Some twitter pals were discussing waterbeds (thanks to this Metafilter thread) and it unearthed a childhood memory I had successfully managed to suppress for over thirty years.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the post-industrial, semi-reclaimed North Woburn wilderness was a popular dumping ground for construction, household, and industrial detritus that the city sanitation crews wouldn’t haul away during their weekly trash pick-up.
Couldn’t get rid of something? No problem! Just haul it “Down Back” and leave it to rot — or not — beneath the stands of sickly pine trees and blackberry brambles where my friends and I used to play. It had been a neighborhood tradition for decades, leading to a sedimentary state of the landscape where every odd grassy mound or strange earth formation more than likely concealed an old pile of garbage at its core.
Given the vagaries of New England weather, flooding from a long-gone tannery’s runoff channels, or local teens tearing shit up on their unregistered dirtbikes, these long submerged trashheaps would occasionally poke back up through the loamy contaminated soil. That’s how my cousin and I stumbled across some rotting sacks of arsenic one summer afternoon, and that’s also how my gang of childhood pals encountered The Waterbed.
We weren’t sure what it was at first, seeing only an weird misshapen mass rimed with soot and half covered with the disintegrating remnants of last autumns’s foliage. The grime and debris didn’t conceal its color, a translucent yellowish cream color that I’d previously only seen in the jet of pus that accompanied a thorn that had been lodged in my foot for a week.
It looked the corpse of some undiscovered species of Ediacaran megafauna, a gelatinous sac of murk that drifted across the bottom of ancient shallow seas. We gawked at it for a good while, fearing to approach too close lest it engulf one of us in a flesh-melting pseudo-pod. Finally my pal Artie approached it and poked its side with one of the spears we used to whittle from wild sumac trees.
“Aw, I know what it is! It’s an old waterbed.”
That didn’t make it any less disturbing in my eyes, as my only experience with waterbeds was as a sleazy punchline in things like Mad Magazine or risque “jiggle” sitcoms. To this day, my impressions of the “sexual liberation” era are still disproportionately shaped by Dudley Moore’s hapless swinger character in Foul Play.
All this was more than enough to inflict lasting psychic trauma, but then I had to compound it by touching the vile thing. It was not something I would’ve done on my own, for I was a squeamy child. I did it on a dare, because I was child who feared public ridicule from my peer group.
This would’ve been early spring, warm enough that the snows had melted but still chilly enough that your mom wouldn’t let you outside without a Proper Coat. The waterbed corpse had been sitting beneath a pile of frozen muck for at least three months, yet it was warm and greasy to the touch.
I can still feel the texture with my finger tips, followed by a reflexive urge to submerge my hand in a sluggish stream laced with toxic heavy metals and tannery waste.