Garbage Men

Drawtober -- or "Inktober" -- is back! My friend, Bryce Huff, is creating drawings from the Drawtober/Inktober prompts provided by DeviantArt. Once again, for each of his drawings, I'm going to attempt to write a short story (emphasis on the word "short," although my definition of that word is not necessarily other people's idea of short). I'm starting with Day 3 because I also don't understand numbers, apparently. Or logic. Or order. Chaos rules! Day 3's prompt: "Collect." 

Art by Bryce Huff

The garbage men work at night. The tall one has been on the job longer. His shoulders are slumped and his back hunched, as if he has spent the last decade hoisting the brimming trashcans and dumpsters himself, instead of using the truck's hydraulic arms.

The new garbage man is short, but muscular. His hands, in particular, look very strong. Until now, his hands have been his most valuable tool. Tonight, he only uses them to press a button, steer the wheel. Signal to his partner.

He looks into the sideview mirror to see the tall garbage man wave, then eases the truck forward to the next house.

They creep through the neighborhood in this way until the new garbage man sees something different in the sideview. The tall one slashes a single finger across his throat.

"What've you got?" the new one says after he has cut the engine and lowered himself from the truck's cab.

Garbage. Bags of it, each of them knotted at the top. The tall garbage man produces a switchblade and slices one open.

"You see?" he asks his protégé.

At first, the new garbage man doesn't. He plunges a hand into the trash -- greasy fast food containers, blackened banana peels, twists of used Kleenex, toenail clippings, wads of hair -- then the tall one shakes his head. The new one takes his hand out again, wipes it on the leg of his coveralls, then regards the trash for a minute more. Then he says, "I see."

Wordlessly, he follows the tall one to the front door of the house where the trash belongs. It's a modest place. A perfect square with a triangle roof, like a child's drawing of a house. A set of stairs leading to a screenless front door.

They do not knock.

Inside, dishes are piled in the sink. More fast food containers, the kind that come with a toy, strewn across the counter. The television is on. Infomercial. The computer is on, too. Images that make the tall garbage man turn away. That make the new one's mouth fill with the taste of vomit. He chokes it down.

The first bedroom is a child's. Action figures, train set, dolls arranged around a tiny table, waiting on tea. Empty bed.

The second bedroom is the one they came for.

The man is asleep. He looks no different than any other man. His neighbors will say that he was friendly, but quiet. Kept to himself.

The new garbage man waits for the tall one to do what they came to do. Instead, the tall one takes out his knife again and offers it to the new one.

The new garbage man hesitates, then shakes his head. Wraps his hands around the man's neck. The man's eyes open; his mouth pulls at the air like a fish's. The new garbage man is patient -- he has to be, for this kind of work -- and watches the whites of the eyes go red as the vessels in them burst.

Outside, they light cigarettes.

"You understand?" the tall garbage man asks.

The new one inhales. Up the block, the houses are dark, the windows blank. Each one holds secrets. Tonight he will learn them. A woman is having an affair. A child wet the bed, hid the sheets from his mother. A teenager cheated on a test. A girl has a crush on her teacher. A man is stealing from his employer. Most secrets will be uncovered, given enough time. Or they will vanish without ever being shared. Some will be kept for lifetimes.

Others need a reckoning.

The new garbage man flicks the butt of his cigarette to the pavement. Grinds it out with a heel. He thinks of the blood in the eyes. The toys in the empty room.

Says, "I understand."