OCTOBER 2009 – NO. 36
The second short story selection by our guest fiction editor, Ivy Pochoda
We like to get the work done and the day gone. A two-man crew makes it rough, but dispatch paired me with Taser today, so I guess it'll be all right. When it's Taser and me, I drive and Taser rides the back, we find that rhythm of stopping and jumping then throwing and going. We start with the northern most street on the route, which means we start with the street Bonnie lives on, Mulvey Drive. I don't feel anything one way or the other about hauling Bonnie's trash, but Taser seems jumpy at the prospect. He says it's just his luck, getting paired with me the first time since the break-up.
Even this early the sun beats through the cool morning air and I'm thankful for the shade. I pull onto Mulvey Drive and keep the truck under the row of elms growing out over the curb. The rented houses in this neighborhood are tiny and identical, like saltine cracker boxes with white siding and black-shingle roofs. Mulvey Drive may be the northern most street in our territory, but it's considered fringy to the suburbanites. The trees in this neighborhood are the best part about it. These strong, old Maples and Elms are what save these people.
Taser jumps out of the cab before the brakes squeak to a stop. He limps stiff-like to the first pile of garbage and massages his legs from where the cops zapped him a few years back. He won a settlement from the police department but his lawyer took half, the other half he blew at the casinos in about three months. It's quiet in the cab without him. He's been talking non-stop about working Bonnie's street on the drive up here. I keep telling him I'm fine about the whole damned mess, and I don't know why he keeps going on about it. I hop out of the cab and join him.
"I'm telling you Curtis, she's not worth it," Taser says.
"I don't know what you're talking about, partner," I say. I wink at Taser and he just starts praying to the lord under his breath.
I lift a steel trashcan off the curb and hand it to Taser, he throws it into the mouth of the masher and bangs its guts out, he's still mumbling something about trouble and it being too damned early for it. I'm waiting for him to turn and catch the second can, but a mama blackbird swoops down close to Taser's head and circles back, so Taser throws the empty can at it before he catches the one I'm holding. I don't blame him. I've been pecked on the head more than once over the years. Blackbirds can be mean when they have chicks. We get rolling again and pretty soon we're down near the end of Mulvey Drive.
Taser yells, "Here we go!" He's on the back, pumping his free hand in the air while holding on to the grab bar with the other.
I've got my head popped out the driver's window looking back because Taser won't look at me through the rearview, and maybe he can't hear me. I'm trying to ask him what the hell he's going on about now.
I straighten up and duck my head back in. Even though it's 8:00 a.m. I turn the radio on full blast.
"Curtis! You're gonna get us in trouble again," Taser yells from the back.
"But it's Bob Seger, it's a sin to turn Seger down," I yell back.
"C'mon — it'd be my third complaint — I could get fired," Taser says.
"Right after this song."
We're so close, so I pull right on up to Bonnie's house, passing other piles of trash. Jerry's baby blue heap-of-shit Chevy truck is in her drive at 8:00 a.m.. She doesn't waste time. Taser's already got one of her three trashcans emptied and he's working hard to get to the other two. I get out of the cab and walk toward the back. I can see Taser is worried. He worries too damned much and he just needs to let me do what needs to be done. There's no other choice in the matter.
"Now, just get back in the cab, Curtis, I got this one," Taser says.
I'm walking fast.
"Too late," I say.
I take the white plastic garbage bags out of one of the cans and walk to the baby blue piece-of-shit Chevy truck and empty half on the hood. Then I see Jerry left his window open, so I toss the other half on the front seat. Looks like Bonnie cleaned out the fridge because mixed in with the coffee grounds and stiff, black banana peels is a jar of moldy spaghetti sauce that pops open and spills onto the upholstery. In a freezer bag are raw, grey chicken breasts with maggots squirming around in the juice. I dump those onto the dashboard and the sun hits them just right, a sweet, familiar odor fills the truck.
"That's a bad idea, Curtis, you're going to get the shit kicked out of you," Taser says, but he's sitting on the curb now with those damned mirror sunglasses on. He's got his arms crossed on his knees, smoking. He doesn't seem too worried about his job anymore. His head is bobbing to Seger's Old Time Rock-n-Roll and he's looking past me. Bonnie is peering out her window; she's wearing the red silk shortie I gave her for Valentine's Day last year. She opens the curtain all the way to make sure I see it. I make sure she sees my middle finger and she stomps toward the front door. She looks good in that shortie.
"What the hell do you think you're doing, Curtis?" she asks. She's standing on the cement porch holding the door open behind her with one hand, grasping her cigarettes and lighter with the other.
"You want to say hi? He's in our shower right now."
"Yeah, I'll say hi," I say, walking toward the door.
But Taser stands in front of me and grabs at my shirt, twisting it all out of shape, says I've gone far enough and we'll both be fired for sure if I get into it with Jerry. He's right, and I need this job.
The guy from two doors down is headed toward us on the sidewalk. He's a short man wearing red-checkered boxers and slippers, his bare stomach hangs over the waistband of his boxers and it swings like a pendulum as he walks. "What the hell is going on down here?" he says. "I was sleeping!"
Taser is walking toward him with his hands held out in front, "It's nothing mister, we're sorry for the noise, we're moving on right now."
Taser reaches into his pocket and hands the man a damp five-dollar bill. He takes it, and then just stands on the sidewalk facing Bonnie's house with the bill crumpled in his loose fist. Taser follows the man's gaze. Now they both just stand there, mouths gaping open and practically drooling, because Bonnie is there in the little red number giving a free show. Bonnie doesn't care about stuff like that. She'll have a laugh later when she thinks about those two idiots standing in front of her house staring at her tits.
I forget about Jerry in the shower for just a second and start to walk toward her. I used to do this silly thing. I used to turn my hand horizontal so my palm rested on Bonnie's hipbone, and then I curled my fingers around the edge of the other, opposite hipbone. It was such a tiny, goddamned space. She always let my hand rest there like that for a little while before she pulled it away or pushed it further down between her legs.
"I would have put a ring on your finger," I yell. "How could you do that?"
I'm in her face, I'm sure to keep my hands at my sides. I want to protect her, and I want to drag her inside by the hair. I want her to take my hand and push it between her thighs.
"You wouldn't have married me, and you sure weren't ready to be a daddy."
She is looking at her neighbor as she says this.
They both have their underwear on. They are both standing outside, neighbors, facing each other in their underwear. I'm thinking about this too. I wonder if he's ever seen Bonnie work at the Cozy Eight in town. If he has, he's seen her with less on than the red shortie.
"Fucking Jerry is the answer? Jerry? He doesn't even have a job."
I don't wait for an answer. I just walk to the truck and throw the rest of Bonnie's trash in the masher. Bonnie is stepping off the cement porch walking toward me.
She says, "What about my couch, Curtis, let's talk about that. You took my couch and I want it back."
"Your couch? You're fucking Jerry and you want the couch back. I think I'll keep it. I think I deserve the couch."
"This isn't over. I paid for that couch."
I hop back in the cab and wait for Taser. It takes him a minute to move from his spot on the sidewalk, but eventually he climbs onto the back and gives me the sign in the rearview, index finger and thumb cocked, loaded then discharged. He's ready to head on out of here. Bonnie lights a cigarette and watches. I watch her watch us from the side mirrors. Taser limps off the back and I jump from the cab if there is more than one can. We keep working like this, winding our way back up the other side of Mulvey Drive. We've got a long day ahead of us.
Our territory is 15 miles of strip plazas and five-lane highways. We connect the velvet lawn suburbs on the northern border to the city of Detroit on the southern border. Suburbanites slink on down here every Saturday to stock up on toilet paper and dog food from one of our monstrous bulk supply stores. Sometimes, during a divorce or when the economy takes a plunge, I'll spot one dwelling here. What, this? They'll say with a wave of their hand and a crooked smile. This is just temporary. Then it hits them, they are living with the garbage man — it takes the crooked right out of their smile every time.
The city dwellers commute up here daily for jobs, for better schools for their kids, and to take advantage of the toilet paper deals. Those city folk, it must be in their blood, because they won't leave that damned place, not for anything. But hell, I figure why should they? It's not like we've got it any better, no really. Look, people here on this pick-up route are just temporary, they come and they go. They are either climbing up in life or falling down, it's not a place where many settle or call home. They pass through and they dump their trash as they go. Hey, I myself live smack in the middle of my own route and I plan to move on pretty quickly too. I just have to decide which way I'm going, that's all.
"Look, Taser," I say as we wind our way up the other side of Mulvey Drive. "Why don't you just take the couch like I offered? It's too big for my place and I know Cindy will love it. It's practically new."
Taser doesn't say anything. We synchronize our movements and we get into that place where our legs and shoulders don't ache and we don't feel the heat as we move from one pile to the next.
Finally, he says, "It's like this Curtis. Cindy and me, we've only been back together a few months, and I don't want to hurt your feelings or anything, but that couch is bad luck."
"Things and people are just lucky or they're not. It's obvious that couch is not. I can feel my luck changing and that's why Cindy came back. I just don't need to push it by bringing that thing into my house."
"You're at the casinos too damned much, that's why Cindy left you in the first place."
"Cindy left me because I was a bad luck guy, but all that's changing." Taser is moving fast now and when he moves fast he just lifts his bad leg and hops on the good one. He's damned fast on one leg. It's something to see.
"I'm just trying to explain," I say. I watch him lift and empty two brown, plastic garbage cans then toss them onto the lawn, he turns and does a decent pirouette. I'm just standing there, not helping. He needs to take this couch off my hands. "You would be doing me a big favor. It's a good, quality couch. Just come over and take a look at it, it's got these little flowers on it, daisies I think. Cindy would love that. She wouldn't think it was bad luck at all."
"Why don't you just take it to the dump? Or give it back to her. That way it's done and you won't have to see Bonnie again. She'll stop harassing you for that thing."
"Did I hear you right? You want me to give it back to her?"
"Or who knows, maybe she'll take you back with the couch. Kind of a two-for-one sale."
"Just get your gimp-ass back on the goddamned truck. You don't know what you're talking about. Couches with bad luck, two-for-one sales — why do I even listen to you?"
Men in suits and women in heels are starting their cars, kids pile out of front doors and onto their bikes and skateboards. Everyone is racing down their driveways trying to beat us rolling up to block their escape. It's sort of a game, and Taser and I give the high-five when we block a suit in his driveway for a minute. We take our time and laugh like crazy if we can get the suit to start talking and cursing behind the safety of his tinted glass. They never really look at us but we try to make eye contact.
We keep moving, inching our way along. Mrs. Schultz is standing on her front lawn again waiting for us. The skin on her arms and under her chin hangs loose and flaps as she waves. She's the only person left in this neighborhood that has lived here more than a few years. In fact, she and her late husband have lived in the same house for over 60 years. She's a holdout just doing her time.
"Halloo boys, come here, I have something for you, come here and see old Mrs. Schultz," she says. Her dentures click and slip out over her lips as she speaks.
She offers a box of Entenmann's powdered mini-donuts. Taser shoves them in, one after the other, until his cheeks swell. He looks like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. He stops and swallows hard a few times, then shoves more donuts in. White powder puffs out of his mouth, sticking to his dark whiskers, as he thanks Mrs. Schultz. Some of it lands on Mrs. Schultz's cheek but she doesn't flinch. He might not have the best manners, but Mrs. Schultz knows he's a good boy. She hands the box over to Taser and he takes it.
Mrs. Schultz says, "Oh, you are good boys, honest, hard-working boys, like Mr. Schultz was."
I'm not a boy anymore, I'm 26, but to Mrs. Schultz I must look like one. Mr. Schultz wore his khaki shirt and work pants hitched up around his middle with a thick black belt. He had the same thing on every time I saw him. The last few summers when the truck pulled up, Mr. and Mrs. Schultz were always outside together either pruning the rose bushes or sitting on fold-up chairs in the driveway, drinking coffee and smoking. She must be pretty lonely.
I thank her and start back down the drive when she says, "My Mr. Schultz and I were married 61 years when he passed."
"Long time," I say.
"Goes on the breeze when you're not looking. You should always pay attention."
I'm not really sure what Mrs. Schultz is telling me here. I mean, she's old and she just might be confused. Or maybe it's the wisest shit anyone's ever said, could go either way. But the sun is too bright and everything starts reflecting sharp angles off everything else. I want to high tail it out of there but I can't just walk away, I have to say something.
So I say, "Did you two ever have any kids?"
"Oh, we had a son, he died young though. No others came after him. Now everyone I love is some other place."
Mrs. Schultz is watching me like she sees it coming. She reaches up and pats my cheek with her soft hand. Christ, I don't know what's wrong with me. I want to say how sorry I am, that she's a nice old lady and she shouldn't be left here all alone on this earth by herself. I swallow hard and reach up, giving her hand on my cheek one good squeeze. Then I put it gently back at her side and haul ass back to the truck. I tell Taser to get it in gear, that we've got a long day ahead of us. I wave at Mrs. Schultz. She watches us, sort of raisin like in that big space of a driveway, until we round the curve.
The sun slaps at the back of my neck. Taser is riding up in the passenger seat because we're finally done with the northern territory. We pull onto Highway Eight and head closer to town. I'm glad we're done with Mulvey Drive. It's nowhere to work or live, the whole damned neighborhood can burn for all I care.
I sweat through my uniform as we empty dumpsters behind the endless strip plazas and bars along Highway Eight. Here, it's all cement with brown weeds growing in the cracks. The business owners, or maybe the city, have planted some sad, little trees between the sidewalk and the edge of Highway Eight. They list to one side, and most of the leaves have turned a dull yellow in the dry heat, some have surrendered all together. There are at least ten clinics and health centers along this part of Eight. I never noticed that before, but I count them today as we work. Right now we happen to be working behind The Women's Health Center.
Taser is pretty quiet and I wonder why given that he's always blabbing about some card game he almost won, but I don't ask him because I'm not much for talking right now either. The front forks pick the dumpster up over the cab, the contents fall into the back of my truck, and the masher does its job. I'm using the control handle at the side of the truck toward the back, Taser leans on the other side of the truck and lights up. I watch as little pink garbage bags with the bio-hazardous waste symbol fall like asteroids from the dumpster.
I know there is a different truck and different guys who work the real bio-hazardous stuff. They wear gloves and masks, they pick-up from the back doors of clinics and hospitals. They have to keep track of where the waste came from, where it's going. I never noticed those pink garbage bags before. I look over at Taser to see if he notices them, but he just flicks his cigarette to the ground and suffocates the orange ember with the toe of his boot.
We find our rhythm and pretty soon we've hauled the last load. The two of us are up in the cab headed back to the lot. Taser pulls the box of donuts from Mrs. Schultz off the dash and finishes them off. Neither of us says a word but we know where we're headed. On the radio the Tigers are taking a beating, we turn it off and just listen to the breeze coming through the cab. There's no talk of showers or changing clothes. After we check the truck in the lot, we cross the street to The Rusty Nail.
It's empty inside except for a couple of regulars at the bar. A sweet, rotting odor is coming up from the sticky carpet, so we blend. Two long hairs are plugging in electric guitars, and a third is setting up an impressive set of drums. They're old and we laugh about mid-life crisis. What that looks like. They start to warm up and sing off key, play too close to the amps. We've never seen them before and I wonder where the hell they came from, or if they've ever played at the Cozy Eight.
It's a dark, cool cave in The Rusty Nail and we pick a low round table furthest from the band. The cold Bud from a long neck bottle goes down quick and I get an instant buzz. It's close to 5:00 p.m. and I haven't eaten all day. I order two more. I must be talking too loud about the look on Bonnie's face this morning because Taser won't look at me. In fact, he's looking anywhere but in my direction and I laugh because it's pretty funny watching him not watch me. He looks like a bobble-head, and at this point I don't care. I just listen to the shitty music and enjoy the beer.
Pretty soon Taser's cousin, Hollis, walks in and stands over me flicking ashes from his cigarette into my hair and grinning. In a few years Hollis will be one of those regulars sitting at the bar. He's always here even when he shouldn't be, and even when he's not invited he's standing over my table. I spring out of my seat and pop him one, but the force of my punch that misses his face by about three feet instead pulls me sideways onto the carpet, my cheek marinates in something wet.
"Sweet Jesus, what was that?" Hollis says. He's laughing so hard his clean shaved scalp turns red.
"We went by Bonnie's house today, she came out on the front porch in this little red number," Taser says.
Hollis sucks in some air and he pinks back up, then he goes into a coughing jag.
"Don't mind him, Curtis, he's just an asshole," Taser is finally talking to me. "Kids are a pain in the ass anyway, Bonnie did you a favor." Taser pulls me up off the floor and hands me some napkins.
"I guess," I say. I wipe my face off.
Taser says, "Hey Curtis, I don't want to leave you here like this but Hollis says he saw Cindy trolling the parking lot for my car. If she catches me here again, she'll leave for good this time."
"Yeah, go. I'm fine," I say. My head is pounding and I can feel the beer getting hot in my gut. I'm not ready to leave. "Hey, Hollis. You want a couch? I got a hum-dinger of a couch. Taser here says it's got back luck, but your life is so shitty it won't much matter."
Hollis heads toward me again. I can't even stand up to face him. Taser gets between Hollis and me, and suddenly I just go all to mush.
"You're the fucking cat's meow, Taser, I mean that," I say. "At least you love me." I don't know what the hell I'm talking about, but I'm talking loud.
Hollis is pointing at me and leaning into Taser's chest. "He needs to shut his yap."
Taser is pushing Hollis out the door, he turns his head and yells, "You better check that mouth tonight, Curtis. You better keep it shut."
Taser and Hollis leave me sitting at the table. I order a burger and it tastes like horseshit, but I eat half anyway. Then I just sit there and nurse a few more. The place gets crowded with college kids because they know they won't get carded here. They stand around in $40 t-shirts with peace signs on them, shelling out Daddy's money for watered-down tap beer. A couple of girls come in and stand at the door. They look pretty good. I'm about to wave them over and buy them a drink when they stop talking in each other's ear and sit at a table in front of the band. One is tall with red hair piled on her head and the other is a little blonde with shiny white boots that come up to her knees. They both hike up their skirts and smile and giggle until the band takes a break and joins them at the table. It's disgusting to watch the old men pant. The girls are practically minors. This just puts me in a foul mood. I want to punch the drummer out when he puts his paw on the pretty blonde's leg, but he's even bigger than Hollis. It's time to go find my faithful Chevy truck and head on home.
Right now home is a rented trailer on a rented lot in The American Way Mobile Home Park, not too far from The Rusty Nail. I'm in the Chevy headed that way. Jerry is sleeping in my bed on Mulvey Drive. Maybe Bonnie is working until close at the Cozy Eight, or maybe she's on top of Jerry, grinding her hipbones into his. One pass by Cozy Eight won't hurt. I would like to discuss the couch situation again. Maybe work out a visitation schedule. I'll take it weekends and every other holiday, and she can have it during the week through the school year and half the summer. I make a u-turn, but her car isn't in the lot. I give up and head on home.
I walk in the trailer and right off that couch slaps me in the face. Rather the door slaps me in the face because the couch is too big for the room. It only fits along the wall with the door, and even there it's too long and wide. So I have to be careful when I open the door, if I forget and fling it open the door bounces off the couch, then smacks me a good one in the face or knee. Tonight it's the face.
I open the door again, careful this time. I grab the end of the couch and drag it to the middle of the room. I take the cushions off, stand it onto its side and ease it through the front door. Once I've got it out on the porch I lift it onto the rail until it's balanced on there like an elephant on a tightrope, then I karate-kick it over the rail where it lands in dead grass. I throw the cushions back on, one at a time, from the trailer to the porch, from the porch to the couch. A pack of teenage boys with black hoodies and acne walk past, they stop and watch me for a minute but don't say anything and don't offer to help. Then, in a single motion like a flock of restless birds, they
turn and continue down the street.
I go on out to the shed and have to use my flashlight even though there is still some light left in the sky. I rummage around. I find the five gallon gas can I use for the mower, it's about half full, I can hear it sloshing inside as I secure it in the bed of the truck with a bungee cord. I go back to the shed and after a while I locate the thick chain and padlock I use for the snowmobiles. They are inside the wooden toolbox my dad made. He gave it to me before he left for good. I drag the chain, the padlock and the couch to the curb where my truck is parked. It takes a few minutes of heavy lifting to get it into the bed of the truck but I manage okay. I'm feeling pretty good as I snake the chain around the couch a couple of times then through the tie down rings welded into the truck bed. I lock it all tight and snug with the padlock. I make sure the cap on the gas can is good and tight.
The door doesn't beat me up when I go back in to get a beer from the fridge, but I turn right around and go back outside because it's so empty in there now. I sit on the curb, sipping from my bottle and staring at that couch in the bed of my truck. I don't think about the times Bonnie and I used the couch as a bed though. Maybe it's the beer, but I don't feel much of anything and it's the best I've felt since all this started. For the second time today, I head on out to Bonnie's.
The air is cool and damp coming through the open windows as I drive north on Highway Eight. The sun is just setting and the cars coming toward me are popping on their lights, so I do the same. The game is long over, but Steve and Mike on Radio Sports One are still talking about the spanking the Tigers took earlier in the day. I click it off. I'm back on Mulvey Drive but this time Mrs. Schultz's windows are dark as I speed past. I ease up to the curb in front of Bonnie's house. Jerry's truck isn't in the drive so I pull into my old spot, killing the engine and lights. No one comes to the door or peeks out the window, but I wait a few minutes to be sure.
I take my time and I'm quiet about it. I get out of the truck, close the door behind me, and walk to the bed of the truck. I climb up and over the rear gate, but there's no room to move. I can only turn around in a tiny circle or shimmy sideways between the couch and the side of the truck. The faint smell of gasoline is in the air back here. I steady myself and search my pants and shirt pockets for the padlock key. I check again, rubbing the palms of my hands up and down and in and out of my shirt and pants pockets.
All I want to do is get this thing off my truck. Maybe I'll back the truck up and push it into her rose bushes or through the front window after I get it unlocked. Maybe I'll use the gasoline, but I'm not sure about the gasoline now because I'm looking at all the big, beautiful trees that have been here longer than Bonnie, longer even than Mrs. Schultz. I don't want to accidentally torch the trees. The two red maples with dark, leathery leaves in the front yard, I can't even reach around the trunks and touch my fingertips together. I can't even give them a proper hug. And even though there is no wind, not even a hint of a breeze, the leaves are swirling wildly
around and rubbing each other way up there, like they know what it's all about.
I'm not so quiet this time as I search the cab of the truck and my pockets again. I climb back into the truck bed and sit on the couch. My knees hang off the side of the truck and I bounce the heels of my work boots off the outside panel as I trace my day backward. My head feels too heavy to keep balanced on my neck, so I let it fall back. The stars are closer out here. I swing my feet around and lay on the couch. It reminds me of being a kid and sleeping out in a tent in the back yard except for the chain digging into my hipbone. Where did I put that key?
A street lamp is buzzing a couple of houses down and the stars are making it impossible for me to close my eyes and think. Someone's got a television on close by, I wonder if it's the fat neighbor. A stink rises up from the fast food joints surrounding this neighborhood or maybe it's me. I've still got my uniform on. It all mixes with the gasoline and my head starts to throb.
I force my eyes shut with my thumb and index finger but I still can't figure where that key went. Maybe Taser is right, maybe this couch is just bad luck. Or maybe the leaves just lifted the key right out of my pocket and I'll need bolt cutters to get it off my truck. Maybe I am drunk. One thing is sure, I'll never be rid of this couch with its friendly, fucking daisies and ruffled trim.
I still see the stars, pinpoints of light, through my eyelids. I'm concentrating now, going backward, trying to locate the key, and I'm in the shed. I look down at my old man's toolbox that he crafted it with his own two hands. It's oblong, the side panels and top are sturdy, thick pine boards. Maybe I left the key in there, I'm pretty sure I did. The old man just dumped it on the curb in front of the house the time he left for good. Said it was mine now. Not enough room for it in the back of his car anyway, he said. Said it was a "becoming a man" present, from father to son, or maybe he said it was a consolation prize.
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