Every night after the kitchen closes, I drain the deep fryers into a fifty-liter stockpot, all dented and dull. I fill it to the brim and let it cool, then heft it out back and across the parking lot, straining to make it to the rusted grease trap by the fence. I stand on a milk crate and turn my head so the oil doesn’t splash my eyes, and after the last gritty clump slides out, there’s a tiny instant of weightlessness, like I’m floating. Then my shirt soaks through and sticks to my skin, and for a long, wet second, it’s like I might drain down the trap myself. But that never quite happens, so I bring the pot back inside and fill it again, take it out again, bring it inside again, and rinse it for the next day.
On the way home, the alleys are littered with used condoms, broken needles, and huddled shadows. Rats wriggle in sodden clumps, and The Terraces looms over the neighborhood like a derelict keep. All over town, there are dozens just like it, housing projects from a more hopeful time. Behind their smeared-brown walls are leaky pipes and loose chutes, the whole works circulating shit and garbage like a vascular system, up and down, in and out—and behind the walls are the tenants, whose bodies are likewise preoccupied.
I follow the alleys to the foot of the tower, where I see Slats and his crew on the loading dock by the back entrance. He manages the graveyard shift, which is a dream job by all accounts. They’re supposed to clean the building, supervise the slug, and fix what breaks at night, but mostly they just hang out in the sickly yellow light of the loading dock. Slats, with his shaved head and bushy black beard, his slouched, silverback immensity offset by an easy smile and cackling laugh. And Leroy, all skinny and pale, can’t be more than twenty and has an uncle in the city’s operations department—he pushes a mop but never changes the water, flies circling the bucket as he wanders up and down the hallways knocking on doors and selling drugs. Behind him is Chip, the senior of the group, a dense cube of enduring flesh who never seems even briefly distracted by work, which makes him one of those wordless, dull-eyed union types standing between me and a better life. All night long, they stand there in their spattered blue coveralls, spitting off the dock and playing with their phones, lighting cigarettes and passing around a bottle in a tattered brown bag.
And now Haley comes out the back entrance, an escort with huge vinyl boots and long black hair all streaked with blond. Maybe she lives in the building. Maybe not. She smiles at me as I approach the stairs and I’m about to smile back, but then Leroy intercepts, thrusting his bony hips and stroking his mop like a mile of skinny dick.
“Got my money?” He tosses his stroking hand in the general direction of her face. “Or you ready to barter?”
Haley puckers her ruby lips and flutters her chunky eyelashes. “Soon, Lee. I promise.”
“Soon like when?”
“Like later tonight or tomorrow.”
I imagine sticking up for her, reaching out to grab the back of Leroy’s leg and yanking him off the dock, but all I do is stand at the foot of the stairs with my hands in the pouch of my hoodie, watching as she tries—two, three, four times—to dodge around him.
“Wingman,” Slats calls out, leaning against the wall with a rolled smoke in the corner of his mouth. “Five-cent wingman. How hot’s the sauce, bro?”
Leroy giggles and swings his mop at Haley, catching her in the thigh with a loud smack. “The sauce is hot, baby. It’s real fucking hot.”
Slats’s hand streaks through the dim yellow light and connects with the base of Leroy’s skull, knocking loose a leaf of brownish hair. “Don’t make me tell you again, shitfuck.”
Leroy swipes his hair back and drops the mop, takes a step in Slat’s direction. “You want my uncle to hear about this?”
Slats shoulders off the wall and rises to his full height. “Yeah, sure.” He blows a lungful of smoke in Leroy’s face. “Why not let’s give him a call right now? Present to him all the details of your little operation?”
A few seconds pass, Leroy’s chest rising and falling, and then a car inches out of the alleys and onto the lot, headlights flashing off the building. Haley shoots me a victory glance and teeters off on her six-inch heels.
“Workin’ girl comin’ through.” The good humor in her voice is strained and brittle, but she gives me a wink as she clatters down the warped aluminum steps. “You make enough to have me over yet, sweetie?”
“Slow night.” I shrug and look at the ground, the stairs, at Leroy’s gimlet eyes. “As usual.”
“Um. Yeah. Hope so.”
I don’t look back, but I can tell by the disappointment on Leroy’s glossy face that she’s headed straight for the car. I catch his eye as the passenger door slams, and a sadness passes briefly between us.
Then I take the stairs, and Slats’s big hand lands on my shoulder. “Good news, my dude. Real good news.” He smells like cologne and cigarettes. “I’ve finally logged my time, brother. I’ll be into an office by the end of the week.”
I picture the kitchen at work: the stockpot and deep fryers, the grease trap out back. “Right on, man. I’m happy for you.”
He squeezes my shoulder and reaches into his breast pocket, pulls out a folded sheet of paper. “Be happy for you, bro. There’s finally an opening on crew now. You fill this thing out and get it back to me tomorrow. No more line cooking for you.”
Chip lights a cigarette, drops it, and gurgles a sigh. His eye sockets seem bruised in the dock light, and he looks to me with a tiny, imploring burp.
“Really?” An embarrassingly earnest smile splits my face, and there’s no biting it back. “That’s awesome, dude! I knew you’d come through.”
The slug cruises the building’s garbage chutes and dumpster rooms, slurping up streams of trash. The city made it, and hundreds of others. People say it eats garbage and only garbage. That’s just how it was engineered. It cruises the chutes each day and night, all the way up, all the way down, and garbage is all it wants, all it could ever want.
But that’s not true. I feed it, even though they tell us not to, which means they know it likes other things too. Proof’s right there on the first page of the lease—feeding is grounds for eviction—but I do it anyway, and I don’t feed it garbage. It visits my apartment every night after work, and that’s because I always bring food from the restaurant. Most people don’t finish their wings, and I keep the half-gnawed bones for the slug. Slats knows, but he says it’s cool as long as I don’t hurt it.
Haley introduced us. We were in the stairwell, just the three of us, the slug like a swollen grain of field rice. She patted the ground between us. It rolled over and she sank her palm into its soft and sweaty flesh. A string of tiny, brown bubbles floated out of its crescent-shaped mouth.
She blew hair out of her face and smiled. “See? He’s happy!”
“What does it eat?”
“No wonder it stinks.”
“Oh, come on. You’re Mr. Standards all’a sudden?”
I shrugged and turned to watch the bubbles float past our heads and up into the shadowy shaft of the stairwell.
“Sorry,” she said after a minute. “There’s too much of that shit as it is.”
I reached into my backpack for a few softening carrot sticks I’d swiped from work and held them near the slug’s winking lips. “Too much of what shit?”
“Teasing and all that stupid shit. People being assholes. I didn’t mean it.”
I wanted to brush it off, to say don’t worry, but the slug had my finger in its mouth. Sucking. Burning.
“Careful,” Haley said, pulling my hand away. “It can’t always tell the difference.”
“Yeah, like, between us and everything else.”
The night after Slats’s big news, I hurry home with my application folded in my breast pocket, scratchy handwriting and saucy thumbprints. But he isn’t there. Neither is Haley or Leroy. Only Chip, leaning against the wall of the loading dock, smoke twisting from the tip of his cigarette.
I look up from the base of the steps. “Where’s Slats?”
I tap my breast pocket. “I’m all done with my application, man.”
A pained look crosses his face. He dredges up a wad of phlegm and hawks it at my feet, where it lands foamy and yellow. “Ah, come on, kid. You’re always asking about some fuckin’ job, always going on about it, and Slats, you know, he just wanted to make you smile.”
Later that night, I want to shower but the water’s not working again, so I sit with my back against the fridge and stink like the restaurant. The slug undulates in circles around the linoleum floor, leaving a trail of slime it consumes with every pass. I have a bag of teriyaki wings someone sent back to the kitchen. I’m about to feed it when there’s a frantic knock at the door.
It’s Leroy, pale and gaunt, hair hanging in his greasy face, smell of onions. He sees the slug and his eyes light up with what looks like gratitude. “Thank God,” he says, pointing a shaky finger. “Chip said you’d have it.”
His lips are trembling. His nostrils.
“So? Slats says it doesn’t matter if I don’t hurt it.”
Leroy palms the hair out of his face. “Okay,” he says. “Okay, bring it.”
“Just bring it, okay?”
He turns and leaves the apartment, and I hear his footsteps as he jogs toward the stairwell. I scoop the slug under my arm and feel its mouth affix to my ribs like a suction cup, and I’m thinking it must be tasting the grease from work.
We enter the stairwell and head up, heavy breathing, heavy feet. The walls are stained with soot, the landings caked in mud. After a while, when we must be near the roof, I smell candles. Vanilla and cinnamon, I think, these weird, almost musical odors, not quite strong enough to overwhelm The Terraces’ ambient stench, but relaxing somehow. Cozy even.
I stumble up the last few steps, the slug gulping at my ribs. First, in the light of a dozen candles or more, I see Chip leaning against the wall, arms crossed over his slab of chest, face slack around an unlit cigarette. His eyes land on me with a tiny burst of sympathy.
Then I see Haley on the floor in the flickering light. All around her are blankets and a mattress and a few pairs of high-heeled boots. Her lower lip droops away from her teeth, and her head is at an unnatural angle, lifeless, with one eye shut and the other staring absently at the ceiling. She’s only wearing a bra and a leather miniskirt hiked way up, and there’s a needle sticking out of her inner thigh.
I feel a rush in my stomach, like I might throw up. “Haley?”
The slug wriggles in my arms.
Leroy jerks his chin. “Put it on her.”
I shrink away. “It eats trash, remember?”
Chip takes a step toward me. “Just put it on her, son.”
I shake my head. “Is she okay? How much of that shit did she do?”
Chip takes another step, his arm extending, bigger and stronger than I’ve ever noticed, but he doesn’t hit me. He reaches into my breast pocket and plucks out the application. “She’s not okay, kid. She gets high, see? So here’s what you do. You tell yourself: this ain’t what it looks like. You tell yourself: I didn’t have no choice at all, not even the one. And then maybe who knows? Maybe things get a little better for you. Maybe things start looking up.”
I open and close my mouth, searching for something to say.
Then the slug wriggles out of my hands and lands on the floor with a dull splat. Its body pulsates as it mounts Haley’s thigh, sucking and gurgling. I turn away, a numbness creeping across my chest.
Leroy puts a hand on my shoulder. His voice is raspy. “Here,” he says, floating his other hand in front of me, opening his palm. “Take this. Just small bumps, okay? So you get some rest.”
There’s a folded flap of cardboard in his hand. “I don’t—I can’t…it’s too expensive.”
“It’s a gift,” he says, shaking his open hand. “Just take it and go home. Get some sleep. You’ll feel better after you get some sleep, okay? Small bumps.”
Last week, halfway through my first shift in spattered blue coveralls, I looked up from snorting a bump in the basement and saw the slug eating a bag of trash on the ground next to one of the dumpsters. I scooped it up and set it free in the dripping sewers. I figured it must’ve been confused about Haley. About her body. About what she actually was. About who she actually was. And I wanted to help it, to give it a fresh start, but I guess it didn’t want that because it came back an hour later.
Now the slug follows me while I push my mop along the damp and dimly lit hallways, knocking on doors and selling Leroy’s dope. It follows behind the walls, up and down the chutes, and sometimes in plain sight across the floor. Every time I see it, it shudders and rolls over. Brown bubbles float out of its mouth and pop against the yellow ceiling. I turn away. It rolls back over and starts following again. It does this night after night, and I can’t help but wonder: is the slug confused, or am I?
— Paul Carlucci is the author of The Secret Life of Fission, A Plea for Constant Motion, and The High-Rise in Fort Fierce.