Another day of work in the can. Another day smarter. What a lucky job Bob has at the landfill. Pays great, feels great, and smells, well, it’s not just women that can’t have it all.
It’s Thursday evening, which means l’chaim, which means burgers with Tanner, who works at the landfill in the next county over. At Bob’s approach, the yellow jagged doors of the Lightning Burger Bar open automatically. Inside is dark and dusty with televisions in various corners playing various sports. It’s too dark to tell where Tanner is sitting, but Tanner must be there somewhere, he’s always on time, so Bob walks around to find him, poking his head around every boozer at the bar, into every booth beyond the pool tables. But Tanner’s not here. Bob texts him: Whereya? and then Grabbing a booth. Tanner always makes them sit on stools at the bar, but Bob prefers the booths, and Tanner’s late, which never happens, so it’s Bob’s day today.
The joint straddles county lines, but the address is in Bob’s landfill’s district, meaning all the half-eaten burgers, stale fries, and bags of moldy cheese go to him — to his landfill, not his stomach, of course. Tanner always eats every lick on his plate so that “You don’t get any of this, no way.” That is, when he shows up, and where is he? There’s been no response.
Bob goes to the toilets to stall and think. There are two single-person bathrooms; one locked, one free. In the free one he thinks about today’s trash haul: unremarkable: no spills, no needles, no body parts. A few pages of the National Enquirer and the Washington Post business section fluttered down to his feet and he learned about a NASCAR driver so heartbroken he crashed a race on purpose, and how Cryptocurrency is Going Wild, and why Kelly Clarkson can’t handle her mother-in-law’s meddling, and how suicides are up at Somerset University, and a map of all the gas stations impacted by a cyberattack.
Not the best catch. Last week he got the opinion sections from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Opinion sections are the best, or those magazines that are all opinion: socialist, libertarian, freeganist, Trumpist, he loves them all: in his landfill. He hates reading online, much preferring to skim when they land at his feet, absorb their contents, and move them forward to the landfill, to be later squashed, buried, and stuck through with pipes, so their energy can be captured, condensed, purified into methane, and sold. Bob’s brain has grown ten times since he started.
Bob’s sitting on the toilet, releasing his own methane. He’s sure the gas station cyberattack will come up tonight. Tanner will mention it eventually, so Bob will mention it right away to have a leg up. Splash. He’ll laugh about how he’ll never run out of gas with the landfill gas plant here to provide, and Tanner won’t be able to say the same: they convert all their gas directly to electricity. That’ll lead into their inevitable argument about whose landfill is better. Tanner’s landfill has been converted into an indoor, fully sealed digester system, with different silos for the different categories of organic waste, all of which gather different gases and convert them into electricity, which itself powers the nearby Somerset University. Bob’s landfill is open air on one side and buried on the other, with pipes stuck into the buried parts for methane. Tanner always talks about how good everything smells near his silos, but Bob laughs and says, “You probably like the smell of your own farts, too.” And at least landfills are honest about what they are. Those digester silos might look fine, but they end up in the middle of everything, hiding their truth: trash. The campus is powered by its own farts. Splash splash.
Bob wipes, flushes, scrubs his hands clean. With a newly empty stomach, his hunger emerges. He forgot his lunch in the car today, a peanut butter and jelly cut in half thanks to the old ball-and-chain. Beautiful woman, he loves her, she can cook up a storm but she can’t make a good sandwich. Maybe he left it in the car on purpose, subconsciously, letting it get melty in the sun, even more unappetizing, so he would be good and hungry for his Thursday night burger with Tanner.
But Tanner’s still not there and hasn’t texted back. He’s fifteen minutes late now. The server brings Bob a beer menu, burger menu, fry menu, ice cream menu. The weekly special is a raspberry beer and a peanut butter burger, which don’t look appealing, but he’ll order them anyway. Once Tanner gets here, that is.
Their landfill fight happens every week, if not during burgers then at the end of the night before they leave. Bob prefers when they argue right away so he can wash it down with a beer, go to the bathroom, and piss it out. When they argue at the end of the night, he’s left angry and with a raging need to pee during the entire twenty-minute highway drive home. Tanner never seems as angry as Bob, though. Tanner is calm and never smells either.
Tanner’s grown ten times snootier since he started at the Somerset landfill plant, but not just because he claims his trash digester silos are better than Bob’s buried landfill pipes, but because he gets free classes with Somerset University, which he takes online during the weekdays and in person on weekends. The two of them failed out of college together way back when and always said they’d have each other’s backs: when Bob got his first gig as trashman, then moved up to that landfill in Montgomery County, and realized how good it was, he gave a hand to Tanner to work with him there, which led to Tanner’s great job today. Now it’s like Tanner forgot all about that. If they don’t get their landfill fight out of the way early, Tanner will inevitably end the night, just as Bob is pulling out his keys and putting on his jacket, by saying: “See you next Thursday, have a good week at the laaaandfill.” He says it in such a way that Bob knows Tanner’s looking down on him, because he draws out that word and says it like he’s plugging his nose. So tonight Bob’ll bring up the gas thing early so they can get it out of the way, and if he’s up for it maybe he’ll bring up the suicide thing, too, from the news, If Somerset’s so great, how come all the students are killing themselves, huh?
The server is here asking what Bob wants to eat, he’s been sitting there twenty minutes now, so he orders an appetizer of fries, which he’d get on the side of his burger, so he may as well order the burger but just eat the fries in the meantime until Tanner gets here, then he’d even share some of his fries, because Tanner will be hungry, getting here late. “I’ll have the beer special and burger special,” he says to the server, “please,” wishing it’d be the kind of thing where he wouldn’t have to order, wishing that they’d recognize him, because he comes every week once a week, so they should know he always orders the beer special and burger special and is always pleasantly surprised by the burger special and disgusted by the beer special but he’ll always give it a shot before switching to Coors. But he doesn’t recognize this server, a pimply teenager who might not be old enough to serve beer yet, nor does he recognize the others, because they switch all the time so there’s no point in getting to know them anyway. He wonders if this kid goes to Somerset University, he looks like the type: nerdy; he wonders if this kid read about the suicides, if he’s thinking about it himself. He wonders where Tanner is, if he knows about the suicides, if he ever saw any of the kids that offed themselves, seen them from a distance, or maybe in person in one of his weekend classes. He wonders if Tanner regrets buying a minivan full of kids he doesn’t want, or if Tanner wishes he had found a different job away from trash, or if Tanner wishes Bob didn’t get him that landfill job way back when, or if Tanner wishes he hadn’t flunked out of college in the first place, if Tanner wishes he and Bob hadn’t wasted all that time skipping classes to study drugs and go to Mexico, where Bob met his beautiful, beautiful soon-to-be wife, got her pregnant, married her and brought her back here, with Tanner moving back, too, to marry the high school prom queen. He wonders if Tanner blames his prom queen wife for making him work a nine-to-five, making him get his act together and be responsible, or if Tanner thinks about all the ways those kids offed themselves, with their dad’s rifle or a bottle of sleeping pills or a car in a garage, and wonders which would be easiest, and wonders what his prom queen wife would do if he did it, if she’d miss him or what.
The burger arrives covered in waffles fries; Bob picks up a fry, but there’s no ketchup and the server has already sprinted away; so he lifts the top bun of the burger, it’s soft and buttery, leaving a thin film on his fingers; and on top of the burger is a layer of peanut butter, into which he dips the french fry; it’s delicious, a spicy peanut sauce, and warms everything inside him; as always, it’s not what he expected, but as always, tastes amazing; he can’t help but wonder what it would taste like on the burger, how the spicy peanut sauce would soak in between flecks of ground beef, tenderly roasted, and drip into the pretzel bun below.
His stomach is raging now, hunger awakened by the first taste of french fry, and needs to be filled, needs a world of food, a thick juicy hunk, to satiate itself. He takes a sip of raspberry beer and gags it back into the glass. The pimply kid runs back by with an empty glass and a half-eaten burger on a platter, an outrage; Bob holds back the temptation to grab the platter from the kid and shorten its journey between here and Bob’s domain. But he doesn’t, this burger will end up at Bob’s landfill because the address is in his county, not Tanner’s; it will be loaded by a truck on Monday morning and Bob will watch it fall into the trash pile, later to be moved underneath the earth and buried on top, with gas wells stuck in, so everything inside, smushed, no oxygen, will break down anaerobically, releasing that sweet sweet methane into Bob’s pipes, be carried into Bob’s landfill gas plant, to go through the process of refinery and purification and come out as gas that will drive him to Lightning Burger on Thursdays with Tanner. A crash of glass by the bathroom: the pimply kid has slipped and dropped the platter, empty glass done for, burger everywhere, a huge piece of glass stuck in the kid’s palm, not bleeding, just stuck with glass, and the kid stares at it for a full ten seconds before he howls and runs to the single-stall bathrooms, but both are taken, so the kid says “Aw come on, man!” and runs to the kitchen.
It’s seven-thirty now, Tanner’s never been so late, Bob begins finally to worry, he hopes he didn’t jinx Tanner into killing himself, he’s really convinced something’s wrong now, as he hears the pimply kid’s muted howls—yelling from the kitchen “If this doesn’t kill me, I’m gonna kill myself!”—as a cook pulls the glass from Bob’s hand. No text from Tanner, no nothing, no cowboy-style entrance through the door, and he wants to cry, but he’s also starving, and if Tanner did kill himself, then it wouldn’t kill him if Bob took a bite of a burger: you can’t die twice. He picks up the burger and rotates it in his hands, wondering which will be the best bite, just one bite, rotating it like the trash rotates through the earth beneath him, like when he’s standing at that methane valve, when he watches it all come in, the refuse of the entire county, countless lives, a million ideas, a billion opinion pieces that combine and transform into Bob’s smart brain, thinking of suicide, of cyberattacks, of Kelly Clarkson, he’ll turn a valve and let it in, he won’t have a reason to kill himself with a shotgun or a bundle of pills, he’ll have everything he needs, then he’ll go home to his beautiful wife, while Tanner, will Tanner do anything again? Will Tanner know from the grave that Bob disgraced his death with a burger? But his hunger is killing him now, really killing him. Bob takes a bite.
That’s when the bathroom door opens, and Tanner emerges, bringing his bathroom stink with him.
Later, Tanner’ll tell Bob he had to go so badly he left his car open with the key inside, which some kid took and drove off. And Bob will soften his pride and search for Tanner’s car with him, driving around in Bob’s convertible-in-theory until they find it in a ditch two miles down, where Bob’ll get out of the car, put his arm around Tanner’s shoulder, and raise his hat to the junk yard that just won a big score, before he drives Tanner home and tells him he’s grateful that it’s a car, not one of them, lying dead in that ditch tonight.
But now, as bad beer and good burger mix in his mouth, a mixture of disappointment and relief, Bob smiles and says, “So that’s where all the gas went.”