Clarence Harlan Orsi

The Incorruptibles

There was a time in my life, coinciding with my college years, when I didn’t know anyone with kids and I didn’t think a single thought about them. If I hadn’t met Jenny I would have extended this period another decade like the rest of Brown University, Class of 1993. But I did meet her, outside a Jewelry District fag bar on dyke night, and she was just two years older than I but had a son who was already eight. I fell in love with her instantly, and when we went back to her car to kiss I leaned over the gearshift for better purchase and my foot slid and activated something plastic that played a song, Old McDonald, which filled the spaces in the car where moments before only our hushed yearning breath had been.

 

She said, “Don’t mind that, it’s just some of my son’s old stuff I’m taking to Goodwill.”

And then she added, before I could get over the implications, “My rule is new girlfriends have to wait a month to meet him. If we’re still together then, fine.”

And then she added, before I could process this turn, “It’s just that he’s still getting used to me being a lesbian. Kids need consistency, you know?”

Maybe I did know, but it was all happening so fast. “We can just see where things go,” I said, so awfully reasonable, a reasonable dummy. But of course this was a lie, because I already knew I was in love with her and I wasn’t about to sit around and wait.As it turned out I met the son circa two weeks later, outside of the preapproved time frame. This was due to the job I had, which was in public relations for the Rhode Island State Landfill. There had been some bad press in the last couple of years and they needed someone to front questions. Things like water contamination, methane leaks, questions about organized crime involvement in the recycling program, some pointed letters to the editor. I certainly wasn’t qualified but there I was. The reality was that at that time it was very easy to get a job in Providence. It was the beginning of Mayor Buddy Cianci’s Renaissance that would later make the city famous for starting little fires along the river downtown every Saturday night, but when I graduated they didn’t have the fires yet and if you were a graduate of Brown University and a Caucasian at that you’d practically get paid just to stay in the city. Every morning Providence yawned and showed its dirty teeth, exhaled its morning breath, and you had the privilege of being there to experience it. The sky was always one color: the color of dishwater, yesterday’s newspaper, the tender under-wing of a plaza pigeon scouting for lunchtime crumbs.

Due to some kind of mandated environmental curriculum all the public school third grade classes in the state had to visit the landfill. Robert Corniglia, he with the last name of Jenny’s ex-husband, was one of those third graders. His class, like all the others, was there to ogle the landfill and then dig up the ground to bury their Memory Boxes. I’ll tell you about those soon, but consider first the setting. It was verdant, unexpectedly so. On the good side, which was the side we showed everyone, all you could see were stately hills formed by years of compacted trash, seeded over and left to sprout, now all plush and green and rolling. There were valleys of soil laid out in neat grids, spread with chopped waste and mixed with compost to form something greater than the sum of its parts, a mincemeat of lives lived elsewhere.

It’s a metaphor, ok? That it was so easy to forget, below that lush surface, all the trash buried underneath. Forgive me but it has some use here.

I had a shtick which I gave then, looking out all the while to see if I could recognize the kid. “What kind of animals do you think we have at the landfill?” And some milk-faced girl with a dumpling chin would always shout, as she did now: “BIRDS!” And I would say, as I did now, “That’s right! We have seagulls, herons, mallards, turkeys, ducks, and even swans. Would you ever think of a swan living at a landfill? If you’re good and look hard, you might even see a hawk.”
They’d said, in my training, to put a smile in my voice. I did this and the smile got stuck there and it hasn’t come out since.
We made our way to a steaming compost pile. Mist unfurled from its dark heart. I beckoned the class close. “There’s a dragon…” I pitched my voice low, heavy with import. “It lives in there.” I pointed to the fire-breathing earth. All chattering hushed. A few kids whimpered softly. This was probably my favorite part of the tour.

“Just kidding!” I grinned. “It’s compost! Compost is special dirt where food scraps decompose. The scraps get packed down so much they heat up and make steam.”

That’s when I saw him, the same face as his mother, like an exotic fruit newly stocked at the grocery store that startles you before you realize it’s beautiful. To be more concrete, he had long dark bangs swept to the left just like his mother. However, he didn’t have the lanolin sheen to his hair that she had, or her tits for that matter, so don’t get any ideas.
I could tell he was the only kid who hadn’t bought my dragon story. It wasn’t that he was skeptical, just distracted, like he had more important things on his plate. I resented him for this. I wanted to talk to him right away but I had to wait to set everyone up to dig a hole for their Memory Boxes. Now I’ll tell you that the Memory Boxes Project was how we were making use of land that, due to the threat of groundwater contamination, could never be used for anything else. The kids brought non-corrodible recycled plastic boxes into which they were supposed to have placed a small number of items, items by which they wanted people to remember their lives, their generation, their century. After we had all died someone else would dig them up, I don’t know, we hadn’t thought that far.

Robert was digging and had his head down so that his bangs hovered away from his face.
“I’m friends with your mother,” I told him.

He looked up and his bangs flounced back into place. “Girlfriend-friend?”
“That’s right.” This kid was savvy for sure. I tried to see in his box, but they’d made them with the sides opaque. “What did you put in your Memory Box?”

“Personal stuff,” he said, and then like a nincompoop I found myself apologizing. What did an eight year old