Gil lay fast asleep on the hammock in the barn, his face pillowed against Max’s smooth, thick coat. The lights were off, and in the late-afternoon dusky, winter light, the figures entwined on the hammock looked like some monstrous, hibernating snow beast. Someone had turned the heat off, most likely by accident; the heat thermostat and the alarm system were side-by-side on the same wall. Gil’s breath, that is, the breath that escaped the confines of Max’s coat, rose in wispy tendrils mingling with the cold ambient air before dispersing its atoms at random. Gil breathed strong and steady and with purpose; the area of Max’s coat surrounding his nose and mouth was heavy with droplets of condensation. It was the breath of one knee-deep in REM sleep, working through the day’s problems with the help of divine guidance. Gil’s face bore an intense look which supplanted his usual innocent countenance and his eyebrows furrowed in concentration. He twitched as if throwing off some distasteful thought and buried his hands and face deeper in the folds of Max’s warmth. Max had grown considerably in the months since they’d rescued each other — Max from life as a vagabond, and Gil from loneliness and despair — giving Gil all the more surface area to burrow beneath.
Gil tossed his head vigorously from side-to-side. His dream angels must have been working overtime and what they revealed must have sat squarely on his chest, for he groped and clawed at it as if to eradicate some pain. The behemoth beside him did not jump, simply looked back at his master to see if all was in order, yawned, then laid his head down again. He returned to doggy dreamland just as Gil opened his eyes to see his brother staring at him.
“I didn’t hear you come in,” Gil said.
“That’s cause you don’t pay attention,” Robbie said. Max lifted his head and barked. He and Robbie cast appraising glances at each other. Gil patted Max’s hindquarters and, satisfied there was no threat, Max went back to sleep.
“Where were you?”
“Inside. Doin’ stuff.” Robbie inclined his head toward the house.
Gil stared at Robbie as if he were a mirage. He blinked his eyes hard and watched as Robbie strolled over to Marty’s drawings on the table. He thumbed through, studying them with intense curiosity before turning his attention back to Gil. “It’s a few days worth of work, you know.”
“Then why don’t you finish it?”
Gil shrugged. “It’s not that.”
Gil sat up and studied his brother’s face. He looked thinner than Gil remembered and his uniform hung limply on his frame.
“Was it hard?”
Robbie nodded, a grave look momentarily alighted on his handsome face.
“Are you home for good now?”
Robbie shook his head, barely perceptible. “I still have some things to do.”
Robbie sat down on Marty’s swivel chair and pushed off hard. The chair spun. Robbie pulled his legs in close and coasted to a halt. Since they were children, the Tirabi kids played this game, seeing who could spin the most times around with one push. Being the smallest, and the lightest, Gil got the most out of his spin and held the all time record at just under four complete revolutions. Robbie pushed off again – two revolutions.
Gil watched him as happy and sad duked it out in his belly. “Do you still love us?”
Robbie abruptly placed both feet on the ground and focused on his brother: “I’ve never loved anything more in my life.”
They eyed each other a moment and then Gil smiled, his lips set in a tight thin line. He thought he might cry.
“Get to work, little brother,” Robbie said, and pushed off as hard as he could. He tucked his knees in and was spinning around once, twice, three times, when the door opened and a cold blast of arctic air preceded Avery into the barn.
Avery stood, dressed for skiing, his nose dripping. He reached for the box of tissues on the table by the door and blew profusely. Gil bolted upright and, flush with excitement, barked at his brother.
“I can’t believe you’re blowing your nose at a time like this.” Gil pointed to the chair and stared at Avery incredulously.
“You have a better time?” Avery responded, following Gil’s finger pointing to the empty chair. “Maybe I should wait until it drips down the front of my coat and then do it.”
Gil looked at the empty chair before lying back down on the hammock. He blinked and stared at the ceiling drawing quick, raw breaths.
“Hey, what’s the matter?” Avery was at his side in a flash.
Water ran from Gil’s eyes, cascaded down to form small pools in his ears. Gil plunged a finger in each side to stop the deluge. Avery sat down on the edge of the hammock upsetting the equilibrium. Max groaned, but shifted his weight.
“Did you see something when you walked in?” Gil asked.
Avery looked around the room then shook his head.
“You didn’t notice anything strange?”
“No.” He felt the edge in Gil’s voice and a chill ran up his spine. He looked around uncomfortably, the breath from his mouth coming forth like giant billows of white smoke.
“I do notice the heat’s off,” Avery said. Gil shivered involuntarily and huddled closer to Max for warmth. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”
Gil looked at his brother for a moment and buried his head in Max’s fur.
“I’m not sure.” The voice emanating from the fur was timid and full of uncertainty.
Minutes passed and Avery was beginning to wonder whether Gil had fallen asleep, huddled beneath a blanket of fur, when without warning, Gil bounded from the hammock, dropping Avery to the floor and leaving Max to swing in the breeze.
“Stay, Max.” Max whined, but Gil stifled him with a look. The dog put his head down on his paws and watched as his master zipped up his coat and donned his gloves and hat, the one with the jingle bells on it.
“Let’s go skiing,” Gil said. And before Avery could answer, he was out the door.
The tractor ran at a cruising rate of seven miles per hour through the woods. Gil and Avery arrived at the back side of the landfill in ten minutes. The Stahl’s had never put a fence around this side of the fill, a trash picker’s mecca, if there was anyone interested in picking trash.
Avery cut the engine, set the brake and hopped off. He grabbed a shovel and handed Gil one. Avery groaned. The thought of digging through trash made his stomach queasy. For some strange reason, it had relaxed his father.
Avery pulled a pair of leather work gloves from his back pocket and dug a few test holes, looking for buried treasure. Some worthy items lay scattered on top: a computer monitor, a box of clothes, a pair of sneakers. This was the newer part of the landfill that Jim Stahl, Jr. had worked toward the end of his reign – before EPA shut him down last year – and much of the trash still retained its original shape. In some of the older parts the refuse had already turned to sludge. Gil said the TDU could handle the sloppy mess, but Avery wasn’t sure if his nose were up to the task so he stuck to things that looked like earlier versions of themselves. He loaded trash with speed and dexterity, musing over the potential the TDU had to eliminate landfilling in his lifetime and thinking about Jim Stahl, Jr., their neighbor, and the son of the man unwittingly responsible for providing them with this bonanza of refuse. Like a miniature volcano, the landfill burped, releasing a pocket of foul-smelling methane gas into the ambient air. Avery jumped, coughed and covered his nose. Gil giggled.
Gil could feel rather than see the aquifer, bubbling as it flowed beneath the landfill, a toxic soup thick with carcinogens as unpronounceable as they were hazardous to the health. He stood up, stretching the last hour’s hard labor from his chicken wings. He planted the shovel in the ground and gave the area another cursory view. The trailer was already heaping, but Gil spied a box of recyclables, plastic bottles and aluminum cans, and couldn’t leave without them. Made from petroleum themselves, recyclable plastics were the TDU’s gold bullion. They yielded the highest quantity and best grade of oil. And Marty’s oil, already of superior quality, bumped up a notch each time the TDU ate a batch of recyclables. He tossed the shovel in the trailer, grabbed the box, and took a seat, hesitating a moment before setting it on his lap, the only free space left.
“What a waste of time,” Gil said.
“What’s a waste of time?” Avery asked tossing his shovel in the trailer.
“People spend hours every week recycling. And it ends up in a landfill.”
“That’s cause there’s no market. You can’t make food grade plastic out of lesser grades. We need a federal law and mandatory labeling. Then a milk container could be a milk container again. And a cat litter container could be a cat litter container again,” Avery said, getting behind the wheel of the tractor. “Right now they don’t know what’s what. Besides,” he said, starting the engine, “it would be political suicide to declare recycling a failure. It makes people feel like they’re doing their part.”
“So even if your SUV only gets eleven miles to the gallon, you can still feel good?”
“Right.” Avery grimaced at the slime now on Gil’s pants. “Hey, now when I call you a slime ball, I won’t be lying.”
Avery turned the tractor around and headed for home.
Kori sat at the kitchen table, cordless phone in hand, rifling through Ruth’s telephone book. Up to the F’s, she thumbed down the list, then dialed. Avery and Gil walked in, the twenty degree air on their heels. They stamped their feet, flinging snow off their boots and leaving it to puddle on the kitchen rug. Kori scowled at both the intrusion and the mess, throwing a dishtowel at Avery’s head. Avery wiped up the floor.
“Mrs. Friedler? Hi. This is Kori Tirabi. I’m calling to remind you about the public meeting tonight at the high school. Are you going?”
“Hey, Gil,” Avery said. “You want some hot chocolate?”
Kori waved Avery away, shooting him a take your conversation elsewhere look. Avery asked Gil the question again, but silently as he pantomimed liquid being poured into a cup and someone stirring. Gil responded in kind, rubbing his belly with huge circular motions and Kori giggled.
“Oh no, I wasn’t laughing at you, Mrs. Friedler. I know hemorrhoids can be dreadfully indisposing, well actually, I don’t have first hand knowledge, but my brother Avery suffers from them periodically.”
Avery’s eyes shot up and he threw the soggy dishtowel back at her. She ducked and it missed. Avery bowed low, making a sweeping motion with his arm indicative of a good loser.
“C’mon, Gil. Let’s see what’s on T.V. We’ll deal with her later.” He grabbed Gil by the shoulder and steered him in the direction of the living room.
“Well that’s great. We’ll see you tonight,” Kori said. She hung up and flipped Ruth’s directory to the G’s.
there’s more to the story if you start here