"Come on man. Help me out. Show me how to use it," I pleaded.
"I don't need a navigator," he said stiffly.
"Ah, but if I'm supposed to be Johnson's partner, maybe he will."
"He won't need one either. He's been with the company almost as long as me," he said, twisting his hands on the wheel as he spoke.
"How long has that been and what happened to the last guy who sat on this side of the truck?"
I thought we were on a roll at least he was now talking to me.
"Push this," he said, stabbing a thick finger into the face of the device. "When this box shows up, put in the job address. Set the town... it will do the rest," he offered, spinning it back in my direction.
I began to plug in the information, stumbling with the small keys before getting it right. To my dismay, the screen blinked several times before
announcing the address could not be found. I did it
three times making sure each attempt was perfect in
my determination to succeed.
"What the hell did I do wrong?" I asked frustrated.
"Let me see the ticket," he snapped, taking the clipboard roughly from my hand.
The tone in his voice set me on guard we were heading down hill again. I could feel it.
"Oh Christ, not today... Teslenko," he said glumly, handing the clipboard back to me again. "I know this guy... he's a regular. You won't find his place on a map. It's in the middle of the fucking sticks. Damn and I just had the truck washed."
Again silence filled the cab as the vehicle rumbled along. I wasn't sure where we were going but we drove for more than a half hour until we left the freeway for the side streets. What was unexpected was another twenty minute ride into the foothills of Hemet and to the very edge of the blacktop itself.
Ryan made no attempt to slow down as we left the pavement and flew onto a well-used, washboard and rut
infused dirt road.
After an agonizing fifteen minutes I searched about for a house, a trailer, a tent, anything at this point to stop the punishment my kidneys were taking.
"What the hell?" I asked after we hit a pot hole so hard I hit my head on the roof of the truck.
"Hang tight, wait till you see around the next corner," Ryan said.
I was suddenly filled with apprehension... it was the first time he had smiled all day.
We bounced along as the road turned hard to the left and then... straight up. Huge clouds of dust trailed behind us as the tires spun, throwing rocks and dirt alike, struggling under the weight of the climb. The back end of the truck fishtailed painfully close to the edge of the road as more of it disappeared over an ever deepening brink.
What had appeared to be low, pleasant, undulating hills when we began were now steep shear drops as the dirt road became less defined and the weeds more prevalent.
Then, as the ground disappeared and the front windshield filled with nothing but sky, the truck climb over the last hill, hitting the ground hard on the downhill side.
Suddenly the landscape in front of us shifted.
We had entered a small, relatively flat valley of sorts, no more than four or five football fields
long, ringed by a series of little hills, resembling a crater. Running loosely down its center, a dirt road wondered to the far end and then turned around on itself like the eye of a needle.
On the south side of us, lined up side by side, eight, old, rusted and junked out cars stood guard, their doors, hoods and trunks either had been removed or now stood open. Across from them, three small wooden buildings, each bulging from every opening with full trash bags stacked several feet high. Virtually every square inch of this little utopia was covered with broken furniture, bicycles, washing machines, desks, televisions, bathtubs, hot water heaters, airplane wings, restaurant signs, machine parts of every type and kind imaginable. It appeared that the world had ended and the last remnants of civilization's existence had been dumped here, leaving the rest of the world clean to begin again.
Much to my relief, at long last as the road began to loop onto itself, we stopped in front of a small, dingy yellow, clapboard house, its windows covered with aluminum foil.
The front porch was set between two front projections I had assumed to be bedrooms.
My attention was caught by the front door having been opened.
"This guy is very abutophbic so remember, no matter what you see, what you hear and for God's sake what you smell... Service before self," Ryan said, drawing a deep breath, opening his door.
As I did the same, swinging a leg to step out of the vehicle, a shot rang out.
"Hang on newbie," Ryan said with disinterest, waving me back into the truck.
I couldn't get my leg back inside, or the window rolled up fast enough.
A second shot rang out and to my surprise, got little reaction from Ryan at all.
"Is mine. Is all mine. Now go." A man's agitated voice called from inside the house.
A third shot rang out and I ducked down into the front seat, fearful it had come closer to hitting the truck than the other two. My heart pounded in my throat, as I slowly rose, just high enough to peer out the window.
"Is that the best you can do old man," Ryan shouted, leaning on the tail end of the truck with disinterest.
"Am saying for last time, is mine. All you see, mine. Now go," the man shouted from behind the door.
"Can't go Auggie, your sister called and sent us here. You got a problem I don't know about?" Ryan asked.
"Jessica? Is bitch, wants all things mine. Can't keep her hands off it. She not call me."
"You have a phone out here, now, Auggie? Cause I would have called you myself if you did," Ryan asked standing up right.
"Auggie have no phone, have number."
"Yes, I know. Your number is three," Ryan said, coming around to my side of the truck.
"Ahh, why not say so... welcome friend," the voice called lightly and the front door swung open.
"Come on newbie," Ryan said opening the door on my side.
I shifted in the seat, pushing the door open all the way with my foot.
"Better bring the flash light, you'll need it."
"Ahh, is you. Auggie hear the Vampires got you... you dead now. Not see almost in one life time."
"No Auggie, it wasn't me... but it is good to see you again," Ryan said softly.
Uncertain about our safety, I wasn't sure who I thought more the lunatic, Ryan or the one who shot at us. The man that had held us off at gun point, now stood on the porch, a shotgun slung through his right arm.
He stood a full four foot, seven inches and must have weighed all of 105 pounds. His face, a bright red, held the unshaven stipple of a week or more as if his thin mustache were trying to branch out on its own. His skin in general, appeared to be blotchy and painfully sunburnt. His hair, what little he had, consisted of nothing more than a thin laurel reef that circled his head, flying wildly in every direction.
His dark colored pants were filthy, covered in God only knew what, looking more like an abstract painting of odd colors and smears than clothing, held in place by an old faded pair of striped suspenders.
His skinny arms, more bone than flesh stuck out of a wife-beater T shirt and held whatever the pants didn't, appearing to be stiff and crusty. Having been white in its beginning, it held no glimmer of
hope of ever returning to its origins.
"Ahh, this replacement then?" the man with the shotgun asked.
"Not mine Auggie... couldn't hold a candle," Ryan said turning to look at me, waving me closer.
I followed him, standing on the porch with the two men.
"Auggie... newbie," Ryan said lightly.
"Augustus Teslenko for your service. You call me Auggie," the dirty little man said cheerfully, grabbing my hand, pumping it like a well.
"Nice to meet you sir," I replied, eager to get my hand back. Once released, my first instinct was to wipe it off on my pants as quickly as possible.
As if having read my mind, Ryan slowly shook his head no, giving me a stern look.
I was waiting for just the right moment, hoping they would turn their back to me for just an instant. My hand trembled as my imagination began to run away with me. It felt as though there were world destroying diseases firmly entrenched in my palm and were now marching up my arm to overtake me.
"Ahhh, sir. What kind of man call Auggie sir? Just Auggie, yeah?" the little man said, grabbing my hand once more.
"Alright, that's enough. Show me what you've got old man," Ryan said, slipping an arm around the man's shoulder, following him inside.
I almost rubbed a hole in my pants the instant they turned for the door. I sniffed tentatively at my hand and rubbed it again for good measure.
As we passed into the building I realized my hand was the least of my problems.
With the windows covered with foil, the house was dark and cool. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust and less time than that for the appalling odor of the house to pour over me. A dull, thick, smell.. a combination like very old socks, an unflushed toilet, rotting food and an over used cat box filled the air. It felt as if the stench were soaking into my very skin, not to mention, my clothes.
The main room, if I could call it that, was full from top to bottom. Stacks of books, newspapers, magazines, paper in all manner and form, filled every corner of the room, stretching up to press against the ceiling itself.
We thread our way through the massive columns, following a narrow trail as it snaked around to the kitchen.
Once there, I was overwhelm by a new smell, or the intensity of a predominate one, to be more accurate. The pungent smell of onions mixed with that of rotting food brought tears to my eyes.
Stacked shoulder high, covering almost every available inch, the kitchen was populated by trash bags, hundreds of them. Flies and gnats hung in the air like a dark cloud hovering over what I could only describe as the remains of a table.
My stomach churned, growling loudly and I feared I would throw up, adding to the stench.
"Ahh, hear that. Your newbie is hungry," Auggie said turning to Ryan.
"No way Auggie. You know the rules," Ryan scolded, waving a dismissive hand in the face of the little man.
Auto parts, littered the counter top. The sink was filled with a black, noxious liquid and what appeared to be the better part of a motorcycle engine. At the far right of the top was a paper grocery bag.
The little man wrapped on arm around it, sweeping it from the countertop.
It had been full of garbage, wet garbage and the bottom immediately fell out, sending its contents to the floor with a watery sound and the dull tin of empty cans. Left behind on the counter was a putrid, milky liquid and a small mass of writhing maggots.
To my shock, he slid the back of his right hand quickly across it, smearing the liquid, scraps of the bag's remains and maggots alike onto the floor.
"Come... for you, I make lunch," Auggie announced and threw two pieces of moldy bread on top of the very spot he had just wiped with his hand.
I shot a panicked look to Ryan, praying to God he would save me.
The corners of his mouth twitched with amusement. His gaze made me shiver with the certainty of the mean streak that ran deep inside him.
"Auggie. You know he can't... not without losing his job," Ryan said, patting the little man on the back.
A wave of relief washed over me and then, instantly, was replaced by the fear of the punishment from an open sigh.
"For you? Is tuna," he said, holding one of the stale slices in his hand, looking hopefully to Ryan.
"Can't old friend. Still need my job as well," he replied.
"Ahh, is shame," Auggie said undaunted, replacing the bread on the counter top, slathering the first piece with mayonnaise He slipped a small, unlabeled can onto an electric opener, tapping the top lightly. The can spun, whirling softly, jumping a little at the end and the device stopped of its own accord.
Without missing a beat, he turned the can upside down on the bread, emptying its contents before tossing the can onto the stack of trash on the floor.
It took me a few moments to recognize the small, shiny, gelatinous mound in the center of his bread.
"It's cat food," I said, my mouth hung open in disbelief.
"So? Is all the same. Is tuna," Auggie shrugged, spreading the can's contents with a second piece of bread before taking a huge bite out of the sandwich.
My stomach pitched and I turned away before the unthinkable could happen.
"Auggie, we're pressed for time. What can we do for you?" Ryan asked, covering his smile with his hand and looking away.
"Ahh, yes, yes is toilet... is nothing. Please, for you, some lunch," he said, holding out the half eaten sandwich.
"Rules are rules Auggie. As much as the newbie here would love to join you, I would be obligated to turn him in, get him fired and nobody wants that. Now, show me your toilet problem," Ryan explained, patting the little man on the back once more.
We followed him through a narrow doorway, down a dark hall. We had to turn sideways to make our way pass a series of high school lockers that had been bolted to the wall.
"Is here," Auggie said, lightly kicking open the door.
The smell hung heavily in the air, thick, palpable.
Ryan stuck his head in quickly before returning to the hallway.
"Christ, Auggie. How long has it been?"
"Is hard for say. When Christmas?"
"Auggie that was seven months ago. It’s been down since then?" Ryan shouted angrily.
The smell made me believe it.
"No. What Auggie just animal? Is working sometimes, must give delicate help, is all," he said.
He suddenly threw himself against the door, making it bang loudly against the wall and kicked the handle on the toilet.
The bowl filled with water, pushing its contents and the smell through the walls to assault us before over flowing onto the floor.
It gurgled for a moment and then suddenly fell to the halfway mark, stopping.
The sharp whistle of the tank filling again rose in pitch, becoming shrill, almost ear splitting before reaching its goal and stopping with a loud, chattering bang of the pipes in the wall.
"See? Is almost fine," Auggie announced, pushing the last of his sandwich into his mouth.
"It might be the tank," Ryan said, whirling on his heels to return to the kitchen.
As bad as the kitchen had been earlier, it was now a haven compared to the hall.
"Is tank? Why Auggie not think such a thing?" he said as if Ryan's comment had turned on a light bulb in his head.
"When's the last time you opened it Auggie?" Ryan asked sternly, marching, as best he could, for the front door.
"Not Auggie... you last time," the little man said defensively.
"Fuck man, that was almost four years ago," Ryan chided, stopping to face him.
"Who knows time? Is come, is goes. Sometime hot, sometime cold, all the same. Sometime you come, sometime Jessica. Very busy here, no time to watch clock. Much work to do," Auggie half shouted in return pushing pass him, yanking open the front door.
"Sorry man. You're right. I'm sorry, I forgot myself. I apologize," Ryan said sincerely following him outside.
It was everything I could do to keep from running them both over in an attempt to get outside. I will always remember how good, how fresh, how wonderful that air tasted as I filled my lungs.
"Is good man know when wrong. You have Auggie's
respect," he said, pulling his shoulders back proudly and then spit in his hand before offering it to Ryan.
To my shock, without a moment’s hesitation, Ryan spit in his as well and shook the man's hand.
"Come, tank is here," Auggie said and made for the back of the house. He walked in an exaggerated manner, throwing his elbows far a side, moving his entire upper torso in doing so. He looked like a man who just found out he was the proud, new father of his first son.
I swallowed as much air as possible filling my lungs to the point of burning in hopes of washing away whatever I had been exposed too, washing it out of my life and if possible my memory.
As we turned the corner of the house we came face to face with a surprisingly large wooden gate. Anchored to an eight foot tall block wall, it appeared massive and surprisingly clean, almost new. Strapped across its face three large, black, oversized hinges and a matching lock... every old Arabian Night or Robin Hood movie I had ever seen cane to mind as we stood in front of it.
Auggie removed a set of keys from his pants, hunching his shoulders, hiding his hands and the keys
with his body as he turned the lock.
A loud thunk filled the still air followed quickly by a soft squeak from the hinges as the door opened slightly.
"You is okay. Auggie not sure for him," he said earnestly pointing to me.
Ryan swung his head toward me and then back to Auggie.
"He's okay Auggie. He won't say a word... on my honor," he answered, placing a hand on the gate.
"Ahh, your word like from the lips of God. Auggie have no worries, but..." Auggie whispered softly to Ryan, leaning closer.
"I understand," Ryan answered, turning to me. "Let me see your hand," he said grabbing me by the wrist.
Before I could react he turned my hand palm up and spit in it.
I was consumed with shock as the newly deposited puddle became warm to the touch.
Smiling broadly, Auggie spit in his in return before grabbing my hand, smearing the hot fluids between us.
"Is good. Now like brothers, Come, come," he said eagerly, pushing the gate open wide.
On the other side, as the portal swung fully open, an astonishing panorama I could never have guessed filled our view.
At our feet, hidden under the edge of the thick gate, a redwood 2x4 held back a broad path of pea gravel. In this place all the trash, all the broken manifestations of humankind that existed beyond this wall, disappeared. Every inch had been filled with tropical foliage of every kind imaginable.
Somehow, on this side of the wall, the world was as it was in the beginning when everything was green and wild. Our gravel path twisted and turned, taking us through an ever thickening matting of growth, punctuated by the most beautiful flowers I had ever seen. Because of their height and how thick the plants had grown it was difficult to tell how far we had traveled or how large an area we were involved in. Having locked and left the gate behind, the path had split several times, each new branch appearing to be much the same as the one we traveled.
A full ten minutes after entering this Eden, the path shifted becoming clean white sand. The plants
fell back further from the trail, no longer over lapping and hindering our way.
Amazed as I was upon seeing this side of the wall, I was blown away as the path opened up to what I could only describe as a beach. The largest, most beautiful plants of every color stretch skyward casting swaying shadows onto a circle of white beach sand. Approximately fifty feet or so across, I would have thought we had been magically transported to the tropics. Sitting dead center was a small, blue, plastic kiddy pool in pristine condition and full of water. Spread out next to it, a large, clean, colorful beach towel. Next to that a short beach chair and a cooler with ice and several bottles of unopened beer.
On the opposite side, a broad, stone waterfall, its top disappearing in the upper growth above it, filled the air with a cool mist and the relaxing sound of moving water. Sizable rocks caught the liquid, forming a pond before meandering off, vanishing somewhere into the under growth. Six large, impressive Koi swam in its depths, darting in and out of the many hiding places the water held.
I was about to say how impressed I was with our surroundings when a splash of color sped by me. As I turned to follow its path I was stunned to see, what I had assumed to be a parrot had landed on Auggie's shoulder.
As I stood, astonished by this turn of events, several other tropical birds appeared briefly before flying away to hide in the foliage.
"Not now, Auggie working. Later for you," he said lightly turning his head. As if the bird understood him, it gave him a peck on the lips and flew away. "Tank is here," he said pointing at the pool.
All three of us grabbed an edge dragging it to one side. Hidden under it, a rusty metal plate a little more than two feet in diameter.
I stood, amazed at the paradise that surrounded me and didn't see how they managed to remove the top, flipping it to one side.
"Alright newbie, it’s all you," Ryan said pointing at the hole that lay in front of us.
"Me? Why me?" I asked.
"I get it. We'll flip for it," Ryan said, reaching for a coin from his pocket. Placing it on
his thumb he flipped it high in the air.
"Tails," I called as it spun brightly in the dappled sun.
He caught it, slapping it on the back of his left hand before peeking at it.
"Nope," he said without showing it to me, slipping the coin back into his pocket. "Get into the hole."
All I could do was shake my head and look into the opening. It was dark, foreboding and smelled almost as bad as the house. The ominous sound of dripping water overshadowed that of the waterfall.
"Got that flashlight?" Ryan asked with a smile.
I pulled it from my back pocket, turning it on.
"There should be an iron ladder bolted to the north wall," Ryan instructed as I peered inside.
"How deep is this thing?" I said half-heartedly.
"Is thirty feet when new," Auggie inserted.
"Jesus," I breathed.
"What you're looking for is a pipe about ten feet down. Sometimes it clogs up... sometimes on its own, sometimes because of rats making nest. You let me know which and then I'll tell you how to handle it,"
Ryan offered, grabbing me by the back of the neck squeezing lightly.
"I'll bet you will," I returned, searching for a hand hold and the ladder he said should be there.
It took a few moments for me to locate the ladder and my courage.
"Here, take my hand," Ryan suggested, bracing himself against the iron lip of the hole.
I did as he instructed, finding myself slowly being devoured by the gaping mouth of the opening.
It was surprisingly hot inside. The walls had been made of eight inch common concrete brick. An open portion, no more than two inches wide had been deliberately left between them for seepage into the ground beyond. Brightly colored mold or fungus grew on the walls, covering the interior with its countenance, giving the huge spiders and roaches a place to hide as well as feed.
Slowly I made my way down the ladder, each rung wet with a gravely defoliated surface. Some slimy with mold, others incrusted with God only knew what but all held the potential of years of rust and the ability to send me crashing to the bottom and to whatever waited for me there.
"Alright I see it. I found the pipe," I yelled.
"Good," Ryan shouted down to me, blocking the light from above.
A little panic filled me and I yelled.
"Can't see if you block the light," I admonished.
"Try using the flashlight Newbie," he returned.
I had been holding onto it as if my life depended on it and forgot all about it as I gripped the iron treads for all I was worth. I shined the light toward the bottom but saw nothing.
Whatever lay beyond the reach of my light held no interest for me, I just wanted to do this and get out.
The air became hotter the deeper I traveled and more difficult to breathe.
A thin trickle of water oozed from the 3" pipe through a mass of cobwebs.
"It was full of sticks and empty snail shells," I shouted to the top.
"Rats, they love snails. How thick are the sticks? A hand full or does it go back away?" Ryan questioned.
"I can’t tell... back a way I think," I said peering into the pipe with the light.
"Okay. Hang on. I'll be right back. Auggie," he shouted and then disappeared into the light. It was eerie, standing on the ladder without his voice for reassurance. Although it was nice to have a little more daylight, it came and went with the swaying of the foliage above, flickering between bright and dark.
After what seemed like forever I checked my watch, kicking myself for not having done so when he said he would be right back. As it stood now, I didn't know if he had been gone five minutes or an hour. Finally, I decided if he didn't come back shortly I would climb out.
I have no idea why, but in my inpatients for his return, I poked at the sticks that were stuck in the end of the pipe, at first, for no other reason than an increased level of curiosity.
"How the hell did a rat get all this stuff in here? It must be part beaver," I said to myself absentmindedly, picking at the tangle of twigs. Each new movement released a fractional increase in the water. I pulled a little more, a stick at a time, then a fist full, reaching ever deeper into the length of the pipe to clear the clog. Before I realized it, I had my arm all the way up to my shoulder. Something was wedged, caught. It felt like cloth but I couldn't be certain. I tugged on it. For a moment, I thought it shifted for me. I repositioned myself, yanking as hard as I could, freeing it at last.
At the same instant it became unobstructed it occurred to me what I had done. I yanked my arm out as fast as humanly possible, clutching the rails of the ladder for dear life.
The sound from inside the pipe shook me to the core. It rumbled with a deep, menacing sound, like the growl of some wild animal and then puked forth gallons of rancid liquid. It rushed by me as I pressed myself tightly to the ladder, splashing against the opposite wall and onto me. Noxious fumes rose from the bottom, racing me back to the top
"Get me out," I shouted, thrusting a hand wildly above me.
Ryan grabbed me with both hands, pulling me to the surface. I lay in the sand for a moment, staring up at the sky.
"Awh man, you got it on me," Ryan said, stepping back. He held his right arm up and away from his body as if it were on fire.
"My sand. Is on my sand," Auggie shouted, standing over me, waving his arms.
"Come on, newbie. Get off the man's sand," Ryan chided.
"I'm covered in shit, cut me a little slack," I groused, getting to my feet.
To my disgust the cloth that had been the core of the problem was still in my hand. It appeared to be a colorful dish towel... at least the top half... the bottom had been burnt away.
"Ahh, is Christmas towel. Auggie set fire making steak for friends. Put flaming towel in toilet. Save dinner party. Auggie hero," he said with pride, taking the towel from my hand.I was wet from the waist down, uncertain as to how much was from the pipe and how much was from me. I had no desire to know for sure, refusing to let myself look. My boots were filled with the unthinkable and the only thing that filled my head... the only thing that occupied my mind... I wondered what the hell Johnson was doing right now.