Originally published in Best Efforts, 20. Also recently submitted to the Spring Contest at The Writeup Cafe...
Of course it is a bit wintery, but it aint spring here is it?
West Auckland has a dirty little secret. I felt the bare-gib slap on the back when I arrived and I knew what it was. I've worked inside blast freezers, my eyes have tasted that ammonia sting, smelled the aluminium plates as they leech the last life out of freshly slaughtered cows. So when I came to West Auckland I felt straight through it. Its clammy death touch. Its sub-tropical northern lie. And we all know it in our filthy Westie hearts. West is best. West Auckland is fucking cold. And wet.
It is Christmas. Christmas in June. The annual house-hold inorganic rubbish collection schedule arrived in the letterbox (No Advertising Material Please) two weeks ago. Since then the footpaths and verges up and down every street have been awash with tidings and good cheer. For those who like trash. Not so silly a season for the hapless real-estate agents and landlords who are trying to rent or sell property in this neighbourhood this month. Not everybody wants to live in a landfill. They should take the month off. Suspend the advertising and open homes when the signs and flags become lost amongst the rubble. Spend their days in the neighboring cafe nursing burnt-milk flat-whites and talking too loudly about the GST they save and commission they make on the sales of their own properties. And who is going to clean up this mess?
With darkness each night the tide rolls in. People drive in from as far away as the North Shore to dump their “working” washing machines and “still-goes” still-born computer monitors and cathode ray tube television sets on the roadside. At day-break the tide recedes and the kerbs of West Auckland become a high-tide line, littered with detritus. The pack-rats come out. People that hover and hop among the piles like black-backed gulls, squinting and shifty in the winter-low sunshine, self-consciously picking over the mounds determined to collect the gems and bargains from among the jetsam. When did you decide you wanted to collect other peoples' garbage?
There is no becoming to this story. No change in form. Have you ever tried to become a writer? Did it happen when you wrote something or when someone read it? Become a Westie? You know, if you go up there, you'll become a JAFA.
I know what it wants, a short story. It wants a character arc. Well it's bullshit. There are no character arcs. I've been watching the pack-rat three doors down for three weeks since I came here. There's no arc. No change in form with people. His yard is full of trash. Trash going in. Trash going out. Mostly going in. It's a tide.
It wants slice of life. A man stands in his yard in the rain. He is a rat. A pack-rat. His nest is a yard lot of jumbled piles of broken furniture, cracked tea-pots and leaking coffee percolators. There are disembowelled televisions with their circuit boards hanging out, the rear of their picture tubes like exposed asses burnt a peculiar off-white but without cracks. Well, some of them are cracked. There are the skeletal remains of thirty-seven different bicycles. One day he will build working bikes from the matching pieces. Drawers and dishes, tin-pots, fish-bins full of phone-cords and power cables. Less weatherproof treasures shelter (but only from the prevailing wind) in a lean-to iron shed which is open on two sides. The rain runs down the corrugations of the tin roof and collects inside antique computer cases and wall-less window frames stacked up to the west side. Sheets of iron and doors that rest and rust against the side of the house could one day clad the other sides of the shed. Projects he hasn't the time, technical expertise, nor motivation to complete. Endless agglomeration of procrastination hauled back to his own private landfill to watch rotting in the rain.
High above him in the ice-cold womb of the heavy cloud a single bead of water coalesces out of the ether. Is born, and is immediately fallen. It knows no weight or solidity of form, it is first ovoid then spherical then donut shaped, rolling and falling through the gentle caress of its gaseous birth canal. Unseen kneading fingers of temperature, pressure, the random brownian motion of molecules, tease it into shapes never seen by the human eye, imagined only rarely by the drug- or madness-addled minds of the greatest (and poorest) of human artists. It falls from the steel-grey sky onto the hammered-galvan corrugations of the lean-to shed roof. It is partially broken by the impact but it recovers (such is the nature of water) and rolls down the iron to the un-guttered edge before it falls – once more airborne and alive – to land in a muddy puddle at the man's feet. It is simultaneously preserved and utterly destroyed. The man splashes through the puddle on his way to his van to collect more trash for his yard. The tide is out – it is time to scour the neighborhood to see what has washed up.
My yard is empty. My shed is empty. Half the cupboards in my kitchen are empty, and I adore clean surfaces. But my mind is full. Stacked floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with all the broken and half conceived projects and ideas of a lifetime. Projects I haven't the time, technical expertise, nor motivation to complete. Piles of procrastination piled high and rotting in my own private landfill.
I scan each pile in the street as I walk along, appraise every apparently-complete but probably-leaking spa-bath and box of magazines and books in the streets. How much could I carry home on my back? Could I fix that bookshelf? This pram? Would it fit in the shed? I am simultaneously intrigued and revulsed.
When I was a child we used to go out to the tip on a weekend with an empty trailer. We toured a circuit of the rural and semi-rural landfills on a monthly (and usually more frequent) basis. The seed of many a comic book collection. Stacks of magazines I could not afford to read, now ‘free’ because their titles had been carefully cut from the front cover. Special interests I did not have, and insights into cultures I did not understand. I never got into motorcross riding but if I ever did I was sure I would want a toxic-waste green Kawasaki with matching body armour and accessories. When we travelled the winding back-roads of Central Otago every abandoned 19th century mud cottage and derelict barn was fair game. Oil and kerosene lamps we would never light and rusted handtools we would never dig or hammer or awl with filled the boot of the car. Ancient books and plates and cutlery. All worth taking because they were free. All the more valuable for being abandoned.
People are tidal. We are long inhalations and exhalations of souls extended into this world. We have no arc. No change in form. We breathe in, we breathe out. We eat, we excrete. We are continuous – like long rolls of hard candy or glass anchored to our past and future selves. We see ourselves as single slices taken in moments of time, and we fancy we can see the difference between this slice and an earlier one. The heartache and joy of the writer comes when we successfully and deceptively write a human's narrative as a metaphor for some inanimate object. We would be happy if our characters could be a dynamic and resilient as a simple raindrop. If they could be both broken and regenerated by the fall, grasp some elusive truth before they undergo their life-changing or death-conquering transformation. So we cheat and lie. We cripple and infirm our characters at the outset so that we can heal them on their journey. We present them as peripeteic slices from a roll of candy that changes in the middle and dies at the end.
I am kept awake at night thinking about the computer cases and shelving and books I saw on the street the morning before. There is no change in form. I resolve to become the pack-rat, the black-backed gull, the 11 year old boy fossicking in a garbage dump, that I have always been. I will be simulataneously revulsed and intrigued. I will have a yard full of projects I haven't the time, technical expertise, nor motivation to complete.
In the bleak morning light the ice-grey Tasman cloud blows in low over the Waitakeres like a dripping veil. I venture out into the cold and wet to find the kerbsides are white-bone bare. I wander as far as the next corner, stop to look longingly into the wet garbage piles of my pack-rat neighbour. There is nothing in the street. In the early morning a collection-day tsunami has rolled through; silently, remorselessly and utterly destroying the high tide line, sweeping up trash and treasure together the way a baleen whale sweeps the plankton and fish from the sea. It is large and white and still progressing slowly along the next street. As it turns out of sight it exposes its flank to me adorned in large green letters. Reduce.