Chapter 1. The Encounter

 

        The only unfortunate part of the delivery to Maspeth, Queens is everything about Maspeth, Queens. I am not going to miss this neck of our woods come fall. It is a toss-up for which is worse, that rattletrap bridge, or the one-way catacombs that spurn truck drivers daily. Or maybe it’s the fumes from countless cement trucks, garbage trucks and other commercial monstrosities that rule these streets. Gentle coaches don’t tread out here, this terrain does not welcome strangers. No, Maspeth is not for the shy.

        Yet, business calls. The glow of graduation has passed, and no one is buying dinner for me anymore. I did not cry at the ceremony, is that normal? I wanted to, but I couldn’t. I felt a welling, kinda. I cried at other ceremonies, why not at my own? I wanted to get that rush of emotion that signals an awakening, a birth of freedom. I didn’t get any of that. I still want it, I don’t know how to get it. Regardless, the cajoling and pats on the back were great but they have faded into a few select Insta posts and now, I have real work to do.               

        Savannah College of Design isn’t going to save for itself, neither is my Jeep Wrangler. With any luck I’ll have first year’s tuition saved and a down payment in the bank by August. If I can manage that Dany has promised one last hurrah before we go our separate ways. What a gal; so, understanding, so mentally there with me. Can’t thank her enough for hooking my up with this dope job, pun intended.

        To think, I owe all this to Dany’s broken foot last spring. Finally got the bike I always dreamed about, set up Grandma with new patio furniture and still able to stack that paper. Good thing I like riding bikes, made the deliveries a breeze. Man, I knew Dany had a pulse on the underbelly, but this is legit. Real weed, I’m talking the kind of program where pounds are regular. Once they saw I was cool it was a no-brainer to let me build a list. Being the new guy, I take all the worst calls, which explains why I’m in Maspeth a lot.

        The vastness of this neighborhood hits you when you pull around to 47th St and see the miles of warehouses. Up and down Newtown Creek marsh grass does its best to hold on to life. Not even my Bianchi can out-run the smells in this burg. Here is where your precious Acai smoothies ship from. Here is where the transfer stations lie. Here is where you can be stalled in traffic for hours because some schmuck jack-knifed his rig. No one is happy in Maspeth, except for Sidney.

        Sidney is the best, always rolls with flower. She is the Facilities Advisor for the Department of Sanitation. Not sure what that job entails but I’m sure there is as much BS as there is trash. Sidney is a proud old-timer who also heads up a group in Brooklyn that’s been excavating outhouses behind brownstones. Privy digging, she calls it. Lots of crap got thrown down those holes. The smell is gone but the coins, earrings and other skata are still there. Sidney works with trash all day to support her junking hobby; she is the most satisfied person I know.

        I peddle up to the uninviting Q5 garage of the DSNY and drop Sidney a text. The facility is enormous and gives me the willies. There is a shady parking lot near the canal and the whole place oozes with industrial touches. The entrance is situated on 58th Rd., which is a block long and appears to run straight into the canal. Usually these haunts are sketchy AF to lock a bike, but I don’t have to worry about that at Q5. Been coming here for a year and its always Sidney who meets me at the door and insists on toking up by the water.

        “Good stuff today, Aiden?” she asks flinging open the door.

        “I always have good stuff,” I said smiling.

        “Yes, you do,” Sidney winked. She was dressed in her usual lab coat and Wellingtons. Sid’s white hair was pulled into a ponytail that bobbed in the back to match her lanyard and glasses swaying in front.

        “Sorry for the delay,” I said shaking her thin hand to pass off the baggie and j’s.

        “No problem, I know how busy Memorial Day can get,” Sidney said trying a new handshake with gusto. She constantly impressed me with her affinity toward street life or whatever she thought I represented. “Care for a jaunt to the creek?”

        “I thought you’d never ask,” I made an overstated bow, and she rolled her eyes. We made our way toward the water following the path of 58th Rd. A half dozen rotted pilings greet us at the edge of the canal; according to Sidney they are remains from a storied toll bridge. The water was oddly dark despite hundreds of industrial lights dotting the horizon. Almost as if the canal was able to suck in the shine. Sidney added a light of her own as she sparked the j.

        “Say, I haven’t seen you since before commencement, congratulations,” she said inhaling.

        “Thanks,” I never know what to say to that. I mean, mostly I just got older and stayed out of the way. I guess that deserves adulation.

        “You must be planning for a big summer.”

        “Yeah, some fools and I are taking camping this weekend. Bonfire in the woods before we explore the mean streets of Amsterdam next week.”

        “Amsterdam? Nice. Parents giving you a longer leash these days?”

        “And then some. They checked out weeks ago. Once I secured an acceptance letter and had the diploma they were out the door,” I made a splashing sound with my hands and imitated a woosh. “They’ve been saving for this 3-month sailing trip their whole lives.”

        “Good for them. They've earned a bit of R&R if they put up with you for 18 years,” Sidney smiled wryly.

        “I'm a treasure. Mom tells me every time I reset the router for her,” my self-depravation caught her off guard and she hacked out a laugh.

        “Sounds like you're in for a great summer,” she said finally recovered.

        “You bet your wrinkly ass,” I paused. This might have overstepped the bounds of our relationship, but I was feeling a way. Sidney hacked again and wagged her finger at me.

        “It's summers like the one you're about to experience that gave me these wrinkles,” she said smiling as she regained her composure a second time. “I wouldn't give back a single one,” Sidney handed back the j and filled her nostrils with the night air. “Gawd, creek smells worse than this reefer.”

        “Yeah, I noticed. Garbage spill?” I asked.

        “You could say that,” Sidney smirked and wagged her head. “Rained a bunch last night, so spill is a bit of an exaggeration. What you’re smelling is overflow.”

        “Overflow of what?”

        “The sewers.”

        “The actual sewers?”

        “Yeah.”

        “They can do that?”

        “They have to.”

        “What do you mean, ‘they have to’?”

        “They have no choice, it’s the way the system was designed.”

        “What system?”

        “The Combined Sewage Overflow.”

        “I don’t follow.”

        “Of course, you don’t,” Sidney smiled a passed me the j. “Let me sum it up: city sewers have two fluid streams to manage, personmade and naturemade. In New York City sewer system those two streams are combined and taken to water filtration plants to be processed.” She could tell I was lost. Have you ever wondered what those colossal metal eggs are on Greenpoint avenue?”

        “The Space Eggs? I know what they are for. They will spawn the next race of Lizard people to rule Earth.”

        “Not exactly. The ‘Space Eggs’ are the largest of the 13 water processing plants,” Sidney smiled with approval. “The solids are landfilled or composted, and the treated water is pumped back into the river.”

        “If the water is treated, why does it smell like this?”

        “I said, because it rained a lot,” she took the j and puffed gently. “Normally the system works great. We process all the personmade without concern when it’s dry.”

        “What happens when it rains?

        “Nothing, most of the time,” she looked squarely at me. “But if it rains too much the default is ‘overflow’.”

        “How much is too much?”

        “We max at about ¼ inch per hour. Anything beyond that and filtration is bypassed. Unprocessed sewage is pumped into the various waterways to preserve the integrity of the processing stations,” she waved her hand across the creek like a game show host. “Voila.”

        “So, this is raw sewage? Untreated?”

        “Yup. If you think this is bad you should have seen this place before we cleaned it up.”

        “You’re saying this is a good thing?”

        “I’m saying it is a vast improvement upon earlier iterations. Heck, three different sewers used to empty directly into the canal right over there,” she flipped her wrist toward the water. “But nothing could compete with Furman’s Island. You know this whole area used to be an island, right?”

        “You’ve mentioned it?”

        “Do you have any idea what really happened here?”

        “Nope.”

        “We are standing in the unofficial capitol of reduction for more than three centuries. In terms of industrial run-off, this was Mecca.”

         “Reduction? Like sorting trash?”

        “A bit. More like recycling but on a chemical level.”

        “Recycling what?”

        “Animals mostly. You’ve got to release the grease.”

        “How?”

        “Various acids, if you could afford them.”

        “What if I couldn’t afford them?”

        “Then you are using good old-fashioned boiling water.”

        “Gross.”

        “Indeed. But very effective. Both methods produce mephitic environs. There is absolutely nothing like the smell of boiling carcasses. It was putrid work, but it paid. For decades the reduction industry filled the creek with effluents that would take your skin off. Literally. Their concoctions were designed to loosen fur as the fats separated. They collected the coarse hair for brushes and stoles and such. What remains after the acid, the glycerin, that was the real prize.”

        “As in nitroglycerin?”

        “When combined with nitric acid, yes. But long before ‘the boom’ was invented we sought glycerin for its uses as lubricant, paint base, moisturizer, etc. At peak there were 100 different ‘works’ on Furman’s Island devoted to squeezing the grease out of anything they could get their hands on. Butcher guts, hooves of every variety, fish parts, dead dogs and even horses. Have you ever seen a horse get cleaved apart?” Sidney asked.

        “No.”

        “Well, it’s awful, but amazing. At that time Manhattan alone had 10,000 horses expire annually. To the right mind that is a trove of resources if you can unleash them. First step was skinning, have you ever skinned anything?”

        “Nope. Well, I gutted some fish.”

        “Not the same. I mean grabbing hold of a hide and yanking. Pull, stress the fats, slip a sharp blade in there to release the bond and it peels. You ever peeled a horse?” Sidney giggled revealing the high was kicking in. “Same with dogs, cats and any of the working hogs that passed on.”

        “What is a working hog?”

        “A pig. Must have had at least 2,000 of them processing refuse on Furman’s alone.”

        “Pigs? I don’t follow.”

        “For the putrescibles,” Sidney could see my confusion. “Organics. Things that decay. Swine olfactory is designed to find the morsels amidst the ash. They had free range over most of the island, cooled themselves in the swampy area the city filled in,” She jerked her thumb toward the east. “Now you’d never know this spot was an island at all. Justus rolled over in his grave that day.”

        “Justus, who’s that again?” I said passing back the j.

        “Liebig,” she said incredulously. “Baron von flipping Liebig. Father of Fertilizer? He stressed the need for soil amendments and showed we could produce them from existing waste streams,” Sidney often spoke about dead people. She can feel the weight of her work and how it fits into the overarching work of those who came before. To be connected to the ancient champions is invaluable. I get that feeling too, sometimes. I am just one in a long line of merrymakers.

        She was still chirping about Baron von Liebig when a new request buzzed through my phone. Too bad, too because she’d mentioned this guy before, and I was curious to know more.

        “I’ve got to bounce, got some rich boys jonesin’,” I give Sidney a moment to her cranial bliss before singing her goodbye. “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu.”

        “Adieu to you. And you and you and you,” she sings gleefully while flicking the roach into the creek. “Be safe out there. There was another assault last night. Up on Stagg.”

        “Yeah, I heard. Crazy, right? I’m through there all the time. Guess those guys don’t care about getting high or it’d be me getting assaulted.”

        “That reminds me, you sure you don’t have time to come downstairs for a second? Made a big breakthrough last week.”

        “Aww, wish I could,” I lied. “I have like 10 more stops tonight.”

        “Lazy hipsters,” she said offering a high five. I put out a fist for a dap and just as she realizes I poke her in the ribs.

        “Lucrative hipsters,” I correct as Sidney giggles from my jab.

        “Oh, your money,” she slapped some folded bills in my hand and smacked my back.

        “Thanks, that’ll teach me to toke up before payment is secured.”

        “No, it won’t,” She cackled. I waved her off and started pedaling.

 

                                                                               ***

 

        As I pulled onto Scholes, I saw what appeared to be a thick hemp rope stretched across the roadway. It led back to a pile of rubbish in the middle of the street. I was not surprised, there is always some cheap schmuck dumping trash over here.

        I turned my light to steady beam and just caught a flash of a 4-legged animal moving off to the right. It yanked the rope clear of its anchor and dragged it up the broken sidewalk. Being an upstanding citizen, I decided to do the neighborly thing and lift this hazard off the road.

A gamey, metallic smell capped me as I neared the pile. It was as if a bucket had been dredged from the bottom of the canal and splashed along the pavement. A crimson tuft of hair was recognizable when I reached the bundle of tarps. I kicked at the fuzz to find it was a solid object. It was a skull! Now staring up at me was the head of an aging hipster, or at least half of one. The man’s cheek was ripped clean off leaving a permanent, bloodstained grin.

        A chill shuddered through me. I plugged my nose looked around praying I was on a hidden camera show. This couldn’t be real. Vomit had spread from his cold lips to his crotch. Dapples of moisture sparkled everywhere, surely placed there by the last frantic jerks of his writhing body. His t-shirt was soaked with bile and blood and reeked of pungent stomach acids. A massive chunk of his torso was missing letting his organs spill to the pavement.

        This was way out of my wheelhouse. I went back to the bike and straddled it while bringing it close. I aimed the light at the body to make sure I could get proper footage. As I grabbed my phone and flipped on the camera there was a commotion from the canal. Before I could understand what happened something smashed into me sending me ass over tits onto the dead man’s pile. My head hit hard on the roadway and my sight went white. I couldn’t hear anything but low grunts from close to the mess. Then I saw it.

        A massive pig, hairy, with a long snout and tusks was walking towards me on stubby legs. The stink of the canal was all over the animal and its calm eyes sized me up. I could see there were a few more pigs behind it but for fear of my life I tried keeping the focus on the aggressor. Without a pause the hog came right up to me, stood for a moment and then raised its snout in the air before slamming it cheek-side onto me. It drove its skull, pinning me half under the bike.

        The blow was impressive, but my bike frame took the brunt of the hit. I could feel a sharp pain in my ribs, they were either broken or stabbed from its tusk. It wasn’t much of a fight as I had little weaponry that could assault the thing. I managed to get to my Leatherman with my free hand. I flipped the knife and did my best to drive it into its shoulder, but the pig barely noticed. I swung hard but could barely puncture the hide. It felt as if layers of leather protected his skin.

        The pig then slammed me again with its head and before I could move from under the bike it took my entire arm into its mouth and chomped hard. I screamed but the beast didn’t flinch, just kept a firm hold making me weak all around.

        More than the pain I felt the immense strength of its jaw. I was locked into it, powerless to do anything but flail, and flail I did. I screamed again but the beast didn’t care for that. It shook me like a rag doll, silly and weak. It jerked me from side to side as if I were a chew toy. The constant pressure on my arm was near the breaking point. I wondered if this is what a shark attack felt like. I’m sure the only reason it wasn’t over was thanks to the shaft of the bike wedged next to my arm.

        Frustrated by its limitation the pig tried to rectify the situation. It lifted me, bike and all, and then slammed me back to the pavement. I was losing a lot of blood, quickly, I think I screamed but it’s such a blur now, all I remember is feeling eager to submit.

        I was dizzy and confused when the pressure in my arm abated. To my astonishment the pig had released me from its bite and stood for a moment looking to the south. Then it sat itself a top me looking directly into my eyes. If you’ve never taken in the gaze of a full-grown boar, I recommend you do it in a farm or petting zoo. Only then you’ll understand how striking a creature they truly are. So calm, they will stare right through you. Must have weighed twice what I did but it was better than being eaten. I looked to my mangled arm and then back to the hog. I could smell the rancid breath mixed with my own blood. Then, it got awful.

        Numerous beasts surrounded me blocking the streetlight. This was a pack of primed sus. No softness here, they were rough and lean, almost wolf-like with long snouts and coarse hair. Immense sharpened tusks that would intimidate even the biggest dogs hung off their faces. Every one of them oozed from their shoulders and back, not with sweat, but puss and blood. They were each a muscled pile of scars from face to hindquarters.

        Their ragged breath rolled upon the ground like marbles. It was hot, heavy and cloying. Just then something out of view drew their attention and with a round of grunts the better part of the group left to investigate.

        Only four of them remained counting the one holding me down. For a fleeting moment I considered squirming to my feet and making a run for it, but that was fruitless. There was a tension in his body, I could feel it twinge every time it heard a sound. I could feel its poise even as it looked straight into my eyes, as if it wanted to tell me something. As series of shrieks rented the air and broke its concentration.

        The hog got off me and they all listened intently. I took a huge breath now that I wasn’t constricted and summoned all my energy to keep my eyes open. My assailant turned to the others and the whole group jogged down the street. It took all my strength to keep focused just long enough to see the awful truth come around the corner.

        I watched as an even larger hog came onto the street and lumber toward the face off. My attacker, with his cohorts flanked either side, charged. The new boar was easily twice the size of the squad and dispatched them savagely. With a twitch of his snout he flung the first one so hard into a semi it snapped its back upon impact. The second one was driven into the ground with a pulverizing head butt and its sides quickly gouged open via tusk. Number three made the mistake of trying to bite the leviathan. Big boi returned the favor by snatching up its entire front leg and ripping it off. The hog squealed wildly until the goliath scooped its neck into his mouth and squeezed its life away.

        The hog that attacked me was eager for a showdown, but it took just one swing of the giant’s head to knock him unconscious. Then the big boar continued toward me. I recoiled and tried to push away but my arm crumpled under the weight. I rolled as best I could, but I was spent.

        When it got close it sniffed about my whole midsection as if it knew where my soft parts were. I know it sounds weird, but I swear the thing smiled as it put my bloodied arm in its mouth. I remember hearing the separating bones from my shoulder as the hog wrenched off my limb. Before I blacked-out I heard a faint whistle, or at least I think I did. But I know I heard the primal grunts of pigs in the night.