An excerpt from WASTE: a novel
Elvira Moon loved bowling. For four straight years, her team, the Blooming Broads, dominated the women’s league, decimating all opponents until Big Tina quit to start her own team, the South Side Splitters, with that bitch Claudia from Couscous or whatever country she’d arrived from in a banana crate. Moses was still in elementary school when this division occurred.
The Splitters snatched the title two years straight before Elvira could steal it back. Big Tina quit bowling after that year due to a ruptured lower colon, leaving Elvira to dominate once again with her devastating accuracy and a bowling ball she’d named the Judge. Instead, Elvira disbanded the team. Her greatest rival, who’d worn men’s shoes without apology and never forgot to send her a Christmas card since they’d met at a Tupperware party in ’78, was gone. After the surgery, Big Tina moved in with Claudia and quit competitive bowling for good. No true competition remained. In Elvira’s mind, the Blooming Broads had won enough free games, chicken wing platters, bowling alley T-shirts, promotional balls, and buy-one-get-one-free pizza coupons to last a lifetime.
With no team to hold her back, Elvira made the rounds every week from Saturday Rock’n’Bowl at Paulie’s Pins to Yuri’s in-house tournaments held every other Wednesday. Her bowling ball collection took over the china cabinet. All her boyfriends had the requisite alley gut Elvira so admired. It was the same gut her husband Ted Moon had before he quit bowling and moved down to Arizona. In the dark of night, Elvira rested her head on that anonymous island of flesh under the sheets. She dreamed of that big trophy they handed out to every player who bowled a perfect game. It was after his perfect game that Ted had quit. Quit his job, his marriage, his friends, quit her and Moses, everything. Elvira both dreaded and desired a perfect game of her own, longed to see the score trickle higher and higher until every piece had fallen into place and the confetti rained down from the ceiling.
Maybe then she’d understand why.
Moses Moon was ten years old when his mother’s skull collided with a fourteen-pound ball some novice released during his back swing. Skipping up and down behind the lanes to psych herself up for the Co-Ed Co-Mingler Tournament, Elvira had three shots of gin in her system when the left side of her skull exploded. The sound of the ball hitting her head echoed through Bronson Alleys, overpowering the clatter of pins and the rumble of the bowling balls thudding into the automatic delivery system. One of the part-time kids who sprayed shoes for five hours a day told the cops it sounded just like one of those English bell towers ringing out the fucking end of the world. Like a reckoning.
The doctors called it an unfathomable and unfortunate case. Early onset dementia was often considered to be at least partially a genetic disease, potentially hereditary, though from which parent was still highly debated. A few experts also pointed to diet and exercise as potential paths to stave off this cerebral devastation. None had encountered a woman who, at the healthy age of thirty–two, was struck down by a lime-green bowling ball and thrust into a life of rapidly decaying brain activity.
Elvira Moon could still feed herself, go to the bathroom, and even knit Christmas-themed outerwear for her young son, but she no longer had the capacity to work in a regular corporate environment. Hullen Financial decided to let her go with a generous severance package after she began rerouting her calls to an old abusive uncle in South Florida. Elvira Moon spent the majority of the payment on rehabilitating dogs who’d been run over by cars and had lost their legs in the process. On tax forms, half of her income was reported as a charitable donation to the K-9 Mobilization Front. Government audits were performed with little to no follow-up.
After adopting many of these dogs, which her neighbors collectively called the Cyborgs, Elvira often forgot to feed them. Her bowling balls grew dusty and she no longer remembered Ted, who now sang soprano during the dinner hour at the Sacred Crow’s Big House Casino in suburban Scottsdale, Arizona. She’d forgotten the perfect game. Much of the responsibility fell to her son, who constructed ramps around the house out of two-by-fours lifted from neighbors’ backyard projects. Young Moses Moon learned to feed the dogs on a regular basis and to chase them around the backyard for exercise instead of taking them out for walks, where people would often stare, take pictures, or call the police about that strange boy walking a horde of wheeled terriers, Cocker Spaniels, and schnauzers down the street.
It was often Mrs. Singh who made these phone calls, disguising her voice as a man’s and playing the heavy metal music her son liked so much in the background. She was paranoid about the police recording her voice, scared of anyone in a position of authority coming after her or her family. Her father had died in Pakistan after speaking out against a corrupt zoning commission, mysteriously drowning in his own bathtub, and since then any man in a suit caused the fine hairs on the back of her neck to stand on end.
Hiding behind her thick burlap curtains, Mrs. Singh had spotted the young Moses Moon stealing boards from her backyard. She had watched him allow the dogs to drop their feces in her gardens, ruining the tomatoes her husband liked so much. The dogs pissed through the cracks of the fence, causing weeds to sprout up in hard-to-reach places. In this neighborhood, she understood the houses were built very close together. In fact, the walls were shared. You had to learn to deal with your neighbors, and even be civil with people who didn’t know your name
Mrs. Singh appreciated these points of etiquette. And yet, every day Mrs. Singh watched travesties occurring on her property. The boy stood unchallenged. His crippled dog army slowly decreased the value of her property, which her husband could have explained was rented and not actually their problem. Unfortunately, since he figured this would only embarrass her, the issue never came up at dinner over platters of salted tomato.
Once on a winter morning, Mrs. Singh had even gathered the courage to approach the door of the Moons’ townhouse. She rang the doorbell and was greeted by a towering woman whose blond hair was piled high up on her head. The woman only dressed in a pink loose-fitting gown and high-heeled shoes. She wore headphones, and her purple lipstick made jagged lines across her mouth. The house smelled like old milk.
“Are you the mail lady?”
Inside, Mrs. Singh heard the growing chorus of crippled dogs. She could hear their wheels bouncing down the stairs toward her as each second passed and the tall woman just stared at her. Outside in the rain, children on second-hand bicycles jeered at one another. There was no one around, no one to help pull the mutant creatures off her if this tower of a woman set them loose. Her husband would not return from his shift at the car-seat factory for at least four more hours. By then it would be too late, and all he’d find would be her broken body covered in tiny bite marks and the treads of innumerable wheels that had cracked all her aging bones.
Mrs. Singh ran.
After her fifth call to the police, a patrol car finally came by to check in on the Moon household. All the dogs were inside. Moses kept most of them in the basement. He did his best to keep the smells down by hanging air fresheners from the lamps and lighting fixtures. He usually got them for free from car dealerships down by the highway, where he rode his bike to escape the smell of the house. He had to duck around this evergreen forest dangling in every room.
“We’ve had a few complaints from some neighbors. If we could just come inside to maybe address a few issues, we’ll be out of your way as soon as we can. Is your mother or father home at the moment? It’s probably best we take it up with an adult.”
Elvira told them all about the time her cousin made her eat a snail they’d found on the roof of their apartment building. It had to be magic, ’cause how else could a snail get on the roof? The officers didn’t laugh or humor her. They smelled the rotten food hidden beneath the floating forests Moses Moon had constructed. Their notepads filled quickly.
Moses Moon was upstairs packing during this one-sided conversation. At twelve years old, he knew he would be taken away by Children’s Aid the moment these policemen finished talking to his mother. He would no longer be able to smoke cigarettes or watch the blurry adult channels on the television. They’d take his mom to a room somewhere where she would be scared and alone and surrounded by machines. These wouldn’t be machines like the dogs. These would be cold and silent, and they would never lick your face when you were sad.
Moses Moon knew this like he knew the Tyrannosaurus Rex was most likely a scavenging dinosaur and not a major predator. He knew it like he knew his father would never come back from Arizona. This was an undisputed truth he had learned to recognize. They would never let her out of that room again.
“Ma’am, would it be all right with you if we went down to examine the basement? We just want to make sure we do a thorough examination.”
Moses Moon also called a cab company he’d found in the Yellow Pages. He didn’t give an address, but an intersection down the street. He had two hundred and thirteen dollars he’d been storing away from birthdays and the random bills his mother left scattered around the crowded townhouse. She was always forgetting things, like to shower or to tie up her shoes. Moses had got very good at teaching her to do these things all over again. Sometimes she even remembered the next day. Eventually, she might remember everything.
He packed a bag for his mother too, full of her underwear and socks. He threw in T-shirts and her makeup box and a few cans of her favorite chicken soup. He zipped the bag up and dragged it with his own down the long hallway littered with dog barf and air fresheners that had fallen from the ceiling. He could hear the two men in the basement and the chorus of dogs rattling the heating ducts.
“Moses, did you meet the men who’ve come to check on the dogs?”
Moses took care of the dogs, but he rarely ever gave them names. Big Bitch, Little Bitch, Jaws, Wheelie. He saw them snapping and biting one another each morning when he went down into the basement. He cleaned up the puddles of piss and the wet turds they hid in the corners, the ones the smaller dogs didn’t eat. Kids at school always asked if he’d shit himself and why his eyes were red. Moses would not miss the dogs.
“We’re going for a walk, Mom.”
Moses grabbed a chair from the kitchen. He dragged it over to the basement door and slammed it shut, provoking another round of howls. He could hear the men pounding up the basement stairs two at a time. They bellowed through the fat of their jowls, but Moses could not make out the words. He jammed the chair under the iron knob of the door..
“We gotta go, Mom.”
“Well, I don’t have a bag, you know that, Mosey. I have to have my bag before I go.”
Elvira was still wearing her nightgown and the high heels she’d bought with the prize money from her first Bowlarama tournament, the one where she and Ted won the couples category in a six-game sweep over the Johnstones. Ted bowled a turkey. It was glorious.
“I already packed it. You’ve got everything.”
“What about the dogs?” Elvira asked.
“I’ve got people to pick them up. Kids from school and their parents all want to adopt them. You should hear them.”
“Are you sure?”
A body threw itself against the basement door and the chair legs dug into the floorboards.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure, grab your bag, let’s go, go, go!” Moses said.
Out the door and down through the overgrown garden. The dogs overpowered any other noise on the street. Moses could see the cab sitting at the corner, the driver picking his nails and checking his teeth in the rearview. Elvira ran behind him toward the cab, hopping over each crack in the sidewalk. Moses feared she’d roll her ankle, and then it would be cops, and badges, and bars, and a little room, so he grabbed her hand and pulled her along beside him.
“Just take us down to the highway,” Moses said. “I’ve got fifty dollars, right? That’s enough, enough for you?”
The driver had watched a woman give birth in his car the day before. It still smelled like placenta. He didn’t blink.
“Just to the highway?”
“Yeah, yeah, we can walk from there,” he said. “Right, Mom?”
“We can walk wherever you want, baby boy. We can walk across oceans.”
The driver turned down their street, passing the silent cop car and the small children who raced their bikes up and down on the sidewalk in the rain. The whole street was coated in orange leaves, the wet rain making them cling to everything.
As Moses slid down low in the seat, he saw Mrs. Singh peering out from behind her heavy brown curtains. Her window was covered in sticky leaves. She didn’t see him, but she smiled at the police car sitting on the street. Moses watched her close the curtains while Elvira kept talking about her sister and the plums in the schoolyard. The cab turned the corner without using its signal. That was four years ago.