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.
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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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.