by: Anthony Palma
A broken man, surrounded by chaos and filth, laments over the price he has paid for his obtuse and misguided beliefs…
The dust rose from the construction site and moved as a cloud out over the busy street corner. Herman watched the excavator pull bucket after bucket of earth from the pit as the gasoline underground storage tanks were exposed. A worker with a shovel on his shoulder walked passed the chain link fence where Herman stood.
“Pardon me, son.” Herman said.
“Che?” replied the worker.
“Ingles? Si,” the worker said as he turned and walked away from the fence.
“Hey, pal!” shouted Herman, but the worker did not hear him. The nearby excavator loudly emptied a full bucket of earth onto the pile of dirt that was set back from the pit.
A young man walked up to the fence and said to Herman, “Hello, Sir. Can I help you?”
Herman answered, “You speak English?”
“Good,” replied Herman.
“What can I do for you?” asked the man.
“I used to own this gas station. Over forty years I ran it.” The man nodded. “I supported my wife, two children and paid off my house with this station.”
“I see,” said the man.
“The station you’re currently tearing down.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but we’re contracted through the oil company to remove this site.”
“Yes, I know all about it. I went back and forth with those bozos at the main office. Between the corporate cronies and the state regulating everything, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are any gas stations left in ten years. What are people going to do? Are they gonna fill up their cars with fairy dust and hit the highway?”
The young man replied, “I think the state is already looking into the toxicity of fairy dust, sir.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing of importance. How can I help you? My crew and I are on a tight schedule and I need to get back to them.”
“I know you’ve got work to do and you don’t need some old man hassling you.” Herman went on, “But there are these really nice brass fittings that go over the fill lines for each of the three tanks. Is there any way I can get those from you as a keepsake?”
“Sir, I’m sorry, but I can’t give you something from the site.”
“Listen, I know it sounds odd. I just forgot to take them off when I closed up the station. My name is Herman Schaeffer. Here is my driver’s license,” Herman said as he put his ID up to the fence. “Please, do an old man a favor and go look in the cashier’s office. On the wall, you will see permits for the station. My name is on all of them. It’ll only take a second.”
“Okay,” said the man, “I’ll be right back.”
“Thank you,” said Herman.
The man went in and out of the office expeditiously then over to a pile of scrap metal. He rummaged through the discarded fragments and emerged with three brass cam-lock fittings. He met Herman at the open gate and said, “Here you go, Mr. Schaeffer. I believe these are the fittings you wanted.”
“Thank you, son,” said Herman.
“No problem, sir. Have a nice day.”
The drive home was painful for Herman and filled with half mumbled and made-up conversations with himself. Herman swore out loud at the traffic. He remembered being able to drive from the gas station to his house in less than ten minutes. He recalled the open fields and factories along the route that now stood as strip malls and townhouses. The American auto dealerships had given way to abandoned spaces and used car lots with signs that read, “Si Habla Espanol.” Empty store fronts and pawn shops reflected back at Herman through the rearview mirror as he drove.
He pulled into a driveway that showed the age of his home. There were two strips of weathered cement for the car’s tires and a lane of well-cut grass in between. Herman exited the vehicle and waved to a neighbor across the street. He bent down to pull a weed from the meticulously-cared for rose garden that lined the front of his house.
Herman braced himself with one hand on the railing and held the fittings up against his body. He proceeded with caution up the steps to the home’s front door. His house was dank, dark and smelled of rot. The front door failed to open fully because stacks of newspapers, unopened mail, magazines and telephone books sat piled against it. Fast food containers were strewn everywhere and electrical extension cords ran like highways through the house. The cords crisscrossed each other as they went under and around towering piles of trash and hulking appliances. The first floor of Herman’s house was covered with toasters and garbage cans, spoiled food and broken fax machines, unused blenders and pressure washers, propane tanks, fire extinguishers and desk fans, all congealing into multiple mounds of odorous decay.
Cobwebs and long dead insects were plastered across the house’s walls, along with a caked on layer of human grime and filth. Insects flew in and out through one of the many open and unscreened windows and because of a broken pipe, the house was without running water. In response, Herman had strewn about the yard large buckets now-filled with varied stages of decayed human waste.
The bathroom was where the real madness had begun. Herman continued to use the bathroom’s toilet without water until he no longer could. When that happened, he used the toilet like a trash can and proceeded to stuff it with waste until the entire commode overflowed with feces covered trash. Eventually, the toilet seat was ripped from its hinges and thrown out the bathroom window. Currently, it lay in the backyard amongst the four-foot weeds.
Herman had filled the entire bathroom from the floor to the height of the sink with garbage and waste. The last time he entered that room he was in a fit of rage, with a plunger in his hand, as he tried to push the trash down the waterless toilet. Eventually, he tired and left the plunger on top of the trash heap. It was from the bathroom that the mounds of mess and madness oozed out and consumed the rest of the home, a home that he once shared with his wife and children.
A clear footpath existed between the numerous mountains of trash. The path led from the home’s front door straight through the living room to the kitchen and dinette area. It ended at the sliding glass door at the rear of the house, yet before that it branched off five feet from the front door and led to an easy chair with a missing arm near the living room’s far wall. The back of the chair faced the front door. Next to the chair was a stack of old milk crates that had been turned on their side and set one on top of the other. They stood four crates high and contained odds and ends, but with more tidiness than the rest of the house. The crate’s contents were Herman’s preferred items: books and binders, baby wipes, a bottle of glass cleaner, a roll of paper towels, rosary beads, medals, old records, a photo album, and a locked metal cash box.
The home’s footpath made a ring around the easy chair and the milkcrate bookcase, exposing an area where the wooden floorboards showed through the worn carpet. When Herman sat in this chair, he was on an island in a sea of trash.
On the wall, over the easy chair, was a single sheet of dot matrix printer paper. The perforated holes on the edges had been partially removed. It was framed by cobwebs that ran the length of the room and from the top of the page to the blackened acoustic-tile ceiling. The yellowing paper was attached to the wall in the center by three push pins that sat in a triangle, so that the top corners of the paper curled over. A single line printed in black, bold letters read, “Today will be different.”
Herman shut the front door behind him and followed the worn path to his easy chair, where he sat and caught his breath. The brass fittings rested on his lap and his arms hung down from the sides of the chair. He hit the chair’s lever and reclined back, quickly falling asleep. Herman slept in the easy chair until long after the sun went down.
Hours later, he awoke, startled and confused. He quickly righted himself and took a long look around the cluttered room. As he arose the brass fittings clanged loudly to the floor. Herman bent down to see what had fallen and did not recall where the objects had come from, or why they were in his possession.
Herman sat back down with the brass fittings on his lap and tried to remember. He pulled out his bottle of glass cleaner and tore off a paper towel from the nearby roll. Herman sprayed and wiped the outside of the brass fittings. He then sprayed and wiped the inside of the fittings. His mind was a blank until he smelled the gasoline on the inside of the fittings metal caps, and then he remembered. He cradled the three fittings and wept powerfully. He placed them on top of the photo album in the stacked milk crates and slowly stood, making a loop around the chair and bookcase. He meandered his way from the living room, through the kitchen and dinette area, to where the path ended at the sliding glass door. He turned and stepped onto the debris that served as the kitchen floor, searching amongst the refuse until he found a bucket in a clearing next to the broken refrigerator.
In the darkness, he sat on the full bucket and relieved himself, wincing as its contents splashed back at him. When he was finished, Herman grasped the buckets handle as a trail of sewage followed behind him, and went outside onto the garbage-filled patio. He twisted around with the bucket, uncoiled his arms and let the bucket’s contents fly. The waste splashed its way from the cement to the weeds at the patio’s edge.
Once Herman was inside, he threw the bucket back towards the broken refrigerator and followed a path that split off from the main footpath and extended like a severed limb to the entrance of a hallway leading to four rooms. Mid-way down the path, a bedroom stood to the left and the bathroom to the right. The hallway path ended in two more bedrooms with a built-in linen closet between them. Herman stared down into the garbage filled corridor and heard sounds different from those made by rats that traipsed from room to room, and pile to pile.
Herman had to crouch down low so he didn’t hit his head on the ceiling as he made his way to the entrance of the doorway to his son’s old bedroom. He wept and whispered, “I’m sorry, Tommy. I’m so sorry,” as he crawled. Tommy had been Herman his wife Helen’s oldest child. Herman leaned head first into the bedroom. It was dark and empty-feeling and Tommy’s belongings had been removed and replaced a long time ago.
When she was ready, Helen had turned Tommy’s room into a music study, where she taught children the violin. The only thing left of those days was a music stand that was buried under a heap of madness. Herman strained his neck and extended his ear into the bedroom and listened to the memory of Tommy’s voice.
“Dad, that’s not what I meant and you know it! Isn’t it the mark of a true patriot to stand up for what he believes, even if it goes against his government? Especially when that government is engaged in an illegal war of imperialism.”
Herman heard himself respond, “I haven’t busted my ass my entire life to provide for this family, and pay for your education, an education I never had a chance to get, to screw around by protesting and burning the goddamn American Flag.”
“I didn’t burn the flag, pop, someone else did that. It was a big protest. There were a lot of students.”
“Oh, so that’s okay, then?” Herman inched closer to Tommy, “Then why don’t you go talk to the school president about being re-instated and see if you can get a full scholarship because I ain’t paying for you to go to school and fuck off. What’s next? Are you smoking that grass shit like some nigger jazz musician?”
“Dad, it’s not like that, I’m not fucking off. I’m standing up for what I believe in. It’s my civic duty as a citizen of this republic.”
“Your duty is to obey your mother and father. You’re only nineteen. You know nothing of the world, and don’t curse in front of your mother,” Herman yelled in Tommy’s face. Herman saw Helen as she sat on the bed in the corner of the Tommy’s room. He watched as her eyes welled up with tears.
“What are you gonna’ do now Mr. Know-It-All-Civic-Duty,” said Herman.
“I don’t know, pop. I thought I could apply to another school for the fall.”
“What school in their right mind is gonna’ admit a rabble-rouser like you who has already been booted by one college?” Herman continued, “I’ll tell you who’s gonna’ take you, Uncle Sam, that’s who. He’s gonna’ draft your expelled ass because I ain’t spending a goddamn dime on you to go be Mr. Free Speech, not even at the city college. Do you hear me?” Herman went on, “You think you’re a man?” He was nose to nose with Tommy. “A man needs to provide for himself and his family and all I know is that I’ve been paying for you your entire life. What have you provided? I’ll tell you, nothing.” Herman held up his hand to make a circle with his thumb and index finger. “Zero. Zilch. It’s my house and my rules. You have two choices. You can pack up your shit and get out, or you can pay rent which is due on the first.”
“But, pop! I was just standing up for what –“
“Don’t talk back to me,” Herman had said, smacking Tommy across the face. Tommy went down to one knee. Herman closed in and raised his fist. Helen had grabbed Herman’s arm and he had without thinking turned and slapped her. She fell to the ground and rolled into the fetal position. Herman lorded over her and panted. He turned towards Tommy. Awaiting Herman was Tommy’s right hand. It connected with Herman’s jaw and sent him back over Helen and into the closet door. The next day, Tommy had packed up his clothes and enlisted in the Marines. Herman never saw his son alive again.
Herman looked in Tommy’s room and shook his head. He rolled over on the trash heap so that his whole body lay in the hall. He sobbed and covered his face with filthy hands. After Herman had regained his composure, he flipped onto his belly and crawled across the garbage. He braced himself up against the linen closet and heard the music box from Tina’s bedroom. “My little ballerina,” said Herman. He saw her as a seven-year-old in her toed shoes and tutu. She twirled and grew before him until she was a senior in high school.
“Helen. No.” Herman had said rather sternly.
“Herman please, it’s just one night. It’s her prom. Please.”
“No way, Helen. If you think I’m gonna’ let my daughter go out with some Mexican kid, whose parents are probably pickers out in the fields, you’re sadly mistaken. No.”
“Daddy, that’s not fair, you’re not being fair,” Tina had said.
“Life isn’t fair, sweetheart. I’m helping you. In the long run, you’ll thank me.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad,” Tina, with her arms folded, had replied.
“Don’t talk back to me, Tina. Do you think any white boy is going to date you after you’ve gone out with a wetback?”
Tina stomped by Herman and down the hall. Tears streamed from her eyes. She made it to her bed and flopped face down on the pillow to muffle her cries.
“I don’t understand you,” said Helen. “It’s like you purposefully do things to drive away our children.”
“What the hell are you talking about, Helen? I’m doing my best to keep this family together and all of you safe.”
“I don’t think it’s working very well,” said Helen as she tried to skirt past him.
“You don’t talk to me like that.” Herman had yelled. He had cut her off and pressed her shoulders back against the wall. His face was pressed in close to hers.
“I watched you drive Tommy off and you’re doing the same to Tina. She’ll be gone for college soon,” Helen answered back.
“You don’t talk to me like that. Ever,” Herman yelled.
“Daddy, please stop,” said Tina. She stood at the entrance to her room with red, watery eyes. Herman backed away from Helen and she slipped by him and ran out to work in the rose garden. Herman stood in the hallway alone.
Herman sat on the hallway’s debris pile and banged his head against the wooden door of the linen closet. He peered into the room he had once shared with Helen. The bed was hidden under piles of rubbish and a lawn mower. Herman saw Tommy and Tina as children. They ran and jumped into the bed on those quiet Sunday mornings long since gone. He remembered all of the fights, and all of the intimacy. He remembered Helen as she lay dying in that bed and he saw himself spoon her sick and dying body.
“I love you and I’m sorry for any wrong I’ve ever done to you or the kids,” said Herman. “Everything I did was to keep us safe. Whatever I did, I did it for the family. I love you all so very much.”
“I know you love us,” said Helen. “You’re a good man, but your love can hurt. It’s alright now, Herman,” she said and stared out the open window as a bird chirped in a nearby tree. Herman lay and sobbed in her ear as a single tear ran down Helen’s cheek.
Herman awoke again and began to crawl out of the hallway. He passed the bathroom with the plunger still stuck out of the pile of garbage. Eventually, he as able to get himself back on the footpath that lead to his easy chair and began to pace circles on the worn carpet. He spoke out loud in a child’s voice.
“Momma, Momma, I’m so sorry. It was all an accident. It was an accident, Momma.” As Herman spoke he stopped mid-cycle. He bent down on his knees with his elbows on the seat of the worn easy chair. He rocked back and forth and sobbed with both hands clasped together.
“Momma, I was watching him. I told him not to go close to the edge. Then he was gone, down into the stream.” Herman waited a moment then continued, “I know I was supposed to keep him safe. I know, Momma.” Herman’s voice was on the verge of hysterics. He trembled as his bottom lip sucked in and out of his mouth. Herman saw his little brother, Thomas’, face as he slipped down the rain soaked and muddied bank. The stream was high and moved fast with the spring thaw. Thomas had slipped into the fast-moving water and had never came out. His bruised and swollen body was retrieved five miles downstream.
“Please forgive me, Momma, please. I never meant for this to happen. I know, Momma, I know. I was supposed to keep him safe. I know.” Herman fell to the floor, prostrate on all fours, and reached into his shirt for a shoelace tied around his neck, pulling out a key that was attached to it.
Herman took a locked metal cash box from the nearby bottom milk crate. He opened it with the key and withdrew a revolver. He stood up tall and set the gun on top of the photo album next to the brass fittings. With both hands, he pulled out the album, the fittings, and the pistol, and sat down. Herman rested the revolver over the arm of the chair and gazed at the mementos on his lap, he then raised his chin up and put the barrel of the gun in his mouth. He cocked back the hammer and pulled the trigger.
The gun clicked. There weren’t any bullets. He pulled the gun from his mouth and let it slide from his hand and down to the floor at the foot of the easy chair. He let out a sigh and wiped the tears from his eyes and stood up. The photo album and brass fittings clattered to the floor. He went to relieve himself in a nearby bucket and stepped over the photo album and onto one of the brass fittings that was on its side. It rolled under Herman’s foot and as he slipped he fell backwards. He hit his head on a cluttered end table and was knocked unconscious.
Herman awoke sometime later and sat up. His head was pounding. He reached around his head and found a large lump that was sensitive to the touch. Herman looked around confused and crawled on all fours to the album and the brass fittings. He didn’t recall what the fittings were or why he had them except that they felt important so he placed them in the bottom crate of the milkcrate bookcase.
He sat with his back against the easy chair. He saw the gun on the floor and put it back in the metal cash box and locked it. Then he opened the photo album. Herman thumbed through the moments of his life. There were pictures of his kids in front of the Christmas tree and he and Helen toasting on New Year’s Eve. There were birthdays and baptisms, graduations and vacations.
Herman continued through the memories until he arrived at his own childhood. There was a picture of his mother at the beach. Herman ran his finger around the outline of her face. A tear ran down his nose as he turned the page to the picture of he and Thomas on Easter with their fishing poles in hand.
In that moment, Herman lost it. He let out a loud wail then stood up and began to pace around the easy chair and bookcase on the worn carpet path. He started to speak to his mother again.
“Momma, I’m so sorry. It was an accident, Momma. I know I was supposed to watch him. I’m so sorry, Momma.”
Herman kept up this routine until he became overwhelmed by the past and fell to the floor on all fours. He took the key from around his neck and once again unlocked the metal cash box. He took out the empty revolver, placed it in his mouth and pulled the trigger until it went click. Herman dropped the gun and rolled up in a ball on the floor and wept.
Wow! Feeling the emotion and turmoil of Herman’s tortured life was so strong. Your words paint such a clear picture, making one realize how fragile life realy is. Great job! Keep writing.
“When Herman sat in his chair he was on an island in a sea of trash.” This sentence beautifully explains how trapped and sad he is in his life. I could smell the different rooms in Herman’s house through your rich and vivid descriptions.
This is such a cleverly written short story that kept me intrigued until the end. I love how much I learned about Herman in so few words. I agree with Rosie – please keep writing!
This story hits close to home for me as the son of a well-developed hoarder. The author’s shockingly vivid descriptions of the content of the trash and the twisted reasons behind it all, are very realistic and disturbing for me. The existential existence of Herman is so compounded by the author that it begs a reader to keep reading to find some resolution – anything. However, in consistency with this story’s theme we do not get that resolution. The reader gets a deeper understanding of forlorness, isolation, and a bleak look into an alienated soul. So well written with the flow and teeth of some of the best authors of the genre. Keep writing Anthony. I want to read some more.
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