A Hard Truth About Waste Management

The family liked so much to flush their trash down the toilet that they sold their TV and used the money to buy three chairs to arrange in their upstairs bathroom. This was a time when flushing trash down the toilet was not uncommon, but this particular family’s enjoyment was rare. Where most families who resorted to trash-flushing were ashamed and frustrated, this family looked forward to the sight of their trash bins filling up. They would sit in their three chairs and watch their trash get sucked down into the hole at the bottom of the toilet, which had a permanent black ring smeared around it, and they would cheer and punch their fists together.

None of the three chairs in the bathroom matched in size or color or shape or texture. The family had driven to the shopping mall and split up, and one hour later each member returned to the parking lot, carrying a chair that cost exactly one-third of the price the pawnshop had paid for their TV. The father’s chair was dark brown with an electrical cord coming out the back. When he plugged his chair into the bathroom wall and sat down, he would feel small vibrations all over his shoulders and even around his knees, and he would wonder how he would ever manage to leave such a comfortable chair.

The mother’s chair was more like a swing than a chair. It hung from the ceiling like a swing and it swung like a swing, but it was very comfortable as well. The cushion was made of a mixture of gelatin and cotton, so every time she sat down it would shift around to make space for her, like a mold. The mother loved her mold cushion because she often carried a portable whiteboard in her pocket, which made her pants stick out in a direction most normal cushions couldn’t accommodate. She used the whiteboard to write what she wanted to say, having lost the ability to speak as a child.

The son’s chair was made of gingerbread, graham crackers, gum drops, licorice ropes, jawbreakers, chocolate bars, bubble gum sticks, candied fruits, lollipops and suckers, nougats, caramel cream cubes, honey roasted cashews, peanut butter cups, and a long crunchy board that tasted like balsa wood, not toffee. The cushion was cotton candy. The chair was covered in hairs and strings of dust and all sorts of sticky papers, but the boy sat in it every day and picked off little bits to eat while he watched loads of trash sink down the toilet and occasionally used the X-Tend-O plunger to unclog the drain without having to get up.

At first the family had simply tried to cut down on their waste by recycling it; they used banana peels as dishrags and plastic wrap as kindling, which turned the fires in the fireplace a blue-green hue they liked especially to make s’mores over. The mother began to use hot glue to string together small wreaths from the trash that accrued naturally in their home. She also tried cooking the pieces of paper they used to throw away. For herself she shredded the newspaper and mixed it into chicken broth. For the father she fried old post-it notes and spread asiago cheese over them to hide their messages. For the son she made unflavored chewing gum by churning tampon boxes and corn syrup, but he never used it, preferring instead to lick his graded homework assignments up and down, pour sugar and cinnamon and melted butter over every inch, and crumple the sheets into a ball that he would freeze and later eat for a snack on a hot afternoon.

The father finally put this diet to a stop when he noticed a Christmas card stuck inside a leftover flan. He called a family meeting that night.

“I’m putting this diet to a stop,” he said.

“It’s not our choice,” the son said.

He’s right, the mother wrote. Trash has to go somewhere.

“I don’t care. We’ll do what we have to do, but there will be no more eating of trash in this home. This is lower than dogs,” the father said, holding up the Christmas card on his fork.

They searched their home that night, looking for any holes or crannies to pack their trash into, but they quickly gave up and reconvened around the kitchen table; there was too much trash, and not enough space for it. The mother looked helplessly at her checkbook. Seeing this, the son decided to confess a habit he’d slowly picked up since the waste management tax increase was instituted.

“Sometimes,” he said, “when I don’t like dinner, I flush it down the toilet.”

He showed his parents how he would scrape his dinner off his plate and into the toilet, and how easily it was taken away from him. The mother put her checkbook back in her purse and started to cry.

“I don’t know where it goes to,” the son said, “but it’s free.”

“You’ve saved us a lot of grief,” the father said.

I’ve never been more proud of you, even if you sometimes don’t like supper, the mother wrote, wiping at her tears.

The family began trash-flushing the next day. They were the first in the city to try it in such a large scale. They gathered uneaten food and grocery bags and the bag from inside the vacuum cleaner when it got filled up, and they piled everything up to the rim of the toilet. The son pressed the flusher and watched the trash spin around in a circle, and then slowly lower. The father felt his stomach pull at its center; if the toilet broke because of this, he would have to buy a new one, which would cost at least twice as much as a certified 40-gallon garbage bin ticket. But the trash went down just like the son said it would, and they all clapped in surprise.

Look at it spin, the mother wrote.

Trash-flushing soon became a habit for the family; when they no longer needed something, it went into the toilet, and was taken immediately away. They felt this process had an uncanny resemblance to the way their bodies functioned, which made it vaguely Native American-feeling to them.

But their toilet was not designed for such large amounts of waste, and when the son complained that he was tired of having to crush his Diet Coke cans every time, the father went to the hardware store and made up a disease called Excretory Elephantitis; he came home that day with a wide-mouthed specialty toilet that could flush a low-top shoe with no jiggling. It was a pricey investment, but the son pointed out how much fun it provided, aside from its convenience.

“I’d do this even if we could afford garbage tickets,” he said.

To keep the water bill from going up, the family tried to use public restrooms when they could, and they agreed to flush their trash only twice a day, once at 4:00 and once at 10:00. This way they had something to anticipate all afternoon and all evening, and they could all share in the flushing together, which only seemed appropriate to them.

The 4:00 flush was the louder of the two. This was partly because the afternoons tended to collect louder sorts of trash, like cardboard slats and empty cans of hairspray, and partly it was because the family had been thinking of nothing but this 4:00 flush all day, and so they cheered rather loudly. They cheered when trash piled up so high they had to balance it by poking it with brooms to keep it from tipping over. They cheered when the mother got so sick from the combination of trash smell and a lavender Glade plug-in that she leaned forward and vomited in the soggy toilet bowl; she cheered this as well, writing out the sounds of her vomit on her portable whiteboard, and then clapping along with her son and husband. And they all three of them cheered when the toilet shook and made a wet belching sound after sucking down the afternoon’s trash, and a small gray animal popped out from the toilet and landed on the bathroom rug.

The animal shivered as the family cheered it on. It shook its leathery skin and curled around the graham cracker leg of the son’s chair.

The family agreed to adopt it as their new pet. They named it Bleachy, after the way it smelled. Bleachy was more beautiful than anything that had ever gone into the toilet, but no one knew what it was. After much consideration, the son decided that it was a small male cat.

When the family took Bleachy on walks around the neighborhood, other families stared and pointed at them. Trash-flushing had grown more widespread by then, due to the steep price of garbage tickets, but no other family bragged about it the way this particular family bragged about it. They outlined all the grease stains on their t-shirts with magic marker and group-hugged every time Bleachy coughed up a ball of their old trash. This was something Bleachy did very often, so the family trained him to cough into the toilet when he needed to.

The son suspected that Bleachy was beginning to understand how much fun putting trash in the toilet could be; even though he knew his pet cat had no concept of how much money they were saving with this new habit, he could see the way Bleachy grinned every time he hacked a Popsicle stick or poker chip into the toilet, and this was cheered loudly for as well.

But Bleachy soon grew to be emotionally needy in ways the family couldn’t satisfy. He ate all their food and cried all night. He constantly napped in the father’s massage chair, which caused the electric bill to go up, because he never remembered to turn the massage function off. He even borrowed the son’s sweaters without asking, which stretched them in strange shapes as Bleachy grew larger and longer.

One day, the son came home from school with a backpack full of pencil shavings to flush, only to find his mother perched on her gel swing in the bathroom, crying.

I’ve done a terrible thing, she wrote. I flushed Bleachy back down

“Well, he was very codependent,” said the son. “He was also too big for a cat.”

It was so strange. He told me that he missed his home. He asked me to flush him back down, so I did, but I think the toilet broke.

The son tried pressing the flusher, but it flipped down without the friction and resistance of a healthy flusher. The X-Tend-O plunger didn’t help, nor did the Ultra Sonic Air Hammer plunger that the family reserved for emergencies. The mother and son sat on their chairs and discussed how to lie to the father.

The bathroom smells so bad, the mother wrote when the father came home from work that day.

“Yeah it’s like toxic, none of us should go in for a few days at least,” the boy said. “Also Bleachy got hit by a car. You missed the funeral because you were at work.”

“Well, these things happen,” the father said. “Only it’s a shame that the bathroom’s gotten toxic.”

The father liked trash-flushing as much as his wife and son did, and he loved his brown vibrating chair and how it felt like small voices against his back, but more than either of these he valued his family’s safety. By dinnertime that night, he had locked the bathroom door and stuffed towels in the cracks, except where in the corner under the hinges he had inserted a flexible rubber tube, so they could occasionally check the air inside.

The door remained locked for eleven days.

When the father finally agreed to venture into the bathroom again, the family’s trash bins were hidden under triangles of trash. Spider webs netted the hallways and maggots took up the fridge’s crisper drawers. The family had dug a small outhouse in their backyard while the bathroom was indisposed, a four foot hole covered by the son’s Batman tent. Two neighbors had already moved away because of what the family’s reputation had done to the subdivision’s property value; one more had moved this past week, seeing the family’s trash pile up so fiercely against the living room window that the glass actually fractured, leaking out a black oil.

The father first strapped oxygen masks on all three of them. He then opened the door two inches and released a canary tied to his wrist, and shut the door. He counted to twenty and opened the door again, tugging his wrist back. The other end of the string had only the canary’s foot attached to it.

The son shrugged and opened the door.

Inside, lying across the counter, was a gray crocodile wearing a tan sweater.

Bleachy, the mother wrote.

“Motherfuck,” the father said.

“I knew you weren’t a cat,” the son said.

The mother stared at the wet pencil shavings littered along the crocodile’s skin and tried to understand.

“I got stuck halfway,” Bleachy said. “I had to come back or I would drown.”

I’m sorry, the mother wrote. I understand how you feel.

Bleachy lurched forward and locked his jaws around her throat and pulled up, dislodging her head. The son ran downstairs, listening from under the trash stocked in the kitchen corner as his father screamed, and then gurgled, and then fell silent.

The son eventually fell asleep in his crouched pocket of trash, still wearing his oxygen mask. He dreamed of stepping on dry leaves, when actually his brain was trying to warn him that Bleachy was munching his way toward the son. When he had eaten all the trash in the corner except for the credit card bill folded on the son’s head, he stopped and put his nose on the son’s bent knee.

The son gasped when he woke up.

“Don’t worry,” Bleachy said, “I’m not going to kill you.”

“Don’t kill me,” the son said.

“Listen to me. I’m not going to kill you. You’ve made some bad choices, but you’re young. You still have time to change.”

“Where’s my dad?”

“How would you like it if there was a big tube that poured someone else’s trash in your house? How would you like it if I took you away and made you cough in my toilet?”

Bleachy placed his teeth around the son’s calf and bit down as hard as he could, until he felt the bone underneath. The son cried out, looking at the new holes in his leg, his eyes cracked like crayon. The jaws came unclamped without a sound, and Bleachy turned and crawled away, out of the house, still wearing the son’s tan sweater. Filled with a feeling that was almost sorrow, he lifted his long gray head and breathed in deep, hoping to find a scent that would remind him of home.

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