Garbage, Nothing

John Larson

We’re demolishing the CEO’s ceiling because he wants a new one. We’re building scaffolding, climbing up there, tearing things down. Dust is floating in the air. I’m breathing it in. I’m always coughing up black strings of phlegm after work. Manuel tells me to protect the CEO’s door because it’s expensive. I staple a blanket over the door and tape plastic around the blanket. I realize after that I just blocked our only exit. Manuel calls me a dumbass. He makes it my job to hammer a new hole in the wall, which is getting knocked down tomorrow anyway, so we can get in and out. I hurry to hammer us a new exit, hanging plastic over the hole as a kind of curtain. Sometimes I make mistakes at my job because I get distracted wondering how I have managed to so flawlessly waste my life.

Last thing we do before break is dismount his video projector and screen. One of our crew takes the projector for his backyard. He plans to shine it on the side of his garage. Movie night for his kids. Last year’s Pixar. I experience an episode of nostalgia that almost moves me to tears. Then I think more neutrally about my childhood, and try to pinpoint where exactly things started to go wrong and why.

But now it’s coffee break. Manuel always goes to McDonalds. He loves McDonalds and is loyal to it like it’s his wife. I’ve suggested other restaurants: Popeye’s, Wendy’s, etc. He just shakes his head and says, Sorry, has to be McDonald’s. Laborers often have a pathetic degree of brand loyalty. To tools, trucks, dip, burger franchises.

There’s always this homeless guy outside McDonald’s in the morning asking for orange juice. I’ve been thinking about this guy a lot lately. I don’t know why orange juice rather than, say, anything else.

I don’t like turning him down everyday so today I say sure, I’ll buy you some OJ.

I read the menu sleepily. Wait for Manuel to finish his order. Manuel always orders the 12 piece McNuggets with BBQ sauce, a McDouble, and a large Diet Coke. I buy a coffee. Try to remember what else. I buy an oatmeal.

You will always be skinny and weak eating like this, Manuel tells me matter-of-factly.

We go back outside. There’s the orange juice guy. I remember I forgot his orange juice.

Sorry, man, I say and I offer him the bag of raisins that came with the oatmeal.

I don’t like raisins, he says to me.

They’re good for you, I tell him.

We pause, and I give him the oatmeal too.

How about this, I ask.

He nods. He takes the oatmeal.

He’s full and now you the one gonna starve, Manuel says as we walk away.

Break’s over, so we take the elevator back to the fourth floor. The CEO’s office is up there. Used to be higher up, Manuel tells me, but after 9/11 the CEO wanted to be lower. The CEO asked what was the highest he could be and still survive a leap from the window should there be a 9/11 here. Math said fourth floor. West side, so the CEO could leap into the river and maybe survive the next 9/11. It’s crazy that people like this are real.

I walk down the hallway toward the CEO’s office. He has a framed letter from Obama. He has a portrait painted by Bush. Of himself. Painted by Bush. Golf clubs signed by Clinton. I cover these in plastic as well because dust can move through the ventilation and get on the memorabilia, but I kind of want to destroy everything. The world, our culture, is so shamelessly stupid, I think while I cut plastic. But I just do my job. I try not to fuck it up too bad. Because if the Bush painting gets dusty, that’s on my ass.

We continue work on the ceiling for the rest of the day and we do so while listening to classic rock on the radio. Before the day ends I hear “Simple Man” by Lynard Skynard three times. I run gondolas of trash downstairs. I return them empty. Sometimes I have to jump in the dumpster and stomp the trash down if there’s an air pocket. To be a simple kind of man. I hate this song.

I take the train home. Thirty minutes. Four days a week I make myself read books on the train. One day a week I make myself take a reading break. Today’s my break, so I look out the window at the black walls of the underground and ask if this is really a life worth living.

That’s when the woman gets on the train. She’s wearing a big blue puffy jacket. It has a tear in it where she is compulsively pulling the stuffing out, one feather at a time. It’s probably 85 or 90 degrees outside. I’d just take the jacket off, I think. It’d be a lot quicker.

As the doors close, she holds them open. Doors close, she holds them open again.

That’s when she screams.

No no no no!

The conductor comes on the speakers and says she needs to let the doors close. She looks at the speakers and mutters.

Sorry sorry sorry I’m so sorry.

Doors close. Train starts. The woman paces in a small circle. She is telling a story. She speaks to no one in particular.

The woman says, I been living at the shelter with the husband until I had my babay, and wanted to stay, but we been there ninety days, so we got sent away, and moved to the camp by the highway, with the husband and my babay, and I didn’t feel safe alone there with my babay, so the husband stayed, and I went to beg for food and diapers in front of Walgreens with my babay, except once, one night, when my babay had a fever, and I went to beg for medicine in front of Walgreens, and left my babay with the husband, and came back to the camp with medicine, and found the husband fffffucked up, and my babay not in our tent, and not around our tent, and not nowhere else in the camp, and nobody having any idea where my babay is, and now I been walking around, for six days, riding around, looking. And I’m just wondering if any of you have seen my babay. She looks a little like me.

The train stops again. Doors open. People get off and on. Some change cars. I assume this is because of the woman. But I stay because I appreciate the distraction. The doors start to close. She holds them open again. Screams.

No no no no!

The conductor comes on the speakers again. The woman apologizes. The woman is pacing in a circle. She starts her story over from the beginning. Every word is the same. Every stop after that she does the same thing.

It’s now eight stops later. Eight times listening to the story about her babay. Her puffy coat prevents her arms from falling straight at her sides. She stands there with her arms in an A shape.

Exit left at Belmont, the automated voice says.

I get off and head home. I take a different route than normal. I walk toward the homeless encampment beneath the underpass. Most of the tents have melted in a fire, as sometimes happens. Though what I see today seems particularly bad. A red piece of paper says that city crews will clear the remaining debris in a week. So come get your shit or it’s going to the dump, is the subtext. Some people are picking through what’s left. I am reminded that life could be considerably worse. I don’t see how this realization is supposed to make anyone feel better.

Looking at the debris, I wonder if this is the woman’s old camp. I’m trying to not think about what a stranger would do with a baby. In doing so, I think about it in great detail. Five nights ago someone was stalking this underpass, waiting for someone else to leave their child alone. Yesterday someone burned it all up. It will soon be cleared away. The city crews are coming. I considered working for the city, but took this construction job instead. The pay was better.

There’s an old wheelchair-bound woman sitting outside the Walgreens by my apartment. She sits in the sun. She’s draped in blankets and attire for several different sports teams, some of them bitter rivals. Bears/Packers. Cubs/Cardinals. She wears a pizza box on her head for shade. Part of me wants to laugh because part of me is filled with absolute apathy for the world. Apathy is like an air pocket in a dumpster. It prevents you from being filled with other things. The woman is selling bracelets on the ground but I of course don’t buy any.

On my street, I blow my nose and sawdust comes out.

In my apartment, I’m reading about evictions. I’m searching for homeless shelters and how long you’re allowed to stay in one. I look at pictures of doorway spikes. Of benches made to be impossible to sleep on. I look up Catholic charities. I look up how to get involved in something. I try to find some kind of big registry of missing children. With pictures. There’s enough milk carton portraits out there to fill a lake, all those kids the world forgot bobbing in the flow. I search: Where to find out if missing child found? Homeless baby recovered, Avondale. Homeless baby recovered, City of Chicago. How to set text alerts for news of missing children being found. Statistics on missing children being found after one hour. Being found after twenty four hours. Being found after six days.

I’m turning off my phone now. I’m reading nothing for the rest of the night. I’m microwaving dinner and eating by the window. Birds sitting in the tree on the parkway. Blue, puffy birds. Squirrels jumping from their branches like little monkeys. What would you do with someone else’s baby? I'm eating microwaved dumplings. A bird is plucking out its feathers. Perhaps it’s because of the heat. All that extra material. Or else it’s nerves, anxiety. I’ve heard sometimes that’s why they do it. What do you have to worry about? I ask. I want to cry, but instead I just grow angrier. I want to grab it, to shake it. To shake it until it breaks, until it feels what I feel. What do you possibly have to worry about?

John has stories published or forthcoming in Expat, Misery Tourism, Griffel, and pulpMAG. He is on twitter at @john9268636.