Trash expands. It'll fill all the space you give it.
There’s already a neat row of small, energy efficient cars and large, shiny trucks backed up against the face of a rectangular shed made of gray, serrated metal roofing material when I arrive. My windows are up but the odor of something that smells like gasoline and tastes like sour seeps into my car through the vents. I put my half-eaten banana in the passenger seat because I can’t bring it close to my face without imagining it wilting into bubbling mush in my hand, dripping down over my fingers like candle wax.
An older man exits a blue Prius, retrieves a blue plastic recycling bin from the trunk and leverages it against the breast of his blue down jacket with one hand when he closes the trunk again. He approaches the front of the Lebanon, New Hampshire Recycling Center and removes eleven thick, plastic jugs from his blue bin, dropping them one by one by hand through the second of five square holes in the front wall. Another car pulls up. The door opens slowly and two boots tremble in the air before finding steady ground. An old man shaped like a lamppost pushes against the steering wheel and the shoulder of his seat to stand. His skin is thick and porous; his thick-paned glasses magnify the little rolls of red-veined flesh under his eyes. Like bacon fat. He bends down to retrieve a cardboard box from the backseat and wobbles over to a metal bookcase, filled with rows of disordered books that cave inwards on top of each other. He begins to add books from his box to the landfill’s library, one by one. Halfway through, he off takes his flannel. The veiny flesh hanging from his arms makes me think of raw chicken wings.
Then he catches me staring. I look at the mixed paper chute. At the road behind me. At my phone. At a sign nailed into the metal wall: “Unattended children under 12 years of age must remain in the vehicle on landfill property.” I am nine years too old to stay in the car any longer. When I get out, I expect the smell to be stronger than before but it isn’t. I almost can’t smell anything at all. I head straight to the bookcase. How to Enjoy Your Life and Your Job. Religious books – mostly Christian – praising the power of prayer and the “Joy of Chastity.” An empty photo album on the bottom shelf. A wide blue book with only one word, written in the lower left corner in quiet, white ink: Problems.
I move down the side of the building to stick my head through the mouth of each recycling window. I see soda cans missing their tongues. Peel-top tuna cans, scraped clean. Cookie tins without their tops. Beer bottles. Iron cans in every size and flavor: sweet corn, chicken noodle soup, peaches, cranberry sauce, black beans, brown beans, green beans, mixed beans. Economy-sized boxes of individually packaged snack bags. Spam mail. Newspapers. Christmas cards and instruction booklets. A grocery list. A sticky note with a handwritten reminder for a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday. A toothbrush with a frayed head of stiff, broken hairs. An envelope addressed to Pauly. Pizza boxes, cardboard boxes, broken music boxes.
At the end of the row, and to the right of the front door, a green mailbox squats next to a metal bookcase. A thick chain loops around the belly, as if to keep it closed. I imagine driving to the landfill to mail a letter.
The door to the Recycling Center opens. A man in an extra-large navy blue sweatshirt, tugged down past the waistline of his pants, exits. The pods of two white earphones are hooked onto the neck of his sweater. His ears, round like shells, tuck close to his head under a dark-colored cap with a busted and frayed visor. He hesitates, brings a gloved hand up to his chin, rubs the stubbly hairs there, and hesitates again. He turns around to go back inside.
“Hi!” I say, “Do you work here?”
His name is Keith. He rips the Velcro loose on his wrists when he takes his gloves off to shake my hand. He eyes my notebook but he laughs when he hears that I want to write about the landfill. When he laughs, he nods his head and the peeling cap lurches up and down too. He lets me watch him work. His job is recycling, he says – “which isn’t trash” – and people don’t understand that sometimes. “People can be really dumb,” he says. He’s seen us throw our clothing in with our cans, our batteries in with our bottles, our Halloween decorations in with our hairspray dispensers. Every now and then, someone tosses in an animal carcass, too. “They try to hide it with the cans or the paper as if I won’t notice. They’ll hit an animal on the road or their dog will come home with one and leave it in their yard. They don’t know what to do with it. But they want it gone.”
Keith wipes his palm on the front leg of his jeans. He shakes his head. “Makes you wonder what exactly they think a dead squirrel can be recycled into.”
I ask him about the half-eaten banana I left in my car.
“See, that’s your mistake,” he says, and points at me. His finger is swollen and smudged with dirt. “People think – ‘Oh, it’s just trash.’ And they’ll throw their trash in here with their recycling, and it’s like, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ Why? ’Cause this is recycling. And they don’t think about it. They think garbage is garbage. But it isn’t.”
He pauses. Looks around at the dust and the dozer and the trash compactor and the building piles of newspaper and soda cans and junk mail. “Human is human,” he says.
Inside the Lebanon Recycling Center, Keith climbs into his CAT Dozer and rushes from one end of the dusty floor to the other. He spins in place without stopping, jerks forward, backward, forward again. The dozer swivels and swerves and surges and stalls like a remote control car. The solid, iron shovel lowers to the concrete floor with a dull clank. Then he pushes forward, scraping yellowed mail and greasy newspapers off the floor like wood shavings. The dozer leaves tire marks across the concrete in paths that intersect and overlap and seem to leave in all directions at once.
“I’m just a big kid,” he says as he clambers out from the front window of the CAT, hanging from the handle with one arm and swinging his weight down into the shovel. His feet land with practiced ease between the rounded spikes on the iron lip. The round, yellow siren on the head of the dozer flashes without sound. A copy of the Valley News is stuck to the shovel’s belly like a licked stamp.
“We try and get our recycling as small as possible before we send it out,” Keith says, showing me the trash compactor into which he’s been feeding several tons of mixed paper. He uses the dozer to pick up huge shovelfuls of newspaper and junk mail and then dumps it all at the bottom of a conveyer belt, where horizontal ridges hook into the paper and tug it slowly into the mouth of the compactor. Every few minutes, the belt stops, Keith pauses, and an inner iron wall rams straight into the growing pile with a dull thud I feel in my chest. The trash compactor is building a brick. An alarm sounds, meaning that tons and tons of condensed paper are now ready to be tied up with wire. If all goes well, Keith will open the compactor and the brick will be ejected. He’ll weigh it and move it into line with the rest of the recycling.
Things don’t always go well, though. The binding wires are thick, and it’s difficult to imagine them breaking, but sometimes they do. Sometimes the built-up pressure of packed-down paper can swell so rapidly that the latch door bursts open with enough slamming force to leave gashes in the wall. Keith points them out to me.
“Trash expands,” he says, looking at the deep scratches. “It will fill all the space you give it.”
It’s like a suitcase packed too full. I imagine the cotton sleeves and the bra straps and the jean legs hanging limply out the sides. I tell Keith how I always have to sit on my bag to get it to close. He laughs, and tells me to be careful it doesn’t explode. In my head, I picture myself sitting on a suitcase with the pressure building up beneath me like steam from an air vent, and then the explosion that blasts the lid open and throws me to the ground. But instead of t-shirts and sundresses and tennis shoes, tons and tons of unread newspapers and old birthday cards and dusty catalogues fall on me.
Keith leans his shovel against the wall. He tells me that not everyone comes to the dump to throw things away. Sometimes, they come to take things back. Once a mother came looking for her son’s backpack. She’d thrown it away by accident. It had blue straps, yellow buckles, a Power Ranger design. She didn’t know why she’d done it. But they had to find it. Her son had spent all of his elementary school life in that backpack. It meant so much to their family. She’d just thrown it away without a second thought. She had to get it back. It was her son. What had she been thinking?
Another woman called in tears. The manager could hardly understand her. It took several minutes to register that she was missing something. Several more to figure out that it was her engagement ring. She’d left it on the nightstand and somehow, she didn’t know how, her mother maybe, everything on the table was pushed into the trash and her ring. Please. Couldn’t they help her? It was gone. Her ring. He would never forgive her. Gold, with three diamonds. It was there on the table, and she hadn’t known, she hadn’t thought when she’d cleaned the table – she hadn’t noticed until that night when she was washing her hands and then she’d seen and she’d searched for hours. She hadn’t been thinking. She was just cleaning and then it was gone. Couldn’t they help? Please. I need to come back. It’s gone. I need to find it. Please.
Sometimes, they could find it. “Sometimes,” Keith says.
He rubs his palm on the front of his jeans and looks around the Recycling Facility, then up at the windows as though someone might be listening. He nods, the frayed tongue of his cap lowers down over his eyes and then rises back up again. The pen wedged into the side of his cap sticks out from his temple at an odd angle. He turns back to his work, pausing to pick up an escaped soda can.
“I didn’t go to college,” he says, and he tosses the can towards a plastic, recycling bucket a few feet away from us. The can hits the lip of the bucket, bounces and skitters across the ground on the ridges of its collapsed, metal creases, “I went to work.” He doesn’t pick up the can.
Keith grabs the broom and clears a lane down the center of the dusty floor. “The thing is, it’s a really dirty job.” He pushes hard into the wide brush broom .A small storm of dust rises up in front of him then settles back into place. “I mean, look at me. This is all I do all day. The worst part is the dust. You go home and your face is just covered. It’s gross. It’s really gross.”
He turns around and starts back to where he started, pushing the dirt in the other direction now. “Once, it was so bad that my body stopped sweating,” he says. “I had to hold myself up by the bale I was making..”
He stops sweeping for a second. We look at the towering piles of recyclables, at the dozer, at the trash compactor, at the innards of the recycling center. Nobody but us.
“Who would ever know?” he says. If he died.
Keith shakes his head. He pushes the handle of the broom down so hard that his fingers turn white and he shakes his head. He pushes forward again. The dust rises and settles. Keith leaves footprints behind him in paths that intersect and overlap and turn in all directions at once.
Keith tells me he has to finish up his work for the day and that I should go talk to his boss, George. I smile and thank him but I don’t move. After a tense second, he puts his gloves back on and excuses himself from eye contact by paying special attention to perfectly matching up the Velcro strips on his wrists. When he looks up again, I’m still there. I want to ask him if he’d let me ride in the dozer with him, if I can read the Christmas cards thrown into the Mixed Paper pile, if I can stand on one of the compressed bricks of cardboard and plastic stacked up in the corner.
Instead, I ask him if he thinks any dead bodies have been stashed in the landfill.
He takes his cap off and rubs his palm on the back of his neck, looks away towards the looming heap of food and plastic bags, shredded furniture and blown tires, tree branches, ripped umbrellas, old jackets, and animal corpses on the other side of the lot. From the top, you can see the river and miles of trees, all changing color, just beyond, and “there’s almost nothing higher anywhere near us,” he says. One of the most beautiful views in West Lebanon, he says. Just above tree-line, and if you stand still long enough, twelve years of your own trash and sewer sludge will begin to suck you in by the soles of your shoes. A lone figure crosses the top of the landfill and bends down on one knee. Behind the dark, soft mound of trash, the sky is so blue and vacant that it appears poison.
“Nah,” Keith says finally. “There are no bodies. Just trash. Trash that could have been recycled. But people don’t think. They just want it to go away. And that’s it. That’s all they want. But things don’t just go away.”
Later, a friend asks why I smell like trash. I laugh like I’m embarrassed but in class, I breathe deeply, trying to catch a whiff of the odor, wondering who else could smell it too, and if they suspected me.
* * *
The word waste is in the past: ‘was’te. Waste was something once. Perhaps it was something valuable, but now, it is not. Waste has no future. Or rather, it has a future that might have come but for some reason didn’t and can’t any longer. Waste: loss of potential. Opportunity cost. Waste is pure regret. It’s not just considering the past but rejecting the past.
Once something is wasted, it cannot be retrieved. It is gone for good. Wasted. At home, I try to avoid taking the garbage out because I can’t stand to see the bags disappear down the garbage chute. There’s no sound of hitting bottom. I want to peer after them but I’m afraid something is waiting just inside the shaft to pull me down as well.
Waste doesn’t start out as waste. It begins as bags of potato chips, shampoo bottles, a shirt from Macy’s, a digital camera wrapped up under the tree four Christmases ago. Waste requires a decision: keep or toss. Waste begins with devaluation. In high school I had a coach who’d end every post-game locker-room chat by telling us to “flush it.” He would put his fist by his temple as though he were clutching an invisible lever and then he would pull his hand downwards and make the sound of a toilet flushing. And each of us pulled down on our own imaginary levers and “flushed” our bad thoughts out. I would try to imagine the draining liquid as it pumped down the central pipe of my spinal cord and then the rush of clean, cool water refilling my skull. “Flush it out,” he said, “And don’t think about it again.”
It was impossible. The bad thoughts left streak marks. I couldn’t stop the regrets and the “what if”s from resurfacing: the game, a missed pass, a low grade, a fight with friends, a stupid question, a black lie, a cupcake. Flushing. If only. My coach told me I was wasting my time.
* * *
Near closing time, business starts to pick up. Bram, a Scale Operator, takes the stairs two at a time on the way down from the Scale Box. He leans his hands against the frame of a driver’s window, “What can I do for ya, boss?” Then he’s bounding back up the stairs again in three fluid leaps.
Bram and Ed are partners in the Scale Box, a sort of admission booth for the Lebanon Landfill. Ed or Bram greets each customer and hole-punches their tickets, bought from City Hall. The tickets look like the membership cards given out by cafes. Buy ten and get one free. But trash is never free, Ed says.
He’s been working in the Scale Box for almost twenty-four years. Two lanes sandwich the Scale Box: One leads to the weighing station, for dump trucks and for people who come in with truckloads of wood or furniture. Most customers go through the other, the drive-through lane, where Ed or Bram picks up a bag, guesstimates the weight, and then multiplies for the number of bags in the trunk. Ed says he can guess the weight of a garbage bag within one pound. Many of the drivers seem to know him. He’s helped some of them find prized possessions, sifting through plastic bags, grabbing onto yellow tags and red tags and blue tags and peering into the small plastic hole at the top. He’s listened for the slightest vibration of an iPhone that slipped out of a loose shirt pocket when the owner was heaving bags into the concrete trough. He’s rummaged for the smallest glint of gold while an older man or woman stood silently by, wringing fingers so whittled down to the bones by weight-loss and age that they can’t hold onto their wedding bands anymore.
That’s just the general trash bag dumpsters. If you don’t realize the mistake soon enough, then you’ll have to go up to the landfill. “They’re clinging to any hope that they can,” Ed says. “We’ve had people go up for hours but, you know, it’s gone.”
Ed invites me into the Scale Box. Bram’s sitting at the computer, not looking at us. He has a fresh gash on the bridge of his nose that he won’t tell me about and hair buzzed short, speckled white and grey. He’s been working here less than three years. When I ask Ed about the Scale Box proceedings and their daily routine, Bram interjects: “Ah, well, we serve tea and biscuits at four.” Several times he scolds me for using my “reporter tactics.” At 3:30, Ed goes home and Bram realizes he’s stuck with me until closing. Up on the landfill, a dozer is pushing a mountain of brown, soggy dirt over the edge of the mound. Bram explains that it’s cover material, a mix of dirt and “fluff.” Fluff is recycled car: all the bits and pieces that aren’t valuable or reusable, ground up and churned around and mixed with dirt to make a dark mulch. “It smells fine,” Bram says. “Kinda earthy.” It keeps the garbage from blowing over the fence and into the highway.
Then there’s sewer sludge. “The minute it comes in, there’s a hole waiting for it. We dump it in the hole and cover it up right away.” Bram shakes his head. On the last day of Bram’s probationary training period, the landfill ran short on staff and asked him to run some of the heavy equipment “up top.” They wanted him to dig a hole for the sludge coming in that day. Everything was fine until he began pushing the sludge into the hole. He didn’t get the iron blade low enough to the ground. The wheels of the compactor began to sink. “I got it so stuck in the shit. Like, thirty tons of shit. Completely lost it. And it sunk until you could only see the very top sticking back out of the sludge. I tried to reverse it.” Bram rubs his palms on his thighs and looks over his shoulder at the landfill. “In and out and in and out, but I just couldn’t get it back out.”
He stops talking. A loud sound breaks the silence. I jump. Bram laughs. “That’s just the birds. We have to scare them off if they stay around here for too long because the airport is so close by – they’re a danger to the planes. They’ll also pick the trash off the landfill and drop it on the streets or in the golf course or over by the Home Depot lot. It’s better not to have too many of them.” A few white birds are flying in tight circles around the peak of the landfill as though caught in a small tornado. But they’re moving too erratically and too quickly. I realize they’re not birds, they’re plastic bags. A flock of plastic bags.
At closing time, Bram tells about his fear: “I’ve been sweating all day and I’m sitting there like, I must stink. How embarrassing. I don’t think you ever really get used to the smell of the landfill. Is that a phobia? I don’t know.”
Behind his head and through the Scale Box window, a few plastic bags are picked up off the landfill in a sudden breeze and then drop down to the earth again, some landing on the hood of the abandoned dozer. I reassure Bram I haven’t noticed how he smells. But we Google his fear anyway: bromidrophobia.
The landfill closed a quarter of an hour ago. Bram walks me out. He tells me we have the same color eyes. “Well, yours are bluer,” he says. “Mine are a little yellow. Especially when I wear a yellow shirt. I’ve been told I look like a serial killer.” He flashes me a smile and then darts into his car to rummage in the center console. He returns holding an iPad. “Hey, what was your name anyhow? I don’t think you ever told me. Kelsey. How do you spell that? Kelsey. With a ‘K’?”
* * *
The Facebook page for Bugbee’s Rubbish Removal of Hartland notes only that it’s a family-owned business. Under the business’s contact information, there’s a home-phone and a personal email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. There are two profile pictures, both Bugbee’s logos. One is actually a picture of the back of a Bugbee’s t-shirt, modeled, I suspect, by Chris Bugbee, the driver of Bugbee’s single dump truck. Technically, Chris’s parents own the company. In his house there’s a picture of Chris as a child sitting in a homemade, miniature dump truck. “I’ve been working this job for a while,” he says.
Their driveway forks in two directions: one dirt road leads to the house Chris shares with his wife and office manager, April, and one circles an oversized garage. The windows of the garage are brown with dirt but I create a peephole with my fist. Inside, I see the iron butt of a huge dump truck. Around the back, another truck, April’s, for special pick-ups, squats under a metal roof extending out from the garage. April welcomes me into the house through the office. She brings me to a desk cluttered with ancient technology: a computer with a monitor three inches thick, a calculator larger than an iPad, and a printer older than I am. Bugbee’s keeps their 835 client records on five stacks of notecards, hole-punched, and strung on large, metal rings. Every morning, Chris picks up a new pile and visits the house listed on each notecard. Many of the cards don’t have addresses, only names. Downward Dog. Michael Barronton. “Chris just knows them,” April says.
Chris drives the scheduled collection truck and April is the recycling and special cleanup-calls unit of the operation. She invites me to tag along on one of her recycling trips. A pink child’s seat sits between us in the truck. April’s daughters like to ride with her. On the radio, Bill O’Reilly murmurs too softly to be heard over the engine. The steady sprinkling outside has stained the wooden fences that run along the road splotchy and black. Fallen leaves clump in the dirt, drowned and broken like soggy cereal. A dirt path veers off the main road into a clearing and a stack of raw, chopped logs.
Like trash collection in the big truck, this is a two-man job. I stand in the bed of the pick-up while April hands me black bags of snack-size plastic milk bottles, tubs of rubbish mail and newspaper, buckets of glass, and piles of heavy cardboard. April teaches me how to sort. Soup cans in the plastic bucket. Glass in the metal, ridged tin. Cardboard laid in even, overlapping layers in the back. Plastic bottles in the tan container. Boxboard in another. April laughs when I gingerly place the bottles one by one into the bottom of the tin trash bin. She teaches me how to quickly disassemble cardboard still in box shop. “Smash, smash, smash,” she says.
Usually April’s sorting paper from plastic, or glass from cardboard but sometimes, she’s sorting the recycling from the salvageable. That’s why their house is so full of toys: stacks upon stacks of board games, a foosball table pressed tight against an air hockey table, a slot machine pushed into the corner. Plastic dolls and miniature trucks line each step on the stairs. It seems like every game, every action figure, every interactive electronic I ever saw advertised as a kid has collected here, like a toy factory’s giant lost and found. For each board game and every game console, two decisions were made. The first: someone, somewhere, extracted an item from the anthology of their life and put it on the curb. The second: either Chris or April picked it up again. I ask April if she’s a dumpster diver. She laughs, shakes her head, lifts a container full of bottles up to me, “Why should we waste it?” I imagine the origin of trash: move something from one location to another and, in that one movement, its value decreases so much that the thing instantly becomes disposable. From the countertop to the waste bin, from the dinner plate to the garbage disposal, from the floor to the trash bag. Worthless. Or really, worth less than it was before, or than it should have been. Trash isn’t trash until you’ve thrown it away.
Chris spends most of his day with trash. He can tell a lot about his customers from their bags. He claims he can pick up a garbage bag and know almost instantly whether or not there’s loose change in the bottom. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’ve picked up out of the trash,” he says. “Multiple televisions, the trampoline, Playstations, Gamecubes, iPods, cameras, cords, every game and toy imaginable. And I never have to buy Advil or Tylenol. What do you want? Whatever it is, I can find one.”
The correct word for trash is “refuse,” Chris tells me one day while we’re riding in his garbage truck. His refuse truck. I’m not wearing my seatbelt and the truck bounces with each dip and pothole, sending me up into the air. We pass several walkers, a man working in his roadside garden, a woman on a bike. They all smile and wave to Chris. He waves back, points at people and tells me stories about them, their houses, their families, their refuse. I try to picture my own garbage man and realize I can’t remember ever seeing my garbage man. The only thing I remember is the sound of the dump truck pulling up to the bottom of the driveway. I’d look away, as though to give the worker privacy, like turning your back when someone undresses. “Garbage men?” my grandmother says when I ask her about trash collection back home, she tells me about the service lanes that ran like alleyways behind the big houses in her neighborhood. They were connected to each other but disconnected from the main roads; like a subway system, above ground but hidden. Because people don’t like to be reminded. Now, freezers defrost themselves, ovens clean themselves, dish washers, can openers, microwaves, garbage disposals, scented trash bags, compactors, and trash collection companies that tug and tow your trash out of sight. People like to keep their hands clean. Today’s dump trucks share the roads with us, but they’re painted in neutral tones, green or beige or brown. Like maybe you wouldn’t even see them.
As we drive, we pass long rows of picket fences. Several country cemeteries sit close to the road, so close that the heads of the dead must rattle as we drive by. They’re small lots, crowded in close by stumpy walls of thin rock slabs, piled up in layers and held together with leafy moss. The gravestones are thin and sinking at odd angles. I think of Bram’s compactor sinking into the sewer sludge until only the tip of the hood could be seen. In a hundred years, maybe only the chipped tips of the stone heads here will penetrate the surface. Add another century and a fresh layer of thin baby grass will begin to seep up from the new topsoil. Enough years after that and a new layer of graves may lay down over this one, pushing old stones down into old skulls.
* * *
Most of Dartmouth College has switched over to using compactors to hold student garbage until the dump truck comes to collect the trash, but a few fraternities have kept their old dumpsters. The lids are more often than not left open and the stench of Keystone Light beer, rotting pizza boxes, and stale food swimming in vomit drifts up or down the road with the wind.
It’s difficult finding something tall enough to stand on to hoist myself inside. At first I try to climb, but the outside is moist and sticky. Then I try to stand on top of a pile of stacked cardboard boxes but the boxes crumple under me. Finally I grab a chair from a nearby dorm and place it alongside the front. I lift one leg into the dumpster and straddle the lip. There I sit for several minutes, perfectly still and silent and staring at the bags of trash below me as though the roaches and the vermin and the vomit inside might reveal itself to me if I wait long enough.
On the first step, I try to aim for the direct center of a black bag, but the contents shift under my weight and my foot slips to the side, disappearing in between two bags up to the middle of my calf. I scream. Then my leg is crunched up to my chest and I’m holding it and holding the edge and trying to swing my weight back, but I’m too far in and for a long second, I thrash and flail, grabbing at the metal lip to pull myself back-back-back. I think I feel teeth biting and claws scratching and lips sucking and moist fleshy scales curling around my ankle, and I think I lost my shoe and I think something must be licking the bottom of my foot. Then I’m sitting on the edge of the dumpster again. At some point, I stopped screaming. It’s quiet. I check my ankle for worms. I check for the rats I’d felt gnawing into my toes. Nothing. Not even a scratch. I look around, up and down the street as far as I can see, but it’s 5:30 in the morning and no one is awake.
My second try, my foot stays steady. I put my weight on it and balance with one hand holding onto the dumpster’s edge and the other held out for balance. My foot begins to sink into the dumpster and the plastic bags rise up to suckle at my ankle. I balance my other foot on the belly of another black bag, slip, catch myself on the edge of the dumpster and hold myself there by my elbows, as though clinging to the edge of a swimming pool. .
A friend once taught me a mind exercise she called “Taking out the Trash.” She would rip a piece of lined paper out of her notebook, peel the torn edge off, and turn the paper horizontal. Then, in the very center of the page, she would write whatever “trash” was in her mind. It was the trash that prevented us from thinking straight. It was messy and disorganized and didn’t belong in our heads. Some days she filled the entire page; other days, she wrote only a word. It didn’t matter. Because at the end, she crumpled up the paper and threw it in the trash. “And it’s gone,” she’d say. I asked her where once. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s out of my head. It’s like it doesn’t even exist.”
I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I picture a piece of paper. On it I imagine writing the words fear, disgust, unknown. I see myself crumple the paper and throw it in the trash. But it falls from above my head and lands next to me instead. Another crumpled ball of paper falls on me and then another, and another. I am standing in the trash. In my head, the paper balls begin to hail, building up higher and higher until they reach my chin. They keep falling and I imagine trying to stand on them but they’re made of paper and crumple under my weight. Soon the dumpster is full. And only the wispy sprouts of hair at the top of my scalp poke through, like baby grass. I open my eyes again to reassure myself that I am still here, standing in the dumpster of a fraternity at 5:30 in the morning.
* * *
I haven’t visited the landfill in over two weeks. The row of trees on the far horizon of the landfill are turning different shades of green, and there are bright yellow wildflowers climbing up the divider between the lot and the main road. Keith greets me. He tells me I picked a good day to drop by and he leads me over to the far end of the Recycling Center so we can look out on the backyard. “That thing right there is a Cadillac,” Keith says, ogling a fifteen foot tall, twenty-foot-long extra-large CAT Dozer, heaving hundreds of pounds of wood and brush and trees into the top of the mobile waste shredder, “It has air conditioning, heat, an air-seat, a stereo, even a TV. Everything a man could ask for. Whenever this big guy is running, I stand here usually and just –” Keith juts his neck forward like a turtle, cocks his head to the right, and lets his jaw fall open, as if his battery died mid-sentence. Then he scrunches his face back together and chuckles, “I mean, who doesn’t like to play with big toys?”
He stops moving and smiles at me. “Smell that?”
I sniff. There is something, something that isn’t covered in dust, or rotting into sludge, or curling with age, something familiar and pleasant, like –
“Christmas trees,” he says and he points into the yard, at a CAT dozer dumping Christmas trees into a large shredder. “Almost four months after Christmas, too.” Keith rubs the unshaved flesh beneath his chin and tilts his face up. “Smells beautiful, don’t it?”
The bigger dozer is still nothing compared to the huge blade actually making the grinding, chewing, gnawing sounds, munching through Christmas trees and tree trunks like snapping toothpicks. “That’s actually one of the small ones,” Keith says proudly. The Komptech Terminator 6000, the size of a small U-Haul truck and much more dangerous. The mouth of the Terminator faces up into the sky so that from down here on the ground, I imagine a bird’s eye view of the monster as a giant, sucking earthworm whose throat is lined with rows and rows of shifting teeth.
Keith tells me that right now, we’re grinding up dirty wood to be deposited on top of and between the layers of trash and sewer sluice in the landfill, to stimulate the decomposition process and to help muffle the smell. “See! Look, right there.” Keith points. “Hey, look now, look – it stops, ’cause it senses that it’s eaten up the load and there’s nothing more coming in, so it goes idle and the discharge belt slows down, too. But now, wait, watch this load he’s bringing in. That’s a good load. As soon as that first branch hits, it’ll kick back on and start grinding again—see, see, there it goes. See how it’s pulling everything down in there?”
The healthy, leafy brush is first to disappear. It rolls out along the discharge belt as heavy dust and stringy, waxy bits of cellulose. The thick branches are next. A row of huge, metal teeth splinter bark from wood and sappy core. Last are the reedy branches. Those are the most difficult, because they leap and skip between the teeth, too thin to be caught but too flimsy to escape. They bounce erratically, dodging the bite of the Terminator until a single tooth catches. I know when it happens because suddenly the movement changes from jittery and jolting to fixed and spasmodic, the branch ramrod straight in the air and shivering violently. Seized. Suddenly, there’s only half a wooden stem. Then only the small twigs branching off. Then green. Then blue sky. The sound of the leaves rustling; the machine eating. “Once the teeth get them, they’re gone.” Keith says. “Here, I’ll show ya.”
The Terminator can take tons of wood and turn it into a pile an eighth or a tenth of its original size. “We call that downsizing,” Keith says. He tells me about the time they threw a propane tank in – because the Terminator isn’t scared of metal, not even whole cars – and the teeth scraped along the smooth steel skin at such a speed that it shot straight back out, like a rocket, peaking however-many-feet above their heads. And as it fell back down into the dirt, they could still hear the noise of the metal hitting the teeth scratching like nails at their eardrums. “What an awful, awful noise.”
Keith tells me they often mix furniture in when they’re grinding up brush or trash because the heavy chairs and the wardrobes push the trash down for a faster shred. I picture a long, salmon sofa, ripped armrests, pen marks in the cushions, a dip in the center seat where the springs have collapsed. It tilts off the lip of the shovel like food from the corner of a plastic lunch tray. Then the grinder starts up and there’s the sound of the big, metal teeth (Keith forms a square about six inches wide and six inches long to illustrate their size) biting into fabric and stuffing, slashing through metal under-wires, gnawing on the wooden frame, every bone of the couch crunching under the pressure as it’s dragged down into the belly of the grinder. I picture the little scraps of salmon fabric that would roll out on the discharge belt like cloth samples, mixed in with clumps of dirt and stray twigs and crumbling chunks of wood. And inside the machine, the sound of quarters and dimes and nickels, coated with gum and gunk and scratchy lint, once wedged between the couch cushions, now clattering along the blade, now dropping loud to the floor, skidding and skittering from one side of the rounded iron intestines to the other, clacking against one another like marbles.
A large object slams against the iron belly of the grinder from the inside. I can hear it rolling along the edges, then there’s a pause when it’s airborne before it slams back into the metal again and ricochets loudly.
My first thought is that someone is trying to get out.
Keith laughs at me. “No, no – something frozen in there, I think. A stone, maybe? Probably a stone.” The slamming continues, like when I tried to put my tennis shoes through the laundry. “No, no, don’t look that way,” Keith says. “It’s not going to come flying out at you.”
My sister, Kathleen, was always much smaller than me. When we were little, we played hide-and-seek for hours. Some days we could convince our mother to join in the game as well. Kathleen always wanted to hide with me. I had to hide from her first so then I could hide alone. There was a secret closet under a shelf in the laundry room that was my favorite spot. “What about me? What about me?” Kathleen would tug at my shirt, “Kelsey! Hide me too!” I shushed her, pushed her out of the way. There were no other cabinets. The laundry basket I would have ordinarily slipped her into was gone upstairs and the desk in the corner was crowded with moving boxes. She was small but there was nowhere left for her to crouch. “Kelsey!” she whined. I could hear Mom counting in the hallway. I looked back to my hiding place besides the washer and the dryer. Then I opened the door to the washer and I pointed inside. If she held her knees tight beneath her chin, I could close the door back behind her. I stood outside the washing machine then, imagined Kathleen curled up around her legs inside. I looked at the buttons for the wash cycle: whites, colors, delicates.
* * *
George, the manager of the Lebanon Landfill, is watching the rain. On a good day, it helps keep the dust down. On a bad day, it erodes the cover, exposing the trash beneath. Last Monday, they began filling a new section of landfill, the fourth cell of five in total before the entire lot is filled. At the current rate of 140 tons dumped per day, George expects the two new cells to keep the landfill in business until 2090. The dozer operators are also sealing off the landfill behind us with several feet of cover material and a sprinkling of grass seed. “To keep the soil from wearing away.” He looks out the window at the muddy mound and the grey, pregnant clouds. “To hold all of this together.”
The rest of George’s effort goes into the newest cell of the dump lot. Twenty feet deeper than its predecessor and with an ultimate goal of one hundred and twenty feet in height from bottom to top. Once it levels with the old landfill, forty feet above the ground, George—or his successor, years from now—will fill the crevice between them and join the two into one ultra large mound. Then they’ll move onto the fifth cell, the last free space on the lot. George tells me they can only move horizontally, building mounds “at a slope of 3-1,” meaning three feet out for every one foot up. The higher they get above the trees, the worse the wind is, picking up trash and sweeping it over the surrounding fences. Even now the complaints are beginning. Soon a prison crew will come out to the lot to pick up litter.
It’s only been seven working days on the new cell and already a tall cliff of trash has begun to inch its way across one end of the forty-foot deep hole. A dozer rolls back and forth across the top of the mound. The operator lowers his shovel and slowly pushes a small clump of garbage bags and detritus over the edge of the cliff, then quickly retreats. At this point, the growing mound is pure garbage, without cover material or sewer sludge. “He has to be really careful on this ledge so he doesn’t go over.” George says. An operator fell off the edge last Friday. Once you’ve lost the front wheels, it’s impossible to roll back up the way you came. “You have to lift your blade and go up the other slope. It’s a scary ride.” I try to imagine that moment of commitment. Getting stuck at the bottom. As we watch, the wheel of the bulldozer begins to slip, pulling the dozer down on one side so it leans off kilter into the mound. The dozer pulls back, struggles, sinks, then tries again and succeeds in pulling free of the edge.
George looks down at my notebook. “What is it you’re writing again?” he asks.
I put my notebook down behind my purse and slip my pen into my pocket. George keeps looking at me, waiting. He blinks. Trash. I’m writing about trash. How we think about trash. How we don’t think about trash. Where trash comes from and how it gets here. When a thing becomes trash and how that transformation occurs. You know, what trash really even is, if you could just dig down deep enough. “It’s amazing,” I say. He nods, turns to look at the swelling landfill for a long minute.
The Lebanon Landfill has been around since 1950. It used to be a burning dump. “At the end of the day, they’d set everything on fire. It was terrible. The smells were terrible.” When this lot is eventually filled, it will likely be remodeled into something else: a wildlife park, hiking trails, or added onto the nearby golf course. And maybe a few hundred years from now, scientists will return to the landfill to speculate about our lives. “If you dug in this area, you could probably find newspapers you could still read,” George says. “Why did we keep them? All my college books – why did I keep those? We have a house full of thirty years of stuff that’s just been following us around. But we don’t need it, never really did, so why did we keep it? Why didn’t we do this ten years ago?” He shakes his head. “What a dumb society we are. To have these storage facilities pop up everywhere. Full. All of them full of junk.” He leans back in his chair and rubs his palms down the front of his jeans.
* * *
“There’s a lot more to trash than you’d think,” Greg tells me. The letters USDA are embroidered into the shoulder of his shirt, which he wears tucked in and belted. United States Department of Agriculture. Greg’s job is “bird control.” He moves an educational book on the birds of New England out of the front seat of his truck to give me space. More books are scattered across the backseat. Greg is used to having a lot of downtime. In the spring, summer, and fall, he can leave his truck on the side of the road and wander around the wilder parts of the property. In the winter, the snow and ice means he’s confined to his car. Some days he goes a little stir crazy locked up alone in the cold and quiet.
Today is overcast but warm so we follow a well-worn trail off the road and into the tall grass growing by the river. He calls out the names of different birds as he spots them or hears their calls: crows, eagles, turkey vultures, warblers, spotted sand pipers, cardinals. “The tree swallows must be back, too. See?” He points up at a pair of thin silhouettes spiraling around each other above us. “They’re pretty good acrobats.” He points out an old woodchuck’s hole. “Those deer tracks right in front of the entrance are fresh.” Once, they found a bobcat inside the fence. Another time, two moose. I say that he must have some great party stories. Greg laughs, rubs his hands together and presses the palms down into his thighs. “We typically don’t talk about our job too much,” he says. “It tends to be unpopular with people.”
Greg went to school to be a game warden or a park ranger. He began working in the Lebanon Recycling Center, in what’s now Keith’s job, before he heard that management was looking for someone to deal with the birds. “Ninety-nine percent of what I do is simple harassment,” he says as we head back to the car. If a gull or a crow is particularly persistent, he may need to take the animal out or risk attracting a larger flock, which is dangerous for the nearby airport. So he frightens the birds with noise. Greg grabs a small, gray rectangular box from the space by my feet. Inside, he points to different thick, stubby tubes. They look like homemade fireworks. “These are pyros,” he says. “Here, you got your screamers. And here, your bangers.” He pulls out a small gun with a short snout. “Like anything else, you have to vary your harassment.” He loads a screamer into the gun, puts on ear mufflers, and steps out of the truck. Looks at me, raises the gun in the air, and fires. I jerk back at the loud, strangled sound—like a crow’s cry bleeding in the air for a second, becoming the long wheeze of a released balloon, and then finally dying away. The noise seems disconnected from the screamer itself, which arches up into the air, burns intensely red, and fizzles away.
Greg is also the “cat guy.” About a dozen stray cats live at the landfill. He feeds them and in the winter he gives them warm water. When he can afford it, he takes them to the vet to be neutered. “That’s Kitty-Mama,” he says and points at two glowing yellow eyes watching us from the cool shadows wedged between uneven blocks of concrete. Greg crouches down by a one-foot tall, rectangular cardboard shed, held together with duct tape and tilting slightly on one end. He looks through a small cutout door in the front of the box. Kitty-Mama just had kittens, but it seems as though she’s moved them out of this shelter Greg built. Into the concrete labyrinth, a mound of slabs stacked against each other, poked through with holes from where the iron rebar used to be, crumbling into dust at the edges. Greg checks the bowls of Kitty Chow.
We head back to his truck. “When I was in school, I didn’t plan on being in a position where I’d be harassing wildlife. But I feel that the good that I do offsets the minimal killing I have to do. And I take pride in the fact that I take care of the cats.”
As we round the lumpy dirt path that climbs the slope of the landfill, he tells me that he used to fly kites off the top of the landfill. High-flying birds, like turkey vultures, could get in the way of the planes flying in and out of the nearby airport. He tried using a kite shaped like an eagle to scare them away, but he couldn’t get it high enough to harass the high-flyers. “And the guys would make fun of me too,” Greg says. He mimics the complaints: “‘Government guy out there getting paid to fly a kite. Jesus Christ.’”
A few men are already on the landfill when we get there, spreading the ground-up remains of a brick building across the top. Greg points at the largest dozer on the mound, used to roll over the compacted trash, squeezing the mess down tight into the soil. The lights are off and the operator is gone, but the dozer’s door is open. “The wheels on that weigh probably five thousand pounds each,” Greg says. Behind it, another dozer pushes heaps of mulch over the edge of the landfill and lets it slide down the 3-1 slope. Near by, the compactor munches away on detritus and debris and dirty bricks, creating new mountains of dry sludge. I cross from one side of the landfill to the other and along the way I trip on a tennis shoe, with the toe sticking straight up out of the earth as though the rain had uncovered a fresh grave. The corners of pizza boxes, the broken pieces of pottery, the dented plastic of an Arrowhead gallon water jug, a yoga mat, the plastic packaging of a Barbie doll poke out from the sludge. I’m standing on trash that’s been building almost since the year I was born. Nineteen years of sludge and sewage and sluice and waste. All the time sinking and melting, broiling beneath the surface.
Yet, up here the wind comes down from the north, sweeping the smell of rot away. The river, visible now from above tree line, curves along the west side of the landfill before breaking off towards Hartland. The current is swift with recent rain, and the water curls white when it crests and slaps against itself. The trees are fully clothed in late spring, dozens of saturated shades of green and yellow. Across the road, the Carroll Concrete plant is mining rock out of the mountain. Greg tells me that some days he sits on the top of the landfill and just watches the concrete crew blasting chunks out of the cliff in huge white clouds of dirt and dynamite. “It’s funny,” he says, “’Cause we’re building a mountain over here, and then across the street they’re deconstructing one. Quite the juxtaposition.”
He looks down at the freshly laid, crumbled red brick cover material. I imagine him standing alone on the top of the landfill. His arms outstretched and gripping a string attached to the belly of an eagle that swoops and dives, impossibly graceful. “Yeah,” Greg says. He looks over the city and the trees and the river and the quarry. “You do a lot of thinking on top of the landfill.”
Kelsey Stimson is editor of 40 Towns.