God’s Conveyer Belt
He wouldn’t always have the boys move the bags in the dead of night. Secrecy wasn’t a part of it. But they were under the full moon tonight, lugging black industrial trash bags down to the river. All because the old man had had a fit about the condition of his house. He couldn’t take the sight of the forest he’d created in his kitchen and living room. An entire ecosystem really, where beer bottles and cans are the trees, crowding tabletops and counter space, and stained paper plates the fern and undergrowth. Blow flies the swooping birds of prey, landing on meat gristle and drowning in steak blood.
So the old man said, “Boys, clear this shit outta here and make a dump run.” Then Tim, the older brother, held open one of the black bags, while Johnny, the pup, cleared the forest. Not that they needed the moon’s light, for they knew this trail to the river like they knew the hallway from their bedroom to bathroom. Trash hauling was their job in service to the grandpa that took them in. “Down to the river with it,” the old man would say, “to God’s conveyor belt.”
Johnny’s bag had caught a fat sliver of wood on one of the bridges’ planks and it tore open as the child tried to tug it free. So Johnny and Tim had to start throwing garbage into the river instead of dumping. While Johnny did enjoy the throwing, the plunking noises and the smashing of glass, it still felt strange that they should just get rid of their mess in the free nature, and he always asked his brother about it.
“You sure this is what we’re supposed to do? Aren’t there dumpsters and stuﬀ?”
“This is what grandpa tells us to do. It’s his place. He was in the war. He says the river cleans itself, takes it all away. Stop worrying, Johnny, and stop asking me about it.”
When the boys got back to the mobile home their grandpa had cooked three cheap steaks, and had already started a new forest. The three sat at an old card table and ate their meat oﬀ of paper plates. The grandpa poured Jonny some soda in a red plastic cup, and let Tim have a beer. After dinner the boys went to their room, and the old man fell asleep in his ripped recliner in front of the gigantic television.
In the morning Johnny said, “Let’s go fishin’.”
The brothers walked the same trail, the trash trail, down to the water. They fished just down river of the bridge, their dump sight.
As they cast their lines, Johnny asked, “How come we always dump the trash in the same spot? Shouldn’t we move sometimes, you know to spread it out?”
“That spot under the bridge, Johnny, is where the fastest and meanest rapids in the whole river are. It’s the most eﬃcient section of God’s conveyor belt, you might say,” and he sounded just like his grandfather.
After the boys caught only trash bags and chunks of styrofoam, they gave up hope of a fish and headed home.
Waiting on paper plates was cheap steak, a red cup full of soda for Johnny, and a beer for Tim. The grandpa was snoring in his chair, and the news was blaring on the giant television.
“Heavy drought,” said the weather man, “heavy drought coming to town.”
“How can a drought be heavy?” asked Johnny. “Isn’t it lite?”
“He’s just a dumb ass,” said the hoarse voice of the grandfather, awoken by Johnny’s question. “You boys wanna watch a movie?” Their reply was giddy.
Grandpa wasn’t mean, but he was a t.v. hog. Naturally, they watched a western, something from the seventies, but that was alright with the boys. It was better than the news.
In the morning the forest was lush. The grandpa must have killed a case during the night.
He was snoring in his recliner when Tim and Johnny woke up. Coming out of sleep to the sight of pollution is not easy on any pair of eyes, so the boys, without being asked, cleared the forest.
As they headed out the door, a black bag over each shoulder, the grandpa spoke, his eyes still closed. “Keep the bags!”
On the bridge, after the boys had turned the bags upside down and sent glass and aluminum into the rapids, Johnny said, “We should find a new fishing spot. Maybe go way up river, to a part we ain’t been yet.” He looked at his older brother with big, unblinking eyes.
Tim was watching a beer bottle bobbing against a rock. “Alright,” he said.
And what luck, way up river, each boy caught a fish—coho salmon, not even beat up by the river yet, still silver, perhaps with sea lice still attached.
They raced back to show their grandfather. Even though the cheap steaks were already cooked and set on paper plates, Johnny asked, “Look grandpa! Can we eat fish tonight?”
Through bloodshot, glassy eyes, the old man looked at the fish. “Don’t like salmon,” he said, and took a beer from the fridge. Johnny looked down at the floor. The old man turned. “But.” He put a finger under Johnny’s chin. “Maybe I’ll let you boys cook tomorrow.”
He grabbed the fish from his grandsons and put them raw in the freezer.
That night they watched another western.
The next morning they left early, avoiding their daily trash chore. They wanted to pack that freezer full of fish, to supply a new item to a wanting menu, to give relief to abused tongues that had suﬀered the monotony of discounted red meat dinner after dinner.
“What, did we catch the only two fish in the river?” Tim said without looking away from his line.
“Maybe. Doesn’t the water seem low, Tim?”
“I don’t know, I guess.”
“I didn’t see those white marks on the rocks yesterday. See those lines.” Johnny pointed across the river with his pole. “Looks like chalk or something.”
“Yeah I see it. That’s the water mark.”
“So it did shrink?”
“Yeah, I guess. Let’s go.”
They continued to journey upriver and fish in vain for a week. Each day they saw the water line separate further from the chalk line, and the bank was growing, too. If those simple signs from nature would’ve escaped their observation of a dwindling river, then there was always the bridge, the dump site, where bits of manufactured this or that began to poke through the water, fixed as a stone, defying the river’s flow. A lawnmower handle emerged, wrapped in plastic grocery bags, clothes, Christmas lights. Both banks of the river exhausted the color spectrum—reds of Budweiser, greens of Heineken, blues of gin bottles, heinous neons of shredded hunting attire. The jig should’ve been up, only there did remain water and rapids and, at the old man’s insistence, the dumping continued.
Then came a two day rain. The boys were on the couch those two days as much as the old man was in his chair. Johnny was watching the water drops race down the window behind the bulbous television. “Hey grandpa,” he said.
“What’s that?” The old man took a slug from his bottle, his eyes closed.
“I don’t think we should throw our trash in the river anymore,” Johnny was nervously bouncing his legs. Tim abandoned a bite of food and looked at his grandfather.
“Come here, John.” The old man patted his leg. “Come here, sit.” He put the boy on his knee. “Why do you say that?”
“Well, I…I think the river is disappearing.”
The old man leaned over, almost knocking Johnny oﬀ his lap, and slapped his other knee while laughter erupted from his beer soaked mouth. “This one’s oﬀ his rocker, ain’t he Tim?”
Tim smiled and nodded.
“Boy, you hear that? You hear that rain. That’s God coming around to refill it. That’s him looking after his machine.” Johnny lifted his right eye brow. “ Because you see,” the old man went on. “There’s nothing we can do on this earth that can even scratch God’s creation. Man makes this or that fuss about the gas we use, or how we build our homes, or how we make our food, thinking all the while that he’s on the same ticket as God, and that his doings would someway put an end to things. No sir. You can’t touch God, can only be touched by him.” The old man looked into his grandson's eyes. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Johnny said.
“God’s Conveyor belt is just getting a tune up!” said Tim, smiling.
“That’s right! Tim knows!” The old man put Jonny to his feet, “Say now, John, there’s cookies on the top shelf. Get one for your brother too.”
A creepy quiet, a stillness inside and out was what the boys woke to a week later. The old man, in his chair, wasn’t even snoring. In their customary way, the brothers cleared the new forest. They walked slowly to the bridge with their bags.
“Something’s wrong,” said Johnny.
“I know,” said Tim.
They found out what once they reached the bridge. The terrible silence was the absence of rushing water, the absence of any water. The river was gone, completely dried up. Only the bed remained, and what a full bed. Years of garbage, hundreds of dump runs, scrap metal from bygone eras, bicycles, tricycles, engines, car doors, all still there, and not washed away. The eye saw more trash than nature, the foot would find its landing on aluminum or plastic before it touched rock or mud.
“A heavy drought,” said Tim.
“It’s broken,” said Johnny.
“God’s conveyor belt.”
For the first time, the brothers brought two full trash bags back to the house. “I don’t think he’s gonna be happy,” said Tim.
“Well he was wrong,” said Johnny.
Inside, there was no trace of a new forest, and the old man was still in his chair with his eyes closed. Tim dropped his bag, he could tell. He went over to his grandpa and put his hand in front of his gaping mouth. No breath, only blow flies entering and fleeing that alcoholic cavern.
Johnny dropped his bag. He exhaled. “At least,” he said, “grandpa will never know it broke, and that it didn’t work in the first place.”
Kit Gordon is a published writer of fiction. He was lucky enough to be raised in Oregon, the land of mighty conifers.