“Dude, that’s disgusting.”
“What do you know? I’ve been trying to get your attention for thirty years and look at you now.”
“Tell me, how are all those choices you’ve made working out for you these days? I mean look around you.”
“You work in a dump, Sterling.”
“Someone has to.”
“You didn’t. If you’d only listened to me from the beginning.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t. But how is that going to help me know myself?”
“Why do you think they call it ‘ripe?’ A fruit comes into its fullness when it is ripe. The same will be for you.”
“No fruit requires an entire year Gabriel. Besides, how would I be able to go anywhere? Where would I live?”
“You could live here.”
“Look, there’s more than enough good material for you to make a nice little home.”
Sterling was stumped. Gabriel had always had the last word. Maybe that’s why he never listened to him and all his “advice.”
“Okay, but how would I eat. I could never go to a grocery store.”
“Again, look around you. You’d be surprised how much good food people just throw away. Enough to feed a small country. And if need be, I’ll help with you that. You’ve seen what I can do with just a piece of bread.”
“You better listen and listen now. You rarely, if ever, listened to me before even though I have had nothing but your best interests in mind. I don’t even know why I keep trying, but I do. I must. I’m talking about progress here man, spiritual progress and I promise, if you just do what I say for one year, I will never bother you again.”
“Never. Is it a deal?”
Sterling put out his hand.
Gabriel was right: there was more than enough material to make a little one room shack and while it took time to put himself at ease, Sterling found himself settling in. There is, after all, plenty to keep one occupied in a dump and it never ceased to amaze Sterling the stuff people threw away.
The not bathing thing, well that was a different story and while tempted to skitter away at night and run to the nearest gas station’s bathroom, it being his part of the deal, every time he felt the urge, Gabriel just happened to “stop by.”
He’d always be standing there, arms crossed, at the gate, looking at Sterling, his eyes something fierce, shaking his head.
Now not bathing for a week was nothing new to Sterling. That was no problem. But after the first, when he smelled himself, he, of course, smelled dump. Rotting meat. Fermenting fruits. And the diapers, oh the dirty diapers and who knows how many dead animals.
But, as promised, sooner than later, Sterling didn’t smell it anymore and in not smelling it anymore, concluded he no longer smelled. And contrary to what one may think, the change did not come because he’d grown accustomed to the stench.
What had happened was this: Sterling had found that, over time, he could distinguish certain smells in the monstrosity that was the dump’s odor. He could distinguish, say, a moldy orange peel from sour milk from cigarette butts. The smells, you see, conjured certain memories, first from his own life—particularly the cigarettes and the old beer—and over time those memories took the form of joy and anger, of resentment and forgiveness, of false affection, of love, and of hate. Stuck there as he was, he could not escape the smells, the memories, the emotions and when he wandered through the path of a particularly poignant or noxious aroma, the kind of smell that quickens the heart rate and all you want to do is shut your eyes and run, Gabriel would be there. Sterling could be standing atop a mountain of trash, or digging through one of his makeshift tunnels, the kind he dug in his search for treasure, and there would be Gabriel. Gabriel would not say much in those moments, and as the weeks went by, he would say less and less. He’d simply put his hand on Sterling’s back and maybe even smile at him. That’s all he needed. And in that touch, Sterling smelled just a hint of fire and soon the odor evaporated. He’d come across it again, but over time what was once, for example, the smell of eggs, the bad smells turned sweet, almost flowery. Maybe, he once considered, that’s what people meant when they said their shit smells like roses.
You might not believe me, and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t, but in that first month Sterling was happy. For the first time in his life, he was truly happy. His life was pink cloud and he lived in a garden teeming with roses and carnations, lavender, lilies, herbs even. He moved mountains and made a park replete with walkways and places to sit in the shade under trees made of trash. He sculpted the garbage, always using balls of aluminum foil for the eyes.
And still he continued to dig his tunnels in quest of treasure. Now he did set about his journey knowing what it was for which he searched, but when he came across that little silver pendant, he made his discovery. Thus his hunts continued and he amassed a small handful of the stuff. It was not out of greed that he sought the silver, he simply considered aluminum foil eyes unbecoming of his statues, for crumpled aluminum did not reflect the bright sunlight as much as his masterpieces deserved. Silver, on the other hand, could and he, thanks to his ingenuity and the endless supplies at his disposal, had managed to melt the silver down and fashion his eyes.
Then, on the fortieth day, things changed. He’d wondered where all the flies had gone. He’d made friends with the rats and the seagulls brought with them the sound of the sea, but the flies were clouds on his sunniest of days. But over the past week, it appeared as though they’d found somewhere better to go.
He found them, however, on the fortieth day. He dug deep into the heart of the largest mountain and he’d found it: a chest, a wooden chest, the kind you read about in pirate stories. Careful he did not disturb the mountain’s integrity, he removed the it, set it upon the path he’d forged for himself, and dragged it through the winding tunnel until at its mouth he, taking his well-worn pick-axe, struck once the old iron lock. The chest was heavy and it had jingled when he dragged it.
“You sure you want to open that?”
Sterling jumped. “Gosh! Don’t sneak up on me like that.” He looked at his friend. “Of course I’m going to open it. It’s what I’ve been looking for. Isn’t this what you wanted me to find?”
Gabriel didn’t say a word, then, “If you really are going to open it, please wait until you count to ten.”
“Fine.” Sterling did so and when he reached “ten,” looked over his shoulder. His grin fell flat. Gabriel had left him and all defiant-like, Sterling spat, “Well forget you then.”
He opened the chest and solved the mystery.
The flies, all of them and more, in one massive cumulonimbus.
They—it—swarmed him, and he ran, ran to his little shack and shut the door. He pressed his back into it, and stayed there, hands on his knees, waiting, expecting a big bad wolf of flies to blow it down. But it didn’t and believing himself safe, Sterling returned to the chest and found it half full (six weeks ago he would have considered it half empty) with silver.
The flies had moved on, but a man started coming around the dump. Once the first week, then twice the next. He’d struck up conversations with Sterling, commenting primarily on what a wonderful job he’d done with the place. He never gave Sterling a name and he often, while talking, rubbed his hands together almost to the point of compulsion.
Life was still wonderful for Sterling and the better he found it, the less he saw Gabriel. Gabriel and the stranger (sooner than later Sterling’s new friend) never met and though there was the one time Gabriel was there when the man showed up as planned, Sterling didn’t bother to introduce the two. Gabriel was sitting on a bench under a tree and Sterling noted the man’s big eyes glance in his direction; though Gabriel never mentioned him, Sterling figured he cared not to his new pal. On that day, Sterling’s friend finally broached the subject: Sterling stank.
He’d sniffed under his armpits and agreed, “but it will go away. Always does.”
The man leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You know, I have a jug of water in my car. You really should wipe yourself down. Wash your face at least. You’ll feel a lot better.”
“But I feel fine.”
“Then you’ll feel finer. Feeling good is good, but feeling better is better.”
“Um…” The man rubbed his hands together; Sterling looked to the tree. Gabriel was gone. “…I don’t think so. Not today.”
“Maybe another day then.”
“Well, okay then. See you later?”
The man made to leave, then stopped and turned. “Oh by the way, I have a few friends who I’ve told about what you’ve done with the place. They’d really like to see it. Would you mind if I bring them by next time?”
The man didn’t come by with or without his friends for some time. Summer had turned to fall and fall neared winter and Sterling couldn’t believe it when Gabriel told him he was just months away from fulfilling his vow. What had been a mighty mountain had become a plateau and Sterling’s garden extended to the dump’s farthest reaches. As Gabriel promised, he’d found himself, found what made him happy. It wasn’t a dump anymore. It was his home and Gabriel stayed with him through many a long and dark and cold night. They talked, talked mostly about what Sterling had discovered about himself and what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
He’d said always wanted to help people and he’d still like to do so, but didn’t really know how. Gabriel had said he was proud of him—that that desire to help others is always what he wanted to show Sterling.
“So all the choices I made, like you said so long ago, were what led me here.” He needn’t hear Gabriel’s response to know his friend was proud.
It was near Christmas when the man returned with his friends. Maybe it was the day itself, for his friend came bearing a gift. He’d put on some serious weight and his friends were as large as he. And like him, they rubbed their hands together even though it was not cold.
“You’re filthy,” said his friend.
“Yes, I guess I am.” Sterling did not regret it a single bit.
“You really should wash yourself man,” said one of the stranger’s friends. “It’s really pretty disgusting.”
“Here,” said Sterling’s friend, extending the package.
Sterling, leering at the stranger’s friend, took the package, smiled, and asked “What is it?” as he, in a brief return to his childhood, tore at the wrapping. A plain cardboard box, to which he repeated himself.
He did and much as was the case on his own Christmases and birthdays, his smile flattened with disappointment, which he now coupled with poisonous resentment. “What the fuck is this?”
“It’s a showerhead.”
“I know what it is, but what the fuck are you giving me a showerhead for?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” said the third, who up to that point remained silent.
“I brought a truck,” said the stranger, “got a portable shower and a tank full of water.”
“Dude, you smell like shit,” said the third. “Worse than shit. I’d rather smear shit under my nose than stand next to you for too much longer.”
All the roses and carnations and lilies and lavenders in Sterling’s garden wilted from the heat of his boiling blood. “I told you, I made a promise to a friend.”
All three of the men laughed.
“Friend!? That guy who I’ve seen here from time to time?”
“What do you mean from time to time? You haven’t been here for months and you’ve only been here once when he was here.”
“That’s what you think.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Sterling’s grip around the showerhead’s length tightened.
“I never left.” The stranger motioned to his friends. “Well, for a little while, just to gather my buddies here.”
“You’ve been trespassing on my property?”
“Tresspasing?” The stranger stepped forward. “Whose property do you think this is?”
“Yours?” Again, the three laughed. “That’s your pal talking to you. This is my property and you are the trespasser.
“What is this nonsense? Sterling, are you okay?”
Sterling shuddered, then exhaled his relief. “No, Gabriel, I’m not. These men are claiming—”
“You are a liar,” barked the stranger.
“I am a liar?” Gabriel stepped back and looked to Sterling, the confusion warping his face.
Sterling cocked the showerhead over his shoulder like a baseball bat and turned to Gabriel. “You?”
Gabriel remained still, his face serene. “No Sterling, not me. It is they. They are trying to confuse you.”
“Liar! He wants to keep you filthy Sterling. Can’t you see that? Look at yourself. Not bathing for nine months? Living in this…this…garden?” He used the term loosely. “Take a bath Sterling. He can’t stop you. You’ll be clean son, clean.”
Sterling’s father used the same words when he shoved the soap down the young boy’s throat and up other places. He lunged forward and swung, swung the showerhead-bat down and sliced right through the stranger. He swung to the right, and sliced through the stranger’s friend and the third, not waiting for the attack, joined his friends in one sinuous, churning black river of flies.
As one, they swarmed upon him. He swung and swung and they enveloped him, saying “take a bath, take a bath.”
“Help me Garbiel! Help me!” The flies ascended to and disappeared into the night sky. “Are they gone?”
But their distant buzzing answered his question and Gabriel, bathed in the full moon’s light, just stood there, motionless as he did when sitting under his favorite garbage tree.
“Are you going to help me or not?”
“There is nothing more I can do Sterling.”
“What!? So you are just going to stand there?”
“They are preparing Sterling. It is preparing. You should do the same.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? Speak to me straight, just for once.”
“What have you learned?”
“What have I learned?”
“You better hurry Sterling. It’s coming.”
“I learned that you get used to it. Life is nothing but a garbage heap and you get used to it.”
“You make the best of what you’ve been given.”
“Bullshit. Time is wasting. You better hurry.”
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
“A cliché? Are you kidding me Sterling? All this time and you settle on a cliché?”
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Gabriel.” He slumped and rested his hands on his knees, the showerhead loose in his grip. Exasperated, he said, “Can’t you just tell me?”
Gabriel crossed his arms; Sterling whimpered and through a wave of tears, cried, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“Yes you do Sterling, but you better hurry. Here they come.”
He looked up and in the light of the moon he saw. What it was he saw he could not quite define. A form, at once a cloud, at once something monstrous with four, no six arms, a head that was a crocodile’s, a donkey’s, a lion’s. Wings. A snake’s tail, maybe a scorpion’s. Descending, descending upon him.
“What did you learn!” roared Gabriel.
Sterling stood straight and dropped the showerhead. “That everything I’ve thrown away, everything I’ve thought useless is of use.”
“And what is it you’ve thrown away?”
Sterling shrugged. “Myself.”
“Close, but not quite there.”
“Parts of myself.”
“That the parts of myself I thought dirty, ugly, of no use…I made them that way. I made myself ashamed of myself.”
“Yes…And now what? What have you learned Sterling? What have you done?”
“I…I…Took it all back and made something of it.”
“And? I…I…” He grumbled.
“You need to answer. Answer now.”
Sterling looked up. The mouth of the monster open, claws primed to rip him apart, the hot buzzing breath of a billion of flies…
“I AM CLEAN!”
Josh Bertetta holds a Ph.D. in Mythological Studies and currently teaches in the Religious Studies department at a private university in central Texas. Having written an historical fantasy novel for which he hopes to one day publish, he keeps busy writing short stories, flash fiction, and essays on mythology, religion/spirituality, and culture from the perspective of archetypal psychology. Excerpts of his novel and his other writings can be found on his blog: joshbertetta.wordpress.com