GARBAGE MAN
By Chris W McGuinness


I.

FOR AS LONG as she could remember, Pauline had always been afraid of the garbage man.

It started when she was small. The memory was foggy and half-remembered. She was five years old and was standing on the couch looking straight out of the large living room window and out into the street. The sky was blue and cloudless.

The garbage man was out in the street. A tall man in a stained green jumpsuit. His hair was long and greasy in the back and balding up top. He had a long and unkempt beard of tangled white hair stained yellow at its edges. He stood next to a massive green garbage truck. It was streaked with layers of grime, just like the garbage man himself.

Pauline watched as the garbage man reached down into the black trashcan her father had placed on the kerb and pulled out a limp, fur-covered form. It was Sprinkles, the Dachshund mix that had been the family’s adored pet. Just days before, Pauline’s father had told her that Sprinkles was sent to a farm where he could run and play with other dogs and get all the toys and treats he wanted.

But Sprinkles did not look like he was having fun at all. His eyes had dulled from to a milky white and his long tongue—the one she remembered enthusiastically licking her face—hung listless and grey from his mouth.

The garbage man looked up. Right at Pauline. His eyes were deep set in their sockets. He smiled at her. It was not a smile she’d seen from any adult then or since. It was an empty smile. The first smile that ever frightened her.

That rictus grin stayed on the garbage man’s face as he walked to the back of the garbage truck. He flung Sprinkle’s body into the dark, open mouth at the back of the truck. He slammed his fist against the button that started the truck’s compactor. There was a metallic grinding as the garbage inside was crushed.

Pauline started screaming.

 
II.
 
From that day forward, the garbage man terrified Pauline. She’d burst into tears whenever she heard the rumbling of a large truck coming up the street. She would dash up the stairs and hide in her closet or under her bed until it passed. The garbage man and his horrible smile appeared in her dreams nightly. He lurked in every darkened corner of her room, necessitating the purchase of two nightlights.

Times passed and Pauline began to grow up, but that early fear proved hard to shake. She was eleven now. The nightlights were gone. She could even sit and watch the garbage truck roll up outside the window on trash day. It helped that she’d never seen that garbage man or his truck again since the incident. The trashmen that came to her house were nicer. Their uniforms were blue instead of green and much cleaner. Their trucks were new and painted to match their outfits.

Her parents thought she’d made the whole thing up. Her father eventually conceded that, yes, Sprinkles had died. He said she’d probably seen his body go into the garbage truck but insisted that the evil garbage man with his awful grin was something her still-developing brain had exaggerated and embellished.

‘It scared you and your imagination added stuff that wasn’t there because you were too little to understand,’ he said.

She nodded and said she understood, but it was a lie. Her father was a smart man. He worked for the town’s newspaper, and he was always explaining things to her. She learned at an early age that when she admitted she didn’t understand his explanations, a look of disappointment would cloud her dad’s face and he’d just start all over again. It was better to pretend that she knew what he was talking about.

‘Remember when you used to be so scared of the trash trucks?’ her father would say to tease her sometimes. Pauline would smile and laugh, but the laugh was uneasy. She didn’t tell him that she still felt a knot in her stomach when she heard a garbage truck turn down her street. She didn’t tell him about the flashlight she still kept under her pillow either. He didn’t know that there were still nights when she’d wake up in a cold sweat and turn it on, pointing the beam into the corners of her room, sure that it would reveal a towering figure in a filthy jumpsuit reaching out for her.

She was too old for this nonsense, she told herself. Much too old to be scared of garbage men and their trucks. Her friends at school were afraid of strangers snatching them off the street or someone shooting up their school. But never a garbage man. That would be silly. Pauline knew they’d all laugh at her if they knew, so she said nothing and tried to go about her days without thinking about it. She shoved away the fear, locking it up in a tiny little box in some remote corner of herself.

It worked. For a time.
 

III.
 
It happened on a bright and cloudless day during her summer vacation. Pauline was riding home from Ginny Foreman’s house, weaving her red and white bike across the blacktop of an empty residential street. She was thinking about whether to go straight home for a dip in the backyard pool or take a detour and stop at a nearby 7-11 for ice cream when she heard a deep rumbling behind her.

Pauline craned her neck to look over her shoulder and felt the bike begin to wobble beneath her.

It was the truck.

She saw its green bulk lurch around the corner. She squinted and tried to catch a glimpse of the driver but was blinded by bright flashes of sunlight bouncing off the windshield.

The truck’s engine roared as it sped up. Pauline tried to pedal faster. Her bike fishtailed wildly as her legs turned to water. The truck revved its engine again and she jerked the handlebars sideways, tumbling off the bike and rolling into the street. Hot bits of asphalt and rocks gouged the skin of her palms and knees.

The sound of the truck filled her ears. She scrambled to the nearest kerb and pulled herself to her feet. She heard the hiss of the truck’s air brakes and a piercing squeal as it slowed.

Pauline didn’t look back to see if it stopped.

She ran home. Nearly six blocks in all. Her mother was in the house when Pauline burst through the front door babbling and shaking uncontrollably. It took her nearly twenty minutes to calm down enough to tell her parents about the truck. The story came out in quick, breathless spurts in between heaving sobs. Her father, who’d rushed home from work after a panicked phone call from her mother, had her breathe in and out of a paper bag.

Her parents were very quiet when she finished her story. They walked out of the room and spoke in hushed tones before deciding to call the police. The department sent a single officer. He was a young man with a close-cropped flat top. He asked questions. A lot of them.

‘What did the truck look like?’

‘Big. Green. Dirty and all rusted, like I said.’

‘Did you see the man driving it?’

‘No. But I know it was him. A big man with a beard. Like I said!’

‘Did he take your bike?’

‘I don’t know!’

The final question he asked was different. His voice got softer as if he was asking her to share a secret just between the two of them.

‘Are you sure he was really trying to get you? You sure he wasn’t just driving, and, I don’t know, accidentally scared you?’

Pauline shook her head.

‘Are you sure?’ he said. ‘It’s okay. Mistakes happen. No one will be mad at you.’

‘No!’ Pauline jumped to her feet. ‘It was real. He is real. He tried to run me over! He tried to kill me and throw me in the back of that truck! Just like he did with Sprinkles!’

The cop looked at her parents. Her father took off his glasses with one hand and began to massage between his eyes with the other.

‘Pauline, honey. Why don’t you go upstairs to your room and rest for a little bit?’

‘Dad. It was real! It was-’

‘I know. Just let the grownups talk for a bit.’

She lingered at the top of the stairs long enough to catch the first part of their conversation.

‘Well, I can file a report and put out a description of the bike, sir, but-,’

There was more muffled talking.

‘Always been afraid... imaginative... so sorry, officer.’

Her father waited until the next day to bring it up again. Pauline came downstairs for breakfast, and he was still in the house. He must have called off work. She didn’t see her mother anywhere. He put down his coffee and poured her a bowl of her favourite cereal.

‘Pauline.’

‘I didn’t lie, dad.’

‘I don’t think you lied. Not consciously anyway.’

‘What?’

Pauline’s father licked his lips. His next words were slow and steady.

‘This is my fault, and I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I lied to you about the dog. You were very little, and I didn’t want to be the one to tell you about death, but I should have.’

Pauline stuck a spoonful of the cereal in her mouth. It was tasteless, like soggy cardboard.

‘So, I lied to you,’ her father continued. ‘And one day you saw the dog. You saw the garbage man, a garbage man throwing it away. You were very young. Impressionable. Do you understand?’

It was one of those questions that she normally would have answered with a nod. But she was tired of pretending to understand things she did not. She shook her head. His hand rubbed the spot between his eyes again. Pauline felt guilt tugging at the inside of her stomach.

‘You were upset about the dog and you didn’t understand what happened, so you put that fear on the garbage man. You made him the scary thing instead of death.’

‘I did?’

‘Yes, honey, you did. There isn’t really an evil garbage man trying to get you. He’s just a guy with a job who scared you.’

Pauline wanted badly to believe her father. Maybe he was right? He was the smarter one, after all. The adult. Had she really been afraid all this time for nothing? She felt her cheeks get hot. Her eyes filled with tears.

‘It’s okay. It’s not really your fault,’ her father said. ‘We’re going to make this right. We are going to fix this.’

She felt the warm, safe feeling in her stomach curdle into something hard and terrible. Her father reached across the table and put his large hand on her small one.

‘I know a guy with the city. I made some calls.’

‘Calls?’

‘We’re going to take a trip today. To the plant where all the sanitation operators work.’

Pauline felt her skin go numb. She had the urge to start screaming the word ‘no’ right into her dad’s face. It passed quickly, though. She swallowed her anger and felt ashamed again. He was her father after all. What kind of ungrateful brat hated her father?

‘Do we have to?’

‘You have to face your fears. You can’t let them rule your life.’

She nodded and felt a couple of tears run down her cheeks. It made her feel worse, even more like a little baby.
 
 
IV.
 
The car turned off the highway. Its tyres crunched against the loose gravel of the unpaved road, kicking up clouds of dust. The air conditioner was turned all the way up. The sickeningly sweet reek of sunbaked garbage wafted through the vents.

The landfill was located at the edge of the city, where the arrow-straight blacktop streets, mini-malls, and neighbourhoods gave way to the edge of the desert. Pauline expected to see mountains of garbage crawling with rats, but the dump was nothing like that. The land was brown and featureless and flat. The only landmark was a massive building. Squat and windowless and grey. It looked longer than several football fields. This was where the city’s trash went, her father told her. No big piles. Instead, it was deposited deep underground.

‘A modern marvel,’ he said. ‘Not what you expected, was it?’

He explained the complex process by which the empty milk cartons she threw into the kitchen trash made their way into the dark depths of the landfill. From the way he spoke, Pauline knew the convoluted procedure was something he’d written about in one of the long stories they printed near the back of the newspaper. She was relieved that he was forced to stop his lecture short when the car pulled up at a gated entrance. The elderly security guard looked up from his phone just long enough to check a list on a battered clipboard, then waved them in. They parked in a near-empty lot in front of the big building and walked to a small door set into its side.

Pauline stepped through the door and was immediately swept up in a tidal wave of noise. It echoed off the cavernous walls of the space; a dull roar of unseen machinery that never ceased.

They walked aimlessly for a few minutes before her father spotted a chubby man in a blue jumpsuit. He waved to the man, and he nodded his head but did not wave back.

‘Are you Barry?’ her father yelled over the noise.

‘Eh?’

‘Are you Barry?’

‘Nah. Went home for the day.’ the man yelled back. ‘Went home for the day. Whaddya want?’

Pauline’s father puffed out his chest and explained who he was and what he’d been promised by some important person. The man nodded as if he finally understood what he was being told.

‘Oh yeah,’ he said. ‘Barry said you’re free to go wherever.’

The man cocked his head over his shoulder, motioning toward the depths of the building. Pauline followed his gaze and saw rows of idle garbage trucks—the white and blue kind—stretching into the distance.

Pauline’s father took her hand. They moved down through row after row of trucks. They were nearly identical save for a lengthy string of numbers and letters stencilled in black paint on the driver-side doors. The pair did not see a single other soul as they walked. It appeared to be just them; alone with the rumble of hidden machines and the echoes of their own footsteps on the oil-stained floor.

They passed yet another row of trucks. Pauline walked by the cab of one of them, then stopped dead in her tracks. Her movement was so sudden that her father had to let go of her hand to keep his balance.

‘What are you doing?’

She couldn’t speak. Pauline raised her arm, pointing a trembling finger ahead of them.

The old green garbage truck sat dark and unmoving between two of its newer brethren. It stood out like a gangrenous thumb; caked in filth and rust. It even smelled worse than the others. She caught the scent of rotting meat and motor oil and something else she could not place. An odour that filled her mouth with the taste of old pennies.

‘That’s it,’ she said, grabbing the sleeve of her father’s shirt. ‘That’s his truck! We should go.’

Instead, he shook her hand free and walked over to the truck.

‘This is the one you’re scared of?’ he hollered over the drone of the machinery. ‘Come look. It’s just an old garbage truck.’

Her father walked around the side and kicked the tyres. He ran a finger along its exterior and grimaced. He closed his hand into a fist and knocked on the bulging side where the trash was stored. Pauline shivered as she heard the hollow bong of flesh pounding on the metal.

‘See? Nothing to be scared of, honey.’

Pauline walked slowly as her father continued to circle the truck. Her brain screamed for her to turn and run, but she didn’t want to leave him. She walked up to the truck and laid a hand on its side. The metal was greasy and warm. Pauline shuddered. It felt less like a machine and more like a sleeping fairytale giant. Should it wake, she thought, it would surely gobble her up.

Pauline moved around the back of the garbage truck, hoping that a quick inspection would be enough to satisfy her dad and get them out of there. At the rear, the truck’s great maw was partially open. The smell was awful and Pauline almost gagged. Something inside caught her eye, and she leaned in to get a better look. Amidst piles of black trash bags, she saw a twisted pile of red and white metal. A bike with its front wheel bent nearly in half. The spokes stuck out at odd angles like broken metal bones.

Pauline’s scream was loud enough to bring her father running around from the other side of the truck.

‘What the hell going on?’

‘It’s my bike! I told you he took it!’

Her father leaned into the truck to get a better look.

‘We should go,’ he said flatly.

‘You can’t go.’

The voice was deep. It boomed over the machinery in the building. It was coming from behind them. She turned around, already knowing who it would be.

The garbage man hadn’t changed much since she’d last seen him. His beard looked longer, more tangled. His eyes, still blazing with madness, were more deeply sunken. He smiled his horrible smile and she saw that the yellowed teeth she remembered from all those years ago were mostly gone.

The garbage man pounced without a word. He closed the distance between them with a few great strides. Pauline’s father stepped forward to meet him. The garbage man towered over him. Pauline had never seen her father look so small. In a single fluid motion, the garbage man brought out something he’d been holding behind his back, raised it up, and slammed it down on her father’s head. He crumpled to the floor in front of her. Pauline screamed as she watched her dad writhing in a growing pool of blood that seeped from a deep gash in his hair. The garbage man wiped a thick metal pipe on his overalls.

‘It’s time,’ he said. ‘To go to him. He hungers for you.’

He pointed to the dark mouth of the garbage truck.

‘Moloch,’ he said. ‘Moloch commands it.’

Pauline shook her head and tried to back away. She felt her backside bump hard against the truck’s rear bumper. The garbage man raised the pipe and lunged at her. She heard a low moan from the floor and saw her father’s hand shoot out and grab the garbage man’s ankle. The garbage man roared and he tumbled to the ground on top of her father’s body.

‘Run!’

Pauline tried to bolt. She felt something large and strong clutch at her leg. It caught her by the cuff of her jeans and she fell. She kicked and kicked until it released her and she scrambled underneath the truck. She heard the garbage man get to his feet. There were a couple of meaty-sounding slaps, and she heard her father groan. The scent of dirt and gasoline filled her lungs, and she cowered under the rusting guts of the undercarriage.

The garbage man laughed. She watched his scuffed black boots walking along the side of the truck.

‘You can’t stay under there forever,’ he said. He squatted on his knees and reached for her. His long fingers stretched out, nearly brushing the fabric of her shirt.

‘No use,’ he said. ‘If Moloch wants you, he gets you.’

She heard him knock a fist on the side of the truck.

‘Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch,’ he said in a sing-song voice. ‘Moloch the heavy judger of men! And little girls.’

He stood and moved back behind the truck. Pauline’s eyes moved to her father. He was still lying on the floor. He turned toward her, glasses askew on his face. The garbage man’s shadow fell over him. He gave a grunt and Pauline watched her father float up and disappear.

‘Moloch picked you,’ the garbage man said. There was a heavy thud as something landed in the back of the truck. ‘He tasted you on the things you touched and threw away. He liked you. Don’t be afraid. Come join your father. Your bike. Your dog. You’ll all be together with Moloch.’

She saw the boots begin to move around the truck again, towards the cab. The garbage man whistled a tuneless song. Pauline thought of her father in the darkness of the truck’s belly. Her mind flashed back to the compactor and a wave of horror washed over her.

She rolled out from under the truck. When she got to her knees, she saw the garbage man turning the corner. She ran for the driver’s side door.

‘No!’

She was faster than he was. She flung the door open and launched herself into the cab, landing in the cracked vinyl driver’s seat. She reached out and grabbed the handle as the garbage man’s hulking form filled the doorway. He reached in for her as she pulled the door shut with all her strength. It caught his fingers with a stomach-churning crunch.

The garbage man uttered a ragged howl. He slammed his body against the door and jerked it back, trying to free his hand.

‘Fuck you!’ she screamed at him through the window. It felt good to use the F—word, so she screamed it again.

The garbage man looked at her. His eyes were wild with pain and hate. He raised his other hand up so she could see it. It still held the pipe. He swung it against the window. Pauline screamed as a single hairline crack bloomed at its centre.

‘Moloch has chosen you!’

The pipe hit the glass a second time. The crack spawned a spider web of others. Pauline frantically looked around the cab for something to fend off the attack. The floor and passenger seat were littered with sun-bleached fast-food wrappers. A slim book sat on the dust-covered dashboard. A single word, ‘Howl’ stood out on its cover.

Thwack!

The pipe hit the window again. She scanned the dashboard. It was a jumble of unidentifiable switches and knobs. Something bright caught her eye. It was a set of keys hanging from the ignition. A yellow fob in the shape of a winking smiley face dangled on a chain below it.

Pauline turned the key. The whole cab shook as the truck’s engine rumbled to life. The pipe hit the window again and the glass exploded, showering her with stinging shards. Pauline looked at the wheel in a panic, completely at a loss for what to do next. She thought of her father and had a brief flash of him starting their car. Turning the keys, and then?

She grabbed the shifter that stuck out like an exclamation point from the right side of the wheel and jammed it all the way down. The engine made a high-pitched grinding noise but kept running. The garbage man shoved his free arm through the jagged hole in the window, wildly swinging the pipe.

Pauling grabbed the wheel with both hands and stretched out her lower body, straining her foot to reach the gas pedal. She could no longer see the windshield but felt her foot hit something solid and pushed down on it as hard as she could.

The truck lurched forward. The garbage man dropped the pipe and grabbed her by her hair. He pulled at it until Pauline could feel the roots ripping out of her scalp. She kept her foot on the gas and turned the wheel to the left. The garbage man tightened his grip.

There was a thunderous crash as the truck stuck something on the driver’s side. Pauline heard the unholy screeching of metal crumpling. The windshield blew in, raining more glass down on her. The impact threw her forward, slamming her forehead into the steering wheel. The world went grey for a moment. She felt the hand in her hair relax completely. She took her foot off the gas. The truck’s engine sputtered and died.

Pauline pulled herself up into the seat and looked out the window. The truck had collided with one of the blue-and-whites. The garbage man was sandwiched between the two vehicles. His head and shoulders hung over the shattered window of the cab. His eyes were rolled back in his head and rivulets of blood poured from his mouth and eyes.

‘Moloch,’ he croaked, spitting up a wad of red tissue that slid wetly down the inside of the door. ‘A cannibal. Dynamo.’

Pauline watched him die. The pain in her head washed over her in a great, blinding wave. The world began to spin. Over the roaring of the great machines, she thought she heard voices.

 
V.
 
Pauline woke up in the hospital. There were doctors and nurses and police all standing around her. Her mother was there too, crying and holding her hand. Her head throbbed. Her father was in another room. Badly hurt but stable, they said. A policeman asked her questions as the doctors poked and prodded. Her head felt heavy under a thick turban of bandages. The next day there were more doctors and more police and more questions from both. She asked them when she could go home, and they told her ‘soon’.
 
VI.
 
She woke in the pre-dawn hours on her third day in the hospital. It was still dark outside. Her mother was curled up in a chair near her bed, snoring softly. Pauline looked at the small table beside her bed. It was crowded with flowers and get-well cards. Something nestled below them caught her eye.

It was a single key. She picked it up off the table and saw it was attached to a bright yellow fob. It had a smiley face with one eye closed in a coy wink. Without a word, she climbed down from the bed and padded quietly out of the room.

She walked past the dozing night nurse, a bleary-eyed doctor with his nose stuck in a file, and a lone janitor who just happened to turn his back before she passed him. She took the stairs down to the hospital’s ground level and met no one else when she exited through a small side door she’d never seen but somehow knew was there.

She walked the dark streets barefoot following no specific directions. The air was cool and the ground pleasantly cold against her bare feet. The city seemed empty and she neither saw nor met another soul.

She reached her destination at sunrise. It was an abandoned parking lot in an unfamiliar part of the city. Empty save for a single vehicle.

The garbage truck was still large and still green and still covered with rust and crud. Pauline approached, feeling no fear. She ran her hand along the driver’s side door. There was no sign of the crash. The metal felt slightly warm to the touch.

The door was unlocked, and Pauline opened it and climbed inside. She ran her hands over the large wheel. She saw the glove compartment to her right and opened it. She took out the book she somehow already knew was inside. She opened the thin volume to a random page and read the words as the sun clawed its way over the horizon.

Moloch who entered my soul early. Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body. Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy.

She set the book down and placed the key in the ignition. She spoke the last line without needing to read it.

‘Wake up in Moloch.’

Pauline turned the key.

 

View My Stats

StatCounter - Free Web Tracker and Counter 


Modify Website

© 2000 - 2024 powered by
Doteasy Web Hosting