Joyland

Toronto |

Dumpster

by David Whitton

edited by Kathryn Mockler

See, so, the thing I don’t get about human nature is why pay good money for satellite TV when you can get crystal clear over-the-air broadcasts from Buffalo and beyond using a simple directional antenna you can buy for like fifty bucks at The Source?

And so I say this to Eric and Eric’s like, arms crossed, this sneer on his face. “Oh, you mean I have to, like, move it slightly if I want to pick up something other than Buffalo?” So reluctant, so skeptical, and all I’m trying to do is save him some money.

So we’re out there on his roof, I’m screwing in the co-ax, doing him a favor, sweating, and he’s meanwhile paying no attention at all, staring four doors down, and he launches into this thing where you’ve probably read about this? His neighbors four doors down, the kid was building a nuclear reactor in his parent’s garden shed.

No, I’m not kidding. You didn’t read about this?

Reactor in a shed. But someone finds out. It gets raided. The cops find all this material, uranium and like nozzles and shit. Turns out the kid had been working on this thing for months. His mother’s in the backyard, according to Eric, crying her head off, like, “Not my boy! I had no idea,” and the cop’s all “There, there, lady. I’m a twenty-year veteran. I’ve seen some things. The world is a mysterious place and people do weird shit.” And the mother is of course inconsolable and blah blah blah and within two years she’s dead from radiation poisoning and everyone within a certain, like, radius of the shed gets a dose and has to go to the hospital.

So but the interesting thing here, this memory that pops into the mother’s head. The people who live three doors down from them, the woman is this German woman, and two years before the nuclear reactor incident, her father is in Dusseldorf or wherever? And no one’s seen him for like years. Five years. And so suddenly someone’s like, “Oh, hey, I wonder where Dad is. I haven’t seen in him in fucking years.” This is her brother? Maybe? And so no one’s answering the phone when the brother calls, and no one’s buzzing him in when he goes to visit, so he’s now thinking, hmmm, maybe something’s happened to Dad. This is, he’s talking on the phone to his sister in Toronto. And his sister is, yeah, you should probably call maybe the eldercare people?

So the superintendent of the building gets a call. The dad lives in this high-rise in the outer boroughs or wherever of Dusseldorf. This working-class kind of high-rise building, dirty concrete, barbecues on the balconies. So the superintendent gets this call, and he’s like, okay dude, whatever, I’ll knock on his door, he’s a pretty quiet old guy but whatever. And he goes up, knock knock knock, no answer, but he can hear inside the TV’s fucking blasting.

He fishes out his master key. “I shouldn’t be doing this, but whatever.” In German.

Cracks the door, hello hello, no answer. Steps inside, and what does he find but the dad sitting in his La-Z-Boy recliner watching some German show on TV. The news. Whatever the equivalent is over there. In the corner is this Christmas tree, lights still on, except it’s not even Christmas, it’s August, and the tree is all brown and the needles are sitting in a pile underneath it. Total fire hazard. And the superintendent is all “Oh my God, holy shit,” his mouth wide open, because as it turns out the dad’s been dead for two years and it’s his skeleton that’s sitting in the La-Z-Boy, still dressed in his PJs, except his PJs are lying sort of flat on his bones because he’s a skeleton now.

And the super’s just freaking out, holy shit, oh my God, and he calls the cops, whatever they’re called over there, and the cops come and they’re like holy shit, and it makes the news, and some newspaper picks it up over here, and suddenly everyone knows about it.

And meanwhile the super’s like, wow, I feel so guilty. The guy’s been up here for years rotting away, and I had no idea. Valentine’s Day he was up here. All across the world, lovers holding hands. Christmas, New Year’s, the whole world celebrating, this guy’s up here, all alone. And it’s so sad to him, he just wants to cry. Birthdays, anniversaries, buddy up here all on his own. The super backs out of the apartment, leaves the cops to sort things out. He goes to the elevator, but he doesn’t want any of the tenants to see him like this so he takes the stairwell. The tennis finals, the summer Olympics. Buddy up there all alone. The time the super’s kids came to stay for the long weekend, and they ate, like, schnitzel and he watched cartoons for the first time in twenty years and he never laughed so hard in all of his life. Buddy up there by himself. Down runs the super, the concrete stairwell spiraling around him. If only he’d known. But what would that have changed? He gets to the bottom of the stairs but he doesn’t go into his apartment now, he rushes straight out into the parking lot and stands by this massive green dumpster. He was hoping for some sunshine, but the sky is the same dull grey as the asphalt. He’s just trying to hold his shit together. And then this pigeon comes down and perches on the edge of the dumpster and gives him this look, and it’s the dead dad himself, and he drills right into him with those bird eyes, I’m here, this is me, the dead dad, I’m a pigeon now, and I’m grateful to you for all that you’ve done, for attending to my remains, for caring enough to open the door and discover my remains. The things I’ve seen up here, flying around! You wouldn’t believe it. I saw two rats make love on a pile of discarded mittens. I saw an old lady mug a longshoreman at knifepoint. I saw a Habicht, which is what we Germans call a hawk, eat a bichon frise that had gone off its leash. And just now? Just now I saw the cops through the window of my apartment. They were standing around my corpse, shaking their heads: they’d never seen anything like it. I set down on the rail of my old balcony and stared at my desiccated face as it grinned back at me, my God, can you imagine, the astonishment of that, das unheimlich Freud would call it, the uncanny, I saw my favorite mug on the side table, dried coffee stuck to its sides, the commonplace now utterly foreign. And what did my remains see? What was my corpse thinking at that time? Did it feel the same Weltschmerz? If only it could say. Anyway, whatever, you’re a good guy and I wish you luck in your life and I hope it turns out better than mine, with my ungrateful children, my health problems, etcetera etcetera, and oh by the way, I’ve stashed like fifty thousand dollars, whatever it is over here, in my closet, and I want you to have it, take your kids to Disney World or wherever, and the super’s thinking whoa, you know? Miracles.

Such sadness in life, but then these fucking miracles.