I have worked for One World Environmental for fifteen years. I have always considered myself a family man, but these chapped and calloused hands have been behind the wheel of a beat-up old Japanese box truck more than anything else. I have gripped leather more than the bread I should share with my 9- and 7-year-olds. My wife complains about me not being home enough, but recently I have been making up reasons not to come home. These days I don’t stroll in until the kids are zonked by the TV and she is comatose on her fourth glass of Franzia. I couldn’t tell you what went wrong but I just keep my head down and wash, rinse, repeat day in and day out.
One World Environmental is a hazardous and non-hazardous waste collection company located in New Jersey. New Jersey is a big chemical state: pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, cleaning supplies, anything you squirt out of a bottle has had some pencil neck in a Garden State business park involved in some capacity. They throw rejects into a bucket and give me a call to pick it up and dump it. It is never as sexy as one would think it is. Jumping into the buckets won’t give you superpowers or a tail but I have some nasty scars from when the four eyed, electric-car-driving fucks in lab coats failed to seal the container. Usually, I just play nice with them. I just want to get on my way as soon as I can so I can get back to the truck and my talk radio. The lone exception is Shirley. She works for a cosmetics company on my route, and we shoot the breeze. Dyed blonde hair, early forties divorcee who kept her smokes in her bra strap, too old to be dressing like that at her age, but you will never hear any complaints from me. She’s the only friend I have.
We first met about a year and half ago. Shirley worked for a small cosmetics company called Precious Cosmetics which makes skin creams, shampoos, and oils. We met in the loading dock. She was already waiting outside with the hand truck holding a 55-gallon drum smelling of freshly applied hand cream. She was in her sweatpants and leopard print top. I did not think any of her. She was just another customer. I handed over the paperwork and she asked, “What do you do with all this stuff?” Normally the customers just sign the paperwork and run off when I give them the receipt, but I was taken aback because no one ever asks me what we do with the waste.
“We haul it out to Pennsylvania to be treated, buried, or burned. The trip takes a whole day…” As I explained the process, she lit a cigarette and rubbed away the excess hand cream on her hands and forearms as she nodded along.
“No wonder people from Pennsylvania drive like shit. They live in a giant dumpsite and breathe sludge all day.” Shirley said while cracking a smile. We shared a laugh and I hopped back in the truck.
“Will you be our regular pickup guy?” she asked “If so, we will call you guys the first week of the month. See you then Slick.” I threw a thumbs up out the window as I started the engine letting a smile crack through my weathered old face.
Like clockwork, the first week of the month I get dispatched out to Precious Cosmetics and Shirley is waiting outside with a cigarette in hand. Shirley does most of the talking. Her favorite topic is the new hires. She complains about the peppy 22-year old’s who work in the office: too loud in the morning, dress like they are going straight to the bars right after work, and complain about “sustainability” in the office. They recently changed the waste containers to a new “ECO” packaging with less plastic in an effort to “Go Green” but like all “Green” alternatives, it is just a marketing ploy to keep up with the Joneses because the buckets themselves are see-through and have a sticker signaling how much better they are for the environment. It doesn’t really matter to me; it just means I have to make up the difference of conserved plastic by wrapping the bucket in more bubble wrap. If I do not wrap it, a mosquito could poke a hole in the drum and I would have to spend another two hours deep cleaning the truck bed to get rid of the sludge. As Shirley and I wrapped up our monthly meeting, I heard the distinct rattle of a pill bottle in her purse. I tried not to notice as the next day was Wednesday.
Wednesday is and will always be Dump Day. I loaded up the truck with the hazy, white sludge and drove it west. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is not a town where Jesus could be born. What once were steel giants growing out of the ground breathing billowing plumes of smoke and steam have been neglected and wasted away. Ram-shackled and boarded up houses everywhere: Victorian homes with smashed glass next to trailers with tarps acting as the roof. The streets so littered with potholes that driving is a puzzle you must solve to avoid a flat and wind up abandoned on the sprawling interstate. I hate this place. The air has a sour smell to it and the people who live here spend all their government money on cigarettes. They are just waiting for their turn to punch the proverbial big ticket.
I headed to the dump site, which is an old treatment plant just outside Bethlehem called Burn Brothers and Co. You can smell the place from a mile away, and the place looks just like it smells: rust from the inside out, the workers in their tattered coveralls and sallow skin, and an ocean of polyethylene lined plastic drums filled to the brim with various hazardous and non-hazardous liquids. A cacophony of trucks and indistinct shouts from the foremen that occasionally get interrupted by the incinerator’s infernal blast. All happens under the billboard-sized sign out front with a smiling cartoon man giving a thumbs up with a Burns Bros. patch on his overalls. The sign is decayed from years of enveloping smog, but you can still make out the face quite clearly. To an unsuspecting bystander it looks and sounds like an entry to Hell itself, and the big Burns Brothers and Co. billboard mascot, often referred to as “Burnie,” is the doorman and ferryman combined. It is good work if you can get it.
The hazardous waste gets treated at the facility. The non-hazardous stuff gets tossed in the pit, which is an open hole in the ground where everything gets incinerated. I dropped off my drums, signed the paperwork, and hightailed it out of there. Per the company’s instruction, you have to wear a mask and goggles that just end up trapping the stench inside, thereby making your eyes water and nostrils flare. As I peeled out of there, I can see the manmade volcano erupting out my truck’s sideview mirror. I do a quick Hail Mary and make my way back to Jersey hoping to avoid Burnie’s gaze. That was my routine every week. I made my stops and minded my own business. I had my scheduled stop at Precious Cosmetics to look forward to the first week of each month.
I pulled up to the cargo bay of the lab with my hand truck and was greeted by someone other than Shirley. “You’re with the waste pickup guys, right?” I nodded my head and prepped the paperwork.
“Where’s Shirley? She on vacation or something?”
“Shirley got fired two weeks ago. Kept showing up to work high. Pills”
I tried to hide my disappointment and asked, “Ah shit, she got messed up with that stuff?” The man pretended to not hear me and asked for the paperwork. Guys like him don’t like to fraternize with the help. I loaded up the truck and handed him the receipt.
“Hey before I take off, could you give me Shirley’s number?” I asked. He begrudgingly took out his phone and gave me her number.
“Thank you, Sir. Have a nice day.”
Shirley was a talker. Whenever I arrived at her stop it was like pressing play on a movie you paused mid-dialogue and came back to a couple hours later. She was always salty about this, that, or the other thing, but it always felt like she was just letting off steam. That is until about three months before she got canned. Her ex-husband, Randall, showed up all strung out one night and asked her for money. They split up four years before. They were high school sweethearts who met at Newark Central High School and got hitched right after graduation. Randall always had a hard time keeping a job. He got fired from Patsy’s Pizza from serving pitchers of beer to underage kids, fired from the roller rink in Montvale for not uniformly waxing the floor and someone broke their ankle, and got fired from the Nabisco factory for damaging too many palates of Chips Ahoy with the forklift. Randall had a black cloud of bad luck always looming above him everywhere he went.
Shirley and Randall’s marriage ended after they tried to have a baby. Shirley never cared about Randall’s issues holding a job because she loved him and wanted to build a family with him. After announcing the good news to family and friends that Shirley was three months pregnant, she had a miscarriage. Traumatized by the event, Shirley’s rose-colored glasses started to slip and they began fighting: “Why can’t you hold a job? How are you supposed to take care of family? Why did I ever marry a loser like you?” Everything Randall did annoyed her, and she let him know it.
One day on the drive home from the unemployment office Randall got into a car accident and broke a vertebra right below his neck. The best luck this poor bastard ever had was breaking his spine and somehow not ending up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The bad news was that his injury introduced him to the wide world of painkillers. Every Monday morning the unemployment checks came, and by five o’clock that day all of the money was spent on anything he could snort, smoke or inject in himself until the next week’s check arrived. Shirley could not stand watching the only man who she ever loved kill himself. She doubled down on the scolding until eventually Randall never came home. Shirley was stuck all alone in their home with all of the last notice bills and an empty chair across from her at the dining room table with a couple pills left behind as her only company.
I called up Shirley the next day and she picked up half in the bag and slurred her way through telling me how that “Dirtbag Randall” was back in town and how her managers fired her. I asked if she wanted to grab lunch sometime and she said she’s only available on Wednesday. I invited her to tag along on Dump Day.
I picked Shirley up from her fifth story walk up and she seemed happy to see me. I had the waste bins secured in the back. Shirley looked over and noticed the see-through container with a big “Precious Cosmetics” sticker on the side. I felt the atmosphere change. I tried to make small talk but ultimately, she just went on a tirade about her former company and how she started using drugs again because she could not handle seeing Randall. I listened as best I could, but she became more and more unintelligible the longer she ranted. Even though I barely got a word in edgewise, I held the wheel with a smile on my face. My family barely speaks to me, and I work an isolating job, so it felt nice to have company, especially on long trips in the middle of nowhere.
Eventually, Shirley petered out and started snoring in the passenger seat. I drove in silence so as not to wake her. I was sure that getting everything off her chest was cathartic, and I hope she knew I was listening.
As we are about an hour outside of the dump site, I managed to hit one of the potholes and blow out one of the back tires. I hopped out of the truck and put on the spare. As I climbed back into the driver’s seat, I noticed that Shirley was still asleep after all that commotion and had drool running down her mouth. I tried to shake, shout, and slap her awake but she was unresponsive. I put the seat back down and tried to resuscitate someone for the first time since manhandling the practice dummy in the Boy Scouts. No air escaped her mouth. Her skin started to feel cold, and tears began to pour out of my eyes. I rummaged through her purse and found the prescription bottle empty; she had taken the whole thing during our jaunt from Jersey to Pennsylvania.
It dawned on me that Shirley is dead in my work truck. I reached for the glovebox and the center console expecting to find some McGuffin that would magically save her. I found nothing. My mind started racing: I can lose my job and go to jail. Other guys at One World Environmental had gotten fired for having their girlfriends ride their route with them, and here I have a relative stranger dead in the passenger seat. How could I face my wife, my kids, what do I do? I could not even place the events that transpired to this moment. All of the stages of grief hit me like a slapshot to the face. Paralyzed in both body and mind one thought dominated through—Shirley was my escape from the monotony of work and home. She was an unlikely friend that gave me something to look forward to. I let out a scream and punched the steering wheel. Every other hit caused the car horn to erupt. I started to pull myself together and checked the clock. It read 11:58 a.m. I was going to be late.
In a moment of desperation, I checked the drums in the back. Most are hazardous, but the one from Precious Cosmetics, the see-through one, had a non-hazardous waste label. I popped the top off and lowered Shirley’s body into the drum of silicones, oils, powder, and cream stew. I weighed the cruel irony of lowering my friend into the waste of a company that contributed to her misery. I shuddered over the thought of acids tearing her body apart and rendering it into the familiar sludge. Maybe she would have laughed at the prospect. Although the waste was white and phlegm-colored, you could make her out from the outside. I threw a tarp over her and made my way to Burns.
I waited in the queue with my facemask and goggles on, all the while shaking and trying to hide my anxiety. The attendant at the front asked how many drums of hazardous and non-hazardous waste I had.
“10 hazardous and 1…, I mean 0 non-hazardous.” I replied. I put my clipboard over Shirley’s bag. The attendant gave me a funny look, but let me go right through. My heart thumped in the back of my throat and tried to break free from my chest. Sweat made its way through my goggles and down my face. Breathing in Burns is always difficult, but it felt like I was drowning for lack of fresh air.
I pulled up to the bay and insisted on off-loading the drums myself. My hands shook, but I managed to finally unload in the bay and kept the tarp covering Shirley intact. After the paperwork was all said and done, I raced out of there and heard the sounds of the incinerator begin to bellow. I checked my sideview mirror and saw Burnie’s red eyes glow with malice. I had fooled the hardhats inside, but Burnie knew what I had done. You cannot escape the devil when he sets his sights on you, and Burnie let me know he saw everything with a plume of sulfuric fire.
I drove as far as I could, sweating bullets, until I found a defunct gas station where I knew I would not be spotted. My legs shook so violently I stumbled out of the driver’s seat and collapsed onto the dirt-covered concrete. I leaned back on the truck while trying to piece together everything that had happened. It all seemed so fake; Shirley OD’d in my work truck? She’s back there right now? I know I am alone most of the time and the road can play tricks on you, but I must’ve really outdone myself. I began to chuckle and dared myself to open up the back of the truck to prove that it was all a daydream. As soon as I grabbed the handle to the lock, fear coursed through my veins. I hesitated but opened the lock nonetheless. I saw the tarp in the back. I slowly made my way over. The drum’s shape came into focus. I grabbed the edge of the tarp and threw it over. I threw my hand over my mouth and stepped back.
There she was, floating in the white sea of waste. I got on my knees and plunged my hands inside. I reached for Shirley. I made eye contact with her, or what was left. Mesmerized, I examined the rest of the container to see her from all angles, as if she were like a baby in an ultrasound. I felt like a father. I stared at her and saw peace: her face was finally relaxed, her jaw loosened, her shoulders shrugged, and, if looked at from the right angle, I could make out a smile. I never looked at her like a woman until that moment. I could see curves and supple lips. She looked like someone I could have loved.
At that moment, I did love her.
I decided to stay at the old gas station overnight. It was somewhere where we wouldn’t be disturbed. I stayed up talking to her about whatever I wanted to: my family troubles, something I heard on the morning talk shows, how I almost became a professional hockey player, my favorite bars, where I wanted to travel to, where my dad would take me on my birthday. The only thing I didn’t say was, “How’s the weather?” I know Shirley couldn’t hear me, but it looked like she could and that was okay with me.
I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I woke up at 9 a.m. I rose from under the tarp I had used to cover Shirley. I woke up and found a flood of messages from my wife and my job. I got myself together and tapped on the lid of the drum.
“We gotta go,” I said to my princess encased in slime.
Weeks later and she is still there. Shirley floats in the fluid as if preserved in amber. She is free from the pain of her life, and through her freedom I have found hope. On my lunch breaks, I eat my ham and cheese sandwiches next to her and tell her all about my day. The outside may be cruel and disgusting, but I found something beautiful in the end.