Laura Van Etten received her MA in fiction and an MFA in fiction and nonfiction. She has taught at colleges and facilitated creative writing groups in women's shelters as well as in detention centers. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Sun and her fiction recently appeared in Crazyhorse. She currently teaches creative writing and composition in Tucson, AZ. She has just finished her first novel.
How Trash Survives
For a while I thought I could save things. Everything. Discarded trash. Dirty socks that somehow ended up in muddy schoolyard puddles, mashed up yarn ground into the rubber cracks of the school bus floor. Nothings. I rode bus 37. I sat in the seventh row back. The seats were tall and once the doors hissed shut and the bus pulled out, I started my rituals: the frayed edges of notebook paper on the floor, lint stuck in the black-gray tar that held the shaking windows, old notes tucked between seats, hardened gum under the arm rest.
First I had to get it. Fingernail-pick at the gum until it broke free, tug the purple thread from the split in the seat-pick, grab, tuck, curl the fingers, fold it into the palm, and then a quick transfer to the green backpack. Any sophisticated nose picker could tell you the same thing, an easy technique to develop: look casual and act fast. I didn't worry too much about getting caught, it could be disguised, absent-minded picking: she's just a daydreamer. It's just a daydreamer picking at crap and really, what would they say anyway? That's my floor lint? It was sometime around third or fourth grade when they pulled out the old seats and replaced them with short hard benches. Then there was no privacy to work behind.
My backpack was full of the fallen and I had to cover. “This is so nasty, but if I lost it my mother would kill me,” I'd say. Reach into muddy puddles under the swing set: “Trust me, my mom's nuts.” Pull out the soggy gym sock, a quick squeeze to drain it, unzip the bag and transfer, filling my great green pack. Birthday parties at friends' houses, the triangle hats with the choking elastic string, the cake, cheeks puffed to blow out the candles, all the kids singing along, laughing, me too, but faking it, stomach-ache-worried, keeping track of the candles after the flames died, imagining the pastel waxy remains discarded like that, like nothing; I'm coming, I'd pretend-whisper, remember to sing the birthday song aloud while the mother walked the cake platter to the kitchen trashcan. Clapping, happy birthday, as I'd try to calculate how many broken bits of the half-burnt candles I could stuff in my pockets, how to conceal the bulge where I hid them. Would they reach into my secret hiding place? Would they know how to recognize evidence?
There were times I was tired. I wanted to close my eyes and just ride the bus home or leap on the jungle gym without examining the puddles, but I knew the price of nighttime, the things unsaved-how I'd be left to clamp my teeth into the green paint of my headboard, arms rigid at my sides, bite down against the world, the little lines of teeth marks sunken into the wood: hold on.
There was a brown house with yellow trim that sat among the birches and old oaks and offered its wooden structure, what you create here, that's your story, our house said. Beautiful things were created. There were Easter egg hunts, pastel-green-smoothness tucked into the crook of the rotting apple tree, shocking blue in the sand box, hidden treasures, my father's pretend-horseback rides, neighing at the ceiling, reminding us to hold on tight, my mother's homemade birthday cakes, candles lit and off-key singing as she set the fiery offering on the dining room table. There were long days in the summer, placing taps in the maple trees, a big pond with an old canoe, collecting the cattails because, dipped beneath the water, they shimmered like the sort of silver wands that might draw out the wood sprites; there were deer flies darting close to the surface, the chain saw buzzing from far off, dinner time called out at five o'clock, and at night, the bats darted above the dock and I imagined their wings, warm and dusty, the way I imagined possibility up there.
And there were other sorts of days, too. There was my worry over the draining of the maple trees and martini fights at the dinner table, the silence of forks raised, impending divorce, the ice clinking in the heavy cocktail glasses, the huge castle-jugs of wine emptied, the stumbling heft of weighted footsteps in the hallway, hiding in my closet, whispering assurances into furry teddy ears, it's okay, and pretending I couldn't hear the things I did. There was my mother calling out my name, my closet doors sliding to part, her hands reaching for me, fingertips feeling through the dark. I made my body as small as I could, tucked my legs, tucked my chin, tucked all of me tight into the corner until she found me. Her breath was always sweet from the gin. “It's going to be okay, it's going to be okay,” she said. She cried and clutched my arm and I patted her head. There was a father, also stumbling, but good. Always good. Bruce Springsteen on the stereo, the click of dead air when the warped record skipped, one a.m., my father snoring in the old brown recliner, and lying in my bed, I'd wait for the television's national-anthem goodbye, climb from the bunk bed, tiptoe down the hallway, quietly turn off the TV, poke his arm, “Daddy, daddy, it's bedtime.” Tugging at his arms until he awoke, I'd pull at the mass of his body, his hand outstretched and he'd say, “Guess it's time for both of us to hit the sack.” He'd rub his eyes and smile, remind me I shouldn't be up so late: “Well, goodnight, Kiddo.”
There was a sister. A kid, too, trying.
Escaping outside, I walked the circumference of the great anthills, looking for worker ants struggling with a twig, a burden impossibly large. I'd reach out my finger and whisper promises while it hesitated at the edge of my flesh, until it finally trusted, the wisps of its legs touched the pad of my finger, the barely weight of its body, and back at the ant hill, I'd place it next to its home: safe.
Huge planes of glass windows surrounded our living room and, there, with a sweeping dark, the summer rainstorms announced themselves. Sitting on the back of the couch, I'd count the lightning strikes and grow anxious. I knew the work of the storms, what would be required, all that was made vulnerable in the puddles: the earthworms splayed fat on cement paths, every single one of them at risk. I worked as fast as I could. I tried not to panic, whispered mantras: work careful and quick. I carried their damp softness to the safety of the grass at the edge of the woods.
But the more I looked, the more I saw.
Things got harder. There was other stuff. There were things out of grasp, so strategies had to evolve again. My Fisher-Price doctor's kit was for the stuffed animals: Brown Bear, Unicorn, Owl, Dolphy. Each morning, I lined them up on the edge of the bottom bunk and gave them a shot on their left arm or paw or wing or horn or fin. The shot turned off their feelings. It made them back into simple stuffed animals. It made it not real. They wouldn't even know what happened. At night, door shut, lights out, tucked under the blankets, when we were all alone again, they got another shot; I turned them back on just long enough to kiss each one, then quickly return them to their numb safety.
But I couldn't reach everything with the shot, so I learned to cast the spells with my mind and as bus 37 rode along, I learned to use my eye power and heart power-I pushed from my chest. There were rules for the magic, it took a lot of concentration, it had to be done right. I saved weeds and ditch flowers. I sought out the underdogs, saved things killed by larger lives, the newborn struggling weeds in their slow suffocation, killed out by the thick muscle-roots of old growth trees who cast their heavy deadly branches overhead, lazily blocking out the sun, winding in and choking out new growth. As if this was nothing, a little death.
At home, too. The fly hospital was behind the couch, between the end table and the floor lamp, tucked behind the thick orange curtain by the wall heater. My mother's swatted flies went to the hospital. I imagined little splints and stretchers. I talked to them. I encouraged them. I pushed love at them and thought if I believed enough, they would too. Zero percent recovery there.
Pebbles, stones, twigs and sticks-tracked inside the school doors, on the steps of the bus, inside the kitchen door—these were easy, “Be right back, Dad!” and tossed into the woods. They were like a reward. They had a home to go back to. But the broken toy parts, the random little wheel, the cracked headband underneath the swing set: these were harder to place. It was one of the fundamental flaws-nothing should drown in melted snow slush, be thrown down by the plows, a flap of plastic gripping a weed until the wind tore too hard-but I didn't really have a place for all the trash.
And sometimes I got there too late. All the deaths that were inevitable. Daily casualties that no amount of sky magic, eye magic, distraction, sacrificial magic, could touch. The construction site and the back hoe tearing at the roots, pulling the still green, still plump, shocked tree from the earth. I would squint my eyes shut and push my power, magically release, take away all feelings, all last attempts at life, painless and quick. I learned that death could be made easier, a light breeze that could lift away life. It could come silently. The great cans of trash at the bus driver's feet, settings and situations so public they were unmanageable. Release. And that was the best I could do.
This was, of course, a secret world.
Later, sixth grade, it wasn't a choice anymore and I resented the obvious workload. I was resigned to understand it as a responsibility not to be put in the hands of an amateur, but the collecting and saving and releasing became just as crass as the events that led the once pretty hair barrette to become trash. I pretended I didn't care when I fished socks out of puddles. I tried to wear the tight lips of my mother. I tried to stop letting myself become emotionally involved. There were things too large to fit in a child's pack.
Then it became a task I hated. I knew I was crazy, but I was holding to some lingering grasp of reality. The crazy don't know they're crazy. That was my only hope: I knew all about me.
And then, I stopped.
And the boys came and the world came and I didn't try to save trash. I joined instead. I was a slut. I stole, I lied, I fought. I got went through of four schools until the town ran dry. I drank too much, smoked too much; I snorted pounds of cocaine, jacked off pedophiles and frat boys on phone sex lines. I mastered the art of fuck you from every angle. I slept with men after they beat me. I raged. It was good. I needed it. The release.
I moved far away. I worked at dive bars, I slung drinks, I made up new identities night by night. Later, I worked at a shelter and I was paid to offer false hope to broken women and children too damaged to know anything about saving. And maybe I tried, I probably tell myself I did, but really, I was there for something else. I was there to allow the space for no hope. I offered, instead: a bed with clean sheets, macaroni and cheese, a video rental card, a face that expected nothing. And when there were no more beds or it was the same woman, her fourth shelter that month, I did what I could, but secretly I tried to release them. Just don't fight it, I wanted to say, different from give up, but not always sure about that blurry line.
This is what I'd figured out: anticipate nothing. Anticipate everything. And start from the bottom. This is how trash survives.
Except. Slowly, unmarked, in tiny ways, it was unmistakably there again. The cigarette stubbed out long enough for an attempt at a jog. Stopped in the middle of the trail, bent forward gasping into the breathless cramp, a drop of sweat falls, and I see the centipede mid-track; I get a stick, whisper, it's okay, and a careful transfer to the edge of the trail.
It happened like that, like dawn, you don't really see the black shift to blue, you don't see it until it's happened. I caught the crickets in Tupperware, careful to knock them to the bottom before sliding the lid across the top, and I carried them outside. “No, don't—" I interrupt when a friend reaches to pluck a dandelion head. Like a thawing, a reversal of all the stages, but not necessarily a choice.
Then, in bigger ways: the first startled rise of the chest-bone. My mother has worn the trail, so when I stumbled forth a few years behind, she was there to point to the bright blood-lettered sign that said REHAB, and through the first three weeks of endless sweats, sheets soaked down to the mattress pad, hair so wet it's as if I just showered, I learned to quit the more obvious toxins.
The men didn't sweat out so cleanly. Maybe a thousand attempts at goodbye, most of them silent, before I formed all the verbal utterances of “I'm done,” my phone placed back in the cradle, I'm done, silence until a finch screamed outside, reminded me the world hadn't stopped, and I learned something about quitting the less obvious toxins.
On new land, I discovered the finch need milk thistle, not the millet of wild birdseed. I learned to treat the spider mites, save the plant. And I found a home, not brown wooden, not in the woods, but a white desert home where soil must be enriched, where a digging bar must break through impossible layers of caliche, must slam so hard as to spark on impact. There was a month with a borrowed jackhammer, vibrations that shattered the final layers of rock and left me bruised and spent and close to satisfied. I dug. Moved rock. Hauled in soil. I brought seedlings home from the nursery. I planted, watered, bought shade cloth, learned the line between sunlight that nurtures and sunlight that burns. The library book instructed that I “thin out the seedlings” so I worked around that impossibility; I couldn't kill, but I could transfer when roots needed more space. I planted until I ran out of room. There were dozens of broccoli plants and they lived-the basil seedling, purple kale, the spinach, the yellow squash, an obscene artichoke. The Bougandia. The Esperanza. The Bird of Paradise.
The nerve cells fired again and by this phase the only bruises on my hips were proof of my slides into the countertop, wounds sustained from races to turn off the television image of the polar bear floating out to nowhere, oil-slicked pelicans, sea turtle eggs sealed in tar caskets. These things were becoming impossible to ignore again.
I noticed the Milky Way wrapper on the sidewalk, discarded, alone: no, not again.
There was a late night at the animal hospital and a tiny Jack Russell was raced through the Emergency doors, rapid breaths, the rattler's venom injected in its neck. “Yes, I see the swelling now,” the technician said.
“About twenty-five minutes ago,” the owner said.
And later that night, with my rescue tabby cat readied for an emergency PEG feeding tube, when I asked the vet about that tiny panting dog, he shook his head: “We worked real hard.”
“No,” I said too loud, startled us both, and spent an entire night in tears; in the morning shower, my head turned upwards into the stream of hot water, that old voice was back: release.
Regularly, driving, I swerve in frantic attempts to turn the news radio off, to make the stories stop- whales beached off New Zealand's coast-because it's physical, how it gets caught in my body, tentacles in deep, loops in relentless circles, haunts me into the early morning hours-the stories of the outcomes of all those who were not saved, were not released.
That's how it came back. Terrible and raw and unfiltered.
And only then, as if I could be trusted again, the access opened, the broken started finding me, and they were everywhere. There was that tabby kitten who started with one innocent sneeze, five weeks of feeding tube treatment, every four hours, two a.m., six a.m., cupping his stomach to feel the formula going in, I can save you, every feeding, pushing love, until he ate again. “Yes, the only customized feeding tube outfit I've seen,” the vet promised when they removed it. And then the golden stray, all bones, and a summer of hot desert nights sitting with him in my garage, cutting away thick matted fur, the slow process of clearing his eyes, the feeding, wetting him down with towels to cool him from this heat, the drives to clinics, the antibiotics dripped into his mouth. There was the Mourning Dove that dove down the chimney and the syringe of water held to its beak, its crazy turbulent freedom flight toward the mountains. There was the baby sparrow, thrown from the nest in the monsoon rages, too young to fly, beak opening and closing in a terrible cry, phone calls, an hour of sobbing with thick gloves and a shoebox with holes, crawling through the underbrush debris of palm trees. And so I came to know which roads to take to deliver the nestlings to the Wildlife Rescue volunteers, who to call for raccoons in chimneys, injured owls. I learned it's a myth that the mother won't take the baby back into the nest if touched by a human-if you can reach the nest, of course she will. Of course she will.
Theories on chronic pain point to well-intentioned systems with a system glitch at the relay point, neurons that keep firing, long after the external stimulus is gone, over and over again, stuck in a trenched loop, creating their own pathways of warped communications. It's not that the releasing is easy now, it's harder. It's these nerve cells exposed; it's the tiny trailing threads of pure sensory perception, and it's not that the return is necessarily a surprise, but I never would have believed how many years might pass between, or the raw pain of the branching fibers when the anesthesia wears off.