The Dump Dwellers
By Phyllis C Koppel
The dump, replete with a filigree of flies and the stench of rot, is not the best place to tell a fairytale, but Carmen’s lithe seven-year old sister doesn’t care. Rosario, large black eyes that have lost their shine and threaten to swallow her small face, listens to the intruder’s story as if it is the only thing that will save them from this place. As dwellers of the garbage heaps, they have no time for stories.
Before sunrise that day, Carmen and her sister sat cross-legged atop a packed heap of sorted trash, planning.
“We gotta get a really big box today. Ours is about to give in.” They decided which heap to pick, counting on an early start to get ahead of the swarm of pickers that would soon descend on the mounds like an army of killer ants.
It’s dawn, still too dark to survey the dump’s vastness. Running five city blocks in length and three across it produces enough stench to fill a planet and sustains an underground economy of the displaced and forgotten. People live in corrugated cardboard or galvanized steel structures on the dusty road that mixes with a latticework of bugs and garbage.
“Let’s go,” Carmen whispers. The girls wrap layers of rags over their body; on their face, to protect from dust and flies; on their feet, to protect from broken glass and scorpions; on their hands, to protect from sharp needles and razors mixed in the refuse.
“I know where we might find a strong box.” Rosario knows the dump’s geography like she knows her sister’s features. She was born a few rows down, runs like the wind and is recognized as the best picker in Buena Vista.
Without warning, Carmen feels the packed garbage mound shift. She turns to protect Rosario, but a boy is already next to her. His large hand over her tiny shoulder. She stops herself from lounging forward as this might put Rosario in further danger. Carmen says nothing, doesn’t move, stares like a fawn caught in the headlights.
With a crooked smile, the boy says, “You look like scrawny mummies. That’s how yous dress in da dump?”
“Get. Your hand. Off. My sister.” Carmen says.
He doesn’t let go of Rosario’s shoulder. “I’m not yah to negotia—” his voice cracks.
“Whatcha want?” Carmen rushes toward the boy. He scoops Rosario off the mound. The garbage below shifts further, and he nearly loses his balance. “I repeat, who are you and what do you want? Let her go now. If you’ve got something, you deal with me.”
The boy laughs. “Save your cockiness for another time; it’s your sister I want. I’ve come to tell yous a little story, ‘bout a magic doll.”
Carmen smells cologne on the boy, as if he just showered, so she knows he’s not from the dump.
“We ain’t got time for stories. We’ve work to do,” she says. The boy grabs Rosario’s neck and then sinks a hand deep into his pocket.
Carmen’s eyes follow the whisper of his fingers, notices there’s something in his pocket and that his pants look faded and old.
When her little sister asks in a small voice, “What kinda magic story?” the boy lets go of her throat and sees the excitement swimming in her large eyes. “I like dolls and magic.”
“That’s what I like to see,” he says, “some co-operation around here. It’s a fairytale, and it goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a magic doll that got lost. Some jerk left her in this dump, and I hear you’re really good at finding things in this miserable place so you gonna find the fuckin’ doll and bring her to me. End of story, comprendes?”
Rosario’s eyes are round as tortillas and she’s raring to take off on this adventure. Dump people know she’s the go-to picker when they’re looking for something specific. Carmen realizes that her reputation goes beyond the dump.
“What’s in it for us?” she says.
“Are you kiddin’ me? Find the fuckin’ doll first and then we talk.” He shoves Rosario toward her sister.
“The doll’s real big,” he tells the younger one, “she comes up to my knees; she’s a Juanita Perez. You probably dunno what she looks like ‘cause she’s a doll for friggin’ rich kids, but you’re gonna find her anyways, ‘cause she’s magic.” He cocks his head like someone he might have seen in the movies. Rosario is usually afraid of everything, but she’s not frightened by the boy who came from nowhere with magical tales.
He lights up a joint. "The magic doll has gone through some real bad times. She’s gotta be saved.”
“Why?” Carmen says full of venom and hostility. “Our Mama disappeared, and we live here. Your doll gone through bad times like us? Didn’t think so.”
He smirks. “You’ve got spirit, I gotta give ya that.” He turns to the young sister. “A coyote bit the doll’s head off, and without it, she’s got no magic at all. We gotta help her."
It isn’t Rosario’s fault for falling for his story; she’s hooked even before the boy finishes telling it. Under all the grime and scabby skin, she’s just a regular seven-year old who likes fairytales.
“Where’s the magic doll?” Rosario asks.
“The fuckin’ doll's here, in El Bordo de Xochiaca—” his low voice cracks again and, in Carmen’s mind, it is sealed; he’s no older than she is, thirteen. The young sister laughs.
“What’s so fuckin’ funny?” The boy thinks Rosario’s laughing at his cracking voice, but she laughs because the dump’s official name sounds funny to her. “Basta,” he yells. His hands go up in the air. He’s holding a gun.
The sisters fall silent.
He points the gun at Carmen’s forehead. “Find the fuckin’ doll,” he tells Rosario, “or your sister’s gone. Run.”
Rosario freezes, but when Carmen nods, she charges out in search of the magical doll. The mound of garbage on which they stand shifts again.
“Stay within sight,” he tells Rosario, but she can’t hear above the din of the dump. “A fine place yous live in,” he says pushing the gun’s barrel harder into Carmen’s forehead. He swishes a fly off.
“Yeah…we’ve got birds chirping and we live off the land.”
He grabs her neck. “This ain’t no fuckin’ joke, kid. One more word—” but says no more. Cocking his head high, looking for Rosario, a seagull shits on his forehead. “Fuck! Why the hell do we have seagulls in the middle of México City? See any ocean ‘round here? None, but we got fuckin’ seagulls and their damn shit.” He eases the barrel’s pressure off Carmen’s forehead and his voice softens. “Is your sister as good as they say, ‘bout finding things in the dump? If she finds the doll, I could leave a few pesos for yous.”
“She’s gotta find it first. You think she gonna?”
“We’re born here. This is all we know. She’s been picking since before she could crawl.”
“How fuckin’ old is? Like four?”
Carmen is about to say, nah seven, but she stops; it’s better if the boy thinks that Rosario is a little kid.
“She’s big enough to find your doll but it’s going to take time.”
“Why? She likes playing with dolls, right?”
His question stings. The other day, Rosario had found a Teddy bear missing its legs and arms. Its head hung by threads. Most of the stuffing was gone, and the plush was so dirty it was hard to tell what colour it had been. She cuddled it like a baby and sang a lullaby that sent her sweet voice clashing with the rumble of the machines and the cacophony of the dump. The notes wafted and waltzed with the dump’s toxic fumes.
“Sure, Rosario likes to play,” Carmen says. “That’s why she accepted your offer so quick, because of the magical doll. If she finds it, you’re going to have to help us.”
“I didn’t come to help or negotiate. What kinda help? Told you I’d leave a few pesos.”
“That won’t last.”
“What you want from me? A fuckin’ castle?” The boy laughs.
“For starters,” Carmen says, “you can help us move a heavy box we need for shelter. There’s one at the far end of the dump. You’re strong.”
“I ain’t no donkey.”
“No box, no doll.”
“Who the fuck you think you are? See your sister anywhere?”
“She knows what she’s doing, but I told you she picks slow. She has an active imagination for someone who doesn’t eat much.” Carmen says this to test if this brute has any empathy at all.
“Because of her imagination?” He smooths his black hair so slick that it looks like he put margarine on it.
“No, because she’s hungry; we’re all hungry in Buena Vista. You could bring food from outside. That’s how you could help us.”
The boy returns the gun to his pants pocket.
“That’s what you call this place, the Good View? All I fuckin’ see is mountains of garbage, birds shitting, and fuckin’ flies. You live like rats. Where do you sleep, anyways?”
“None of your business. Different parts.”
“Stop being so clever. Where?”
Before he takes his gun out again, Carmen says, “Under the new mounds of trash because they’re not so stinky.”
“Hope she don’t take all day finding the fuckin’ doll. I’m sick of this place already.”
“The dump’s huge. The biggest in the world, they say. You wouldn’t understand the first thing about it.”
“So? I don’t need to know ‘bout the dump. Your sister’s gotta find the fuckin’ doll, that’s all.”
“Who sent you?”
A string of sweat starts to travel from his forehead. He fumbles for his gun in the pocket but doesn’t bring it out.
“Nobody sent me. The doll’s loaded and I gotta give her back.”
“Fuck. If I don’t find her, lots of people’s heads are gonna roll, mine first.”
“Who else’s head?”
“Shut up,” he slaps Carmen’s cheek. Defiant, she offers the other one. “Man, you’re something else. Best not to know.”
“You with the cartels?”
“Stop asking questions ‘bout the cartel.”
“Then tell me something else.”
“Like, do you have any brothers and sisters?”
The question startles him. He grew up on the streets. His siblings are the gangsters living in them; he doesn’t remember his parents. Nobody had ever asked him about family.
"Where's your fuckin’ sister? Get up, time to look for her."
They walk through the dump’s narrow valleys, between the hills of rubbish where plastic bag shards have caught on poles and branches and flutter in the dusty wind like farewell handkerchiefs. Maggots crawl over rotten food left on plastic forks, bowls, and straws. Dirty cardboards take flight every time there’s a light breeze, picking up dust and vermin. There’s an ever-present blanket of sticky flies. As Carmen leads the way, the earth rumbles under their feet.
“We having a fuckin’ earthquake, or what?” Carmen sees fright in the stranger’s expression.
She does all she can to stop her giggling. He shoves the gun into her back.
“It’s the bulldozers. They move yesterday’s trash and make a new mountain from today’s garbage. It’s like that all day.”
He spits out a fly and says, fuck. “What’s your name anyway?”
"Carmen, and my sister is Rosario."
“I didn’t fuckin’ ask for your sister’s name. Just yours.” Instinctively, he rubs a fly from his eye with the hand holding the gun and hits his forehead. Carmen laughs. She knows this is the worst thing to do but can’t help herself. “Find your fuckin’ sister, now.”
Carmen climbs to the top of a rubbish pile while the boy stays below, guarding her. When she spots her sister she wants to shout, I see her, but holds her tongue. If Rosario has found his doll, the boy could snatch it and leave without their payout.
“I can’t see her.”
“Maybe she’s by the entrance.”
Before she’s off the pile, the boy runs. Carmen panics. She knows he’s all puff and no huff, but she’s scared for Rosario. If she’s found the doll and doesn’t want to hand it over, he’s desperate enough to shoot her. Carmen is glad she told him her sister’s name.
He’s already found her little sister by the time Carmen catches up. Rosario’s on top of a mound of trash holding on to a brand-new Teddy. The boy shouts for her to get down, but it’s like he’s talking to a wall. Rosario is mesmerized with the bear’s spotless golden plush, the bright eyes, and the red felt of its tongue. The clamour and clatter of the bulldozers nears. The machines are nearly on top of them now.
“That’s not the fuckin’ doll,” he screams. “That’s a fuckin’ bear.”
Rosario holds the Teddy like a little baby, oblivious to her surroundings. She rocks it to sleep and Carmen sees her small lips moving but the sweetness of her lullaby is swallowed by the thrashing, gnashing war song of the machines.
“The doll! Get—”
The yellow bulldozer pitches the pile where Rosario sits. Climbing quickly, he points the gun at the little girl. Rosario, covered in flies, keeps singing. He lurches toward her. He loses his footing. The gun flies out of his hand and Carmen catches it. The bulldozer showers a wall of rubbish over their head burying them.
Carmen waves frantically when she emerges from the pile of trash. If the heavy machine operators see something scurrying in the garbage, they normally assume rats or dogs and pay no attention. When the torrent of rubbish stops, she doesn’t see her sister in the wet, stinky trash. Half a tortilla sticks to her cheek but falls off before she can eat it. The bobcats scoop chunks of garbage right next to them and dump it into the compactors.
Carmen sees her sister a few feet away, still hugging her Teddy. She pushes Rosario away from the metal claw that scoops the spot where she sat moments ago. After slinging soggy waste into the compactor, the claw returns for more.
The noise is terrifying and the shaking of the ground so fierce the flies scatter. Carmen embraces Rosario and the Teddy with one hand and in the other she has the gun. They scuttle from the claws’ path. Mixed in the next scoop of rubbish, Carmen sees a leg. The boy’s pants have torn at the bottom and he’s lost his sneaker. The rest of his body is drowned in the trash. To shield Rosario from the carnage, Carmen picks her sister up as a gray, soggy lump from the garbage heap rolls onto her toes. It’s a mangled Juanita Perez, heavy, solid full, even though she’s lost her head.
# # #