“Dumpster Lives” * Fiction * Yash Seyedbagheri

I like sorting through the dumpster behind my apartment every night. I inhale possibility and pungency, moldy cheddar cheese, dying pizzas. I examine discarded items with tenderness, even if I must crane my neck. There are boxes for flat screen TVs, crumpled cartons of Bud Light, blue and white arresting my eyes. Old newspapers. Styrofoam and crumpled cardboard. Discarded garbage cans. But there’s also a crumpled joint or two and a couple Michelina’s TV dinners with their soothing green boxes. Stroganoff, Salisbury steak. A simulacrum of Mommy’s home cooking without the nagging.

It beats sterile white walls, with no records of my past or present. Walls without pictures of loved ones. No awards. Fridges without care packages, but rife with onions, raw and without pretense. A box of Cocoa Puffs, rife with the crunch of childhood that never was. Bedrooms without posters of cultural icons. I like Larry David, but that’s not someone you plaster to your wall. Besides, there’s something contrived about plastering pop culture to the wall. It just seems like the worst kind of pandering to popularity.

When I make my dumpster run, I step out of that world and into a sort of Nancy Drew-like being. It’s Nancy Drew and The Case of The Dumpster Relics. I feel power, sneaking to the dumpster in the still of night, with only the moon and stars as witnesses, along with the occasional resident. But they don’t give a fuck. I love the mere act of moving from room to courtyard and parking lot, round the buildings to the turd-brown dumpster on the west. It holds daring.

My sister Nancy would have liked this notion of dumpster runs, before she discarded her identity and became Tsaritsa Alexandra, three years ago. She stopped speaking to me, discarding the old nicknames, Nicky, Saint Nick.

I wonder if the other residents toss these items with arbitrary coldness. Or do they throw these objects away with shame? Shame at drinking cheap beer and being marked? Guilt at needing a flatscreen TV to fill empty walls? Do they crumple their still mintlike joints to hide their sorrows? Why do they do this? Is it idiotic social convention? Have their parents told them don’t watch TV, don’t eat TV dinners? Perhaps these items are all reminders of their parents. Of their broader pasts. Perhaps they drank Bud Light because their fathers did and they hated and yearned for them. Maybe they read The New York Times because it was Mom-approved. Maybe they’re releasing things with slow anger, years of pent-up feelings blowing up.

I’ve thought of plastering the walls with lit mag rejection letters and workshop critiques, but it’s just another representation of things the world’s taken. This piece is not for us, the letters proclaim. Just say it. You dislike my material. But I can’t even find the strength to stare the rejections in the face, to go mano-a-mano with them. I can’t make myself a Romanov or some other fantastic being, as Nancy has.

I try to email her. Tell her I love her. Lose myself in dumpster hunting. Silence, as usual.

I’ve thought of buying picture frames with smiling stock families. Mom and Dad in glasses, probably professionals. The sorts who wouldn’t burn the house down and drink when their son was a senior in high school, their daughter in college. In the best stock photo, there’d be a sister with a slightly snarky smirk. Stock sister would probably be a lovable asshole or a nerd in cat-eye glasses.

But it’s a lie. I’ve lived without so much, thanks to mothers who set the house on fire, convinced that the world laughed at her. Don’t forget drunk fathers who fulminated about life being a jungle. Older sisters who claimed and still claim to be reincarnated Romanovs and disappear. Love, what an easy word to proclaim, as Nancy always did.

“We’re together in all this,” Nancy had said once. “Fucked up and together.”

“Fucking A,” I said. We’d raised beers. Cheers. I was on the cusp of starting college and we’d swiped some of Dad’s Fat Tires.

“You’re a nerdy fucker,” Nancy said, smirking.

“Well, look who’s talking,” I said. “You’re the one who plays the piano.”

“At least it’s constructive,” she’d said. We’d been at the site of our old home, now a pile of crumbling beams and gaping holes. In a few months from that date, it would all be destroyed, the physicality of it, anyway.

“Isn’t music just a reminder of the past? Of things that never were?” I said. “Composers lamenting that they had syphilis and all that?”

“At least it’s honest and true,” Nancy said. “Take actors. They illuminate others’ flaws and fucking mistakes, but they don’t get in touch with their own. I mean with music, you can have permission to cry. Just fucking cry.”

Of course, I haven’t seen her in three years. Right before I started graduate school. The last time, she insisted I call her Your Majesty and kiss her hand. She was the tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna, she said. She’d insisted on being called that in several emails before she came to visit, but I’d just laughed it off. Nancy always had the odd sense of humor, someone who openly laughed at videos of train crashes when we were younger.

We were in a Chick-Fil-A, which she’d agreed to with reluctance. She spoke only of resuming her rightful position and crushing subversive elements.

“Come off it,” I’d said. “Talk to me, Nan.”

“What impudence,” she’d said. She was decked out in some tacky white gown, too ugly for Nan, lips pursed. The place smelled of sizzling chicken, fry grease overwhelming me.

She meant it.

“I love you, Nan.”

“Your Imperial Majesty,” she said. “Have you no sense of decorum, sir?”

“Decorum? You’re dressed up as a dead empress. Come back to me, Nan.”

“Gendarme,” she’d called to a cashier. “Please deal with this miscreant.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “I’m not a miscreant. She just thinks she’s an empress. She’s been through a lot.”

“What business is that of yours, miscreant?” Nancy said. “I’m the empress. What right have you to pry into imperial privacy? To expose one’s sufferings is a breach of decorum, impertinent. It is one’s own affair.”

Miscreant. A cold word. A grand one. Why couldn’t she have used a simpler term? Piece of shit, annoying? I wondered if she saw Dad’s brooding drunkenness in me or something more frightening, perhaps Mom’s madness. Maybe she saw madness in my efforts to be logical and she wanted a sheerly illogical logic. And yet, she inhabited the persona of a truly mad and incestuous royal family.

Then again, she always loved train crashes and Tchaikovsky. Darkness galore.

I think of the items at the bottom of that dumpster, the smell of rot. I think of its gargantuan volume, of the people trying to hide shame in their own identical apartments.  What markers are left in their homes? What do they lack?  What do their spaces reek of?

I imagine small luxuries, things out of place, like subscriptions to HBO or vibrators. Things they should discard but can’t. Sometimes, I try to catch a glimpse, but their windows are generally shut. I hole away in my room night after night, watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and laughing at Larry’s balls as he dissects arbitrary social convention and idiocy. I leave the curtains open. Let them look.

Yet it occurs to me one night that I react, but don’t act. This is all amplified by voices and slammed doors, by laughter drifting from upstairs apartments. At least they’re doing something, however fleeting. They’re interacting with the world. They’re taking things to the dumpster, taking some stock of their lives, however misguided it is. I crumple bills and receipts. I litter and don’t even toss them in the dumpster. On top of that, I don’t create a thing, except for my workshop stories. Sure, I submit, but only five or six places, then I wait for the urge to strike again. I don’t call out my classmates for forming their own post-workshop cliques. I don’t crash their parties with all the force of Napoleon invading Russia and declare myself popular. I don a weary smile, just retreat, refresh, retreat, refresh. Nancy would hate this, wherever she is. She would have, I should say. Maybe she’s in a similar situation now. Maybe she wants out. Maybe she’s sunk deeper into her role as the tsaritsa.

I try to email her again. Tell her about the dumpster. I sign myself off as dumbass, an old nickname.

Meanwhile, items pile up in the dumpster and old ones lay there. Pungency increases, moldy cheese clashes with curdled milk. But I keep staring at the items, a voyeur. Stare, ruminate, retreat. I keep emailing Nancy and receive cold notices that “this message cannot be delivered.” Love can’t be delivered? This is the world, I think, where throwing things out is the norm.

One night, I get a ladder. Climb into the dumpster. Retrieve cartons and boxes. Newspapers. Even the crumpled joints. Leave the garbage cans. I stuff them all into a bag. Of course, management promises punitive punishment for dumpster divers. But why? What’s the harm? What’s wrong with reusing old items, breathing life into them again? What are they concealing with their rules? I wonder if that’s what my sister wanted, playing the Tsaritsa Alexandra. Did she want to breathe joy into tragedy? Did she want to repurpose our lives and throw us away for the sake of repurposing? I want to hate Nancy, really hate her, but I can’t.  Maybe it’s easier to be an empress than to be a Botkin. Romanovs at least could cover up their idiocy with titles and pomp and pretense.

I guess I’d be the dumpster tsar.

I make a collage and festoon my empty living room walls. I nail each item with care, even though it violates the terms of my lease. Glue is just a fleeting salve and it all comes apart. Plus there’s a sense of achievement, a rhythm to pounding things with a hammer. A sense that something new is being birthed. Whack, whack, whack, a soothing sound, a Tchaikovsky symphony.

I arrange items with precision. Brown boxes clash with blue and white beer cartons, some still holding the acrid scent of spilled booze. Newspaper headlines about Trump clash with the promise of booze. Joints flip off Trump and promise a fleeting euphoria.  TV dinners promise instant edible gratification, juxtaposed against stories of walls and Mexico and more families abusing children. There’s a discordance to all this, something that seems natural, untrammeled by expectation. Reality, meet hope, meet reality again.

I wish I could conjure the old days when Nancy and I held fireside chats at night while Dad drank and Mom fought the world. We played Scrabble, coming up with the biggest words we could to describe our lives. Once Nancy came up with “malaise,” and I came up with “malcontent.” We outdid each other, trying to find the darkest words, laughed, awkward broken laughs.

I wish Nancy could see this wall of trash. I think she’d like it, appreciate the repurposing. Still no responses. Just messages sent back. Return to sender.

I vow to keep building this wall of trash. Until every single space is covered, every wall. Even the bathrooms. Nightly I’ll keep diving into the dumpsters, into a sea of sorrows. And I’ll grab sorrows and repurpose them with cold determination, squeeze sorrow, turn sorrow into something else.

Of course, the management will find out about this. They’ll make me take it down. Levy fines, talk to me, put it on my record. The dumpster diver of Stardust Apartments. But I’ll stand firm, defend my wall with force. I can’t explain its creation, its logic. They’ll never understand it. But that’s the way it goes, the order of things. An order I can only expose bit by bit. I’ve made something. I imagine myself, rising above my sister, on some plateau, looking down. Everything is so distant, but things take shape day by day, new pieces being filled in. Blurs become shapes, some grotesque, some beautiful. Smells linger. Skunk-like ghosts of joints clash with the rich, now rotten aroma of Swedish meatballs that still inhabits a TV dinner top. What smells will come next? The scent of burned things, of things that one can’t banish? Perhaps. Smells like sickening rubber? The smells of destruction? If it fits. I will save and build, save and build what I can.

This is life. Real life.

—About Yash Seyedbagheri—

Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. Yash’s work is forthcoming or has been published in WestWard Quarterly, Café Lit, 50 Word Stories, (mac)ro (mic), and Ariel Chart.

For more of Yash’s writing check out “Booze” and “I Like Beer.”