a skinny little bastard have to do with Agamemnon?”
Powell didn’t hesitate, “I’m just making a literary connection assface. Got nothin’ better to do.”
The banter continued as they reached the next drive — one barrel on a winding dirt road, residences derelict but ponderosas as pervasive as pus on a punctured scab. He had always liked playing this game with Powell, The Thinking Game, the title not too clever and catchy. After all, they spent nine hours a day picking up shit.
The next stop arrived as abruptly as a burnt out alternator, the truck died to a halt and Steven bailed out again. He wheeled the bin to the truck, pressed the lift, waited ten seconds, returned the container back to the curb, and was in the truck in about twenty seconds. I need more of these, he thought.
The rest of the day went by like wind-whipped American flags along the plains of eastern Colorado on the Fourth of July—steady. Almost all of the farmers in the state were patriots, but unfortunately, like the sun at the end of a glorious day on the Colorado Front Range, their time was setting. The job reminded Steven of his days in the service. Two tours of duty in Iraq —starting the day with a job to do and a plan of how to do it, but some motherfucker could find a way to fuck it all up.
He had been a motor transport operator assigned to refueling trucks between Scania and Camp Liberty, the towns in between pretty much dominated entirely by towel heads and malnourished goats. His assignment was relatively relaxed, other than dealing with occasional native demonstration — maybe a hundred or so camel-fuckers sauntering around in the middle of the street with Islamic flags. Stupid fuckers. On most days, he’d ride in an escort Humvee, get a feel for the machine gun. He had gotten to fire it once or twice — a couple of ballsy camel jockeys had popped off an RPG their way. He’d been relaxing, but the normal gunner had gotten the worst of it: head blown right off, skull fragments and brain tissue like tomatoes and beef soup bone from an eight hour-long crock pot recipe. He held fast to the machine gun, dropped about three hundred rounds into the hills off to the west. Temporary deafness. It was over faster than the first time you have sex. That’s how he had gotten the job with Tri-Lakes out of the military in the first place. Being a trucker for the Army was an equivalent to a CDL.
He couldn’t hide from the demons though: regular night terrors, depression, a bottle of whiskey in a half-week. That’s why Janelle made him go the shrink. He went almost four months, always talking about the same shit: asshole bosses telling you to hurry up, customers like the one from today. Nothing changed. He just got used to it.
He finished the day non-plus; an angry resident accused him of petty lawn larceny after Steven had dragged a cardboard box full of Styrofoam and plastic from the curb. But at the end of it all, they had made great time and completed the shift in less than eight hours, and were back at the south sorting center by 13:40.
Emptying the dumpster was the last task of the day. The hydraulic lift hoisted the trash into a giant bin adjacent the building onto conveyor belts at five miles an hour. New hires were always placed at sorting stations. It’s the first job you are trained to do. Steven remembered those shifts — eight hours of throwing a million pieces of shit from one pile of crap to another. That was ten years ago; he and Powell had both hired on for the second shift position — Tuesday through Saturday, every day, save for a few holidays. But now, the first-shift pick-up route they worked together was the end of the line.
He made it to his locker, stripped out of his jumpsuit, grabbed bar soap. Steven loathed public showers — just some piss-poor excuse for the homoerotics to act like perverts. He washed his hands and arms, squashed his gear in a locker, and snagged the newspaper off the top shelf. Fortunately, Powell had showered and dressed quickly — much more intrepid than he. Steven read the headline: “Teacher’s Unions put foot down on State as Strike Continues for 3rd Day.” He tossed the paper on top of Powell’s gym bag. “It’s great to know our tax dollars are getting put to good use.”
“Hell, who cares. If I had kids they’d all go to private school anyway.” He slipped his fresh shirt on over his head, poked his arms through the sleeves.
“You’re missing the point,” Steven retorted.
“I got your point, but what you gonna do about it? I just laugh about it. Hell, there’s not much else you can do.” Powell made his way to the locker room door, stopped dead. “Oh, I almost forgot, are you going to that work party that Leslie and Janelle have to go to?”
Steven nodded, “You mean that Easter/Spring party where you can’t mention Jesus Christ, say anything anti-Islamic, anti-gay, assert that you have any masculinity, and pretend that you’re ‘just a trash man’ so you’re wife doesn’t lose tenure or have to kiss extra ass? Yeah, I suppose I’ll drag in for a little bit.”
Powell returned a quick nod. “Alright man, see you tomorrow night then.”
They made their way to the employee parking lot. Steven climbed in his truck, turned the ignition. Nothing. Another try. It was turning over, just not starting. A few more tries, nothing. Had to be a battery. Powell was just about to pull past him. He punched the horn and waved. Powell stopped his sedan and rolled down the window. Steven inquired, “Hey, can I get a jump?”
Powell made a U-turn, pulled up bumper to bumper. Steven already had the hood up, cables in hand. Powell popped the hood and inspected. “How old is it?”
“Almost five years. Time for a new one.”
The cables were clamped. Powell made his way to the driver’s side. “Okay.”
Steven crawled in the cab, turned the key. Combustion. Powell stood under the sun as the battery charged. It had ended up being a beautiful day. Clear and fifty. It was early April, the warm temperatures still held at bay by westerly winds off the snow-capped Colorado Front Range. Steven groped into the glove box and fished out a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He thumbed the paperback to page thirty-one — the prologue to Napoleon and Squealer’s revolt. He’d read half a page when Powell tapped on the window. He laid the book on the seat and climbed out, Powell already handling the cables.
They parted ways. Steven scanned six lanes, interchanges, ramps — concrete tinker-toys; traffic bounding north and south, the drive a somnambulant dance down asphalt at sixty miles an hour. He buzzed past the exit for Nevada Avenue, past the dull-gray two-story building for the Gazette Telegraph. He had read in the paper this morning at work that the Pope had recently given a speech, pining for more money from the west to help with the humanitarian relief efforts in the Middle East.
Steven shook his head. It didn’t really matter. Die of old age or get your head slit off by a pirate in a dirty night shirt, probability of death: one hundred percent. After all, maybe it wasn’t as bad as he felt about his wife’s department party that the Colorado College of English was hosting at Dr. Gregory and Rachael Bennett’s affluent estate in what used to be an unincorporated area of the Black Forest — a once primeval ponderosa palace turned suburban stomping ground. All the tree-huggers from California had moved out there (and everywhere else for that matter). Now the natural forest was one-quarter its original size, post offices and penthouses replacing pine. He recalled the last time he had to attend one of these things with his wife— a fall-themed ass-fest for what the university called Art Around Us — a one day pole-smoking affair of writers and wannabes. Everybody standing around, vomiting out their mouths about how much of a genius Michael Moore was, that all states should allow residents to roll joints in their house and then walk around outside hugging people like stoned and drunk bitches at a high school beer pong party. It wasn’t a party for Steven. At the last one, quotes like “Damn greedy corporations” pervaded conversations. He ended up getting hit-on by some guy in skinny jeans, bow-tie, and plaid vest and Janelle wound up nearly dragging him away from breaking the little bastard’s neck.
He couldn’t avoid it. He didn’t have to look far to watch the shitshow: thumb through any literary magazine on the net or just watch one of the reality shows. Gay lovers dealing with ass-cancer, some guy justifying arson and burglary because some other guy three thousand miles across country got shot by the cops. Steven remembered the pissy customer from earlier in the day, with his eagle and coffin tattoo. He stared ahead through the windshield. He tapped the steering wheel and sighed.
When he got home the house was empty. Some semesters were like this — Janelle wedlocked to the university making last-minute preparations. Who knows what they were doing — probably all in a meeting sucking the Dean’s dick. Steven winced. He stumbled into the kitchen, set the book on the counter, grabbed a beer, the leftover meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and returned to the couch. He had considered grilled strip loins but had no idea when she’d be home. He sipped the beer, clicked on the news — more pirates obliterating each other with RPGs. Whatever they needed to do to get the job done. After sixteen ounces of fermented wheat chilled to a frosty thirty-six degrees, he tapped the remote, grabbed the dishes. When they were loaded in the sink, he sighed and grabbed Animal Farm from the counter. Back on the couch he opened the book and fanned through its pages, put them to his face like a favorite t-shirt recently-laundered and cracked the book. Commandment Five: No animal shall drink alcohol….
The click of the back door forced him to bolt upright. Instantly he dove to the floor. His 9mm was upstairs — no time to get it, but… sighs, whispers—
“Steve, you left the dishes all out again.”
He stood, stretched, made his way to the kitchen. She still had the pretty face — lines across her forehead — the duress of too many poorly-written papers on John Webster, Christopher Marlowe, comma splices and run-ons from pimpled-faced PC-gaming geeks.
“Sorry. I just fell asleep.”
He needed to do better than that. Ten years ago, this wouldn’t have happened. His first-line supervisor at Neville his first year in the service was a real cock-face. Up his ass about everything: beds tucked in tighter than a size four thong on a fat girl, floor as polished as a piece of brass at Buckingham Palace. He tried to smile.
“I know, I’m sorry, it was just a long day.”
She leashed the hounds. “Did you get enough to eat?” She kicked off two-inch heels, flung her purse on the coat rack.
He eyed her to the couch, then tailed — snuggled like kittens, cold beer in place of warm milk. In each other’s arms, a warm blanket was a long ways from shitty suburbanites grumbling about garbage, late papers, department chairs bitching about un-kept office hours. Steven sighed and Janelle tucked her head under his chin, he lifted the blanket over small shoulders.
She sighed. “You know I’m crazy about you, right?”
Sometimes he didn’t know what to say to that. No service awards, only a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature, a CDL, hell, what else? He loathed university parties. If he had his way, a night’s work on the ’74 Challenger collecting dust seemed perfect. It needed new plugs, or maybe he had fucked up and not gapped the damn things properly. Nothing a five-eighth inch socket wrench with a magnet and fifteen dollars at AutoZone couldn’t fix.
Damn it — the battery. He had been too tired to go get it. Tomorrow. Maybe he’d pick up plugs too, get it washed and waxed, make a day out of it, miss the party. Besides, what the fuck was he going to do there? He closed his eyes, he stood in a dimly lit study, a long oak table, banker’s lamp, eight foot-wide fireplace, a bay window that looked into a conservatory where an old bag had her African violets, a ten-by-ten foot bookcase full of literary horseshit. What were they going to do, give him a fucking quiche if he could tell them that Bosola suffered from an over-abundance of black bile? More images now — his fists around the neck of a well-groomed middle-aged man, tuxedo, martini glass, shooting himself in the head with his 9mm before anyone could blink, Janelle performing fellatio on the Dean to apologize for the mess of skull fragments and brain tissue on hardwood, and then the funeral — his body transported in a dump truck, the coffin thrown on the sort pile at work and then dumped into the landfill, covered with earth forever.
“I love you too.” But she was already asleep.
They arrived late, parked a few houses down, the street too refined for sidewalks interrupting lush fescue stitched to one-acre lawns. At the door an enigmatic man wearing a blazer, vest, bowtie, and greasy beard that doubled as a squirrel’s nest greeted them.
The house functioned more effectively as a museum than a home. Marbled foyer, great room with fireplace and Orientals underfoot polished off with oak tables, armchairs, a sectional formed a right angle in the corner, a bar with enough bourbon to quench Beowulf and his army of at least one night of lechery. Giant Salvador Dali replicas depicting horrific juxtapositions of flesh and spirit — hard to tell reality from illusion — occupied blank plaster, too big to know what to do with themselves.
He played the creature of husband well, his concocted congeniality pure wizardry. At least the food didn’t need to talk: smoked salmon, new potatoes, asparagus. He perused the great room, salty salmon between his fingers, scanned faces like Rembrandt reproductions in the alcoves — excess pride parlaying authenticity, melancholy foiling fame. He grabbed a wine at the bar, studied the glass — the fumes of California grapes to nostrils gone in seconds.
“There you are,” a voice of respite, reason. Her soft hand smooth along a triceps. Reality. “Having a good time?”
“Okay, I guess. The food is great. You know, Powell said he’d be here, did you talk to Leslie?”
She smiled. “I think Leslie mentioned something on Facebook that she felt the sickies coming on. Maybe that was it.”
“Hey Tom, how are you.” Janelle leaned into a vegetarian-slim fellow of about thirty, glass of chardonnay in hand, a bird’s-nest beard, black blazer, vest, maybe an Armani knock-off. External breast pocket weighted down — cigarette case, self-rolled, thick-rimmed black glasses — the kind that coffee-shop-gallivanting misanthropes wear, jeans two sizes too small, unlaced Oxfords.
“Oh my gosh, I’m great!” A kiss to the cheek — alcohol influencing impropriety. Another slimy hand down the shoulder. “I’m just glad I made it out. I have so much research to do. I don’t have time for all this yet.’
Janelle smiled, “This is my husband, Steve. Steve, this is Tom Grigson, he is an assistant professor that just started this year.”
Handshakes exposing the plight of American fortitude on a forearm. Steve’s hand was firm. A grip tested by ten million rounds from the machine gun.
Coffin’s face reddened. “Nice to meet you. Janelle says that you work for…you’re a…garbage man?”
“Oh, that’s really neat. What a tough job. You know, I don’t…I could never do that…I mean…”
The silence hung in the air, the wait like a five year-old getting their first tetanus. Images like a billion grains of sand whipping across one hundred and thirty degree skies birds in the air above sand stained crimson. Then silence. “No, trust me, I know what you mean. You probably couldn’t.”
They hadn’t spoken much on Monday. 7:30: Only seven more hours. Steve skipped to the asphalt, made his way to the plastic dumpster — love letters, bills, shit-stained drawers — broken dreams. King’s Deer again. Emerald lawns like American flags along I-70. Immutable. He returned the cart upright this time, taking a moment to scan another green lawn, a two-story suburban bungalow. Back in the truck, Powell was waiting for him.
“Good to be back.” The truck shifted into gear. “How was the party?”
Steve didn’t flinch. “Educational.”
“Sure as shit,” Powell replied. “But you wouldn’t trade for that in a million years.”
Steve continued to stare out the window, beyond the driveway, up over the two-story home on an adjacent street. A flag eclipsed a lawn, it undulated and danced in the wind. The truck bounced along, stars and stripes faded.
Steve let out a sigh. “No sir, I sure wouldn’t.”