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THE GARBAGE MAN – Jonathan Kravetz

on January 15 | in Fiction | by | with No Comments

On the one year anniversary of Allison’s assault, the garbage man—he preferred this title to “sanitation worker”— saw, as he was emptying a trash can into the dump bed of the truck on School Street, Tim Pearson’s plain Chevy Malibu cruise past, music vibrating the sealed windows. As soon as the hunk of junk swerved around them, rust flaking off the edges of the car body, the infuriated forty-two year old, Carlton, knew he would confront the rapist that night. It was a surprising revelation because he swore to Allison only two nights before that he’d quit stalking the man. They’d argued, of course—we have to do something, he insisted, because not doing anything was burning a hole in his stomach the size of a hockey puck—but she shook her head in that new defeated way of hers and he backed down. But seeing the asshole coast by like he was just a regular someone out for a drive was more than he could take. Carlton’s co-worker, Mikey, had called in sick that morning and Carlton was alone, still clutching the Tartari’s old-fashioned metallic garbage can to his chest as the Chevy disappeared around a sharp curve on Bay Road.

Usually he occupied his mind, as the garbage truck moved from home to home in suburban Stoughton, Massachusetts, either daydreaming about baseball—he liked this year’s Red Sox lineup, but wondered why the general manager had traded a promising infield prospect for a mediocre National League reliever—or talking to Mikey about the previous night’s game. Knowing with such conviction that he would finally confront the man who had assaulted Allison, however, brought a new kind of clarity—a sense that the world was reborn—to the rest of Carlton’s day: the pothole on Winslow Drive that tossed him ten inches into the air; the Thompsons’ uncovered garbage can, reeking of disposable diapers; the Rosenblatt children playing wiffle ball on their front lawn. His mind was clear now. He felt whole.

After the last pick-up on the edge of town he climbed into the cab. Dave, a white-haired lifer, was blaring 100.7, WZLX, the classic rock station. It was Led Zeppelin’s “Fool in the Rain.”

“Why the hell are they playing this today?” Dave asked. “It’s not even raining.”

Carlton took note of the cool air, the blue-yellow haze of a clear spring day. “How the hell should I know?”

Dave tilted his head, his face expressionless. “You heard from the other dumbass?”

Carlton, for an answer, stretched his arms luxuriously—there was a lot more room in the cab when Mikey called in sick—and smiled.

After a quick shower—washing away the garbage stench was a daily routine even on evenings he stayed home with a TV dinner, a beer and the game—he put on a pair of comfortable jeans, his white polo shirt that showed off his biceps, and jumped into his 1999 Ford pickup to see Allison: it would feel good to see her knowing he was doing something to make things right, even if she was too stubborn to see that he was helping her. She managed a hair boutique in Canton, the next town over. She still cut hair when the store got busy, but since the attack preferred her office where she could “push paper in peace.” He joked that they should get re-married: she could stay home and he could stop paying alimony.

The bell above the glass door jingled when he entered the shop that took up a narrow swath of real estate between a chain store pharmacy and Town’s, the greasiest pizza in the state. It was quiet and the stylists, all women, were sitting at their respective stations reading magazines. Colleen, a friend of Allison’s since they were kids, looked up with heavy couldn’t-give-a-fuck eyelids when she saw him.

“What do you want?”

“What do you think?”

She snapped her gum. “She’s in the back.”

Allison was sitting in front of the computer, her bifocals tilted so she could read the screen. She’d put on a few pounds over the years, but Carlton still admired her shape, all hips and ass. She complained about her small breasts, but he liked them. All a man needs is a cup full, he used to say. He still said that, in fact, but she didn’t close her eyes and embrace him like she used to.

“Look what the dog dragged in,” she said. “You need a trim?”

“Nah,” he answered.” “Just stopping by.”

“Well, that’s a ten dollar haircut.” One of her expressions which roughly translated to, bullshit.

“I was in a good mood, thought I’d say hello.”

“You’re in a good mood?” She spun so she could see him better. “Must be the Fourth of July.”

“It is. Let me sing the Star Spangled Banner for you.” He used to enjoy their playful banter, but now it often felt strained.

“You got the money for the fridge?” she asked.

“It’s broken again?”

“I told you last month. The freezer’s busted.”

“Shoot. I forgot. Next time.”

She shook her head. “So you just came over to say hello?”

“Thought I’d see if you wanted to go for a little ride.”

She considered him. “You got the heater fixed in your truck?”

“I’m working on it.”

“Great, so your truck’s an ice box. Maybe you can take my frozen vegetables for a ride, because the freezer isn’t keeping ‘em cold. Unless I get some money for that thing all the stuff in there…”

“Okay, I get it.”

She took a breath. “So. How you doing?

He wanted to tell her that he hadn’t felt this good since before they were married. She hated talk like that, but he never stopped thinking fondly of the past, remembering days they would go on trips to the Cape, swim in the ocean, screw on the beach—it wasn’t that difficult to find a deserted stretch of sand back then—as the sun descended. He didn’t mind his life now: he had a good job, he played left field on the Sanitation softball team, he got laid once in a while. But sometimes at night, as he sat up in bed, he felt like a buoy that had become unmoored and was drifting out to sea.

He held his palm up over his head like a hammy actor they’d seen in a local production of Pippen. “It’s spring, a time for new beginnings!” he said.
She snorted—it was close enough to a laugh for him to take it as a tiny victory—and cracked, “I’d like a whiff of whatever you’re smoking.”
“I’m sober as a dead priest,” he said.

She nodded and her voice dropped into its familiar melancholy, the sound of wind against your bedroom window. “I guess you are.”

He studied his fingernails. They were jagged and cracked, but there wasn’t a speck of dirt under them. “How’s business, hon?” he asked. “Seems kinda slow out there.”

There was a tense silence before she asked, “What are you really doing here, Carlton? Do you need something?”

“I’m good,” he said, and then added, “I might drive over to Brockton later.” It was a small city adjacent to Stoughton: the streets weren’t as clean, the houses weren’t as well kept, the crime rate wasn’t non-existent.

The garbage even smelled worse. It was where Tim Pearson lived.
She tilted her head. “Why the hell are you going there?” She could read his frickin’ mind. Shit.

“No reason,” he said. “Do a little shopping at the mall. I need new boots for work.”

“Why not just get them in town?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I feel like going for a drive.”

“Uh huh,” she said. She bit the corner of her lower lip. “Stay away from that shit town, you know what I’m saying?”

“It’s just a drive,” he insisted. “You could come.”

He wanted to tell her exactly what he was planning, but they would argue again until finally he would say, as he had many times, that they should just call the police. She hated the idea: the police would make her explain why she was alone closing the shop that night, why she was dressed the way she was, why she hadn’t spoken up sooner. They’d make her relive it all. The cops’ll be on your side, he’d say, but she wouldn’t listen.

“So you just dropped in out of the blue?” she asked.

He looked around the room for something more to say. “Not everything’s gotta be a special occasion. Can’t I just swing by and say hello?” He regretted his tone. He wanted to put his hand on her cheek and comfort her. Everything’s gonna be all right. He’d told her that after the attack, but he’d been wrong. Life is a broken jaw, always aching, always on your mind.

The winding side roads that connected Canton and Brockton—he preferred them to Route 24—were still crowded with rush hour traffic, but Carlton felt at ease and the delays didn’t bother him the way they usually did. He held onto the wheel with two hands and tapped along to the music from the radio. The ZLX DJ was playing the Wing’s “Silly Love Songs.”

His talk with Allison had lasted only a few more strained moments before she’d walked him to the door of the parlor. From the store window she’d watched him drive away; it was a habit of hers and he took it to mean that she loved him in spite of everything he’d done. And he’d done his share. The Cape visits had stopped after they’d gotten married. They tried to have a baby, but it turned out Allison was infertile. Undeterred, she began to make plans to adopt a kid and he went along. But they’d begun fighting. First, about little things—did he have to watch every damn Red Sox game? Couldn’t she cook something other than meatloaf on Tuesday nights?—but soon those skirmishes escalated into territorial wars and toward the end neither could remember what they were really fighting about. The daily battles had become a habit, like smoking. Things cracked apart for good when he starting fucking one of the other hair dressers. It was one final calculated attack, primal and devastating, like a nuclear bomb, and it ended their war. In the aftermath, with the rubble around him, he regretted it. He still couldn’t understand what had gone wrong.

He stopped off at a gas station on the outskirts of Brockton across from a strip mall and picked up a roll of antacids. As he popped one into his mouth on the way back to his car, a familiar voice called out.

“Hey Carl!” It was Mikey. He waved a loose-limbed arm and jogged toward him, his curly hair bouncing with every step.

“I saw you so I thought I’d come over,” he said. He was wearing tight jeans and a button down shirt and munching a half-moon, his favorite cookie; it was more like a small, circular cake, really, with black icing on one side and white on the other.

“Yeah, I figured that out,” Carlton said. “I’m quick on the uptake that way.”

Mikey stretched his mouth into a goofy grin, wiped a sheen of icing from his lips and shrugged. He wasn’t the sharpest nail in the toolbox, but he’d somehow figured out the meaning of life. The guy was always grinning like that.

“How was the run today?” he asked.

“Nothing special,” Carlton said. “I managed to survive without you.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I wasn’t sick, I guess you can tell that too.”

The kid had gotten his hair done and the jeans and shirt looked hours old. He smelled like cheap cologne. “You got a date or something, Mikey?”

The grin again. “We met online, her name is Adia.” He caught his breath.

“This is our third time going out. I really like her.”

“That’s great, tiger,” Carlton said. “I’m proud of you.” As far as he knew, Mikey had not gone on a date in the four years since they started working together. “What’s she do?”

“She works register at the supermarket in Brockton, near the mall. She’s a painter, too.”

“Paint? You mean, like houses?”

“Watercolors and stuff, landscapes, they’re really colorful and beautiful.”

“I bet they are.”

“She’s gonna paint a picture of me, too.” He beamed proudly.

“Yeah?”

“She says my face is unique.”

Carlton nodded involuntarily. “She sounds like a keeper, kid, she really does. What’s your game plan for tonight? Where are you taking her?”
“We’re going to a movie at Westgate,” he pointed as if they could see through the fifty story brick apartment building in their way and then three miles past that to the cinema across from the mall. “Then, well…”

He stuttered and his pale skin turned to beets.

Carlton put his hand on Mikey’s shoulder. “I’m happy for you. I really am.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Thank you for everything.”

This last phrase surprised Carlton. “If I’ve helped you in any small way over the years, then I’m glad,” he said. Mikey shuffled from foot to foot and looked like he was deciding if a hug was in order so Carlton added, “I should be on my way. Gotta do some shopping.”

The kid took another big bite of his half-moon; he was working his way around in a circle so the cookie stayed symmetrical down to the last bite. “Yeah yeah, I don’t want to keep Adia waiting.” He gave one last twisted grin and began jogging back to his car, which was still parked at the pumps.

Funny running into him, Carlton thought, as he cranked up the Ford. The kid really looked up to him and the coincidence felt like a warning shot across the bow: don’t do anything that would wipe the shine out of the kid’s eyes. But who was he living for? Mikey? Allison? He had to do the moral thing, no matter what anyone else thought. That’s what men did.
He shifted into reverse and began to back out.

Tim Pearson lived in a dilapidated all-white apartment complex that stood behind a McDonald’s. The driveway was adjacent to the restaurant and, confused by the intersection of three roads and a too-fast signal light, Carlton drove into the wrong one on his first try. A mistake like that would have normally frustrated him, but he felt purposeful and calm as he U-turned into the correct driveway.

There was a space across from the apartment building under a red maple tree; its leaves were just beginning to bud. Carlton backed in and shut off the pickup. He wasn’t sure what Pearson did to make a buck, but he knew he worked an evening shift and came home about eleven. He knew this because he’d parked here four times before; his buddy on the police force had tracked down the license plate for him, no questions asked. Both times the sight of the rapist had lit his blood on fire and he’d felt again the rage he’d felt after it happened. Even now he couldn’t stop himself from wondering “what if.” They’d gotten divorced more than five years before the attack, but what if they’d stayed married? Would she have been closing the salon by herself that night? Or maybe they would have finally adopted a child and she would have quit her job. They’d wanted a girl and Allison had already picked out a name, Sylvia, after her grandmother. Or maybe it would have been just a normal work day. She’d been attacked on a Friday and he often picked her up from work at the end of the week so they could go out to dinner and then spend time at Sully’s Bar where a few friends would gather around to listen to her tell stories (some truer than others) about her large family—twelve children—and their misadventures with an alcoholic father. There were an infinite number of “what ifs” but only one immutable past.

By 10:30 his leg started to tingle and he had to piss. He hopped out of the truck and ran behind the apartment complex to be out of sight. There was an overflowing dumpster adjacent to a row of pine trees sitting alone in the rear parking lot and he resisted the urge to pick up the stray paper bags, beer cans and condom wrappers littering the ground. People have a way of pretending the shit in their life is invisible, he thought. Garbage men didn’t have that luxury. As he stood behind the dumpster about to pee a dim light flickered on above the rear exit to the apartment door. He froze. The door opened and then slammed shut. Heavy footsteps grew louder. A plastic bag landed on top of the pile of trash and, defying the laws of physics, stayed there. The sound of a cigarette lighter: three tries. Then a long silence. Carlton closed his eyes and sipped long, quiet breaths. He remembered that his fly was still open and had to stifle a laugh. After a few minutes the heavy footsteps receded, followed by the slamming door. He exhaled. When he got back to the pickup he felt a chill and pulled on his black windbreaker.

Pearson pulled up in his Malibu at 11:30 and found a parking space near the side entrance to the building. He was patting down his jacket when Carlton stealthily got out of the pickup and approached, his fist clenched, thinking about justice.

“Lose something?” Carlton asked.

Pearson’s graying hair was long and tangled. “Oh,” he said. The criminal’s eyelids drooped closed and then reopened, first the left and then the right, as if there was a crane operator for each inside his head.
“Just my keys.” He was clutching a bag of McDonald’s.

“You need any help?”

Pearson’s head rolled to the side. “I’m good, man, thanks.” He looked craggy and thin, like beef jerky; his sweater and pants sagged off his body.

“I know you,” Carlton said.

“Oh yeah? Where from?”

Carlton took a long breath. “I’ve seen you around, I mean.”

“I’ve seen me around too.” He smiled. “You live in the building?”

“That’s not where I know you from.”

“Then where?” He didn’t seem impatient.

Carlton’s mind was racing. “I think you know my wife.”

“Oh really, where from?” He jutted his jaw.

“Here and there,” Carlton said.

“Well, that’s funny,” he said and went back to patting down his jacket.

“What’s so funny about it?”

Pearson looked up and took in Carlton for the first time. “I don’t know.

Here and there is funny.”

“Oh, yeah. That is pretty funny.” A silent beat. “Are you sure I can’t help you find anything?”

“I took my damn keys out of the ignition and I don’t know what I did with them.”

“I do that all the time,” Carlton said.

“If my head wasn’t attached to my body…”

“I know what you mean. My head would be rolling down the middle of main street.”

“Yeah, anyway.” Pearson’s eyes darted nervously. “I’ll find them, I’m sure.”

“Maybe you dropped them on the car mat,” Carlton said. “Every time I think about dropping my keys in the car, I think about this episode of Starsky and Hutch. You remember that show?”

“Yeah, sure. The two cops,” as if that narrowed it down.

“Starsky—I think it was Starsky—is about to put the key in the ignition of their striped Gran Torino but suddenly, as if God smacks his hand, drops them. I remember the close-up on his fingers as they slip out. When he reaches down to the mat he sees a wire coming out of the floor that shouldn’t be there, you know? He tells Hutch to get out of the car slowly cause it’s rigged to blow. You recall that one?”

“That was a long time ago, man.” He stopped searching for his keys and thrust his chin forward, inspecting Carlton.

“If Starsky hadn’t dropped the keys, they’d have blown up,” Carlton said.

“That always bothered me, even as a kid. Couldn’t they have figured out something better than that? The writers, I mean. I could write that shit.”

Pearson’s mouth dropped open. “Your wife knows me, you said?”

“That’s right.”

Carlton took a step forward. He didn’t realize he’d done it until Pearson dropped the bag of fast food—burgers, fries and a pink looking shake spilled out—and held up his empty hands, shoulder high. His eyelids began to flicker, and now they were in sync.

“Oh shoot, man,” Carlton said. “You dropped your shit.”

Person wiped his nose; it was running. “What do you want?” he said. “What the fuck do you want, man?”

“I don’t want anything.” Carlton attempted to affect a menacing grin.
Pearson stood as tall as he could and jutted his chest. He was not a big man and was much older than Carlton had realized.

The garbage man steadied himself. And then he was ready. “Why’d you do it?” Carlton asked

“What are you talking about?”

Carlton held his hand up to point and Pearson jumped back again. “Just get out of here, man,” Pearson said. “I don’t want any trouble.”

“Come with me,” Carlton said.

“Fuck you,” Pearson said. “Get the fuck out of here.”

Carlton didn’t budge. “Just come with me!” His voice cracked.

They walked together, Pearson in front, limping, Carlton just behind, to the rear parking lot.

“Come on, man,” Pearson pleaded. “This isn’t right. What is this about?”
Carlton stopped him on the far side of the dumpster. His puddle of pee was still there, shimmering. He pushed the criminal up against the hard metal. The trash looked even more precarious; like a feather could land on top and send the bags tumbling everywhere.

“Are you telling me you don’t know what this is?” Carlton said.

Pearson took a minute. “I’m not that way anymore,” he said. “Look at me, man. I got no juice left.”

Carlton didn’t respond. The power felt good.

“Listen,” Pearson said, changing tacks, “Listen. You don’t want to go to jail, man. It sucks there.”

Carlton wiped a stream of sweat off the side of his face with his forearm.

“You’ll get caught,” Pearson said. “Everyone gets caught. You know how many guys inside thought they had perfect plans and got caught anyways?”
Carlton squeezed his fist.

Pearson said, “You’re a good man. Lots of good men inside, I’m telling you. The good ones always regret it. You want to hear about prison? See this knee.” He pointed to his left leg. “Guy smashed it on the pavement cause I sat too close to him in the cafeteria. After rehab—I’m talking about six months of painful bullshit—this guy finds me and fucked it up again, just because.”

Carlton let the words settle. There was something satisfying about the thought of Pearson getting his knee destroyed. Then, suddenly, Carlton laughed. He wasn’t sure why.

Pearson held his hands in front of his chest, as if he were praying. “What’s so funny? What is it? You think this is funny?”

“Shut up,” Carlton barked.

The criminal stopped babbling, but desperately shook his head back and forth.

Carlton stepped forward and took hold of Pearson’s skull.

“I should kill you and toss your body right up there,” Carlton said, his voice tight, pointing to the impossibly unstable mountain of garbage.
“Right on top.”

Pearson craned his neck. “Come on man.”

“How many were there?”

“I don’t know.”

The criminal clamped his eyes closed. He was shaking. “Come on,” Pearson said, the words bursting free. “Come on, man, don’t do this. My wife’s right in there, man. She’s waiting for me. My wife, man.”

The garbage man remembered one of his favorite days with Allison. She’d lived her entire life in eastern Massachusetts without visiting Fenway Park before she met Carlton. After they’d been dating a few weeks he announced, “I’m taking you to a game. This travesty has to end!” It was an overcast spring day and cold. They sat in right field and he pointed out all the famous landmarks: the green monster, the red seat where Ted Williams hit his 502 foot homerun, the dugout where the Red Sox players milled about. Carlton remembered huddling together for warmth and sharing a box of popcorn and a hot dog. It had always been a perfect memory. But now he remembered the rest of it. Allison shivering and wanting to split in the seventh inning. “Leaving early’s for tourists,” he’d said. By the end her teeth were chattering and they began to argue. It was their first. “Don’t ever do this again, do you understand?” she said. He couldn’t remember how he responded to that.

Carlton released his grip and took a step back.
Pearson, his eyes still closed, sniffled, but he wasn’t crying. “Please,” he said. “Please.”

“What’s your wife do?” Carlton asked.
Pearson opened his eyes. “She’s a retired teacher. Junior high science.”

“That’s a good job. She must be smart.”

“She’s much smarter than me.”

Carlton pointed up to the apartment building. “Does she know about you?”

“No, man.”

Carlton felt like he should make some kind of long speech or issue a warning but instead he said, “Get up there yourself.”

“What?”

“Climb up there with the garbage where you belong.”

Pearson blinked. “Fine,” he said. “Fine.” But as soon as he tried to boost himself up, the trash—bags and cigarette butts and empty beer cans—tumbled down around him. “Shit.”

Carlton took another step back. His hand was shaking. “You know something, you’re not worth it. I’m gonna call the police. Let them handle this. That’s what we should have done from the beginning.”

“Don’t do that. I told you, I’m done, man. Prison…” He trailed off.
The two men stared at one another. “You’re lucky that’s all I’m gonna do,” Carlton said.

Pearson’s eyes were desperate. “Don’t, man. Come on.”

Carlton staggered back to his pickup. Once there, he tried to steady his hands against the steering wheel. He started the truck.

As he drove out of the lot, Pearson was stumbling around the corner. His pink milkshake was streaming down the driveway.

With rush hour past, the streets were clear on the drive back to Stoughton. The sky suddenly spat a few fat raindrops onto the windshield, promising a storm, but it was only a passing cloud and the air dried up. At a stop light, a car pulled up behind him and Carlton caught a glimpse of himself in the rear view mirror, his eyes wet and tired. The urge to explode the anger wound up inside his gut hadn’t fully diminished, but he felt the comfort of air moving in and out of his lungs. Why was everything so complicated? Why couldn’t there be a simple solution—a button he could push—for his life? He was anxious to call the cops and get it over with.

Maybe that would make everything right.
At the next intersection, he gripped the steering wheel and turned left instead of right. He wasn’t sure why, but he wanted to see their old house—a young couple lived there now—at night. He cleared his mind as he drove the car down the dimly lit roads.

It was a two-story Colonial with an attached two-car garage; a basketball hoop stood alone on an extension of the driveway. A small chandelier illuminated the living room from within. Carlton got out of the pickup and leaned against the truck door. A slight breeze tousled his hair. He remembered the young couple who lived there now and wondered what was going on inside the house. Both were tall, thin and good looking and, from what he’d seen of their pressed suits and black heels, both worked. But perhaps something was going on beneath the façade, he thought, an ugly insect burrowing into their manicured lawn. Were they arguing? Or maybe it was one of their good nights and they were sleeping side by side in the bedroom. Carlton wished he could rewind his life and start again from a place where everything had been good.

He pulled out his cell phone and held the cold piece of electronics for a moment, unsure. Then he pressed the numbers.

As the phone on the other side rang, he studied the house. He pictured a young girl old enough to shoot baskets, playing one on one with her father. Her mother watches from the stairs that lead to the front door, proud. The girl has nothing to fear; her life would be a long, smooth road that stretched into an unencumbered future. It was a fantasy. Reality was harder; it called for difficult decisions.

A woman’s voice answered the phone. “What the hell do you want at this hour?” Allison asked.

“Nothing much,” he answered. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

 
 
Jonathan Kravetz’ plays have been produced in New York, Dallas and Brighton, England. He holds an MFA from Queens College. His short story, “Conch,” was named the fiction category winner for the Fall 2017 issue of Cardinal Sins. His short story, “Another Alien Invasion,” was published this by All The Sins. Another short story, “The David,” was turned into a podcast by Welltoldtales.com. His fiction has been published in Plasmotica and his essay, “The Shawshank Redemption Redemption,” in Drunk Monkeys.

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