A Sin To Stay Down: A Boont Noir (Chapter 4)
by Robert Mailer Anderson, September 3, 2015
Yes. She was trapped, yes.
The electric gate wasn’t working and Ella had to get out of the truck and drag it open herself, which probably screwed things up worse and would make the gate harder to fix later, then she had to get back into the gargantuan gasguzzling Tundra that as an environmentalist she hated, drive the polluting monstrosity through the pie wedge opening, park on the outside of their property which had a steep incline just before the white line that marked the skirt of the two-lane highway – meaning some beer-drunk asshole could easily drift off course and hit her – set the parking break, get out again to close the stupid gate, and then climb back into the truck and hope the engine didn’t stall or the emergency brake didn’t slip. Rose was with her too, which made her worry even more about the beer-drunk assholes and the part where she had to leave the truck to close the gate.
And Janie’s dope was too damn strong.
Two puffs of her aptly named Karmageddon while she had been doing the laundry and now she felt paranoia creeping, doom rising, everything becoming super sinister, especially the quotidian tasks that made up her life.
Ella didn’t usually smoke anything in the daytime, when Rose was at home, but the school year hadn’t started yet and she was burnt out on the summer long, twenty-four seven parenting marathon and needed something to make doing the laundry tolerable. Couldn’t anyone put their socks in the hamper right-side out? Were Billy Lee’s ass scratching skid marks really her responsibility? She hated Rose watching her do the housekeeping. She wanted to lead by example. She had a college degree, not to mention some great ideas for businesses, with her yarn, the Knitwit Knit Kit, goat cheese, calvados. Yes, someone had to clean the house and make it a home, but why and when did it fall on her?
“All this buttoning and unbuttoning,” Ella had heard that someone had written that as their suicide note.
Yes. Indeed, yes.
She slammed shut the driver’s side door and lurched the truck onto the road. The trashcans in back rattled against grocery bags filled with empty jars and bottles to be recycled.
Fuck this dump run.
“You ready for school to start, Rose?” she asked, unable to crane her neck far enough to see her daughter securely seat-belted in the back seat behind her, then added, semi-audible. “I know I am.”
“I don’t like school,” Rose responded.
“I didn’t either,” and then again to herself. “And look where that got me.”
Ella stared out the windshield at the same stretch of six miles that took her back and forth into Boonville. If she closed her eyes, she could drive the snaking curves by memory. She preferred to go the other way to Ukiah, even though it was longer, a full twenty minutes, but it was an actual town with stores and people Billy Lee hadn’t know since birth and a population of around fifteen thousand, about the size of Katy, where she had lived in Texas after her father took a job at Igloo and moved the family from Houston. Before the divorce and he moved on to Dallas. And Dolores. Three D-words, all curses in her mother’s mouth. Her mother got custody of Ella and her little sister, Wanda, and relocated them back to Houston because, she told them, “Katy was named for the train that takes you out of this God forsaken town.” Ella finished high school in Houston. And finished with Texas when her father died. Wanda and her Mom were still there. They could have it.
Ella had escaped the humidity and thunderstorms and urban chaos for college too, in the high desert of Albuquerque. She got a degree in Sociology, for all the good it did her. She went in “undeclared” and came out even more uncertain. That’s where she met Billy Lee, before his injury. Maybe, unconsciously, it was the practice she got nursing him that made her think working with “at risk” teens wouldn’t bother her and there were plenty of jobs in that industry while everyone else was worried about finding employment after flinging their graduation caps in the air. It had to be better than customer service or retail.
Since quitting that career path, even working part time at the Hill Creek Winery tasting room in Philo was giving her panic attacks, causing her to be even more anti-social than when she smoked Janie’s pot. Her sister, Wanda, on the other hand, seemed to move happily from store to store at the massive Galleria mall back in Houston, selling clothes, jewelry, kitchen supplies, vitamins, exercise equipment. Her mother had showed her the way working the last sixteen years at the make-up department at Sak’s Fifth Avenue. It fit her perfectly, put on a pretty face and hawk something you only half believed in.
“You can’t make that up,” was her mother’s joke about difficult customers, the word play as stale as the air surrounding her perfumed display case.
“Twenty-six million people visit the Galleria every year,” Wanda had proudly informed her, like she had come up with the plans herself and was capitalizing on a large cut of the profits. Her husband, Randy, was manger at a belt store and they met by the indoor fountain that loosed water from the third floor roof into a lighted pool below. No doubt the nearby Water Wall sculpture had inspired it, which was like comparing Niagara Falls to a motel showerhead. Ella had read on a website or blog that malls were being designed for easy conversion into prisons. Or maybe it was a prison that had been converted into a mall? Any which way would work. In her mind, Texas was a death penalty state inflicting capital punishment on every moron and tumbleweed that couldn’t find enough momentum to roll out of that miserable place, from the uptown Galleria to Huntsville.
She didn’t let Rose visit her grandmother or aunt in Houston, though they offered to pay for the plane fare. Planes crashed. She’d kill herself if she lost Rose. But accidents aside, knock on wood, it was also part of the same reason she didn’t want Rose watching her do housework. She might see it as a viable option. Housewife. Houston. Cosmetics counter. A fallback position that became a life sentence.
Dead woman walking.
Ella passed The Toll House that was in the process of becoming a bed and breakfast. Apparently, the Toll House used to be just that, a house near where people paid the toll to drive this rural road. Ella hoped that they had only charged to go in one direction, towards Ukiah. A fee to get into Boonville was adding insult to injury. You could tell what side of the hill folks lived on by whether they called it “The Boonville Road” or the “The Ukiah Road.” Each trying to claim ownership. Tourists called it highway 253. Lucky them. Living somewhere in the middle, Ella used all three names, depending on who she was talking to.
After the Toll House, there were only two other visible houses on the right hand side of the road until you hit the flat of Boonville. Ella knew neither of these neighbors. One was raising a strange breed of deer. For meat? They had large racks and looked like they belonged somewhere snowy, maybe flying in front of Santa’s sleigh. Every time she saw the sad little herd captive behind their fenced acreage, she wondered what the fuck? Every time. Some days, six or eight drivebys. For the past ten years. She just couldn’t get used to them. Llamas, no problem. Emus, beefalo, peacocks, tule elk, even the zebras out in Point Arena at that freaky preserve, she could incorporate them into the logic of the landscape. But not these deer. They were too close to home, but somehow way the hell off, and they would never belong. Ella was convinced they needed to go back to where they came from. She was tempted to sneak out with wire cutters one night and set them free. But they’d probably just stare at the hole.
There they were.
With that scared deer look on their faces.
Three of them.
“Look at those deer,” she said to Rose, pointing with an index finger.
“I know Mom. I see them all the time.”
What the fuck? she wondered.
The other neighbors, a quarter-mile from the deer, didn’t live in their house. It was a second home and they came up infrequently to shoot guns into the hillside. Billy Lee had met them once when it sounded like Waco under siege and Ella had insisted he investigate. He came back and said they were just city assholes, drinking and letting off steam. It unnerved Ella. They clearly had automatic weapons or semi-automatics in their arsenal gauging by the rapid rat-a-tat-tat of the constant gunfire. Not even a Texan could pull a trigger that fast.
She asked Billy Lee to call Earl and tell them to stop.
“Houston, we have a problem.”
Yes they did, aside from him calling her “Houston” when she had told him somewhere shortly after their first kiss that she didn’t like it as a nickname. Or a city.
“I can’t phone Earl,” he said, apologetically. “Around here, if you have a problem, you solve it man to man.”
“Where’s that leave me?”
“You’re more man than those weekend warriors. Go knock on their door.”
Was that supposed to be a compliment? A dare?
“I asked you to do it.”
“And I did it.”
“So the problem’s solved?”
“It is for me.”
“But they’re not going to stop.”
“You don’t call the police on your neighbors,” Billy Lee said in no uncertain terms. “Unless a dead body rolls onto your property.”
“Is this west Texas?”
“It’s Up Cal.”
“I thought California was supposed to be liberal.”
“It is,” he said, then tried to add thoughtfully. “You can do what you want here.”
“What if I don’t want constant gunfire around my daughter? What if I want to feel safe? What if I want silence?”
Billy Lee said nothing. As if to say, “There’s your silence.”
“Can’t you at least be nice about it?” she pleaded, his non-verbal cues full of frustration at her insistence that the situation needed to change.
Billy Lee looked at her, and she could see he really was trying his best. For whatever that was worth. He moved forward to give her a hug that she didn’t want just then, and to make her feel safe in a way that didn’t make her feel safe at all. It made her feel weak.
“Look, I can’t do anything about it,” he told her. “But I’m not stopping you.”
Rose was watching them. Although Ella felt like crying there was no way she was going to shed tears over this argument in front of her daughter. She only wished she had the courage to drive over to the neighbors alone, step into a house full of drunk men armed to the teeth and tell them to shut the fuck up and give her all their weapons. Like she was in some movie.
But what movie?
If there had been one like that, she hadn’t seen it.
There were a couple other gated roads off highway 253 that led to an isolated homestead or a ramshackled double-wide. There was one off the backside of their ranch, and that’s how she got this way-too-strong dope from Janie, giving her their gate code for some bud and a little up front money. She didn’t care if someone grew a few plants on their property. She planned to change the code anyway, pretend Billy Lee had done it, as soon as harvest was over. That gate probably didn’t work well either. They never used it. But she didn’t want to think about of any of that now, except she wanted the rest of the promised money for the code. She wanted options.
She sped past the last gate on her right that led to a vineyard that Kendell-Jackson had recently planted up on a hillside. Where was the water for that? Deep, deep, wells. Deep, deep, pockets. But you couldn’t see any of the structures. And she never met the people. Part of that was her own doing. Though it was no great shakes, she tried to live her life on the Ukiah side. Her weekday commute was to Rose’s charter school that had a Rudolph Steiner based curriculum, not far from an espresso bar where she liked treat herself to a latte or two. But the espresso bar had closed, maybe due to Starbucks opening. So where was she going to get her caffeine fix when the new school year began? Not Starbucks. Not in a mall. She’d rather drink Red Bull. She would need something to wake her up because she volunteered once a week at Rose’s school and had made friends with one of the teachers, Miriam, and liked their ideology of preserving childhoods, expanding students imaginations and creativity through play. She also liked packing Rose’s lunch in the picnic baskets the kids had to carry. They made them knit too, which she loved. There was a full-fledged Waldorf school in Calpella, further up highway 101, before you hit Redwood Valley, what Billy Lee called “the tweaker turn-off for Clear Lake.” But that one cost money. And the charter school in Ukiah was free. So that’s where Rose was going for fifth grade, despite Billy Lee protesting that the public schools in Boonville was where she belonged.
By his own testimony, Billy Lee was an anomaly; one of the few to go to the public schools in Anderson Valley and then graduate from an outof- state college. It wasn’t entirely based on his test scores either. Afterwards, he came right back to Boonville too. Whatever they had taught him K-12, it had turned him into a human boomerang. He couldn’t wait to get out of Dallas either, when they were there while Ella’s father was dying. Not that she blamed him for that, she hated Dallas too, and those weren’t the best of circumstances; nobody was remotely happy, except maybe stepmonster Delores who stole her and Wanda’s inheritance. But for all his bitching and moaning about Mendocino County, Billy Lee vetoed any kind of move to San Francisco where Ella wanted to live. Or exploring anywhere else. He wouldn’t leave the ranch.
His sacred family land.
“They’ll have to carry me out in a wooden box,” Billy Lee told her.
“Who’s they?” Ella wanted to know. Maybe she could give them a call?
They passed the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, a microbrewery that had made a name for itself, putting Boonville on a few more maps. Ella bought a case every now and then, trying to augment Billy Lee’s canned Coors Light, the piss water that all his friends drank. She wasn’t a snob, but made a rule she wouldn’t drink beer from a can. Unless that’s all that was around.
The brewery was across from a ranch with a barn that, until recently, had a tattered Confederate flag nailed to the side of it, which had bothered Ella to no end. In a deeper way than the non-indigenous snow deer. She’d seen her share of Southern Crosses in Texas and another reason for moving was to try to escape that mentality. She had been one of a small group to ask the ranchers to take it down, but the long-rooted family refused on grounds that they were making a statement about their first amendment rights. One of their young nieces told her it was really all just a joke.
“What’s the punch line?” Ella had asked.“Slavery?”
It was another comment that didn’t endear her to Billy Lee’s community. She hadn’t been a favorite at keggers in Houston either. Bad weather and time finally got the flag. The ranchers didn’t put up another. Apparently, whatever chuckle or free speech sentiment they felt wasn’t worth the cost of a new one.
Or a sleeper cell of rednecks?
Ella knew which way she was leaning. Texas had taught her a lesson or two about human nature and polite society.
Highway 253 dead-ended at highway 128.
Every time she came to this tee, she had an itch to scratch a hard left, head to San Francisco and not come back.
She looked down the road.
Who could she be there? How would she live in the unknown reimagined nether regions? Was there a room for her and Rose? How much could a person change during their lifetime? She could sell the truck, change her name, do serious meditation, dodge the kidnapping charges…
Was the only way to freedom to become a fugitive? She would need all the gate code money first.
She submitted to the norm, again turning right into Boonville.
Trying to cover her frustration from Rose, she turned on the radio. Hank Williams was in sync with her vibe, singing, “You clap hands and I’ll start howlin’, we’ll do all the law’s allowin’…”
Ella joined in with resignation, “Tomorrow I’ll be right back plowin’!”
Her head bobbed to the rockabilly beat.
“C’mon, Rose. You know this one, “ she said and sang the last line, wishing the song would go on forever, “Settin’ the woods on fire!”
Ella eyeballed the new population sign, grimly. She had been included in the recent head count. What used to read “715” now stated “1035” – an “explosion” was how locals looked at it. Getting as bad as Healdsburg or Napa! Folks would go on and on about how that wasn’t the “real” number either, giving you a knowing insider’s look, reminding you about all the unaccounted for “illegals” living within their city limits. Billy Lee couldn’t drive the crappy half-mile main strip without muttering at least once, “Look at all these howdys.” He didn’t mean the Mexicans so much as the tourists. But them too, especially when the fairground halls filled for a quinceañera or wedding party. He’d marvel at the “traffic” which wouldn’t amount to a side road in Houston.
Ella thought she understood his attitude, comparing it to the arena of collectibles; dolls, coins, vintage cars, where it was scarcity and condition that mattered to determine the value of things. What locals had was the natural beauty of this rural landscape and a limited amount of people experiencing it. They didn’t want outsiders getting what they had for free, or cheapening it by making the experience commonplace, or mucking it up by destroying their open spaces. The peace and quiet. Tourists could go anywhere, buy anything. What locals had was all right here. And you wouldn’t let people come in to your house and lick your stamp collection, would you?
People waved at her. White people.
If it were a side street in Houston, aside from a horde of Mexicans, she’d see some black faces. Not one here. You could go months without seeing an African American in The Valley, although she once spotted the writer Alice Walker with the radical/activist Angela Davis and a group of other powerful-looking black women in front of The Boonville Hotel. Strength in numbers. She had studied “The Color Purple” and the Black Panthers in college. Walker was said to have a place in Philo, but Ella never saw her again, always hoping she’d come into the tasting room when she was working so she could ask her questions about her novel. There was a thread of true intellectual counter-culture up here, but Ella couldn’t find a way to stitch it into the fabric of her own life.
Old Glory wavered outside of the Veteran’s Hall and a slew of churches, plus the market and post office and porches of tiny postage stamp homes, the same as in the bumblefuck towns on the outskirts of Katy. Patriots. Proud of their country, and out of work. Or growing dope like Janie, off the books. Houston had oil. Katy had Igloo. Anderson Valley supposedly had grapes, but that didn’t supply enough of the residents full time work. Not anyone pretending to be middleclass.
When Ella first came to Boonville, when Billy Lee was essentially courting her, it had a newness and a small town veneer that seemed quaint. Maybe some exponential sense of the intimacy that had been nice about Katy, that she couldn’t allow herself to admit during her family’s unhappy times there. An old-fashioned community feel. Then there was all the wonderful wine and cheese Billy Lee plied her with, fresh plucked fruit and artisan food, abalone and crab, smoked salmon, deer jerky, free-range farm-raised meats and sausage his friends gave them because he was a local hero.
Billy Lee Lobo!
And Mr. Football showed her around the forests. The Redwoods. Unbelievable trees that had unfathomable souls. Just being near them felt comforting. You could breath in their sense of wisdom, as if human tragedy could come and go and something decent, taller and rising above everything, would outlast mankind’s suffering. And then there was the Pacific Ocean, wave after wave, lapping and crashing, depending on its mood; her own mood it seemed as they spread blankets on the sand and talked and kissed or she convinced him to buy surf boards and wet suits, and they splashed on in to ride the swell, driving the incredible jagged coastline in his muscle car looking for good waves. Good vibrations. It was epic. Mythic. Not the gulf coast she had been exposed to with oil slicks and blooms of red algae, oil refineries and oil derricks, the awful “drill, baby, drill” corporate culture held up by working class lives sinking into the sludgy sea bottom of it all. This seemed like paradise.
And they went to San Francisco, as if they’d always go to San Francisco. All the time. A convenient two-hour run to bohemia with bookstores and cafes, crazy hills with incredible views and cool bars, open-minded conversations, a downtown that had anything she could possibly have wanted from back home in Houston. Ten times hipper than Albuquerque, way more fun than Santa Fe, wildly diverse compared to Austin that was, after all, still in Texas. They crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in a refreshing fog, accompanied by their better selves. Their younger naïve in-love optimistic selves. Until Billy Lee’s father died and they went through that shit with Charlie and Tammy, and Billy Lee took over the ranch, and then it took them over, and they had Rose, and the economy tanked, and Billy Lee joined about seven different softball teams and fantasy football leagues and began coaching obsessively and knocking heads with the administration at the high school, and then her father died…
In retrospect it all seemed like a bait and switch. Or else she had mistaken the fish for the bait. That small thing hooked at the end of the line, that was their average American life. They weren’t going to catch anything bigger.
That’s who she married, yes.
This is what she had married into.
Ella took a deep breath and drove as fast as she could to the dump turn off. There were no traffic lights on Boonville’s main drag. Or stop signs. But if you drove more than thirty-five, some local was liable to take a shot at you. At least bitch you out. If they felt like you didn’t hear them as you sped by, they’d identify your vehicle and give you an earful next time you came through. Try to pick a fight while you were getting gas or key your car while you were buying an ice cream.
She drove thirty-five, watching the speedometer the whole way.
“Are we going to trivia night tonight, mama?” Rose asked as they past Lauren’s, one of about four restaurants in town that managed to keep their doors open in the winter months to almost regular hours. It catered to functional and semi-functional hippies and the small managerial class in the valley. Ella had promised Rose she could come with her next time she attended their weekly trivia night. Sometimes she went with Janie when she slipped away from her latest boyfriend, Julio, who Ella didn’t know well but was the one who was supposed to get her the gate code money. He came to trivia night once with another Mexican friend that didn’t speak English and looked like he had slept outside. Usually, she’d go with her other buddies, Kristie and Lisa. They never won. Billy Lee had stopped going because of his hassles with the school board and his real and imagined conflicts with other regulars. He accused people of cheating. He was adamant about answers that he’d gotten wrong, insisting they were right. None of his friends went either. All they did was play softball, watch sports, get drunk, and talk about old times. Ella didn’t have any old times to talk about with them. But that was one of her biggest fears, that one day she would.
“Maybe next week, Sweetie. I’m going to be too tired tonight.”
They drove by the high school that despite the renovated tennis courts, the well-kept soccer field, and the long line of solar panels, looked podunk and in crumbling disrepair. Somebody had graffitied the wall of the cafeteria.
She saw Billy Lee and his football team far off, practicing on a brown patch of dirt. She rolled down the window. Then honked the horn.
“The gate is busted!” she yelled. “Help me fix it!”
Nobody turned from the field.
“Why’d you do that?” Rose asked, smiling at her mother’s act of futility. “There’s no way Daddy can hear you out there?”
He can’t hear me in here either, Ella wanted to inform her.
“Feels good,” she told her daughter. “And we don’t know where our wanting goes in the universe. Maybe if we tell the world what we need real loud and clear, that energy will bounce around out there and start a chain reaction, and come back to us in a positive way.”
Although, in Ella’s experience, she had mostly seen the opposite phenomenon occur.
“Can I try?” Rose asked, with a look of enthusiasm that may have been part of Ella’s true desire coming back to her.
“Yes. Absolutely, my love,” she answered, optimism attempting to rear its head.
Rose tried to roll her window down but it was child-locked.
“You have to let me put down my window,” she informed her mother.
Ella fumbled with numb fingers to release the window’s lock. At first, she inadvertently locked all the doors. But then Rose pressed her button and outside air streamed into her face, a steady whirr and whoosh from the speed of their forward motion, ready to drown out whatever message she was about to utter.
“I want an In-N-Out burger!” Rose yelled with glee.
A plea for fast food was not what Ella had expected. There was a pang in her heart. Despite her parenting efforts were Rose’s deepest desires for the pleasure of empty calories? And the byproduct of adding to the green house effect via the corn-fed, industrial farmed cattle? Had too many messages of consumerism seeped into Rose’s sponge-like brain from TV, movies, and all the YouTube videos Ella had let her watch? Had she unconsciously handed down some internalized passivity to her daughter, inherited from her own beef-eating subservient mother? Did Rose see her as someone who wasn’t claiming her full agency? Ella felt like a failure. But she couldn’t entirely deny it either, yes, that would be really good right now. A double double. Animal style with a strawberry shake.
“Let’s see how that works for you,” Ella said, thinking about the nearest In-N-Out burger in central Santa Rosa, an hour and fifteen minutes away – what could be a pit stop on their escape route to San Francisco.
She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel to the music, trying to get more sensation into them, and to deflect the other feelings she was having about her shortcomings as a mother, and a person, her too-large carbon imprint, and that stress and strain mixing in with a brutal case of the munchies. Maybe that’s why she had been gaining weight. Every time she felt bad these days, she also felt hungry.
Janie’s dope sucked.
Ella just needed to ride it out. Make this dump run. Have the school year start and get into a healthy routine. Find some time for herself. Because she couldn’t last much longer like this. And Billy Lee was hounding her to have another kid “before it was too late.” His words. And there was something accusing in it because, of course, “too late” meant she was getting old and he could probably sire children into his sixties. A nice reminder of her on-setting middle age. Menopause lurking in a not-to-distant future. Hot flashes. Drying up. That was not going to help their marriage. But the time for having babies with Billy Lee had passed, whether her body could do it or not.
She twisted and turned, slowly steering the truck uphill. She saw the Riggs compound, a hodge-podge of structures and trash, barking dogs and animal pens, chicken wire devolving into rotting planks where living quarters and storage units collided, a circle of rusting cars that held as a hog pen, and all other manner of refuse. Living so close to the dump, they scavenged anything that caught their eye and brought it back to their giant discard pile of a premises. Ella tried not to look as she passed. Whenever she gandered too long, some kind of jarring outsider art would catch her eye; a row of rotting animal skulls strung on barbed wire with an eyeless stuffed animal or a doorless refrigerator packed with sun faded baby toys.
“They were meth before meth was cool,” Billy Lee liked to say, as if you could grow up with people and then just laugh off how they were currently living.
“Don’t judge a man by his front yard,” Billy Lee added. “If we were in trouble, the Riggs would come runnin’.”
“Don’t they pretty much run wherever they’re going?” Ella had asked. But Billy Lee had a point because further up the road towards Point Arena, in an idyllic spot with breathtaking views of the forest, there was a horse ranch that was kept up meticulously. It was where the infamous Kenneth Parnell lived when he snatched Timmy White in Ukiah, with the boy he had previously kidnapped and sexually abused, Steven Stayner, who eventually helped Timmy escape, walking this very road, carrying the five-year-old Timmy on his back and hitchhiking right by the Riley Ranch. In another twisted twist, Stayner’s brother Cary ended up becoming a serial killer, murdering four women in Yosemite.
Ella felt a double-kick beat in her breath, coupled with a dash of dizziness and tightness in her neck.
She checked her rear view mirror and found Rose fiddling with a button on the powder blue sweater she had knitted for her.
Throw out the trash, and go home, she told herself. Get through the nightly routine. Lock the doors. Count your blessings. Try again tomorrow.
Clarence Grich poked his head out of the dump’s pay shed, like he was part of a valley wide family game of whack-a-mole. When he ducked back inside, Ella was certain another one of his identical raggedy-looking clan members would pop their head out of some similar hole. The only thing missing was a mallet.
“Mrs. Riley,” Clarence greeted her, all front teeth and crooked smile, and there was no use in telling him for the hundredth time she hadn’t taken Billy Lee’s last name.
“And who’s the little lobo in the back seat?” he happily waved at Rose. “I don’t get to see too many pretty faces like that. I bet you smell as sweet as your name.”
Ella knew Clarence was probably just being friendly, but that was some creepy shit to say. You don’t comment on how an eleven-year old girl smells.
Rose waved back.
“Of course I don’t get to smell much of anything that isn’t old,” he elaborated, and there seemed to be pedophilic innuendo in that statement too. “Occupational hazard.”
“I’m only gonna charge you for the one can,” he told Ella, as she paid, silently. “No hazardous materials, dead animals, vehicles, stumps, liquids or sludge, industrial waste, asbestos, Styrofoam or popcorn, please. You know where the recycling goes.”
Ella nodded, and quickly drove forward.
“Say hello to Billy Lee,” Clarence called after her.
Ella backed the truck up to the unloading site. She flipped down the tailgate, moving aside the broom she brought with her, in case a trash can spilled and she needed to sweep out the payload. She let Rose wrangle the boxes of bottles to the recycling bins.
Ella paused, watching the birds in their scavengering gyre, gulls to vultures in a bone-picking ballet, until a funky swarm of flies lifted from something particularly ripe and had her ducking and swatting with her arms, then the apocalyptic sight of a single black crow nibbling at a piece of plastic had her imagining the Great Pacific garbage patch floating in the ocean, along with the soup of microbeads from soaps and shampoos, entering the food chain, one bird, one fish, one krill, one zooplankton at a time.
She no longer had the munchies. But it was hard to breathe.
She saw Rose throwing bottles one at a time into the dumpster like she had told her not to do a dozen times.
“Rose,” she barked. “That defeats the whole purpose. They don’t want them broken.”
“Look, Mom,” Rose said, deflecting the scolding and pointing to a broken shovel. “Shovel buzzard!”
Ella made bird sculptures from broken tools and placed them decoratively around their garden. She called them “shovel buzzards” because most included a shovel or spade head. They saved potential shovel buzzard materials whenever they saw them. Ella hopped off the truck to collect the discarded shovel head, happy to have the distraction of envisioning a new talisman for her lateblooming tomatoes or next year’s corn.
Again, she heard the sound of breaking glass.
She stormed over to Rose, grabbing her arm before she could toss the next bottle.
“You have to listen, Rose!” she reprimanded, immediately upset at herself for yelling and solving things by becoming physical. “We need to try to conserve as much as we can to make this world a better place. For you. And your children. And their children. Otherwise, what will be left?”
Rose shrugged. Her shoulders were overwhelmed by the sweater, which Ella could see she had made much too large for her, beyond what she could soon be expected to grow into. Especially the arms. But nothing seemed bigger than her daughter’s blue eyes right now, staring at her with the weight of injustice and accusation. Her irises were crushing, reflecting Ella’s unsteady image twofold, and pressing in on her with their doe-eyed innocence.
“Do you understand?” she asked, her most loving voice trying to break the primordial spell.
Needing to look away, to regain her equilibrium and lead by example, she lifted the box and carefully poured the bottles into the bin. Peering over the edge of the metal dumpster to see how many Rose may have broken, Ella saw a dead man with a bullet hole blasted into his face.
She recognized him and jumped back, dropping the box into the dumpster.
Another bottle broke.
Illustration by Sandow Birk
(This is the fourth of five parts of a novel “in progress” by Robert Mailer Anderson, author of the best-selling novel, Boonville.)