Excerpt from Bad Things Happen—‘The Narrow Passage’


By Kris Bertin

“The Narrow Passage” is excerpted from Bad Things Happen: Stories by Kris Bertin © 2016. Available here. Published by Biblioasis: www.biblioasis.com. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


Gene and Richard saw the smoke before they saw the people. Billowing up into the air and lit by the dull glow from a fire, it looked like a thick, orange neck and head sticking out of the treetops. It was early in the morning—before the sun had risen, when the sky was the darkest blue it could be without being called black—and the fire was the only source of light. Richard couldn’t think of anything other than a burning house to explain it, didn’t imagine anyone would be up at this hour if something hadn’t gone wrong. He thought he would see people standing outside a home falling in on itself, burping out sparks and smoke and flames. He thought they would be weeping, and clutching each other, watching everything come apart. He wanted to say something about it, but Gene—who had talked all morning long—was silent.

Then, once they passed through a clearing and went over a bridge made of logs and planks that sat in a pool of stagnant water, he saw them. Maybe fourteen of them—men and women—in lawn chairs, sitting inside a circle of four-wheelers and pickup trucks, surrounding a blaze wide enough to throw a body into. They were drinking, and smoking. Richard could smell weed.

All of them raised their bottles to Richard and Gene when they got out of the truck. Dogs were barking.

One of the men turned towards them and called:

How ya doing?

He was Gene’s age, bald and bearded and with a roll of fat around his head and neck like a lion’s mane. He had a big black dog by the collar, pulling it up and off the ground while it croaked out its barks. Gene didn’t answer him, but Richard did, without looking at them:

Not too bad, how are you?

He looked at the plot of land, lit by the truck’s headlights. It was lumpy and uneven without a single blade of grass present and there were three different houses up on posts, their foundations gone or not yet poured. There was every kind of dogshit scattered about, from fresh and brown to hard and black, all the way to the dry stuff, white like powdered donuts. The main house in the middle had a pitched roof and a fence made of pulpy birch logs, front steps leading to a sinking porch. A cold room filled right to the ceiling with debris that Richard couldn’t make out. Things in bags—maybe cans and plastic containers—and stacks of what might be firewood. The bonfire was off to the side of one of the houses, a few feet away from a flap of construction plastic where a wall should have been.

There was a piece of metal nailed to the porch that looked like the back of a license plate, hand-painted with thick, orange paint:

The Cliftons.

Richard and Gene had been going for a long time already, collecting garbage since 4 a.m. Their truck was a modified cube truck with the top peeled off like a sardine lid, and it was full. The two-by-fours that hinged across the back—gates that were always wet with garbage juice and dark with grime, and which could be closed, one by one, as the garbage pile grew in the back—looked ready to pop. This load was a big one, and though they were outfitted with a hydraulic for dumping, there was none for crushing like the trucks from the city had, so there wasn’t much they could do about it.

It was only when Richard finally took his eyes away from the place that he saw what they had left for them. Instead of garbage cans, there were seven rusted drums that were deep and without any kind of lid. Gene was already working on it. He was bent over, pulling at a bag that had taken on rainwater and was suctioned to the inside of the barrel. There were a dozen more bags thrown nearby, sitting in the dirt. One—which was the furthest from the cans and seemed to have been thrown from one of the houses—was burst. They were supposed to accept no more than five per household. Even if they treated this place as three houses, they had exceeded their limit just with the bags left on the ground.

But Gene said nothing, so Richard went to work alongside him. It was his first week and he was being careful.

After wrenching soaking-wet bags that weighed up to twenty pounds from their barrels, they had to throw them—overhand, maybe fifteen feet up—over the gates and into the heap. A few fell off and Richard had to catch up with them, throw them back up.

When he heard laughter, he took another look at the bodies around the fire and tried to guess if they were laughing at him and Gene. He decided it didn’t matter. They were big people, overweight and bearded, wearing down-filled vests, boots. Some of them were young, too young to be there. Two boys with long, bare necks sticking out of hooded sweatshirts, watching him closely. There was a girl with a long yellow braid of hair hung over an open parka, her skin chalky white like she was kept indoors except for special occasions like this. She was maybe twelve. One of the bigger men was fanning the flames with an enormous cedar bough and she was laughing.

Just from the amount of embers in the bonfire and the size of the brush pile beside it, Richard guessed that the fire had been burning for twelve hours. Standing upright by the blaze was a grandfather clock. At first he’d thought it was a person. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched it tilt, then rise and glide towards them in the dark. Someone was walking it to them.

Got room in there still? They called.

It was already before them when Gene said yes, go ahead.

Three of them came to the truck—one of the boys and two of the men. A fourth, an old man wearing a mustard-coloured coat too big for him, came to supervise. He looked frail and weak, his face full of lines like a mud puddle sucked dry by the sun.

Thank you boys, he said.

No problem, Gene replied.

The men stumbled against the truck and the young one climbed the back gate, guided the clock upwards with one hand while the two men lifted. Richard and Gene backed up and watched the clock float up to the top of their truck before disappearing into the black-and-green heap.

The old man touched Richard above the elbow and he was surprised to feel strength in his grip. And his hand was burning hot, hot enough to radiate through the fabric of Richard’s jumpsuit. He said:

Thank you so very much.

His eyes were burning too.

Gene was quick to answer, and repeat himself:

No problem here.


Nothing stayed hidden.

Once a bag went from the truck to the sorting-centre floor and up into the hopper, it would be torn open by a row of men in thick, padded gloves. They saw everything: mould of every colour, adult diapers, stinking turkey carcasses and newspapers, abandoned photo albums and entire outfits—shoes and hats and pressed suits—as if a person had been dissolved in the garbage bag and only their outermost layer remained.

And then there was the stranger stuff, what they didn’t expect to see. Items that peeked out from cantaloupe guts and coffee grinds and used tissues. The realness of a man’s blonde toupee, wet and gleaming from the contents of a nearby plastic bottle of chicken stock. An old scarecrow made of pantyhose and chicken wire, twisted up like a circus rubberman. A hundred or so tiny ceramic busts of Mozart, all identical, most of them still intact and smiling painted smiles. Dozens and dozens of smudged brass casings from spent ammunition all mixed in with heaping strings of red-and-brown animal entrails. Three deer heads, stinking and staring and missing an oval of skull where there had once been antlers.

It wasn’t their job to stop and watch the sorters descend on their load, but nearly every one of the rural guys—the guys who didn’t work for a company—they always stayed and watched it feeding in. Gene would walk right up to them, join the sorters and stare at the bags he’d previously made guesses about. The ones that were overly heavy or strangely shaped. He’d even reach in and poke at things, smiling, a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

On his first day, when Richard asked why they were waiting around, Gene had frowned:

I’ve been doing this since before there even was a sorting centre, he said. Since before you were even born.

Richard felt a quick burst of anger in his chest, but was careful to keep it inside him. He needed this job. When Gene hired him—when Richard walked the three miles along the highway to get to his house—he made it clear he had no problem getting rid of him. He said it while they drank instant coffees, sitting at a tiny vinyl table in the garage.

First, he listened to Richard’s story about buying a trailer with his wife, away from town, and how he’d been laid off from his roofing job. About how seasonal work had just ended and that he’d spotted Gene’s ad on the bulletin board at the Co-op. A story that was mostly true, one that left out an argument over pay with the roofers, and something similar at an apple orchard weeks before that.

Richard had been careful to make himself seem strong and useful, and not too needy, even though he was that as much as the first two. He could feel himself split in three, between the person he was, the one he claimed to be, and the one he wanted to become.

It had worked and Gene had shook his hand, saying the job’s yours before he set Richard straight:

I don’t need to be doing any favours to anyone, he said. If you can’t keep up or do it right or listen to me, I can find another fella as quick as I found you.

Of course, Richard said.

So at the sorting centre Richard just stood back and let Gene have his fun. He liked to show off the what-the-fucks but also the perfectly goods. A pressed shirt in its crinkly plastic package, still sealed, still with that bit of cardboard around the collar, a price tag. A Con-Air hairdryer, still in its box, boasting Salon Performance.Two-dozen fresh cabbages, immaculate and waxy green like they’d been bought that day, spinning away like model planets down the conveyer belt.

He could explain their origins too. The box of Pal-O-Mine chocolate bars still in shrink-wrap came from a household of compulsive eaters who were trying to turn things around. A giant freezer bag full of pill bottles and loose tablets and powder mixes were uppers that probably belonged to the DeLongs, who were husband and wife—and both truckers—and needed this sort of thing to get through their lives. He connected a cheap policeman’s costume to the Tremblay boy, a senior in high school—who might have started the highway tire fire in October wearing this very costume—who was trying out for the RCMP next year.

He’d start the same way, by saying what this is here, and then gave Richard something that it had him taken years to understand. A map he’d made in his mind, that he could unfold and lay out and point to at a moment’s notice, with pride. Richard understood that this was why they were here. Gene was proud of what he knew, but presented it as basic information that Richard needed in order to do the job. Something he’d share, quietly, respectfully, but as a simple fact, the same way he’d show how to work around the sticky part of the clutch, or the best place to tip their load once they pulled into the sorting centre.

Richard imagined that Gene had been in this place so long that the facts had simply stuck to him. He had grown up in town, in apartments, and moved a lot, and felt like he never learned anything. He had a neighbour who fought with his wife, but he’d only ever heard any of it when he was exactly on the other side of the wall from them. With Gene, it was as if he had been listening outside of every house, all the time—and all at once—for as long as he’d been alive. It felt like he had access to every river, every stream flowing beneath the surface of all the houses, all the lives on their route. He could pan out the hard little nuggets that told a story about the world above.

To Richard, this was a waste of time. All of it was equal. All of it was garbage and deserved to get down the chute with the eggshells and the willow branches and the phonebooks and all the plastic and paper rattling away on the belt. All of it—everything that was separate—would come together and become a single torrent, gushing into the system.

When Gene sorted through their load, Richard couldn’t stand to take part. He would stare out the hangar doors and watch it all emptying out in the landfill, watch the seagulls picking through it. Stared at the spot where it collected and joined slow-moving waves of pulp and debris, mounting and tumbling over as the bulldozers ploughed through the grey tide.


There were four legs to the garbage run. Routes that Gene had been driving and collecting from for more than three decades.

The first leg was all the houses strung along the main road, all in a line. These houses were mostly well built, if not large, and had garages, sometimes boats. Big lawns, front and back, edged by the forest. This was where Gene lived. Everyone knew him and would wave to him. Some left notes for him, taped to their cans.


Sorry about the extra junk, Jill went off to college this week and we had a big clean up. Back to three bags next week (or less) we can promise you that!

Thank you,

Mike & Louise

The second leg was made of all the cul-de-sacs that had sprung up in the last twenty years, houses that were all pretty much identical. Almost all of them two storeys with white siding and black-shingled roofs. Almost all of them inhabited by military families who didn’t want to live on the base. Producers of very little trash, except for cardboard boxes from all the shuffling they did across the country. Always in a pile, always tied with twine and set in the very corner of the lawn, beside a pair of cans. If nobody gave them too much, if the weather was good, and their truck was in good health, the first two runs could sometimes be done in one day.

The fourth leg was the Pine Crest Trailer Park, where Richard and his wife lived. Gene explained that they did it last because it had lots of stops and could take a long time, though it was generally a lesser load for the simple fact that the households were so small. One time, Richard picked out a single grocery bag filled with paper plates and hotdog packages, crushed drink boxes and chip bags that represented the total waste from a single trailer. Richard held it up like a prize and threw it in effortlessly, like a ball of paper into a wastebasket.

Thank god for the deadbeat dads, Gene said to Richard once they were back in the truck. Richard laughed because he felt he was supposed to.

The third leg of the run was the rural route.

This was a place Richard had never seen before. Even when he was in junior softball, and he and his mother had to drive out to places like Tracy and Lincoln and Clayton and Maugerville, he had never gone down those roads. Gene said it was a place that was in between places, too far out to be collected by any other contractor but him. He explained that it wasn’t really part of the county’s responsibility, but it had somehow been lumped into their route by someone in the seventies. Explained it like it was an embarrassing thing that had happened to him personally.

We’re following the river, because that’s how all the settlers got here. Back then you couldn’t go through hills and rock, you had to go around, Gene said. That’s why the road’s shit. Everyone moved away and forgot about it.

The other places had their names posted on signs that were put up by someone who cared, who had one made with municipal funds, either by a machine or a draftsman with a paintbrush and a sense of design. They said:




The Village of Kennedy


You are entering

the community of



But on the third leg nothing was written. There was just the moment when you were on pavement, surrounded by trees, and the moment after when the road turned to dirt or mud where swamp crept across ditches. Their truck did well enough on the rest of their route, but here it shook and shuddered and groaned from overwork. When their shocks started to shriek, Richard knew they had passed over. The place was called the narrows, or sometimes Kennedy Narrows, or the old township. Richard had heard Gene use all three, and once heard an old man at the diner call it the narrow passage.

Heading up the narrow passage today?

Not today, Gene said. Thank the lord.

It took a half hour of driving down a logging road just to get to the first house, which was nothing more than a wooden shack next to an old gas station canopy with no gas station in sight. A pile of wood, a towtruck and a lot of cars parked where the pumps must have been. Once, they saw an old woman asleep in the towtruck, and another time they saw her in a lawn chair with a blanket pulled up over her.

Out there the workload doubled, even though there were fewer houses than even the first leg. Where it sometimes took five minutes of driving to get to the next house, and where Richard and Gene uncovered cans and found far more than they were supposed to even take. The limits, which kept them from having to dump at the sorting centre several times a day, and which would have been useful here, went ignored. In any of the other three legs of the run, if someone left too much, Gene would march up to the door, and knock—even in the dark of early morning—to set them straight. But in the old township, he did no such thing. Here, all the rules were different—bent and reshaped, or even ignored—and Gene was quiet about this inconsistency.

The first time Richard was able to address it, after eight months of working with Gene, he did it carefully. They had just pulled thirteen bags from a rotting wooden bin that had pushed itself apart from the weight. He didn’t look at Gene’s face, staring ahead, instead, at the sinking little trailer where it came from. He asked:

Do you want me to talk to them?

He had learned by then not to ever make any kind of accusation against Gene. He could only make a suggestion about himself, and what he could do for his boss.

Gene responded by shaking his head without looking at him:

They’ve been here longer than I have. Were here before we even had the rules.

Later he added, at the sorting centre that—to be fair—a lot more people lived out here than on the rest of the run. Even if there were fewer houses, there were more people inside of them.

Then, because he was away from it, and in a place he felt comfortable, he added:

It’s different out there.

Houses were bungalows and saltboxes, sometimes with garages, but usually not. Some had house numbers, but others didn’t. A string of newer-looking mini-homes had their civic numbers spray-painted on boulders at the edge of the properties. There were a few active farms, seated in rolling hills, but plenty more stretches of farmland where families lived and did no farming. Where fences surrounded empty corrals, and chicken coops made of greying wood leaned in on themselves, ready to collapse.

Early on, Richard asked him where the animals were, and Gene told him there had never been animals out here as long as he remembered. The only ones they saw were wild, deer or moose. Once, they saw a black bear saunter out of the open doorway of an old church that Gene said had once been the school, too.

About this place, Gene had no theories to share, and at the sorting centre had none of his usual vigilance with the third leg’s load. He waited and watched, shyly and silently, off to the side. Suddenly his duties seemed ceremonial, his attendance merely compulsory.

Another time, they came across four plastic barrels at a curb, too heavy to lift, stinking and sloshing with some kind of liquid. When they took the lid off and saw a putrid black substance that Richard knew could only be the contents of a dredged septic tank, Gene said for fuck’s sake.

Then he put the lid back on and walked away from it.

We have to report this, Richard said. Don’t we? This is hazardous material, right?

Leave it, Gene said.

Later, when they were back in the truck, Gene explained as best he could:

I didn’t grow up out here. I don’t know why it’s like this.


The Clifton farm, Richard noticed, was always in flux.

Sometimes the yard would be overrun with things, with La-Z-Boy chairs and dressers and desks, swollen from rainwater or separating into thick layers like roast-beef sandwiches. Little broken pieces everywhere and stacks of cardboard boxes gone hairy with mould and plastic bags blowing around like tumbleweeds. Other times, like in the summer, it would be bare, picked clean, and almost normal-looking. Just an ordinary property that was on its way to becoming somewhere you’d want to live. Then, it could be overrun with junk cars like Sunfires and Tercels and more half-ton trucks and four-wheelers parked crookedly on the dirt lawn.

That’s when there would be beer bottles and forty-ouncers left standing upright in the ground, or lying where they had come to rest after rolling away from a sweaty hand. Or on the road, shattered into brown necks and bottoms from their trip through the air and across the dead earth.

The things that they’d spotted on the lawn sometimes ended up at the curb, a week later, and items that they had passed over at other curbs sometimes ended up on the Clifton lawn too. And even though Gene had named the very things they picked up and threw into the truck as unhaulable everywhere else, Richard knew better than to make anything of it. From the Cliftons, they would take mattresses and boxsprings, a beer fridge and a deep freeze, a ride-on lawnmower with its wheels and seat and steering wheel dismembered.

After the bonfire, Richard didn’t see any of the people who lived there for a long time.

It was rare to even see anyone awake during the earliest part of the run anyway, except for the farmers who’d wave from their tractors on the third leg, or the army guys running with weighted packs on the second leg who wouldn’t. Sometimes they saw young men in camouflage jackets on four-wheelers with rifles, buzzing alongside the truck in the ditches. But Gene and Richard were both always on the lookout for a Clifton.

When Richard finally saw one of them again, it was winter. Two of the women, both of them large with long, blonde hair, getting little Cliftons in snowsuits down the steps of the main house and into the van. Later, they’d seen the old man carrying what looked like two bottles of Javex from one house to another, early in the morning, wearing a short jacket over a robe and rubber boots. The old man stopped. His hands were full, so he didn’t wave, but he nodded at them.

Good morning boys, he called.

That was the day before Gene finally explained about them, rotating his neck carefully before he spoke, making sure it was in the right place. They were in the truck.

Their brains are scrambled, Gene said quietly.

A gentle explanation, long overdue.A guilty look on his face.

That’s what I figured, Richard said. Crazy people.

Then Gene leaned in, his hand nearly touching Richard’s.

They’ve hurt people, he said. More than a few.


Two of them did, he said. The brothers. Or cousins.It was a long time ago but everyone remembers it.

Richard didn’t know what Gene wanted him to say, so he said nothing. They were on the fourth leg, the furthest they could be from the third. Before the silence went for too long, Richard tried a joke:

They didn’t shoot their garbage men, did they?

Richard smiled, and waited for one in return. Gene’s moustache widened for a moment, but no teeth flashed from underneath. His mouth became small and said ha.


After months, the work hadn’t gotten easier. With Gene, there were no easy days.

Richard had worked past the pain, like he figured Gene must have, but he almost couldn’t cope with the smell. It stayed with him even after he changed and cleaned, even though his wife said she could smell nothing on him. He learned it was something that was still inside him when he made a tiny cone out of toilet paper to scour the insides of his nostrils with. He understood that he was taking it home with himself, in little pieces, particles that were hiding wherever they could. Something that was so dangerous to him that his body set off alarms at the presence of even the tiniest bit of it. Deadly harmful, but ordinary and ever-present, sitting in every single driveway, produced by mere existence; which grew, and would continue to grow and thrive so long as there were people to keep feeding it. When he cleaned himself, Richard imagined that whatever specks he washed off would look like the landfill in miniature, that up close it would look like the same writhing, grey heap, clinging to him.

The job was only four days of work, but each day could drag on for twelve to fourteen hours. Other than trips to the dump, and when they would pull over to piss, Gene gave them one lunch break, and took Richard to the same diner off the highway every shift.It was in the next county, but nearest the sorting centre, so they could eat having already dumped their first load. They would order first, then go to the bathroom together, unzip their coveralls to the waist, and soap their arms up past their elbows. Set the taps as hot as they could stand and wash until the water in the sink was clear and their skin was red.

You wash good or you get sick, Gene said. The only people who clean better than us are surgeons.

Then, with their elbows lifted and their hands forward, they’d return to their table and eat as much as they could stand to put inside their bodies. This was also something that Gene instructed Richard to do on his first day, something that Richard failed to do. It was noon but they had already been going for seven hours.

We’re going until it’s dark out so eat up.

Richard ate most of a plate of fish and chips and had a cup of coffee. Didn’t really touch his peas. And then he watched Gene eat a hamburger and fries, a bowl of tomato soup that came with a roll, a big chicken Caesar salad swimming in dressing and bacon bits, and a cinnamon bun. He ate by opening his mouth and pushing the food in, letting his throat and jaws work on their own. He didn’t try to speak, or even look around. He was focused entirely on the next bite and nothing else. He drank a coffee and a water and an orange juice in big gulps between mouthfuls and finished the coleslaw on Richard’s plate before he was done.

Four hours later, Richard found himself falling behind Gene. He began to miss his throws into the truck, going through the motion of it without looking. Another time he failed to pay attention to the weight and integrity of a bag, covered himself in wood ash and cat litter when it all came apart at the apex of his throw.

And Gene kept going.

He was sixty-one with grey cheeks and a moustache, had a stomach that protruded from under his coveralls, bad knees and bursitis in his elbow. He had difficulty turning his neck and said it could get locked into place if he wasn’t careful. And he could move faster, more efficiently than Richard, who was thirty-six and thin, who had once been on the football and rugby team and who played softball in an amateur league for a decade. On the last half of the first day, Gene was emptying cans and throwing three bags for every one of Richard’s. He had done it for long enough that he knew exactly how much of himself to put into every movement. Took all of his available energy and divided it evenly between households, filled himself up with the exact amount of calories needed to do it all over again.

On his first day, in the time it took Richard to retrieve a bag that had gotten away from him, he saw Gene climb the gates of the truck and get on top of the pile. He held the sides of the truck and pushed down hard. He went down, slowly, pushing the air out, crushing the softer parts of things, making it possible to take more on.

Next time you’re doing it, he said.

When it was his turn, it was late in the day and they were full. Gene threw a final bag on top, then pointed and said get to it. They were stopped in the middle of a country road, at some spot in the narrows where dead trees stuck out of swamp water. Richard climbed up the gates and put himself in the middle of the load. Pushed his legs and boots into the pool of shiny green-and-black bags. It felt like it was eating him. There were a few dull pops below him, followed by a whine like something small and scared was getting suffocated. A burst of hot air rose up from below but didn’t keep rising. Instead it surrounded him. Then, after a while, when he couldn’t sink down further, he felt it fighting him, pushing back up, like he was the only thing keeping it in there. He imagined that if he weren’t there, all of it might surge over the edges of the truck, escape into the forest and multiply.


Richard saw the worst of it late in the winter.

It happened when he wasn’t sure if he could even keep doing the job. Back when he’d lost weight, and muscle too. When he’d lifted up his shirt to show his wife that the ring of fat around his middle had disappeared, and her smile only lasted as long as it took for her gaze to meet his face.

You look tired though.

I am tired, he said. Really tired.

The job was the hardest work Richard had ever done. He’d dug holes and held up sheets of drywall, demolished homes and moved them, and this was the hardest. Moving came close, but with moving there were sometimes smaller houses, or houses without much in the way of books or furniture or the things that you had to work in unison with another guy to get through a hallway and down a set of steps. And with moving, even on the hardest days, you’d have at least ten guys to blow through the work, to take the place apart and move it down the road like ants.

He and his wife had talked about whether or not it was smart to keep the job and decided that he was making more with Gene than he had at anything else he had ever done. Because she wasn’t working, and there was a child on the way, even if he wanted to look for something else, it would have to wait. So there was nothing more that he or she could say, and he was careful not to complain around her.

He seemed to always have a dull headache that stayed with him so long everything seemed grey and strange, like he was in a dream. He felt empty and drained, like a shadow of himself cast upon the wall. It was in this state, early in the morning, that he tipped over a steel drum with his work gloves and saw it:

Two beach towels, decorated with the California Raisins, soaked through with blood.

They’d seen blood before. Blood was everywhere, all around them. In food and on maxi-pads; congealed in discarded bandages and wrecked clothing. Lining the brims of ballcaps and pooled in the middle of rusting duvets. But not like this, and never this much.

The towels were balled up, and after he grabbed them, something fell out into the snow and landed with a thick kind of wetness. They were at the Cliftons.

A girl’s nightie, green with lace trim, dark and wet.

The blood looked fresh and red and only a bit of it gone brown, because it was partially frozen. Not even in a bag, but tossed in overtop of one, almost casually. Like it was meant to be there.

Holy shit, Richard said.

He’d grabbed it automatically, like he would have grabbed a bag, only to have it fall apart on him. And then he’d dropped it. Blood on his gloves and coveralls.A thick, congealed clot on his boot.

Oh fuck.

Throw it in, Gene said. Throw it in right now.

He had taken one look at it, accepted it for what it was, and was ready to move on. But Richard stood in the snow, still looking down at it. The purple cartoon face had gone black with blood, and the yellow saxophone was completely red. A lot of it wasn’t yet unfurled. He was worried to move it, in case there was something inside, something small. He knew what it could be. His wife was five months along, and this was what they feared, what she took vitamins and drank special shakes for, was why Richard moved the cat litter outside and cleaned it himself. He was looking at what they never wanted to see. Or something even worse.

But Gene was quick to come over, grab all of it off the ground, and ball it up, another fat fleck sticking to his glove. He threw it in the back while Richard stood stone still.

Hurry the fuck up, Gene said.

They took the rest of the trash—twenty bags, far more than any one household was ever supposed to give them—with their heads down, and didn’t look up at the house it had come from until they were in the truck, and moving. Both of them saw one of the curtains from the main house pull back, and drop. Gene looked away, and Richard watched. A dark shape behind a maroon blind that lingered, then moved on.

When this load was tipped, instead of watching it come out, Gene said that they had better get a move on. They pulled away from the bags they had collected and left them in an uninspected heap for the first time.


At the start of his second year with Gene, Richard’s wife told him his body had changed again.

His back and shoulders had grown muscular, overdeveloped from throwing bags, while his biceps shrunk. All the fat was gone from his body, and his face was hollow at the cheeks and full of muscle or tendons that weren’t there before. She told him—when she put his hand inside her bathrobe and onto her breast—that his hands were softer than they’d ever been.

He had worked hard to prove himself to Gene, and did it by never calling in sick, never showing up hung over, and never complaining. He worked as hard as he could through the spring thaw, when they were rained on and their feet were ice cold, and every bag was at least three times as heavy. Worked through the summer heat, when everything stunk worse than it ever had and anything left too long was busy and alive with maggots working hard to transform themselves into hard, black horseflies that bit hard enough to draw blood. By then, Richard could finally keep up with him.

Richard learned to act like Gene, to criticize the households for their shabby job of things. Used his lingo, too. Would hold up a bag full of computer parts and say, like Gene would, that these guys were trying to pull a fast one on them or that they think they’re sly, don’t they? They were something more than companions and less than friends, more than a boss and an employee.

By the time fall came and they were taking away leaves and pumpkin guts along with their regular loads, Richard could sense when Gene needed him. Could swoop in and give him a hand and do it wordlessly, and Gene could do the same. When a bag was stuck, in the microsecond it took to feel it sticking, one of them could grab the can and pull it free for the other in one quick motion. He had put himself inside of Gene’s range of motion, too. Had built in himself a copy of Gene, a careful record of all of his movements and estimations, his timing and range. On the run, they were fast-moving reflections of each other that would stop, empty, throw, and leave in efficient little bursts.

Gene had remarked in small ways about Richard’s development. When he achieved a long-distance throw, and the bag arced overhead with the perfect whoosh, Gene would give him the A-OK sign with his fingers and thumb. He would laugh with joy when Richard one-handed a heavy, bloated bag over his shoulder.

Now you’re working, he’d say, and they both would smile.

But still, when they passed over the threshold to that other place, nothing had changed. Even on beautiful days, when all was quiet except for birds and trees and the sound of their small movements, something felt wrong. Richard could see it on Gene’s face, an expression he knew was on his own face too: worry. It kept them quiet and, at the Clifton’s, completely silent, as if a single wrong word might summon the whole clan from their nest.


When Richard finally told his wife about them, it was because of the swing set.

He had kept them from her, had kept all mention of their waste separate from their home and the people in it. Had never mentioned the blood, or the mess, or the crimes Gene had told him about. But the swings had broken this barrier for him.

It was winter, and the yard had become a maze again—even worse than before—but there was something else, too. Something at the head of all that trash, waiting for them.

When they were pulling up to it, from afar, he didn’t know precisely what he was looking at, but he knew it was going to make him angry. It was a swing set, enormous with thick, metal poles—the kind you’d find at a school—maybe ten-feet tall, with cracking blue paint. Each one of its legs rested in a trash barrel, and the whole thing was leaning strangely in the snow bank, towering over them. It was so huge it couldn’t fit in the truck even if it were empty and they had four guys to move it. And yet it had come here from somewhere else, had been brought here by them. How had it even made it here?

When he gazed upon it, Richard felt the same thing he’d felt before, when the roofers didn’t pay him and he’d shown up on the job to collect. Not just anger, but a righteous fury that came with such a sense of certainty that he felt invulnerable. If the men on the roof, all of them holding hammers, had come after him, he imagined their blows would have bounced right off him. He felt the same now, like if the Cliftons came out all at once he could pull them apart with his bare hands.

When they got out, both men stood and looked at it for a while. It had no seats, just hanging chains, clinking like wind chimes.

After Richard jerked at the legs and found that he couldn’t even budge them in the cans, he laughed:

Are you fucking serious?

Gene pinched between his eyebrows. He spoke quietly, with his eyes closed:

We have to find a way to take this.

Why not just go talk to them? Richard asked, knowing the answer, feeling something sour blooming inside of himself.

No, Gene said with some effort. Just leave it be.

They had gone through this in the fall, when the Cliftons put out an entire shower stall with a toilet inside of it. It was smashed and sliding around in four big pieces, and Gene accepted this without question, took on the extra load as if any other course of action were impossible. Richard protested for the first time by asking if they really had to take it, but did it while helping to heave it up and over the second closed gate.

Don’t you get sick of this shit? Richard asked him.

Gene swallowed instead of answering, then wiped his forehead.

Ten minutes later the stall came off the back and tumbled onto the road. They stopped, not to heave it back onto the pile, but to shove it down into a ditch. It landed in thick mud and reeds, on its side. Gene felt satisfied leaving it like that.

We can just say we didn’t notice it go, he told Richard. If anybody asks.

And Richard watched as it collected brown water from the little brook flowing through the ditch before he moved on.

With the swing set, Richard decided that if it were still there when they came back the next week, he would go and talk to them, with or without Gene. When the truck shuddered around the corner, and they saw it for the second time, it had taken on new shape. With the snow bank at its side, all the new bags of waste had collected against the swing set and on top of it, giving it new mass. Richard thought it looked like a temple in the making, somewhere you’d sacrifice virgins to the spirits circling overhead. With the Cliftons’ garbage cans out of commission, more bags than usual had been left out and torn open. Crows were eating what was left.

Richard felt something familiar.

It pulled him out of the truck, past all the fleeing birds, and onto the property itself. It moved him through the rotting fence and past two speakers, stripped of their foam, sitting next to a gutted dryer, the little pieces of litter probably thrown directly from the house. Then he was up and onto the porch, a mess of trash and snow and ice and junk either too difficult to get out onto the yard or into the house. Two frozen couches, a china cabinet without doors. A set of aluminum blinds twisted and wrapped around a red snow-blower blade. There was warm air blowing out from inside the house. Richard realized he was knocking on the door.

A dog barked.

He waited.

When it opened, the old man was there, smoking a cigarette, looking sickly thin, like a mummy in long johns. He didn’t say hello or ask any questions. He crumpled the checkerboard of lines on his forehead and made his eyes disappear in a squint.

Listen, Richard heard himself say. You gotta get this thing outta here.

He looked past Richard, and searched in the distance. A smile opened his face back up and he laughed when he saw the mound.

The boys put that out. He shook his head. I told them you fellas wouldn’t take it but they didn’t listen.

We can take five bags from most households. For you guys, we do more. But we can’t take your swing set.

Well, he said, his smile leaving him. You gotta take it.

We can’t take it.

Whatever we give you, you take it. You put it in that little truck and you go. It’s your job to take it.

Actually it isn’t, Richard said. It is a little truck, though, you’re right. And we can only take so much. And this is too much.

Who says it’s too much? He looked at him. You? There are fourteen of us.

He peered with one burning eye at the road, at Gene, looking small in the driver’s seat. He pointed with a knobby finger.

Does he decide?

Then there was silence except for the wind sucking the smell out from the house. Richard clenched his jaw and swallowed before speaking.

We can’t even move the thing.

You take what we give you, he said.

You get that out of there or else we can’t take any of your trash. Period.

The two stood for a moment, looking into each other’s eyes.

Then, Richard tried again:

We can go to the county, he said. Go and get a fine for all this.

Is that the truth? Can you?

We can, Richard said.

Well, the old man said, we’ll see.

He shut the door.

When he crunched back to Gene through the snow and saw him trying to pull a garbage bag off the top of the mound, Richard told him to stop, and Gene did. He brought his arms down to his sides, slowly, then looked to Richard, who told him to get back in the truck. Gene obeyed, because things were different now.


It all changed when Richard surpassed Gene.

When he was faster and used to the system and terrain and could act before a need even arose. It was when Gene had him back to the garage and sat him next to the little wood stove again after they were back from the run. The truck parked next to them, grey and dented and covered in a film of grease that was cleaned off only once a year.

I could write my name in that, Richard thought.

Gene spoke at length about what good a job Richard had been doing, and offered him a raise. He had brought him there expressly for this purpose, and was frank about it:

I’ve given two guys a raise, and it was only ever after a good five years or so, he said. But I’m older now and you help me a hell of a lot. So I thought I’d let you know I want to pay you more, if the idea is that you want to keep doing this.

I do, Richard said. I want to keep doing this, Gene.

Well then, that sounds good to me.

They shook hands then, and sat inside of what seemed like happiness.

The change came later, in Richard’s mind. When it occurred to him for the first time that all of this was malleable.That they could get people to follow the rules if they really wanted to, if they weren’t afraid. That Gene could spend a quarter of the money he spent on his raise and get a new truck. Or a second one. That they could split the work between them and be finished faster, spread it out over one extra day and not have to work so hard. That this whole operation hinged on the fact that Gene wanted four days straight to do whatever the fuck he needed all those hours for.

The next time he saw Gene, it had become something he could feel. A difference in balance, in the space between them. He didn’t have a word for what was gone. When he and Gene emptied cans in unison, put them down, and went their separate ways to the driver’s and passenger’s side, it was something missing in their movements. A tug.

He came up with the word looking into his son’s mouth, wet with orange mush, at his lips and the ridge of pink where his teeth were beginning to sprout. He thought of the name of what had been between them that was now gone, or else something that was imaginary and never there to begin with.

Tether, he said.


When Richard walks towards the Clifton house for the last time, Gene stays in the truck and waits. The pyramid is nearly a complete, missing only a few blocks near its middle. A mound of garbage nearly big enough to necessitate its own run to the sorting centre.Its chains no longer clinking, but resting on a heap of taut, black bags.

This time, Richard knocks on the door with enough force that he feels it give a little.

This time, he receives no answer.

He waits, and knocks again. Looks to his left. Just past the porch, a picnic table beside a mound of dirt. A hole nearby with half a motorcycle in it.

As he waits, he starts to deflate. He feels Gene’s gaze burning into the back of his head, a hot tickle.

Finally he turns around, and leaves. Goes down the steps and begins to walk back. He sees that Gene’s face is turned in his direction, but it’s looking past him, at the house. Richard turns just in time to see the door shutting, and something shoot out. At first he doesn’t know what he’s looking at because it’s bright, and all he can hear is the wind.

It’s black and low to the ground, coming at him like a tiny storm cloud.

He realizes it’s a dog when it’s close enough to open its mouth, and by then it is too late to run, or really do anything. All he can do is offer up his hand in place of his neck or face or crotch, and the mouth accepts, taking it on with ease. Then it has him, and they are one, a man with a black dog on the end of his arm. Richard holds his own wrist, trying to pry himself free, and trying to kick the dog, too.

From the truck, it looks like they’re dancing. It sounds like Richard’s singing, crying out in whoops and hollers, even though he isn’t. It takes a long time before Gene is able to move, to unclick his seatbelt, and open the door, heave his weight from the seat and rush forward. For a while he watches them through his own clouded breath on the window before he opens the door.

After Gene finally gets to him, a heavy flat-head shovel clenched between his gloved fingers, it still takes twenty more minutes.

Gene swings, sometimes hitting the dog, sometimes hitting the ground. When he does connect and the metal ricochets off the dog’s skull, pain shoots through Richard’s whole body and he cries out. Eventually Gene gives up with the shovel, grabs the dog by the hind legs and pulls back with all his strength, kicks at its underside, but it won’t let go. Richard grabs at whatever he can find littered on the ground. Snow and clumps of dead grass.An empty cloth pencil case. An old bleach container, stomped flat. A paint can lid. The chewed-up remote control from a toy car.A six-inch length of garden hose. At one point he tries to grab something round and red and comes away with nothing, realizing it’s his own blood. His scavenger hunt ends when his hand falls on the curved end of a broken cinderblock with real weight to it, fifteen feet from where this started.

The dog releases him after five blows to its snout and head, but Richard doesn’t allow it to retreat. Instead, he is up and the shovel is in his hands—in both the good hand and the ruined one—and he’s swinging it harder than Gene ever could. Chasing after it. The dog takes more blows to the skull as it tries to run away, yelping and staggering with each one. It’s knocked over and silenced completely when the shovel is swung sideways into the bone of its neck with a hard snap. After it’s down, after it has stopped opening and closing its jaws, and even after its black lips have drawn back down over its teeth, Richard doesn’t stop. He’s working harder than he’s ever worked, bringing the shovel up and down, up and down onto the dark body lying in the yard with all the other things.

Later, when Richard bursts through the Cliftons’ door with his hand dangling at his side and Gene following him, he hasn’t slowed any. He charges through the cold room and into a hallway with fake wood panelling, blue shag carpet. Stacks of dead TVs and radios and record players, all pushed up against a wall. Crosses into what looks like a living room.

There, five children sit on a rug before a television, five bowls of cereal before them, their faces lit by a dull warbling. One boy, maybe the oldest, maybe nine years old, upright and leaning against the couch, looking out of place and awkward as he searches their faces.

Richard goes to move, to search the kitchen and back and upstairs, but the entire motion is short circuited into a sort of twitch.

He stops. Gene is saying his name.

That’s when he realizes it, and feels it. A big feeling, so big it’s like he’s standing on it. He remembers outside, the van—the one he’d seen the children and the women piling into—up on blocks and under a tarp. And there were none of the usual trucks or rusting cars parked haphazardly across the lot. He looks at a child’s pale face, flickering blue from the light of the television, the only light in the house. They’re alone. The only adults are he and Gene, together in the dark. No one’s in charge. Not on this floor, or in this house, or on this parcel of land. Not anywhere along this road, not even where it ends and branches out in every direction, like lightning.

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Kris Bertin

Kris Bertin is a writer from Lincoln, New Brunswick. He bartends in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His work has appeared in The Walrus, The Malahat Review, TNQ, PRISM International and many other publications. Bad Things Happen is his first collection.