“At least once in his career, every fireman gets an itch. What do the books say, he wonders. Oh, to scratch that itch, eh? Well, Montag, take my word for it, I’ve had to read a few in my time, to know what I was about, and the books say nothing! Nothing you can teach or believe. They’re about non-existent people, figments of imagination, if they’re fiction. And if they’re nonfiction, it’s worse, one professor calling another an idiot, one philosopher screaming down another’s gullet. All of them running about, putting out the stars and extinguishing the sun. You come away lost.”
—Ray Bradbury, 'Fahrenheit 451'
“What’s in the box?” Lief asked, stepping out of the borrowed co-op car onto the gravel lot. He inhaled a not unpleasant mixture of vital, leafy organic matter and exhaust.
Nathe hoisted the carton up onto the roof. “Just some of my mom’s old junk.”
Leftovers of her abortive renovation project, videos of family gatherings Nathe would have her forget, and Bible-thick stacks of irrelevant documents from a college diploma she’d taken in interior design. It would give him great pleasure to pitch it all—without, of course, consulting her. A box-load of spite.
“You sure it’s junk to her?”
“D’you imagine I care?” he asked, swinging the passenger side door shut and taking his box. “You’re the one who invited me. I came with stuff to chuck out, as instructed.”
All right, all right. Lief pressed his palms together in gratitude.
“So where do we take it?”
“Over here, I’m guessing.”
They had arrived at the small transfer station for recyclables and other non-toxic solids at the foot of the tree-lined Gem Valley Road. It was the only active industrial site that remained in the once ruined watershed, sitting on a kidney-shaped chunk of land that jutted out into the river. The valley had undergone an extensive clean-up, part of the wave of green activism that brought in recycling and banned aerosol cfcs in the late ’80s. At the time, the city was already moving away from a manufacturing base to the abstract heights of finance capital, so there wasn’t much to be lost and everything to be gained when local politicians embraced the idea of phasing out the factories and turning the valley into a long, narrow city park. It was hoped that people would come to cycle and picnic and even be able to fish again in the Gem River within ten or fifteen years. The bicycles and picnickers came. The fish were still undecided.
Near the mouth of the river sat the former solid-waste processing plant, now a whistle-clean jewel in the crown of the city’s recycling program. Not much to it, just a high fence and a ramshackle two-storey gatehouse of corrugated-steel next to a weigh scale for vehicles, which could back up and dump their loads directly into an area known as ‘The Pit’. Aside from a few larger and smaller sheds, it was a neatly groomed moonscape with conical piles of ‘clean’ trash emitting no more offensive odour than the mustiness of damp cardboard and the sweet exhalations of unwashed pop cans.
They found the main office, a cramped booth enclosed in yellowing Plexiglas, radiating an ill, greenish fluorescent light. It was unoccupied.
“Weird,” Nathe observed, double-checking the posted hours.
“Must be something going on upstairs,” Lief guessed. A din of male voices could be heard emanating from above.
Lief rang a small buzzer. The loud and grating electric rattle soon produced a portly, red-faced man, whose nametag identified him as ‘Earl’, from the adjoining room.
“You got something to drop off?” came the voice from beneath a tobacco yellow broom-head of a moustache.
“Just some paint cans, videotapes and fine paper,” Nathe said.
“Can’t take your paint cans,” Earl said without looking up, as he scrabbled through various papers on his desk in search of a lighter. “We don’t handle toxics here. You’ll have to take them to the central transfer station off J—— Street.”
“Okay, what about the rest?” Nathe asked.
Earl let out a long sigh. He looked not unlike a hippopotamus in a cramped, dilapidated zoo, slated for demolition.
“Pit’s not open today. You’ll have to take the stuff over to the pens yourself.” Concrete enclosures for objects drained of their usefulness.
“Can we go over there ourselves?” Lief asked. The same cherubic innocence that always got such a good response from his teachers.
“No, I gotta take you over, seeing as there’s no one on duty here…” Thrashing about in his pen, Earl managed to overturn a paper coffee cup. “Shit.”
The two young men exchanged bemused glances.
He sopped up the coffee with scrap paper. Budget cuts had left him without adequate supplies of paper towels. He soon gave up in frustration and liberated himself from his cubicle. “You boys picked a hell of a day to come down here.”
“Sorry to be a nuisance,” Lief apologized.
“It’s okay. I been dying to get away for a cigarette,” he said with a pinched smile. “Damn regulations. Can’t smoke inside because of health, or human rights, or some nonsense. Can’t smoke outside because of all this damn paper!”
He led them outside and promptly lit up. Their destination was fifty yards off and around a bend.
“It’s pretty dead here today,” Lief observed.
“All my guys are up in the clubhouse”—Earl gestured with his cigarette at the dingy meeting room perched on cast-iron stilts next to the pit—“in a meeting with the city.”
“What’s on the agenda?” Nathe asked.
“What are you, a reporter or something?”
Chuckling at this absurdity: “Me? I write computer code”—sometimes screenplays—“not news reports.”
“Yeah, and what about this one?” Earl asked, staring down the white friend.
“Just private citizens,” Lief insisted. “Come on, Nathe, stop asking nosy questions.”
He took his cue and focused on not dropping the awkward box he was dandling like a heavy, squirming child.
“Actually, t’tell you the truth, kid, everyone’s a bit on edge right now. Future of the plant’s being decided today.”
“Really? Why?” Nathe asked.
Not a fan of walking any distance, Earl stopped and flashed him an incredulous smile. “You don’t read the papers, do you? They been trying to move us for 15 years, ever since the tree-huggers at City Hall decided this valley’s a ‘conservation area’ in need of special protection…”
Lief was delighted. ‘Keep talking,’ he thought. He could listen to them go on like this all day.
“…That would have given the guys running the slaughterhouses and smelters down here sixty years ago a good laugh,” Earl snickered.
In middle school, Lief had been part of group of students who got to make a presentation in the City Council chamber—Meredith was exceedingly proud—in support of the proposed new recycling program. He met the Mayor, got a handshake, a certificate of participation, and a gentle pat on the bum on his way out the door. Lief remembered watching as the Mayor disappeared back into the enveloping flock of corporate courtiers that crowd around such figures like so many seagulls at a… well, at a dump. Looking back, it was his first taste of the daily victories of pr over something like reality.
“Anyway, union leadership’s a little friendlier these days and the city needs land for some project up top of the hill.”
“What’s up there?” Nathe tried to think. “You mean Garrett Park? The projects?”
“Somebody took geography.”
“Pretty sad area,” Lief said. “Wouldn’t be surprised if the city demolished the whole thing and started over.”
“What’s the connection with the plant, though?” Nathe asked.
“No idea,” Earl said. “But they want us out. So, if we can keep the same crew and seniority structure, the union’s not going to put up a fight.” Earl had the disease of all solitaries—when given the chance, he couldn’t stop talking. “Most of us live in the ’burbs now anyway, which is likely where they’ll put us.”
They rounded the corner to the large sorting area with disowned tvs, obsolete computing equipment and other electronic garbage piled into heavyweight cartons on wooden pallets. All manner of plastics, wood, cardboard, and paper were slouching in great piles in their cinderblock pens.
“Here we are,” he said, wisps of smoke leaking from his nostrils.
Lief cringed as Earl flicked his cigarette butt out toward a mound of what he was disinclined to believe were books. He set down his own box of refuse and strode over to confirm it.
“The funny thing is,” Earl said, “here on the river we can transport by barge—very cheap, and very clean. If they move the plant to the ’burbs somewhere, it’ll all have to go by truck. Not so cheap, not so clean.”
“Jesus, look at this,” Lief couldn’t help exclaiming at the literary abscess.
“What, the books?” Earl asked, midway through lighting another cigarette. “Ha! Surprised me too when I started here. Half of my do-it-yourself manuals come out of that pile.”
A crackle of static over his walkie-talkie.
“Earl, you copy? Report to clubhouse, asap. Earl, report to clubhouse, over.”
“Shit,” he said, stubbing out a ninety-percent wasted cigarette. “Roger that. Be there in five, over.”
“Mind if we stay and take a look at these?” Lief asked. “I might like to take some home.”
“All right, but only because I like you two,” he winked. “Just keep your heads down. I could get in trouble for leaving you out here alone.” Earl struck a note of foster-parental affection.
A shade too trusting, perhaps, he was nonetheless not an idiot. The sorting area was partly obscured by the bend in the terrain and faced the main building’s only blank wall. So long as they didn’t wander off, there were no windows out of which a casual glance would alert anyone to their presence.
“If I’m not back in ten minutes, make your way to the gate and leave quietly, okay?”
“Roger. We’ll be out of here in five,” Lief assured him. “Thanks for your help.”
Earl waved them a friendly farewell as he tried to jog but could only waddle back to his post.
“Is this sad or what?” Lief asked, addressing the pantheon of discarded literary gods as much as Nathe. Earl’s cigarette had landed just in front of a pen fifteen feet wide and piled five feet high with discarded books. The adjacent enclosures included uncollectible vinyl records, countless vhs tapes, and other obsolete recyclables.
“People used to be horrified at the burning of books,” Lief mused, freedom- and word-loving people mourning the insane intellectual self-annihilation of a once-great culture. “Now, they’re so cheap and numerous they’re just another form of garbage”—awaiting some other, quieter immolation. Death by overpopulation, or death by neglect? Either way, it was terribly sad.
“Aww, don’t get all misty,” Nathe chided. “Technology and culture are just moving on. Nothing new about that.”
“How depressing. Look at this,” Lief muttered. He brandished a beat-up paperback, clinging to its life by dint of thirty-year-old strips of scotch tape. It had an infernal red and yellow cover embossed with the glistening beetle-like black helmet of a firefighter.
Nathe snickered. “Our way of disposing of them is much more environmentally friendly, don’t you think?” Unlike bulldozing or mulching them—“Burning them would just put a lot of extra co2 up into the atmosphere. We’re much more enlightened!”
“Maybe scarier than a future without books,” Lief said, “is a future in which no one cares that there are no books.”
Nathe shrugged. “Let the historians sort it out. There’s no turning back this tide of waste paper. But new generations will read off computers and the march of words will continue.”
To a gravesite like this, Lief couldn’t help thinking.
“You may be right, Nathe. But why read when you can play immersive, ultra-realistic video games? No, the future is going to be utterly trivial. You can bet money on it.”
“Well, barring disaster, we’ll both live long enough to find out, so I’ll take that bet.”
Lief tossed Bradbury back onto the pile, where he mingled with Jacqueline Suzann and a mental health recovery expert, like partygoers confused as to how they’d been invited to the same abysmal bash. Setting his fretful premonitions about the future aside, however, Lief was in a great mood.
Back at the gate, they ran into Earl. He looked relieved to see them again without any intervening mishaps.
“Meeting’s about to let out. You boys should go.”
“Thanks for your help. Everyone feeling good?” Lief asked in a vaguely entitled tone that grated. Nathe couldn’t help thinking Earl was being taken advantage of.
“Well, I just cast my vote. Do I look like I’m in a good mood?” He reached for another cigarette, and then stifled himself, like an intransigent uncle who’d been bullied into submission by a nagging combine of children and wife.
“I’ll take that as a ‘Yes’,” Lief said, thanking him again with a wave.
In the car, winding their way up and out of the valley, Nathe lit into him: “So, you gonna tell me what we were really doing there?”
“What do you mean?”
“Lief, c’mon. Don’t insult me. The way you played that donut-eater. You were snooping around for work, weren’t you?”
Embarrassed, his silence confessed for him.
“Shit, Lief. Couldn’t you have told me?”
“I shouldn’t have brought you at all, actually. But it’s interesting, they’re obviously not on high alert.”
“Why would they be?”
“Because like he said, the city’s made moves to redevelop the site before, and it’s been opposed by the workers and green activists. If they’re getting ready to try again, and they’re strong-arming the union, it could blow up in the City’s face, and anyone who’s working with them.”
Nathe got it. “Your firm’s working on something for this site?”
“Not yet. I’m just afraid…” Lief paused, unsure if he should say anything. “Don’t repeat this to anyone, of course…”
“No, no,” he reassured him.
“I’m just afraid the Mayor might try to attach this site to the Garrett Park project.”
The plant may have been a near-sacred symbol of the city’s commitment to maximum solid waste diversion, but it also sat on one of the few former brown sites that was relatively clean—according to the city’s last environmental assessment, anyway. Ripe for redevelopment.
“Can they do that?” Nathe asked. “After going through public consultations last year and signing off with the community?”
“The Mayor can do whatever he thinks he can get away with politically.”
“But that’ll piss off a lot of people, won’t it?”
“Yes, it will.” A fire-breathing dragon named Clarke came immediately to mind. “It’ll open a huge can of worms, especially if the site itself is not as pristine as they say it is.”
His unwitting accomplice finally understood why he’d been invited.
“You know, if this was a reconnaissance mission,” Nathe said, “you should have told me.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. But you played your part beautifully. People just can’t help opening up to you. Must be those disarming brown eyes. I think Earl liked you.”
They drove in silence for a moment or two.
“You know, as a rate-paying citizen,” Nathe milked the ownership of his mother’s house for all the murky moral high ground it was worth, “it doesn’t give me much confidence that a planning firm like—what is it?—RG&…?”
“RR&G. Raithe, Ramirez and—”
“Whatever—That it feels the need to spy on the city.”
“We’re just covering all the bases, making sure we have an honest partner. It would be irresponsible for us not to.”
“I feel so used,” Nathe said.
“Hey, you got something out of it. You got to dump that old stuff of your mother’s and I did all the driving.”
“All right, don’t insult me.” A non-driver, Nathe resented the idea that he needed a chauffeur.
“Would you feel any less dirty if I paid you? You know, as a consultant?”
“I don’t want your hush money.”
“Is that a definite ‘No’?”
“It’s a pissed-off ‘maybe’.” He was thinking about those rates he had to pay.
“Come on, I’ll take you out for lunch.”
“Great,” he muttered, feeling not unlike a prostitute. “Thanks, sugar daddy.”
For more info on the novel 'Twilight of the Adults' click here, or 'Adultescence' click here. To read more excerpts with Nathe and Lief, visit the 'Adultescence' page here. (Or on the navigation bar above.)