Writing (and Cutting) Sex Scenes

True confession: I have, more than a couple times in my life, poured over a steamy passage in a bookstore or library because, well, because it was steamy.

I’m not the only one. Some of those passages were in best-selling books.

As a writer, however, sex scenes, steamy or otherwise, are, pun intended, hard to get right.

This fall, I’ve done a couple readings from my novel—Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher—and I devoted some of my time to talking about writing sex scenes.

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Talking about politics, family, and sex at the Oakland Public Library. Thanks to Tim Jollymore for the photo.

Since there were a number of writers in the audience, I asked for a show of hands of those who had written sex scenes. More than a dozen each time. Then I asked how many were satisfied with what they wrote. Only a few.

I also asked everyone, as readers, how satisfied they were, again, pun intended, with sex scenes in novels. Mostly, not so much.

Which begs the question: why include them? Sure, they’re titillating, and yes, sex sells. But plenty of fun and successful novels are sex-free zones. You could argue that sex is part of most people’s lives, so why wouldn’t it be in novels, but so is peeing, and few authors show their characters going to the bathroom.

Response from readers to Bones in the Wash has been heartening. Reviews have all been positive, some effusively so. But not everyone liked the sex scenes. My wife, for one, and the women in her book group, who discussed the novel one Thursday evening when I found somewhere else to be.

I asked around. One woman friend said several phrases—“ravaged” and ‘his hardness found her wetness”—read like “a cheap grocery store romance.” Ouch! “And take away from the book,” she added, “which I loved.” That was certainly not my intention. It wasn’t just women—one man said the explicit sex didn’t do anything for him.

So I rewrote some of the sex scenes, and uploaded a new version. I think the book is better now, but I’m curious as to what you think. Here’s some before and after.

First, an easy one. This excerpt comes—spoiler alert—after a flash flood has unearthed the bones of protagonist Tomas Zamara’s long-disappeared wife Vera in a wash outside Santa Fe.

original revised
Tomas was not interested in making love, and Tory didn’t tease him or touch him suggestively like she often did. But in the middle of the night, in the moonless darkness, they found each others lips and his hardness found her wetness and they moaned together in two-part harmony before falling back to sleep. In the morning, the sky was bright and the sun was blue. Tomas was not interested in having sex and Tory didn’t tease him or touch him suggestively like she often did. But in the middle of the night, in the moonless darkness, they found each other’s lips and made love slowly, tenderly for a few minutes before falling back to sleep.

Better, right? What was I was thinking? Was I thinking?

Here’s another, from a few chapters earlier. Tomas lived in Albuquerque and Tory in Santa Fe, so on their first several dates, he did a lot of driving. So she suggested on their next date, they do a “sleepover.” No sex, but he wouldn’t have to drive all the way home.

original revised
He expected they would make out a little, but sleepover, to him, implied sleeping. Tory had other ideas. She leaned into his chest. “I love to snuggle,” she said.

She didn’t so much attack him with her kisses, as pull him towards her. Welcoming him. It had been a long time.

He reached under her nightshirt. No underpants. Wet. She wriggled into his finger and purred as he rubbed her. She nuzzled her nose to his. “You tricked me,” she said. “You know exactly what you’re doing.”

After she came, she took him in her mouth, and oh Jesus Christ, how is this happening?

He expected they would make out a little, but sleepover, to him, implied sleeping. Tory had other ideas. She leaned into his chest. “I love to snuggle,” she said.

She didn’t so much attack him with her kisses, as pull him towards her. Welcoming him. It had been a long time.

He reached for her. She nuzzled her nose to his. “You tricked me,” she said. “You know exactly what you’re doing.”

That was simple. Just take a few sentences out. Then, in the morning:

original revised
He slept, and woke at daybreak with a throbbing erection.

Nothing unusual about that, except that here he was in bed with Victoria Singer, Hurricane Tory, her calf resting on his ankle.

She opened her eyes, yawned, then smiled.

“Hi.”

They kissed, dozed, kissed some more. And then, suddenly awake, he found himself straddling her, his arms rigid, elbows locked, their heads at the foot of the bed, her unkempt hair spilling over the side. She held him between her fingers and guided him towards her, dipping him in her juices. Knocking at the door. Full of anticipation and desire.

She was so present, her eyes, bright and playful, locked onto his. Her smile beguiling. Then she crossed a line from delight into a focused intensity. She was hardly breathing. He was hardly breathing.

Then he slipped in. Plunged in. Quickly. Deeply.

Did she take her hand away? Draw him in? Was there permission there? Or did—?

He pulled out. Broke from her gaze.

When he looked up again, she had that same intent and lustful look, and didn’t look concerned at all. “A preview,” she said, and then her face relaxed into a grin. As if in slow motion. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”

“Rumi?”

She nodded.

“Aren’t most previews more than a few seconds?” he said.

“You’re the one who pulled out.”

He slept, and woke at daybreak with a throbbing erection.

Nothing unusual about that, except that here he was in bed with Victoria Singer, Hurricane Tory, her calf resting on his ankle.

She opened her eyes, yawned, then smiled.

“Hi.”

They kissed, dozed, kissed some more. And then, suddenly awake, he found himself straddling her, his arms rigid, elbows locked, their heads at the foot of the bed, her unkempt hair spilling over the side. She held him between her fingers and guided him towards her, dipping him in her juices. Knocking at the door. Full of anticipation and desire.

She was so present, her eyes, bright and playful, locked onto his. Her smile beguiling. Then she crossed a line from delight into a focused intensity. She was hardly breathing. He was hardly breathing.

Then. Then. Did she take her hand away? Was there—?

When he looked up again, she had that same intent and lustful look.

“A preview,” she said, and then her face relaxed into a grin. “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”

“Rumi?”

She nodded.

“Aren’t most previews more than a few seconds?” he said.

“So I’ve heard.”

Again, the same scene, with fewer explicit words. Better? Is less more? I thought so before. Now I’m not so sure. Or I could have cut more. 

Are these minor “improvements” worth all the teeth-gnashing? It’s hard to know. (Though I think eliminating the word “ravage” from my vocabulary is a no-brainer.)

Let me go back to the question I asked above: Why did I include sex scenes?

(btw, we’re talking about five, six pages out of 400. Most of the book is not about sex.)

For me, the answer is because they reveal character.

Sex is something universal that just about all adults engage in, but because it’s private, emotionally charged, and the participants are exposed and vulnerable, it shows who people are in ways nothing else does. There’s also plenty of religious and cultural baggage associated with it, and that can add richness and texture. And because sex is private, readers tend to be curious about how other people, fictional or not, do it.

The best sex scenes aren’t necessarily the steamiest. Great sex doesn’t make for a great scene. What’s often more interesting is when things go wrong. Where instead of ecstasy, the lovers experience distress or embarrassment or loneliness. Which they usually keep to themselves.

My Brother’s Book Review

I’ve been meaning for some time to post one of my favorite reviews of Bones in the Wash, from my brother Michael, an English professor at the University of Detroit-Mercy. He may not be objective, but he does study and teach novels for a living. So that’s something.

(There are 29 other reviews if you want some less familial takes.)

Well-crafted, thoughtful, and fun: I know the guy who wrote this too, and have known him for a while. He is my brother. I was reading the book while traveling this summer, so I’ll start with one story of reading while on the train and one of reading while on the bus. I got more and more embroiled in the plot as I got further into the book, so I wasn’t paying much attention to my surroundings. And when I was within four paragraphs of finishing, my stop on the Chicago el train was coming right up. The train stopped and I had three paragraphs to go. Things in the book were pretty well wrapped up, but I wanted to see just how it ended. By the time the doors opened, I had one paragraph to go. I kept reading, finished, and dashed out the doors just as they were closing.

The day before, I was next to a guy on the bus, and I was talking about the book. I teach literature, so it’s a pleasure for me to talk about books. He was a reader, so he told me about Phillip Roth and I told him about John Byrne Barry. Anyway, he said “Well, it must be awkward, you being an English professor and him wanting to know what you think of the book.” And I laughed and said it wasn’t awkward at all; the book was so good I didn’t need to worry about that for a second.

I like the book’s stories of trying to do the right thing in the context of hard-ball politics. It reminded me of Robert Penn Warren’s *All the King’s Men* that way–there are times when one of the main characters, an earnest young woman who wants to bring about political change, wonders whether it would be a morally just course of action, in the long run, to dig up dirt on her opponent’s campaign manager (who is another of the main characters), to discredit him and win the election for the candidate whom she genuinely believes occupies the moral high ground. There is a meditation on how we can know enough about the consequences of an act to judge whether it’s good or bad (good news? bad news? who knows?), there are references to the temptations of political office, temptations to take care of your people.

Mayor Tomas Zamara has lost his wife, years earlier, in a mysterious disappearance that is assumed to be a murder, and when we see one Mexican drug cartel try to frame another other cartel for the crime, there’s a parallel to another plot playing out that fall, in which one party is trying to frame the other for voter fraud. This book is plot-driven and it is, for that reason, a page-turner, but the author–I’ll call him John–puts a lot of care into the composition of that plot, and the way the small plots start to take on the same shape as the larger plot is one of the ways that shows. The book keeps a lot of plots going at once, and they’re all interesting. At some point a journalist named Bas is saying that this news story he’s covering has everything–family drama, game-changing moments, gangsterism, and illustrious history–and yes, this book has all that.

5. Err on the Side of Being an Asshole

Wasted.091814Every day this October, I am posting a chapter of Wasted, my “green noir” mystery novel set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley.

You can read it like a serial novel, a chapter a day for a month. The day’s chapter will be here, the already posted chapters at johnbyrnebarry.com/wasted.

Chapter 5. Err on the Side of Being an Asshole

“None of us will ever forgive you,” Spaulding says, his fists clenched by his side.

“You might never forgive me,” says Genessee. “That’s your problem. But the others, they understand. They—”

“They don’t have the guts to call you traitor to your face. I do.”

“How brave of you.”

—Brian Hunter, “Recycling Rivalry: This Time It’s Personal,”
East Bay Beat, October 14, 1998

[Wednesday. October 14. 9:30 a.m.]

“What the hell were you thinking?” Barb snaps at me over the phone, her voice scalding. I’ve just returned from a walk to pick up a copy of the Beat. Four copies actually. My story’s on the top of page 3, with a photo of a scowling Doug leaning against a stack of newspaper bales.

“You sound upset,” I say.

“No, I’m not upset,” she says. “I’m furious. How could you not know I would be pissed?”

“I thought, well, you did say it was okay to sprinkle in elements of your life with Doug, and—”

“I did not say that. My professional life yes, but not this personal crap. God, you made me look so snide and petty. You crammed ten years of emotional muck into those lines. You’re a piece of work, Brian.”

“I guess I was far more worried about how I portrayed Doug. I mean, he’s clearly the one—”

“He won’t even care,” she says. “Being an asshole is a badge of honor for him. He’ll pick up a dozen copies for his scrapbook. He thinks being nice is bourgeois.”

“Barb, I’m truly sorry. I don’t have a good excuse.”

“How dare you? Why give Doug a chance to grandstand with this purer-than-thou crap about selling out? What is so horrible about getting paid a decent salary for the first time in my life? I deserve it.

“You think anyone who makes money is bad, and the only pure enterprises are money-losing? Get real. The only people who are going to pick up garbage and recyclables without a decent paycheck are young hippies and immigrants. It’s shitty work. It’s hard on the back. I’ve paid my dues. Doug’s got parents with money. I don’t. I’m sending my mother a check every month.”

“Whoa, Barb. I—”

“Don’t ‘whoa’ me. You had your say in print. I know you think I’m making Scavenger look better, giving them some green veneer. But Scavenger is not going away. So we sit on the sidelines and badmouth them? No. We make them walk their talk. We work with them, we work for them. I’m not here to make them look better, but if they look better because they are better, then I’m doing my job, thank you.”

I knew that it was dangerous to lead my story with the argument between Barb and Doug. But it gave the story the soap opera sizzle it needed and my editor loved it. I’ve been telling myself to take more risks, to throw off the tyranny of the “shoulds.” Act first, think second, and all that. Living a passionate life means taking risks, right?

I swivel in my chair so I’m facing away from my desk. I rub my forehead. I stand up to walk around, but I haven’t yet folded up my futon, so there’s no room to move. I sit back down. I knew she wouldn’t like this. How could I have convinced myself otherwise? Doug was clearly the transgressor in the story and Barb was tenacious fending him off, but I guess it looked ugly regardless.

I write down what Barb is saying. Not that I am going to publish it, though I note that she hasn’t said that I misquoted her or that I was wrong or inaccurate. I didn’t “create” the truth. I reported it.

“I know Con has gobbled up other companies,” she says. “I know they pushed for higher landfill standards to drive the little guys out of business. I know I’m not working for Mother Theresa, though I’m sure she has her dark side too. A lot of those little fly-by-night companies that Con bought were corrupt. Thanks to Scavenger—and Re-Be—landfill regs are stricter, recycling goals are higher. We fought for these things at Re-Be. What were you thinking? ‘This time it’s personal.’ Unfucking believable.”

“I wasn’t thinking, Barb. About you anyway. The story. It was stronger with the personal stuff. But I lost sight of how you would feel, and you always seem to be so tough and impervious to being hurt.”

“That is an act. I bleed like everyone else.” Her voice doesn’t sound tough or impervious now.

“I admired how you defended yourself against Doug,” I say, “and I guess I’ve been trying to be more reckless, not so timid. Err on the side of being an asshole, that must be my mantra for the week.”

“So that makes it okay to turn my life into the Jerry Springer show? You get your personal growth by humiliating me, is that it? How dare you? How dare you?”

“Barb, I am sorry. Really.”

“Stop groveling. It won’t unwrite the story.”

“You told me you’d be used as an example by people who wanted to trash Con.”

“I didn’t expect it would be you. I thought you liked me.”

“I do like you. I always have. I think you’re great.”

“So what is this, seventh grade? You like some girl so you tell her she’s ugly.”

“I like you a lot, Barb. I really do. You’re an engaging and beautiful woman. I’d like to go out with you.”

“Can you run that by me again?” she says. “I must have missed something.”

“I’d like to take you out. To dinner. Dancing maybe.”

“Now why would I want to do that? Why would I even want to be seen in public—with you—after you humiliated me in your goddamn newspaper?”

I rub my eyes, press my palm to my chest. “Because you’re bigger than that. Because you accept my heartfelt apology and because you know I will never ever tell your story again without express written permission in triplicate. Because next time I’ll engage in more traditional courting gestures, like bringing you flowers. Because you and I have both been through the relationship wringer and we can maybe provide some comfort and healing to each other. Because we can have some fun together. Remember, you said it’s been a while since you had fun.”

Silence. It sounds like she’s holding her breath.

“Flowers would be an improvement,” she says, with hesitation in her voice.

“How about if I throw in some chocolate?”

Another long silence. I resist filling it.

“This going out. What did you have in mind?”

“I don’t know, I was thinking maybe we get together someplace quiet for a drink around eight, then go dancing at the BFD club in the city—they’ve got swing dancing on Thursdays—then we go back to your place and make out for an hour or two, then make love until the sun comes up, and then I’ll take you to Lois the Pie Queen for a healthy breakfast with a tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.”

“Brian—“

“Or grapefruit juice. I’m flexible on the juice thing.”

“Slow down. Slow down. You sound like you’re reading from some Hollywood screenplay.”

“Hey, if I had a script, I’d know what to say next.”

She laughs.

“You’re impossible.”

“Oh, no, I could not be more possible.”

“You’re going about 60 miles an hour in a school zone. How about we start a little more leisurely, you come over for a glass of wine? And no grapefruit juice.”

She sounds dubious, but I hear some playfulness. I think.

I tell her I’d be thrilled. “And Barb, I know I’m not for everyone, but if you’re looking for someone like me, I’m perfect.”

4. Add Sex and Stir

Wasted.091814Every day this October, I am posting a chapter of Wasted, my “green noir” mystery novel set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley.

You can read it like a serial novel, a chapter a day for a month. The day’s chapter will be here, the already posted chapters at johnbyrnebarry.com/wasted.

Chapter 4. Add Sex and Stir

Recycling has not been as profitable for the garbage conglomerates as had been hoped, partly because it’s more competitive than garbage hauling, which has been dominated by a few large companies over the past decade. Shareholders, demanding higher returns, are starting to jump ship.

—Will Cardinal, “Growing Pains for Recycling,” Wall Street Journal, October 1, 1998

[Tuesday. October 13. 7 a.m.]

Maya lends me her car and Tuesday morning I head out to Diablo Landfill before the sun comes up. Owned by Scavenger, Diablo is set deep in East County near the delta, and surrounded by treeless ridges lined with wind turbines. Cows and sheep munch on the dry brown grass. I’ve arranged to interview James Worton, the chief engineer, but when I arrive it’s Julian Allard who gives me the tour. Interesting. He’s a P.R. guy I met once before, based in Oakland, in the same building as Barb, so he probably rose as early as I did to get here. He says Worton had to testify at a hearing. Maybe. My guess is they were afraid he would stray off-message.

When Allard and I climb out of the truck to look over the hillside where the “possum-belly” trailer trucks empty their cargo, the odor slaps me in the face.

“Ah, the smell of money,” he quips.

For years, the so-called garbage crisis used to read like a variation on an old joke: Landfills are much too dangerous, and there aren’t enough of them around. A decade ago, we were ready to strap garbage trucks onto the space shuttle and blast them into orbit. Then, big players like Scavenger built huge regional landfills like Diablo, a new generation of waste-burning incinerators came on line, and recycling took off. So for garbage companies in California today, the real crisis is that there’s not enough garbage to go around. It makes sense for cities to divert as much waste as possible from the landfill because the tipping fees can be substantial, but for landfill operators, who profit from tipping fees, all that recycling hurts the bottom line.

But Diablo seems to be getting its share. A procession of trucks rumble up the hillside to dump their loads into the hollow below us. Allard points to a nearby area that has been capped and landscaped. “You go down eight or ten feet there and there’s hardly any decomposition going on. It’s like an Egyptian tomb. You could find a hot dog from ten years ago, still all there. That keeps the leaching of anything dangerous to a bare-bones minimum.”

When I ask Allard why Scavenger has racked up so many fines, he says because it purchased companies that didn’t have the capital to meet all the environmental standards.

“It’s like you buy a house that’s got dry rot. It’s your house now, the dry rot is your responsibility, even though it was there before you arrived. That’s how it is with garbage. There’s lots of figurative rot in these companies we’ve purchased. Some of them were downright criminal in their negligence.”

I edge closer so I can watch the bulldozers covering up the dumped garbage with dirt.

“I understand you were one of the early recyclers,” I say. “You were what, a founder of the El Cerrito recycling program? How did you end up here?”

“We’re not here to talk about me.”

“It’s just that, well, I know plenty of people have made that transition, like Barb. You used to be an ally of Re-Be, but now you seem to regard that world with contempt, like somehow the people at Re-Be are rank amateurs or corrupt or something. Or maybe it’s just that you can’t stand Doug Spaulding.”

He hesitates, adjusts his hard hat. “I’m happy to answer questions about Scavenger,” he says tersely. But his displeasure at this line of questioning only makes me more intrigued.

“I think that the Beat readers would be interested in what’s behind this turnabout—“

“That is, if you call the Beat a real newspaper,” he hisses. “I can’t even read it. It’s all sticky with PJ’s gism.”

I take a step back as if he swung at me. The PJs, the Peace and Justice Coalition, are the more left/progressive of Berkeley’s two main political factions. Barb told me Allard was once “one of us”—when he was running the El Cerrito recycling center, he even served on the PJ advisory board. There’s a story here, but I’m not going to hear it from him.

The rest of the interview is perfunctory, and when I hand him my hard hat, thank him, and climb into Maya’s car, he’s as relieved as I am.

When I get back to my studio, there’s a phone message from my editor rejecting my latest story. “It’s the same accusations with new scenery,” she says. “Sorry, but I need something fresh.”

Damn! I bang my fist on my desk. The phone rattles in its cradle. I slump into my chair.

It’s my first rejection from the Beat. I earn $200 per story, but only if it’s published. I want to be a staff writer, though I haven’t said so out loud. There are no openings now and the pay is low, but it’s better than working on spec. In the meantime, cranking out a solid story every week seems the best way to keep myself in contention.

Shit. Shit. Shit. I was finally starting to get some traction.

A long time ago, before I met Eileen, I lived in Los Angeles and had a passionate romance with a flaky but exciting woman named Rain—a hippie with a capital H. She loved taking psychedelic drugs and camping and walking around naked and lolling around in desert hot springs. For a furious and fleeting month or two, she loved me too. Said I soared. We met at an anti-nuclear rally in Santa Monica where my band played. During those next weeks, I had lots of gigs, lots of rehearsals, lots of sex and I was running on coffee and oxygen and infatuation. Tall and willowy with long red hair, Rain wore colorful ankle length dresses with nothing underneath, and wow, sometimes I could hardly believe the life I was living, playing rock and roll and making love with this exciting woman who gushed over me.

She wanted to lead a passionate life, she said. We did. We lived the cliché of starry-eyed lovers. We went out dancing after my shows and then made love and talked until dawn. We read Sufi poetry to each other. We rode rollerblades on the bike paths at Venice Beach. We made out in the back of movie theaters. We walked through art galleries holding hands.

But then the band’s interpersonal shit escalated and we had too many meetings and I got stressed and I wasn’t fun and light all the time and Rain knocked on my door one afternoon and blurted, “I’m not in love with you anymore.”

I was no longer leading a passionate life, she said. The band meetings depleted me. We argued instead of rehearsing. And I began noticing how Rain said the same things over and over again.

I was crushed. Looking back, I can see that Rain was much more in love with the passion and the romance than she was with me. I’m not sure she ever even saw me. Of course, she was unrealistic to expect to keep such a passionate delirious flame burning so bright—life gets in the way sometimes—but wanting it, well, there was nothing wrong with wanting it. I wanted to live a passionate life. I still do. But somehow I let it slip away and embraced caution instead. I don’t even know why.

Now, here in this seemingly endless Indian summer ten years later, I feel like I’m recapturing it. I’m not leaping tall buildings, but I’m moving and grooving, tackling my to-do list with abandon, acting impulsively. It’s not that I’ve turned off my brain, but when I look at my sprawling list of leads and tasks, I pick one and do it instead of deliberating the pros and cons of each choice. Every time I return to my studio, I check my phone messages and e-mail, then make another round of calls and posts. Dial. Leave message. Rinse and repeat. The more I accomplish, it seems, the longer my to-do list gets. And every Wednesday, another story of mine gets published in the Beat.

But this rejection hits me harder than I expect, and I feel like chucking everything and returning to the refuge of counting other people’s money. There’s a comforting certainty to double entry bookkeeping, the knowledge that you either get it right or you don’t. There’s none of that nebulous subjectivity you get with music or art or writing. And no one expects you to work on spec.

I saw this coming, but I chose to be blindly optimistic. The problem is that I don’t have shit on Con. Of course I’m repeating myself.

I have a long list of leads. I’ve made dozens of phone calls. I visited two transfer stations, five buyback centers, Con’s regional headquarters, a bunch of recycling facilities. There was enough show-and-tell at the transfer stations and recycling yards to wrap a couple of stories around. Add a few of Doug’s accusations, some of the parent company’s criminal fines and recent purchases and mergers, and presto, there’s 1200 words. My editor was delighted with the first three stories, but she’s right. I have to amp it up to the next level.

Meanwhile, I’ve found plenty of evidence of turmoil at Re-Be, and I’ve reported precious little of that. I don’t this want to be an exposé of disorganization and posturing at Re-Be. They’re not ruthlessly efficient there, but neither are they ruthless. I want to focus on Consolidated Scavenger, but I don’t have access to anyone inside except Barb.

Of course, I’m not making it any easier on myself by reporting on people I know and care about. I’ve been careful to acknowledge, in every story, that I once volunteered to help Re-Be with its bookkeeping. After my first story, I thought it might be better to recuse myself, but the Beat doesn’t seem to care. It’s an unabashed advocate for leftist and environmental and gay causes. My editor says it’s fine to be supportive of Re-Be as long as I don’t paint them as knights on white horses. And get my facts right.

I want to tell the truth, but not be a megaphone for Doug’s paranoid ravings, or say too bluntly that Re-Be is in as much danger from internal strife as from any predatory multinational. I suppose, like Doug says, I’m creating truth as much as reporting it. My truth, though, not his. But, damn, no one wants to publish it.

Okay, I feel crappy. Get over it. Get back to work.

I grab the phone, close my eyes and point a finger at the piece of paper on my desk. It’s a phone list of Scavenger employees that Doug faxed me this morning. I can see thumbtack holes on the fax. He probably pulled it off a bulletin board when he left Barb’s office. I dial the name my finger is on.

On my fourth call, I get a live person. Judy Killea. She hesitates after my spiel. She has a hint of a Southern accent. “What is it exactly that you’re looking for?”

“Like I said, I’m thinking of applying for a job at Scavenger and I’m trying to find out if it’s a good place to work. What do you do there?”

“Why are you calling me?” she asks.

“I got transferred. Someone said you might be a good person to talk to.”

“You should talk to HR,” she says.

“I want to hear the unofficial story.”

“Not from me you will.”

“Wait,” I say, just as she’s about to hang up.

I look down at the script I threw together, but it doesn’t go this far.

“Well, you see, I’m wondering, Consolidated Scavenger is a big company, is there anyone you can think of who would have a unique perspective, someone who likes to talk—”

“I’m going to transfer you,” she says, and I hang up in the middle of the first ring.

A few callers later, I reach someone who sounds bored and perks up when I start asking questions. He doesn’t seem to like his job much. “Beats working,” he says. I try to draw him out, but don’t get much. I ask if there’s anyone else I might talk to, maybe someone who used to work there.

“Donna,” he says.

“Donna?”

“Donna Rowland. Worked in the press office. We went drinking a couple times. She’s way cute.”

“You have her number?”

“Wish I did. I asked her for it.”

“You know where she works now. Or lives?”

“Yeah, yeah, over in the city. Her place I mean. It’s near where they’re building that new ballpark, she said the pile driving started at 7 a.m., shook her apartment. That’s why she came in early every day. You find her, tell her Neil says hey.”

I flip the San Francisco phone book open to R before the connection’s broken. No Donna Rowland, but there’s a D Rowland, which I try. No Donna there. I try the switchboard at Scavenger posing as an old friend of Donna. No luck.

I take a break to do some bookkeeping. Still have to bring home some bacon, even if I don’t eat meat and my home is an office. But I can’t concentrate.

I call the press office at Con, saying I’m an old friend trying to track Donna down. Monte Irwin, who was testy when I talked to him to a couple weeks ago, comes on the line. “Why would we do anything illegal?” he said to me back then. “There’s plenty of money to be made operating a legitimate business. People are always willing to pay someone to take care of their garbage.”

I don’t want him to recognize me, so I cough a little and talk in a low throaty voice. He transfers me to Human Resources. While the phone rings, I practice my basso profundo some more.

“Hi, this is Cathy,” a chipper voice says to me.

“Hello Cathy, this is Bill Jamison, I’m an independent auditor working on your employees’ insurance records for extended COBRA coverage—I’ve got this discrepancy here, I wonder if you can help me. It’s Donna Rowland, that’s R-O-W-L-A-N-D. She’s no longer with you, is that right?”

“She left in the spring. She didn’t take COBRA.”

I walk around my tiny studio and hold the phone to my ear with my shoulder. I talk with my hands to help me stay in character.

“The records I’m looking are contradictory,” I say, turning on the grovel. “In one place she says she wants continued coverage, then somewhere else it says no. I’m sure it’s a mistake on our end, the data entry, we really should pay those people more, awful job, no wonder there are mistakes. I know you’re busy, I can’t expect you to sort this out. I’m calling because the home number says 997-5987, but—“

“That’s the communications department.”

“I’m sure it’s just a data entry mistake on our end. I just wonder if you have a home number.”

“We have a policy about not giving out employee numbers. I’m sorry. Or ex-employees.”

“Of course, of course, listen, I know this would be a pain for you, but might you call her and leave her my number? It would only take a second, and would really help me out. The deadline is the 20th and I’ll be on the road this weekend and then I’ve got this training and—well, you don’t need to hear my excuses.”

I smile to myself. Who is this guy?

“I don’t think you need to worry,” she says, “I’m positive she didn’t request COBRA. She went straight into another job.”

I give her my number, then try three other names from the employee list, leave a few different messages, some as myself, some as Jamison.

My ear is tired. I’m restless and discouraged. It’s only eleven. I’ve already downed three cups of coffee. Another one will roil my stomach.

I wash my face in the deep utility sink. Most of the studios in my warehouse are rented by artists who use their sinks for cleaning brushes or rinsing clay off their fingers. I wash my dishes in here. Socks too. (Not at the same time.)

I call Jesse, my editor, and try to convince her that my story deserves to run. I remind her that my submissions have been well-researched and well-written—she’s hardly had to edit them—and I’ve been on time and reliable.

She sighs. “That’s true, and I appreciate that, but maybe I’ve reached my quota for drama about recycling. Or lack of drama. I’m not convinced enough readers are that interested.”

“But this is not just bottles and cans. It’s an archetypal Berkeley story. I mean, I’ve got strong career woman Barb Genessee, working for a giant transnational with a lengthy rap sheet, squaring off against embittered former lover Doug Spaulding, working for the rabble-rousing do-gooders, the kitchen-table collective. One power struggle mirrors another. At stake, a million-dollar-a-year contract, the city council majority, and if Doug is to be believed, the soul of Berkeley. Add sex and stir.”

“That’s not the story you turned in,” she says.

“You’re right. But it’s the one you’ll get in a couple hours.”

3. None of Us Will Ever Forgive You

Wasted.091814My “green noir” mystery novel, Wasted, takes place in October 1998, as Berkeley experiences an unusually hot and prolonged Indian Summer.

Every day this October, I am posting a chapter of Wasted. You can read it like a serial novel, a chapter a day for a month. The day’s chapter will be here, the already posted chapters at johnbyrnebarry.com/wasted.

3. None of Us Will Ever Forgive You

According to Solano County Assistant District Attorney Maria Gonzavez, several small waste haulers complained they were being harassed and followed by Consolidated Scavenger trucks, and that their customers were “blitzed”—this is, offered below-market rates for garbage hauling. Pretty soon, said Gonzavez, Scavenger had all the contracts and the small haulers were out of business.

—Glenn Fontana, “Monopoly Mania: How Two Companies Came to Dominate California’s Garbage Business,” Corporate Crime Quarterly, Spring 1998

[Monday. October 12. 2:30 p.m.]

I fell in love with Barb the first time I met her, nine years ago, in the middle of another Indian summer. My band, the Burning Bridges, performed a benefit concert in the Re-Be yard to support a city ballot measure calling for a five-year moratorium on garbage incinerators. (It won.) The sun was scorching and Barb wore a skimpy spaghetti-strap dress with sandals and I flirted with her shamelessly, which I could somehow do with a guitar strapped on my shoulders. I was dazzled by how her face gleamed in the sun, how she stood close to me and touched my arm as we talked, how her sparkling eyes held mine so intently.

We were babbling about nothing, mostly the weather, but it was all subtext. For me, anyway. She said something about how rarely it got this hot in Berkeley, and very quickly we figured out that we grew up in the same state, she in Kansas City, me in St. Louis.

“Well, I like it hot,” she said, twisting her hair around her fingers. Then this lanky, longhaired guy with close-set eyes came up behind her and put his arm around her waist. “This is Doug,” she said, taking a step backward. Doug nodded. “Righteous tunes, man.” Then led her away.

A few years later, when the band was ancient history, Eileen and I were married, I was making a modest, albeit dull living counting money for various businesses and nonprofits. I walked into Re-Be looking for work and ended up volunteering, working with Barb to get Re-Be’s books on the computer. I told myself it was for a good cause—giving back to the community and all that—and maybe other people believed that. All I wanted an excuse to be near Barb.

Last winter, I ran into her on a gloomy night at a political poetry slam at the Bolshevik Café and we hung out afterwards, drinking beer and commiserating about how unhappy we were in our respective relationships. I remember telling her that Eileen and I had “retreated into our private disappointments.”

Doug is the one who urged me to write about the “recycling wars”—that’s his term, though I’ve adopted it—and I really am strangely fascinated with the gritty and metaphor-filled world of garbage and recycling. But would I be chasing this story if not to reconnect with Barb? Maybe. Of course, if I’m successful exposing Con’s misdeeds, Barb’s not likely to be thrilled with me, so who knows how smart this whole idea is?

Monday afternoon, after lunch, I bicycle to Barb’s office in downtown Oakland. I lock my bike to a parking meter and climb the stairs, two at a time, to her fifth floor office, pushing off my knee with one hand, pulling on the railing with the other. I stop at the fourth floor landing to catch my breath and peek out a narrow window across Lake Merritt towards the bone-dry Oakland hills. I lift my arm and sniff. A hint of the locker room, but only if I jab my nose in there.

I’m nervous. I’m going to ask Barb to dinner. Slip the invitation into the conversation casually, as if it just occurred to me. This is the first time I’ve seen her one-on-one with us both unattached.

When I walk into her office, she grins at me from her chair, gesturing in a self-mocking manner. Like the Pope greeting the masses. “Welcome to my palace,” she says.

I make eye contact and hold it. I smile and rotate my head slowly to take in the spacious office.

She pushes her chair back and comes out from behind her desk. I bend on one knee and take her hand with a light grip. “May I kiss your ring?” I say.

She waves me up and gives me a hug, then motions me to the group of chairs in the corner. She seems happy to see me. Neither of us says anything until we’re seated. “If I let them,” she says, “they’d have someone bring me coffee in the morning, do all my faxes, make all my copies. ‘That’s why we have support staff, Barb.’ But I’m not used to this queen-bee stuff and they’re starting to understand that.”

She pauses.

“The good news is I don’t have to fix any trucks.”

Barb never has played the queen-bee role, despite her many accomplishments and her leadership. She’s always been less a tada-here-I-am person and more oh-there-you-are. She was stamped with the same Midwestern modesty template as I was, but working at Re-Be certainly magnified that. Stars not allowed at Re-Be.

“I hear you and Eileen split up,” she says. “How are you handling that?” She reaches over and touches me on my wrist.

“How do you—?”

“I ran into her on the street. We had a nice talk.”

“A little venting about your exes, I suppose.”

“Actually, no. She said she was sad that you two couldn’t work it out, and she wished you the best in your next chapter.”

“Oh.”

“But you’re not doing so great, are you?”

“No, I’m fine. Well, fine might be stretching it. But how do you know all this?”

“Lucky guess.”

She leans forward in her chair, listens intently, her eyes wide and inviting.

“Well, I’m okay,” I say, “but I still find myself having all these conversations with Eileen, as if something doesn’t happen unless I tell her about it. I write letters I never send. I—but I didn’t come here to blather away about myself, I wanted to see you, to interview you for my story, give you a chance to balance some of the crazy things Doug has told me.”

And to ask you to dinner. But that gets caught in my throat.

She stands up and walks over to the wall next to me and straightens out a slightly askew Ansel Adams print, that one with the full moon over New Mexico.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll figure it out. You’ve got a lot going for you.”

I tell her about my visit with Doug yesterday, how agitated he was, how he pushed me in the baler. “I felt like I’d been transported into one of those after-school, black-and-white TV shows where Batman is about to be crushed or impaled in some devious death trap by a cackling villain. Except I only had a few seconds to get out of there.”

I leave out Doug’s spiteful comments about her, but do say that I’m concerned about the intensity of his anger, with me and with her. She closes her eyes and rubs her forehead.

“I don’t mean to suggest that you’re responsible or anything,” I say. “I’m not part of the firing squad. I respect what you’ve done.”

“Do you?” She sounds skeptical.

No one at Re-Be has questioned Barb’s decision to leave Doug. “What took you so long?” is the most common reaction. Some, however, are giving her grief for taking a paycheck from Consolidated Scavenger. Of course, Re-Be seems to be floundering without her, so that’s part of the mix.

She walks over to the window, adjusts the blinds to block the bright afternoon sun.

“Brian, what am I supposed to do?” she says, her voice quivering with despair. “Don’t you think I know how he’s acting? He’s stuck. As if his shoes are nailed to the ground.”

“I didn’t mean to dump all this on you. I’m doing this story like I said on the phone, but I really came because I wanted to see you.”

“Here I am.”

She wraps her hair in her fingers, looks down. She ties her thick hair back, but strands are always getting loose and hanging down the side of her face. She’s constantly pushing her hair behind her ears—if she saw herself on video, she’d be shocked how often she does that.

She looks up, but past me, her eyes unfocused, tired. “It took me years to break up with Doug, but I’m still not free. I’m determined not to give him the satisfaction of seeing he’s getting to me, but I’m afraid that one day I’m going to snap.”

She glances towards her desk, then back to her hands.

“I don’t want to be a victim. I’m too privileged to embrace victimhood. I’ve got a lovely place to live, meaningful work, enough to eat, too much to eat even. But somehow because Doug was so headstrong about this collective principle, and I don’t know, threatened somehow by my competence, I found myself feeling like a victim. Unappreciated. Stuck. Feeling sorry for myself. That’s not who I am, not who I want to be. But that’s what I was becoming. I had to leave to save my life.”

“Amen. And you have.”

“I have.” She nods, her lips pressed together in a pout that seems to say that saving her life is still a work in progress, more a goal than an achievement.

“You don’t look like a victim,” I say. “You look great.”

“Thanks,” she says, and then comes an awkward silence and I ask her about work. She begins explaining how she’s redesigning the commercial recycling program in Emeryville and Oakland, a spiel she clearly has trotted out before. She relaxes, relieved that we’re onto something she can talk about with ease.

She talks with undulating hands, like her Italian forebears, punctuating her sentences with fingers spread wide. Despite her weariness, she looks absolutely lovely, with her lithe, graceful gymnast’s body, her Mediterranean face with a tint of olive. Her black hair, lightly streaked with white and gray, gives her gravity and elegance. Her face is too angular to be classically beautiful, but she’s “handsome” in a hardworking, modest, comfortable-in-her-own-skin way. She looks stronger and thinner than when I worked with her on the bookkeeping three years ago, but it’s jarring to see her wrapped in a business suit. I’m used to her in simple jeans and t-shirts with colorful earrings and braided bracelets and bright Guatemalan shawls. She’s done a lot of work on herself in the past few years—running, modern dance, therapy, swimming, yoga, juice fasts, and so on. I heard from Kisa that one reason Barb wanted a better job was so she could afford more therapy and bodywork. I’ve heard her summer’s been a dramatic one, full of tears and late-night calls to friends.

She’s talking about Scavenger’s plans to start collecting food waste from restaurants when her phone beeps. She holds up a finger to put us on pause, then walks to her desk and punches a button on the phone.

After a sputter of static, a female voice comes over the speaker. “There’s a Doug Spaulding here in the lobby. He says he’ll wait as long as he needs to until you see him.”

Barb rolls her eyes. She presses the button on the phone, holding her finger there, and says, with pleading eyes, “Stay.”

I nod. She releases the button. “Send him up.”

She shakes her head. “This is the third time he’s showed up. I’ve avoided him twice. I’ll feel safer with you here.”

“Are you afraid he’s going to hurt you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “You know the story, right?”

I nod again. “Second- and third-hand. Doug said it wasn’t you breaking up with him that hurt, it was you working here.”

“So he says.”

She opens the door, then sits down behind her desk and takes a few deep breaths.

I see Doug ambling down the hall, all legs and elbows, looking out of place in his denim work shirt and ponytail. Though he’s pushing fifty, he still moves with the gangliness of a teenager during a growth spurt. He squints as he enters, nods at me. Not a hint of surprise.

She points to an armchair. “Have a seat.”

Doug marches directly towards her until the desk stops him. He pushes, but the desk is heavy and doesn’t budge. Then, his thighs against the edge of the desk, he leans forward, and glowers at her. She meets his stare without flinching. I’m holding my breath.

He steps back and starts pacing.

She straightens a stack of paper that’s already straight. Her desk is neat and uncluttered. At Re-Be, her workspace was never this orderly.

“We’re watching,” he says, hands folded behind his back. He’s casual, low-key. With no affect. “You step on our turf and it’s war. And we don’t play by the rules.”

“Do we have to go over this again, Doug? This turf business is so tedious. It’s like the crazies saying Re-Be gets its marching orders from Havana. Do you really think Con is going to move in on Berkeley? We’re still—”

“Damn fuckin’ straight I do—”

“Let me finish.” She brushes her hair behind her ear, holds it there with her fingers. “We have our hands full jumpstarting the commercial program. Residential is not that lucrative, you know that. You have to trust me on this. If I thought for one nanosecond that working here would endanger Re-Be, I wouldn’t be here. Period.”

Doug’s fists clench by his side. “None of us will ever forgive you.”

“You might never forgive me,” says Barb. “That’s your problem. But I talk with Kisa, with Shannon, Ray, they understand. They—”

“That’s bullshit. They don’t have the guts to call you traitor to your face. I do.”

“How brave of you.”

I slouch back in my chair, careful to not draw attention to myself. But they know I’m here.

“You know Con is using you,” Doug says.

“That’s why they pay me. That’s why they call it a job. They pay me money and then they expect me to accomplish something in return. It’s called the real world, Douglas, it’s something—”

“You’re contemptible. You’re a whore. You—”

“Cool it, Doug.” I jump up. “Barb is not the enemy. She’s—”

“Oh, Hunter speaks his mind,” snaps Doug, turning his glare on me. “That’s right, I forgot, you’re sweet on Barb, aren’t you? That’s so touching. You two would make such a cute couple, you with—”

“Enough!” Barb says. She turns to me, in a quieter voice. “Brian, I can defend myself, I’ve been doing it for years. Way too many years.”

I ignore her. “Doug, get yourself some help. Put on some boxing gloves and swing at a punching bag or something. Get a bat and whack some pillows. You’re way out of line.”

“She betrayed us,” says Doug, addressing me and pointing his finger at Barb, “and she doesn’t even know it.” He can’t hide the weariness and distress under his hostility. For a second, it almost seems like he wants to roll up into a ball and cry. Behind the turf war bluster, his message to Barb is unmistakable: “How could you leave me?”

He regroups, turns back to Barb, raising his voice to a saccharine snarl. “Let’s see. How do we take over?”

He counts off with his fingers. “First, we steal their best people, bribe them, put them up in fancy offices with vacant postmodern crap on the walls. Second, we lowball the bid to get the contract. Third, we squeeze out the competition and bury them in—”

Barb stands, her palms on the desk, and leans across her desk. “Don’t talk down to me,” Her voice is even and controlled. “My eyes are wide open. I know you. You don’t have the discipline to work in the real world. God, you might have to be on time for meetings. You might—”

“I know all about the real world—”

“No, you don’t. You don’t. You’d rather stay where you are and blame it all on me. You call yourself a radical, but all you do is sit on the sidelines and complain about rich people. What’s so revolutionary about collecting bottles and cans in 1998? Why not let a mainstream company handle it? Get Re-Be out on the cutting edge with something no one else will do.”

“Only Con is not just some mainstream operation,” Doug says, “it’s a mother-fucking global criminal. You’ve got a trail of blood and toxic waste all over South Asia. You’re dumping radioactive stew in the Ganges River in India, shipping incinerator ash full of dioxins to Burma where they put it into concrete construction bricks—”

“And Con has racked up more than $50 million in fines and penalties,” Barb says, mimicking Doug’s voice and cadence. “Con’s been convicted of price-fixing, conspiracy, illegal dumping, child pornography, white slavery, organ trafficking—“

“Oh, I almost forgot,” says Doug. “Step four. Jack up recycling rates by threatening poachers and sending them to Berkeley, with a fucking map of the Re-Be routes.”

Barb sighs, then picks up the phone and punches in a number. “So, are you going to leave now or do you want me to call security? Let me guess. You want to make a scene and then whine about how you were manhandled by the big badass corporate criminals? It’s your call.”

“Believe it,“ he says. “I’ve seen the maps.”

He pushes up against the desk again and glares at her. This time he rams his legs into the desk with such force that it lurches an inch towards her. With the phone in her left hand, she sits down and writes a note on a pad of paper. As calm as if she were alone in the office.

Doug turns to leave, shooting me a squinty-eyed sneer. “You’ll regret this,” he says, loud enough for most of downtown Oakland to hear. At first, I think he’s talking to me, but he couldn’t be.

When Doug leaves, Barb stands up and exhales, as if she’s been holding her breath for the past ten minutes. I take a tentative step toward her. She moves behind her chair and tightly grips the blue fabric of its back and breathes in and out. Then she takes a drink from her light blue mug and moves toward me. I open my arms wide and she leans into them, but she still has the mug in her hand and it gets stuck between us and spills, and my backpack slips off my shoulders. But she holds on. I can feel her trembling. “Thank you for being here,” she says.

She pulls away and points at the wet spot on my shirt. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s only water,” I say. “Hey, let’s sit down.”

I take her hand and lead her to the chairs in the corner. We sit. She squeezes my hand for a second then lets go and jumps up.

“Look, I need to earn my mercenary paycheck, bring this program in under budget and how the hell am I supposed to do that without busting my ass?” She’s mumbling now and disappearing before my eyes.

“We underbid to get the contract, just like he said, and somehow I’m supposed to make a profit. But the numbers don’t add up and well, you don’t want to hear about it.”

“Actually I do.”

She leans her head back, closes her eyes. “Maybe another time.”

“Now works for me.” I pause. “Okay, another time. I’ll call you. I’d love to see you under better circumstances. To have fun.”

“Fun,” she says. “I forget what fun is.”

“He’s really being an asshole,” I say. “But he is right about one thing—I am ‘sweet on you.’”

On my way down, through the window in the stairwell between the third and fourth floor, I see Doug climb into his battered bread truck and scream up San Pablo towards Berkeley with a squeal of tires.

2. Illegal Contributions

Wasted.091814My “green noir” mystery novel, Wasted, takes place in October 1998, as Berkeley experiences an unusually hot and prolonged Indian Summer.

Every day this October, I am posting a chapter of Wasted. You can read it like a serial novel, a chapter a day for a month. The day’s chapter will be here, the already posted chapters at johnbyrnebarry.com/wasted.

2. Illegal Contributions

A dozen years ago, recycling was a gangly wide-eyed youth, all arms and legs and save-the-planet idealism. Now it’s grown up and faces these pesky problems that come with adulthood. Shareholders want their dividends. Ratepayers want low rates. Workers want raises. That youthful promise doesn’t cut it anymore. I don’t care what kind of grades you got in college, kid, you’re in the real world now. Let’s see your stuff.

—Brian Hunter, “Recycling Grows Up,” East Bay Beat, October 7, 1998

[Monday. October 12. 10:30 a.m.]

The next morning, I follow the money to Emeryville.

I call James Wilcox at work, but he’s out, so I decide a face-to-face interview is worth a try. I learn more in person. I look unthreatening—put me in a UPS uniform with a package and all anyone will remember is the brown uniform.

I’m not striking, like, say, Doug, who’s not handsome in anybody’s book, but memorable with all his sharp angles and jerky movements. I’m somewhere between handsome and bland—soft-featured, wiry, a pleasant enough face. Five nine in hiking boots. Skinny as a sapling. Back when I used to play guitar in a hard-driving neo-punk, acid-folk-rock, Afro-Cuban Clash-wannabe band. I could get down and dirty, but one friend used to say I was too white. Hey, I am what I am, a northern European mutt. I do have a nice thick mop of hair, though it’s poorly cut, according to at least one source. A month ago, at a lunch meeting of the West Berkeley Business League, I overheard two women talking about me. “He’d be pretty cute if he got a decent haircut and some nice clothes. He’s got a nice bouncy quality.”

I’m not feeling bouncy this morning. The gash on my cheek is small enough I don’t feel like a pirate, but I’m tense in the crick beneath my shoulder blades, and I can’t seem to untie the knot tightening between my temples. And I wasn’t doing so great before my fight with Doug.

To be honest, my life is pretty fucked up at the moment. I live illegally in my office, in a low-slung wooden 1920’s warehouse, a warren of dance studios and art galleries and the toxic-sweet scent of petroleum products wafting through the low-ceilinged hallways.

I know my glass-blowing neighbor Maya sometimes spends the night here. Sometimes when I pad to the bathroom around midnight, I can see her stove burning orange though her partly ajar door, and then long after I’ve made my coffee and read my newspapers and started on my workday, I’ve seen her open her studio door from the inside. But I know she has an apartment, or did, and she has her boyfriend’s place as well, though I sense she’s not so sure about this boyfriend.

This sleeping in my office is temporary. I’m just trying to save some money and get my bearings back.

The bustling, post-industrial West Berkeley neighborhood I walk through from my studio toward Emeryville is an area in transition. Most, but not all of the old steel foundries and manufacturing plants have flown off to Kuala Lumpur or Tijuana. Dozens of retrofitted industrial shells now house an eclectic mix of dance companies, software startups, consumer boutiques, rug importers, publishers, pottery collectives, and artist studios.

On the block next to mine the 19th century collides with the 21st—the Berkeley Brass Foundry, a brown-brick fortress erected in 1895, squats across the street from a sleek glass and steel cube that houses a biotech startup. There are still enough railroad tracks, workers with hard hats, and peppy ladybug-like forklifts zipping to and fro to give the neighborhood a gritty feel, but you can also find a good cappuccino within four blocks in any direction.

Maya hates it. “Friggin’ Starbucks’ll be here soon,” she snarls.

I second that snarl, but secretly I like the mix, wish I could freeze the moment, savor it, like those last chapters of a satisfying thriller. But I can’t.

That’s why they’re called transitions. They don’t last.

Emeryville, ten minutes from my studio, has already “gone over to the dark side,” as one of my friends says.

When I first came to the East Bay in the mid-’80s, this little city of 5,000 residents was invisible. Carved out of the northwest corner of Oakland, Emeryville was known only for its card rooms, where low-stakes gambling was allowed and high-stakes games tolerated. Now it’s bursting with cranes and construction. Berkeley and Oakland want developers to pay mitigation costs, build responsibly, and so on. Emeryville says, come on in, do whatever you like. From the abandoned factories and vacant lots sprung sprawling software campuses, high rise apartments and hotels, shopping complexes, a shiny new Amtrak station. IKEA is building a giant store by the freeway. A planning commissioner I know says dourly, “I failed to prevent the Emeryvillization of Emeryville.”

But the neighborhood where Brady and Wilcox live is as shabby as ever. The row of one-story brick townhouses has the charm of Army barracks, only less so. The Brady/Wilcox place is not as ramshackle as Doug described, though it’s on the same block as the house with the knee-high weeds and the clunker up on blocks.

I don’t hear anything when I press the doorbell, so I rap loudly on the door. With each knock there’s a thin metallic ring, as if an empty coat hanger is rattling on a hook.

A woman with fluorescent red hair opens the door a sliver. Doug didn’t describe Lynn Brady, but I imagined a sugary hillbilly housewife in an apron. Not even close. Tall, late twenties, pink and punkish with black horn-rimmed glasses, she wears her hair in a severe slant from crew cut short in front to long and straight in back. A silver stud pokes through her nose. I hear the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” playing behind her.

“What?” she asks.

“Hi, my name is Brian Hunter. I’m a writer for a weekly newspaper in Oakland called the Beat. I’m writing about the upcoming election and I wonder if I can ask you a few questions.”

“I don’t have anything to say about politics.”

“Are you sure about that? It says here on the Candidate Contribution Compliance Report from the city clerk’s office in Berkeley that you and your husband—is that James Wilcox?”

“Uh huh,” she say, gripping the door as if she’s ready to swing it closed. All I can see is her face and neck.

“It says Lynn Brady and James Wilcox each made a contribution of five hundred dollars to Sheila Womack and five hundred to Chris Wass, both running for Berkeley City Council.”

“Must be something my husband took care of.”

She starts to close the door, but I slide my foot in its path. “I’m not trying to get you into trouble,” I say through the four-inch gap. “It’s just that making an illegal campaign contribution is a felony under California election law and you could go to jail. Two of the checks are from you. Could they have been made in your name without your knowledge?”

The color drains from her cheeks. Her eyes dart from side to side, as if looking for an escape route. I nudge the door open with my knee.

“You and your husband have made the maximum contribution to a city council candidate in a neighboring city when it doesn’t appear that you have a lot of extra money. You don’t, do you? Have a lot of extra money?”

She doesn’t answer.

“Ma’am, are you registered to vote?”

“I’ve got to go,” she says, withdrawing behind the door. I reach in and give her my card and ask her to have her husband call me. I remove my foot and she closes the door. By now, the Beatles are onto “Bungalow Bill.”

I didn’t plan to scare her, but I’m so used to professionals like the Consolidated Scavenger press reps who don’t flinch when I ask them tough questions. I felt bad, but also good that I was able to strike fear into someone. She did appear to genuinely not know anything, but she was also more nervous than the circumstances dictated, even before I jabbed with the felony line.

Next I visit the third floor at city hall.

I’ve never met Sheila Womack or Chris Wass. I try Wass first, but no one answers.

I approach Womack’s office cautiously. Doug blasted me for not being partisan enough. Womack is likely to feel the opposite.

The door is open a few feet and I hear two voices.

I recognize the first as Gill Sykes, Womack’s aide. I met him once at a solid waste commission meeting. He wore a double-breasted suit and a diamond earring, the other six of us were in jeans and T-shirts. Doug described him as “ambitious with a capital A.” He’s a slight African American man about the same build as me, maybe thirty years old.

“I can run my own life, sweetie,” I hear him say. “I don’t need you playing Lady Macbeth.”

Then comes a woman’s voice, cool and measured. “I hear hesitation where I want to hear enthusiasm. But it’s your play.”

I don’t know who it is, but it’s not Womack. I crane my neck to get closer. All I can see is a wall of bookshelves and a bicycle helmet.

“I’m just looking both ways before I cross the road” he says, “Lot of dangerous drivers out there—“

“You didn’t look both ways before jumping into my bed,” she says, sounding disparaging and seductive at the same time.

“Oh, I didn’t think you were dangerous.” I hear a wink in his voice. “Lucky for me I was wrong about that. Very wrong. And very lucky.”

Then comes a thunk on the floor, like someone dropping a heavy bag, followed by the slurpiness of a kiss. Then whispers. The hallway is empty. I edge closer to the opening. Suddenly, the door opens inward and she walks out.

I twist quickly to my left and scoot over to the bulletin board. The woman, tall and thin with shoulder-length blond hair and a glint of turquoise earrings, catches my eye before I turn. I swallow and arch my head towards the board to study the agenda for the upcoming meeting on off-leash dogs.

“You were listening, weren’t you?” she says. I put my finger on the board as if to read the notice better. Pretend I don’t hear her. But I feel her stare boring through my back. Go away. Please.

But I’ve been yapping at myself about not being timid. So I turn to face her. Wow, she’s gorgeous. Delicious lips with whitish-pink gloss, long pale legs with a sparkling green ankle bracelet.

“Hi, my name is Brian.” I offer my hand and give her a warm smile.

She hesitates, more anxious than angry. I keep my hand outstretched.

“Abby,” she says, and gives me a tepid handshake.

“Abby, Hi. Um, this is going to sound weird, I’m sure, but—“ I stop and look at my shoes. “It’s sort of embarrassing.”

She looks at me with suspicion, then opens her hands as if to say, go ahead, whatever, but I’m skeptical.

“Well, I saw you walking up the stairs and I was so captivated by you and I was hoping to talk to you and get your phone number, but then you ducked into that office, and I was waiting, and well, can I call you?”

I grab a pen and notebook from my pack and stand poised to write down her number.

I freeze with the pen an inch from the page. She relaxes her face and squeezes out a tiny smile, as if someone were twisting her arm behind her back. “I’m flattered,” she says, “but no thanks.”

She pulls sunglasses out of her enormous purse and puts them on. “And stop following me, or I’ll call the police.” She hurries down the stairs.

Okay, she didn’t believe me. So what? I grin to myself, pleased with my impromptu performance. Not only did I disarm her, or distract her at least, I managed to practice my flirting at the same time. So unlike me. Unlike the old me, that is.

From the stairwell railing, I follow Abby’s head as it gets smaller and she flits through the first floor lobby to the Milvia Street entrance. I turn back to Womack’s office, but Sykes is headed out the door. I walk next to him, tell him I’m a reporter for the Beat, and ask him if he can answer some questions about contributors to Womack’s campaign.

“Not now.”

“Tell me about James Wilcox and Lynn Brady? They’ve each given your campaign five hundred dollars.”

“It’s a big city,” he says, walking fast. We’re halfway to the second floor. “Sheila has supporters she’s never met, people who like what she stands for. Now if you’ll excuse me.”

I race down the steps to keep up. “I have evidence that it’s Con’s money, Consolidated Scavenger, and that Wilcox and Brady are being used. Which means their contributions are illegal.”

He stops with one hand on the railing and his feet on different steps and whips back towards me, but then his frown melts into a smirk.

“If you’re so concerned about election corruption,” he says slowly, “you might ask around about the Re-Be slush fund.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Simple: Re-Be is illegally diverting funds it receives from the city for recycling work and funneling them to the PJs for election activities.”

“Really? Is there proof?”

“We’re assuming the auditors will find it. They’re looking.”

“And who is ‘we’?”

“We? ‘We’ would be the law-abiding citizens of Berkeley, California.”

1. Truth is for Cowards

My “green noir” mystery novel, Wasted, takes place in October 1998, as Berkeley experiences an unusually hot and prolonged Indian Summer.

Every day this October, I am posting a chapter of Wasted. You can read it like a serial novel, a chapter a day for a month. The day’s chapter will be here, the already posted chapters at johnbyrnebarry.com/wasted. My goal is to publish Wasted by December 1 and I am seeking readers and feedback.

If you’d like to read the book without waiting a day between chapters, please contact me — I have advance readers copies available now as e-books and, within a couple weeks, as trade paperbacks. All I ask is that you write an honest review.

(If you haven’t read my other novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, which I wrote after Wasted, you can read the first three chapters here, and buy it here. It’s fun and fast-paced. Read reviews here.)

Here’s the first chapter.

Wasted.091814

1. Truth is for Cowards

“For years, the big garbage companies worked overtime to discredit and stop the recycling bandwagon,” says longtime activist Doug Spaulding of Recycle Berkeley, a.k.a. Re-Be. “Now they don’t just want to get on the bandwagon. They want to buy the whole thing and kick the rest of us off.”

—Brian Hunter, “The Garbage Shortage,” East Bay Beat, September 30, 1998

[Sunday. October 11. 9 a.m.]

I see Doug before he sees me, and I pause in the shadow of the Re-Be gate to watch him. He’s driving a dusty yellow John Deere forklift, precariously balancing five bales of cardboard and drumming his hands on the steering wheel. He’s wearing headphones and singing, but I can’t hear him above the groan of the engine.

His frayed jumpsuit, dotted with oil stains and holes, looks like it will disintegrate in the next wash, and his graying ponytail pokes out the back of his orange and black Giants baseball cap. It’s his carefully cultivated Joe Working Class Hippie look, but he grew up in the high-hat suburbs of San Diego and has a Ph.D. in Biology.

I take a breath—dealing with Doug takes an extra shot of oxygen—and stroll into the yard. Doug drops the bales onto a flatbed truck, zips away in reverse, and skids to a halt. He leans into a turn with his shoulder, and grimaces as if his shoulder is bearing the weight. When he sees me, there’s a flicker of embarrassment, then he jerks the headphones off and hops down from the cab.

“I want to show you what we’re up against,” he says. “I will not be fucking intimidated.” Doug, have you heard of hello?

An hour ago, he woke me with a phone call, growling, “You want evidence? Bring a shopping cart. And your camera.”

Doug leads me to his boxy white 1950s bread truck, with the faded Langendorf Bakery logo still visible on one side.

“Front tire punctured. And they leave the fucking screwdriver on my front seat. And the gloves. They want me to know.”

“And who, specifically, is they?” I ask, as innocently as possible. “Tom Herman? Julian?”

“Of course not. Some grunt they hired. I already told you about that whacked-out poacher who tried to kill me. I mean, my life is in danger.”

Doug’s a modern guy—he surfs the Web, follows aluminum prices on the commodities market, listens to Beck and Dave Matthews, and uses sunscreen. But his contempt for “yuppie scum,” his characterization of landlords as “parasites and extortionists,” his sneering about rich people this and rich people that pigeonhole him as a ’60s relic. He’s practically a caricature.

Yet I admire his unflinching passion, wish I had more of it myself. Of course, Doug is a coward in his own way, rarely turning his critical and perceptive eye on himself.

“So what did the police say about all this?” I frame the front tire and passenger door of the truck in my viewfinder.

He hesitates.

“You didn’t call them.”

“Why bother? They’re in on it.”

I put down my camera and give him a skeptical look. “‘Paranoia strikes deep,’” I say, “’‘Into your life it will creep.’ Stephen Stills.”

He stops me with a pointed finger, flashes a phony grin. “Hey, ‘A paranoid is a man who has all the facts.’ Williams S. Burroughs.”

“Yeah, and he was a junkie who shot his wife,” I answer.

“Oh, there’s more. Stay tuned.” He grabs my arm. I shake free. He strides across the pavement, crunching broken glass and tin can lids under his work boots. I stuff my notebook in my back pocket and grab my camera. Rabbit, the old spaniel mutt that Re-Be has adopted, is sleeping in the sun next to the buyback scale. He wiggles his tail in a weak imitation of a wag, then buries his nose in his paws and closes his eyes. I pat him on the head. Not much time left for him. Doug weaves past two huge blue bins overflowing with glass bottles, then stops at the base of the cinder block wall that encloses the yard.

Re-Be’s had a lot of break-ins over the years. Homeless people sleep in the hut. Others get in somehow, fill bags with aluminum cans, then bring them back the next day to resell them at the buyback center. So a couple years ago, after an errant truck knocked down the old fence, Re-Be built a new ten-foot high wall of cinder blocks topped with broken glass embedded in mortar. The shards of green and brown and clear glass sparkle in the morning sun like jewels.

At the top of the wall a patch of blue denim is speared on a piece of green glass. I pull out my camera and zoom in for a close-up.

“Obviously, it’s our man with the screwdriver,” says Doug.

“Obviously,” I say, overplaying my exasperation. “Look, I get that you want this to be Scavenger sabotage. But I need more than your allegations. You insult me when you give me this flimsy shit and expect me to print it.”

“What, you expect Con to leave incriminating memos sitting around on picnic tables? You don’t have it in fucking triplicate, it didn’t happen? Is that what you’re saying? Textbook rat-fucking, that’s what this is.”

“This is textbook speculation,” I say. “You don’t seem to get this, so let me repeat it slowly. I don’t. Want to publish. Anything. Without. Hard. Evidence. Got it?”

Doug kicks an empty plastic bucket. It rolls along next to the wall, then bangs into it.

“Hunter, what has the truth ever done for you? You told the truth to your bandmates about the money you owed. They bailed. You told the truth to Eileen. She’s gone.”

I open my mouth to respond, but can’t think fast enough.

“We’re living in the post-modern ’90s, man, the truth is what we decide it should be.”

How does Doug know about Eileen, I start to ask, but he rolls right over me.

“Look, my parents are lawyers. Their job is to get their clients off, nail the other guy. Truth is fucking irrelevant. You have the chance to create truth, man, to blast the fucking lid off this takeover plan. Don’t blow it just so you can be fucking pure.”

“Doug, Doug, Doug, I published a laundry list of Scavenger’s criminal fines last Wednesday. I can’t repeat them week after week—”

He thrusts his head towards me, his face inches from mine. I lean back, twisting away from his stare, tightening my grip on the camera hanging from my shoulder.

“Truth is for cowards, man, you gotta take sides,” he says. “The middle of the road is where the roadkill lay twitching. You claim to be a radical, but you don’t have the balls to actually do anything.”

Breathe deep, I tell myself. Don’t let him hook you.

I don’t take well to name-calling. Sometimes I wonder if my marriage failed because I was afraid to fight, my skin was too thin. But there’s safe and there’s afraid. What’s that line from George Jackson? Take patience far enough and it’s cowardice.

I plant my feet, fold my arms in front of my chest, and look him in the eye.

“Doug, attacking me, attacking my integrity is not okay. I thought we were friends. I—”

I leave it at that, take a photo of a nearby stack of aluminum bales. In the breeze, I smell the bleach disinfectant that Re-Be workers scrub the pavement with at the end of each workday. I also catch a whiff of curry from the Indian takeout place up the street that’s always so crowded on weekends.

“Okay, I’m a little out of control.” Doug steps back, holding his palms up, fingers curled, as if carrying two big melons. “But this is huge. These people are criminals, predators. This isn’t just about holding onto our jobs, our twenty worker-controlled, democratic non-hierarchical jobs, by the way. It’s about the fucking chain-ganging of Berkeley. It’s about community control, resisting domination by corporate criminals. It’s about recycling creating six times as many jobs as landfilling. That’s the truth. And look at what Re-Be’s doing: We’re teaching third graders about worm composting. We’ve spun off three salvage yards that are all doing good business. We’re not just picking up the cardboard packaging, we’re getting people to question whether they need to buy the fucking product in the first place. You think Con is going to do that?”

His voice softens. Again he leans towards me, but without the aggressive stare.

“Hunter, what you write matters. The stories you publish make a difference. Con’s expansionist intentions are out there now, seeping into the public consciousness.”

I hesitate, disarmed. This is the Doug I know, even admire. Relentless, yes, but with a hint of graciousness.

“Doug,” I say, measuring my voice, “I know that this is important to you. I do want to tell this story, but I need more than circumstantial evidence.”

“Oh, like this?”

He pulls a folded piece of paper from his pocket and casually hands it to me. In the middle of a computer printout are two lines highlighted in yellow marker. “James Wilcox, $500; Lynn Brady, $500.”

“What’s this?”

“Follow the money, just like Deep Throat said. These two jokers don’t even live in Berkeley and here they are making the maximum contribution to Womack’s council campaign.”

“So these are campaign contributions?”

Doug nods. “Five hundred for a council race? This is from the city clerk’s office. It’s not their money, it’s Con’s. Wilcox is the floor chief at the transfer station. He can’t be pulling in more than about forty large. And Brady, that’s his wife, home with the kids. They live in Emeryville, in a shithole handyman special. Old beater up on blocks in front. These people are fronts. Womack and council buddies wants to shut us down, let Con swoop in.”

I study the printout. Doug bites his thumbnail, spits it on the ground, then turns and strides back across the yard towards the cavernous football-field sized warehouse, open on one side, where the sorting and baling take place. He doesn’t ask me to follow him, but I do.

Against the center wall of the warehouse, bales of cardboard are stacked ten high, two dozen wide. Paper swirls on the concrete floor. Doug climbs up three steps into the cockpit of the baler, and sits in front of the silver control panel, with its dozens of switches and buttons and levers. In the center a big red circular button says “EMERGENCY STOP.”

He flips a switch and the cans that were sitting in a pit start their ascent up a sloped conveyer belt. At the top, they drop fifteen feet into a hopper and a steel ram squeezes them into a block about four foot by four foot by three, like a wide file cabinet on its side.

I stand on the concrete slab the baler is mounted on, my head at Doug’s knees, and look again at the folded paper. Re-Be’s two-year, $2 million contract with the city to collect recyclables is up for renewal in May. I know Doug is afraid the council will open it up to competitive bidding and Consolidated Scavenger will lowball the bid and pluck it away. Con has done that elsewhere. I wrote about that in my last story.

“Talk to them,” barks Doug, jabbing his forefinger at the highlighted names. “Grill them. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Barb take over what we built here.”

“Barb?” I say, with surprise in my voice. “She couldn’t have anything to do with this, you know that. She just started.”

Barb had been Doug’s lover for ten years. She and he had been the matriarch and patriarch of Re-Be, then over the summer, with the quickness of a kitten, Barb broke up with Doug, quit Re-Be, and took a job as recycling director in Consolidated Scavenger’s Oakland office.

Doug scowls at me, his eyes narrow. “You think they couldn’t have found dozens of people to run that program? No, you don’t know her. She’ll fuck us over, they’ll promote her, and then she’ll blush and trot out her ‘oh, little old me, I’m just trying to make the world a better place’ bullshit. I’ll kill her before I let that bitch sell us out again.”

Pause.

“That’s off the record.”

I watch the cans roll uphill. “Sounds like the whole breakup hit you pretty hard.” I’m careful to sound as neutral as possible.

He snorts. “She was just a crack I fell into. It was understood from the beginning that she would bail.” He shrugs. It’s a common gesture of his, but this one is so quick, it’s more like a twitch. “But taking the Scavenger job. That was hateful, man. Poison. She did it to spite me. Not only do I not want to be with you anymore, she’s saying, I want to destroy what we built together.”

A compressed bale of aluminum clatters out the baler’s side door, then the chute at the top of the conveyer belt opens and a new batch of cans fall into the hopper.

A gull glides to a ledge below the metal ceiling and squawks.

“Doug, you’re wrong. Barb had changes she had to make. She didn’t do these things to spite you. And she was not just some crack you fell into. That’s mean.”

“You’ve got the hots for her, don’t you?” he says, jabbing his finger into my face. “That’s it, you’re hot for her.”

“Hot for Barb?” I say, pretending to be confused. Then I decide not to be. “What if I were, you got a problem with that?” Truth is, I’ve lusted after Barb since the moment I met her.

I fold my arms, lock my eyes on his.

“Fucking right I do. You stay away from her. I’m not finished with her yet.”

“She apparently is finished with you.”

“It ain’t over till it’s over.”

“Yeah, right,” I say.

He jumps out of the cockpit and lands on the ledge a foot in front of me.

“You shit,” he says. “You weasel. It’s people like you that keep those assholes in control. You believe her bullshit? You’re pussy-whipped. That’s why you’re scared to expose Con. You’re afraid you might piss off Barb.”

“Okay, Spaulding,” I say, “I’ve had enough of your shit. Barb leaves, you can’t deal with it, so you vent your spleen at her and the company she works for. That’s a lot easier than looking inside, because you know you drove her away—”

“Hunter with a left jab,” Doug sneers, but I won’t let him talk. I get in his face.

“This witch hunt you’re on.” I keep my voice low and controlled. “You’re tearing Re-Be apart, calling people cowards, ripping into Barb in front of her friends, accusing hard-working board members of being bought off. Re-Be’s an embattled place, mostly because of you. You can’t blame that on Scavenger.” I take a breath. Downshift. “Look, I’m talking to you as a friend. Barb leaving must, you know, mean quite an adjustment. People understand that, they do, but you’ve turned their sympathy into animosity. If you’d apologize and tell people you’re hurting, they’d come around.”

Doug leans over me until his nose is an inch from mine, and snaps his words as if they’re darts.

“Don’t analyze me. If I want a shrink, I’ll steal $100 and rent one.”

I can’t hold his stare. It’s too vicious. I pull back. I’ve never seen him this unhinged before.

“A therapist wouldn’t be a bad idea,” I say, looking down at a black stain on the concrete.

He pauses, then crinkles his nose and bares his teeth. I lift the camera to my eye and snap the shutter. He flinches, then swipes at the camera.

He misses, but then shoves me into the pit on top of a rickety pile of cans. I land on my back. The camera bangs my cheek. The cans cushion my fall, but a stab of pain rips my right shoulder. My howl echoes off the warehouse roof.

All of a sudden I feel the surface under me moving, and I’m being carried up the slanted conveyor belt that feeds the baler. I try to climb out, but I can’t get a foothold. I sweep the cans off my legs, plant my foot on a ledge and push myself upright, twisting to grab for the side wall. But my feet slip on the slick surface, and I fall face first. I flip myself around and I can see the end of the belt a few feet above me where the cans fall into the hopper.

I catch the wall with my hand and then, summoning some primal gymnast within, I yank my body to it and throw my legs over the side wall. I brace for the impact with the concrete slab, but instead fall on Doug and we tumble with our arms and legs entangled, sliding in a puddle of oil and water.

I leap to my feet.

“You fucking lunatic,” I shriek. “You could have killed me. You’re fucking—“ But I can’t find the words. Doug sprawls on the ground with a pained look on his face, rubbing his elbow. Blood smears his forehead. I look around for a shovel, a two-by-four, something I can swing.

“You know I wasn’t going to hurt you.” Doug winces as he sits up. I hope he’s hurt. “I was just letting off steam.”

A shaft of sunlight reflects off a chair and scorches my eyes. Bile blisters my throat. I have to get out. I don’t trust myself.

Doug gestures to the control panel behind him. “I was about to push the stop button. We’ve got all sorts of safeguards. You know that.”

“You’re sick, you asshole,” I say. “You need help, serious help.” I march out of the warehouse and across the yard. My heart bangs against my ribs like a rock tumbling down a metal stairway. Doug follows me.

“You know I wasn’t going to let anything happen. I wouldn’t. You know me.”

“No, I don’t know you at all.”