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King Garbage

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Conner and his brother, Jimmy-Frank, stopped at a condemned house on their way to the Fresh Kills landfill. Four men gutted out the inside with crowbars, sledgehammers and shovels, and as Jimmy-Frank backed up the Grandpa beside a six-yarder, the heavy pounding sounded like clapping. Painted on the front of the green Dumpster were the yellow, stenciled words, MacCaffrey Private Carting, with their father's office phone number below. A cloak of flies covered the lid, and when Jimmy-Frank lifted it and let it slam shut, they rose like a humming constellation.

Conner helped his brother push the Dumpster to the lip of the hopper, and then Jimmy-Frank lowered the winch, and he hooked the handle. The Grandpa whined as the Dumpster rose from the ground and six yards of rotten and new wood poured out; the load smelled both musty and sweet. Repelled by what attracted them, the flies landed on and then rose up from the scraps of garbage mixed in with the wood — soda cans, onion slices and sheets of tin foil, webbed with dried cheese. His brother ran the blade, trapping half of them in the body of the Grandpa, while scaring the other half off.

“Stop throwing garbage in with the demo," Jimmy-Frank yelled to the men working inside. The drywall dust sprinkled in his hair made him look older than he was — 45, Conner guessed, instead of 33. His brother was bulky now; his muscle had turned to fat. But his frame still loomed.

A man in army fatigues and no shirt, holding a hardhat in his hand, walked out through a hole in the side of the house and nodded. "Sorry about that," he said. "Didn't think it mattered much.”

Jimmy-Frank told Conner to wait outside while he collected the money. He was 12 years older than Conner, with no other brothers or sisters between them, and Jimmy-Frank could act both ways: as if there were no gap between them, or an insurmountable one. When he wanted to be mean, he called Conner "the afterthought." But he hadn't called him that once this summer. He probably felt like one himself, Conner thought.

Conner peeked into the hopper. Rotten wood lay crumbled on top of snapped, golden beams of new wood — a boring load. Despite the unbearable stench, Conner preferred riding in the garbage truck for the odd mix of refuse. Not knowing what he would do at the end of the summer, he was preoccupied with other people's lives, guessing at them, envying them, constructing them out of the few scraps they left on the curb or stuffed into one of his family's Dumpsters.

His sister Maggie, who had helped pay for his first college, said she couldn't help him next year. If he wanted to go back in the fall, he had to save money over the summer and work more hours during the school year, or take out another loan. Jimmy-Frank wanted him to work through the winter. "Take off a semester," he said. "Then go back." His brother had worked 17 years for their father, starting in high school, first for the summers and weekends only, and then full-time after he failed the police exam twice. He told Conner that college would always be there, waiting for him.

Conner sat inside the Grandpa, with the door open and his feet up on the dashboard, waiting for his brother. The stripped cab had no air conditioner or radio and reeked of August. He flicked his finger at a stack of old lotto tickets sticking out of the glove compartment like a pale tongue, tattooed with his brother's unlucky numbers. In his side view mirror he could see Jimmy-Frank, walking out of the condemned house. With the waist of his T-shirt, his brother wiped the mud caked onto the Mac of their family name; and with his knee, he brushed clean the phone number. They would lose the business by winter if they didn't pay the back taxes their father owed. If new customers didn't start banging down the door, as his brother liked to say.

Before starting the Grandpa, Jimmy-Frank cleaned his ear out with a key on his key chain and then wiped it off on his pant leg. "What do you think? Do we start writing today?

Conner wanted to say that the entire idea was a waste of time, but instead he said nothing, hoping his brother would drop the whole thing.

“You got other plans?" Jimmy- Frank asked.

Conner listened to the exhaust gurgle as his brother eased his foot forward, then back, teasing the gas pedal. He wished he had other plans; but whatever excuse he could have made up disappeared on the coattails of the purple-black smoke drifting ahead of the cab, blending into the blank sky. "I don't know yet," Conner said.

“Maybe.”

“We can't wait on this," said Jimmy-Frank. "We got to start soon.”

There was a letter his brother wanted to write and send to the mayor. "It you write it," he'd said, "it will sound better. You're the writer." Jimmy-Frank wanted to say that the national carting companies — the Wal-Marts of garbage, as he called them — had ruined their family's business. They were everywhere, with new trucks and low prices, monopolizing the industry, squeezing the MacCaffrey's out after 100 years in the business. They were worse than the Mafia, his brother said. Jimmy-Frank would rather have had his truck torched or arm broken than be bought out by Waste Enterprise or Responsible Refuse. With the Mafia, he could at least fight back.

Before Conner could shut his door, Jimmy-Frank pulled up to the end of the driveway. "Why don't you take a shot at it first," Conner suggested. "Then I can look at it next week."

"You bailing on me?”

“No. But I'm busy this week.”

“If you finish it early next week, we'll still be in good shape." He grinned. "I'll send it off to the city, and then maybe some of the local papers. Stir things up a bit. Put ourselves back on the map.”

His brother was still high and optimistic from the night before. The guys at the bar had made Jimmy-Frank a cardboard crown, decorated with wet labels that they'd peeled off empty beer bottles and stuck to a six-pack carton. Leo, the bartender, crowned him the King of New York's garbage, and then asked him how it felt to be king. First Jimmy-Frank glanced at the bar, then at Conner and the window behind him, with people passing on Hudson Street, and then finally turned to Leo and said, "If only this weren’t my Kingdom.”

Jimmy-Frank waited for a break in traffic before pulling out of the driveway. Across the street from the condemned house was a vacant lot. A chain-link fence, a "No Dumping" sign and cattails surrounded the cracked concrete. They were somewhere in Linoleumville, Staten Island, Conner knew, and soon the street names would change from Elm and Colonial to Industrial Loop and Chemical Lane. Soon there would be the stench of rotten egg and asphalt.

They passed a sign announcing the exit for Fresh Kills, and at the sight of the humps and peaks coming clear into view, Conner rolled up his window and prepared to sweat for the next hour.

“You get used to it," Jimmy-Frank said. "It doesn't smell as bad after awhile.”

“What if I don't want to get used to it?”

“If you come out here day after day, you can't help it." Opposite the entrance to Fresh Kills, on the other side of the four-lane highway, a billboard read, "Fight Dirty." A trash can stood at the center of the sign, like a bottle of Absolut. Along the bottom, in bold letters, were the words "DON'T LITTER." The hills behind the billboard, covered with splotches of sickly grass, marked the oldest part of the landfill. If his brother had not told him, Conner would never have guessed that there was garbage buried beneath — papers and appliances from the '40s and '50s, when the site first opened. That winter the city would close Fresh Kills. The landfill had been scheduled to close in October, but since they hadn't decided yet where to dump the city's garbage, they extended the deadline until December. Two years ago no one said a word about the place, but now it was all anyone talked about.

His brother sometimes talked fanatically about the landfill, as if the site were some kind of temple, foretelling the city's future and now, somehow, his own.

After their father's recent heart attack, the back office of MacCaffrey Private Carting, the space their father had turned into his home after their mother's death — the small refrigerator, the bathroom and couch, his dry-cleaned clothes hanging on an open file cabinet drawer — became Jimmy-Frank's domain overnight. He spread out on their father's desk all the articles on Fresh Kills that he had cut out of the newspapers. He had arranged them on the glass top and highlighted words, phrases and sentences only he knew the importance of. It was then that he discovered the notices from the city that their father had hidden.

Conner knew they had outlived the Mafia only because his family had never been a threat. Their father owned four trucks — the demo, garbage, cardboard and roll-off, each named after one of his dead relatives: his sister, father, grandmother and grandfather. Each was on the same last leg, and as unstable as their father now was, lying in the hospital since June.

Their father had always been an outright liar. He once said that their great-grandfather, Francis MacCaffrey, had refused to sell the parking lot he owned when the city wanted to build the Holland Tunnel. "We moved the Holland-fucking-Tunnel," Jimmy-Frank would tell people. But Conner could never get as excited as his brother, and instead pictured a bulky and bearded man, swatting flies at his desk, not knowing a goddamn thing about the Holland Tunnel and too set in his ways to care.

Conner thought Jimmy-Frank's letter should say that their father had run the business into the ground. Before his brother had discovered the back taxes, Conner had heard him complain. "If I ran this place," Jimmy-Frank would say ... if he had handled this or was in charge of that. But who would they send that letter to? The mayor? Their father? And what good would that do? Even if he recovered and came back to work, their father wouldn't say a word.

Conner didn't feel like he knew the man or ever would. He was 9 when their mother died and he went to live with his sister, when their father sold the house and moved into the office he rarely left.

At the entrance to Fresh Kills, a pudgy woman with pimples sat in a smalt narrow booth and directed trucks toward the weigh-in scales. Jimmy-Frank rolled down his window, and the cab sucked in the awful stench. "I hear they're giving you another two months.”

The woman smiled. "I'm not worried about this place closing," she said. "I figure I'll be working here until they run out of garbage. By then they'll have filled in the Hudson, taken over New Jersey and I'll be retired.”

“They got any openings?" Jimmy-Frank asked, smiling.

“You don't want to work here, honey." The woman smiled back at him and then shooed him toward the weigh-in scales.

“Have you looked for another job?" Conner asked.

“When do I have time?" Jimmy-Frank asked.

“If things don't work out, don't you have a back-up plan?”

“I’ve never had a back-up plan. What should be different now? Things will work out.”

After weighing in the Grandpa, they followed an overloaded wagon to the open face of the landfill. The tarp covering the load had come undone at one corner and flapped viscously. That morning they'd picked up a tricycle, three blackboards from a Catholic grammar school, two iron radiators, and four yards of drywall and concrete from a gutted-out restaurant. Jimmy-Frank handed Conner the weigh-in receipt. The ticket said they were hauling two tons.

Conner wondered what kind of job his brother would want. After one of his fights with their father, Jimmy-Frank took on odd jobs for six months. Maggie said he was a security guard for nine weeks, a garage attendant for a month and a construction worker on and off in between. But he left each job, complaining that nobody liked him, and that they treated him unfairly. His brother couldn't e-mail, fax or type. He had a physical intelligence, as worn and rusty now as the machinery he had learned to master at 18.

Before Conner left work each day, he would see his brother sitting at their father's desk, fidgeting with the air conditioner that went on and off at whim, trying to figure out a way to pay the city back, or at least stall them. Then, after riding the train for a half hour to his sister's, Conner would grab the towel Maggie left hanging for him on the garage door, take his boots and pants off, wrap the towel around his waist, and walk quietly through the house and into the shower before his sister could ask how Jimmy-Frank was. She would tell him that it wasn't wrong to want to go back to school. She had helped him so he would have choices. "Jimmy-Frank has already made his choices,” she would say.

Conner thought his sister, almost 20 years older than him, sounded like their father, if their father could have said more than two words to him, if he could have raised his voice once in awhile and acted like he cared what happened.

Conner stuffed the receipt into his pocket and stared out of his window. In the flat marsh that still surrounded the base of the landfill, pools of silver water reflected the sun, like a dozen jigsaw shapes tucked away here and there in the swaying reeds and cattails. On a clear day, standing on the open face of the landfill, you could see part of the New Jersey Turnpike, the Goethals, Verrazano and Bayonne bridges, the mouth of the Hudson River, and Manhattan.

His brother had once told him that 33 percent of Manhattan had been built on "made land" — compacted refuse fastened to the jagged edges of the city like patchwork. He wondered now if the city could use the twelve thousand tons of refuse collected each day to build another borough or state. A place more shameful to say you lived in than Long Island or New Jersey.

Manmade foothills, covered with plastic tarp and soil, rose on either side of the road to the open face. They looked manicured, Conner thought, even combed in some places, awaiting seedlings and sun. Where patches of yellowed grass grew, the landfill looked like a golf course in late winter, except a black, oily liquid seeped out through the soil and plastic and poured down the sides like syrup. Hitting pothole after pothole, the wagon ahead of them pitched loose scraps up into the air, and Jimmy-Frank worked hard, steering right, then left, trying to avoid the toilet seats, hub caps and ripped garbage bags that fell onto the road in front of them.

Jimmy-Frank leaned into Conner and pointed to a row of thin PVC pipes poking through the surface of the landfill, then bowing and entering the ground again. "Know what those are?" he asked.

Conner shook his head, and Jimmy-Frank shifted in his seat, breathed heavy and pointed to the gutter at the edge of the roadside. "See that black shit coming up from the ground?" Glazed bubbles formed on the surface and then popped.

Conner nodded.

“That's leachate. That's what's in those pipes.”

Conner was amazed by his brother's pride, as if this knowledge were one of the benefits of coming here. He stared across the Arthur Kill, the river that separated Fresh Kills from New Jersey, to where refineries and factories lined the water's edge, where a constant milky smoke loomed over production in Cateret. A graveyard of half-sunk ships, their hulls green with algae and orange and pockmarked from rust, clogged the shallow cove at the foot of the landfill. The river seemed unnecessary. What had been made four or five years earlier, on the other side — plastic film cases, aluminum cans, rubber stoppers — ended up here, if not this week then the next. God, there's so much of it, Conner said to himself. He couldn't make out any individual thing. Everything blurred. Everything mingled together because everything had to. Because there was no choice.

“I was thinking that if you get tired of Maggie's, you could stay with me," Jimmy-Frank said. "Until December. Or January. Whatever you decide.”

“I might not stay at all.”

“What do you mean?”

“I might go back to school," Conner said.

“I thought Maggie couldn't help you.”

“She can’t.”

“You little shit." Jimmy-Frank slammed the dashboard with his fist. "When were you going to tell me?”

“I didn't ... I might not even be able to pull it off. I don't know yet.”

Jimmy-Frank shifted, gave the truck more gas, and they moved closer behind the wagon ahead. The tarp had come completely undone now in the back, and flapped like a cape. Jimmy-Frank jerked the wheel, throwing Conner into the door.

Conner started to apologize as he reached to flip down the visor to block out the sun suddenly blinding him. But before he could do either, a loud slap stunned the cab.

A web of cracks snaked across the windshield. "What the fuck?" Jimmy-Frank said and stopped the truck, but the wagon continued. He climbed onto the hood of the Grandpa and looked for what had cracked the glass. He lifted the wipers, but found nothing, then inspected the windshield again. Back in the cab, he searched on top of the dashboard.

“What are you looking for?" Conner asked.

“A pen and paper," Jimmy-Frank said. "Check the glove compartment.”

“What do you need a pen and paper for?”

“So I can get that fuckhead's info.”

“You're going to chase him?”

“I can't see a fucking thing now. And that's one more thing I have to fix." He pointed to the cracked windshield. "That's money.”

When Jimmy-Frank opened the glove compartment, his stack of old lotto tickets fell to the floor. "Check under your seat," he told Conner.

Conner handed his brother a pen and the crumbled weigh-in receipt from his pocket. "What's the point," Conner said. "Nobody gives a fuck.”

“I give a fuck. You don't. Nobody does," Jimmy-Frank said. "But I do.”

The wagon had stopped about 40 yards ahead. The driver and his helper were stretching the tarp over the load and tying the corners down. Jimmy-Frank stuffed the pen and paper into his pocket and ran towards them.

Conner watched from the cab. He worried about what his brother might do.

With his hands as a makeshift megaphone, Jimmy- Frank yelled up to the driver. The man wore orange earmuffs, clear plastic goggles, a green jumpsuit and leather gloves. Competing with the running engine, Jimmy-Frank waved his hands and yelled again. This time the man looked down at him and shrugged. Jimmy-Frank motioned for him to take off his earmuffs, and the man finished tying the tarp down, removed his earmuffs and then stepped off the side of the truck.

They talked and Jimmy-Frank pointed to the Grandpa. Then the driver climbed into the cab. As Jimmy-Frank waved his hands, the wagon started moving. He punched the cab door and kicked the wheel twice, but the wagon only sped up.

Jimmy-Frank limped back to the Grandpa and handed Conner the pen and receipt. The knuckles on his right hand were bloody; they had moved back some, closer toward his wrist.

“You broke your hand," Conner said.

“I’m fine. It's not broken.”

“You sure?”

“I’m fine." Jimmy-Frank shifted with his left hand and continued toward the open face.

Conner handed the T-shirt draped over his seat to Jimmy-Frank. "Wrap this around it.”

Jimmy-Frank wrapped the shirt around his hand until it looked like the end of a Q-tip.

"What happened?" Conner asked.

Jimmy-Frank gripped the steering wheel with his good hand as he turned left, toward the open face, where private carters dumped; and the wagon, hauling public refuse, bared right over a mound and was gone.

“It was an accident," Conner said, and waited for Jimmy-Frank to say something. But his brother stared ahead, as if he'd never driven this route before and had to concentrate and make sure he went where they were supposed to go.

Conner would write the letter for his brother. Tonight he would describe the national carting companies — Waste Enterprise and Responsible Refuse — as the monsters his brother dreamed they were. He would make them ominous and threatening, but something Jimmy-Frank could still stand up to and fight against. He would have to. He had seen their father in the hospital, the tubes in a complicated web beside his bed, his cheeks caved in, his eyes watery and dazed. There was nothing left in the man for his brother to fight.

Conner unfolded the crumbled weigh-in receipt, smeared with his brother's blood, and read what Jimmy-Frank had written: the license plate number, the time and a brief description of the man — tall, thin, scruff on face, brown eyes. He wondered if this were enough information, if anyone could recognize someone by what little his brother had written down.

At the open face, Jimmy-Frank parked the Grandpa beside a wall of garbage rising like a wave, with bathtubs, refrigerators and kitchen sinks bobbing on the surface. He unwrapped the towel and shook out his hand, as if that motion alone could somehow bring his limp fingers back to life. But instead he moaned.

“Don't worry," Conner said and climbed out of the cab. "I'll do this." His brother leaned across the seat, as if he was going to protest, but he only waved his swollen hand and then turned away. Not wanting to slam his door shut, Conner left it open an inch.

Walking from the cab to the hopper, he felt the ground shake and wobble beneath him. No support beams or concrete foundation held him up, only.a sprawling, amorphous jelly-like blob, junk piled upon junk, vibrating from the garbage trucks, compactors and bulldozers that rattled over the surface. He stretched the collar of his T-shirt up and over his nose and tried not to breathe. He worried about rats; they darted in and out of the rubbish heaps. As he released the hopper blade, the Grandpa rocked from side to side, as if suddenly at sea.

Slouched in his seat, with his arm dangling out the window, Jimmy-Frank drifted. Conner unhinged the hopper, and a pool of hopper juice formed at his feet.

As he worked the gears at the side of the Grandpa, the hydraulic pumps sighed, pushed the compactor blade forward, and the truck emptied itself. In compacted clumps, the tricycle, blackboards, radiator and chunks of drywall rolled onto the ground, intact but beat up, still recognizable on the blanket of indiscernible waste that had become the ground. The open hopper looked like a mouth, yawning. The truck breathed fog, and an insignificant number of flies rushed out, with their wings reflecting light. After the air cleared, Conner found himself covered head to toe in construction dust.

As he lowered and locked the hopper in place, he looked up and saw Jimmy-Frank staring at him in the side-view mirror. The trucks tilted eye framed and reflected his brothers solemn face, and Conner waved, but Jimmy-Frank didn't see him. The construction dust on his hair, face and clothes had turned Conner into his family's afterthought — haunting the periphery, orphaned in Staten Island, as forgotten as the refuse dumped at his feet. He turned to see what was behind him and peered into the distance for what possessed his brother.

Snaking up the Hudson, the inkblot of concrete looked small from here, and a net of flapping seagulls, cackling and cawing, disturbed his view. But there it was, the island of Manhattan, shaped like a crooked finger, pointing to Fresh Kills, the mountain of refuse rising, with a 285-foot peak, a mass, estimated at 100 million tons, a volume, estimated at 2.9 billion cubic feet, 50 times the size of the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan, standing at the center of Staten Island like a testament to the times, the city's past and possible future, a puzzle with pieces that his brother and he would somehow make fit.


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