"Goddamn trash pandas were at it again last night!"
Stephen knew he sounded manic, ranting at Greg in the breakroom, but sleep deprivation combined with impotent anger at the furry bandits made him not really give a shit. As he continued to bluster, he couldn't help replaying the earlier events in his mind.
He'd been woken this time by a grocery bag. It was hooked in the tree outside his bedroom window, flapping incessantly in the pre-dawn breeze until he'd thrown off the covers in a fury and run out of the house hoping to catch the culprits in the act. All he'd found, though, as he'd stood, bathrobe gaping over hastily donned pajama pants, was a lawn strewn with all the garbage he'd picked up every morning for the last four days… and now he'd have to do it again.
The relative chill of the night was already burning off as he contemplated the job at hand. Gonna be another hot one, he'd remarked into the dry empty air. Then, cursing maybe a little louder than was prudent, he'd bent to the task, gathering an armful and thinking to himself that he was beginning to form a relationship with this plastic drinks-cup, the last dribbles of his wife's iced latte dried in a pale brown track along the transparent inside. He was coming to know intimately the pint container from his bachelor-night microwaveable ramen, and the pizza box with its pepperoni remains shriveled on the cardboard like some mummy's abandoned ears, and the motor oil bottle, it's crooked neck sticky with smelly dinosaur juice.
Last night, he'd piled up rounded landscaping stones onto the dumpster's lid, certain that it would put a stop to the vandalism but this morning, the rocks lay on the ground blocking the dumpster's little wheels, the lid flipped over and dangling ineffectively, trash covering his perfectly manicured lawn.
When he'd looked up and down his street, from one end of the block to the other, at each of the identical squares of yard, the story was much the same; his neighbors standing in rumpled sleepwear shaking their heads, grumbling as they too collected their refuse one more time. Goddamn trash pandas!
"I'm not sure it's racoons, man," mused Greg, eyeing him warily. It was almost like his friend was commenting directly to his memories, bringing Stephen back into the bright lights and Formica tables of the little room. "My house was hit too but none of the food was gone. We had take-out a couple of days ago, you know, barbeque, man, and you'd think that racoons would lick the boxes clean but all the sauce splatters were still there. My boy hadn't finished his sloppy-joe and it was still there, man, still in the Styrofoam. I'm thinkin' it's kids, you know, knockin' over trash cans for fun."
"Don't you guys live on the NorthEnd?" It was Dave from across the hall, coming into the conversation late.
"Yeah," Stephen answered sullenly as Dave's coins clattered into the machine and a white paper cup dropped onto the little grate.
"Well," continued Dave as he watched the automated nozzle pour out dark brown liquid, "I got hit too and I live down in the southeast, on the other side of the SuperMarts down there. Can't be the same gang covering that much territory. Unless there's a city-wide teenager conspiracy, it's gotta be somethin' else."
"Something else like what?!" Stephen challenged.
"Dunno," Dave replied with a noncommittal shrug. He then turned away from the other men, retrieved his coffee, and left without another word, a brightly decorated danish wrapper clinging to his scuffed loafer. Stephen didn't like Dave, the man had never been the picture of grooming and decorum. Of course dude's walking around with trash stuck to his shoe.
"Well," said Stephen, turning back to the conversation, "at least today is trash pick-up. Little bastards won't have anything to throw around tonight."
"Yeah. Amen to that, man" Greg agreed as the two returned to the maze of cubicles and to their work.
But try as he might, Stephen just couldn't concentrate on the columns of numbers scrolling past on his computer screen, couldn't make out the figures on the order forms at his elbow through his exhaustion-blurred vision.
By the middle of the afternoon, he was unable to keep his eyelids from drooping.
"I gotta get out of here," he muttered to himself, pleased that he'd been cleared to telecommute part time. He'd go home and have a nap and then finish the day's work after supper. He scooped up the pile of papers with one hand, reaching down with the other for his briefcase but instead of the worn leather handle, his fingers found something crinkly. He'd gone back to the machines earlier for a candy bar, anything to keep himself awake, and he thought he'd thrown the wrapper in the waste basket. He must have missed the shot. Grabbing up the foil, he balled it up and aimed.
"Two points!" he congratulated himself as he stuffed the order forms into his case and stood to go.
Minutes later, he stepped off into the parking lot. On the way to his car, he had to wade, ankle-deep, through a wind-eddy of papers and dust at the corner of the curb. Boy, building maintenance was sure going to hell.
He clicked the button on his car's fob, relishing the idea of an easy mid-day commute home. Brushing another, identical candy wrapper from his driver's seat, he threw his case into the passenger side. It landed in a small pile of breakroom coffee cups as he slumped gratefully into the sun-heated leather bucket. He eyed the couple of cups that had been bounced by the briefcase into the sportscar's footwell as he turned the key. Gotta clean this thing out this weekend.
Arriving at home he found the trash bin standing directly in the center of his driveway, not off to the side where he'd rolled it this morning for pick-up, but right in the goddamned middle! Have to phone the trash company about THAT!
In a huff, he got out of his car, dashboard alarm dinging indignantly at the door left open as he dragged the green-plastic dumpster up the steep drive in the sweltering afternoon. Even in his mood, he found that the empty bin was satisfyingly light and, placing it in its spot at the corner of the garage, he couldn't help lifting the lid for a peek inside. Yep, little bastards wouldn't have anything to play with tonight.
After pulling the car up the now dumpster-free drive, he dropped his briefcase in the foyer, kicked off his shiny black business shoes and, with weary but triumphant steps, padded his way to the bedroom.
"Honey?" it was Margaret's voice cutting into the fog of his dream. "Honey?!" his wife sounded alarmed, or angry Stephen couldn't tell which. "Honey? What on earth have you been doing in here?"
Stephen rolled over, still in his work clothes, drool making a spot on his favorite tie.
"Mmmmm?" he mumbled as Margaret pushed open the door to the bedroom, holding something in her hand, accusation in her stance.
"What is this?!" she asked, "What is ALL of this?!"
She was motioning behind her in the direction of the hallway and he rubbed his eyes, trying to focus on the object she was waving around so angrily.
"I don't know what that is. Looks to me like you stopped for yet another of your famous soy lattes!" He was getting angry too. Though he wasn't sure what she had to be angry about he didn't appreciate being woken up with that tone of voice. "Maybe you should lay off those things, huh?"
Clearly, this was not the thing to say.
"Lay off these things?!" she yelled, shaking the cup in the air. "I'll have you know THIS was the last latte I've had and THAT was TUESDAY! At least I've got the decency to drink GOOD coffee! That pile in your car is a disgrace! It's practically up to the window and you've got the nerve to tell ME to lay off?!"
Margaret flung the plastic cup at his head. It was too light to make a good projectile though and fell to the rug far short of her target. She huffed explosively and left the room, slamming the door behind her, an odd shuffle-clanking accompanying her exit.
Stephen swiped up the empty latte, turning it over and over in his hands as he tried to calm down. But instead of his heart slowing, it skipped a beat altogether as his eyes found the pale brown track, dried on the inside; as he recognized the now familiar mark of his wife's Tuesday coffee break.
No way! That's impossible!
He jumped out of bed, an unintentional imitation of his early morning. He reached for the doorknob, afraid of what he'd find on the other side, stunned when the hall came into view. And it was worse than he'd been able to imagine.
The length of the space was piled high with trash, far more than had been in the yard this morning, more than had been in the bin for the trash company to collect this afternoon. There, at his feet was the mummy-ears pizza box shedding crumbs from its tilted corner, the motor oil bottle dribbling dinosaur piss into the pristine, beige carpet, the ramen container adding its soy sauce to the mix. But beyond these, Stephen could see last week's collection of newspapers, the soda bottles and wadded up paper table cloth from their picnic with Greg's family, the box from the frozen lasagna they'd cooked Margaret's parents on their anniversary, the flimsy clear round cover that had protected the cheap cake from the SuperMart. There were shampoo bottles, spent razors, used tissues, soiled tampons for Christ's sake!
The appalling trail led from the hall through the living room and into the kitchen where he found a flustered Margaret tugging at something that seemed to be stuck to the seat of her pants. Bewildered, he sat down on one of the bar chairs as she pulled the slick page of an advertising insert away, it coming reluctantly, corners still grasping for purchase. She calmed a little, focused and, as if she were conducting a fascinating experiment, she held the colorful paper a foot from the perfectly shaped round of her buttock, then let go. With a hasty flutter, the ad flew back to stick once again to the sheer wool crepe of her business shorts as if it was drawn there by some freak static electricity. There even was a familiar crackling of discharge as she peeled it away and did the experiment again.
Her anger gone, she looked up at Stephen with puzzled fear just as he felt something bump against his knee. It was the blister pack from the phone charger he'd picked up on his way home two months ago but, different from Margaret's ad paper, he couldn't peel it free. It was stuck there as if someone had applied superglue. Then the smiling shipping box hit the side of his head, the mangled toothpaste tube adhered to his belt, the grease smeared cellophane plastered to his cheek. The air suddenly filled with swirling, flying refuse headed straight for him.
Margaret screamed. Looking through the storm, Stephen saw her buckle with the weight of her own trash, her precise pixie cut the last thing to disappear under the surge. He tried to lunge for her, to save her from drowning in the garbage but he couldn't move, anchored as he was, by everything he'd ever thrown away, by everything he'd given no more thought to each week once the green-plastic dumpster was emptied.
And then came the chuckle, cutting through the rustling and clacking and clanking and crashing; oddly audible above the din, mocking in its chittering mirth. With effort, Stephen turned his head toward the window above what used to be the kitchen sink, braving paper cuts from the raw edges of cereal boxes to find the laughter's source. And there he saw it, the bandit's mask. Small, dark, beady eyes paused, staring, the sharp gaze meaningfully fixed on Stephen, awash in his garbage. The tiny wet nose moved almost imperceptibly up and down, the horrible little creature seeming to nod in satisfaction as it chuckled again. Then, with a flash of fluffy ringed tail, it vanished out of the glass' frame, leaving the humans to their fate.
Goddamned bastards! was all Stephen could say before going under for the last time.
©2020 Annette Meserve
An evening of Myth and Poetry
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February 1, 2017 in Trinidad, CO
on the Shelf