Garbage Day

[StoryADay May prompt: “Torture Your Protagonist“]

The web has nothing new to add. He chucks his tablet onto the couch next to him and watches TV where the coverage is now 24-7 and all they do is rotate through the same old details: no known vectors, shows up in clusters but not always among people exposed to the sick, not much change in behavior at first but the behavioral changes escalate after a few weeks, quarantines in the southern states, no test, not treatment, and no ideas.

Max shuts off the TV. He’s glad he lives alone. His last boyfriend, Harold, is two years gone and last he heard the idiot was living with friends in Austin, Texas while making another go with another band. A few dates since that last day but nothing serious involving moving in together. He enjoyed his space so much after Harold that he didn’t bother with a roommate, though it would have been nice to have help with the mortgage.

After he finishes editing and meeting deadlines for a couple assigned articles (“12 Reas Self-Drive 🚗 Dead” and “Your New 🤖 ☠ Secret”), Max climbs the stairs in need of a nap. He takes the sheets off of the bed and the cases off the pillows, and drops them in the hamper. If he’s going to do laundry, he decides he might as well get everything, including the curtains that haven’t been washed in years. After several trips downstairs to the laundry room, he sits on the edge of his mattress and feels overwhelmed by everything he has to do today. There are afternoon deadlines, lunch and dinner, chores, research, and a jog on the treadmill left. Not enough for a list, too much for a nap or relaxing before bed.

He finds that water isn’t draining out of the master bathroom sink, though, and so he tackles that first. On his hands and knees under the sink he unfastens the pipes to find the clog of slime and hair, drops the mess into the wastebasket, and leaves the pipes in the bathtub to rinse out. One of the lightbulbs is out above the mirror. He turns off the lights, uses a towel to unscrew the dark bulb, and tries to remember where he keeps extra bulbs.

Searching in the kitchen, Max is overwhelmed with hunger. At least he’s back on track with his tasks. He makes himself a sandwich, pours a glass of milk, and finds a box of stale oyster crackers in the cabinet above the stove to munch on. A lot of the cartons and bottles in the cabinet should probably be thrown out. Several are empty. He pulls everything down and sets them on the kitchen counter. So much waste. It will be nice, Max thinks, to downsize. Plenty in his home that he hasn’t used or thought of in at least two years.

Confronted with all the items he owns, a garage sale seems like a very good idea. He walks out to the garage to retrieve a few boxes, and after seeing everything in there he can also get rid of, he eventually wanders back to the house to pack up the extra kitchen junk.

It’s dark outside.

He would like to sit down to watch the nightly news, but he settles for browsing the web on his tablet while he eats leftover spagetti and tomato sauce. The contagion continues to spread. Video footage shows the afflicted in quarantine, hospitals. They don’t look especially sick, but they cannot stop moving. Healthcare workers behind masks try to comfort them. The White House has pledged immediate funds for dealing with the crisis. In locations where there are signs of infection, experts are urging people to stay home and watch each other for symptoms.

Max carries out filled boxes to the garage and brings back fresh boxes. He finds so much stuff Harold left behind. He takes boxes into the living room and packs up old books and trinkets, many of them with a story that somehow involves him and Harold. They had been together for eleven years. They broke up not long after they were engaged. Max thought he was over it by now, but finding these items Harold had left behind reminded him that he wasn’t quite there yet.

When he runs out of boxes, he starts using big black trash bags from a box he found in the garage. A lot of what he finds isn’t worth trying to sell in a garage sale or donate. He makes a separate pile for bags full of items to leave for trash pick-up on Thursday morning. They’ll take anything, so he loads up the bins, wheels them up to the front curb, and stacks more bags behind them.

Back in the living room and passing by the television, he switches it on for the white noise. The media is obsessed with video clips of recent strange behavior. One of the clips includes a local affiliate where some of the technicians and assistants have come down with symptoms. A cameraperson follows discretely behind them while one of the on-air personalities asks them questions about how they are feeling.

“Is it contagious?” she wonders outloud.

He’s finding a lot of dust and hidden corners of dirt. Behind the couch, Max discovers dried out tortilla chips and hard candies. He’s pretty sure he went through a cleaning fit just after Harold left him, and cleaned the house top to bottom. Two years of evidence of Max living on his own and apparently slovenly. He pushes the couch out of the way and stoops to pick up the food there, but some of it is next to the wall where the rug recesses slightly. The carpet seems a little bunched up. He pulls at the carpet with his fingers. Sure enough, there’s plenty more to pick up and vacuum. He yanks out enough to get an idea of how much work this will entail and finds furniture in the way everywhere he wants to proceed.

It’s easy enough to scoot the furniture out of the way. He starts moving furniture from the carpeted area of his living room and dining room, including the kitchen, and then outside on the lawn. Once he’s got the first floor furniture moved out, including several items that he’s pulled and pushed through doorways and out the backdoor, feeling them now in his back and knees, he remembers that he eats in bed frequently. The master bedroom must be a disaster. He moves furniture into the hallway, but it blocks his bath, so he starts getting creative about how to get it downstairs. He packs up all the small stuff inside and on top of furniture and then lifts and shoves and pulls and wiggles and walks on corners dressers, nightstands, a desk, chairs. At the stairs he lets the dressers slide on their backs on the carpeted steps. He’s not able to hold on to his second dresser and it pulls out of his grip and tumbles down the stairs. The back starts to separate as a result and one of the knobs on the front breaks off. He doesn’t really need two dressers, though, so he maneuvers it out the front door and to curb.

Max stops to catch his breath. He notices the neighbor across the street sitting out on her steps and smoking. She’s half revealed by the street light, and when she drags on the cigarette, a little more of her face is caught in the faint red glow. She watches him, and then her attention is on his next door neighbor.

“Hey, Charlie.”

“Max.”

“Looks like you have the same idea.”

Charlie chuckles. “Damn right. This crap should have been out of my house years ago. It’s crazy how much we hang onto.”

A door slams. The woman across the street is no longer on her steps. Max watches her front window curtains move.

“Well, better get back to it. Hope to be done by morning.”

“Sounds good, Charlie. Later.”

By morning, Max has taken everything he can carry out of his house and out of the garage, and placed the either on his driveway in front of the garage behind the house or near the curb for garbage pick-up. As soon as the self-driving truck arrives on Thursday morning, it will notice how much he has thrown out and call for additional trucks to retrieve what it cannot carry.

He yanks up the carpet, rolls it up, and tugs the rolls out the front door to the front lawn. He’s wanted new carpet for years, so he might as well get rid of it now. He carries a broom with him back into the house, but he leaves it in the doorway and considers the cabinet knobs and hinges in the kitchen. Some of them are a little sticky. He doesn’t like the color. He retrieves a screwdriver from the tool box sitting on outside the back door and starts with the cabinet fixtures but doesn’t stop there.

He cannot believe how sore he is. All that jogging, morning pushups and situps, and house cleaning turns out to be too much for him. He snacks and drinks water while he works. After the cabinet doors are stacked against the house, he tries to budge the refrigerator again. Slowly, so very slowly, he manages to rock it out of its place against the wall, then over the linoleum (leaving large gouges) and through the back door. What’s inside will keep as long as he doesn’t open it frequently. He presses his back against the doorway leading from the kitchen to the dining room. He’s going to need some downtime to recover from all this work.

In every room of the house he finds things that will come off or come apart, like all the doors, window screens, curtain rods, outlets, metal vents, pipes, handles and knobs, the fan over where the stove used to be, and more besides. By the time he gets the front and back doors taken down, its hot outside, but there’s also a nice breeze blowing through his house.

The woman across the street has gotten a late start, but soon enough her front curb is covered in stuff she is throwing out. The neighbors on either side of him are making good progress on their homes. A police car drives down the street and the police officers inside shake their heads but don’t stop.

When dusk arrives, he remembers he hasn’t checked the news in awhile. The TV is in the backyard with all the other stuff he wants to keep. He grabs his phone from his pocket and does a quick search for the latest news.

Still nothing. And none of the news sites have added any new articles in hours. Very little is new on social networks except for more anecdotes about suddenly afflicted family members and friends. Emotional posts about not understanding how this is possible, but only a handful of those in the past two hours.

Eventually onlines services start going down, but by then his phone is dead and lying in the trash pile that lines the curb and lawn and crosses the driveway to start mixing with his neighbor’s pile.

“Keeping the garbage trucks busy.”

Charlie laughs. “You’ve got that right. Got to keep those bots working for us so they don’t get any bright ideas.”

The walls have to come out next. Max has taken to peeing in the backyard now that he has removed the toilets, along with the sinks and bathtubs. He found where he could turn off the water to most of the pipes in his house, but there are still a few pipes he has to wait on because he doesn’t want to flood the house. Meanwhile, there is so much more to remove, so he moves on to the walls. Sledgehammer and crowbar from the garage getting more use today than any time since he and Harold bought them years ago.

The neighborhood is full of activity, of loud sound, of tired neighbors laboring and snacking and finding wander. Sometimes they share tools, but rarely is there a need; they make do with what they have, even if it is just their own fingernails, hands, arms, legs, and strength.

Max is exhausted. He cannot wait to sleep. He’ll sleep when he is done.

On Thursday the garbage trucks are out in force. The house will take days. The garage another few days. Max can see the end in sight.

He starts to think about how best to tear up the lawns, bushes, trees, sidewalk, driveway. Never too early to start planning for the work ahead. The garbage trucks will carry everything away. It’s what they were designed for. What more autonomous garbage trucks are coming off of the assembly line to do.

Eventually the neighborhood will come together to start working on the streets, sewers, power lines, pipes, and fiber optics. Max doesn’t think his neighborhood has ever had a block party before. He’s not sure if many will show up, though. They might get infected with whatever was going around.

He’s relieved he’s okay so far. Maybe some people have a natural immunity.

He drinks water out of the hose in the front yard and then stops in front of the ladder and looks up. The gutters have to go, and so does the roof.

StoryADay May 2016 Day 29