Issue 12.2

Pigeons

By Edward Butscher

A dark, lean, hard man who spoke little,

forever hatted like a taxicab driver, his

childish smile rare as a peacock unfolding

below the flock of pigeons that exploded

from upturned palms like electrified stones,

his form distinct above us on a tenement roof:

a foreign saint set against rabid clouds.

 

He was our uncle, we were informed, but

he never looked at us, shy as a Dutch tulip,

and my father said in secret (man to man)

that he was a cousin from the family’s wild

branch where blood seethed with syphilis

bugs and was thin enough to candle eggs—

his wife a balloon shape sloped over a kitchen

window chair who could not bear children.

 

It was on the Lower East Side, just after the war,

when we first glimpsed him and his pigeon host

and I guessed from the way my father gauged

his rooster frame that he was unique, a specimen

divine in the madness propelling him into the sky

each morning, a laugh like startled mallards as he

unlatched the wire door and slowly pivoted on tar

in tune, in time, to circling shafts of darkness.

 

Near the end of their lives, my father and he sat

side by side in a urine-stained couch to monitor TV

soap operas. Teeth gone, nearly deaf, he did not stop

clucking as they sipped headless beers, reciting

newspaper horror tales by rote—fried infants, raped

nuns, tortured cats—asking if I had ever tasted

“a coon hair pie” or rode in a rumble seat.

 

At my father’s wake, he slumped alone in the back

and played with himself, cave grin bearing witness

to the betrayal of our shared laughter, and soon he

was also dead, his wife dancing in a nightgown

on the griddle of a snow-ribbed street as black

attendants handled him gently into an ambulance,

dawn horizon bleak as a tossed purse, pigeons

ascending like tattered angels from my awe.

___

Poet, critic, and literary biographer, Edward Butscher resides with his wife, Paula Trachtman, in Greenport, Long Island. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies since 1976. Collections of his poetry include Poems About SilenceAmagansett Cycle, and Child in the House. His biography Sylvia Path: Method and Madness, was the first of that poet, and Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale won the Melville Kane Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Paranoia

By Edward Butscher

It is a quiet, noisy, injured thing

chained inside a forehead’s theatre,

streaming star performances of people

who can never be touched or trusted.

 

It is murder by degree and decree,

a Dutch or Russian uncle, predator wise,

Stalin’s problem-solving gulag slaughters,

as if death alone could annihilate death.

 

It is a furtive, infantile rage clenched

in a father’s quick fist like graveyard dirt

or hidden roll of coins, his wife listening

to a cold radio for plots against their son

___

Poet, critic, and literary biographer, Edward Butscher resides with his wife, Paula Trachtman, in Greenport, Long Island. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies since 1976. Collections of his poetry include Poems About SilenceAmagansett Cycle, and Child in the House. His biography Sylvia Path: Method and Madness, was the first of that poet, and Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale won the Melville Kane Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Nursing Home

By Edward Butscher

Another hanging connection,

another gutteral whisper

near the lip of hysteria

above the tidal suction

of her unsure being

 

as I wake, again drenched,

from adolescence’s dream

of the island girl in jeans

a paradox of lean and lush

like that Ukrainian skater

 

simulating foreplay’s coy

pouts and poses and painted

fingers and mouths, licking

hair from cheeks and chest

swallowing strawberries

in a single giggling gulp.

 

“My apartment! My apartment!”

 

A naked radiator whistled

in the Smart Street apartment

where a mother’s waxing breast

launched another’s moon ride.

 

I see myself in the sly fright

of paranoid eyes so wide

they multiply childhood’s

appetite for immortality.

 

“They’re stealing our home!”

 

She laps at me like a cat

atop an unexpected fetus,

tonguing broken leg veins

 

to the scar near my heart

where three roads converge

when a ribcage collapses

into thrown pick-up sticks

 

the throat of silence loud

as a hidden universe’s

wheezing black holes.

___

Poet, critic, and literary biographer, Edward Butscher resides with his wife, Paula Trachtman, in Greenport, Long Island. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies since 1976. Collections of his poetry include Poems About SilenceAmagansett Cycle, and Child in the House. His biography Sylvia Path: Method and Madness, was the first of that poet, and Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale won the Melville Kane Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Heart

By Edward Butscher

Nothing is an accident

in a poem or state of mind.

Nothing lacks design,

the craft of artisan hands.

 

This is the charm and chill

of a cosmos groaning on

an axis of stars without end.

 

After all, a sun’s pulsating

chaos is not chaos at all

but the cauldron of a skull

dreaming astronomy.

 

An Aztec priest perched

on a leafless limb

like a sailor’s parrot

and cawed what he never saw

about the human heart’s

flight from itself:

 

the thunder of a hare

caught in dawn’s gory jaws:

 

the first woman’s sacred stillness

haloing a Catholic schoolyard

as it moved earth to erupt

with the drum rhythms

of an anchor love

 

when light angels appeared

to spear her tense thighs

into dancing tassels.

 

He was a liar then and now,

but his truth remains true

 

his phoenix wings

his golden bough

his burning bush

 

kindling pyre for the hearth

where we sacrifice the Other

for a taste of wrought beauty

that will outlive all appetites.

 

___

Poet, critic, and literary biographer, Edward Butscher resides with his wife, Paula Trachtman, in Greenport, Long Island. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies since 1976. Collections of his poetry include Poems About SilenceAmagansett Cycle, and Child in the House. His biography Sylvia Path: Method and Madness, was the first of that poet, and Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale won the Melville Kane Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Déjà Vu

By Edward Butscher

There came unto me
that turned a tenderer voice for me.
—Thomas Hardy

 

 Messages from the dead,

who clutter our closets

and sly bedroom corners

with whispers of dust,

are more cryptic than

the marble mausoleums

and plebian stone stiles

that mob Queens’ green

hillsides like a grey army

of raised shields, besieging

Manhattan’s bugle towers.

 

Or so I must believe,

their voices a chorus

around a moon-remote

woman when I lie down

for my afternoon nap

just before twilight wrings

me anxious, gelid Lucy

beneath me in her fluid

Hëloise guise, lips at work

on a pillow earlobe.

 

No wife calls from the grave

beyond the garden gate

nor boy (after escaping

mass) from a used-car lot’s

unlocked Chrysler, where black

gospel songs rock its frame

to truant brothers’ glee.

No baby sister sighs

over an unlived life, her

small blood sign scraped raw

by a languid ceiling fan.

 

Face down in defeat and

faux “noontide” desire,

I climax a stifled groan

that rumbles through an old

house to startle awake

a shelter kitten, she

alone sensing who walks

and is mourned here.

___

Poet, critic, and literary biographer, Edward Butscher resides with his wife, Paula Trachtman, in Greenport, Long Island. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies since 1976. Collections of his poetry include Poems About SilenceAmagansett Cycle, and Child in the House. His biography Sylvia Path: Method and Madness, was the first of that poet, and Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale won the Melville Kane Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Commercial Break

By Edward Butscher

Wrapped in cellophane,

who can smell the inner

thighs that baked me pure

once upon a kneeling time?

 

The illusion is love,

a Wonder Bread truck

stalled at the curb.

 

Flames oven her nails,

my heart a sodden loaf

handled stale.

 

Too many girls but one,

the black-haired mute

who signed Italian

in crucified palms.

 

Making love,

breaking bread,

the driver has left for India.

 

___

Poet, critic, and literary biographer, Edward Butscher resides with his wife, Paula Trachtman, in Greenport, Long Island. His poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies since 1976. Collections of his poetry include Poems About SilenceAmagansett Cycle, and Child in the House. His biography Sylvia Path: Method and Madness, was the first of that poet, and Conrad Aiken: Poet of White Horse Vale won the Melville Kane Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Static Electricity

By Rosalia Scalia

My twin sister Raisa and I are in our childhood home. Overstuffed with clothing, furniture, drapes, toiletries and all kinds of things that our mother loves and uses daily, the room feels empty even with us in it. On each of her closet doors an elephant garland with vibrant colors, bells, and beads jingles every time Raisa opens and shuts them, the garland a remnant of Mom’s days as a hippie. I’m sitting on Mom’s bed above which hangs a giant portrait of our grandmother—Mom’s mother—painted by Mom’s ex-boyfriend Tim when Grandma was struggling with Alzheimer’s and spent most of her time in a hospital bed installed in the living room.

We’re going through Mom’s stuff deciding what to bring to the hospital, and while we both find comfort in touching her things—as if doing so would change the situation back to normal, back to the way it was just the day before or last week—it’s a colossal waste of time. We should have stayed at the hospital. Raisa believes it’d be a good idea to clean the house before Mom returns, but it’s busywork, a way to stay frenetic, which is how Raisa deals with things. The house is already tidy and clean, but Raisa likes to submerge herself in frenetic activity whereas I prefer to observe and study things before taking action.

Mom kept the masking tape labels posted all over the house from when Grandma first moved in, labels identifying what things could be found in the drawers and what things were named—useful until Grandma lost the ability to read them. In Mom’s large block letters in black marker, the labels are everywhere: “mirror,” “bathroom,” “underwear,” “linens,” “door,” “window,” “spoons,” “spices,” “pots,” and an array of other words. Raisa wants to remove them, but I veto that, reminding her that it’s not her house.

Raisa rolls her eyes. “It probably never occurred to her to take them down. She’s always so oblivious.”

“It’s her house,” I say.

“Like she’ll even notice they’re gone?” Raisa says, but leaves the labels alone.

As she packs things for the hospital, I’m jittery, wanting to return as soon as possible. Older by two minutes, Raisa always tried to boss people around. She’s already switched off Mom’s waterfall wall in the hallway, saying it makes too much noise reverberating throughout the house; unplugged the aromatherapy diffuser, saying it stinks; and stuffed her refrigerator with chicken and bacon, knowing Mom, a strict vegetarian with a “Meat is Murder” bumper sticker on her car, has avoided bringing meat in the house for ages. When I turn the water wall and the diffuser back on, Raisa shuts them off. I don’t want to fight with her.

“We should call Tim,” I say, changing the subject.

“No,” she snaps. “Her phone number hasn’t changed in the last hundred years. He’s the one who should be calling us. Or her.”

“Maybe he hasn’t seen the news…?”

“Maybe if he lives under a rock,” she says.

I text Tim anyway. Raisa leans over and pulls a small suitcase from under Mom’s bed and moves the curtain. Outside, people approach the house with arms full of flowers. Some carry teddy bears and others lighted candles, large handmade posters, and mementos of all sorts. Not wanting to see the spectacle, Raisa shuts the curtains abruptly, but I’m comforted seeing Mom’s positive impact at the school having value to others in our town.

“We should just go,” I say. “She doesn’t need anything from here.”

Raisa insists on completing the packing.

I don’t remember consciously thinking of myself as a twin, and Raisa and I never treated each other like twins, although, growing up, others often confused us. We always acted like sisters. Born three minutes earlier, but smaller, Raisa fought for her life and perhaps never graduated beyond the initial drive to survive. Raisa tosses Mom’s underwear into the suitcase. Her robe, her slippers. She tosses in perfume, cosmetics, sundries as if packing for a vacation instead of the hospital, overpacking useless items. I want to leave so I hurry her along.

Raisa points to the portrait. “Grandma at her best. Not as the demented, diapered old lady who failed to recognize any of us,” she says.

“I’ve always loved it,” I say. “And Tim, too. What a good egg.”

Raisa rolls her eyes. “Such an annoying man!”

Raisa says the same thing about my husband, Tony—that he’s an annoying man. From day one she’s disliked him and created tension between them. He prefers to avoid her when she’s in town. When we were newly engaged, she’d implied he was too lazy or dumb to go to medical school instead of becoming a physical therapist and smashed an egg on the top of his head. We were all shocked. She called it a joke and accused us of lacking a sense of humor.

“Now I know the reason you can’t keep a boyfriend and will never marry,” Tony told her while sopping the egg off his head. “It sounds like ‘rich.’”

“Something you’ll never be,” she said.

Tony stays at home with the kids, and it’s OK because she doesn’t ask about any of them. We’re thankful that our kids attend the school where I teach math in the next town over. He and I chatted before he put the kids to bed last night, ourselves numb and dazed that this happened so close. I stayed with Raisa at Mom’s house.

Neither Raisa nor I could focus on anything else and obsessively watched the news about the shooting: the timeline of events, interviews of the parents of dead or wounded children and teachers, and vigils that we skipped because we didn’t want to talk to anyone. We didn’t want to be present watching all those people who lost nothing chasing their fifteen minutes. We looked through Mom’s photo albums, laughing at all the crazy things we remembered from the photos—when Grandma danced and sang with a wooden spoon microphone; when our father, still alive, planted the gardens that continue to bloom around her house in waves of colors as the season change; when Tim and Mom painted the delicate and beautiful strands of green ivy still circling the top of each doorway; when Raisa and I were dressed in identical clothing, but in different colors, doing different things. Also in the photo album are shots of Grandma, Mom, and us in front of Capital Police Headquarters where they took Mom after she was arrested for protesting Corcoran’s cancellation of the Mapplethorpe exhibit. In the photo with us, she holds her sign “Censorship is obscene. Not Art.” Angry that politicians could cancel an art exhibit because of a bunch of unenlightened prudes, she participated in the group that projected Mapplethorpe’s work on the walls outside the museum. We were too young then to appreciate her courage. In all the photos, including the ones after she was released from police headquarters, Mom’s perpetual smile stretches across her face under her serious-looking, black-plastic framed glasses.

In the drab trauma waiting room, parents and family members of those injured in the school attack drape themselves over the chairs, pace, squeeze their hands, stare at the TV without actually watching it, or sit cross-legged on the floor. Worried, weary, clutching cell phones, water bottles, brown bags, snacks from the hospital cafeteria and vending machines—they, like Raisa and me, wait. Good news. Bad news. Any news. The principal approaches us and tells us Mom’s a hero. He says she yelled “Shooter! Shooter! Protect the students!” at the top of her lungs soon after the gunman entered the building and the havoc began.

“She ordered her aide to hide her students in the windowless room with her art supplies and to barricade the door after she left the room,” the principal said. “She grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran down the hallway toward, instead of away from, the gunman, and then aimed the fire extinguisher at the shooter and sprayed him with the foam,” he says.

The white foam caused the gunman to cough uncontrollably, disrupting his progression through the hallways for a short time, he told us.

“Without actually seeing her, the shooter turned and shot her, hitting her first in her leg, then in her gut. She sprayed him until the extinguisher was empty. Then she hit him with the cannister, and that’s when the he shot her a third time. She tried to stop him,” he says. “She succeeded for a minute.”

The principal sounds as if he’s told this story one hundred times with the same level of disbelief and shock. He takes my hand and envelops it in both of his—his eyes shiny, bloodshot above the puffiness beneath them. “I’m sorry.”

He tries to envelop Raisa’s hand but she pulls away. “How did this monster get in?” she yells, her voice shattering the uneasy silence of the waiting room. “You only said those things to avoid a lawsuit. How the fuck did you witness this interaction without helping her, and where the fuck was the security guard when Mom was confronting the gunman by herself? Alone.”

No answers. The other families shift their gazes between Raisa and the principal. They, too, want answers that aren’t forthcoming. I thank him for telling us as he backs away. He looks at Raisa with eyes as large as tangerines while Raisa says nothing, shredding the tissues in her hands.

I picture Mom’s school building, try to imagine the altercation between her and the gunman. How incongruous it must have been for her amid the brightly painted walls, the bold blues and greens, the happy yellows and cheerful reds that fostered positivity and learning. Mom’s middle school students’ colorful lanterns—fashioned from empty gallon milk jugs and LED lights—hang from the ceiling in school’s corridors like a luminous, aerial, 3-D cross-stitch. Her students’ life-sized self-portraits—their outlines traced onto paper, cut out and decorated as mini-me’s—line hallway walls leading to her classroom. Outside her classroom door tombstone etchings of the town cemetery grace the wall—a project of the older students. Her mission as an art teacher, she once said, meant helping her students see beauty in the world around them, even in the most routine things. Yellow police tape now surrounds the property as an active crime scene, and I wonder if blood spatter now mars those beautiful lanterns, self-portraits, and etchings.

A nurse in blue scrubs enters the trauma waiting room and calls our names. Raisa and I hold each other’s arms as we follow her into a trauma bay where Mom lies connected to tubes and machines. A ventilator breathes for her, and I imagine the long recovery ahead as I watch the machine inflate and deflate her chest. The nurse stares at us. I know she’s puzzled by the fat and thin versions of the same face and body type standing before her. She holds a clipboard but doesn’t speak for a long time. Usually one of us speaks first, explains that we’re identical twins, but this time neither of us does that. Mom appears small and breakable, her face pale as a waning moon, and her body surrounded by tubes and beeping machines. We fail to notice the nurse leaving.

I swallow a wail that fights to escape my throat because Mom looks so delicate, fragile, amid the tangle of corded machines. We flank each side of the bed and hold her hands. Raisa leans over and whispers into her ear. “Don’t worry, Mom, we’re here!”

“People in a coma can still hear,” she tells me in her Know-It-All voice.

When the doctor comes, she tells us that they did everything possible, that the ventilator is the only thing keeping Mom alive, that her brain has ceased to function, that she’s not going to improve. She asks about Mom’s advance directives, if she has a do-not-resuscitate directive, because if she doesn’t have one then we must decide whether it’s time to turn off the life support system. She also asks about Mom’s organ donor status. Neither Raisa nor I know these things, and it dawns on me that neither of us knows much about Mom beyond her role as our mother. We don’t know why she and Tim parted ways, why she never remarried after our father died, why she chose to teach art rather than work as a medical illustrator like our grandmother—far more lucrative than teaching. Suddenly, all that I don’t know about her feels like a gigantic hole, a chasm of loss, a treasure stolen.

“Is your mother an organ donor?” the doctor asks.

“How premature. And insensitive,” I say, my turn to be indignant and accusatory. As I watch the machine inflate and deflate my mother’s chest, my math brain concentrates on the numbers of breaths a healthy person takes for granted: sixteen breaths per minute, 960 breaths an hour, 23,040 breaths a day, 8,409,600 a year. If Mom were to live to be 80, she’d take about 672,768,000 breaths in her lifetime, and it kills me that my children are being robbed of seeing their grandmother take in and expel all those breaths. I imagine all my children’s milestones, and all their activities she’ll miss: birthdays, graduations, weddings. And mine, too.

“No response in the brain or the stem,” the doctor says in a matter-of-fact voice.

Hope clings to me like static electricity. Maybe time will restore her responses. It’s only been three days since the shooting. Miracles can happen. I believe in miracles.

I look at Raisa, her face identical to mine—but mine’s gone soft and full from pregnancy and motherhood, whereas Raisa’s remains sharp and thin. Her hair, thick chestnut sheets, falls just below her shoulders in a sexy bob, while mine, cut short, exposes my ears. We could pose for before-and-after photos for a weight loss advertisement.

“We did our best.” The doctor says the words slowly as if we are idiots who cannot comprehend.

I know they can’t turn off the ventilator until everything about organ donation and withdrawing life support is laid down, signed in triplicate, settled.

“Rumian, she wouldn’t want this,” Raisa says.

“She’s not dead yet,” I yell.

Raisa takes the clipboard from the doctor and signs away Mom’s organs as if she were signing over the title to her car. I leave the room.

A stony silence fills the car on the ride back to Mom’s house. Raisa’s driving. Wishing with every cell in my body that she was shot instead of Mom, I peer out the passenger window to avoid looking at or speaking to her. I want to put distance between us—to drive home to see my kiddos and Tony. I want to take a break from her—from this awful situation.

“She’s still on the ventilator,” Raisa says, as if that makes a ton of difference. “We have a lot to do,” she adds in that Know-It-All voice and begins ticking off a to-do list beginning with “make arrangements.”

“Shut up. Shut the fuck up,” I say, my words venom darts. “You’re going to turn her waterfall wall and diffuser back on. And you’re going to be polite to Tony and my kids when they arrive.”

Raisa stared at me with disbelief in her face.

When we turn into Mom’s driveway, a large object covered in thick brown paper tied with twine leans against the front door. Without speaking, I unlock Mom’s door, drag the package inside, cut the twine and tear off the paper. I immediately recognize Tim’s work. It’s a companion piece to Grandma’s portrait, capturing Mom in her youthful glory: Filled with energy, her eyes appear flashing behind those large black-framed glasses, her hair wild, curly, large, untamable. Love shines from her face as she smiles at us, her arm encircling Raisa and me, our young faces identical but slightly different with our heads forming the top slopes of a heart; her elbow, the point, and her forearm closes the circle.

___

Rosalia Scalia earned a master’s degree in writing from Johns Hopkins University in May 2003 and is working on her first novel, Delia’s Concerto. The first chapter was one of seven finalists in a competition held by the National League of American Pen Women and a more recent version was published as a story titled “Soul Music,” in Crack the Spine #109. Her story “Henry’s Fall” was a finalist in the Gival Press Short Story competition. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Amarillo Bay; The Baltimore Review; Blue Lake Review; Crack The Spine; Epiphany; The Furious Gazelle; Hawaii Pacific Review; The Oklahoma Review; North Atlantic Review; Notre Dame Review; Pebble Lake; Pennsylvania English; The Portland Review; Quercus Review; Ragazine; Riddle Fence; Silk Road Review; Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; Talking River; South Asian Ensemble; Spout Magazine; Taproot; Valparaiso Fiction Review; Verdad; and Willow Review. The story that appears in Taproot won first prize in its annual literary fiction competition for 2007, and “Uncharted Steps” merited a 2010 Individual Artist Grant from the Maryland State Art Council. “Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick,” first published by Pebble Lake Review and nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2005, appeared again in an anthology titled City Sages: Baltimore (CityLit Press, May 1, 2010), a collection of stories by 32 Baltimore writers, including Poe, Anne Tyler, and Alice McDermott, among others. Most recently, her story “You’ll Do Fine” was a recipient of the Willow Review Award for the Spring 2011 issue. Her short story collection, Sister Rafaele Heals the Sick & Other Stories, was shortlisted in the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Fiction Awards.

The Landfill

By Fred McGavran

Technology is always the answer. Hi. My name is Yardsal (“Yardy”) Haines, and that’s what I used to tell the school kids bussed out to the landfill for a day in the country. Most kids nowadays have never been to the country and thought they were going to see a cow pasture when we took them up to Lookout Point. Stretched out before them was an inland sea of plastic bags crisscrossed by bulldozers leveling out the bumps.

“Hey, Mr. Yardy!” some kid always asked. “Why’s it smell so bad? Is it the cows?”

See what I mean? Those kids couldn’t tell a cow from a bulldozer. Anyway, the question gave me a chance to talk about decay of organic matter and give them some terms to describe it besides the ones they already knew. Teachers really appreciated that.

“If it smells like shit, it probably is shit,” my friend Bill Bob Leahy, chief of security, always added.

Bill Bob is a short man with a beer belly so enormous he has to lean backwards to keep from toppling over. The kids loved him because he spoke their language. Teachers were another story.

For twenty-seven years, I’ve been chief engineer at Settlers Landfill. As a waste management professional, I don’t use terms like “dump” or “trash.” For us in the industry, waste management is a technological challenge, not a subject for sick jokes. We accepted over two million tons of household and industrial waste every year and spread it out across our six hundred acre campus to be layered with soil and blended into the environment. Thanks to reclamation science, we graded and seeded the outer edges just like strip miners grade and seed the outer edges of their pits, so passersby see only rolling green hills from the road.

Inside, however, we had to deal with mounds of plastic bags exploding and out gassing as their contents ripened in the summer sun. Over the years our sales force was so successful that corporate in Chicago projected the landfill would reach its capacity by 2020. Our neighbors wouldn’t sell us more land, and the regulators wouldn’t let us use it if they did. Strapped for space, we could not keep layering the waste with dirt to keep the flies and odor down. We had to find a high tech solution.

Although often criticized in the media, our industry is very sensitive to the needs of our neighbors. We have to be: my wife Cindy and I and Bill Bob and his wife Cheryl live in Settlers Grove, a planned community for employees just outside the landfill. So we were all relieved when corporate announced that it had developed a proprietary solvent that not only made the waste decompose in less than the half-life of a plastic bag but would also shrink the compost to less than one third its original size. We learned later that it did this by dehydrating and solidifying the waste into a hardness that could withstand a nuclear blast.

Corporate had thought of everything except the exponential increase in methane gas caused by the enhanced decomposition process. Coupled with a temperature inversion, complaints about bad odors reached a crescendo not even our PR firm and Political Action Committee could silence. School trips were cancelled; grilling out was impossible. I remember wearing an oxygen mask when I cut our grass.

Corporate found another technical solution: a gigantic plastic dome that would cover the landfill and capture the gas. Through an intricate piping system, methane would be routed to our neighbors to heat their homes. The dome was designed by the same NASA engineers who were designing domes for the first colonists on Mars. It made the landfill look like a gigantic terrarium. Offering methane gas at below market rates, we converted criticism into praise and gained many advocates. We even designed clear places in the plastic at Lookout Point so the kids could look in and watch the enhanced decomposition. It was only in the choice of a piping and concrete contractor that we went astray.

Butch Siegel is the best example I have ever seen of why accepting the lowest bid can be a mistake. As the weather changed, leaks developed around the pipes where they passed through the dome due to the different rates of expansion for plastic and metal. Neighbor complaints rebounded, reaching as high as the governor’s office, and Cindy and I had to cancel our Fourth of July barbecue. I called Siegel to my office in the concrete block administrative building that had been built when the site was used as an ammunition testing ground in the 1940s. He was as confident as ever.

“The pipes are leaking,” I said.

“No problem,” Butch reassured me.

“How’re you going to seal them?”

“Easy,” Butch said and winked, holding up a Zippo® lighter engraved “Danang 1969” and a large tube of epoxy cement

That was the last time I saw him. Bill Bob watched him climb up the dome and light the Zippo by one of the methane pipes. Leahy made it back to our administrative building just before Butch found his first leak.

To my amazement, even our closest neighbors did not hear the blast. When Bill Bob and I went out to survey the damage, the dome was intact, having deflected the blast downwards into the landfill. Only the piping was gone, landing as we learned later in backyards and Interstates as far as 20 miles away. After putting in a missing person report on Siegel, we were back in full operation within an hour.

Corporate in Chicago called to ask whether there had been any damage to the waste itself. Obviously they were thinking of restarting methane gas production as soon as possible. I hadn’t thought of that. So we let the dome cool for a day, and then Bill Bob and I clambered up with flashlights to peer through the pipe holes. It was like looking down into the earth through an upside down periscope.

Not a plastic bag remained. The waste, solidified by the solvent, had been driven deep into the earth like a gigantic bullet, leaving the appearance of a crater on the moon. Now we had space for hundreds of millions more metric tons of waste, enough to serve the prospective needs not only of the city, but also of the surrounding area for decades. We scrambled down to call Chicago.

“Watch out, Yardy!” Bill Bob cried, grabbing my arm and pulling me back just as the concrete base at my feet collapsed, leaving a gap between the dome and the crater below.

“Looks like Butch skimped on the concrete, too,” I said.

The explosion had cracked the base all around the dome. Corporate wasn’t happy, but who needed a dome now that fifty years accumulation of methane was gone? The neighbors could go back to getting their gas from the utility company like everybody else. I designed a wire fence on metal stakes to keep workers from falling in, but after a month the ground gave way beneath that, too. Sections of the fence drooped and dangled over the edge until the last stakes gave way and everything dropped into the crater. We had to stop the school tours for good.

We established a protocol that anyone approaching the edge had to wear a safety harness. Every time I got roped up to inspect the crater, I was amazed at how deep it was. Gray, cloudy, with little channels of fire swirling in its depths, it was like looking into the remains of a city hit by nuclear bombs or an opening into hell.

One afternoon the dome started to tilt to one side, like a lid too small for a pot.

“What’ll we do if it falls in?” Bill Bob wondered.

“Beats hell out of me,” I replied. “Let’s hope corporate has the answer.”

Corporate didn’t care. Aside from a photo of the tilting dome that went viral, no one else cared, either. The day the dome finally slid down into the crater, Bill Bob and I were the only ones who bothered to get roped up to see it. It was lying on the bottom at about a 30º angle, exaggerating the flames beneath it like an enormous magnifying glass.

“Is the dome flammable?” Bill Bob asked.

We soon had the answer to that.

Bill Bob and I had bought houses on the same street in the late 80s when the landfill was just getting started and worked our way up in the company together. Now that the kids were gone, he and Cheryl and Cindy and I were beginning to think about retirement communities where you did not go to sleep to the sound of garbage trucks racing in and out of the landfill, or the crackle of uncontained fires sweeping over mountains of plastic bags.

“You know, I kind of miss the sound of the plastic bags burning,” Cindy said the evening the dome fell in while we and the Leahys were grilling steaks on our backyard grill. “It kind of put me to sleep, like a fire in the fireplace on a winter evening.”

“What’s that?” Cheryl exclaimed.

A rush of wind came from the landfill, followed by the throat-closing stench of burning plastic.

“Get inside!” Bill Bob cried as I took the steaks off the grill. “The dome caught fire!”

The sky over the landfill was clotted with thick black smoke lit orange by the flames beneath.

This time corporate was ecstatic. Once the dome was burned out, we could put in even more waste without it blocking the flow like an upside down cup over a garbage disposal. Besides, the crater was getting deeper, and Settlers Landfill was about to become the largest in the country. Despite thousands of tons of dirt dumped into the crater, however, the fire burned for three weeks, causing the evacuation of everyone within our outgassing range. Every TV station in town had drones circling to get real time action shots, and we were the subject of sarcastic comments by TV talk show hosts and liberal politicians all over the country. Bill Bob and I and our wives had to move across town to an extended stay motel, cutting short the summer cookout season.

“I don’t need all this,” Bill Bob said after he had been up all night trying to move protesters out of the access road to the landfill so the trucks could get through. “I’m going to take early retirement.”

“Maybe I should, too,” I agreed. “Florida is looking better every day.”

We weren’t the only ones with ideas like that. The only problem was getting our money out of our houses. That’s when corporate announced it would buy the house at pre-explosion fair market value of any employee who agreed to stay on until retirement. As usual Chicago thought it would all blow over in a year and everyone would forget about the offer. Instead, the problem kept expanding.

The crater was getting larger. Even the waste truck drivers noticed that they didn’t have to drive as far into the site to discharge their loads. Finally figuring this could be as much a problem as an opportunity, corporate ordered me to find out why.

That’s when I met Cleves Warsaw, Ph.D. No one in City University’s engineering department knew anything about crater mechanics, so I was referred to physics. Dr. Warsaw was the nation’s leading expert on the formation and life cycle of craters. With a scraggly beard whitened by chalk dust and a squint from spending years peering through telescopes, Cleves Warsaw looked more like a janitor than a professor. Bill Bob made him show two sets of government issued identification to let him onto the landfill. Fortunately he had a current Yosemite National Park pass along with his driver’s license, or we would never have learned what was going on.

Like many physicists, Dr. Warsaw was obsessed with data. What was the radius of the landfill when we installed the glass dome? When did we first notice the slippage? Did we measure it? Could we get access to the TV stations’ drone films? All this was necessary to determine the crater’s coefficient of expansion. Along with all this, he was the most reckless investigator I have ever known. Nearly every day we had to wire him up to inspect the crater’s edge, and nearly every day he fell in and was extracted with great difficulty, often with a winch. Did I tell you he weighed over 300 pounds?

Corporate was demanding answers, and some drivers were refusing to enter the landfill for fear their trucks would fall in. When Dr. Warsaw finally announced he had found the answer, I set up a conference call with corporate, because no one there would come near the landfill.

“You’re not going to like this,” Dr. Warsaw told me before he began.

I was just happy that Chicago had not insisted on Skyping. If they had seen Cleves Warsaw, they wouldn’t have believed anything he said. As it was, the call was delayed while he fiddled with his laptop and set up a screen to project his conclusions. Bill Bob, who was sitting in out of general interest, was getting edgy.

“Looks like he’s about to download his pornography collection,” he whispered.

And then Dr. Warsaw turned down the lights and started his presentation. Bill Bob was lost from the get go, but to me it had a certain logic, like one of those guys at the fair selling tools you could use to chop vegetables and work on your transmission all at the same time.

“So just tell us what’s going to happen,” our executive VP said over the speaker phone.

It was the first time anyone in Chicago had spoken.

“This is what’s going to happen,” Dr. Warsaw said, showing a computer projection of the crater expanding until a bulge arose in its center forming a ball so big the crater disappeared.

“I can’t see it,” the executive VP snapped. “Yardy, what the hell is going on?”

“The crater is turning the world inside out like a guy taking off a sock.”

“How much did we pay for this?”

“Dr. Warsaw, what are you telling us?” I asked.

Like so many theoreticians, he could not give a simple answer. In the late 1940s, the Soviet mathematician Dmitri Baklanov had developed a series of equations so elegant and seemingly detached from reality that no one had ever found anything in the universe that corresponded to them. Thinking Baklanov had written a mathematical parody of the Soviet Union, Stalin had him shot. Afterwards the best mathematical minds in the world had searched for some application for the Baklanov equations, much as they searched for something that would change lead into gold or proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

“And now I have identified the process Baklanov predicted,” Dr. Warsaw exulted. “When an explosion occurs with sufficient force directed downward at a particular place on the earth’s surface, it sets in motion a process whereby the crater expands and deepens until it exerts a sufficient attractive force on the other side of the globe, which swells downward and engulfs the original crater, causing the world to turn itself inside out.”

I have never known Chicago to be quiet for so long.

“How much time have we got?” asked the executive VP.

“Seven years, two hundred and thirty-one days, and two hours.”

“At least it’s not tonight,” somebody else in Chicago said. “I’ve got to take my kids to soccer practice.”

The rest of the call was about keeping everything under wraps so the public would not panic and house prices in the neighborhood would not fall any more than they already had. It turned out that the company was negotiating a class action settlement and had offered its employees the same deal it was offering everyone else, without having to stay on the job to get it. Dr. Warsaw assured us he would not disclose his work until it was published in the peer-reviewed journal Crater Dynamics. Fortunately, Crater Dynamics was published bi-annually, and the latest edition had just come out. The world would not know its fate for nearly another two years.

“There’s more than enough time for me to win the Nobel Prize after that,” he said happily. “The university will have to make me tenure track when I win the Nobel.”

“That’s right, Professor,” the executive VP assured him. “No need to get people all worked up about something they can’t do anything about.”

After the call was concluded, Bill Bob and I went to our offices to work on our applications for early retirement. They were granted along with the house buy out after we signed a confidentiality agreement.

Later I asked Dr. Warsaw the last place to be sucked into the earth before the world turned inside out. He said Yekaterinburg, Russia about 1,100 miles east of Moscow, where the last Czar and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Cindy and I don’t think a few extra years on the edge of Siberia are worth it.

So Bill Bob and Cheryl and Cindy and I are moving to Key West after the first wave of panic selling hits, and they think they’re all going to go under tomorrow. Being inundated by a tsunami can’t be any worse than freezing in a blizzard, even if it comes a little sooner. Dr. Warsaw says we’ll have several good years in Florida. That’s more than most people get. The end of the world is only a problem if you let it get to you. Come to think of it, maybe somebody will come up with a technical solution for that, too.

 

________

Fred McGavran is a graduate of Kenyon College and Harvard Law School, and served as an officer in the US Navy in Vietnam. After retiring from law, he was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Southern Ohio, where he serves as Assistant Chaplain with Episcopal Retirement Services. The Ohio Arts Council awarded him an Individual Achievement Award for The Reincarnation of Horlach Spenser, a story that appeared in Harvard Review. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award-winning collection of short stories, and Glass Lyre Press published Recycled Glass and Other Stories, his second collection, in April 2017. For more information and links to stories, go to www.fredmcgavran.com.