Monday, July 20, 2009
THE GARBAGE COLLECTOR - Continued
THE GARBAGE COLLECTOR
At dusk, Lydia stepped onto her porch with her neatly-wrapped bait. She took several minutes to position the box, studying it from all angles, until she was satisfied it could be seen by any passerby on the street. She looked down the street as Anne Korski emerged from her house, pulling a full trash can behind her. Minutes later, Anne was followed by the rest of the neighbors as they took part in their twice-weekly ritual. Lydia kept watch across the street and, once most of the curbs were full of bins, she saw the front door across the street open.
Dale Harrison loped out of his house and stared down Sycamore Avenue. In his right hand, he held a ruler that he banged against his leg as he walked. His left hand he held tightly against his body. A grimace ran across the bottom of Dale’s face, a red zipper that opened and closed with each mumble. But from what Lydia had observed over the years, this was his usual facial expression. As he turned in the direction of Gabriel King’s driveway, however, his eyes grew wide. He froze.
Lydia noticed that Gabriel’s trash can was missing. This, she assumed, caused her neighbor’s curious reaction. Lydia’s trash can was missing as well. But, it had been almost a year since she had stopped putting it out at night. “My garbage is off limits, and you know it,” she whispered, not wanting Dale to actually hear her. She studied his coarse features, squat body and blank stare. Dale reminded Lydia of her pilfered garden gnome. The only thing missing was the pointy hat and shoes.
A moment later, Gabriel King pulled his trash to the end of the drive. Dale was careful not to make eye contact and waited until his neighbor disappeared back into his house. After the street was completely empty, Dale raised his head and crept toward the first trash can to the right: the Korski trash can.
Stooping behind the azalea bush near her front door, Lydia had the perfect vantage point to observe Dale on his Garbage Eve wanderings. It was getting dark, but the street lamp cast an amber net of light over Dale as he poked around Anne Korski’s trash with his ruler. Moths fluttered about his shoulders, keeping constant watch over him with their black eyes. After finding nothing of interest, Dale shuffled down the street to Gabriel King’s house. The pop, pop of the ruler against his pant leg was the only sound on the street.
Lydia rubbed the goose bumps off her arms. She pushed the wrapped package further out onto her porch with the toe of her jeweled sandal. Then, she went inside to wait.
Right before midnight, the squeak of a tennis shoe against smooth concrete woke Lydia. She rubbed her face and yawned. It had been a long night sleeping on the recliner she’d positioned near the door, and her back was killing her. The thought of catching the retard red-handed, however, gave Lydia the strength to react. She lifted the mail flap on the front door to peek onto her porch. But, the whiny brass hinge tattled and alerted the thief.
With stiff fingers, Lydia unlocked the door and threw it wide. As she watched the thief run away, she knew two things: one, the person – undoubtedly Dale – wore a navy sweatshirt with the hood pulled tight, and two, he was now the proud owner of tacky Elvis memorabilia. Lydia stumbled onto the porch and took a few shallow breaths. Then, she looked up at the black sky. “What would you do, dear?” she asked. Lydia shoved her hands in her pockets to keep them from shaking while she waited for her answer. “Yes, Lyle, I thought so.”
Grass crunched under Lydia’s sandals as she hurried across the front lawn. She had no idea what she would do if she found the thief, but she charged forward. Lydia watched her yard for any sign of movement, half expecting Dale to be in the petunia bed with a shovel aimed at her head. However, Lydia’s eyes were slow to focus. So, she listened instead for anything that might give away her neighbor’s location. The only thing audible was the ringing in her ears as her blood pressure spiked.
Seconds later, Lydia heard branches breaking as the thief stumbled over the bushes that separated her house from the Jennings’. She lunged and made a desperate grab at the package under the person’s arm. “Thief! Thief!” Lydia shouted. But, the runner slipped easily from her grasp. She was breathing hard now and sweating. Lydia shook her head. Had she grabbed at the back of the person’s sweatshirt instead of the package under his arm, she might have slowed him down. Might have been able to confront him. But, Lydia’s poor decision had cost her.
For a brief moment, Lydia thought about giving chase, but changed her mind when the ringing in her ears returned. She watched the thief run farther down the street with her husband’s memory tucked under one arm.
The phone rang early the next morning, startling Lydia from a fitful sleep. She had been dreaming about her husband. She and Lyle were in their front yard, running towards each other. At the moment of connection, though, Lyle melted into thin air. It wasn’t a nightmare, but it was still unsettling. At least Lyle’s heart was strong in Lydia’s dream. Much stronger than a year ago when he collapsed while mowing the lawn.
Lydia shook her head until it felt awake enough to think. “Who died?” she asked the caller.
“Your presence is requested at the Harrison residence in one hour.”
“Who is this?” Lydia asked, half awake. “Is this The Nurse?”
The only reply Lydia heard was the click of the receiver.
An hour later, dressed in a silk pant suit, Lydia walked across her lawn toward the Harrison house. As she crossed the street, she ran into Susan Jennings. “I had an interesting evening last night. I’m going over now to chat with our little neighborhood thief.”
“Did you get a phone call, too?” Susan asked.
“What on earth…” Lydia’s voice trailed as she noticed the peculiar event unfolding on Sycamore Avenue. Neighbors, a dozen or so, were walking toward the Harrison house. Assuming the lead, Lydia rushed to Dale’s front door and knocked. She would get to the bottom of this nonsense.
The Nurse opened the door. She looked past Lydia and waited for the rest of the neighbors to gather on the front lawn. Once enough people were present, The Nurse cleared her throat and read from a note card: “Mr. Harrison says: I would like to welcome you all to my home. Please come in.” Then, she stepped aside and motioned the guests into the house.
Walking into the living room, Lydia felt as if she’d arrived at a yard sale. She looked at the objects positioned around the room: crinkled photos, old shoes, moth-eaten college sweaters, chipped china cups. Some things had been cleaned to a good-as-new state and the ones that couldn’t had been mended. The discarded possessions of Sycamore Avenue were now on display behind glass, on pedestals, and in frames. Each item, Lydia noted, was labeled in typewriter ink by household and date. She looked at one piece of junk and then another until she saw Dale pressed into the corner, looking as if he were on exhibit as well. There was no smile on his face, but the usual grimace he wore seemed more relaxed.
One by one, the rest of the neighbors entered and looked at the contents of the house. Ella Spencer ran her hands over a baby blanket, Anne Korski looked through her old high school year book with a faraway look, Gabriel King hummed as he flipped through his old vinyl records and the Jennings huddled together over their wedding album.
The Nurse spoke and broke the nostalgic spell. “Mr. Harrison wanted you to see what he’s been doing with the things he’s collected over the years.”
Dale Harrison nodded to himself.
“That, and he wanted to keep from getting lynched by you people,” The Nurse added.
Dale grimaced and bit his tongue.
“It’s very nice,” Anne Korski said.
“Like a museum.” Ella Spencer continued to caress the baby blanket.
“Have you all lost your minds?” Lydia shouted. She noticed that Dora Kay was admiring a collection of pencil sketches splattered with coffee stains.
“As you can see, the only things here are the ones you’ve thrown away. Dale has never stolen anything off anyone’s porch,” The Nurse said.
Lydia turned and narrowed her eyes at Dale. “Where is it? What did you do with the pretty package?” She spoke as if she were talking to a child.
The Nurse looked at Dale and then at Lydia. “He has no idea what you’re talking about.” After nearly twenty years, it was clear that The Nurse was able to read her patient’s face. No words were necessary.
“The Elvis plate you stole off my porch last night.”
Susan looked up from the photo album. “Lydia.”
“This isn’t over, you know. That plate is here somewhere.”
“It was my son, Chad.” Susan rubbed her forehead, shielding her eyes from her neighbors.
“Why didn’t you say something sooner?” Anne Korski asked.
“After the witch hunt rally at Lydia’s house?” Susan folded her arms. “All of the missing things, including Lydia’s china plate, are in Chad’s room. I found them by accident when I was cleaning.” Susan turned to Donald. “I think he’s under a lot stress because of the divorce.”
“Looks like you were wrong, Lydia,” Gabriel King said. He placed the album he was holding back into its plastic display frame.
“Well, doesn’t matter,” Lydia said, turning to Dale. “You may not be a thief, but digging through other people’s trash is still sick, and I want to know why you do it. Is your need to pry into other people’s business that overwhelming?”
Dale scribbled something onto a note card and handed it to his caregiver. He was careful to keep his eyes on the floor.
The Nurse read the card: “These things looked important.”
Without waiting for a response, Dale Harrison stepped out from the corner and crept into the back part of the house.
Lydia opened her mouth to shout the last word, but stopped. In the empty corner where Dale had stood was her husband’s dress military uniform. It hung on a wooden form, starched and pressed. Lydia walked to the green jacket studded with ribbons and bars and read the paper label underneath: Strichter, March 12th, 2008. She touched the sleeve, paused for a moment and walked out of the house.
A week later, Lydia stood on her driveway admiring the early evening sky. She took a deep breath and looked at the salt sprinkling of stars. Then, she ducked into her garage and reemerged, pulling her heavy trash can behind her. After glancing across the street, Lydia put her garbage by the curb and went into her house.
Monica Shaughnessy, a children's book writer, likes to occasionally take a break from teenage angst by writing about adult angst instead. One of her short stories has appeared in Stories for Children Magazine, and she is hard at work on her fourth novel, a YA story about deer hunting in the Texas Hill Country. Find out more about her children's books at http://web.me.com/monica.shaughnessy/Fear_Stanford/Welcome.html