Fiction · 10/26/2016

Breaking Down

Since she’d been in recovery Abby had granted herself the serenity to accept the things she could not change. So she tried not to watch the conveyer belt too closely should a recyclable slip past the sorters and into the trash chute. Because it wasn’t about the recyclables that slipped past; rather, any glass, aluminum, paper or plastic pulled out was one more item saved from a landfill. Anyway, her focus should be on making sure no one in the line was engaged in behavior that might put them at risk of tripping and falling into the compacter. Their calls for help would be muted by the hum of motors and grinding of gears; by the earplugs the other workers wore as protection from the constant onslaught of mechanical noise.

Abby stood now at the viewing window of her air-conditioned office, sipping her customary V-8 for lunch. She watched the workers turn off the conveyer belts, the machines that ground plastics down, the incinerators, the fans that kept the warehouse a temperature bearable only by contrast. She watched them remove their hard hats (made of fully recyclable number two, polyethylene plastic) and safety vests (made of neon yellow mesh that could be repurposed but not recycled) as they left the line for lunch.

The warehouse dim and quiet now, Abby returned to her desk, where she filled the remainder of her V-8 can with vodka she’d picked up that morning. It was Friday after all. And she hadn’t had a drink in nine months, so why wait any longer? Why not spend the rest of the afternoon leaned back in her chair like this, contemplating the posters on the walls diagramming the processes each color and variety of the plastics they specialized in breaking down here went through?

Abby had managed this materials recovery facility for six years. She hired and fired, oversaw training and safety and productivity as the conveyer belt ran in the background, relentlessly spitting into the trash chute all the un-recyclables people unthinkingly tossed into their bins.

Here, they recycled plastic #1 through #5, which still left out #6 and the catch-all category #7, as well as any unlabeled plastics. #5 was a recent addition, granting a second life to cereal box liners, plastic bottle tops, yogurt containers, and potato chip bags. Drinking straws and disposable diapers, for those with kids, like Abby’s cousin and best friend, Monica, who couldn’t be bothered to check the numbers, to so much as flatten cardboard.

“Just wait until you have kids,” Monica sighed as Abby sifted through her trash, pulling out not just numbered plastics but glass and aluminum!

“You said you were recycling,” Abby accused, a glass jar balanced on one palm.

“I am,” Monica had joked. She pointed to her twin girls, one’s arms overflowing with stuffed animals. The other dragged a doll by yarn hair. More refuse in the making.

“Cycling,” Abby had corrected her. “You’re continuing the circle of life as some of us must in order to keep the whole thing going.” But Abby thought she understood what Monica must be getting at, how each time paper was ground down, its integrity degraded by twenty percent. And so with parenthood, this weakening, degrading of self due to ever-vigilance and lack of sleep, due to the crushing weight of all that garbage she and her husband and children were creating.

Just that night alone Abby had tallied two unnumbered plastic bags, six soggy paper towels, ten napkins, more than a pound of food scraps, two square feet of aluminum foil used to line a baking pan, two square feet of plastic wrap she then used to cover the leftovers, and one scorched oven mitt. None of which would be recycled.

Monica suggested it wouldn’t hurt to have a little bit of wine, just a glass. “It wouldn’t hurt,” Abby agreed. “But it would destroy my relationship.”

“I’m not sure Frank’s that good for you,” Monica had leveled. “He can’t stay for dinner because he has to go meet some girl? And you’re wound so tight you’re digging through my trash like a hobo.”

“A sponsee,” Abby corrected. “Frank went to meet a sponsee.”

Abby sipped at her drink, spinning leisurely in her desk chair, until her eyes rested on a box on the back counter, recycled items that she gave out as small incentives to employees. The wallets on top the same blue as the fleece made from recycled water bottles she’d given Frank for his birthday and never saw him wear. Frank professed to care about people, not things, failing to see their connection. He’d once said that sobriety was the only second life he was interested in. But Frank was in his late forties and had to be on his third or fourth life, at least. He didn’t have it in him to move on to another. He’d go back to his wife and kids, make amends. (Look, Honey, I stopped drinking and sleeping with my students!)

And what would Abby do? Over these months with Frank, she’d lost faith in her current path. Despite her best efforts, she was doing little to hold back that day when there would be no more land left to fill. She imagined a future in which people would have to be buried with all the trash they accumulated in a lifetime, entombed in it. Graves would become landfills, landfills graves. Would people take steps to curb their consumption even then? Or would they just accept this as a new reality of modern living?

Abby stood. What became of Frank was no longer her concern. She didn’t even care what he did with the jars of salsa and bottles of fruity drinks stocked in her fridge, as long as he packed them up with him. As long as he was out by the time she got home, gone along with everything he’d brought with him.

And this must be how most people thought of their garbage, sending it off to this imaginary land of “gone.”

Abby opened the office door. The heat and stink of the warehouse hit her. She stepped out into it.

There was no “gone” when it came to anything, especially refuse. It was this knowledge that caused Abby such anxiety, this anxiety that drove her to drink, the driving that earned her a DUI, which sent her to AA where she’d met Frank. And it seemed to her that this epiphany about how other people understood things might be a sign of the spiritual awakening said to come from working the steps, ironic not just because she made little effort to work them but because she’d just spiked her V-8, giving a grand middle finger to this man she’d let darken her door for the past nine months.

No, that wasn’t right. She was celebrating!

Abby was celebrating the fact that tonight her one-bedroom bungalow would be as quiet as this cement-floored warehouse with the machinery stopped, the premises vacated, a stench like stale beer poured over cat food hanging in the warm air. Frank would not be there attempting to draw out wrongs she’d committed while denying his own. “Moral inventory has to come from inside,” he’d cut her off. He didn’t want to hear about (for starters) all the water he wasted letting the faucet run while he rinsed the dishes or brushed his teeth. “A personal inventory,” he’d reiterate.

Because wasting community resources wasn’t personal. How could it be when it affected everybody?

Like Welfare, set up for people in need, who found themselves down on their luck. Not for someone knowingly entering into it, still in school, who could barely support herself already. Barely a child herself. The procedure existed for a reason. It had a practical value to society, allowing young women to start over again rather than continuing forward and making a mess of things. Growing up, her father taught ecology at a state school. She’d been taught to clean her plate, to make informed decisions that took into account the impact her actions would have on the world around her.

As Abby finished her drink, she imagined the echoes of a locker opening and closing in the employee break room to be Frank’s suitcase closing, latching shut. She set the empty can on the conveyer belt, leaned against the side, the metal ledge cutting into her hip.

Frank was forty-six, old enough to be Abby’s father if he’d had her when he was thirteen. He was a pale, skinny academic with brown hair and a beard to compensate for thinning on top. He taught psychology. When they met every few days at a coffee shop, Frank would find a way to work in the phrase “better bred than dead,” a common refrain in the group, reinforcing the idea that it was healthier to fool around than to endanger their lives through drug or alcohol use. Every time a woman walked in with a toddler or infant, he’d nudge her. “Better bred than dead.” If another guy from the group walked in, they’d fist bump, “better bred than dead,” and glance quickly in her direction. He’d point out other guys, trying to suss out her taste, until finally, he suggested rather than going home alone… just this once… no strings attached. And since it was either that or a couple glasses of wine, alone, in front of the television, Abby had given in to the suggestion. It was loneliness that caused her to seek sponsorship in the first place.

Abby’s face felt flushed. Her body grew uncomfortably warm. She removed the thin lab coat she wore to keep the stench from clinging so tightly to her clothes and draped it over the empty conveyer belt, just over from the can so the recyclable item would not be confused with waste. She slid off the light blue bandana and removed the scrunchee, then shook her fine, brown hair out to her shoulders. Next went her form-fitting t-shirt, her cotton pants, underwear and bra. Her sandals made from tire treads. The tiny diamond studs in each ear. Of all of it, only the V-8 can was recyclable. The rest would continue along to the trash chute. Even as conscientious as she tried to be, society had requirements.

In college, she’d volunteered for a beach clean-up community service event, six undergraduates including her, set on scooping up the plastics before they continued out to that gyre off the pacific where they would spin like clothes in a dryer as the thinner varieties began to break down. He hadn’t been her boyfriend, not officially anyway, not really. So there was no reason he couldn’t flirt with another girl there, no reason they couldn’t walk off down the beach alone while she contemplated the bloated stomach of a dead seagull lined with the bits of plastic that had surely killed it. She thought of her own insides, of what was forming there. She looked up to see the two figures now walking hand-in-hand.

Abby was growing lightheaded, groggy, even a little nauseated now by the stench of soured dairy residue rising over fermenting sugars, growing pungent enough in the summer heat to turn any newcomer’s gut. But she should be used to it, would be under normal circumstances, if vodka weren’t sitting on her mostly-empty stomach. If she could just lie down, just for a moment. And in that moment, the conveyer belt seemed as good a place as any. The only place, nearby, available. She spread her lab coat out to cover the globs of guck. She spread out her t-shirt for her head. Its message: reduce, reuse, recycle over a green bar code morphing into blades of grass.

The message coupled with the image attempted to cut through the rhetoric, to show that to really “go green” we needed to turn our barcode society into one that prioritized the green of healthy, growing plants over dollar bills. People threw around the word “reduce” to suggest they were somehow lessening waste already in existence, when really it was only hypothetical future numbers that were being reduced. Damage control for a situation already out of hand.

But even this had led her astray, her philosophy of making do, of making sure to differentiate between a want and a need. She preferred a man with some brawn, defined abs and muscles that bulged when he flexed. But because Frank had been handed to her, she’d tried to make what use of him she could. If she got on top, closed her eyes and imagined a waste management truck driver she’d once seen shirtless, she could work up a sensation warranting a faint moan.

Sex with Frank had been nothing soul-clenching. He held her afterwards, which was nice. He even spent the night. And when a second toothbrush appeared in her bathroom, a can of shaving cream, a man’s razor and deodorant — Abby went along with it in that way one accepted a bottle of light domestic beer at a party. It wasn’t really what she wanted, but it had already been opened, offered. She wouldn’t want it to go to waste.

Beneath her, the rubber of the belt provided little cushion through the scratchy material of the lab coat. She could feel the residue of her shampoo and the conditioner still clinging to her scalp, soap scum on her sweaty skin, deodorant caked under each wet armpit, eye shadow and lipstick, concealer, body lotion and facial creams, the smooth tracks left by her razor. All those containers, the packaging! Abby estimated just over twenty years of toiletry use, not counting baby shampoos and creams, and if she replenished these items every six months, this meant that Abby had left a trail of debris including at least forty replicas of each of these items. This was the waste that she, one person, had accumulated just to meet the social benchmarks of basic hygiene.

And food! Don’t even get her started. Frank had stocked Abby’s kitchen with vegetables and fruit in clamshells that she would later pull out of the garbage to place in the recycling bin, where they’d be collected and dumped on the very conveyer belt upon which Abby lay now. We weren’t separate from this garbage. It was part of us. It defined who we were: an advanced simian pack rat, one able to create the things it hoarded then tossed away, traded for something better, more.

She thought of those stem-less wine glasses Frank had bought, the knack they had for sliding from her slippery fingers like a glass bowling ball to shatter across the room. The relief afterwards, at no longer having to worry about it happening. At now being rid of the thing. Frank took issue with the recycled plastic she replaced these glasses with, the same issue he took with her pillows and comforter stuffed with recycled PETE. Didn’t he want to do his part to keep plastics out of the landfills?

“Don’t you worry about the potential reproductive harm of all this plastic in the house?” Frank finally asked her last night when she was cleaning up after dinner.

“You already have two kids,” Abby had reminded him as she scraped bits of vegetable stir-fry into the compost bin with a fork. “Anyway, plastic just needs to be treated with respect, gently hand washed and kept out of the sun or microwave.”

“But what about you?” Frank placed his hands on the mounds of her shoulders, dug into the blades with his thumbs. Abby set the dishes on the counter, let her arms fall slack. She groaned. Of course. She needed to be treated with respect too.

But he was talking about kids. When Frank dropped his hands and Abby turned around, he wore that condescending smile he must frequent upon his community college students, in particular. But Abby’s opinions, her stance on having children in particular, were not the half-baked nonsense of teenagers who couldn’t be bothered to read a textbook. She was thirty-three years old, a grown adult. She owned her own house. She had an MBA. Abby knew that what she tried not to watch coming down the conveyer belt each day was only a fraction of the byproduct of human consumption. And when humans created more humans, more byproduct was produced. So how could women fear that by not having children they might be wasting their life? It wasn’t abstinence that created waste.

And so the longest relationship she’d had in years ended, and she was dumped by a man she’d merely been settling for. As if reproduction were the only reason to be romantically involved, the only thing that could hold a man and a woman together.

Frank had brought into her house cleansers and sprays, ridiculously fragile dishes, packaged snacks, paper towels, a blanket for the couch and throw pillows she didn’t need. None of it recycled, recyclable or otherwise environmentally friendly. This, she understood, was the way most people lived, oblivious to the harm they were doing. It was every bit as disgusting to her as the balled up socks he threw around, the sweaty gym clothes and wet towels he left on the bathroom floor.

And so, Abby would be alone again.

The fans started back up overhead. Soon a load of refuse would drop on top of her, wet and sticky sweet with rot; followed by gloved hands picking through, reaching over, grabbing only at what could be used again, saving what they could from the landfill. This term, suggesting the land needed the trash to fill it. This term gave the trash purpose. It was this sense of purpose that people wanted for themselves, that they found in the ongoing collecting and casting off of things. Even Abby, with her recycled plastic bracelets and handbags, drinking bottles and multi-colored socks. Even she was caught up in it.

And so, the conveyer belt jolted to a start.

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Anna Rowser’s stories appear in The Adroit Journal and The Monarch Review. Her first published story has been nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland, where she taught creative writing and composition classes. She now lives in California, where she co-wrote and produced “Automotive Landscape No.1,” a short film that won Best Cinematography at The Pasadena International Film Festival earlier this year.