by William Kamowski
Selby O’Faolain, “Sel” to his friends, family, and other listeners, was pretty much convinced that the common plastic grocery bag could be compressed in almost infinite numbers into an infinitesimal pocket of space. The physics of the matter was rather like the collapse of a universe into singularity, he would say. Only, he omitted in his simile the sequel to singularity—the expansion, the explosion, the Big Bang.
The storage bins in the basement were cramped with plastic grocery sacks stuffed into shoe boxes, corrugated cartons, coffee tins, and larger shopping bags from Kmart, Costco, Penney’s. When his wife complained that she hadn’t enough storage space for wine bottles and the wine she fermented, he would oblige: “I’ll just compress the bags down to four shelves. No sense throwing them out; they’ll be of use.”
Scoutmaster for Troop 19, he knew the value of plastic sacks on camping trips. “They keep everything dry, clean, and organized.”
As if to prove his theory of physics and demonstrate the principles of compactness in packing for a hike, he had just last weekend compressed 120 clear thin produce sacks into a Twinning’s tea tin strapped shut with a muscular inch-wide rubber band.
“One hundred twenty into six cubic inches of space.”
Twelve for each unimpressed Boy Scout.
His family was equally unimpressed by his physics, which seemed more fiction than science, and in any case, his physics didn’t explain the rest of the collection in the basement: the Styrofoam, the jiffy bags, gift wrap tissue in the cardboard drum, bubble wrap, bottle caps, egg cartons, spice jars, milk jugs, and plastic six-pack loops. Everything except the aluminum cans from the six-pack loops—the scouts got real money for those.
In politics and in theory at least, Sel’s older daughter, Reese, agreed with her dad about keeping the landfills empty. Even so, she was growing a bit unsettled by her father’s “storage,” especially after watching a few of those recent TV shows about hoarders.
Her father’s principal excuse for warehousing the unwanted universe wore ever thinner as he reused it: “I once followed one of those freelance recyclers in his truck to the landfill where he just spilled all his sorted materials into one big pit. They charge you to take away hazardous stuff and it just ends up in your bathwater two years later.”
“Really, Dad, there are other ways to recycle . . .” and usually Reese gave up at that point.
Kara Lee’s tolerance of her father’s squirreling had grown disaffected; her relationship with the basement was now over. She no longer went “down there,” not since the power failure on the eve of her twelfth birthday. Candle in hand (because Dad’s entire milk carton of flashlight batteries had gone dead), she was headed for the food storage and a jar of home-canned dills when her painfully creative imagination construed the headless horseman—and his head—out of the artist’s easel and a twelve-inch ball of used Reynolds Wrap on the tile floor. Then, too, there were those occasional wrinkling little voices from the bags as if they resented the pressure of their confinement. Her public excuse for avoiding the cellar covered her real fears: “It’s too dangerous to walk down there. There’s always some stupid bag about your feet to slip or trip on. These bags have taken over the country and now they’re taking over our house.”
Her mother had stopped asking her to retrieve anything from the basement, and when her father made the request, she simply chilled her glare at him in a way that made a spoken “no” redundant. She had leverage over him. She knew—and told him she knew—about all the other plastic bags downstairs, densely pressed and boxed, an entire wall of Safeways, hidden by the old dust-colored dining room drapes behind the leaning wall of magazines in the spare bedroom. It was enough leverage to keep him quiet about catching her trying to drive the Cooper Mini underage and without a permit. If her mom discovered those bags, Kara Lee figured, she might just purge the cellar next time Dad went backpacking with the scouts.
Which would not have been a bad thing, actually, but Kara Lee didn’t care because the basement was ignorable and, being as hazardous as she said it was, it saved her the trouble of fetching things. In her theory of domestic physics, a basement was an inorganic latrine; once you dumped something there, it was not to be reconsidered or retrieved. And really, when you had plumbing and garbage trucks, you didn’t need latrines or cellars. The furnace would fit nicely upstairs in the hall closet, where the paper bags were currently being sheltered from excessive moisture. As for the wine, you could buy it at the grocery store like normal parents did, and as for the environment, the real world would take care of itself if it truly was an ecosystem as its friends claimed it was. Anyhow, she thought, the environment outlasts all the people who die in it—and that’s everyone. You can’t die outside of the environment. It always wins. Totally wins.
Between debates over green living styles and wine drinking, dinner was often a strained affair. Merla’s dishes rivaled the recipes of elite French chefs, but the family palate was usually too scraped by argument to notice the riches of a boeuf bourguignon, let alone the subtleties of asparagus á la normande. Periodically, Reese raised the prospect of a vegan menu, though she never declined the coq au vin or canard rôti. Kara Lee ate everything indiscriminately until she discovered that canard was a duck.
Sel broke ranks with the hardcore “greenies” when it came to eating meat. “I was reading about a very revered community of monks—in Tibet, I think, or maybe Nepal, last week, was it? Tuesday, yes Tuesday—who maintain a vegetarian diet unless one of them gets sick. Then they feed their ill brother meat until he’s well again. Obviously meat is held in special value even by these thoughtful vegetarians.”
Whenever Dad turned pedantic at the dinner table, Kara Lee played the stubborn student. “Aren’t they the same monks who take only warm water for a drink? No milk, no juice, no coffee, no tea, and NO WINE?”
Kara Lee seemed just a bit envious that Reese, not quite twenty-one, was allowed a glass of Mom’s vintage at dinner.
Merla swirled her last splash of Sémillon. “Benjamin Franklin said that wine was sure proof that God loved humanity.”
“And so is a good pull of beef jerky on a mountain trail,” Sel chimed in with more relish than relevance.
A couple facts from last fall’s science class came back imperfectly to Kara Lee. “You know, we use up more energy raising beef and other flesh than we do driving our cars—and even more reducing umpteen pounds of brisket to twelve ounces of jerky.” This last tidbit from Kara’s own ready-made data.
“I believe,” Reese stung, “it’s the plastic bag that takes the most energy to make per gram. Oh, and we use three trillion of those things a year in this country.”
The wound was open. A moment of impromptu silence to let it bleed.
A siren and the rumble of an engine from the firehouse on the next block burst the moment.
Merla pushed back her chair, stepped lightly to the island countertop for the main dish, and returned to the table with a casserole of miniature ravioli in a white sauce blessed with nuances no one but she would likely notice.
Kara Lee was too busy noticing, once again, that Mom was wearing another dressy apron to dinner—like those prim-looking ladies who smiled the risqué remarks on the retro-fifties postcards. And wasn’t it some point of etiquette to remove the apron before sitting down to dinner? Who, besides Mom, had a wardrobe of aprons anyhow?
Sel tested the consistency of the pasta sauce and skipped the transition to his harping point—his mantra, Reese called it: “I just think if everyone kept all their packing and packaging for reuse and sent as little to the landfill as we do, we’d all be enjoying a truly green environment.”
“The bottom of our house is a landfill,” Kara Lee said, a little too late to cut him off as she liked to do.
A slight but distinct clap escaped from the basement through the door to the stairwell.
“Sounds like something fell over down there again. Maybe we need more shelves?” Kara Lee’s sarcasm was saccharine.
Saturday, the day after the dinner of ravioli and chocolate mousse, the entire wall of magazines collapsed into a slippery chaos. Sel was out, grilling hamburgers at a scout fundraiser in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Merla was the first to see the mess. Apparently the stacks had dominoed in reverse. The leaning pillar of Sierra magazines had gone down first, leaving the Outdoorsmans nothing to lean on. After that, the Rachelle Rays and Martha Stewarts slid together like two halves of a shuffled playing card deck, clearing the way for the Rolling Stones, Newsweeks, and unread hundreds of Paris Match. Beneath a melee of Cosmopolitans, the last to fall on the left, a few of many Maxims peeped out, leaving all the cover-girl cleavage at cross purposes with itself. Highest on the heap, the Cosmos seemed to Merla like a serendipitous feminist statement about “woman on top,” but she shuffled aside that thought when she noticed that the weighty National Geographics had spilled backwards to tear down the shabby old dining room drapes.
And there they were, forming another wall: a simple row of uniform cartons, as neatly, evenly stacked as a wall of cinder blocks. Too neat, too orderly, too OCD. She reached to lift one from the top of the wall but slid to her knees on a slope of Oprahs. Again she tried to lift one down, but it was surprisingly heavy. Its dusty cardboard sides slipped through her palms and the box landed sharply on her instep, split open, and pushed out a glimpse of its contents. After a minute of subsiding pain in her foot, she tugged from what must have been a thousand in that carton, a single Safeway sack, wrinkled like crape paper from the pressure of packing.
It would take fifty years of grocery shopping to . . . . The thought was too frightening to finish.
The magazines were the first to go—into the nearest four dumpsters in the alley—and just as she dropped the lid on the fourth dumpster, Sel drove the Cooper into the drive.
She’d never had a shouting match with him, let alone an orchestrated one, but that was the plan and the fury. After her opening rhetorical question about what was in the boxes, delivered in that low tremolo that prefaces so many parental tirades against small sinners, and after her crescendo into the shriller ranges, mostly she just screamed, while Sel blurted his total of a dozen words in five answers he never got to finish.
“Bags . . . so many uses . . . not much space considering . . . compressed . . . almost to singularity . . . .” This last remark from him weakened by a loser’s chuckle.
He said nothing after her finale: “And stuff them so far down some black hole that they come out in somebody else’s universe.”
Another cube of infinitely dense Safeway poly bags fell from the wall and split, the white plastic crackling, puffing outward from the wound in the carton like a mound of popping corn.
Sel spent his Saturday night removing half of an infinite number of plastic bags from the basement—half because, true to form, he did not set a pace that would have allowed him to finish that night. He was especially slow for having eaten four hamburgers in the afternoon, as had all of the growing scouts of Troop 19, to keep the surplus patties from going to waste.
Merla went out for the evening with Belle Jacobs and Melanie Smelt to the summer’s first blockbuster about avatars replacing administrative assistants, food servers, and customer service staff in post-industrial America. It was a little goodbye outing since Belle’s and Melanie’s families, neighbors on either side of the O’Faolains, would be off in a few days for a month’s vacation at their shared mountain cabin. Merla wondered skeptically how that would work out.
There are any number of reasons why one should not install ceiling fans in a basement—even a finished basement. The most obvious is that basement ceilings are low, and the taller, less attentive members of the household may find their eyebrows occasionally accented by a fan blade. According to Sel’s physics, however, the fans “cultivated” a fresher, less humid atmosphere and were less complicated than dehumidifiers. “Cellars don’t have to be dank to age wine,” he had said to Merla’s frown. A less compelling but equally good reason not to install ceiling fans in a basement is that, being so low, they swirl up very light, loose material—like Styrofoam peanuts, gift wrap tissue, and, well, plastic bags.
Opinions varied as to how exactly Sel met his death in the downstairs bedroom while clearing out the poly sacks. Drawn by a “bad feeling,” Kara Lee said, she went to the basement for the first time in a year and found her dad face down in a swamp of grocery sacks, one of them encircling his face tautly like blister packing. The indisputable and immediate cause of death was suffocation. But precisely how that had come about was subject to heart-sickening debate.
The redheaded police officer concluded that Sel had been hit by a fan blade while trying to free the fan of plastic bags, for the fresh bruise on his forehead matched the blades, which were left spinning at high speed on updraft. The hit on the head could have stunned him, perhaps even made him lose his balance, though it seemed unlikely that it would have knocked him out entirely. True, the officer admitted to his colleague, there might be a flaw in this theory since it would have been better to turn off the fan before freeing it from the bags, but, “Hey, a guy who’s got these fans in his basement to begin with—well?”
The bald police officer and the ambulance driver attributed the tragedy to the implications of four ale bottles—three newly emptied and the fourth almost so—in the one unlittered corner of the room.
The post mortem yielded some evidence of a mild “cardiac event” probably very shortly before death, which would explain how a seemingly healthy man would be unable to extricate himself from a smothering plastic bag.
Merla, in a dull, aching way, believed that she had bullied Sel to his death.
Reese, part cynic, but failed Stoic, could not get past the perversity of the accident and in her tears blamed the general perversity of . . . but she wasn’t sure what.
Kara Lee was sure. The bags had killed her father and, by way of proof, she fixated on an odd detail: a plastic sack wound around the switchbox for the timer that governed the fans. “It’s the bags . . . They killed him . . . I’ve heard them . . . Talking . . . Through the vents, I’ve heard them . . . They killed him.”
In the week following the cremation and a scout-led memorial, the Prozac helped but did not cure Kara Lee’s anxiety or her occasional, apparent delirium. For her, the sound of the bags rustling around her father’s body persisted, joined by new sounds, some mere crinkles and cracklings, others thuds and snaps, plastic popping apart, more voices—all from “down there.” The most troublesome noises, Reese thought, were not the ones that her sister believed she heard but those that Reese and Merla noticed.
A little over a week after the memorial came a run of windy days when the house, filled with sounds, seemed somehow vulnerable, especially with Sel gone. Still distracted by her grief, Merla became especially unsettled when the wall phone went out, presumably because of the winds, until Reese reminded her of the obvious—that they both had cell phones.
Merla was about to take down the wind chime—it had been tinkling steadily for two days—when, outside the kitchen window, she saw it fall from its hook, the suspension string snapping in an exceptionally strong gust.
Half an hour later, it was Reese who said, “There goes that wind chime again.” Merla heard it too, twice, and knew it was not the wind chime, but a tinkling from the basement. Now she wondered if she’d been hearing that sound before the chime fell . . . yet no, couldn’t be, must have been the chime, wasn’t it, till now at least?
Reese was helping her in the kitchen with the dough for baguettes and a dozen hard rolls. Merla mimed a sign for Reese to go with her to the basement, not wanting to alarm Kara Lee who was redecorating her toenails in the breakfast nook.
“It’s probably just the glass jars settling out in the crates,” Merla figured aloud but doubtfully, as she led Reese down the steps.
The tinkle again—wine bottles, not jars. Disengaged by Sel’s death, Merla had left her last batch of Cabernet, newly bottled, upright and randomly set across the shelves in the storage bin.
Here and there on the way to the bin, she swept aside a stray bag with the edge of her sandal. In the bin, the bags were everywhere, ankle-deep on the floor, and perhaps a dozen caught, or slung, by their handle loops over the wine bottles. One bottle of Cabernet lay on its side, cork end precariously far off the edge of the shelf, with a Rite Aid sack hanging from its neck like a gymnast from a pole.
As Merla righted the bottle, a draft called her attention to an open window. She offered the explanation that both she and Reese needed to hear: “The wind must have blown the sash open and trapped all the loose bags in here. I just can’t bring myself to clear them out . . . . It would be like pushing your father out of . . . . Your dad said the latches needed replacing—oh, and the screens need to be put in.”
“And the fans were on in the other rooms,” Reese added, as if to bolster her mother’s rational explanation.
Merla closed the window, turning the latch which didn’t seem especially weak or loose. Reese went to switch off the timer for the fans, then returned. The bags, left as they were, everywhere, settled quietly at the bottom of the creaking house.
“Let’s finish the bread.”
The baguettes were cooling on a wire rack on the butcher block, the rolls had browned, and Merla had just opened the oven door to remove them when the vibration in the kitchen floor signaled that the fans had turned on again below. From the doorway to the cellar stairwell, the whoosh became audible as the bags stirred. And then . . . the tinkle at first, and seconds later a burst of glass, then another, and another.
Once down the steps, Reese lost the scent of baking bread and caught instead the fruity fumes of wine. In the bin, bottles of Cabernet had fallen to the floor, most of them broken; a couple intact, having landed on a veritable cushion of plastic sacks.
Reese re-latched the window that had opened again, shook her foot to escape a bag that wrapped itself about her ankle, and called in a near shout, “Mom. The wine, the bags . . . .”
Merla left the oven door open and was on the stairs in a moment, but in another moment it was over. Her left foot slipped on a Walgreen’s bag, and her right foot, working to catch her balance, caught in a handle loop of the sack. She pitched forward down the stairwell to the tile floor, her neck twisted absurdly, her forehead fractured over her open grey eyes.
Reese stumbled through the bags out of the storage bin toward her mother. She knelt, then bent to touch her mother’s brow when a sack fluttered down over Merla’s face. Reese’s usually measured response to all that was tense, even terrible, gave way to a nauseated horror and scream that brought her sister to the top of the stairs, then, tentatively, halfway down to see the catastrophe at the bottom.
“No no no.”
Reese and Kara Lee were almost keening together in that futile passion of family members weakened by the shock of sudden death, until Kara Lee began to scream in pulses. “It’s them, it’s the bags, I’ve heard them, I told you I’ve heard them, it’s them.”
Reese spotted what her sister had already seen from the stairs—the bag tangled about her mother’s sandals. It seemed to her, suddenly, that Kara Lee, crazy Kara Lee, was right. The bags had somehow killed their father and now their mother. She flailed at them in lame, pathetic swipes of her hands, and more of them swirled up toward the nearest fan, along with gift wrap tissue from the open cardboard drum. She tore at the sacks wrapped about the fan blades. One blade broke loose and fell to the floor. The fan spun roughly, unbalanced, as if it would rock its way out of its base in the ceiling. She ran to the windows at both ends of the rec room, yanked them open and began tossing sacks in a sob-choked rage through the windows. But the stream of sacks never stopped, so many of them had burst from their cartons and scattered since Sel had died.
The fan, now a spastic, three-armed scarecrow, tangled up the poly sacks and tissue; the motor grunted and the sparks from its housing told of a shorting circuit. The tangle of tissues and bags flamed up and shriveled into a sour smoke.
From midpoint in the stairwell, Kara heard her sister choking. She started down the last of the steps to help Reese, pushing against her fear of confronting her mother’s body, when she sensed smoke above her as well. A single bag crinkled at her, curled over her fresh blue toenails. She turned round and pumped her legs up the steps as if she were escaping a snake pit.
With its door still open, the electric oven glowed at full heat, burning the rolls into an acrid smoke. Kara tried to clear her thoughts in the gray air. Close it. Close the oven. She slammed its door shut and punched the “cancel” tab on the top of the range. Good. Safe. Now. . . But at that moment, from the basement, through bitter haze came a faint, muffled gurgle, and then a stifled moan, and finally what seemed to Kara like a great whoosh of wrinkling plastic.
She thought of the wall phone, then remembered that the land line was out from the wind. Her own cell had dropped somewhere in the basement on the night Dad had died. Reese and Merla kept theirs on their hips, but another trip to the basement for a phone seemed an impossible option. She thought hopefully of the Jacobs and the Smelts who lived on either side but, as she started out the patio door, remembered that they had left for the mountains after the memorial. With the patio door open, drawing out air, a few of the sacks drifted up and out of the stairwell into the kitchen. A breath of smoke hit her throat first. No sooner did she catch enough air to scream than she found her fingers tearing away a sack that had sucked onto her face like paper to a vacuum cleaner hose. Once free of the sack, eyes burning, blurring, nearly closed, she slapped her hands along the kitchen wall until she felt the corkboard where the keychain for the Mini was looped over a push pin. In the car she would be safe, could hit the horn for help, for someone, anything, or, better, yes, drive up the block to a neighbor. Safe from THEM. Get help for Reese.
Kara Lee didn’t know that it was already too late to help Reese. The smoke in the basement had not been enough to overwhelm, but in her rage Reese had inhaled a choking cloud of it and, momentarily disabled, had dropped to the floor for clear air that she sucked in convulsively—along with a clear thin produce sack that stoppered her gasp far down her throat.
Perversely, Reese would have said, the circuit breaker for the fan kicked out seconds too late to save her. The sparks and flames from the fan sputtered out, and the gusting wind shot through the basement, clearing the smoke and most of the swirling bags out the east windows in clusters, like broken cumuli sailing across the front yard.
In the driveway, Kara Lee pushed the remote, opened the door to the Mini, and dove into the driver’s seat. She didn’t know whether she or the wind slammed the door behind her. Brake, clutch, neutral, turn the key. Yes. Across to reverse. Clutch up. The Cooper lurched into a stall. A swirl of sacks tumbled like weeds up the windshield and over the roof.
Clutch down, key, lots of gas, screw the clutch, pop it.
The Mini banged into reverse so hard that she had to clutch and brake to avoid bolting into the street.
“Just up the block to the Reynolds—always home,” she told herself. Away from THEM. Calm, calm, drive,” she shivered aloud. “Calm. No mistakes. Save Reese. Drive.” The wind was now roaring through the poplars so that she could not hear the engine or even sense the clutch engaging, but the smoother motion in reverse told her that she’d got it right this time.
Before she reached the street, she glanced to the right. No one coming. The wind slapped a cluster of plastic bags across the windows on the driver’s side. When she looked left, she saw, pressed flat against the pane, only white plastic and the words “Safeway Ingredients for life.” She took that for a good omen, listened for a short second, heard nothing but the wind, and accelerated into the street.
She did not see, and perhaps hardly felt, the recycler’s truck pushing the speed limit from the left.
Racing from just a block away, the fire engine team was the first at the scene, but it was instantly clear to them that the ambulance coming for the girl in the Cooper would be only a formality.
“I’ll check the house, see if anyone’s home.”
“I’m guessing no one is, unless they’re deaf, and it looks like the neighbors from down the block are already at the doorbell.”
“Was she even old enough to drive?”
“Hard to tell. Doubt it—the way he’s saying she pulled straight out in front of him. ’Least he called right away. ’Course, we heard the crash from the station, but the 911 told us where exactly.”
“Something smells like an old fire. That from his truck?”
“And what’s with all the bags? They’re swarming like mad hornets roused from their nest, and look at them all wrapped about that phone line by the roof.”
“Must have blown out of the truck. Worst things ever born of modern technology—harder to get rid of than an oil spill. Like to pull one over the head of the guy who invented these flimsy things and tell him to breathe in the consequences.”
“Too late, don’t you think? More of them nowadays than people.”