Will you take the garbage when you go out? My wife said this without turning from the sink where she was washing the dishes from breakfast. It’s in the hall. You’ll see it as you go.
Of course, I said. Don’t I always? Her back remained impassive and she did not reply. Her hair was still matted from sleep and she was in her bathrobe. I leaned forward to kiss her on the cheek. She jerked away and muttered something about not having brushed her teeth, about splashing the hot water.
I withdrew and went into the hall. The children were playing on the floor in the living room. The youngest was in his diaper. It was already October and he should have been in a romper, he should have been wearing some kind of clothing. Instead, he sat nearly naked on the dirty carpet, his diaper heavy with urine, while his sister wore nothing more than thin pajamas.
They looked up when I passed and I raised my hand in greeting. They were conspiratorial in a way that gave them an air of unlikely dignity. After scrutinising me for a long moment, they resumed their playing. The baby was beginning to crawl. He lay sprawled out on his stomach, waving his arms and legs ineffectually. Behind me, I could hear my wife scouring the pots and pans, the gush of hot water from the tap. I picked up the garbage bag and walked down the hall. Bye, I called out, as the door closed.
The bag was heavy, its contents soft and shifting, as though it contained liquid. I caught a whiff of cooking oil and I worried that the bag might burst as I carried it down the stairs, already the plastic was stretching thin at the neck. I picked it up and carried it in my arms in order to avoid an accident. It was awkward carrying it down like this, I could not see past its bulk, and several times I almost stumbled as I descended the first flight of stairs.
We lived on the fourth floor of an apartment building that sat on the far end of a large cul-de-sac, adjacent to one of the main roads in the city. We could hear the traffic during the day, when we were lying in our beds at night. On occasion, the baby woke up screaming when a siren passed or a truck thundered down the road, before settling back to sleep. Six months old, and this was already a habit.
However, we were careful not to complain too much. It was a good location in the centre of the city and the rent was reasonable, almost unbelievably low. Even if that meant that the corridors were never cleaned and there were cockroaches and mice – nocturnal creatures that had grown bold and claimed the building for their own use even in daylight. When you walked down the stairs, they paused and looked at you with an expression of contempt, before continuing on their way.
I let them go first, as did most of the people living in the block. Out of a sense of resignation. Or perhaps out of good manners – you see, the creatures had us thoroughly cowed! That morning, weighed down as I was by the garbage bag, I simply shut my eyes to avoid the sight of them and moved as rapidly as I could down the stairs. It made no difference, the stairwell was always cloaked in darkness, the windows having long been caked with dirt and grime.
The darkness compounded with the awkward weight of the garbage bag made me lurch from side to side as I barrelled down the stairs. At one point I lunged against the wall and the bag left a damp odorous smear against its surface. It would irritate the other residents, I imagined getting the liquid on the tail of a coat, the hem of a trouser leg. It would have infuriated me no end. But I reached the front door without further incident – a stroke of sheer luck.
I thought it would be best to deposit the offending garbage bag in the bin before returning to wipe down the wall. It was not, strictly speaking, necessary. Nobody would know that I was the one responsible, there were dozens if not hundreds of people living in the building, all of whom spent the day making their way up and down the stairs. But it would bother me if I did not clean it up, it would trouble my conscience, and after all it was the work of mere minutes.
But first, the garbage bag. The bins stood in a narrow recess at the side of the building and were unlocked every morning between the hours of 5 a.m. and 8 a.m. On Friday morning at 8 a.m. the municipal garbage trucks made their way through the streets of our district, emptying the bins. The bins remained locked at all other points during the day. There had been, of late, increasing instances of garbage theft. Marauders made their way through the district, alone or in groups, opening bins and riffling through the contents of the garbage bags inside.
We heard them in the night, the sound of the bins being pried open, the rustle of the plastic bags as they were opened up. In principle they were stealing nothing – once the garbage had been discarded, we could no longer claim it belonged to us – and yet the sense of violation was as sharp as if they were robbing us in our own homes. Who knew what they were looking for, or what they were gathering? In the morning the sidewalk was covered with detritus, half emptied bags lying in the gutter. There seemed no rhyme or reason for what they took and what they left behind.
The council grew tired of the mess and instated the locked bins. For several weeks, we continued to hear the thieves passing through the street, attempting to pry the bins open – we knew their noises, the sound of their voices as they talked in the night, although not a single person I knew had ever actually caught a glimpse of them – but the bins remained locked, the streets clear and the garbage bags untouched. Silence had followed. Only then did I sleep well, for the first time I realised how the noise had perturbed and disrupted my sleep.
Uneasy sleep means an uneasy conscience, my wife would say. For all her virtues, she was fond of making cryptic and unhelpful comments. I swung open the front door. Outside, people were beginning to stir themselves. The roar of traffic was already powerful, so that I could feel the force of each car as it passed. I gripped the bag tighter in my arms as I walked to the side of the building where the recess was located. The bag grew heavy and damp in my arms, like a tired and mewling child.
I would need to change my shirt after this, in addition to wiping down the wall. My wife would not be impressed – she had, I ruminated, recently become somewhat distant, almost as though she could not wait to be free of my presence, as if it were as troubling to her as the wet stain on the stairwell. I sometimes had the sense that I had grown distasteful to her, that she no longer liked to look at me, that she did not simply avoid my gaze but avoided the sight of me altogether.
When had this state of affairs begun? For my part, I remained inordinately fond of my wife. She was a tidy woman and an excellent housekeeper, although admittedly she had been growing somewhat slack of late. She had a lively personality and was charming to strangers and acquaintances. This made her a popular figure in the block, I often said with pride that she could wheedle a cup of sugar or an hour of babysitting out of any one of our neighbours. And she was a good mother to the two children, I was a lucky man, one of the luckiest.
But as I reached the recess where the bins stood, it occurred to me that I had not seen my wife’s face once since waking. It had been averted from me throughout the morning. I’d had glimpses of her cheek from behind the mass of her hair (she had long and very messy hair, in the morning it could stand several inches high) but nothing more. I paused before the recess, overwhelmed by the uncanny impression that it was not simply that I had not seen her face, but that her face had ceased to exist at all. That it was, that it had somehow become, a mere smear of flesh without features.
Of course, such a thing was not possible. A face could not simply dissolve into thin air. And even if it could, when would it have happened? In the night, while she slept? She had said goodnight before turning away, her face drawn into an insincere smile – and then that was it, the last time I had seen her face. She’d said very little in the morning, in fact her request to take the garbage out might have been the only words she had spoken to me.
And she’d said the words in such a tone of resignation, as though doubtful that I would be able to perform this simple task – when I had been taking the garbage out every morning now for years. I was nothing if not reliable, in this regard if not necessarily in others. To be sure, her disdain for me was all the more wounding because it was not entirely groundless. How well she knew me! For a moment, I clutched the garbage bag tighter still, as though it might elude me in the manner of my wife.
Then, with her faceless, reproachful image still before me, I dropped the garbage bag at my feet and prepared to open the lid of the bin – a physically arduous task as the lid stuck at the hinges and a host of gnats and flies rose up to greet you the moment you cracked it open. It was at this moment that I saw that the bins had disappeared. The recess was quite empty. I looked around me but there was no obvious place to which they had been moved.
I remembered that there was an alley on the other side of the building, it was the only other logical place to look for the bins. I considered leaving the garbage bag where it rested now, on the ground before the recess, but decided against it. What if it disappeared in the same manner as the bins? What would my wife think then? Or – worse yet – what if she came upon the abandoned bag itself? I would never hear the end of it, there would be no way of explaining how I had come to leave our garbage in the middle of the sidewalk.
Therefore, I picked the bag up again and hauled it to the other side of the building. Where I was certain the bins must be waiting. There was, however, nothing on the other side. And I began to grow irritated and then exasperated – it was not my day, it was simply not my day. The garbage bag had grown even heavier in my hands and I longed to be rid of it.
Nevertheless, I lifted the bag – which had sprung a leak and both my shirt and trousers were quite soaked, there was no questioning the fact that I would need to wash and change clothes at once, the stench was already quite definite – and crept, as discreetly as I could, in the direction of the neighbouring building’s bins. It was still early, the bins were bound to be unlocked, it was perhaps even early enough that I would be able to avoid the scrutiny of the neighbouring building’s inhabitants.
Scuttling forward, looking both ways to see that the coast was clear, I carried the garbage bag around our building and to the recess of the neighbouring building. To my astonishment, their recess was also empty, devoid of its bins. I continued on to the next building, and then the building after that, and from each and every identical recess, each and every garbage bin was missing. Stranger still, the pavement in and around each recess was pristine, not a single bag of garbage was visible.
I was entirely flummoxed. Where had my neighbours left their garbage? Was it possible that there had been a memo, an announcement posted in the hall of the building, stating some change in the garbage disposal procedure? I had seen nothing, and surely I could not have been the only one to have missed such a memo. I was on the whole assiduous about such matters. I was, for example, the first to report infringements on the part of other residents.
No, I would never have missed such an announcement. Therefore, it followed that there should have been other people wandering the streets, looking for a home for their garbage. But instead, the cul-de-sac was quiet. As if there were a conspiracy against me! The obvious thing would have been to return to our building, to carry back the dripping bag of garbage and ascend the stairs, in my soiled clothes, past the stain on the wall of the stairwell – no doubt deepening, seeping further into the plaster – and to ask, who else but my faceless wife, what to do with the garbage.
But such a thing was impossible. I was determined to dispose of my garbage alone, even if it meant wandering the streets indefinitely. There were trash cans on a busy street nearby, it was a mere five minute walk from the cul-de-sac, and though it was frowned upon (and possibly illegal, there were so many provisions these days, it was difficult to keep track) nobody would prevent me from depositing my bag in one of these. The pedestrians would be on their way to work and the shopkeepers were unlikely to exit from their stores in order to stop me – and even if they did, I would be on my way, I had no intention of sticking around once I’d disposed of my burden.
I set off down the street, if not exactly light-hearted, then filled with relief at having reached a solution. I had begun to feel when faced with empty bay after empty bay as though I should never be rid of the bag.
I now could smell the sack’s contents in their distinct particularity, the whiff of tuna fish (that was the cat food, my wife had three prized cats, who meowed constantly as they paraded through the flat), banana, cooking oil, some rotting sausage. The individual tendrils of the stench rose up to my nostrils. One isn’t often in such proximity to one’s waste, there are so many ways of neutralising and minimising our contact with it – the water in the toilet basin, the lid of the garbage can – and yet here I was with my face pressed up against its very smell.
Well, it was unusual to say the least. But what option did I have? I reached the end of the cul-de-sac and saw the street ahead, the coffee shop and the bakery and the electronic goods store, all in a row, in front of which there normally stood a metal trash can. The can was nowhere in sight. My heart sunk. But the cans, lightweight and unfixed, were mobile. It could easily have been dragged to the other side of the street, or even a few yards down. I did not panic yet.
But as I walked down the high street with my bag of trash – which I now hauled along the pavement with one hand, leaving a damp trail of ooze on the surface below – and my appearance, with my shirt and trousers saturated in oily residue, quite dishevelled, I could not find a single trash can. It was as though they had been deliberately hidden. Around me, people continued on their way to work, they carried on as though everything was entirely normal.
Was there no one else with garbage to dispose of? The mass of commuters – it was nearing seven o’clock, the entrance to the subway at the end of the road was already choked with people – passed by me, moving rapidly, entirely fragrant, a mass of sweet-smelling bodies that seemed never to have known sweat or faeces. I stood still, reeking not only of sweat and, for all I knew, faeces, but also of the garbage bag that stood accusingly at my feet.
Evidently, I could have left the bag there. I could have left it there and walked home. But the shame was too intense, it would have been like publicly defecating in the middle of the sidewalk. I could not do it. I would have to carry on with the bag, there was nothing else to do, I was rapidly running out of ideas. I was desperate to get away from the crowd of professionals, of the gainfully employed, and so I lurched away from the busy street and back in the direction of the cul-de-sac.
With a start, I heard the familiar sound of the garbage truck on its weekly collection – the engine idling as it paused at a recess, the tumble and crash as the bin was dragged out and emptied, the roar of the vehicle as it started up again, only to come to a pause some seconds later. The familiar stuttering sound! Normally an irritation but now so eagerly welcomed! I raced down toward the cul-de-sac, half in wonder, half in fear, still carting my garbage in the hopes of disposing of it at last.
As I ran, I saw that the truck was moving more quickly than usual, as though it were in a hurry, determined to escape me. I redoubled my efforts and soon I was gasping for breath. I could see the back of the truck as it lumbered along, lumbered but with alacrity, so that at times it seemed to tip from one side to the other, from four wheels up to two, before crashing down with a leap like a vehicle in a cartoon.
During this wild pursuit, I noticed – a dim thought that started at the back of my mind before moving gradually and inexorably forward – that although the truck made all the usual stops before each of the apartment blocks, although the engine stuttered and stalled as normal, the truck itself appeared to be gathering no trash. The bins did not materialise, nor did the sanitation workers who emptied them, nor at last did the garbage bags, the collected waste of my neighbours, the banal Elysium to which my own waste aspired.
The mysteries of the morning, rapidly compounding, now threatened to overcome me. I began to back away from the truck, which continued to move in the opposite direction and which showed, in any event, no likelihood of slowing, almost tripping over my own feet as I gripped the garbage bag to my chest again. I turned away from the cul-de-sac, away from the truck that continued to race down the street, and ran north toward the canal.
I often took the children on walks to the canal, the baby in the stroller and his sister walking alongside. It was not a walk they enjoyed, rather it was a walk they endured. But the fresh air was good for them and that had been enough of a reason for me to drag them out of the house, however full of complaint. But now I realised I had not done it for some time, it had been weeks or even months since I had last taken them to the canal. My life had slipped from its routine, and I had not noticed.
The canal ran thick and green alongside me. Thirty minutes earlier, ten minutes earlier, I would been overwhelmed by the temptation to throw the garbage over my shoulder and into the water, to see it plummet through the opaque surface, but I’d experienced a change of heart, I was no longer looking for a place to deposit my garbage and in any case there was no time, I could hear the rumble of the truck, loud at my ear, it seemed as if it were at my back, hounding me down the street, as if it might leap upon me in an instant.
I saw a flight of wooden stairs, overgrown with weeds and leading down to the canal. Without thinking, I clattered down. My feet slipped on the wood, which was coated in grime. I lost my footing, tumbling down the steps and falling with a thud on the stones below. The garbage bag flew through the air and then landed, a moment later, beside me.
The underpass stood to one side. I could make out the dim outline of some large mass – of objects? Or people? I looked down at the garbage bag. Picking it up, I crept forward. By that point they had seen me – dozens and dozens of people, sitting beneath the bridges on the canal and surrounded, I saw as I approached closer, by mounds of black garbage bags. The bags were piled high, wedged against the brick wall of the canal, piled up to the top of the underpass until they formed a dense mass, an insulation of sorts.
The figures continued to watch me in silence. I stepped into the underpass. They did not move, there was no gesture of welcome or rebuttal. Their eyes were calm and I was somewhat reassured. Very slowly, I sat down. I placed the bag in my lap. I untied the knot at the top, now grown stretched and tight. The smell that rose up was so dense that it knocked my head back, and for a moment I closed my eyes. Then, I began to unpack the bag.
One by one, I extracted the items and set them out on the pavement before me, as if I was setting out wares at a bazaar. Old crushed cans, scraps of fruit peel, a lump of stinking meat, a mass of diapers that I carefully separated one by one. When it was done, when I had taken it all out and laid it before me, the smell so strong it was almost suffocating, I looked up at the figures in the darkness. I waited for their response.
– New York, August 2013
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Gone to the Forest, was published in 2013.