Tuesday, July 14, 2009
THE GARBAGE COLLECTOR
THE GARBAGE COLLECTOR
“Did he see you?” Lydia Strichter looked past her neighbor to the house across the street. Rain misted over its peeling paint and rusted wrought iron.
“No. I don’t think so,” Susan said. She looked over her left shoulder and then her right. “Who are we talking about?” The drizzle settled onto Susan, making her look like a half-melted candle.
“For Heaven’s sake, get in here before that retard notices.” Lydia stepped aside to let Susan pass into her house.
“Oh, you mean Dean. Or, is it Dale?” Susan unbuttoned her wet jacket.
“I see your umbrella went missing, too.” Lydia took Susan’s jacket. “Mine went missing last Thursday, and I don’t have to tell you who did it.”
“That trash-digging abomination across the street, of course!” Lydia threw Susan’s jacket on the coat rack. It fell off. “Tea?”
Susan picked up her jacket and put it back on the hook. “Um, I really don’t…”
“I also happen to know that Anne Korski’s wooden duck statue…” Lydia walked into the kitchen. Her jeweled slippers clacked on the oak floor.
“The one with the little rain coat?” Susan shuffled behind her.
“Yes, the very same…went missing from her porch last Tuesday evening. Seems everyone’s had something stolen in the last month.”
“But, Dale only takes things from our trash. Things we don’t care about.” Susan rubbed her hands as if she were wringing out laundry. “Besides, how do you know it’s him? It could be someone else.” She took a seat at the breakfast table.
“Pish posh.” Lydia took the teakettle from the stovetop and filled it at the sink. “There was a time when I put up with it, like everyone else. But I drew the line last March when I saw him pulling garments from my trash can like some homeless person. Now, my bin goes out in the morning. Exactly five minutes before the garbage truck comes.” She set the kettle on the stove and turned toward the counter where a box of cookies sat.
Susan glanced at her watch. “About my envelope...”
“If Mr. Strichter were alive, he wouldn’t tolerate this foolishness for one minute.” Lydia arranged the cookies in a circular pattern on a china plate.
“Do you have it?”
“He’d do something, by God.”
“Chad will be home from school any minute, and we’ve got to get ready for tonight. He’s quarterback, you know.” Susan waited a moment and then spoke a little louder, “Maybe we could do tea another time?”
Lydia looked up from the plate of cookies. “Clearly, your mind’s elsewhere. I see there’ll be no talking to you until you’ve gotten your mail.” Lydia dusted imaginary cookie crumbs off her hands and smoothed her silver hair. She crossed the kitchen and picked up a fat envelope out of a basket. “I do believe our mail carrier needs glasses. How she can confuse my house for yours is beyond me.” Lydia offered the envelope.
Susan put her hand on the mail and tugged. But, Lydia’s grasp was firmer. When the squeal of school bus airbrakes came from the street, Lydia let go of the envelope.
“I do hope everything is okay,” Lydia said.
“Of course, why shouldn’t it be?”
“The package is from Kowalski and Kowalski, dear.” Lydia shrugged. “One can scarcely turn on the television without hearing about their divorce settlement prowess.” She watched a scowl cross Susan’s face and spoke again, “Yes, well I’ll show you out.” All the way to the front door, Lydia smiled to herself.
As Susan stepped outside, she gasped. “Lydia, didn’t you have a garden gnome? I could have sworn it was right there under your magnolia tree.”
Lydia frowned. “That retard doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.”
Susan looked at Lydia and bit her lip. Then, she scurried back to her house next door.
Once her neighbor was out of earshot, Lydia looked toward the sky and whispered, “Yes, my dear. You would have done something about this foolishness.”
“Silence, please!” Lydia shouted over the crowd. The following evening, a dozen neighbors gathered in her living room. Before she began, Lydia made a mental note of who was in attendance. This information would be useful in a few months when she made out her Christmas card list. “Attention! Attention!” She clapped her hands as she shouted.
“Let’s get on with it, Lydia.” Donald Jennings was the first to speak. “Half-time is over in six minutes and the Cowboys are ahead.” Donald’s thick body eclipsed his wife, Susan, who orbited behind him like a lesser moon.
“I’ve called you here to discuss the mutual problem we have on Sycamore Avenue.” Lydia looked past Donald. “You know it exists, but I’m not sure you’re aware of the facts.”
“What problem?” It was Gabriel King who spoke this time. He stood apart from the rest of the neighbors, but looked content to do so.
“Our neighborhood is suffering at the hands of a thief, and not one of you knows who’s responsible.”
“Did you call us here to confess?” someone shouted from the back.
“We’ve all had things stolen off our property,” Lydia continued, ignoring the heckler. “Umbrellas, wooden ducks, hedge clippers, welcome mats, garden gnomes.” She watched Anne Korski whisper something to Dora Kay Mueller and Dora Kay Mueller whisper something to Ella Spencer. Then, half the neighbors were gossiping. Lydia cleared her throat and began again once the room was quiet, “It’s time we did something about it. It’s time we confronted that garbage collector across the street.”
No one spoke.
“Those hedge clippers cost me thirty-two bucks, y’all,” Donald Jennings finally said. “I say we go and get our stuff!”
“I want my wind chimes back!” said Ella Spencer. She bounced a toddler on her hip to keep him from pulling her hair.
“Wait a minute!” Gabriel King held up his hand. “When I first moved to this neighborhood six years ago, it was explained to me – by several of you – that Dale was harmless. A bit eccentric with his trash collecting, but of no threat to anyone.”
“It’s not normal, it’s just not normal,” said Dora Kay. “What’s he doing with all that stuff, anyway? Something horrible, I bet. Anyone who watches the evening news can tell you how sick people are.”
“My duck!” Anne Korski hid her face in her hands. “What’s he doing with my poor duck!”
“Yes. Why on earth would a grown man dig through filth?” Lydia asked.
“Because he’s autistic,” said a gravelly female voice.
Lydia stood on tiptoe to look over the neighbors’ heads. She recognized the speaker instantly – it was The Nurse. Lydia remembered the woman’s entrance into the neighborhood clearly.
Seventeen years ago, Mr. and Mrs. Harrison went to dinner one evening. While they were gone, their thirty-year-old son, Dale, put a pot of beans on the stove, got distracted and nearly burned the house down. The next day, The Nurse showed up with her dented Monte Carlo and her attitude. There had never been a Negro on Sycamore Avenue until that day and there hadn’t been one since. The Harrison house fire was woven into the legend of Sycamore Avenue as tightly as Lydia’s husband’s untimely death in his own front yard last year.
The Nurse pushed through the crowd to the front of the room. She was dressed in white scrubs and despite her antiseptic appearance, smelled of rose perfume. When she reached the spot where Lydia stood, The Nurse looked at Gabriel King and nodded discreetly in his direction.
“Madame, I’m not sure how you found out about our meeting…” Lydia turned and narrowed her eyes at Gabriel King, “but it’s strictly for home owners.” She motioned toward the door, but The Nurse didn’t budge.
“I’m a home owner rep-re-sentative,” The Nurse said to Lydia, drawing her syllables out. Then, she spoke to the crowd, “Mr. Harrison has always been a good neighbor, and this is how you treat him? You know he can’t help himself.” She put her hands on her hips and tipped her chin up, just a little. “Since his momma and daddy passed a few years back, he needs people like you to look out for him.”
“We just want our things back,”
said Anne Korski. “Have you seen a white duck around the house? Dressed in a little yellow rain slicker…”
“Maybe it’s not Dale.”
“Who said that?” Lydia asked. She looked toward the source of the voice. “Susan? Whose side are you on?”
“Yours, of course.” Susan stepped out from behind her husband. She gripped her hands together and looked at The Nurse. “I just think we ought to make sure that it’s really Dale before we do anything.”
“Yes. Where’s your proof?” asked Gabriel King.
“You’ll have your proof,” Lydia said.
Several days later, Lydia rummaged in the back of her closet. It was the eve of Garbage Collection Day, and she needed bait. Lydia pulled box after box out, looking for something shiny. Toward the very back of the closet, she found an ancient shoebox sealed with yellowed tape.
Lydia ran a manicured nail around the lid and broke the seal. Inside the box, she found a bundle of postcards tied with string and a ceramic dish. She caught her breath and willed her eyes not to water. “I thought I’d gotten rid of everything. What’s this doing here?”
Lydia sat back on her heels and looked through the postcards: Guam, Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia. Every place her husband, Lyle, had been stationed. Next, she picked up the ceramic dish – an Elvis Presley souvenir china plate. The edges were gilded with gold trim and the middle held a picture of the King in his army uniform. “You were the Elvis fan, not me. Besides, I’m not one to hold on to sentimental things.” Lydia ran her finger over the year written in gold at the bottom: 1959, the same year Lyle joined the military. “Especially things that hurt too much.”
Arthritis began to nag at her legs, so Lydia stood up. She tucked the plate under one arm and grabbed the bundle of postcards. For a moment, she held the cards over the waste bin. But when Lydia felt her hand tremble, she put the bundle of mail back in its container. Then, she buried the shoebox deep under a stack of winter sweaters and headed to the kitchen.
The breakfast table was covered with an assortment of bows, ribbons, wrapping paper, and boxes. Lydia put the plate into the largest of the boxes and set about her task of cutting, taping, tying and curling. When she was satisfied she’d created something irresistible, Lydia set down her scissors and admired her masterpiece. Her plan was simple: Mr. Sticky Fingers would not be able to resist the package, and the doubters of Sycamore Avenue would have their proof.
TO BE CONTINUED.............
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