Columbus arrives at the dump and unlocks the gate. Chicken hawks launch from the top of the chain-link fence, backlit by an unremarkable sunrise. Crusted car parts, baby diapers, and the husks of old televisions make a hulking spine that runs through the lot. Ragweed and mugwort, pushing into open spaces, tremble in preparation for wilting.
At forty-two, Columbus is saggy and sad. He’s going through the motions, sucking along like any old thing. He goes to the crane and hoists himself into the cab. A mosquito lands on his neck, and he slaps it dead. It’s the exact same spot where Filipa kissed him a week earlier.
When the ready light blinks, Columbus starts the crane and lowers the magnet. He turns on the juice, and the diesel stutters from making so much wattage. He eyeballs his target – the frame of a burnt-out Chevy Chevette – and swings the boom until the steel leaps from the pile and latches to the magnet with a punishing clap.
Filipa had been sucking a lollipop before she kissed him. He told her, at that moment and before, that he could try harder. But she’d said no, honey, we already passed that exit. Then she dropped into her Corolla and left, three months to the day since he’d first met her ringing up his groceries at the Gas & Grab.
“You find what you need?” Her name tag said Felicia, but when he stared at it she corrected him. “It’s Filipa, not Felicia.”
He thought she smelled like beach sand at the end of a sunny day. Later, she came to his apartment building with beer and a book about how to be a hospice nurse. She said she believed in reincarnation. Columbus told her that once, at the dump, he found a dead boy’s body.
“In a car?”
“Under a tire.”
They talked all night, peeling open their wounds the way people will when pressed up against each other. Columbus explained about his absentee parents and his addictions. Filipa chronicled her persistent exposures to violence. Columbus liked her long bones and the way she would take an enormous breath before speaking. She had a lot of plans. At first light, she went into his kitchen and made scrambled eggs.
At the dump, the day drags ahead. Dogs appear, barking at ghosts and the bugs that stir out of the muck when he moves the crane. In the wet squelch left by the machine’s link belts, a hundred poisons get turned on by the sun before soaking down into the mud. Columbus drops load after load into the crusher as if he’s feeding a nest of fat-faced baby birds.
He picks from the lunch box viced between his thighs. Slices of bologna. Orange sections. He drinks from a thermos of warm water that smells like white wine because that’s what Filipa had put in it the time they went to the beach. She had dropped her skirt and run into the water in her underwear and sweater. Columbus thought she might disappear right then and there with a flip of her tail, but she came back to shake her seawater in his face.
The truckers come in the afternoon to pick up what’s been crushed and bailed. They pay by the pound. Their money is warm and tears easily. The thing is, for Columbus, everything is like a sharp hammer strike. Even after, when she would lie next to him in his bed with her arm like a belt across his ribcage and her knees poked into the back of his thighs, he could feel the pounding on the insides of his skin. Not from his heart or his blood. It was a colder, untouchable feeling, trapped in his tissues.
After Filipa left, Columbus set his apartment on fire. He waved the yellow half-curtains she’d bought for the bathroom over the stove until they bloomed into flame. The hard part was staying down on the floor sipping super-heated air until the paramedics hauled him out. He fought them at first. They looked like locusts with their plastic masks.
The sun quits and Columbus shuts down the crane. He drifts as he waits for the buzzing to leave the soles of his feet. Crows pick at anything raw. Hot metal cools. It sounds like knuckles cracking. The sideways end-of-day light gets caught in spidery paint cans and cartons of cat litter. If he waits long enough, he’ll see the bats arrive to chase and swallow Luna moths under the floodlights.
Sometimes Columbus imagines Filipa coming back to see him at the dump. She’d walk right in, stamping her sharp-toed cowboy boots in the mud. Then she’d lean back against the chain-link fence and wave something at him. A certificate of achievement. A diploma. A declaration. He’d jump down from the cab, the engine still running to keep away the rats, and he’d go kiss her biceps. Sun’s out, guns out.
Then they’d set sail, rising high over the dump like two heavy flakes of ash destined for the ocean.
Charlie Watts earned an MFA from Brown University in 1992, studying with writers including Meredith Steinbach, Robert Coover, Edmund White, and Michael Ondaatje. After a long detour through communications consulting, Charlie returned to writing in 2013 and has published in journals including Carve, Narrative, Storm Cellar, and Sequestrum. His story, “Arrangements,” won the 2015 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. He and his wife, a chaplain, have three grown children and live in Freedom, New Hampshire.