In one of the spare seconds when the wind isn’t blowing and the train is miles off yet, Russ holds his breath and stands perfectly motionless atop a mountain of discarded kitchen tile. Focusing intently on the elimination of distraction and need, he pretends for a moment the entire world has frozen. He doesn’t blink, doesn’t scratch the itches which come from nowhere, tries even to slow the beating of his heart – although this proves useless, especially when his lungs begin to burn and his body panics instinctively. Nonetheless, he struggles in a desperate attempt to find even ten seconds of motionlessness – a momentary break in the perpetual tides of entropy.
But the world is never still – not really. Ignoring for a moment his body, which is spinning 1,000 miles an hour rotationally and an additional 67,000 miles an hour laterally through space and possibly time, there is the constant, unending shift of the artificial dunes around him. They sing with the combined voice of broken glass, rusting metal, warping plastic, and rotting life. He can hear the sun as it cracks paint and peels away varnish. Tiny vibrations bounce through the souls of his shoes and up his legs to his crotch, which would be mildly erotic, if sexual gratification itself were enough to calm his mind. Every insect landing on a bag of cat shit or spoiled Chinese food assaults his ears with meaningless noise – the perception of which is itself the result of the movement of tiny bones inside his head. And so, he releases his breath in one long, unsatisfied rush, and succumbs to unconquerable motion. Surrounded by the towering bluffs of garbage, he breathes deeply in defeat, unbothered by the smell.
The last truck of the day is fifteen minutes behind schedule. Russ checks his clipboard, sliding his finger down to the twelfth row and then across to the tenth column to confirm – Truck #25, Manuel del Norte, Southeastern Route, 7:00 pm. Across the dump, over the hills to the west, the sun has another hour of hangtime. He hasn’t eaten since eleven and his stomach aches. There is no gate to lock, not even a fence for that matter, only the mounds of trash which gradually give way to alkaline clay and thin yellow grass. Even so, he waits and watches the dirt road for any sign of dust or glinting sunlight. His ears strain against the background, hoping to hear the thunder of Truck #25. There is nothing. Row 12, Column 10 remains unchecked – Manuel has stopped for a drink. Another hour and Russ abandons his post, heading for his trailer in earnest.
Double-wide and painted in various generations of Rustic Farm Red, his trailer is perched on two dozen identical stacks of tires. He climbs the stairs gingerly, favoring a sore knee and internally debating the merits of ham and Swiss on wheat versus a much more ambitious chicken casserole. The door screams on its hinges and slaps shut behind him without hydraulics or springs to soften its chase. Russ flips on the lights and heads for the fridge. It is weather-scarred and shaped like a Buick. It is one our countless antiques he has salvaged from a hundred yards away and dragged inside like a stray dog.
He thinks of silly things – meaningless things – to fill the night. He wonders if he’s ever eaten at a restaurant and been served with the exact same dishes twice. If by some cosmic aberration he scraped at the same plate with the same fork, chasing a bit of beef or trace of gravy, before washing it away into the void with the same water glass. He tries for a moment to calculate the odds of such a thing, assuming they might be better for someone like him who only ever eats at one of three restaurants and orders without the smallest inclination toward variety. He turns on the television and flips channels without a destination in mind. The clock on the wall continues to tally Manuel’s tardiness.
Russ wonders where all the colors of the world go when you wash clothes in hot water. He dreams of a low, secret place in the world – downhill from everywhere – where all the dyes and stains will gather at the end of time and swirl in psychedelic concert with one another. Denim blues and royal purples colliding with the reds and yellows of youth sports uniforms. An ecosystem of hue and saturation, forbidden from human eyes because it would break a person’s heart to see the beauty we let run down the drain in exchange for muted shirts and pale underwear that smells like mechanical lavender.
At 9:30 pm, headlights streak across the far wall of his trailer as Truck #25 rumbles into the yard and backs up to edge of the nearest available crater. Russ steps out onto the stairs and watches from the shadows as Manuel climbs out from behind the wheel unsteadily and starts working the levers behind the cab. Slowly, the beast’s back rises like a hissing cat, reaching skyward until a mountain of debris comes sliding out the back. The night sings with the familiar clatter and mixing of junk that doesn’t know it is junk.
Inside, he reaches for his clipboard – hung below the clock on a nail which has been given no other purpose in this life – and checks the final box of the day. On the TV, various sports zip by in compressed, thirty-second highlights with screaming commentary. A box fan in the window blows heavy, oily air in circles, ruffling papers and swinging the plastic Venetian blinds against the wall with a measured click-click-click. Russ sinks into a chair and holds his breath. The refrigerator hums mechanically with outdated effort. Spots form behind his eyes, dancing like paranormal orbs or summer insects. Down the hill, Manuel slams the door of Truck #25 and crunches gravel back to his large black SUV which he has sequestered away from the garbage.
His lungs begin their usual ache, his concentration breaks, and he gorges himself with new air. He takes three vicious breaths and then screams – howls like an animal of the night. Like an elemental beast desperate to eat or to fuck or just to be heard across the miles. One long and unbroken cry for as long as his wind holds out. He screams until his eyes bulge and his neck strains. Until the last squeaking bit of landfill breeze escapes his lips and his head slumps forward against his chest, panting from the exertion.
And for a moment, there is stillness.
James Stuart is a fiction writer based in Tacoma, Washington, who received a Bachelor of the Arts in English from Colorado State University. Stuart’s work has been published in The Almagre Review and on Short Fiction Break. I also maintains his own fiction website, The Forge (www.storiesfromtheforge.com).