The Processing Center
by Jacob Yaple
Bill Jackson didn’t see the homeless man until it was too late.
Bill was carrying his trash bag through the back door into the alley when he heard rustling sounds. He looked up to see a homeless person rummaging through the dumpster. Seen from the back, the person could’ve been male or female, black or white. The person wore matted layers of flannel and cotton, with a frayed knit cap on top of it all. It was noon in August, and the person’s heavy clothing only made the person’s stench worse: it was a smell of decayed garbage, maggoty meat, urine and feces.
Bill would have to squeeze by the homeless person in order to dump his trash. He hated situations like this. A lot of these scavengers were mentally ill and reacted violently to being touched or spoken to. Bill didn’t want to bring his trash back to his apartment and wait for the person to leave, either. He couldn’t bear to have his apartment smelling like garbage any longer than necessary, even for a few minutes.
Maybe Bill could get around the homeless person and dump his trash on the other side of the dumpster. He inched his way toward the side of the dumpster that was farthest from the homeless person, keeping several feet away from him or her at all times. Finally Bill approached the dumpster, holding his bag at the ready. He ran the last few steps and balanced his bag on top of the mound, using as light a touch as if the bag were full of nitroglycerin. Unfortunately, a combination of the extra weight of Bill’s bag and the homeless person’s rummaging caused a garbage avalanche. Bill, who had been preparing a fast getaway anyway, jumped back and managed to avoid the worst of it, but the homeless person was buried.
The person straightened up and uttered a piercing scream. A bag of disposable diapers fell off the person’s head and revealed a startlingly ugly face. Bloodshot eyes hidden at the bottom of deep hollows stared in different directions above a crooked purple nose that leaked bright green snot into a matted yellow mustache. A hole opened wide in the stringy white beard, showing off a few scattered green stumps of teeth as the man uttered another drilling shriek. The homeless man started toward Bill with murder in his eyes.
It was at that moment that Bill realized the flaw in his plan. Since Bill had circled around to get to the other side of the dumpster, the homeless man was now between him and the door to his building. Now his only escape route was to run for the other end of the alley and enter the building through the main entrance. Bill took off running, hearing the homeless man’s labored breathing behind him every step of the way. Bill jumped errant trash bags, wooden pallets, and assorted grue with the grace of a ballet dancer. At the end of the alley, Bill put on an extra burst of speed and emerged into a placid scene. A red awning shaded marble steps leading to double glass doors at the front of the apartment building. Bill ran across the plush green lawn and paused at the doors, heart pounding. He didn’t hear the homeless man behind him anymore. Had he given up? Or was he just slowed down by the trash in the alley and whatever diseases he might have?
Hands shaking, Bill unlocked the front door and stepped in. That was when the homeless man reached through the doorway and grabbed Bill’s shirt collar. The breath froze in Bill’s throat. Reacting instinctively, he twisted in the homeless man’s grip, turned and pushed the heavy glass door shut. He held it, grinding on the homeless man’s arm, until the man withdrew his arm and the door swung shut and locked. The homeless man emitted another incoherent shriek and shook his fist at Bill. Safely on the other side of the glass door, Bill considered giving him the finger. He decided he had pushed his luck enough for one day. He turned away and walked upstairs to his apartment.
Bill decided not to call the police. After being on the receiving end of a couple of attempted muggings, he knew it was just a waste of time. The officers always seemed disappointed when he told them nothing had been stolen and nobody had been hurt, as if to say, where’s the crime, then? What about the crime of scaring me half to death, he wondered. Luckily the fear had helped him avoid injury and robbery by motivating him to run like hell. What had happened today was just another non-crime.
Times were tough all over. The bad economy had led to layoffs, which had led to foreclosures, which had led to more homeless roaming the streets. Nobody had any extra cash to donate to homeless shelters, so many of the shelters had closed. No wonder there were so many scavengers around.
The next morning Bill headed out the front door of his building on his way to work. A loud beeping made him wince slightly as a big white truck slowly backed into the alley. It was a garbage truck, but it was the cleanest garbage truck Bill had ever seen. Bright blue letters on the gleaming white side of the truck spelled out, “The Processing Center: We’ll Take Care of It.” Something occurred to Bill, and he waved the driver down.
“What can I do for you, sir?” asked the driver. He had a beefy elbow cocked out the window, and looked at Bill with friendly blue eyes. A shock of blond hair stuck out from under his clean white baseball cap.
“I wanted to warn you about a homeless guy I saw here yesterday. He chased me away when I tried to dump my trash.” Bill felt a tremendous relief as he spoke. Apparently he hadn’t recovered from the incident as completely as he thought he had. It felt good to tell his story to someone in authority, even such a lowly authority as a garbage man.
The garbage man listened thoughtfully to Bill’s story. Amazingly, he got out a notepad and a pen and said, “Could you describe this man, sir?”
Bill described the homeless man, surprised when the garbage man wrote down every word. “Of course, it’s not going to do any good,” Bill concluded. “There wasn’t any crime committed, so the police aren’t going to care.”
“We care.” The garbage man pointed at the name on the side of his truck. “Whenever garbage collection is impeded, the Processing Center is there to take care of it.” Bill almost laughed, but the garbage man seemed deadly serious.
“I never heard of this company,” Bill said. “Did they just start recently?”
“We took over the city garbage collection about six months ago,” the garbage man said. “But I don’t blame you for not noticing. Garbage collecting is a pretty invisible job, after all. What’s your name, sir?”
“Bill Jackson,” Bill said.
“We’ll take care of the problem for you, Mr. Jackson,” the garbage man said. “We’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.” He resumed backing his truck into the alley, and Bill continued on his way to work. Bill now felt completely recovered from his encounter with the homeless man. He had poured out his problems, and somebody had actually listened! The Processing Center probably couldn’t magically solve the homeless problem, and Bill would probably never meet that particular homeless man again anyway, but he found himself feeling better. His problem had been taken seriously, and that was enough.
Bill forgot about the Processing Center until a few weeks later. It was late and Bill was just falling asleep when he heard splashing coming from the bathroom. He fought his way back from the edge of sleep and threw back the covers. It was probably nothing. He had taken a shower before bed and the leaky faucet was probably dripping the last of the water into the slow-to-drain bathtub. The splashing sounded unusually loud this time, though.
Bill walked into the bathroom and turned on the light. A horrible sight awaited him. The toilet bowl was filled to the rim with stinking brown soup, and more of it was running down the sides of the bowl and splashing onto the floor tiles. The brown tide was oozing its way toward Bill’s feet. Bill jumped over the growing brown lake and got a roll of paper towels from under the sink. He spent a few minutes trying to soak up the spreading ooze with the paper towels. He tried to think of what he would do with the paper towels after using them. They would cause a clog if he tried to flush them down the toilet, and they were too gross to put in the trash can. Finally he decided to put the used towels in a plastic bag and bring them immediately to the dumpster. Meanwhile, more brown stuff kept flowing out of the toilet. He realized he was just wasting his time. The ooze had to be stopped at the source.
Bill picked up a plunger and attacked the toilet. There had to be some kind of clog somewhere binding up its innards, and he hoped a good plunging would loosen it. Shit droplets stained the front of Bill’s pajamas as he plunged the toilet vigorously. Several times the handle came off the cheaply-made plunger and Bill had to fish around in the bowl for the suction cup end. After a while, Bill convinced himself the flow of muck was slowing down. Bill decided maybe it was time to try flushing the toilet. He tried, but it turned out to be a big mistake. The plumbing hiccupped and the color of the muck changed from brown to black. The stench changed from the ripe smell of diarrhea to an earthy smell like rotting garbage. A wadded mass popped up from the bowl and plopped onto the floor. Bill stared at it, nauseated. Was this what had been clogging up the toilet?
Just then Bill heard someone pounding on the front door of his apartment.
“Sir? Are you home? The sewer backed up and we have to come in and fix the plumbing. Hello? Sir?”
Great. Now the job would be taken over by a professional, who would have a big laugh over Bill’s feeble attempts to deal with the problem. Even worse, this hairball or whatever it was might be blamed on Bill. About a month ago a notice had been slipped under Bill’s door, saying, ATTENTION ALL TENANTS! DO NOT FLUSH INAPPROPRIATE OBJECTS DOWN YOUR TOILETS! ANY PLUMBING PROBLEMS THIS CAUSES WILL BE FIXED AT YOUR EXPENSE! Bill didn’t know much about how plumbing worked, but he guessed that the blame would go to the unlucky person whose toilet barfed up the inappropriate object.
On impulse, Bill grabbed the filthy wad of whatever-it-was and ran to the door. He held the wad behind him as he opened the door for the plumber. The man was slightly shorter than Bill, with a handlebar mustache that made Bill think of Super Mario Brothers. The plumber wore clean white coveralls with the words “The Processing Center: We’ll Take Care of It” on the front. “Where’s your bathroom, sir?” he asked.
Bill led the way to the bathroom and stood by patiently as the plumber surveyed the mess. “Do you know how much this is going to cost?” Bill asked.
“Oh, it won’t cost you a cent, sir,” the plumber said. “This is a free public service, courtesy of the city government and the Processing Center.”
“I thought the Processing Center only took care of garbage collection.”
“Oh no, we take care of the sewers, too. The Processing Center takes care of everything.” The plumber went back out to the hallway and returned carrying a bucket and a long-handled mop.
“You’ll notice the liquid has stopped flowing,” the plumber said to Bill. “That means that the problem has been solved on the sewer end. Now we just have to clean up your bathroom fixtures and we’ll be done.”
Bill watched as the plumber cleaned his bathroom. Any plumber he had ever heard of would have made the tenant clean up the mess himself. Oh well, it was a government job, after all: the plumber was probably well compensated.
When the bathroom was sparkling clean and the last of the dreck had been flushed down the fully functional toilet, the plumber gave a mock salute and left. Only then did Bill realize he was still holding the object that had clogged the toilet and caused him so much needless worry. He decided to take a look at it. After worrying so much about it, he might as well find out what it was. It might even turn out to be something valuable.
It wasn’t a hairball after all, he discovered. Sure, there was hair wound around it and sticking out from it in all directions, but it had a hard cylindrical core. Bill slowly unwound the greasy layers of hair to find a pale object which smelled like spoiled meat. It was slightly squishy along its length but was hard at the ends. With a jolt of recognition, Bill realized the hard area at one of the ends was a split and ragged fingernail, and the hard area at the other end was a finger bone sticking out. He was holding a disembodied human finger.
How the hell could his toilet have barfed up a finger? Talk about an inappropriate object! And what had happened to the owner of the finger? Was this evidence of some kind of mob hit? Did he even know of any mobsters in the city?
Bill felt a sudden chill. He didn’t know of any mobsters, but he did know of one organization that claimed to “take care of everything”: the Processing Center. Hadn’t they promised to “take care of” that annoying homeless man for him? Bill had put out a hit on somebody and he hadn’t even known it. He thought back, but couldn’t remember seeing any homeless people since complaining to the garbage man about them. Homeless people were easy to get rid of. There was nobody to report them missing, so it didn’t matter if body parts were showing up in toilets across the city: there were no records to match the parts to.
Bill called 911. An injury-and-robbery-free mugging might not be a crime, but it was a whole different ball game when you found a finger in your toilet. That was evidence that somebody had been injured, at least.
Bill was on hold for a surprisingly short time. The operator was brisk and pleasant. “What is the nature of your emergency, sir?” she asked.
“I need to report a crime,” Bill said.
“Are you in immediate danger, sir? Do you have any life-threatening injuries?”
“No.” I should have called the police number, Bill thought. Now this lady will blow up at me and give me hell, and I don’t blame her.
“Please describe what happened in as much detail as possible, sir,” she said. She wasn’t going to snottily remind him that 911 was for emergencies only. She wasn’t going to transfer him to the police line, either. Well, that was refreshing.
Bill poured out his story, from being chased by the homeless man to meeting the garbage man to finding the finger. He added in his suspicions about the Processing Center.
Finally Bill ran out of things to say. After a pause, the operator said, “We’ll send an officer to you immediately, Mr. Jackson. Please stay calm and be patient. The officer will be there soon.”
She wasn’t kidding. Less than twenty minutes later there was a knock on Bill’s door and a gruff voice said, “Mr. Jackson? This is Officer Smith responding to your 911 call. Please let me in.”
Bill opened the door. Officer Smith was a tall, wide black man who looked like he never took crap from anybody.
Bill was prepared to go hoarse repeating his story yet again for the officer’s report. When Bill started to recite his story, however, he got a surprise.
“No need to repeat yourself, sir,” Officer Smith said. “I listened to the recording of your call on the way here. Now let’s get down to the important stuff. Where’s the finger you found?”
Bill handed over the severed finger.
Officer Smith looked the finger over carefully, then pulled out an evidence bag, sealed up the finger and put it in his pocket. “It’s a human finger, all right. Looks a couple weeks old. Nobody’s been reported missing in that time, so it looks like you’re right: the victim could only be someone living off the grid—homeless, in other words. Now, give me a description of the garbage man.”
Bill thought back. “He had blond hair and blue eyes and wore a white baseball cap.”
Officer Smith looked into Bill’s eyes. “Would you recognize him if you saw him again?”
Bill wasn’t quite sure, but he was determined to do his part. “Yes,” he said.
“Okay,” Officer Smith said, giving a curt nod. “Follow me, sir.”
Officer Smith led the way out of the building to the waiting squad car. He held open the front passenger door for Bill and waited until Bill was safely belted in to the plush leather interior. Then Officer Smith got into the driver’s seat and drove the car off into the quiet moonlit night.
Bill hoped they wouldn’t be poring over ID photos all night. In his experience, it was always a big waste of time. “Are we going to the station to look at mug shots?” he asked.
“Nope,” Smith chuckled. “That’s always a waste of time. No, we’re going straight to the source: Processing Center headquarters. I’ll get them to pull the employee files and you can ID him from that.”
“Don’t you need a warrant to see the files?” Bill asked, trying to slow things down to his speed. He was used to the plodding pace of normal police procedure.
“You’ve seen too many cop shows, buddy!” Officer Smith said. “The Processing Center is employed by the city government, so all its files are a matter of public record. They’re required to let us see the files.”
“What else do you know about the Processing Center, Officer?” Bill asked.
“Almost everything, Mr. Jackson. Like I said, it’s a matter of public record.” Smith took one hand off the wheel and rubbed his thumb and index fingertips together. “It’s all about money, you see. The city government awards contracts to companies that bid the lowest—that is, promise to charge the least money. The Processing Center bid the lowest for the waste management contract, so they have carte blanche to manage the garbage and the sewage any way they see fit.”
“Which is how a human body part ended up in my toilet,” Bill said.
“Right. They just dump everything in one place. Some people still sort their trash into glass, paper, plastic, and metal, right? For recycling. Well, the Processing Center just takes all that and dumps it in a great big hole, along with garbage and sewage. They don’t do anything with it, they don’t treat it, they don’t recycle it. It just sits there and stinks.”
“Why didn’t I hear any protests about this? People aren’t just going to allow a huge waste dump in their neighborhood. You know, ‘Not in my back yard,’ and stuff.”
The car bumped across the wrong side of the tracks and cruised past abandoned buildings and weedy vacant lots. “The Processing Center is underground,” Smith said. “Out of sight, out of mind. When the hole gets full and they need to expand, they buy up foreclosed property in the poor section of town.”
Bill remembered something from earth science class. “If the hole is underground, won’t methane build up and cause an explosion?”
They drove through a cloud of steam billowing from a manhole. Smith waved a hand at it to make his point. “Gas buildup is vented through manholes and street grates throughout the city, so it never reaches deadly levels.”
No wonder I have to hold my breath when I walk past a street grate, Bill thought.
The squad car turned suddenly and drove down a ramp that seemed like the entrance to an underground parking garage. Once they were underground, the only view was the concrete wall of the ramp a few feet in front of them, lit by the car’s headlights. They turned endlessly around the corkscrew ramp, descending several levels into the Processing Center. A faint odor began to permeate the car. The smell grew stronger as the car descended. By the time it became an all-pervasive rotten garbage smell overlaid by a fetid diarrhea stench, Bill was used to it. It wasn’t really that bad, not to someone who had recently experienced a sewer overflow in his apartment.
Finally they reached an exit and turned off the ramp. They entered a huge space lit only by a few pairs of headlights. Midnight wasn’t exactly peak garbage-collecting time, but Bill saw a few garbage trucks out there just the same. The trucks backed up to the huge muddy pit one by one and dumped their loads. Sometimes the edge of the pit crumbled under the trucks’ back wheels, and Bill heard the squealing of tires as the trucks scrambled to safety.
Officer Smith parked the car next to a wall furthest from the pit’s edge. “Here we are,” he said. “Follow me.”
Smith got out of the police car and Bill followed him over to the wall. The wall had a door in it covered with dials and controls. “This is the entrance to the Processing Center staff offices,” Smith explained. “It works like an airlock. The office workers use it to screen out the stink of the hole and leave their offices smelling clean and fresh. You go first, Mr. Jackson.”
Bill stepped into the airlock and Officer Smith closed the door behind him. Bill found himself in a medium-sized metal chamber with room for about four or five people, with a door in the opposite wall. He turned toward the outside door. “Hey!” he said. “There’s room in here for you, too! Why don’t—“
There was no reply. Both the inner door and the outer door were smooth and featureless on this side. Bill noticed the air was getting heavier, not lighter. Well, that was one use for the methane, he thought. He should have figured it out sooner. The polite, efficient treatment he had gotten from the 911 operator and the policeman exactly matched how the garbage man and the plumber had treated him. The Processing Center took care of everything now—including the police.
Officer Smith waited until the methane reached the maximum level in the airlock, then started venting it again. Nobody would ever miss Bill Jackson. He had no living relatives, no friends, no lovers. A week from now he would be fired from his job for not coming in and not calling in for a full week. In a month he would be evicted from his apartment for non-payment of rent, and all his belongings would be sent to the Processing Center. No one would care—just like nobody cared about the homeless people.
There are invisible people everywhere, Officer Smith thought. Then he started the compactor.