The young woman in the tight blouse came out of the landfill office this warm June day and tapped on the van window. Mark had closed it because already the smell was bad. She leaned into the cab. The girls in back tittered. “Stay right,” the woman said. “If you go straight you’ll end up in a heap of trouble.” She smiled, looked to the back seats and said, “You kids let me know if you have any questions.” She handed Mark her business card. “You, too,” she said. “Anytime.”
“The Dutch throw out more than four-hundred thousand loaves of bread a day,” announced William, one of two boys in the van.
“Remember,” the woman said before waving them on. “Do not go straight.”
Mark did not have to be told twice. Married at the age of 40, a father at 50, and divorced at 60, he was good at shunning the straight and narrow; round numbers all, but an uneven path. Today he was chaperoning a fourth-grade field trip to the landfill because, as his ex-wife had told him last night, it was his turn. He drove the van through the open steel gates, charged up the hill, and took the road to the right.
“How come Ruth didn’t take us,” asked his daughter, Joelle. She was sitting directly behind him and next to her best friend, Philomena. Joelle had started to call her mother by her first name when she and Ruth moved out. As if to say, I want equal footing on ground that was increasingly shaky. As if to say, Let’s all be adults here.
Mark looked at Joelle and her friend in the rear view mirror and wondered if they should have mascara on. Philomena had slept over the night before, Joelle’s first sleepover at his new house. They giggled into the night long after he had told them to brush their teeth and go to bed. In the morning they swung by the school to pick up the boys. One never said a word. The other, William, recited from the report his group was to give later that week. The girls ignored them both. At noon they were to meet up for a picnic lunch with the entire class at a nearby park, then tour the recycling center in a building adjacent to the landfill.
“Americans throw away 5.7 million tons of carpet a year,” William said now as the van crested the hill.
“It’s just garbage,” said Philomena. “Do we have to get out?”
“Yes,” said Mark, opening the van doors. “That is what we’ve come here to do. Look at our garbage.”
“Why?” said Joelle.
“An education,” said Mark.
“Whose?” said Joelle.
“Americans throw away 28 billion pounds of food a year,” said William, taking out a notebook and pen from his backpack.
“Thank you, William,” said Mark.
Tossed by the wind, garbage of all types—plastic, paper, soiled cloth and flattened cans—danced about them in small and private eddies.
Mark and the kids joined the half of Joelle’s class that had assembled near the edge of a giant crater. The other half was visiting the recycling plant first. A bulldozer and two front loaders moved piles of garbage in the pit below. The ground shook, and the stink of diesel added to the rot of everything.
“My eyes burn,” said Philomena.
From the ridge where they stood Mark could see the southern tip of Lake Leelanau, and to the west of it the treed neighborhood where he and Ruth had lived and where Joelle was conceived. Where in the past year she lost two grandmothers, one fish, and a bird. Life went on; the garbage truck came and the garbage truck left. Until they lost the house, too. These days he didn’t have much trash. Mostly it was sorting out what was left.
Looking across the shallows of the blue and green lake, Mark thought of it, too, filling with garbage, garbage as bright and bold as lava and as dark as night that no one could stop and still these fourth graders would get on with their lives regardless, making small changes here and there, leaving greater footprints yet here and there, then soon enough boarding buses and planes and going away to school and fighting wars in boardrooms and overseas and how deep must the hole be to contain the blood of all that?
Mark picked up the loose papers that had wrapped themselves around his ankles. Disposing of them seemed the least he could do. When he glanced at the topmost sheet, he stopped dead. Philomena walked right into him. “Sorry!” she said. He held a letter from Ruth and at first he was uncertain if his vision was playing tricks. It was horribly stained and torn but otherwise readable. Dear Mark, it read. You know damn well that your mother’s money was intended for me as well. But you had to go to court and we both lost. Your attorney beat up on me. Mine beat up on you. Assholes both and the two of us became nothing more than collateral damage. Despite what those vultures of bitter endings have done to our family, I want… The rest, a few sentences more, was not legible. None of it had he seen before.
“I don’t want to be here, Daddy. It’s stupid. Everything is stupid,” said Joelle.
“I think so, too,” said Mark.
“By the year 2050 all the plastic floating in the ocean will outweigh the fish,” said William.
“Who cares,” said Joelle. And then, to Mark: “What were you reading?”
“Household refuse.” He smiled at her, crumpled up the letter and walked to the edge of the pit where he pitched all the papers that he was holding onto. As they swirled in the wind he wondered, when all was said and done, who would fill the hole that was left.
B.L. Makiefsky writes and lives in Traverse City, Michigan. His short story collection, Fathers and Sons, won the 2012 Michigan Writers Cooperative Press chapbook contest for fiction and was awarded publication. He has published short fiction in Fan Magazine, the Dunes Review, Thoughtful Dog, and Fiction Southeast. His one-act play Bittermoon was produced at the Heartlande Theatre in Southfield, Michigan. His one-act play Bagman and his full-length play A Good Joe were selected for staged readings at the Old Town Playhouse in Traverse City.