by Jessica Peter
The Montreal Review, January 2011
Henry has been working for ten hours without rest, but it will be quitting time soon. While some of the other men complain about the heat of the sun, Henry doesn't say a word: the brighter the sun, the easier it is for him to find things that might have belonged to her. Years ago, Henry had many complaints, too: the glinting metal shards that reflected light into his eyes and occasionally bit through his gloves, the blistering heat of the black plastic bags that would weigh more heavily as the day wore on, not to mention the frustration of working in a landscape dotted with plastic water bottles but hasoving nothing to drink. Now, Henry has grown used to everything except the smell, but there's always time.
It's been a good day; all of Henry's bags are full. This not only includes the large, black company-issue bags intended for spent batteries and old computer parts, but the non-regulation grocery bags tied across his belt as well. There is a total of eight bags, one large and one small for each of the four piles in the landfill. The official name for the area is "the Halton Waste Management Site," but to anyone who has spent any time there, it is simply known as "the landfill" or "the dump." The site is partitioned into four sections to represent each of the boroughs the trash came from. These sections are further organized into smaller piles according to material, and then by the time each shipment was dropped off at. But the method for organizing these piles is crude, and mistakes are frequently made, which is why men like Henry are employed.
An alarm sounds distantly, reminiscent of the school bells of Henry's youth. Rob, a young landfill operator, claps Henry on the shoulder, "Come on, guy. Time to go," but his hand is shrugged off impatiently. Henry lifts up a small compact mirror from the "Nelson" region's heap. The glass is intact, but a petal has chipped off the plastic rose adornment on the front. He removes a small notebook from under his neon orange vest and carefully records a description of the mirror along with the time and its precise location. The book disappears back under Henry's vest and he drops the trinket back into the pile. By the time he is finished, Rob is already at the entrance to the main building, with the other landfill workers. Henry dumps the scrap-metal bags at their designated spots and joins the back of the line. He's anxious to get home to review the contents of his own bags.
It's 10pm and Henry's just getting home. As he puts the key to the lock, he considers fleeing to The Poacher and waiting for the tempest to calm. An appealing notion, but impossible. The door opens loudly as the groceries in Henry's other hand bang against it. He winces, but knows it ultimately doesn't make a difference; she's been listening for him for hours.
The lights have been dimmed and two candles burn at half-mast on the dining table. On either side of which are two immaculately laid-out dinner settings. The blue porcelain dishes have been identically stacked and the cutlery is wrapped in elegant cloth napkins. At the far side of the table, a woman sits drinking white wine from a crystal glass.
Her lips turn up at one corner as she turns away from the new arrival. Henry begins to unpack groceries onto the marble counter. The candle light paints a powerful silhouette of Henry on the far wall, a mockery of the meek reality. He loosens his tie in cartoon-like preparation against whatever turmoil is sure to come. He washes a red pepper, newly removed from the crinkled plastic sack, and begins to saw around the stem. He turns around halfway, "Danny, you know how the office is on Thursdays."
Danny sips her wine. Henry curses as some juice from the red pepper leaps towards his white shirt. No response on Danny's end. He continues to chop, exasperated. "What I'm saying is, I'm sorry I couldn't get away earlier. It's just, well, you could have made yourself dinner, I mean, you are capable."
Danny turns abruptly in her chair to face him, "You know I can't touch the food." She raises one of her painted-on eyebrows and glares at Henry. Perhaps this was the reaction he was looking for: the caricature-like scowl on her thick lips. Henry thought, not for the first time, that she could have been the bombshell in a 1940s movie. He had told her so, on better nights. For now, he replies, "Yeah, I know. I'm sorry."
They both remain silent as Henry finishes the pepper and starts on the chicken. As he peels the saran wrap away from the moist, pink flesh, he imagines he understands Danny's condition perfectly. He crumbles the plastic into a ball, careful not to let any residual liquid touch his skin, and throws it into the garbage pail beneath the sink. While doing so, a sparkle draws his attention.
"Jesus Christ, Danny," he says into the cabinet, rummaging through the bin, "what's wrong with this one?" He holds the piece of crystal stemware out for her to see.
"There was a stain," she says flatly. Henry turns the glass until he can see it: the offensive pinkish grease mark from Danny's lipstick.
"Then wash it, for Christ's sake."
"It's been through the wash," she cries.
"Okay, fine," he says, throwing the glass back into the garbage bin, "never mind that it's your lipstick. Never mind that I work ten hours a day, so that you can afford this shit, while you sit around with your girlfriends and God knows who else, not cooking, not cleaning. Not doing anything."
He walks to her side of the table. His rage dissipates as he notices the wetness reflected off of her cheeks. He puts a hand on her shoulder. She wretches free.
"Don't you touch me until you've washed your hands!"
Henry throws his arms in the air.
She continues more quietly, "You've been digging through the trash."
"To look at your wine glass that you just said has already been through the wash!"
Nonetheless, Henry flips on the tap and begins to lather.
"I'm just so alone, Henry," breathes Danny between sobs, "I just wish you didn't work so many hours."
"Yeah? And what would I do?" Henry asks as he cuts the chicken into julienne strips.
"You could work outside."
Henry just snorts and continues to pare the chicken.
"You could stay with me."
It's been twelve hours since Henry last ate, but as he enters his apartment, he crosses straight through the kitchen to the den. He switches the light on to its highest intensity, but compared to the light of the sun, the fluorescent bulbs seem frustratingly dim. A large coffee table is covered in enough bric-a-brac to obscure its trendy origins. The items on it are separated into four piles, to match those in the junk yard.
Henry unties the bags from his belt and places them on the floor. Then, he opens each bag and places the items in their rightful category. As he does so, he carefully re-examines them, allowing his hands to explore every imperfection. The feeling is one of familiarity. Occasionally, Henry finds a piece unsatisfactory and places it back in its plastic carrier to be returned to its respective trash pile the next working day. These items will be carefully recorded in his notebook.
Once he has finished this he digs up his most precious finds: one blouse, sun-dyed a sallow yellow with a chrysanthemum lipstick stain at the collar; one half-empty bottle of Burberry Prossum eau-du-toilet; and one chipped Denby dish with a reddish stain (which Henry imagines is from someone else's filet mignon). He compares these items, considering their condition and district of origin, to those in front of him, as well as to the rejected items recorded in his notebook. Sometimes, he's tempted to sneak into the trash yard after hours, to pick up some forgotten piece, but has not yet succumbed.
When his initial review of the items is finished, Henry looks through them a second and third time. It never hurts to be thorough, he reasons. He grabs a bottle of beer and some leftover pizza from the fridge. He eats in the den, scanning the contents of the room, looking over his collection of items. When he is finished eating, he turns off all the lights. He has to because if they were left on, he'd never be able to stop looking. Besides, he does not need light to feel the grit beneath his fingernails, or to smell the dried sweat on his coarse skin.
Henry and Danny are both silently steaming: he, with silent rage in the kitchen; she in the warm water of the bathtub. He has never understood why a woman so paranoid of germs would prefer to take a bath as opposed to showering, but for her it is a nightly ritual. She says she finds the water "cleansing." 1 o'clock has just passed, and Henry is ready for bed. He enters the main bathroom and flips on the light.
Another curious thing about Danny: when she bathes, she turns the lights out and doesn't light any candles. There's no music or aromatherapy or anything else one could associate with easing nerves. What relaxes Danny most is the sterility of the room. The pure whiteness of the ceramic tiles on the floor and the highly reflective metal of the taps. An elderly Puerto Rican lady cleans for them in the day time: at least she is undaunted by dirt. As Henry steps in the door, there is a gasp and a rush of water as Danny's face breaks the surface of the water.
"I still don't know why you do that," says Henry, applying toothpaste to his brush, "you look crazy." Danny does her best to wipe the water away from her eyes.
"It's not crazy. It's, I don't know, refreshing. Nothing's clear. Not what you see or what you hear. You don't have to worry about anything. Well, except inhaling. You should try it sometime."
Henry spits out the toothpaste into the sink. "Listen, Danny, I've been thinking about the argument we had earlier today. Over dinner. I was thinking, maybe it would be good for us to get away from the city for a while. Take a vacation. Go to Greece, or something. You keep saying I need a break from work."
"A break, yes," says Danny, dreamily tracing her finger along the rim of the basin, "but I would never dream of leaving here."
"Yes, this city. Maybe a little ways around it, but I'd feel lost over in Greece."
This answer causes Henry to hesitate in his brushing. He has been watching his partner become more introverted over the last six months. She has been neglecting her friends, and leaving the apartment less frequently. Henry fears she is developing agoraphobia , or something of the sort. It all started when that homeless man wandered in from the street. How long had he been there before Henry came home? Danny claimed to have slept through the whole thing until Henry had come home and made all that noise, but maybe... At any rate, she had seemed fine at the time, just a little startled that someone else had been in the house. He thinks again of suggesting that Danny consider seeing a therapist, but the memory of the last time he made such a suggestion dissuades him.
Henry washes his face and neck with the bathroom light off. It's not much of a trouble for him: everything is kept carefully in place so there is no need to grapple for a face cloth or the toothpaste. If he closes his eyes, he imagines that he can see himself in the mirror in front of him, looking a little scruffy, a little older from the sun exposure. Behind him he can picture the bathtub. The whiteness of the brim, the cloudy metal faucets, the single chipped tile at the head, the coppery residue around the drain. He opens his eyes again and goes to lie on a bed that hasn't been slept in for ages.
Oh, Danny, what a mess you've made.
studies creative writing and visual arts at the University of British Columbia
Sepehr (48" x 48",
Born in Slovenia (former Yugoslavia) in 1962, Irena graduated from the Art Academy of Ljubljana,Slovenia and moved to Canada shortly thereafter. She is presently living in Montreal, where she obtained the Elizabeth Greenshields grant for figurative painting in 1994. Irena has taught classical painting since 1989, at Dawson College as well as the Saidye Bronfman School of Art. Her work is found in many public and private collections in Europe and in North America. In 2004 she received several awards at the International Salon of Classical Realism organized by the Art Renewal Center (New Jersey).
Korosec's works can be purchased at BohemiArte Gallery (465 rue St.Francois Xavier, Montreal Quebec, H2Y 2T1)