May 2008 - THE POTOMAC

   S. Craig Renfroe, Jr.

I nestled deeper into the ripped up comforters, the slashed linens, 350 thread count sheets ruined by box cutters. 

“Mike, get out of the compactor.”

“No,” I said, “push the button.”

Odella reached in like she’d drag me out, but I just rolled toward the back out of her reach but uncomfortable with broken lengths of seasonal scarecrows jabbing my side.  “Get out of there.”

“I’m tired of throwing away all this stuff.”

“That’s our job.  We take the damages.  We write down the numbers.  We smash them up and then we throw them away.”

“It’s not right.”

“That’s what we got paid for.”

“You don’t see a problem with just tossing all these brand new things in here because they have a slight defect or don’t sell fast enough?” 

The trash compacter was like a mini-trailer set in one of the loading bays so level with the stockroom floor, an opening in the front for all the refuse. The button operated the compacting wall that pushed everything to the back, making a crushing noise I was begrudgingly delighted by. 

“Mike, who braved Mr. Bill to get the okay to keep that pretty beach picture so I can give it to my granddaughter?  Those sheets you wrapped up in are a hundred times better than mine.  What are you?  Nineteen?  Do you need this job?  At least I saved that beach picture.”

“I’m making a statement.”

“Like what?  You a dumbass?  You’re lazy?  Want me to tell Mr. Bill that you’re laying down at work?”

“I can’t stand up in here.”

Odella moved away from the opening, and I could follow the sound of her footsteps out of the stockroom.

Bill, the manager, wore lavender shirts with pink ties caressing his humped belly.  The flapping of the swinging stockroom doors and two sets of footsteps let me know Odella was serious. 

“He in there,” she said.

“What are you doing, Mike?” Bill asked.  “Get out of there.”

“Don’t you ever think about all the waste of throwing out the damages?  Why not sell it reduced?”

“I’m running this store.  Nobody’s going to buy this shit.”

“What about recycling?  Why have it hauled off to our landfill?  Your landfill.  The one you pay taxes for.  You’re worried about that, right?  Paying taxes.  Think of the taxes.”

He leaned over the opening his pink tie slipping over the edge as if it were licking the compactor.  “Don’t give me that hippie shit.  I have to make a profit and recycling isn’t profitable.  Besides, what do you think a landfill is?  This crap goes there and turns to dirt.”

“Plastic dirt?”

“Get out, and we’ll talk about it.”

“Discount first, save the earth!”

“Are you going to make me fire you?”

“Save the earth, discount first!”

“That’s it.  Mike, you’re fired.  Now get out of there and out of this store.  Or I’ll get security.”

“This is civil disobedience.”

His face disappeared from the opening.  I heard his hushed voice.  I pushed the scarecrow bits aside to inch back but hit the crushed block of what we’d compacted yesterday.  I tugged and kicked at it.

“I’m not getting in that garbage,” Odella said.  “He can stay in there for all I care.”

“Well.”  And in that “well,” I could hear Bill’s displeasure and also his resignation.  “We don’t have time to waste digging in after him.  If he wants to stay down there, fine—just throw the junk on top of him.” 

“But don’t compact it?” Odella asked.

“No, I guess not.”

So I spent two hours with Odella happily throwing broken things over me.  And she made a big production of dismantling the badly stitched pillows, cotton fluff floating down as if some beautiful and terrible bird had been eaten.  The sound of aerosol—items that were indestructible we defaced with a damaged can of red spray paint.  The graffitied item tumbled into the opening.  And another.  Two more.  A bowl set.

“I’m going on lunch,” Odella said.  “You feel free to leave.”

I stayed.  I wanted to get some media involved, popularize the problem.  But who would care?  What were moral imperatives to the materials of our existence, the broken decorative bowls with mirrored disco balls of different sizes scattered around me?  Each one manufactured in sweatshops, painstakingly created from others’ misery, yet all I could see was the fractured reflection of my own face in the silvery orbs. 

I climbed out and dusted some of the packing peanuts off.  I took up the picture Odella had set aside from the damaged pile.  She talked an hour about the anticipation of seeing her granddaughter’s reaction when she would wake up the next morning with it over the bed she shared with her mom in Odella’s apartment.  It was of some island paradise right at sunset, or sunrise, but the glass had a hair line crack running up the middle.  I dashed it on the concrete floor, the shattering sound shivering up my arms.  I bashed it again and again.  I jumped on the larger shards of glass.  I kicked the cardboard beach until crumpled out.  Standing on one corner, I twisted the frame apart and broke the pieces over my knee.  Scooping up handfuls of the broken glass, I tried to crush them like a superhero making diamonds.  When I hurled the pieces into the compactor, their blood-coating colored one of the sheets with red streaks.  And the pain, embedded in my palms and glittering in the fluorescent lights, made me momentarily feel better. 

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