A little Thanksgiving gift. I give you a short story. I’m not trained to write fiction. But I see lots of stories, so I wanted to try.
The Trash Man
The trash rose all around Caleb, who watched it with constant fascination. Bed-frames and plastic bags, tires and toy-chests, mirrors and dry-wall and everything small and large. When he wasn’t helping someone unload, or directing a truck to the correct pile, he sat in his office, at his desk, watching the mountain of garbage that rose every year, higher and higher. The desk where he sat was neat, with no hint of disarray, as if in revolt against the chaos outside.
Pencils and pens were all in the right places, though the office was so small that any extra things, any bits of trash in his own space would soon have overwhelmed him. So, the waste-bucket sat always empty, purged every day. The few books on the shelves were well aligned, and it had been agreed five years before that when all the work was done, he could read. For his manager, a man who would read was at least better than most, who wanted to have computers and computer games, and who invariably spent their days using the office computer to find porn sites, where they ignored their work until they had to be fired.
Caleb was a find, and Richard Delmore knew it the minute he hired him; his suspicions confirmed every time he visited the tidy office beside the mountains of trash.
‘Busy day, Caleb?’
‘Yes sir, 50 private vehicles and 5 trucks from that new construction site on Highway 97. Amazing, sir, what gets thrown away’.
‘Yeah, Caleb, it is’.
This was what amused Richard. That Caleb stood and watched the garbage fall. Something about it entranced him. Richard had checked; the boy was no simpleton, no treasure hunter. Unlike too many of his past (and present employees), he had no criminal record. He could have done anything; his parents still tormented him because he hadn’t gone to college. ‘It isn’t time’ he told them, and that was five years ago. Five years and a million tons of garbage that the boy had watched slide by, rain or shine; a million tons of smells the boy had endured. And always, the office was as neat as a pin, and when the day was over, Richard would find Caleb reading something that he himself would never imagine human beings read. At least, not anything they would read at a land-fill. Caleb read history and physics, he read the Bible and theology. He read anything that he could find. He read books he found being thrown in the trash, and more than once took them home after expressing gratitude to his employer. ‘Mr. Delmore, do you know that someone almost threw away an entire collection of Greek classics today? If you don’t mind, I’ll take them home.’ His employer would hand him his check every two weeks and shake his head.
‘Son, if you find something you want, you remember to take it, alright?’
‘Yes sir, I will. I’m still looking.’ He always said that. And when he said it, he looked away, as if the object of his quest were an image he could call up, but never reach. And Richard, as well as the boy, wondered what he meant. And still he showed up day after day, in his gray/blue work-clothes, his name on the left chest, to help care for the garbage.
Roxanne lived in a beautiful home, in a suburb of Charlotte. Her home, her education, her family, all spoke of elegance and grace. Though her family had desired for her to study art, or literature, as her cousins in Virginia and New York had whiled away their college years, she insisted on counseling. In truth, they did not care what Roxanne Blackwell studied, for she was (in essence if not in fact) betrothed to a family friend. Sometime in college the family introduced them, as if introducing an ambush and pretending it were unplanned. You know Martin, don’t you? His father and your father were fraternity brothers. Us old folks will have a few drinks, you kids play some tennis or take a walk.
Roxanne was initially overwhelmed. The young man before her was perfectly polished. His brown hair was shaped like an aspiring Senator, though an aspiring Duke University surgery professor was more on his path. ‘My father and mother said you were beautiful. They were right.’ He was genteel and kind. ‘My father and mother said we were making barbecue…I have never heard of you, Martin. I’m sorry if that’s rude.’
‘Hardly. Parents are all conspirators, and each has his or her specialty. Mine is the calculated assault, yours the sneak attack. Do you want to take a walk?’ She assented, and looped her slender arm in his. They walked around the spacious lawn and chatted the evening away. And Roxanne was, if not in love, certainly intrigued.
In one year, filled with the stuff of princess stories and furtive diary entries, she had accepted his ring. Her mother encouraged her to marry as soon as possible, for Martin was several years her senior, and set to begin residency in Durham. It was well known that his training would be nightmarish. ‘He’ll need you nearby, Roxie, to help him. To encourage him.’
‘Mother, I have only one more year and I’ll have my degree. I don’t want to change schools.’
‘Well, dearest, you don’t want this one to slip a way. You do know how predatory women can be in hospitals. Is that what you want?’
‘No, I love him, but I want to be able to help…’
Her mother turned red. ‘You can’t help her, though I love you for wanting to. Your sister is in the hands of the Almighty, and your counseling or psychology or whatever will never bring her back. She has chosen her life and she is, by her own desire, dead to us. Do you understand that, beautiful daughter?’
‘Mother, Haley is beautiful. She just needs, something, she needs…’
‘Stop it. She needs something she will never find and she will never allow me, or you with your degree, to help her.’
‘I can’t give up on her, mother, I can’t. And for some reason, my education is part of it. I don’t know how. But Martin will have to spend a year without me; you do know I’ll only see him about every third day anyhow, don’t you?’
‘Yes, dear, but I know he’ll be seeing the charge nurse every day. Don’t be stupid and throw your life on the garbage pile the way your sister threw hers. Use your brain.’
‘I have. And I do.’ She said to her mother, who spun and left the room. And after she had gone, Roxanne whispered to herself, and to God and to Haley who would not hear, ‘she’s not trash, she’s my sister.’
Mrs. Rabun, Caleb’s mother, sat in her living room, drinking coffee. Hers was a neat house, a larger version of her son’s office, where her husband Henry, Caleb’s father, was allowed to live and have a few things. There was nothing here about garbage or waste, nothing about disturbing smells or sights. Mrs. Joanna Rabun was a woman of faith and breeding. And on the walls around her were photos of the family from which she had come, and of which Caleb was the latest generation.
‘I swear, I don’t understand. I think sometimes he’s crazy. That something is wrong with him. I made him see a counselor before he took that ridiculous county job. And the counselor said he was the most sane young man his age he had ever known! Anna, he had a college scholarship to Emory and turned it down! Now he unloads trash all day!’ Her eyes turned red, and she dabbed them with a tissue.
‘Well, maybe it’s a kind of rebellion. You know, my Cassie left for college and had a tattoo in one week. They all make a mark of their own!’
‘I’d pay for his tattoo if he’d go to college.’
‘My brother Dan went to college when he was forty, after the army. He’s doing fine. I’m sure Caleb will find his way. Just be patient.’
‘Be patient. While my son is a trash man. Listen to me, my grandfather was a missionary, and my grandmother a teacher in the finest girl’s school in Nashville. Henry’s grandfather was a Colonel in the Marine Corps and won the Silver Star. Henry’s own father was an evangelist who preached to probably 500,000 people in his life, and my own father owned ten cotton mills by the time he retired. We (and here she pointed to her own chest, poking herself in anger) are people of accomplishment. And none of us, do you hear me, none of us…not one of us was a trash collector! This is killing me.’
Anna hung her head, reproached by her friend, and received with humility the unspoken reminder that her own family had worked for Joanna’s father for decades. ‘I’m so sorry. You’re right, I know. My heart would be broken too.’ She reserved for herself the fact that her daughter Cassie was starting law-school at Washington and Lee, fairy tattoo and all. Take that you self-righteous hag, she said and smiled to herself.
Caleb stood by the latest truck of trash. Mostly household garbage; great plastic bags of empty food containers and rotting egg shells, bags of bacon grease and paper-towel rolls. Worn and torn clothes and broken toys. Bags spilled open sometimes. He had cleaned them up, and always felt like he was going through human lives, like a voyeur. Sometimes, he pretended he was investigating a crime. TSI! Trash scene investigator! It reminded him of why he was here. He felt like he had something to find.
No one understood that; sometimes, he didn’t get it himself.
It wasn’t as if his dream had been to work here, but he needed to. The day he saw the job advertised, the summer before he was to go off to Atlanta to become the latest, greatest member of the Rabun clan, he knew it. The feeling hit him, and he didn’t feel a need to fight it. Maybe he was just afraid of school, he thought at first. But he had never struggled to learn. He had always loved to learn. That wasn’t it. There was something more. And so he applied on a whim, thinking it might be a job he could do for the summer. He was hired, and Mr. Delmore told him he could leave in the fall. But he soon began to realize he was looking for something, but didn’t know what. So he wrote to Emory, a nice, apologetic letter, and declined. His mother wept, and his father stormed out. They sent the pastor to pray with him, and his sister to talk to him. They asked his friends to convince him. He wouldn’t budge. Hidden in the piles of old clothes and night stands, broken lamps and worn shoes, was something. So his mother and father told him he was on his own. It didn’t matter. He had a job, and he asked his family for nothing. He had a small apartment, and he paid his rent. He had insurance and could pay for his car. And even though he wasn’t at school, he could read, and he did read, in between searching for something unknown. And every night, before leaving, he stood by mountains of things deemed worthless, and prayed in his heart to find the thing for which he ached, and for which he had placed his life on interminable hold.
People came and went and Caleb, who had lived a life of relative ease and wealth, came to know them all. Their lives were displayed in the contents of their vehicles, whether the beds of trucks, where prosperous contractors building lake houses brought construction site refuse, or in the tidy trunks of widows who brought small bags of garbage while Pekingese dogs yapped in the back seat. He saw Mrs. Curtis bring the belongings of Mr. Curtis, who had decided to sleep with Mrs. Atchley. She stormed over and said, ‘Caleb? I thought you went to Emory?’
‘Plans changed a little ma’am. Can I help you?’
‘You can help me get rid of my cheating S.O.B. husband’s things. He moved to California and won’t be back’.
So Caleb took golf clubs and gun racks, running shoes and a stereo, and asked if he could give them away, instead of throw them onto the pile of garbage.
‘Son, I don’t care if you sell them. I just want his things out of my house!’
And Caleb put them in the building his employer had allowed him to pay for, and where he stored the salvageable things that came through; high-chairs and playpens, tree-stands and picnic tables. The place he allowed people to browse for things they might need. ‘Caleb’s discount house,’ his co-workers called it. And in the last box she handed him were books. ‘Can I have these?’
‘Absolutely. Now, you read those books and remember that you need to go to college.’
‘Yes ma’am. As soon as I find something.’ She turned her head and said, ‘You’re odd, but you’re a good boy.’ You know, you’ve broken your mother’s heart.’ She said it in the off-hand way that only one Georgia woman can say to another. It said, ‘I like you, but you are not right.’ She climbed into her Yukon and drove away in a cloud of summer dust, bent on further revenge and contemplating how to bring a pontoon boat to the land-fill under cover of night and set it on fire..
But he saw other things. Poor families with nothing; comfortable families with healthy, happy children. Old lonely men cleaning house, it turned out, before moving away to be with children or grandchildren. He saw grieving families and eager Mexican men working to pay for dresses for their daughter’s Quincenero parties. He realized, as the bags of trash passed by, and the men and women paraded before him, that he had been given a gift his friends in their dorm rooms and libraries, fraternity parties and ski trips never would have.
He watched a load of old wood being pulled out of a dump truck. ‘Renovating that big house on Cherokee Mountain Road. You know the one, don’t you boy?’
‘Yes sir. Lots of old wood, there. How old?’
‘Maybe 150 years,’ said the old man who was huffing in the heat of the sun, pulling rotten timbers and throwing them down into the mass of garbage, so that in the evening the bulldozers could turn it all under and move it all around. That was the thing. Caleb saw the things come in, and knew that the next morning, they’d be moved elsewhere in the piles, to make room for more.
As the last timber went across, he saw the scribbles on it and said, ‘I’ll get this one!’ The old man thanked him and climbed back into his truck cab. And on the side of the timber, which had clearly been inside a house, was a faint series of notches. As he looked at it, Caleb realized it was a record of a child’s growth. Tiny dates were carved there. The last one said June, ’08. June 1908. Caleb touched it and wondered. He tried to feel and hear the memories of it. The beam, that had sat in a corner, did not go into the trash pile. But it went into the back corner of ‘Caleb’s discount house’. He wondered if he had been sent here to find just that; but he felt no release from his quest.
The next day his sister Cecilia came by to visit, and brought him lunch from the Ingles grocery store. Cecilia was always his confidant, who loved him and never questioned his decisions. She believed he was too bright not to be correct about everything; a conviction he could not accept, but which he accepted from her as a sign of love. Tanned and lithe, Cecilia was a day at the beach, embodied in a woman.
She hugged him, sat down and said, ‘Mother is coming. Be on guard’.
‘What do you mean?’
‘She’s found a new preacher. He’s going to lay it on hard. I’m staying here with you.’ Sure enough, mother pulled up in her sensible sedan and stepped out, looked around with disgust at the mountains of trash, and waited as a man in a suit jacket, carrying a Bible, walked with her to the door of the office building. No one was there in the midday heat, so there was time for a visit. Cecilia opened the door.
‘What are you doing here, young lady?’ Her mother asked, annoyed.
‘Why, I’m wasting my life, haven’t you heard?’
It was the joke that she and Caleb shared. Cecilia had wasted her life already, at age 26, according to mother. She had wasted it by teaching dance when she could be serving mankind. Cecilia once told her that she had served, personally, a large portion of mankind, and mother told her it was nothing to be proud of, to be easy. But in truth, Cecilia’s dance students were the pride of the county, and were becoming known all over South Carolina. But to mother, daughter of greatness, it wasn’t enough. She wiped at her daughter’s lipstick and turned to her wayward son.
‘Dear, this is Reverend Harwood. Reverend, this is my daughter Cecilia. When she was a little girl, she wanted to be a missionary. Now she teaches dance.’
‘It’s a pleasure, Cecilia,’ said the Reverend, who was younger than she or Caleb had expected.
Caleb rose to kiss his mother’s cheek. ‘Reverend, I’m Caleb. What brings you here with my dear mother? Cecilia and I were just having a little lunch. Can we offer you something? Oh, before I forget, I just retrieved a beautiful pine book-shelf from the truck of a retiree. You probably need a book-shelf, don’t you pastor? By the way, have you read the biography of St. Paul, by A.N. Wilson?’
His eyes widened at the suggestion of a bookshelf, and he smiled at the book recommendation. ‘Well no, but I’m sure it’s excellent. He’s a wonderful writer…’
Mrs. Rabun coughed, slightly. ‘Still,’ he said, ‘your mother asked me to come and meet you, and frankly, to try to encourage you. It sounds like you’re a talented young man. Not many men get scholarships to major universities. I’ll be blunt. The devil wants to keep you from serving the Lord. He wants you to use your talents, just like your ancestors did. You know the parable of the talents, don’t you?’
‘I do. But I’m looking for something, and something tells me it’s here. I have, Reverend…’ and here he scooted his chair across to look the man in the eye, ‘I have the peace that passeth understanding. Have you ever felt it? Ever in your short life?’
‘Well, I think that, once I, when I was in seminary, I….’ he stumbled to find a memory of something sublime (in a vocation he had chosen as some chose plumbing), some moment of utter rest and purpose, and he faltered. ‘just remember to honor your father and mother. God gave them wisdom so that they could guide you, and they think you’ve lost your way. Come down to my office sometime, and we’ll talk about it.’
Caleb was patient, and had endured this no less than ten times with ten different psychologists, counselors and pastors. His mind was not swayed by it; he had no guilt or remorse. He was looking, and until he found it, he would stay. ‘I’ll be right back’. He brought into the office the piece of timber with the date and the notches. ‘Reverend, not all trash is trash, you know? Even Jesus would have agreed, since he was friends with lots of folks we’d call trash now. Right?’ The young pastor ran his hands over the wooden notches, and tried not to look at Caleb’s sister who had let a strap of her top fall down and who was fanning herself and looking at him, as if assessing his potential for temptation.
Reverend Harwood smiled and said, ‘Yes, you’re right.’ Mrs. Rabun huffed and stood. She pulled her daughter’s top back in order, kissed her, kissed Caleb and walked out. The Reverend smiled back at the siblings and nodded. ‘You’re right’. Reverend Harwood was not invited back by Mrs. Rabun, but when he brought his trash out, he often sat and talked with Caleb, and found him as exceptional as everyone said. And he knew, in his own heart, that Caleb had a mission. And he decided to protect him as much as possible, for he knew that the mission was a great one, and that it revolved around a small mountain-chain of garbage. And that perhaps, his job was to uncover a talent long buried in garbage by someone else.
Roxanne kissed Martin goodbye, and helped him move into his apartment and buy the things he would need to survive; sheets he would never see and Ramen noodles for those rare evenings when he could eat at home before collapsing on the bed, in order to rise again at 4:30 am the next day. ‘I’m sorry I won’t be here, Marty, I’m proud of you. You’re amazing, like some big, Southern Ken Doll. Except of course, you have…’
‘I’m happy you noticed, my dear Roxie. I’ll miss you. And as often as I can, I’ll call. The first two months, well you know how they say things go here. Dr. Sabiston is still a force of nature. I love you.’
‘Don’t leave me for a nurse; mother warned me.’ They laughed and reminisced, promising one another beautiful times and beautiful things in the future. She drove home. It wasn’t far, from Charlotte to Durham. But with every mile, she felt her fiancee disappear in more than distance and time. And in her dreams, Haley wept and called to her.
The year went on. Caleb watched as tires and bedspreads, old computers and photo-frames, toy castles and flattened pillows came and were deposited in the vast graveyard of human belongings. He often wondered if things took on life, or took on the memories of the people who used them. Though trash was what he managed, it became painful to watch things being thrown out. He wondered how many people in the world would have used these things far longer than their owners had. He still rescued a few items. A toy that reminded him of his childhood; a chair someone might use. He stored them in his building, and every now and then he took them to the Salvation Army store, or to Goodwill. He always left the beam with the notches, however. He was meant to find it, and finally took it to his small apartment. He touched it softly now and then.
Winter came; the mountains of trash smelled less, though the wind blew more. In the mornings, puddles of mud were sometimes frozen, and items sticking out of the mud with ice-crystals on them, surrounded by rising steam in the morning all gave an impression of something from Dante,, who would not look at him.
One morning, as day broke on the image of hell that the dump sometimes seemed to portray, a broken down old Dodge truck, well-worn, pulled up to the edge. A woman climbed out; she was younger than the trash-man, she was swollen with pregnancy, and her husband, or boyfriend, was angry. A few times, Caleb wondered if the man were a thief, since he was throwing out things that seemed too new.
They came weekly after the first day, when the young woman had seemed to Caleb the saddest, most broken item in the entire world; visiting a trash heap because that was where broken things go, drawn inexorably to their resting place.
She did not appear bruised or beaten, for those marks would have suggested at least attention. She appeared a prisoner of disdain.
The young wife, or girlfriend, would help unload things. She would drag out drapes or old rugs, boxes of shoes or a printer. Every time he saw her, her belly was swollen more, maybe too much. Caleb offered to help, but the man said, ‘She’s fine!’ Which meant, in Southern, ‘Stay away from my woman’. Her eyes were desperate, but said ‘thank you for trying,’ in a well-spoken language of sorrow They also said, ‘you can’t help me. Can you?’
Once, when she slipped, her skinny, disheveled husband or boyfriend (or pimp) called out, ‘Roxie, you stupid bitch, get in the truck!’
Caleb looked reached her first to help her up, and the man rushed towards him, standing at his full height, threatening and clenching his fists. Caleb stood as well, and was a head taller, a foot wider and more massive from hard work. It was a redneck standoff for a moment, when the man lifted her and backed away, almost hurling her in the truck.
Caleb wondered if he were here to find her, since he loved stories and she was a tragic one, waiting to be read, and over which he could weep from merely glancing at the cover.
He watched the mountains of trash change shape. There was a snow-fall in February, so heavy that all the piles were covered, and he could pretend that he worked in the mountains of North Carolina, or in the West. At least until the next pile of garbage came late in the morning, and until the next day when, like clockwork, the temperature rose to 75 and the mountains of snow became wet trash, wet piles of things formerly useful or meaningful or at least with purpose. The man and woman came and went again, and her eyes were red from crying. Caleb saw what they unloaded; metal pipes and pots, bits of tubing, empty medication bottles that fell from the boxes they threw into the pile of trash. The man had sores on his face and arms; he looked worse every time. His wife grew heavy, her body and her heart, as far as he could tell. Caleb did not want to touch the things they brought, except for one. One day, the man threw a child’s high-chair into the pile, as the woman screamed in the car and held her hands. After they were gone, he climbed down, over the cross ties and into the mud full of plastic wrappers and soda cans, food boxes and grocery bags. He pulled the chair out. It was dented a little but not too much. He put it into his building after he hosed the mud from it. When he touched it, he felt pain. Six years here to find a high chair seemed unlikely. But it was connected. He did not know how.
It was no surprise to anyone, especially Roxanne Blackwell, that half a year into residency, her fiancee broke their engagement. Duke had long taken pride in the divorce rate of its residents; but Martin was too independent to follow the crowd. It was proximity, and Roxanne had known it when she first moved him into his room and left. Love, to be useful to the struggling, and to avoid degenerating into the toxicity of loneliness and frustration, required proximity. Love required that they be together, and she had refused that idea on her own, the previous year, hoping somehow to reach her lost sister, to change her, to heal and redeem her. Martin left her for a woman who worked for the Duke Foundation. She was a fundr-raiser, and in truth, her pedigree was far more impressive for Martin’s life than hers had been. And she knew the drill of life at that esteemed place of learning. To top it all off, Katherine called and elegantly apologized to Roxanne, and sounded genuinely sorry.
Roxie wept in her mother’s arms, but her mother could not know that she wept from relief as much as from hurt. She had loved the perfect man, the dream of debutantes across the South. But she had someplace else to be.
‘Well dear, I’m not going to say I told you so. I’m sure there’s someone else out there for you. An administrator! Who saw that one coming! At least it wasn’t some therapist or secretary that humiliated you!’
Cecilia came by to see Caleb one day with her new boyfriend; the Reverend Harwood. He was not married, it turned out. She was holding his hand, and beaming. The good pastor had never before dated a dancer, much less one quite like Cecilia, it seemed. Caleb laughed at that. Maybe, he was here so that these two would find each other. That would be funny. That would be perfect, in fact, for he loved his sister more than even she realized. If he had delayed his life, or simply taken an entirely different path merely to give her happiness through the fractal geometry of unexpected connections, well then, God does work in odd ways, thought the trash man, as he had come to call himself. ‘Mother and father are fighting. Father says to leave you alone, you’ll be fine. Mother says you’re off your rocker.’
‘You should see what I see, guys. I see so much. I see what people love and don’t love, and need and don’t need, and the way their eyes look day after day. It’s amazing’.
‘You would make a great preacher,’ the reverend said, smiling; ‘better than me.’
‘Hush!’ Cecilia reprimanded her new love ‘You’re amazing. You make me want to repent of all the fun I had until I met you. You might make me a scandalous preacher’s wife one day, you know!’ The holy man blushed and turned to Caleb.
‘I pray every day that you find what you seek. I feel like I’m part of the quest. Is that odd? You’re kind of an axle, and we’re all moving around you. I even have my parishioners praying for you…the ones that aren’t praying for you because your mother asked them to pray you back to college. Do you feel it? Do you feel your calling now?’
‘I don’t know what I am or what I feel anymore. I’m just here, watching it all get thrown away, along with the people.’ He told them about the man and woman, his eyes, her eyes, and the high-chair. They chatted about it all, the pastor shook his hand more warmly than ever, like a brother. Cecilia kissed him and they left him a basket of food for later. Caleb ate in silence, reading a novel that had once belonged to Mr. Curtis, who had returned to his wife after Mrs. Atchley decided she was a lesbian.
He directed some cars, and pointed, telling them where to put things. Six years in the trash piles, and suddenly, he didn’t want to touch anything. He didn’t want to consider anything. He wanted an answer.
He finished the day, a cool, windy mid-March evening. The sun hinted, on the horizon, that soon pools would open, and schools would graduate hopeful students, the flowers would bloom and the piles of garbage would smell incredibly bad, at least to those not accustomed to their bouquet. A truck he had never seen pulled up and a man threw a rug and some bags into the piles of paper and wood, amidst the hills of mud, empty cigarette cartons and broken wine bottles. The truck spun it’s wheels, flinging mud and left, while it’s driver, in sun-glasses, strained to look away. He looked vaguely like someone he had seen before, but his hood covered him too well.
Caleb gathered his things, and as the sun set, went to his car to leave. Wondering what to do next, he opened the car door and heard a sound as faint as a whimper. He knew all the sounds of the place; the scratch of rats, the howl of coyotes. He knew the sound of pressurized cans exploding and of unbalanced boxes of worthless papers falling down hillsides of refuse. This sound was not any of those, nor was it a cat or dog, a bird or the dying, desperate, final sound of an electronic toy. It was alive. He stood on the edge and listened, and there was the whimper again. And with it, a cry, and more than a cry.
It hit him like a hammer, like thunder and lightning, like a vision of an angel; like God speaking to Moses. He jumped into the mess of empty worthless things, of items discarded, of material dead for lack of human connection. He jumped down, next to the rug and the bag, and opening the bag he found two newborn babies. Two blood covered infants, a boy and a girl. They were shivering, they were blue, but they were breathing and whimpering and beginning to cry as loudly as they could. Caleb snatched them up and held them inside his coat, which immediately was covered in blood and fluid, and in what little bits of urine they could make. He took them to the office and turned up the heat, sitting with them in his coat as he called 911. He rocked them, and cried, with grief that someone would do this, with joy that his mission was complete. He knew that another hour in the spring night and they would have died. The would have been covered up in the mountains of nothing, forgotten forever when the bulldozer pushed them into the rest of the things thrown away; that they would never be seen again until the resurrection.
As he waited, he knew what lay in the rug. He heard the ambulance in the distance. So, setting the now warm infants on his coat, the one his mother had purchased for him to wear to university, he walked into the cold air and climbed down to the rolled up rug. Opening it, he found her, her sad eyes blank, saying, ‘You couldn’t help me; help them. And remember me.’ The hole in her temple obvious.
It took a few minutes to explain the blood, on him, on the babies, and to show that it was not the same blood as the blood on their mother, who lay waiting for a proper examination and burial, in a grave Caleb Rabun would purchase himself, with money he had earned by working here. But at least she would not rest in that vast mountain of waste.
It took a few hours for the law to find the pock-skinned man, who had discarded his meth lab, his wife’s only hope of a future with her little ones which was embodied in the form of a high chair, then his wife, children and himself. He was as dead as the woman in the rug, from the same pistol.
At the hospital, Cecilia ran in and listened to the story, along with her boyfriend, along with mother and father. She wept out-loud, her mascara streaming down her face and covering the good pastor’s coat jacket as he held her between sobs. Mother saw the babies in the nursery, alive, clean and perfect.
She cried quietly as she leaned against the glass. ‘If you had listened to me…they’d be…’ she choked back a hard sob, as her daughter pulled her close. ‘You found it, didn’t you. You found what you were looking for. I’m so sorry…’
‘Yeah, I did. Mama, I found it. I mean, I found them’
Roxanne was finishing her senior project, studying and writing in her apartment when the call came. It was her mother, who despite her anger, despite the frozen surface with which she had covered her mother’s heart, screamed into the phone. It was Haley. Roxie dropped the phone, grabbed a bag and left, driving through tears to a small town in North Georgia.
Richard Delmore never found another trash man as good as Caleb. Caleb himself moved on. The children had family; an aunt and grandmother and grandfather. He was sad; he felt he was meant to raise them himself. Their father, whom Caleb had wanted to confront (and thankfully had not), was wanted in five states, and either he was orphaned or no one would admit any connection to him. His parole officer, finally located in Texas, said ‘good riddance to bad rubbish…thanks for the call.’
On his last day at the dump, Caleb packed up the few treasures he had collected. His college application was in order, and he was about to start; his apartment in Atlanta was waiting. The children had been with his mother and sister, but their aunt was coming to take them home. They were the greatest treasure he had ever found; they were the reason he haunted the land-fill so long, enduring the humiliation of family, the punishment of words, of being (for a while) a disappointment. They were the reason, and their mother, who he was finally able to help after all.
As he drove out the gate, a car pulled up; an expensive sedan, clean and sleek. As a young woman stepped from the driver’s seat, Caleb also stepped out and apologized. ‘We’re closing, sorry. Open again at 8 am.’
‘Are you Caleb? Are you the one who found my, who found the children?’
‘Yes ma’am,’ he wiped his hand and offered it.
‘I’m Roxanne Blackwell. Haley was my sister. And she looked away, with a hand to her mouth.’
‘I’m sorry. I wish I could have known her, or helped her.’
‘Oh, you did,’ she said, and displayed the smile that well-bred, broken women can always muster when protocol demands.
I’m here for the children, you know. But would you talk to me a while?’
Roxanne felt something here. She saw before her the reason for every delay, the purpose behind her hesitations, the man who was the reason for her relief at her broken, perfect engagement.
‘I’d love to. Do you like roadside cafe’s?’
‘Yes, but my mother often warned me of men who do.’
Caleb later was often seen on the campus of Emory University, with two children, beautiful and devoted, running along behind him as he moved with grace through college and graduate school, and where he became (as all expected) a faculty member loved by all.
He married a gentle, elegant woman who lived to comfort and be comforted. Both of them bore the lovely scars of something larger than themselves; of a fire that had swept over them and through them. She wept, like everyone did, when they recalled the story that was their own epic. And they both were ever silent when taking out the trash; wondering how anything could be called trash in their lives again.
And she knew she, too, she had found her place and her calling with the trash-man, turned academic.
In their apartment, in Buckhead, the heights of the children were measured on an old piece of lumber, with June,’08 at the top of one side; their progress through the years marked on the blank faces of age-worn oak, as precious to Caleb as mahogany.
A highchair, slightly scuffed, sat in the corner long after they were too old to use it.
copyright 2011 Edwin Leap