My feet were braced against the dashboard, my fingers gripped the edge of the seat. As the truck skidded to a stop in the church parking lot and the dust settled, I could see that dad was halfway through his peppermint schnapps. One of his hands was draped over the steering wheel, the other was in his lap clutching the pint. Dad’s face and neck were sweaty. The collar and underarms of his blue T-shirt were wet. He took another pull from his bottle.
“Here we are, Churchgirl. Go get what you need.”
I opened the door and jumped out. Most of the congregation had already filed into the church, but Father Touchstone was at the door greeting the stragglers.
“Makin’ it to church today, Abby?”
I held my dress down against my legs as I walked up the steps.
“No sir. Dad’s not feeling well today.”
He smiled sympathetically, then looked past me to dad. I looked back and could see that dad knew he was the center of attention. He was honking the horn to frighten people as they passed by.
I slipped by Touchstone and made my way to the greeting table. As usual, Father Touchstone had laid an offering for us - two boxes of plain donuts and a pot of coffee; an idea that mom had proposed to him a year earlier. It would help bring people together, she told him. And when people came together, especially in The House Of The Lord, it created a shared energy, and perhaps eventually this sharing would bring to light the real discovery of God.
It was something that all of us needed, mom said. To find the light of God and to feel His energy. And it came to everyone, she said, at some point and time, no matter who they were. The Lord’s ways weren’t all that mysterious, she said. The mystery was that the more and more people seemed to be having a harder time finding Him and His Truth.
It sometimes took something very special, she said, like the birth of a child, or sometimes something as simple as a walk alongside Lake Huron at sunset. But for those who were stubborn, for those whose last hope was to be saved or retreat into the arms of the Devil, it took something more. A stray bullet during hunting season and the loss of a limb. A car accident blanketing a loved one in coma. A boat capsizing and the water gobbling up its passengers. For some, she guessed, it took the Old Mighty, Himself, to snatch them right up out of their bodies and show them death. When a person was touched it would be clear, she said. The soul would be awakened, perceptions altered, and one would gain insight beyond their years.
Above the greeting table, the donuts and steaming coffee, was the church’s community corkboard. As usual it was plastered with garage sales, intramural sport schedules and notices of items lost and found. The PETS LOST list was extremely long. By the curve of the handwriting I could tell Touchstone had written it. Probably taking notes from phone calls and discussions throughout the week then copying the list over to a clean sheet of red poster board Saturday night so that on Sunday it could be looked over by the congregation. The list was alphabetized and some of the names were accompanied by small pictures.
‘SPRING HAS SPRUNG’, it read, ‘AND PETS LIKE TO RUN. IF YOU’VE ANY KNOWLEDGE AS TO THE WHEREABOUTS OF THESE FAMILY FRIENDS PLEASE CONTACT ME @ 517-354-8248.’
The list began with Art, a six-year-old black and white Tabby wearing a blue collar - he was last seen crossing the railroad tracks on LaComb Road. It ended with Zues, a two-year-old Black Lab - he was last seen chasing a cottontail near Male’s Corner Store.
When I heard Touchstone trying to talk over the noise of dad’s grumbling truck, I decided I better hurry. I looked away from the PETS LOST list to the cover of the most recent Sunday program. On it, a daisy was drooping over to shield a butterfly from a downpour of rain. I thought the picture was nice, that the flower and the butterfly were especially bright against the darkness of rain, but I doubted the picture’s truth because I’d never seen a butterfly caught in the rain.
When I heard the commotion outside growing, dad revving the engine and blasting the horn again and again, I took two of the Sunday programs and two of the donuts then ran out the door.
“Abby!” Touchstone called. “Is your mother working again today?”
I turned to him as I reached the truck. His skin, already tan from a spring generous with sunlight, was dark against his white collar. The sun was bright on his face and as he squinted into the light, his mouth eased into a dimpled smile. I squeezed the programs in my hand and thought of how happy Mom would be to hear that he had asked about her.
“Yes. She’s working,” I said.
“It’s a shame she has work Sundays, isn’t it? But make sure you tell her that I liked her suggestions for next week’s program!”
Dad leaned out the passenger window. “Why don’t you mind your own business, you nosy sonofabitch!”
“Well good morning to you, Mr. Kolozkowski! Good to see you’re up and about this morning!”
“Aw, go to hell!”
I opened the door and hopped into the truck. The donuts dropped from my hand onto the ground. I slammed the door and sank into my seat out of sight. Dad spun us out of the driveway and onto the road. I hugged my knees and doubted we’d ever return to church as he maneuvered the familiar lefts and rights that led us to the county dumping grounds.
I knew where we were at all times by the bumps and turns, by the shudder and shifting of the truck. The first stretch of road, Cathro Road, was paved and hilly. My insides lifted and rolled as we passed over the hillcrests. I looked out the window and saw cows grazing, standing, lying, all of them at the bottom of a steep grade near a pool of brown water. People lost their cows down there, dad had told me once, because cows liked to wander. Into the woods, past the pool, they’d mosey along looking for something to chew, and suddenly they’d find their wide, heavy bodies being sucked into the mud. A thick, black muck that reeked like the smell of rotting potatoes. A smell I knew well from an encounter I’d once had while playing dress-up the dumps.
Shirts, dresses, pants, and shoes were piled everywhere. Besides an overturned refrigerator that served as a bench, there was a cracked mirror propped up against a gutted-out sofa. The entire setup served well as a small changing area and some days I tried on whatever looked new or clean, then marched back and forth in front of the mirror trying to imagine what I’d look like one day as my reflection changed shape and size in the cracked glass.
The rotting smell came to me while I was sitting on the side of the refrigerator trying on a pair of sandals. Thinking that it was the sandals I removed them and took a whiff, but they smelled like good sandals should, like leather, so I stood and sifted the dumping ground scents until I ended up following my nose back to the refrigerator I’d been sitting on. I paused a minute before opening it and thought of the nightly news reports. Children locking themselves in discarded refrigerators during games of hide and seek. Parents sobbing on tv., warning the world to get rid of any old appliances that might be lurking in the yard or basement or garage. Through fits of tears, choking on his words, a father telling other fathers to at least chain and padlock the doors of these silent killers.
I imagined opening the refrigerator to find a dead little girl, like me. Her face swollen, blue. Her mouth fixed into a howl for help. Tears stained into her cheeks. Her hands black and blue from pounding on the door.
When I opened it I was bowled over by the smell. I fell back against the sofa and knocked over the mirror. The broken glass fell out of the plastic frame, and I could hear dad yelling my name. I yelled to him that I was okay, then covered my nose and mouth with my hand and looked inside the refrigerator. I was disappointed. It was white and clean and empty. No dead girl, nothing blue or swollen. No mouthed scream. I bent forward and put my head inside. The smell crept around my fingers, through my hand, and burned my nostrils. When I noticed the small vegetable drawer at the bottom I remembered hearing about babies stuffed in garbage cans and boxes. I imagined reporters, cops, nosy types, all of them stomping through the dumps in hip boots and gas masks, wondering what it was that me and dad were doing at the dumps. But when I yanked open the drawer, the mess was simple. A black pool of liquid oozing from an open bag of rotting potatoes. It was a revolting, sour smell, and as dad veered us off Cathro Road and wheeled us into the dump’s parking lot, I felt bad for the cows we had passed, knowing that their last breaths could be something so bad.
Dad hopped out and picked up a cracked flower pot. “That goddamned Touchstone. Why in the hell is he so nosy? What’s it to him if your mom don’t make it to church? He’s not God. If God were alive I bet he’d be right here with me pickin’ trash. Even God would like dump pickin’.”
Dad tossed the flower pot to the ground and kicked through a pile of black, moldy magazines. At the bottom of the pile he found a book. I walked over to him. He opened the book and fanned through the pages. They were white and clean.
“Jesus Christ! Looky here! A copy of Where The Red Fern Grows! You ever read this?”
“I’ve never heard of it,” I said.
“See, if you spent more time with your old man, you’d already have read this book.”
He closed the book and handed it to me.
“There, this is for you. I think you’ll like it. If we find a pen that works I’ll sign it and write a little note in it for you.”
“A note? For what?”
“Cause that’s what you’re supposed to do when you give someone a book. You’re supposed to write a little note in it and sign your name. Like when you memorized all those prayers and verses and Touchstone gave you that Bible.”
Dad was looking all around on the ground for a pen.
“You can sign it when we get home, dad.”
“Yeah, I guess it can wait - what the hell did he write in the old good book, anyway?”
“He wrote, ‘May you read this with God in your heart.’” I answered.
“Yeah! That was it! ‘God in your heart!’ Like you need a book, or some holy-roller telling how to get God.”
Dad moved along ahead of me, scouring the ground with eyes, hands and feet. I tucked the book under my arm and followed him.
We weren’t the only ones at the grounds. An old man carrying a green bucket was following his even older-looking wife. They moved slowly, but deliberately through the trash. The old man kept a perfect, measured distance from the old woman. A distance that proved to be useful when the old woman would stop, bend to her knees and examine something more closely. The old man stood behind her, bucket at arms length waiting to receive whatever she discovered. When the woman was crouched down and intent on her discovering, the old man would look around, watching in particular a woman of about twenty or so. She was wearing a tight, tie-dyed shirt, blue jean shorts and yellow hip boots. She was carrying a large, red mesh onion sack over her shoulder and wearing a sun hat. She moved over the ground slowly, stopping every other step or so to lift something out of the garbage with her yellow, rubber-gloved hands. She was a regular. I’d seen her before. One Sunday she had approached us and asked how much we wanted for a lampshade I was carrying. She was wearing the same boots and the same gloves, but instead of a tie-dyed shirt, she was wearing a tight, yellow half-shirt.
“What do you want it for?” dad asked as he looked her over, his gaze pausing at her tan midriff.
“I need a lampshade,” she said.
“But you just found it, mister. If I’d been here earlier I’d have found it too.”
“Exactly. But you weren’t here and now you have to pay the finder’s fee.”
“I’ll give you two dollars for it.”
“Nope. Five bucks or it’s not for sale. Maybe instead of poking around in the household furnishings you ought to have your ass over in the clothing section. Half your damned shirt is missing.”
She looked at me and smiled, then shook her head and walked away. And that was it. She didn’t look angry, or disappointed or anything. Maybe she didn’t even want the lampshade. Sometimes when you’re at the dumps picking through garbage, you just want someone to talk to.
Since dad was already busy searching, I walked over to the old man. He was still staring at the young woman, watching her long, careful strides.
“Finding anything good today?” I asked.
He broke his gaze from her and shook his head as if I’d startled him from a dream. He tilted the bucket toward me. It was filled with a matching set of light blue saucers and cups.
“We found these just over there beyond the appliances. There are more of them if you want some. We only needed a set of four.”
“Joshua!” his wife piped up. “You’re not supposed to give everything away. People are supposed to find it on their own.”
The old man rolled his eyes at her then smiled at me. He reached into his pocket, fished around for a moment, then held out a fist. He asked me to close my eyes and open my hand.
“No peeking,” he said. “And if you can guess what it is, I’ll let you have it.”
I felt its surface. It was smooth and warm and oval-shaped.
“Abby! Get your ass over here!” dad yelled from behind me.
I opened my eyes and looked over at dad. He was holding up an iron.
“Does mom need a new iron?”
The old woman was on her knees, scraping away at something. She was giggling. I couldn’t tell if it was at me, at Dad, or at what she had found.
“Just take it,” the old man said, and placed a dirty, pink, ceramic egg in my hand. “Wash it up good and it’ll be as pretty as you,” he said, as he turned to watch the tie-dyed woman again.
But she was far away, nearly out of his sight, walking up the far side of the dumps to the parking lot. I thanked the old man, put the egg in my pocket, and walked back to Dad.
He was holding the iron up high, by the cord, like a fisherman with his trophy.
“Pretty nice, hey?” he said, handing it to me.
It was a nice iron. A little tarnished, in need of some polishing, but the cord was intact and there weren’t any buttons missing. He knew finding things for mom, things she could use, was a way to soften her. Church program or not, mom would eventually discover that I had missed services again and this, coupled with dad’s drinking, was forgivable only by presenting her with gifts, or with stories about what a good time we’d had. And eventually, most of the time dad and I spent together at the dumps was good. It was hard to explain to people that the shoes I was wearing were found under an old couch. Or that the dress everyone liked so much had been found next to a pile of baby diapers. Even though mom stitched my initials into nearly everything I owned, it bothered me knowing the truth - that what I wore belonged to everyone else.
Dad said that he’d found the iron near the entrance - a sure sign that it had been an early drop off. He took it from my hands and shook it.
“See!” he said, “There’s still water in it!”
He gave it back to me and I held it as he knelt down to rummage through old newspapers. I thought of mom, at the store. Stocking shelves, making window displays, helping people find things for their Sunday chores. She worked part-time during the week and every other Sunday, but she was always surprised and a bit frustrated at how people spent their Sundays. Women bought odds and ends, men bought motor oil or animal feed. Everyone appeared on Sundays for whatever they needed to get their work done. It made her sad to know that people didn’t take God’s day of rest seriously, and at night she said she prayed for them.
Mom was always disappointed. In me for missing church. In dad for drinking. In both of us for dump-picking. But mom would blame herself in the end. She would say that instead of working on Sundays she should stay home and use the day for what it was intended, for rest and family.
The sun was climbing and the smell of the dumps was rising and I wondered if mom ever smelled the dumps in my clothes, like she smelled alcohol on dad’s breath. I tried to imagine if the smells meant anything to her. She would wash our clothes by hand Sunday nights. I would hear her sometimes in my sleep. My dreams invaded by the sound of her scrubbing and wringing. In the morning I’d wake to find my dress and dad’s clothes dried and hanging over the radiator ready to be worn again.
Dad was on his knees sorting newspapers by date. In my mind, I could see mom sighing as once again she took to scrubbing away the smell and the dirt. I bet she wasted prayers on us then, washing and wishing that sooner or later we’d stop going to the dumps.
I knew dad would be busy with the papers awhile, absorbed in past events, so I set Where the Red Fern Grows down next to him and put the iron on top of it. I walked away from him toward the place where the old man said he’d found the saucers. Cups and saucers and an iron - maybe these things would make mom happy. I walked over cans and bottles, through soiled clothing and shredded papers, and remembered the only time mom had come with us to the dumps. She was truly happy that day. Happy because all of us had made it to church, and because dad had waited until the afternoon to start drinking. The smile never faded from her face that day, not even as dad cracked open a fresh pint and the color-heavy sun began its descent.
There were a half-dozen cars parked around the site when dad pulled us into the lot. People were sitting and waiting, watching the red-orange sun fall down and die. Then they watched the stars fade in. Faint white specks at first, but as the sky darkened the specks became bright, twinkling dots.
“Little doorways to Heaven. That’s what those are.”
Dad swigged at his bottle. “They’re just lights in the damned sky.”
Dad opened his window. We could hear the crickets singing.
“Turn off the engine so we can hear the crickets,” mom said.
“I ain’t turning off the engine. I’ll have to turn the headlights on in a minute and I don’t want the battery going dead. Those singing bugs ain’t gonna give us a jump-start.”
I was still looking up through the windshield at the stars.
“I think they look like eyes,” I said.
“They aren’t doorways to Heaven. They’re too small. And if they’re eyes what are they doing? Looking in or out?” asked dad.
“Out, at the light,” I said.
Then came the headlights. One set after another shining into the dumps, and wandering about in the artificial light were the bears. Shiny-eyed and black, pawing through garbage. All of them huddled near the part of the sinkhole where dad always told me not to go. We watched the bears for as long as we could and all of us seemed happy. Dad was relatively sober, Mom was at peace with all, and I was excited to be there with both of them under the stars, watching the bears.
Unconsciously, locked in my memories, I discovered myself walking to the sinkhole. I looked back at dad as I reached the edge and he looked like any other man reading the Sunday paper except that he wasn’t in the living-room lounging in his favorite chair. He was sitting on a blown-out tire, reading a paper that had turned black in places.
Going near the sinkhole was like the cows wandering into the mud, he had said. When people wandered too near the edge they disappeared. Some were dragged off by angry bears, but most, he suspected, had been sucked away into the sinkhole, immobilized and choked to death by everything broken and rotting.
I stepped closer to the edge and the warnings ran through my head. The edge like quicksand. People falling in. Being buried by garbage, trying to scream for help, but taking in mouthfuls of hair, cigarette butts, and dirty Band-Aids. Darkness closing in and my head poking out of trash just enough so that I could see the bears roaming in. But, like other childhood warnings, these only sparked curiosity, and I moved closer.
The air was thick and foul and it was difficult to breathe. I thought about dead cows and rotting potatoes and I measured my movements carefully. When I felt sure-footed enough, I knelt down and looked over the edge. It was then that I could see the smell. Beyond the broken appliances, stained mattresses, and rusty box springs, I could see all of it. Dead deer and opossums mostly, but also cats and dogs. Ribcages and skulls. Matted fur and stiff bodies, some of them with their legs stretched out, forever frozen in a run.
Looking toward the place where cars parked at night so people could watch the bears, I thought of something terrible. I imagined mothers and fathers finding dead pets, mangled or flattened on the road. No longer pets, but fur and blood, and there was no good way to show their children and explain. I thought of fathers on their way to work, awake long before their children, carrying bags off, old Biff, the family hound, or Mitzi the family poodle. I thought of mothers double-wrapping cats in old towels and garbage bags. Everyone riding out to the dumps while the kids were at school or asleep. All of them throwing part of their family there, just over the edge of the long, sloping hill. Everybody dumping dead pets, hoping that eventually everything would be sucked down and away into the sinkhole. I imagined kids asking where their pets had gone. And parents answering as they always did, that Scruffy or Daisy had gone away, but that it was okay because sooner or later they’d turn up somewhere. Animals liked to wander, they’d say.
I remembered seeing missing cats and dogs on the Church Bulletin Board and some of them were the animals heaped before me. The same animals, except now they had empty eye-sockets and their tails were flat and dead. The same pets, except that they would never come back no matter how many posters had been put up.
Again, I heard dad yelling my name.
“Abby! Where the hell are you?”
I turned to call to him and at once I began to slide. Down the slope of the sinkhole on my belly. Things wet and hard, soft and metallic, brushed and banged against my body. I felt my dress tearing and rough edges cutting my skin. I held my head up and tried to scream, but the smell was filling me.
When I opened my eyes I was looking into the sky. Seagulls were sailing, their wings outstretched, all of them calling. I sat up and checked myself over for anything broken. My body was covered in brownish-black muck and everything was sticking to me. Q-tips, disposable razors, and gobs of animal hair. My skin was stinging.
I looked up. Dad was on his belly, leaning over the edge. I tried to stand, but felt my body sinking. My hands, knees and feet pushing through the muck.
“Help me, daddy!”
“Don’t stand up, honey! Just crawl as close to me as you can!”
The old man appeared at dad’s side and got on his belly. I knew that in all of it I had probably lost his egg.
“I’ve got a rope in my truck!” the old man shouted. “Hold on!”
He got up and I could hear him running away.
“We’ll get you out of there! Don’t worry! Just hold on!” dad called.
I crawled as far as I could, then waited. I looked at where I had been and the spot where I’d fallen was filling in with debris. Further down the slope flies were buzzing all around a hound. Its belly was huge. One of its legs was missing. I tried not to look at it, but I felt it was looking at me.
I imagined being sucked down under the dead animals into the greasy soil and entering a dark hole where things touched you, breathed on you, and fed on you. I would be underground with cows and lost dump-pickers. All of us part of that rotting potato smell. Dad would be asking, “Where’s God now? Where’s this God that would pull a girl into a sinkhole?” Mom would hide away, cooking, scrubbing, seeking guidance from the Bible. Touchstone would offer his condolences. And in the end, my life would be a sad, unfortunate tragedy. Everyone would know about me. Abby, the girl who skipped church to pick through people’s throw-aways. My life would be a warning to children everywhere, like the martyrs of the refrigerator world.
“Are you hurt?” dad asked.
My skin was burning in places.
“I think I have a few cuts!”
“Okay! Just hold tight!”
Dad got up and I listened to him running away. The dead hound’s eyes stared at me. I took a deep breath to try to calm the sobs that I felt coming and it was then that I noticed I couldn’t smell. That none of what surrounded me was coming through. I took another deep breath. Still, I could not smell. The hound continued his dead stare so, I leaned back into the garbage away from his gaze. Suddenly, I remembered that I had read Where the Red Fern Grows. I had read it in school for a book report. It was about a boy and his hound. Or two hounds - two hounds and hunting. Or was it something else? And what did that book mean to me? I thought for sure that this was something that Touchstone and dad would have in common. That most men, when boys, had read that book and that they had liked it. That they had maybe even cried when they read it and they hadn’t told anyone but God because there was no getting around that whether you believed in Him or not. And, I thought, maybe the old man had read it too. And did reading it make any difference? Had it maintained some softness inside of him during his movements through a hard world? And if he hadn’t read it, would he have still given me that egg? I felt my pocket for the egg, and as I had imagined, it was gone.
I sat up and felt my body sink again. My bottom was pushing down against things hard and sharp. I laid back down again and thought of the old man running. His old heart hammering away as his feet pounded through the garbage. I wondered about his wife and her thoughts at the sight of him running. It had been years since she’d seen him running, I thought. And what would that do to her? Would it bring back memories or pull in fear? Would the old man and his heart even make it to the rope? And why were they running? A little girl over the edge, into a hole where the bears roam. What did it matter? Children died everyday, I thought. In refrigerators at home, or in places like the dumps.
I thought of mom working at the store on yet another Sunday. I felt guilty about having to lie to mom about church and I knew it wasn’t good. She probably knew I was telling lies. Sooner or later, everyone knows, and it doesn’t matter how much we try to cover things up because eventually things that are rotten stink. For some reason, I thought of Touchstone, too. I could see him looking out at his congregation, recognizing my absence. I wondered if sometimes he said private prayers for certain people. I hoped that he hadn’t wasted any on me because there were plenty of people worse off.
All of it turned and twisted inside of me and I thought of how good it could be if I could just stay there, where I was. My shoes had been sucked away by the muck. My Sunday dress was torn and hanging off me, but none of it mattered because these things did not belong to me. I heard the commotion above me. The old man, the old woman, and dad up there above calling my name. Grab onto the rope, Abby! they kept yelling. Grab on and don’t let go! And in my new place at the bottom of the pit, everything that should have felt suffocating and cold, felt good. I felt like I was sleeping, that all of what I had known had been a dream, and that my being there in the sinkhole, covered in garbage was real and true, and that it might be a good picture for the cover of a Sunday program because it was as believable as a butterfly caught in the rain.
A Better Place - a collection of short stories which includes The Throw Away, is available now through this link:
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