All across the grounds of the school were slants of green in different shades, perfect lines written in the lush lawns by men with mowers. George Bell pushed his machine and watched the young men ahead of him picking up the brown wriggles of broken branches, damp after being shaken down by a summer storm the night before. It was just like every summer, but with different young men and different broken branches, though he was the same. Later, he would sweep pink Dogwood petals from where the wind had piled them in the corner of a portico, the afternoon all ablaze again with white sun, and he would stop for a moment, look out across the quad and admire the work he’d done. There was always something to do. Trim, cut, shovel, rake, mulch, water, salt, weed. Each morning, his boss came out to the garage, where George sat with the five or so young men that were on the grounds crew with him, and would say, “We got things to do,” and George Bell did them.
Years peeled away like the rinds of the oranges he brought in his lunch, his dirty thumb pressing their skin, dimpling the bubbly flesh of the fruit. When he himself had been a young man, he’d been in the Marines. The young men loved to ask him what that was like, whether he’d fought anywhere. Though he’d not been in a war, when he was deployed in Lebanon, the barracks he’d been in had been bombed, killing two hundred and forty-one men, so he told them about that. The first few years he told them about this, the young men had remembered, had seen the news reports themselves, but over the years it had receded from the memories of the series of young men, an event earlier and earlier in their lives, until, at some point, it became something that had happened before they were born, something they were completely unaware of, and generally dismissive of, until the last few years when they were suddenly very interested again. He didn’t mind answering the questions they asked, not because he enjoyed talking about it, but because he liked it when they talked to him. So if they wanted to talk about what burned and what didn’t, he would talk about it. The young men came and went with the years, usually white, usually from the county, recent high school graduates or drop outs, but whoever they were, they always asked about his time overseas. About his peacekeeping missions. About things burning.
Between slow, circular chews, he described the sounds and smells and it delighted them. The flaming surface and movement. On the occasions when he went further, mistakenly perceiving some deeper sympathy with one of them, and told them what it was really like, how he felt about it, their interest waned. They leaned back in chairs, expectorated, stared at the whiteout of the high windows in the dim garage, called their girls on phones when the boss wasn’t nearby. They always asked if he’d ever killed anyone and he spat seeds onto the cement. No, he said, he hadn’t. They asked him if he’d seen anyone die and he tried to describe the friend’s face, tried to find words for every part of it: Asleep and then light and his body already in motion. A darkness made of light as the sound resolved into all-obliterating drone. What was this weight? A name in his throat. This, once a face, once young, once watching a waning moon before bed, once sweat soaked, laughing, once a face, silent to say a young girl’s name. The building was gone. Voices calling to God in the darkness. The names of children in mouths full of dirt. He could see a man standing naked, staring down a hallway. He could see men and parts of men, akimbo. He could see fragments of stone and glass hanging in the air. Battery acid and flesh burning reek. All covered in dust, all covered in cinders. The young men still and silent and made now only of ash, only of—
He found himself unable to finish the sentence, even after several minutes. They called him a faggot and laughed. To this, he would just smile a small smile to show that he took no offence, not that they cared. He offered them some of his orange, but they always demurred.
One year, there was a baby found dead near the train tracks and the young men on the grounds crew forgot to ask George Bell anything about his service for weeks. They just wanted to talk about the baby. It was all anyone in town was talking about. For a week there were news trucks from Lexington and Louisville and Cincinnati and even Atlanta downtown sending home reports about the poor thing. That’s what everyone called it: The Poor Thing. A newspaper appeared in the breakroom of the garage for several days straight and the young men took turns reading the series of stories about the terrible discovery and grunting mournfully. They still laughed and punched each other in the chest and murmured into the phone to their girlfriends when they could, but, for a few weeks at least, they did it with a half-light in their eyes and they talked about the baby every chance they had. They all knew that one of the bums that lived in the woods beyond the train tracks had probably done it.
After a few weeks, the child still remained unidentified. “You’d think someone would notice their baby’s missing,” one of the young men said. Occasionally, a car would drive slowly past the garage, turn around and then drive slowly back by. A car with poorly applied illegal tint, pregnant with pale bubbles.
The garage where the grounds crew kept the mowers and hedge trimmers and weedeaters and canisters of gasoline was on a dead end near the train tracks with woods just beyond. Some mornings, men would appear out of the trees and stand down at then end of the street, where the gravel and grass grew in equal amounts. Standing or leaning against a telephone pole or guardrail, their faces always turned off to the side, looking down the embankment or across the empty lots at the trees they called home. George Bell walked to work, even when cold, even when raining. As he came down the street toward the garage, he’d look at the men at the dead end and think about them hunkered out in the trees. He’d seen one of their trash-strewn encampments once while walking through the woods of an evening. He didn’t care to see them leaning, waiting for night to return, so he avoided looking their direction.
He lived in a one-bedroom apartment downtown, above an empty storefront. He kept the place clean. The furniture was used, inherited years ago from relatives no longer in need of it. The only decorations on the walls were the fine cracks in the plaster. Even in the shortest days of winter, the sun shone right in and the white walls and hardwood floors were brilliant in the light. On the coffee table were five books from the library, the limit allowed to a single patron. Two history books and three mass-market paperbacks with broken spines. The walls were thin and, through them, he could hear the man next door talking to his infant granddaughter. George didn’t really know the man, having only seen him in the hall on occasion. Knew him well enough to nod and exchange a greeting and that was it. The neighbor was raising the girl himself, George knew that. No one else lived there. He didn’t know where the neighbor’s daughter or wife were, or if he even had a daughter or wife. He never talked to the neighbor, just heard him through the wall talking in a funny voice to the little baby. George had never seen the baby.
At the garage, his fingers slipped the hemispheres of another orange into his mouth, chewing on the pulp until tasteless. The boss came out and said there were things to do—more important things than sitting around and smelling themselves and talking about girls’ asses—and so they went about their work maintaining the landscape. The young men groaned and wiped their necks instinctively, licking their lips for one last taste of lunch. Their machines roared and belched, sharp teeth spinning, ready to slice wild growth away. When he worked, he put his fingers to his nose and smelled the still-lingering sweetness of the orange.
Once, after being asked about being in the service and after telling about the bombing and being asked if he ever saw a man die and telling about that, or trying to tell about that, and after being called a faggot and being laughed at, George Bell leaped up, the uneaten hemispheres of orange tumbling to the worn linoleum, patterned to look like brick, and he shoved the young man who’d laughed the loudest—a young man who was taller and heavier than he, who had played defensive end the year before in high school, before he’d had to graduate and go to work, having not been recruited by any colleges, having had an unspectacular high school career, having mostly stood on the sidelines during games, hoping that no one got hurt so that he wouldn’t have to play—against a wall and bellowed into the young man’s face, his neck ropey and taut, the ridges in his skull straining his skin. That evening after work, when George was walking home, two pickup trucks pulled up next to him, skidding on the gravel, and some young men jumped out. George tried to run, but they caught up to him quick and got him on the ground and began to kick him in the back and the stomach and stomp on his knee and shoulder and arms. All under the mostly clear sky. Someone was saying something to George, but the voice was lost in the polyrhythmic grunting and swearing.
When he returned to work a week later, the young man he’d pushed against the wall was gone, having not returned to work the next day. No one had heard from him. When the boss called his house, his mother said she hadn’t seen him. That girl who’d had his baby hadn’t heard from him either, the baby audible on the other end of the line. George told the police that he didn’t know who’d done it or why and the young men wanted to ask him what it was like to get whooped like that, none of them ever having experienced anything like it. They cackled and then pulled out a bag of oranges that they’d gone in on together as a welcome back gift. George peeled and the young men, for once, ate, if only to just chew a hemisphere and then spit out the pulp once the juice was gone.
They asked him and he told them all the old stories again: A hand held out. Hands lifting. Light, then, at last. Noise and clamor and din, but, at its center, a quiet like glass. He told them: Free and light, hands lifting, hands carrying his body. It was summer and they sat in folding chairs outside on break.
When you work some place for a long time, you don’t remember the years, but the phases. That was The Time He Got Beat. There was The Time the Dead Baby Was Found. The Time They Fired the Boss. The Time the Boss Got Caught Screwing in the Garage. The Time That Girl Worked in the Garage. The Flood. The Time When There Were All Those Starlings and They Were Shitting Everywhere. The Time the Cows Escaped from the Stockyards. The Tornado. The Time the Toy Warehouse Burned Down and They Sat Outside and Watched the Smoke. The Time Those Boys Were Killed in a Wreck (I-III). The Time That Boy Got that Girl Pregnant. The Time that Guy Who Always Wore Sunglasses and Talked About How Much Pussy He Got Fell Off a Roof. The Time the Boss Grilled Venison for Everyone. You can’t remember what happened between those times and you can’t really remember what happened during those times, but you remembered they happened, all compressed down into a name, like Triassic or Cambrian. A marker you use to try and catch something that’s passed as soon as you recognize it. He knew too that there would someday be Those Last Days. Maybe this was the period he was in now. He’d never know if it was.
One evening he looked out of the window of his one-bedroom apartment and saw men loitering on the dark corner below. He could hear the neighbor in the next apartment talking to his granddaughter and he could hear the men in the street laughing and hollering. There came a whirlwind and leaves were caught up in it, dancing around the empty intersection, and the men loitering on the corner were clapping and hooting and chasing after it. The neighbor fell quiet and the wind died away and the loitering men wandered on.
It was a good job, George Bell liked it, and he liked nothing better than Friday afternoons, because on Friday afternoons he drove around the grounds and collected the week’s trash from the trashcans that lined the walkways of the school. He slipped from the rumbling truck and tossed gleaming bags of garbage into the back. Wet, glistening, oily pearl. Pink wrappers split into wishbone shapes and the glittering greens and red of aluminum soft drink cans. Crumpled boulders of paper. Receipts on two-part paper, yellow and white. Unidentifiable bits of black liquid gelling along the lip of the can. A brown paper bag and the violet shards of a broken bottle. Dizzy haze of black bugs scattering as he grabbed the bag, hovering conversations of buzzing and buzzing.
Over the years he’d asked some of the young men if they wanted to help him take the trash to the dump, but none of them had ever accepted. Friday afternoon was as good as Sunday morning to them. They looked out the high windows, squinting into the light, watching for a slow-passing car to take them away. It was Friday afternoon and they spent no time thinking about anything so worthless as garbage. They didn’t even want to holler at the bums loafing at the edge of the grass, looking damp and water-rotten. It was Friday, and they could not conceive that anything was of any importance. George felt irritation and anger rising inside himself as they scoffed at his offer to go to the dump, as they sat slouching on battered chairs and waiting for something to happen to them. How could he make them understand that he was offering them something wonderful, something that was his and his alone, something that could be theirs someday, if only they would accept it? But they giggled and punched each other and mopped their brows even though they hadn’t sweated and kept their eyes on the clock on the wall, wishing the day away, and he walked out to the garbage truck to make his weekly rounds.
And so to the dump he drove alone, a cement building lumbering behind the stockyard. Inside was a mountain of variegated garbage and bulldozers shoving the splendor into a square hole in the center of the floor. Down into a hole forever, down and down into the dark, filling the nothingness below, and he watched with a growing thrill. The young men would not come with him on Fridays to the dump and the young men would never know how sweet the flesh of the Earth could taste.