Holding On – Heather Williams

Holding On

By: Heather Williams

Damn!  It’s three o’clock.  I’ve got work in thirty minutes.  Alarm never went off.  I swear I told Maggie to wake me up before she left.  I’ve never known someone as forgetful as her.  I love her, though.  She’s got no real book smarts, but she’s got street know-how. Knows where to get a good slice, can chug a beer faster than most guys I know, and can get you anywhere around here in less than ten minutes.  She’s a real looker, too; pretty face, incredible body.  I met her a few years ago down at Rudy’s Pub.  It was New Year’s and the place was packed, mostly because the whole town was knee deep in snow and ice.  One of the worst winters we’ve had in Houghton.

My family has lived around here since I was a kid.  It’s kind of a dump, but most of us haven’t ever known any place else.  Everything around here is old and covered in snow or ice, sometimes both depending on the season, winter or almost winter.  It’s not that nice, historical kind of old that people travel to see, either, but the kind that just hasn’t fallen down yet.  Some spots are better than others, mostly the newer places, like the part of town where the tech school is over on the other side of the bridge.  They make it a point to keep things clean over there.  Trying to bring more people up this way to visit, I guess, though I’m not sure what exactly they would come to see, maybe the shipyards or mines, if people are stupid enough to be interested in looking at those hell holes.  Too many memories, bad ones, for those of us from here to go stompin’ around there for “enrichment.”  My pops used to work down at the docks before his back quit on him after twenty years shoveling freight for near nothing.  His father, my grandpops, worked in the mines his whole life, along with every other man he knew in this town.  Most of them died from some disease caused by being stuck in those pits every day.  Lucky for my pops, the mines had been shut down before he made it to the working age.  I worked at the docks for a while, back when I was in school, but it was only temp work and they let me go not long after spring.

That was a long time ago.  I’m pushing thirty-three now, far from a kid working at the yard with his pops.  I never made it past high school, but I did graduate, which is more than some of these bums around here can say.  Ain’t really no work here that requires any kind of degree, college or high school, but I promised my pops I’d at least get my diploma.  Kids coming out of high school now got bigger places to go beyond Houghton.  Got the technical college as an option to get outta this town.  Wasn’t anything like that for my generation, but we all seemed to turn out ok. Most of us, anyway.  Found work somewhere, some of them even got married and have families now.  The others that didn’t are either meth heads or six feet under by now.

Shit!  What am I doing daydreaming’?  I can’t be late again today.  Bossman’ll bust my balls for sure.

Where are my jeans?  There’s no telling in this damn mess of an apartment.  I think I saw a pair under my Michigan jersey yesterday.  Maggie certainly ain’t a housewife, that’s for sure.  I’m damn lucky if I can find a clean bowl or a roll of toilet paper in this place.  These look clean.  Let’s just hope my piece of shit car will start today.  Maggie usually helps roll it out of the parking lot if I can’t get it going.  Come on you rusty piece of crap!  Good.  Here’s to another day shoveling other people’s trash at the dump.



“Damn it Frankie!  You’re late again!  How many times I gotta tell ya your shift starts at 3:30?  Are you numb in ya head or something?”

“Come on Lou!  Don’t break my heart.  You know it hurts me when you insult my intelligence.  You promised you’d be more compassionate and sensitive to my needs.”

“Yeah, yeah smartass.  Get down to section five and start helping Mike sort through the mess the firsties left for us!”

Great.  It’s always something around here that we gotta fix on account of the first shift guys.  They say they got it harder than us ‘cause they gotta deal with people bringing more and more loads in all day long; say they never get a break.  Yeah, right.  All they do is direct traffic.  They ain’t really gotta get in here and move all this mess around from one dump site to the next, sort through what ain’t supposed to be where, climb into these machines and fix ‘em if they get jammed.  Bunch of jerks.  Nights around here are when all the real work gets done, the nasty shit most people don’t wanna hear about.  Wading around knee deep in other people’s garbage isn’t really on the list of dream jobs.

I don’t mind it though.  Been doing it for about seven years now, I guess.  I started out as a firsty, so I know what they do all day long ain’t nothing compared to what we do on the night shift.  You get used to all this stuff, how it looks, how it smells.  The smell is something I’m kinda fond of, actually.  Keeps me grounded, keeps me connected to where I am so when I leave here I can separate this world and the rest of it that isn’t in a dump; Maggie, our apartment, a good steak, or a glass of bourbon.  I gotta keep how they smell separated or else everything ends up smelling like this place: rotten and dead. There’s more here than just trash and unused, unwanted junk people get rid of, though.  It’s like a graveyard of sorts, a final resting place to decompose in for some of it, like the food scraps and bone and busted up furniture.  And then there’s the other stuff that gets reused and recycled, the stuff that still has a soul, I like to say.  Its place here ain’t permanent.  Somewhere it’ll get made in to something recognizable again; a bottle or newspaper, whatever else those environmentalists come up with.  I’ve even seen old shitters lying around in the contractors’ section, smashed up into tiny porcelain pieces that they scrap to reuse.  They’re smart, I’ll give ‘em that.  Hell, I might even go so far as to say I respect them.  Me, I ain’t no hippie, but I can see what they see here, the possibilities laying around in these piles.  Maybe I’m not as passionate about it as they are, but I can see it.  It’s all around me.

Sometimes I see it and try to picture where it came from, figure out why it’s here.  Not the bottles and bags ya find in everyday trash, but the photo albums, the one-eyed rocking horses, the headless Barbies, the leather shoes with busted soles, all the stuff someone decided wasn’t worth anything anymore and just threw away.  How did these things become so broken and useless that they ended up here in this sea of rot?  Shit, I’ve even found a baby here.  It was a few years back over in section nine, residentials.  Had a truck get jammed up and a few of us had to climb in the back and push the load out to get to the hydraulics.  Somehow, deep down, I knew something wasn’t right when I climbed in there.  The smell was different then it usually is.  It was something I ain’t never smelled before, and I’ve smelled a lot of shit working here.  But this smell was bad, almost haunting when it hit me.  Then I found it just lying there, buried under everybody’s crap, like it didn’t mean anything to nobody, like it was just another piece of trash.  I’ll never forget that baby’s face, the color of decay all over it.  Never in a million years.  Stuff like that’ll change ya, make ya wonder about this world.  I see a lot at this place looking through all the stuff nobody wants anymore.  Sometimes I wonder if that’s how I ended up here: nobody wanted me anymore, either.

“Yo, Frankie!  You gonna work today or you gonna daydream like you always do?  Get over here, asshole, and help me clear this shit up!  I wanna get home tonight and catch the scores.”

I better get moving before Mike gets his panties in a wad.

“I’m comin’ calm down!  Who’s playin’ tonight anyway?”

He says, “Wolverines and Notre Dame, I think.  Should be a good game.  Too bad I gotta miss it and Karen’s lasagna to hang out in this dump with you.”

“Ah, come on Mikey.  You know ya love me.”

“Oh I love ya, alright.  Like a whore loves taking a pregnancy test.  You taking Maggie out tonight?  Karen said it was her birthday or something.”

Shit.  It was Maggie’s birthday.  I remembered that much.  I wouldn’t forget my own girl’s birthday.  I had forgotten about having to entertain all of her friends after working here for eight hours.  I was hoping that Maggie would call and say she just wanted to stay in tonight, but I knew that’s unlikely.

“Yeah.  We’re meetin’ some of her friends out at Ruby’s later to celebrate.  You and Karen should come, too.  It should be fun.”

“Fun?  You hate all her friends and now you wanna drag us down there to suffer with ya?  I don’t think so, buddy!  I already told ya I’m going home to catch the highlights and have a cold one in my underwear on the couch.  You ain’t getting me out partying with you hooligans!”

I stop shoveling trash and turn to Mike, laughing.

“Karen has already talked to Maggie. Huh, Mike?”

“Yeah,” he sadly replies.

Mike hated going anywhere that required pants and a shirt.  He’s stubborn, for sure, but we’ve managed to stay buddies for years now, even before we started at the dump.  I met him at a bar a few years back.  Before he met Karen, he was a real wild guy.  The night we met, he was so hammered he smashed his face into the bar and ended up with a broken nose.  When he came to, he finished off a bottle of Wild Turkey and passed out.

Mike and I finish clearing up one of the trucks over in section five.  Had a contractor put too much weight in it and jam up the whole damn thing.  Break time is always welcome.  We gotta little kitchen in the breakroom.  I always close the door so I can smell my meal without the smell of garbage floating in.  I need that.  Without it, I can’t separate what’s real and what’s just another piece of crap lying around out there.  Work goes by pretty quickly after that, little odd jobs here and there.  Mike and I joke around most nights.  It makes digging through trash seem a little less awful.  After I punch the clock, I make my way back home to shower.  Maggie is already home, waiting for me to get there.

I stop by Festival Foods on the way and grab her some flowers, a bottle of champagne, and a card.  I’m not real fond of buying cards considering I see a pile of the damn things thrown in the trash all the time.  They’re a waste of paper and good damn space if ya ask me.  But I buy one anyway.  Last Valentine’s Day I didn’t get Maggie a card and she spent half an hour telling me why they matter.  Of course, when I disagreed, I nearly lost all chances of getting laid.  I won’t make that mistake again.  Flowers, on the other hand, I never forget.  She always tells me how much she loves flowers, probably because all we ever see around here is snow.  She loves them all, but I think she likes lilies best.  Her mother’s name was Lily.  She had passed earlier this year from cancer and Maggie really struggled with it.  This would be her first birthday without her mom.  I could tell she was a bit taken by the flowers when I gave ‘em to her.  “Thank you,” is all she said, and all I need to hear.  She looked beautiful, like she always does.  Her hair was down and she smelled like honey.  Her skin was still warm from the shower when I scooped her up, wrapping her legs around me.  Of course I have to strip down before she’ll come near me after work.  She’s not real fond of me being covered in trash, but she deals with it.  Finding a woman that could get past being with a guy who works at the dump wasn’t easy.  The smell is an obstacle on its own.

“How was work?” she asks me.

“It was work.  How was your day?  Any birthday surprises?”

“Yeah.  The girls made me chocolate cupcakes with those little sprinkles on top.  I had two of them.  Can you believe that?”

I set her down after a few minutes.  Sometimes I just need to hold her, make sure I haven’t turned to useless garbage over my shift, make sure I’m still important to someone.  She slips away from me after a few kisses to finish getting ready.  I like to watch her get done up.  She’s not careful about anything except this.  Usually she’s balls to wall, headstrong, spinning so fast I can’t catch her.  But the way she dries her hair or puts on lipstick, slow and smooth, is when I love her most.  It’s when I know she’s still here in this place with me, not running away too fast for me to reach her, not drowning in a deep pile of rot like the rest of the things in my life.  After I shower I find Maggie sorting through all the laundry piled up on the floor.  She’s in a towel, still, but otherwise ready to go.

“I can’t find nothin’ in this mess, Frankie!  Have you seen my black dress?”

I see the towel slipping down over her breasts, showing a little more of what’s underneath as she digs deeper in the pile of clothes; this is her dump, I guess.  The whole room smells like honey, now.  I walk to her, kneel down beside her, and lay her on the rug.  We make love for an hour before we realize the time.  We were supposed to be at Rudy’s twenty minutes ago.


“So who all is coming tonight?”

We’ve got the heat on even though it’s not that cold out.  Maggie’s dress is “too short not to,” she tells me.

“Oh the usual crowd. Melinda and Dave, Stacy, Junior, Karen and Mike.  Oh, and I think Jessie invited Steven.”

Steven.  I hate that guy.  He ain’t nothing but a tool; thinks his shit don’t stink.

“I don’t like that guy.  I don’t like how he looks at you, Mags.”

“Come on Frankie.  Jessie is really into him and she says he’s into her, too.  Besides, I seem to remember rolling around on the floor with you not five minutes ago.”

She winks at me and I can’t help but smile.  God, I love that girl.

When we get to Rudy’s, everyone is already there waiting for us.  We say our hellos and the girls all head to the bar for shots.  I find a seat next to Mikey and order a bourbon, straight.  I see Steven coming over from the bar and I’m as nice as I can be.  He and Maggie used to have a thing before she and I hooked up.  It wasn’t much, but he likes to hold it over my head every time I see him.  Makes him feel good to know he had her first, I guess.  He’s real uppity like that; thinks he better than all of us.  If I had it my way and if I didn’t have no respect for Mags, I’d put him in his place real quick.

The rest of the night went by slowly.  The guys and I joked around and watched the highlights of the game.  Wolverines won, of course.  After that we threw some darts and shot some pool.  The girls were pretty hammered, and so were we.  I head over to the bar and grab another bourbon, take a minute to get myself together.  I see Maggie, watching Karen sink a shot, patiently waiting for her turn.  She holds her alcohol well.  I know she’s had at least six shots and a few beers, but she never sways.  She leans over to take her shot, solid red, number three.  As I take a whiff of my bourbon, I run my eyes over the curves of her body, the shape of her ass in that dress.  Then I catch that prick Steven doing the same.  That drunken bastard licking his lips over my girl.  I’ve had enough of this dude.  Without even thinking, I feel my feet carrying me over to where he’s stumbling, grasping onto the wall.  I hold my fists tight as I move closer to him.

“What are you lookin’ at shithead?  You better direct your perverted looks somewhere away from her before I bash your skull.”

I’m right in his face, now; the smell of cheap cologne and whiskey are pouring out of his sweaty face.

“I was just looking at her, wondering why in the world she chose you, literally a piece of garbage plucked from the waste basket, over me.  I mean, Maggie, really?  I could give you so much more than a life full of useless trash.  That’s all you’ll ever get from this nobody.”

I clock him several times in the head before someone starts to pull me off of him.  I hear Mags screaming behind me to stop, telling me he ain’t worth it, but I couldn’t.  I just kept pounding away at him.  The last thing I remember is getting a bottle smashed on the side of my head, and brown bits of glass falling down around me.



When I wake, I hear Mags whispering to someone.  I’m not sure who it is until I open my eyes completely.  I’m in the hospital, laid out in a bed with tubes and monitors and shit hooked up to me.  Maggie rushes over and grabs my hand.  She pulls it to her face, wet and warm with tears.  I feel like I’ve been out for days.

“How long I been here?”

I try to sit up, but there’s a sharp pain in my head that keeps me down.

“Couple days.  You got hit pretty badly in the head.  Doc said you were close to taking some real damage.”

I can hear the shakiness in her voice, the relief she felt to see me awake and breathing, talking.  She looks like she’s been crying a lot.  Her eyes are swollen and full of tears.  She’s still in that black dress, one of the last things I remember before everything began to fade.

“I’m sorry, Mags.  I’m so sorry.”

I feel a lump grow in my throat and a wave of heat rushes over my whole body.  What the hell was I thinking doing this to her?  The only thing left worth anything to me I nearly pissed away over some jealous, bourbon induced cockfight.  We spent some time talking about what happened.  I asked about Steven and Maggie told me I hurt him pretty bad, but nothing a few stiches didn’t fix.  Cops charged us both for the fight, but it’s a small town so the charges were dropped pretty quickly.  It’s not the first time I’ve gotten into trouble.  There’s never been a whole lot to do in Houghton, other than drink and cause disorder because it’s too cold to do anything else.  The doc came in to run some tests several times before they released me a few days later.  He said I got lucky; everything seemed to be normal aside from some minor bruising and swelling.  I can’t really remember all that he said.  I was just glad to get the hell outta there.  Every time I’ve ever been to hospital it was to watch someone die.

It wasn’t until we got home that I realized something was off.  Something wasn’t the same about the car ride or the apartment or Maggie.  It wasn’t that she had changed or that she was pissed at me.  She forgave me as soon as I opened my eyes at the hospital, said Steven deserved what I did to him.  Maybe he did.  Or maybe I was just waiting for the opportunity to prove I was more than just a garbage man.  It wasn’t that I had been out of it for days or that my head was pounding.  It wasn’t any of that.  Whatever it was, I considered it a side effect of being hit in the head several times.

That night, Maggie cooked.  It was rare that she did anything remotely domesticated.  She made pasties and pie, true Michigan cuisine.  I could tell what she was making just from the stuff she had laid out on the counter.  I watched her carefully as she rolled the dough and sautéd the onions and beef.   It was the kind of food my mom used to cook when I was growing up.  I used to come inside from shoveling snow with my pops to a house brimming with the smell of fresh cherry pie, just like the one Maggie was making. It hit me then, hit me hard; washed over me like a cool, Northeastern breeze.  While I watched Mags pull the pie from the oven, I realized that I couldn’t smell it.  In fact, I couldn’t remember smelling anything for days.  Not here, not in the car, not even at the hospital.

Maggie turned to me.  “What’s wrong, Frankie?  Are you alright?  You don’t look so good.”

“Mags, I can’t smell anything.”

“What are you talking about you can’t smell anything?”

“I mean I can’t smell anything.  Bring that pie over here.”

I pulled the pie up to my face, frantically trying to stir something up.  I did the same to the pasties, the laundry piled on the floor, the lilies I got for Maggie a few days back.  Nothing.  I stepped outside and took a whiff of the wintery air.  I’ve known that smell of Great Lakes air since I was a kid.  It wasn’t there.

“Frankie, what the hell is going on?”

Maggie’s eyes were filling with tears.  Her face was pale as she looked to me for an answer.  I pulled Mags close to me, sucking in all the air that I could surrounding her, hoping to smell the sweet honey perfume of her skin.  Nothing.  It was all gone.  Somehow, we both knew this wasn’t just some temporary side effect that would disappear in a day or so.  Somehow, we both knew this was more.

When we went back to the doc, he said he found some damage to my olfactory nerve.  I guess that’s the part of brain that controls your ability to perceive scents. At least, that’s what the doc said.  They don’t know if I’ll ever get it back; said it could return in a few weeks or months or not at all.  Mags didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know what to say.  We left the doc’s office and drove home, still confused about what exactly to make of all this.  I mean, how the hell do you go on from here?  What am I supposed to make of this anosmia?  I can’t even pronounce the shit.  What if it never comes back?



It’s been three months since I was diagnosed with anosmia.  All the things that I love and hate and want to remember and want to forget are lost now.  I can’t even eat the way I used to.  Without knowing how food smells, is doesn’t taste the same anymore.  I can’t smell my Maggie, either.  How her hair smelled when she just got outta the shower or her skin when she puts lotion on or the smell of her sweat after we’ve made love; it’s all gone.  I have no idea if winter is coming or going in a place I’ve been my whole life.  I can’t remember what my pops smelled like after he came home from working down at the yard, a smell I’ll never get back because I’ll never get the chance to. The relief I used to get from a nose full of bourbon, every memory I ever had of what things smell like is gone except for one.  There is one smell that has stuck around.  It’s the only thing I can connect with anymore and the only thing that keeps me from going insane.

It’s the trash.  I can still smell the trash.  All of it, piled up, rotting away.  I can’t make out specific scents, only the combination of it all together.  Rotten fish, banana peels, three week old diapers full of shit, nearly empty bottles of Pantene, used dryer sheets, dead flowers: I imagine them all, the good and the bad.  I put them together to make up this smell.  When I’m there, I breathe it in deeply, trying to hold onto it so I don’t lose it, too.  The decay and filth and deterioration of this place are all I have left of my scent memories.  All that I have left to smell, to take in, to think about, to hold onto as something real is trash.  All that I have left is trash.