Goddam pieces of shit, he swears at the Styrofoam pellets clinging to the inside of the box. Puffed foam curlicues, mint green, taunting him with their bizarre tenacity. This is what comes of trying to do the right thing: preserving the cardboard for recycling, and separating the nonrecyclable pellets into a large trash bag. It is harder than it ought to be.
He stands facing the building’s large trash and recycling bins. His neighbors have already deposited their own holiday waste, responsibly: the recycling bin contains several neat bundles of flattened cardboard boxes and smoothed out wrapping paper, all those retired snowmen and Santas. And he is trying, goddammit, he’s trying. He has looped the garbage bag around one corner of the box, and tipped the box gently, expecting the pellets to tumble gracefully into the bag.
Fucking gravity, he mutters, as the pellets fall everywhere but into the bag. They scatter onto the frozen ground with an oddly metallic tinkling.
He is staring at the peanuts on the asphalt when the wind picks up, and a breeze swirls them further away from him. He shivers and thinks, not for the first time, that he should’ve worn gloves. He’d expected this to go more quickly. He’d expected to get something for Trying.
The pellets provided a safe nest for a fragile ceramic owl during its Next-Day Shipping flight. The owl having now been presented to its intended recipient, the pellets are completely useless. Obsolete. Irrelevant.
Fucking useless pellets who don’t even know how useless they are. It’s pathetic, really. Pitiful.
Why the fuck are the pellets mint green? There is a factory somewhere, turning out these goddam packing peanuts – how? Molding? Extruding? Carving out from larger blocks of Styrofoam, in the manner of a sculptor discovering the hidden forms in stone? Is there a Michel-fucking-angelo of Styrofoam? And at some point in the manufacturing process someone has been moved to dye the foam green. At least, he assumes this is true; he assumes that the natural hue of the foam is white. Possibly this too is incorrect. But why the hell green?
The owl was wrong, miscalibrated. Owls were last year. The delicate owl was cast aside almost immediately in favor of his daughter’s preferred gift: sparkly lip gloss disguised as a wristwatch. Shiny, unnaturally lavender, lips were what she wanted. He was not prepared for this.
He has the idea to open two box flaps into a sort of pouring spout on one corner, to ease the pellets’ transit to the bag. Foolish of him not to have done this sooner: of course the flaps have stayed half-folded, creating a pocket for the pellets to get stuck in. Now this spout concept will turn things right around. Buoyed by his own ingenuity, he lifts the box higher to increase the pellet flow rate. He is in control here.
Yet the box flaps prove resistant to spout formation, and pull apart from each other, letting half the peanuts fall.
Goddammit all to hell. He is shouting at the green foam swirling in the goddam wind. He reaches for a handful and scrapes his knuckles on the asphalt. His raw, abraded knuckles too cold to bleed: blood stalled but inevitable. Fuck.
He is locked in battle with these squirrelly turds of foam, and it is a winnable war. From the spilled stragglers he plucks a single mint-green S-shape. He decides that he will make an example of this one. He holds the S, meaningfully, just above the ground. Do you see this, he says to the other pellets, and then he crushes the S into foamy dust. You are nothing, he sneers at the surviving peanuts. I am Shiva, destroyer of worlds, and you are extruded, or possibly molded or somehow, maybe, baked, FOAM. That is mostly air. He lets out an evil laugh. I CRUSH YOU, he says, and then he finds that he cannot get the tiny foam dust off his hand.
Years ago, he remembers, his daughter called these packing peanuts “ghost poop.” He had bragged about her imagination, even as his wife cringed at this casual vulgarity. Soon enough, her world was made less fanciful, as she became self-conscious and literal. A person to whom lavender lip gloss had currency. He should’ve fought harder, should’ve fortified the battlements.
The old nickname is too sweet, anyway, for this obstinate, malevolent foam. He rubs his palm against his jeans to remove the remains of the crushed pellet.
He ties off the bag of foam peanuts and forces it into the trash. He would like this action to have a dramatic finality, but the bag deforms into a marshmallowy pillow, and he has to massage it into the already full bin. He does not want to massage the packing pellets; he wants to wound them. Their blood for his own. He punches the bag for good measure, and a few pellets spray out in defiance.
He surrenders to the last dozen pellets, deems the box adequately denuded and gives it a deeply satisfying stomp. He slides the resulting cardboard into the bin, trying not to dwell on the contrast between his stomped, misshapen box and the neat rectangles of his neighbors.
Inside his apartment, he washes his hand, bandages his scraped-up knuckles. You should see the other guy, he thinks, chuckling feebly. From the empty second bedroom, he feels the watchful eyes of a ceramic owl standing sentry.
For a moment he plans to call the ghost poop manufacturers, to confront them about the less desirable qualities of their product and, perhaps, to get some answers on the extrusion question. He will get to the bottom of this mint green business, too.
One call. He imagines himself in conversation with a receptionist: fiftyish, African-American, alternately sassy and warm. He suspects this is prejudicial if not outright racist, which is not something he condones, but he pardons himself. He can hear the woman’s voice in his ear. Sometimes, she would say, I kind of wish someone would treat me like I was fragile. You know? He does know. He would tell the receptionist so.
With horror he notices the half-dozen pellets stuck to his jeans, tenacious motherfuckers.
He tried; no one can say he didn’t try. He didn’t expect it to be so hard.
As to the roots of "Recycling:" I would like to say something profound about the ad hoc nature of parenting, and how the emotional core of this story came from my experiences with my daughters, but the honest truth is that I was put into much the same state as the story's hero by a perniciously persistent batch of packing pellets (!) on a particularly windy day -- and that's what got me into the chair to write.
Jenn Stroud Rossmann's stories have appeared most recently in failbetter, dislocate, Cobalt Review, Pindeldyboz, and The MacGuffin. She teaches mechanical engineering at Lafayette College and is completing a novel. She throws right, bats left.