A Hard Truth About Waste Management

The family liked so much to flush their trash down the toilet that they sold their TV and used the money to buy three chairs to arrange in their upstairs restroom. This was a time when trash flushing was not an uncommon practice, but, even so, the extent of the family’s enjoyment was rare. Where most families who resorted to trash flushing were ashamed of their behavior, this family looked forward to the sight of their trash bins filling up. They would recline in their chairs and watch their trash get sucked down into the hole at the well of the toilet, where a black gossamer ring had grown, and they would cheer and punch their fists together.

None of the chairs in the restroom matched in size or color. The father’s chair was upholstered with a brown polyester finish and gave out an electrical cord through a slot in the back. When he plugged the cord into the restroom wall, the chair would shiver beneath his shoulders and around his knees. The mother’s chair was more like a chair and a half, attached to a sidecar where she stored her portable whiteboard. She used the whiteboard to communicate with others, having lost the ability to speak during labor. The son’s chair was made of gingerbread. Many of the fondant seams were by now covered in hairs and little sticky papers, but the son did not mind this. Every day after school he sat in his gingerbread chair and picked off little bits to eat while watching loads of trash sink down the toilet, occasionally tamping the telescoping plunger to sort out the drain without getting up.

At first the family had tried simply to repurpose their waste. They buried food scraps in the earth and plugged the soil with upturned bottles of water. They stirred into their stews many panades of shredded newspaper. They deep-fried old Post-it notes and covered them with a spreadable cheese, brie or ricotta or port wine. When the son performed well at school, they dipped his homeworks in simple syrup and made of them a kind of proud and shameful baklava.

The father put this diet to a stop when he untangled a voided check from his quiche.

‘I’m putting this diet to a stop,’ he said.

‘Let’s sleep on it,’ the son said.

I know you toiled over that quiche, the mother wrote. But you can’t un-paper a paper.

‘We’ll do what we have to do, but there will be no more eating of trash in this home,’ the father said.

The family began trash flushing that evening. They gathered in the restroom and shook the uneaten quiche off of their plates into the toilet. The son pressed the flusher and watched the scraps spin around in a circle and slowly lower.
Look at it spin, the mother wrote.

Trash flushing soon became a habit for the family. When they no longer needed something, it went into the toilet and was immediately taken away. They cheered at the growth of this habit, at the sight of trash piled so high that they had to steer it with brooms to keep it from upsetting. They cheered when the mother got sick from the smell and leaned forward and vomited into the toilet bowl; she cheered this as well, applauding along with her son and husband. And they cheered when the toilet shook and made a wet guttural sound after inhaling the afternoon’s trash, and a small gray animal emerged from the depths of the plumbing.

The animal shivered in the cold bathroom air, urged on by the family’s cheers. It shook its leathered skin and curled around the graham cracker leg of the son’s chair. It was a cat, they believed. They named him Bleachy. ‘You’re better than anything we ever put into the toilet,’ the son told Bleachy, scratching the leathery surface of his neck.

They family loved especially to bring Bleachy on walks around their neighborhood at night. Trash flushing had grown commoner by then, but few other families boasted the practice to such an extent, and there were undeniable looks whenever Bleachy coughed up a ball of their old trash. This was something he did very often, so the family trained him to cough into the toilet, in the privacy of their restroom, and for a while things were very fine.

But Bleachy soon grew to be emotionally needy in ways the family couldn’t satisfy. He ate all their food and cried all night. He constantly was found asleep in the father’s chair, and he never remembered to turn the massage function off when he left. He even borrowed the son’s sweaters without asking, which stretched them in difficult shapes as he grew larger and longer.

It was a relief, then, when the son returned home from school one afternoon without being immediately greeted by Bleachy’s typical plea for long hugs. Neither did any of his shoes appear to have been chewed while he was away. Upstairs in the restroom, his mother was seated in her chair. Her face was flushed.

I’ve done a terrible thing, she wrote. I flushed Bleachy back down.

‘Well, he was very codependent,’ the son said. ‘I guess maybe he was too big for a cat.’

It was so strange, the mother wrote. He said he missed his home. I flushed him back down and now the toilet’s broken.

The flusher flipped carelessly in all directions with no friction at all. The telescoping plunger didn’t help, nor did the coal-burning pipe snake, which the family reserved for emergencies. ‘Let’s table this discussion,’ the son said.

Something toxic in the bathroom, the mother wrote when the father came home from work that night.

‘We think Bleachy ate some of whatever it is,’ the son said. ‘The doctor put him down. We did the funeral already.’

‘Well, he was very codependent,’ the father said. ‘I guess it’s a shame about the bathroom though.’

The father closed the restroom door and stuffed towels in the crack underneath, except where in the corner under the hinges he inserted a flexible rubber tube, to occasionally check the air inside. The door remained locked for two days, until the appropriate gear had been gathered, during which time the family’s trash bins overflowed with trash. A stripe of grime crossed the kitchen wall, past which many emergency bags of trash had been dragged into a blue-green bonfire in the backyard. The refrigerator crisper drawers were no good. The father dug a small outhouse a few feet from the bonfire, a shallow hole covered by a Batman tent from the son’s youth. The father laid two different shits into this hole, and on both occasions brought along a tiny pistol in his fanny pack.

When finally they were ready to venture into the restroom again, the family wore dust masks around their faces and latex gloves on their hands. With one hand in his fanny pack, the father opened the door several inches. Inside, lying across the counter, was a gray crocodile wearing a tan sweater.

Bleachy, the mother wrote.

‘Dang it,’ the father said.

‘I knew you weren’t a cat,’ the son said.

The mother stared at the wet pencil shavings littered along the crocodile’s skin and tried to understand.

‘I got stuck halfway,’ Bleachy said. ‘I had to come back up. I almost drowned.’

I’m sorry, the mother wrote. I understand how you feel.

Bleachy lurched forward and locked his jaws around her throat. The son ran downstairs, listening from under a pile of kitchen trash as shots fired out. There was the sound of his father screaming, and then a kind of gurgle, and then the house became silent again.

Something inside the son’s head encouraged him to fall asleep, and so he did, still wearing his dust mask. He dreamed of shoes on dry leaves. When he awoke, Bleachy had eaten all the trash in the pile, and was now licking clean the son’s knee.
‘Please don’t kill me,’ the son said.

‘Don’t worry,’ Bleachy said. ‘You’ve made some poor choices, but you’re young. You still have time to change.’

‘Where’s my dad?’ the son asked.

‘How would you like it if there was a big tube that poured someone else’s trash on your house?’ Bleachy asked. ‘How would you like it if I took you away and made you cough in my toilet?’

Bleachy placed his teeth around the son’s calf and bit down until he felt the bone underneath. The son cried out, looking at the new holes in his leg, his eyes cracked like crayon. The jaws came unclamped without a sound, and Bleachy turned and crawled away, out of the house, still wearing the son’s tan sweater. Filled with a feeling that was almost sorrow, Bleachy lifted his long gray head and breathed in deep, hoping to find a scent that would remind him of home.

Sumanth Prabhaker is the founding editor of Madras Press, a charitable publisher whose catalog includes work by Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and David Foster Wallace; and of the forthcoming anthology series Slow Reader, whose first issue will concern the work and influence of Haruki Murakami. He is the author of the novella A Mere Pittance.