The interview had gone well. Too well, thought Block. There had been none of the probing questions, the challenges to his veracity that Block expected from a legitimate investigation. Perhaps they were only observing form, going through the motions to give the appearance of due process. It had all been too easy, too polite. Government officials were never that polite, he thought, unless they no longer had any use for you.
Block shuffled down the long hallway, its plain white walls and matching floor rendered even more stark by the harsh fluorescent lamps overhead. The light made it hard for him to focus; everything took on the soft, hazy appearance of a dream. His footfalls echoed off the tile, then quickly faded, swallowed up by the great expanse. He had never felt so small.
He took the elevator down and passed through the cavernous, marble lobby. On the walls hung portraits of various senior officials, serious men in dark suits. One day these might be my bosses, thought Block, an idea that seemed at once hopeful and tragic. Stepping out into the bitter cold of January, he made the long commute back across the river to the studio he rented in Queens.
No sooner had he walked through the door than he noticed the light on his answering machine blinking. Block went over to the phone and played back the message. It was the woman from human resources who had interviewed him that morning. She asked Block to call back right away and left a number where he could reach her.
Block could feel the sweat on his palms as he picked up the receiver and dialed. He looked around the apartment–though only a single room, the space it provided seemed to swallow up his meager possessions. Nearly everything he had once owned had been sold. There was no getting around the importance of this phone call.
After a couple rings there was a click, and Block heard the HR woman’s voice on the other end. “I’m sorry we didn’t even give you time to get home, but we’re in desperate need of people right now,” she said.
Block inhaled sharply. “Are you saying I’m hired?”
“That’s right. The Department of Sanitation would like to offer you a position. All you have to do is accept.”
Block’s euphoria was immediately cut short. “Department of Sanitation? I was applying for a job with Homeland Security.”
“Sanitation is now a sub-agency of Homeland Security.”
“I didn’t even know the federal government had a Department of Sanitation.”
“It’s new. Have you been down below Chambers St. lately?”
“You mean all the bodies?” said Block. “I thought the city took care of that.”
“Please. The city is broke, and this is way too big a job for them to handle.”
“It’s gotten that bad, huh?”
“If you’re available tomorrow we’ll have someone take you there and you can see for yourself. If you accept the position, of course.”
“What exactly is the job title?” asked Block.
“You’ll be an entry-level Scraper, starting at level GS-3.”
“A scraper?” Block’s ambivalence was quickly overshadowed by his desperate circumstances. He thanked the woman and agreed to meet her at the federal building at eight the next morning. “Don’t wear anything fancy,” she told him, before hanging up. “We’ll give you a uniform to change into before you start.”
The ‘uniform’ in question turned out to be a full-body hazmat suit. His new supervisor, Chuck–a weary-looking but friendly fellow who resembled a walrus–showed him the finer points of putting on the suit and making sure it was sealed correctly. “Is all this really necessary?” asked Block, as he tested his breathing apparatus.
Chuck grunted. “Those bodies get pretty rank. You don’t want to be breathing in that air. Not to mention the rats.”
When they were suited up, they clambered into the back of a DOS van and headed down Broadway towards the Financial District. The further south they went, the thinner the crowd on the sidewalks became, until it began to seem as if the whole city had been deserted.
“That’s why they sent us to clean up,” said Chuck, noticing Block staring out the window. “It’s getting so bad even the parts merchants can’t stand to come down here, let alone the regular folks. Some people still have jobs down here, you know.”
“What’s a parts merchant?” said Block.
“You’ll see ’em. They hang around Wall Street waiting for fresh jumpers. When they find one, they take all the usable parts–eyes, kidneys, limbs–anything that didn’t get crushed by the fall. Then they sell them to hospitals.”
“Jesus, is that legal?”
Chuck shrugged. “Beats me. If it ain’t, no one’s doing anything about it. We’re the only officials who come down this way, and we ain’t arresting anybody. All we do is clean up the bodies. That’s it. ‘Just get rid of the bodies,’ the bosses say. As far as I’m concerned, the merchants are doing us a favor.”
They continued down, past Trinity Church, and took a left onto Exchange Place. “Now,” said Chuck, “you’ll really see something.” The van pulled over and everyone clambered out of the back. Block jumped down to the pavement and froze. On the sidewalk below the Stock Exchange was a mountain of bodies, swathed in Brioni and Hugo Boss, reaching at least thirty feet in the air.
“They don’t all jump on that spot,” said Chuck. “That wouldn’t work anyway; as you can see, the pile’s almost up to third-story windows now. We made this ourselves.” He went back to the van and took out a wide, steel-framed object that resembled a cow catcher off the front of a train. “This is your main tool. You just get back here behind it, see, and grab these two handles. There are wheels here on either side, so it moves real easy. Then you just walk up and down the pavement, collecting any bodies that might be in your way, and push ’em over this direction into the pile.”
“What do we do with the pile?” asked Block.
“Depends,” said Chuck. “We used to take all the bodies we found south of Wall Street and just push ’em straight through the Battery into the river. But there got to be so many of ’em the ferries couldn’t get through to Staten Island. Plus it was attracting these schools of sharks. So the city started loading ’em onto barges and dumping ’em in Fresh Kills. Only the city’s broke now, and there’s no more room in the landfill. They tried burning ’em, but the smell was unbearable. Too many complaints. So for now we’re just piling ’em up and waiting for orders.”
Chuck handed out everyone’s assignment. Block was given the small section of Pine Street between Water and Pearl, something easy to get his feet wet. He grabbed his scraper and his work kit–which included, amongst other things, a shovel, a bone saw, a propane torch and a bottle of bleach–and started off. On the corner of the small alley connecting Exchange Place and Wall Street, he passed two men in nylon track suits crouched over a dead body. Beside them on the ground were surgical kits; the men were busy making incisions in the right side of the dead man’s stomach. They glanced at Block without expression as he walked by. One of the men nodded. “Liver transplant,” he said.
Block reached his starting point and got down to work. The scraper glided along without so much as a bump, as if the pavement were a sheet of ice. Even with the first body he picked up, even with the stray trash he accumulated in his path, the scraper never lost momentum, never became heavy or burdensome. It felt right somehow, as if this job were his calling, but his mind rebelled at the idea the moment it was conceived.
He scraped two bodies his first day. When his route was completed, he returned to the Exchange, where the rest of the workers were putting away their equipment and winding down. Chuck was pleased with Block’s performance; he told Block to take his bodies and add them to the edge of the pile. “And if you see anything you want to take home, just toss ’em in one of those bags over there.” He pointed to a pile of body bags next to the van.
“Take home?” said Block. “What would I want with a bunch of bodies?”
“Fuel, of course.” Chuck waved off Block’s protestations. “I know, I know. I just got done saying that the smell was unbearable. But that’s burning them all at once, out here in the open. Now I got me a good wood stove, excellent ventilation, and I gotta tell you it’s saved me a fortune in heating costs. You know they’re shutting off the power within the month, right?”
Block shook his head.
“It’s true,” said Chuck. “Can’t afford to keep the gas flowing. This kind of thing’s gonna be a necessity soon, so you may as well get a jump on it. Now, here’s some advice–those fat-cat CEO types might burn up real nice and bright and make all the kiddies ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’. But for my money, it’s the junior executives you want to keep you warm through the winter. The narcissists, the gym rats. They ain’t gonna light up the sky, but they’re compact and lean and they’ll give you a long, slow burn.”
They talked into late afternoon. Soon it was four thirty, but the sun was already setting, bathing Lower Manhattan in blood-red. Block stared down Broadway to the river, the light glinting off the water as it roiled and crackled like some sweeping fire that would one day engulf them all. He thought about how much the world he knew had changed in a day, and wondered whether it was something he wanted to be a part of. But there was little choice in the matter, and at least he had work. Behind him, he could hear the scuttling of rodents’ feet; the pile of bodies swayed and lurched like a drunk trying to claw his way back home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Randall DeVallance is the author of the short novel, Dive (2004), and the short-story collection, Sketches of Invalids (2007), from which the story “The Scraper” is taken. The story also appeared on the literary website Eyeshot in March of 2009. His stories have appeared in several other print and online publications, including Pindeldyboz, McSweeney’s, Vestal Review, and Word Riot. His first work with Atticus Books, The Absent Traveler: A Novella and Other Stories, is due for publication in December 2010. He currently lives in New York City.
Photo Source: Poor Mojo Newswire