Thank God for Garbage Trucks

short story by Alex Forbes

I was a federal agent. No, no, not a regular agent. We were deputized. We were the good guys, you know. The bad guys were rogue federal agents. They went around shooting people without probable cause, you know. They liked to snoop without a warrant just in case someone said something they didn’t like. We were outnumbered. They were looking for us.

And they were better armed, too. They carried Glock 9mm automatics, and Army assault rifles. I think I carried a Colt revolver; I forget. I never use the damn things any more; they make too much noise. We were supposed to take them down, those rogue agents, but they always had us on the run. I remember one incident where I was trying to escape, climbing a crumbling mud embankment that came apart in my  hands as I clawed at it. But they were after someone else that day.

I knew all my team buddies from the old days. They shot Larry, my old college room-mate. There was good old Leonard, a black co-worker back in simpler times. He used to play the sweetest swing-time blues you ever heard, on his alto sax. He was too gentle a guy for a job like this. I think he got away though.

They finally caught me. I think it was on that embankment. You didn’t have to surrender. When they got you, you knew it. They had a Glock planted on the back of my head. They were yelling at me. I didn’t say anything to them, because after a while I couldn’t hear them any more. I was just kneeling there. In the mud.

I heard this loud CRASH! BANG! and I said to myself, “Hell, this is no good.” I couldn’t hear, but I heard a voice. It sounded like Larry.

The voice told me, “You are the new Savior. He wants you to go forth into the world and make it right again.” That is when I knew I was dead.

Next I heard that sound again, that loud CRASH! BANG! and everything became clear to me.

“Damn, that’s the garbage truck, down on the boulevard. It must be about five o’clock. I gotta get up and pee.”

So I got up to face the new day. I made the coffee. It is good to be alive. Thank God for garbage trucks.

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Letters: “Srimps”

“Srimps.” That’s all I remember now. Back in the day, there was a guy, a kid, maybe a girl, basically a young adult who didn’t know how to pronounce “shrimp.” We made fun of the person, to their face and behind their back, but it was always “srimp” and it’s a damn shame that after all the fun at someone else’s expense, I can’t remember anything other than “srimp.”

Funny now, how selective the memory can be. Maybe, after a time, most of a lifetime of real events that actually mean something and have lasting value, for the rest we just remember that one distinguishing characteristic we enjoyed the most.

In any event, our conversation on “shrimp” stuck, so today I was in Joey Franco’s old PW Market, a previously v. upscale market for our tony Castro Valley well-to-do. It was bought out by Safeway a few years back and has rapidly become JAS – just another Safeway.

Armed with that backgrounding, picture me now trying to figure out where I was going to locate their shrimp cocktail, if those little glass jars I used to buy as a college student even exist any more. I was near the meat counter, so wandered up to the display case and waited my turn for the meat person to help me.

“Hi, can you tell me if you stock shrimp cocktail?”

“What?”

“You know, those little glass jars of shrimp with the tomato cocktail sauce.”

“Oh, we don’t carry those no more.”

(pause)

“I see. Do you know if it’s stocked anywhere in the store?”

“We don’t carry those no more.” She waited for me to leave.

“Very well, then, what do you tell your customers who would like shrimp cocktail? Do you sell ingredients to make it?”

“You can buy shrimp.” She pointed vaguely to the glass case. I saw only meat in the case.

“Those.”

They had prepackaged cooked shrimp in various grades, in another case below where she’d pointed. She waited for me to leave.

“What about the sauce?”

Oh, those are over THERE.” She pointed to a display of bottled condiments. One brand said “Cocktail sauce.”

“These? These are for shrimp?”

“Yeah.”

I thanked her profusely for all her valuable time. At last, after all these years, another “srimp” mentality, a pudgy white girl with an unfocused expressionless squint who will lean on her glass case until they fire her, and then blame the world for our inability to recognize true quality when we see and hear it.

I picked out the medium grade size, looking fresh and in good condition. $8.99 for about a pound. I know from previous experience with the trots you want to avoid the small economy shrimp packages, because the meat is largely bits and pieces and you can’t tell the freshness or health of the specimens.

I took my shrimp and sauce to the checkout counter with the rest of my basket. The customer behind me said she always uses that sauce and she always adds lemon juice. She must have been an old PW Market customer. At least, a real human being. I thanked her.

As I wrote in a 1994 essay named “Lunch at Ten Fu:

“I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were.”

At home, I prepared my shrimp cocktail exactly as noted earlier. Best damned shrimp cocktail I ever had. And there’s enough for tomorrow too.

Alex

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Lunch at Ten Fu

reposted from the 1994 essay

Nothingness Nodules

I had an hour to kill while the Apple Computer dealer assembled and tested a new hard disk drive for me. Lunch, I decided, would be a good way to use up an hour, keep my mind off my worries about my computer files at home, and reward myself for having been up most of the night recovering the files from a “crashed” hard drive.

It was an oppressively muggy day, that sort of overcast day when the diffuse light steeps lifelessness into all the colors and makes everything look the same. A lousy day for a drive. Somewhere south on El Camino, I spotted a place calling itself “Ten Fu Chinese Restaurant.” It looked empty, perfect for my contrived, kill-time, contemplative mood. I hung a U-turn and pulled into Ten Fu’s “Parking In Rear” area. This doubled as reserve parking for tenants of the adjacent apartment. A circle of women were holding hands in the middle of the parking lot, communing in some deep spiritual ceremony. The uniformity of blissful smiles assured me this nest of beatitude was best left undisturbed. I pulled around the oblivious circle slowly, parked, and walked cautiously into Ten Fu.

The place seemed deserted. My watch said two-fifteen. Two waiters sprang to life while I waited by the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign. One asked if he could help me. “Is it too late to be seated?”, I asked cheerfully. He dead – panned it: no, sir, not too late, right this way, please.

I was escorted past huge tables for parties of eight or more. My waiter hid me at a little table, adjacent to a drab freestanding folding utility screen. This hid the little workstation where restaurateurs keep the clean ashtrays, toothpicks and ice water. I like to look around, but said this would be fine. There was only one other party in the whole restaurant. We were both on the same side of the folding screen, so they, and a vast expanse of undecorated red wall space, were my principal view. I ordered Szechuan Beef.

Soup came right away; with no time to warm it from the lunch hour “crowd”. It being Saturday, this might have been soup from Friday’s lunch hour. When my mind’s fogged from lack of sleep, I can understand how people who endure periodic bouts of chronic depression must dread knowing what the next bout will do to their attitude. I felt like that about my attitude. I hoped lunch would help. Even so, the soup was still lukewarm-lousy, compellingly evocative of those tired old speculations as to what they really put into this stuff. I sipped at it, tried to ignore the conference at the next table, and soon enough the soup was gone. Time: two-twenty-five.

It seemed there was just nowhere to rest the eyes in this place, but upon my pot of weak tea, a blank red wall, and that oddly inanimate conversation at the table next to mine. I pretended not to listen.

About eight American-born Chinese were talking about one or more church projects. Swell. At best, I am not generally a big booster of churches and church promotions. There was some question as to who would finance all the $20 Bibles which had to be passed out, and as to whether the recipients would get these Bibles up front, or be required to first complete a baptism. Just the sort of distraction I needed to fan my growing restlessness.

After a bout of eavesdropping like this, I will generally begin to feel I am inviting comparison to all those others who don’t cherish (as I do) that grand illusion of privacy. I mused as to whether these joyless folks would ever actually succeed in making one person’s life a little happier or more coherent with their programs and merit Bibles. Who would teach the recipients how to seek wisdom from these books, or seek solace in their words? Who would teach these teachers?

The trouble with everybody else’s religion in America is that those who “have it” are encouraged to substitute concrete literalness for thought, gospel for introspection, and advice-giving for self-examination. They may use the good words to hide from themselves and from their own souls, or they might use the words to manipulate and coerce others in ways the original manuscripters doubtless never conceived. Good old America: situational ethics, formula solutions. If somebody comes with a twelve-gauge to shoot my cow while she’s being milked, hey, what should I do? What should I say? How would the Bible handle this situation? “Plug it into the Bible”. Fractured ideas, disconnected from source or context, “thou shalt nots”, proscriptions and admonitions extracted out of context like so many fragmented files on my disk drive at home which has irretrievably broken its original directory.

In a short while, I get to go home, back up my recovered files onto my new hard drive, and rebuild my directories from scratch: clean slate. Proselytizers can show us the records, they can even direct us to the methodologies, but they can’t teach us how to live. Everybody should learn how to rebuild their own directories once in a while.

I realize I must be tired. I do not usually see myself as so smugly cynical, and it dawns on me that maybe I really am. Time: two-thirty. The Szechuan beef arrives, a generous portion, and warmer than the soup, too, with pork fried rice and topped with a large slab of yummy fried cookie and glazed egg roll. I’d never seen a luncheon garnished with the dessert before. I decide to see how much of the fried rice and beef I can eat by undermining its undisturbed cookie “roof” until the foundation collapses.

The distinguishing thing about the party at the next table, I decide, is that nobody is having a good time. They are not having a meeting after all. They are going through the motions of having a meeting, perhaps because they don’t know how to go about it, or perhaps because they are unwilling volunteers. There is nothing for them to do but let one woman, the apparent “leader”, decide on-the-fly what is to be done, and how she will want them to do it. She patiently instructs them on what everybody’s duties will be, and she does not appear to see any need to address any group member as an individual. I am reminded of grade school kids being herded during a fire drill. If these are missionaries, they’ll find no zeal here.

The conversation lacks any spark of spontaneity, with a carefully metered lifelessness, as if you and I are dividing up chores to mop up some horrible and very distasteful mess – and would really prefer not to be discussing this at all. Very much like discussions about the weather, the presumption of the participants must be that, if it isn’t already a nice day, conditions will eventually improve.

The “leader-lady” is counseling her group that she does not know yet what their brochures will look like, or how they will be printed, but that she will be able to determine what “will be needed” to make the brochures suitable, as soon as she sees the group’s completed effort, which she delegates. The participants’ stony downcast eyes tell the story. They evidently see that she’ll know what she wants them to do when she sees it. Nobody is looking at each other. I realize that this person has no concept whatsoever of how to plan a project, of how to enlist the aid and enthusiasm of the volunteers. The group realizes this too.

I think of the untold human effort which has gone into projects just such as this, based on the simple and flawless premise that life should be happy and purposeful, and that we should be able to find others who can pass on the distilled wisdoms from the discovery process, so we do not all have to re-invent everything from scratch. On the other hand, groups like this are solid evidence that perhaps we should, after all.

A younger man finally interjects with guarded enthusiasm that he has a computer program which could print the Chinese character sets directly onto their brochure. The leader lady ignores him, stating, for some reason, that no matter what the form of the brochure, it must leave space at the bottom for a name and a telephone number. I silently wonder why, imagining that perhaps the leader lady has already invested in a rubber stamp and ink pad, saturated with the blue-black ink of the ’50’s public libraries. Yes, by all means, leave room at the bottom of the form! The young man lapses into silence again.

I see that I shall be able to finish luncheon after all, and so cannot burn up a little more time waiting for a take-home container, or “doggie bag,” as we are so pleased to style it. There is not enough left to take home, so I eat the rest. Like these people at the Bible church group, I am here only because I do not yet want to be “there”, waiting (in my own case) idly for my new hard drive to be set up and formatted. Unlike the folks at the next table, I can look at my watch as often as I want. It is hard to say what they are waiting for, since nothing is happening here for them either.

I believe that we should always try to find a positive in every experience, but it seems unavoidable that every once in a while in life we will stumble across a little vacuum bubble in life’s fabric, a nothingness nodule, as it were. I can pay and leave Ten Fu’s at two-forty-five, and I do.

© Alex Forbes, La Parola July 1994

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Nuclear Night

A shattered night sky ripples and oozes ominously overhead. Strange glowing orange doughnut holes open up in the fabric of the heavens. Pulsing domes of dim red light glow somewhere over the horizon, flicker slowly, and finally fade from sight again. Our commander gets word this attack comes from no nation on Earth. Space aliens? He says we may as well try to get home. Let’s get out of this place. Wait, a dream? What a weird nightmare!

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The Bridge to Ever Was

Short story by Fred Leeds

Submitted for your more than routine consideration, one Charlie Smith, a reformed, once habitual alcoholic. That is how things seem from Charlie’s point of view anyway. To put it more truly though less charitably, Charlie is an alcoholic who is habitually reforming. Today, truth and charity will join hands at last, however, for Charlie has an appointment with destiny. The paper bag which he so casually carries will no longer hold its usual high-proof content but something else altogether. Today, Charlie will peer into his bag and bottle of false salvation and find a miracle.

Our curtain opens on Heaven, where two angels are discussing Charlie’s fate.

“There he is, stoned right on schedule,” says Angel One, who is acquainted with such things. In his days on earth, he had a certain taste for the grape, which he conquered through hard struggle. As he speaks, he pokes a bony finger through a celestial cloud and points to earth.

The cloud clears and Charlie appears, reeling down Main Street as usual.

“You’re right, by God, or should I say by the devil? He does seem rather hopeless,” says Angel Two. Continue reading

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Alien Hades

Furnace Canyon - the last 15 daysDay 13, Captain’s Log, Lieutenant Diem logging: We laid poor Captain Anderson to rest today in this hellish place. He died of multiple heat strokes despite the extra water rations and such precious shade as we could find. The ground here, if you can call it ground, is baked like bricks in an oven. The heat shimmers on the surface of this plateau at 122 degrees. There is scarcely any relief at night. Despite the TerraSat surveys they sent us before communications went out, there is no water to be seen anywhere. The men cannot go on like this much longer.

We buried the Captain in a small bowl-like depression in a clearing created by wind, weather and collapsing canyon walls, entered into the log in the graphic below. May the Lord have mercy on all our souls.

Where we left poor Anderson

Marching orders were for our party to proceed on foot to a blue ocean, said to lie to the south. Data based on the survey of just six months ago indicated drenching precipitation and cold temperatures. We dressed warmly and provisioned to collect water for a short journey of five days on the way. What are they smoking up there?

Having only been able to struggle in the overwhelming heat for a few short miles in two whole days, we entered the slot canyon to escape the heat on Day 3, via a bowl-shaped depression near the bottom of the strip map. By that time Captain Anderson had already suffered his first case of heat stroke.

One cannot even describe the hell of the next twenty days’ journey south (north is bottom). There is shade against the slot canyon walls at almost all times, but the air is stifling, lifeless and blistering hot. The canyon floors are filled with broken and fallen rock debris of all possible sizes. One must be SO careful in negotiating the rubble.

Captain Anderson had his next two strokes, the last one taking him mercifully in the pitiful shade of a narrow slot wall. We named it “Anderson’s Gulch”. It took all our energy to scratch out a shallow depression for a grave. A deeper one would have served little but tradition – there would be no creatures scavenging this horrible land, and nothing to scavenge if there were.

Food rations were exhausted two days ago, save for some emergency personal energy food packets. Water is down to a liter per man per day, and will be half a liter tomorrow, and few things are more horrible to contemplate than slow death by dehydration.

I have called a halt to the procession to make a camp of any kind just for the night. I have also sent two volunteers forward after dark to see if they can find any options for us around the next corner of the canyon, or the next, or the next after that.

Day 14, Captain’s Log, Lieutenant Diem logging: The volunteers returned, shortly after solar noon. They bore good news. There is an ocean there after all! We are saved! We will head south from camp (red spot) at once. At least now we know we can make it. Poor Captain Anderson, betrayed twice by bad information and inadequate provisions by our employer. Once home, you can bet none of THIS crew will ever voyage with this company again!

I have provided a link to a TerraSat image we were later able to download to see what our destination looks like from the air. You may view it below:

What the volunteers saw

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