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April 15, 2024

The Trash Pickers

By Joseph Lewis

As the late summer sun cooked the rotten innards of the old house (and me along with it) I realized I had just barely begun the project that was to consume most (if not all) of my summer. Twilight was still a few hours away, and although the crescent moon began its ascent in the sky, it was still not its time for the changing of the guard. On the torn carpet before me lay piles upon piles of things my mother and father thought too important to throw away all those years. These things are pieces of your history, my mother had said, although I can't be certain of when.

But you never take them out and look at them, I'd say. You don't even make scrapbooks or decorate with them. It's like they might as well not exist.

Do I stop existing for you when you don't see me? she said. And laughed.

Four months ago, I lost both of my parents in a car accident. They had gotten lost in the night while driving, and somehow their car had gone over a steep ledge and ended up in a deep creek. I was told they both drowned. It was all over the news. In the numb shock of it all, I had left the colossal job until the deep heat of the summer. I hadn't been ready for it. I don't think anyone is ever ready for it, but I was no shape to do it, and these past few sleepless weeks I dreamt only of them, of growing up in this house, of how each room contained a lifetime's worth of memories and history-my history. Our history. And now I was getting ready to throw it all away.

The sun cast long, flickering beams across the floor, across the piles of junk I had compiled. There were still other floors: The bedrooms, the closets. The attic. Outside I could hear the late summer hymns of cicadas, and the gentle, constant chirping of crickets. I could almost tell the time of day with my eyes closed by the sound of the insects and birds, as one species stopped singing and another began. In the heat of the late afternoon it was the cicadas, their hisses echoing from tree to another, until the sound of felt almost limitless, as if there were no other sound in the world. In the evening, the crickets began their song, and when the sun went down and all was darkness, you could hear the katydids sing all night, until the first blue sliver of dawn rose in the dull eastern horizon. As the sun set, the racoons would tightrope the fence line of our properties, making their way towards the garbage cans, knocking them over and taking what they pleased, fearing no reprise. These were the sounds that marked the time that passed as I dug through piles of my parents' memories.

It was still light now. Once the sun went down, the house felt dark, dark in a way that even the lights that still worked could not penetrate. Maybe it was because they were gone. Maybe it was the emptiness of the house, or how large it was. I didn't like working into the night. There was something unsettling about the quietness of it all. The neighborhood was perfectly safe. The street was removed from the crowded parts of the city. A sizable portion of retirees found their way here. It was quiet and still when the night came, and as many of the residents on the street were elderly, most of the lights were out by the time all the stars had appeared. I appreciated it during the day. But at night, I felt as if I were the only one alive in the neighborhood, as if the rest of the world had moved on without me.

There were lines of garbage bags by the door that I still had not taken out to the tree lawn. I wiped sweat from my brow and knew I would not sleep well tonight. The house was baking hot, and would be for the better part of the night. My parents never invested in central air, and although I had a fan plugged into the wall, all it did was blow hot air into my face. But one more bag of trash was one less day in the house. I wouldn't be keeping the house for myself. They had lived in it my whole life, and hardly spent one cent on repairs or upgrades It was a headache I did not want. It was already hard enough being reminded of them everywhere I looked. Each time I found a book I knew my mother had liked, or a record my father had often listened to, I could almost feel them behind me telling me not to throw it away. Old photos of relatives I had never met, my grandfather's WW2 medals. I wanted to keep it all, because keeping it felt like I was keeping them alive. But my studio apartment was small, and I had no room for most of it, so I was forced to choose from a house full of items, which ones I could keep, and which ones I would have to discard forever. Somewhere in the house, they had a box of letters I had written them and letters they had written to each other. That was the real treasure I was after. But in a house this size, it could take me weeks to sort through and find it. They had kept the totality of our lives in this house, a collection of memories imprinted on objects that had no meaning prior to our possession of them. And here I was, throwing them all away.

I had my first, and hopefully last, encounter with one of the neighbors today. She was nearly 90, but that didn't stop her tiny old body from dragging giant garbage cans out to her front lawn. I asked if I could give her a hand, and she waved me off. As she looked at my parents' tree lot and saw that it was full of the discarded items from my parents' house, she looked nervously at me.

"You shouldn't just leave that there."

I shrugged. "I ordered a dumpster for Friday. They'll be coming here for it then."

Her eyes widened. "They're not coming until Friday to get it?" She dropped her bag in her own can without taking her eyes off me. "It'll be gone by then."

"What do you mean?"

"The pickers will come for it. They always do." And without saying goodbye she walked back into her house, closed the door and locked it.

I stood there for a moment, dumbfounded, wondering how my parents had lived so long next to such cold, unfriendly neighbors. Maybe that's what happens to us all when we get old, I thought. I looked over at some other neighbors on their lawn, caught in mid-stare at me, then looking away quickly, ashamed I had caught their gawking. I had spotted others peeking out from behind their drapes, going outside and pretending to observe their own lawns, when they really just wanted to take a good look at what I was doing with the house. Like the old woman next door, no one had come over to offer their condolences. No one had come over and offered to help. My family had lived alongside them for years, knew all their names, but now no one could be found. But that was fine. I was happy doing this on my own.

After multiple trips, the tree lawn was now full of the crap that had been sitting inside, so much so that some of it seemed to spill out into the street. When I wake up on Friday, all this will be gone, I thought. I hated having to do it. My friends had suggested that I go through it all with "experts," to find out the value of everything, sell it on eBay, or at a flea market. But what some people don't understand is when you lose the ones you love, selling their items like some sinister merchant is the last thing you wanted to do. And so here it was, the history of my parents and grandparents, lined up in trash bags along the street on the tree lawn.

Next to the garbage bags were piles of unorganized objects: Desks, tables, lamps, unused envelopes, used envelopes, old stuffed animals, VHS tapes, cassettes, records. Everything under the sun you can imagine, my parents kept. And so I began to drag the objects out. The living room had become so covered in trash that I could no longer see the stained, torn brown carpet beneath it. It was time for everything to go.

Outside, the lawn was overgrown and looked like a jungle compared to the pristine, well-manicured lawns surrounding it. As a child, I had grown bored on a hot summer day just like this one, taken my mother's engagement ring, and, doing my best Indiana Jones impression, buried it in the backyard with the intention of "discovering" it the next day. But the next day became the next week, and I could not remember where I had hidden away my mother's lost treasure. And so, I spent the remainder of the summer looking for it.

I was soaked in sweat, and the sun was beginning to disappear behind the big houses. The tall oaks that lined our block cast long, wavering shadows across the vacant street. Or at least I thought it was vacant. A few houses down I could hear the gentle humming of an idle engine. I looked over and saw an old station wagon hidden in the shadows of one of the oaks. In the darkness I could not make out the driver's face, but he seemed to be waiting for someone. Not my street, not my business, I thought. There were enough nosy neighbors on the street.

I walked back into the house and realized just how late it had become. The rooms on the first floor-the living room, kitchen and dining room-were now all shrouded in darkness. Outside the windows, I could just make out the backyard in the deep blue of twilight. The first few of the fireflies appeared. In the past, in this very house, I had taken old peanut butter jars, poked holes in them, and captured as many fireflies as I could, then take them up to my room for a nightlight. In the morning, they were all dead.

The house was hot on every floor. In my old room on the second floor I had opened all the windows and was using every fan in the house that I could find. Nothing in the room had changed. Even the old wallpaper of firemen -- though torn, stained, and faded -- was still on the wall. The old bronze cross on the wall still hung right above my pillow. As a child, I was always worried that it would fall off in the night and hit my head. My childhood in this room had been well preserved. I closed my eyes and fell asleep to the whirring, mechanical sounds of the fans.

Noise outside. I turned off the fan and saw that the clock read 2:30AM. I sat still for a moment, until I heard it again. It sounded like something scraping across concrete. I heard an engine idling. I stepped out of bed, looked out the window and saw someone going through the bags I had placed on the tree lot. The hazard lights from his car flashed an eerie red that seemed to illuminate the darkness of the street. The hatch of his wagon was up, and he was loading items into the back of his car. Scavengers, I thought. The pickers my neighbor was talking about. They always roam the streets of the suburbs looking for someone's castaways. One man's trash is another man's treasure. I tried to tell myself it was better if someone else could make use of it, but something inside made me angry that this stranger was taking these things, going through my family's history to hoist it off and make it his own. But I was tired and hot, and it would all be gone tomorrow morning anyway. I went back to bed and dreamt that the house was on the market, and all the neighbors had come over to look and had started laughing at everything: The torn wallpaper, the old carpet, the collapsing drywall, the pictures of my family and I. And all I did was stand in the corner of the room and say nothing.

As I stepped outside with my morning coffee, I saw all the garbage strewn about on the lawn and on the street. The bags were gone, and the garbage truck had undoubtedly come, but they had refused to pick up the mess that the scrapper must have left last night. I felt like the neighbors would no doubt be equally annoyed to see the lawn in such a state, so I drank the rest of my coffee and cleaned up the mess. If anyone was to come back next week, they would get a word from me.

As the week went by the days got hotter, and as much as I tried to air out the house, the heat stuck inside as if it were some tangible part of the house itself. I slept little. But the rooms were getting cleaner, my progress becoming more readily apparent. And finally, the day had come again to take out the week's worth of trash. These were the remnants of the upstairs now, and I had gone through the dresser of both my parents. It had been by far the most painful part of the process yet. I had found a locket my father had given to my mother after they first got married. Then a picture they had taken on a vacation on some beach on the East coast, possibly Maine. They looked young and healthy and happy. Another was a picture I had drawn for them when I was young, the three of us standing in what must have been the backyard with a ludicrously oversized sun above us. Brighter times. The heat had never bothered me growing up in this house. Why then did it bother me now?

With the sun low and its rays painting the summit of the houses and trees that lined the street, I once again dragged out the bags filled with remnants of my parents' existence. I had kept what I could, but I wanted to keep so much more. I didn't want to throw away any of it, but I had vowed to have the house clean and ready sell by the end of the summer. It was the only promise I made to myself after mom and dad passed away. I felt eyes on me, watching me, and though I was not sure if it was the neighbors or someone else, I felt every small movement I made being watched. I placed the bags as tidily as I could on the tree lot, and stopped to catch my breath. As I looked around, I saw not one but two cars idling, waiting in the shadows of the old oaks that lined the street. I quickly remembered the mess that had been made the previous week, and my blood boiled in the late summer afternoon heat. I walked over, still feeling relatively safe in what little light was left. I knocked on the window of the station wagon.

As the window rolled down, I was met with a raw onslaught of heat, cigarette smoke and foul body odor. He smelled like the rotting roots of plants in old water. I wanted to retch. But my resolve was strong, and the events from the previous week were still fresh in my mind. Inside, a man wearing a yellow stained undershirt and aviator sunglasses sat with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He didn't look at me, but at the bags on the lawn. He looked like he hadn't slept in days, maybe longer, and he smelled as if it had been even longer since he showered.

"You're the guy that went through my stuff last week." I said. It wasn't a question.

The man nodded and smiled a bit. "You had some really good stuff, man. Terrible things to let go to waste."

"Yeah, sure. Look, I don't mind if you rummage through my trash, but would you please not make a huge mess of it? I had to spend all morning cleaning it up."

The man looked at me from the corner of his eye. "Wasn't me."

I sighed. "If not you, then who was it?"

"Probably one of the others." He flicked his cigarette out the other window, then lit another one. I got the impression that he was going to sit there and chain smoke until night came, when no one could see his shame under the cover of darkness.

"What others? Is this a club? You got some trash buddies helping you?"

The man shrugged. "You're not from this neighborhood, are you?"

I scoffed at him. "What difference does that make? Neither are you, from the looks of it."

He finally turned to look at me. "The people in this neighborhood, they know we come. They don't say nothing. We don't cause anyone any harm. If anyone makes a mess of shit, I'll shut it down. All you gotta do is put what you got on the tree lawn. Good enough for you?"

Tired, overheated and dying of thirst, I nodded. As I looked around, I saw open gaps in a few of the blinds in the surrounding houses. We were being watched. This was probably the most exciting thing to happen all day for them. I wanted the scene to be over. "Fine. That's fine. Just please clean up after yourselves."

He nodded, and then rolled the window back up. As I walked back towards the house, I just wanted the whole thing to be over with. I did not want to spend the rest of my summer sweltering in an old house, tearing through my parents' private memories, with vultures waiting outside. And that's what they were. I shut the door and was once again greeted by darkness. The house refused to cool itself, and I vowed to buy a window AC unit. The basement was still cool, but I was not going to sleep down there. Ever.

I fell asleep watching old Nickelodeon reruns on TV Land and awoke to snow on the screen. As I turned it off, I heard more banging around outside. I looked at the clock and saw that it read midnight. I turned off the table lamp next to me, crept over to the blinds, and looked out. Outside was not one but five figures, each of them going through the bags. Some of them lifted furniture into the back of truck beds. Their cars were lined up in front of the house, their hazard lights blinking madly and creating red strobes in the dark room where I stood. No one else was out. All of the neighbors' houses were dark, their lights turned off, everything still in the hot night. I could not see their faces in the dark, but they moved slowly as they carefully examined the contents of my bags, taking some things, leaving others behind. I was careful to shred the most sensitive of documents, but I could feel the anger rise again at the sight of people rummaging through my parents' things. My things. Things that should have no value to anyone else. But something stopped me from going outside as I watched them at work in greater numbers. Tired of it all, I sat back on my chair and fell asleep.

In the morning, I found the lawn littered with every sort of garbage from the bags. I did not make coffee this time. I marched out in my boxers and shirt to clean up the mess, and then I saw them. I saw the letters from my father and mother, loose and torn and blowing around freely for the whole world to see. I came back out with an empty bag and began to pick up the pieces of the past. I felt violated. The wind was blowing them all about, and on the road, I could see the picture that I had drawn of me and my family. As I ran out into the street to grab it, I felt myself come to tears. I stood there, in the middle of the road, in nothing but my boxers and undershirt, holding my childhood drawing and crying. I must have been quite a show for the neighbors that morning.

I hung up on the police dispatcher when she told me it was within the law for these people to take things from my tree lawn, and when she suggested that I take the bags and other garbage to the dump, I hung up the phone. I had resolved not to take the bags out next week, but to keep them inside. I'd make the bastards wait all night if I had to. Inside the house, I had worked my way up the attic, which seemed to have collected all the heat from the summer thus far. I was drenched in sweat before the sun hit noon. In the attic was where they had kept their massive library, and during the cooler months they must have spent their time up here reading, watching the foliage from the treetops change with the seasons. Some of my old books were here, too. Children's books. Books they had read to me. It was all stored up here with care. I happened to open the cover of Joyce's Ulysses, and found an inscription my mom had written to my dad for his birthday. I smiled. I doubt he ever finished it. High above me was a wooden bookcase that looked ancient, and as I attempted to reach for the top, I tried to pull myself up by one of the shelves. The shelf disintegrated in my hand, and off it fell dozens of old books, followed by a hardbound dictionary that landed right on my head. Then all went black.

I awoke to total darkness in the attic, and at first, I was unsure of my whereabouts. I knew I was not in the bedroom, nor the soft floor of the living room. I was covered in debris: the pages of old books, broken wood, and God knows what else. As I sat up, my head throbbed. An old clock on the wall had died at 5 o'clock. I knew it was well past then. In the darkness, I could hear the rustling of the curtains in the wind. A distant rumble of thunder. A storm was coming, and as I rushed to close the windows, I looked out at the front lawn and saw them.

Standing in the yard, were about four or five of them. Their cars were parked out on the street, their hazard lights flashing. The rest of the street seemed to be in deep sleep. No one noticed. They all stood there, staring at the front door downstairs. A quick flash of lighting revealed little about them, but they seemed undeterred by the coming storm. The wind rustled through the leaves, and I could hear the thunder growing more frequent. I could call the police, but I had tried that route earlier without success. There were more of them now, and they were actually on my lawn. I cursed myself for leaving my phone downstairs in the living room to charge. Before I even asked myself what they had come for, I already knew. I smiled. You can wait as long as you like. You're not getting it. As I smiled at the thought of it, one of them looked up and saw me. Then they all did.

I stepped back into the darkness. There was no possible way they could have seen me, not up here. But they all looked up at my window. I was tired, and my head throbbed. I went back to the window and said: "Get off my lawn or I'll call the police." Nothing. They continued looking at me, their faces concealed in the darkness. Then one of them began walking toward the door and rang the doorbell. My heart pounded. Did I lock the door downstairs? I knew the curtains were wide open. They could easily see everything inside. And my phone. My phone was down there too. I raced down the first flight of stairs, and heard the doorbell ring again, then again. It was the first time I had ever been this afraid in my own house. As I ran downstairs, the house-and its emptiness-seemed larger, a cavernous void lined with half-remembered hallways and passages. Only quick flashes of lightning that illuminated the hallways gave me any sense of passage and place. The doorbell rang again, followed by another, then another. I found my way to the bottom of the steps, and there was no way to hide. Whoever was at the door would see me. But they didn't know where my phone was, and I did. Back at my own apartment, I kept a loaded gun in a safe, but that felt a million miles away right now. Useless. I was tired, and my head throbbed, and the arrogance and stubbornness of these people made me sick with anger. So instead of running to my phone, I walked slowly to the door.

In the flashing red of their hazard lights, I could just make out his silhouette through the large window on the door. He must have seen me, as he stopped ringing the bell and began knocki

ng instead. I walked up with no weapon in hand. "What the hell do you want?" The figure spoke. "You were supposed to put your stuff out on the tree lawn before dark." I recognized the voice. It was the same man from earlier, only now I couldn't smell his stench through the glass.

"I'm not putting anything out on the tree lot. You all threw garbage all over the street last time. And you stand there one minute longer, I'm going to call the police."

The man shrugged. "Sure is a waste, throwing away all that stuff. Might as well give it to us. We'll put it to good use. You had some real good things in there last time."

He clearly wasn't at all ashamed of the mess they had made the prior week. I was growing angrier at his arrogance. "And I still have lots of other things here, which none of you are going to get your dirty little fingers on." I wish I hadn't taunted him with that last part. But I was tired, and tired of this.

"Whatcha' got in there?"

"Nothing for you."

The man shrugged again. "Well, me and the others are gonna have a look anyway." And then he reached for the doorknob and twisted it. Locked, thank God, but they were trying to get in. He kept twisting the doorknob as he looked directly at me. "Be a lot quicker if you just let us in."

The man stepped back and took something out of his pocket. For a moment I could feel my heart sink into my stomach, but in the darkness I could see that it wasn't a weapon but folds of paper. He unfolded a page and began to read: "Dear mommy, I wanted to wish you a happy Mother's Day and tell you that I love you so much. Thank you for always feeding me good food. Thank you for always keeping my room clean. Love, Joshua."

The letters. How had he found them? I must have accidentally thrown them away. But I went through everything. That's impossible. "Those don't belong to you," was all I could say.

"They belong to all of us now," he said. And then he took out another letter and began to read again: "Happy birthday, dad. Mom says you are a year older, but you don't look that old to me. Thank you for being a great dad, Love, Joshua."

"Give those back to me now."

"Well, you didn't want them. And once they're on the tree lawn, they belong to us."

I ran into the living room to grab my phone. "Have it your way," I said loudly. The phone was where I had left it earlier, but as I grabbed it and hit the screen, it did not turn on. I hadn't fully plugged it in, and now it was dead. My heart pounded. I could feel it crushing and racing and screaming in my head. The man at the door twisted the doorknob again, putting his weight on it. I ran and over and flicked on the porch lights, hoping to startle or frighten him and the others away. But as I did so, the dim light revealed not one but several of them standing on the porch, tools in hand. They looked me with an indifference and coldness that I had never seen. I stood my ground. What the hell else could I do?

"I'm not letting you inside."

The one I had been speaking with shrugged again. "Best let us have a look at what ya got. Terrible thing, to let it all go to waste."

"It's all going to waste. And you're not getting inside."

The man looked at me and smiled. "We're already inside."

I heard the sound of glass breaking. It must have been from one of the ground-level windows that led to the basement. More smashing sounds. I turned back to the man.

"I'll call the police." I showed him my phone.

"If you were going to call you would have done it already. Your phone's dead." He shrugged. "Best if you just let us in."

Another flash of lightning, and then the porch light flashed back off into darkness. More breaking sounds beneath me. I knew there were tools in the house that I could use as a weapon; I just wasn't sure if I had kept them or thrown them away. The thought of them using my own parents' tools to break in filled me with rage again, and in the darkness I ran to the kitchen and looked for anything I could find. But the tool drawer was empty. All the drawers were empty. Did I clean them all out already? I couldn't remember anymore. There was a knock at the back door now, too. This one was faster, angrier. I ran over to the basement door and locked it. As I put my ear up to the door, I could hear the sound of someone climbing through the window, the sound of shoes landing on broken glass. A quick flash of light from underneath the door. They must have a flashlight. I could hear footsteps coming up the stairs. Whoever it was, they made no effort to conceal their approach from me. In the darkness I could hear the doorknob twisting, the sound of weight being put against the door.

More sounds of glass breaking, but this time it came from somewhere else. The living room. I could hear glass shattering, and, weaponless and without a working phone, I ran upstairs. There was nowhere for me to jump to. A jump from the balcony overlooking the backyard would surely lead to a broken foot at best. And I didn't know how many of them were out there. I ran upstairs to the attic, back to where I had been before. I rushed into one of the closets, and slammed the door shut. There was a latch on the inside, for reasons unknown to me. I locked it and waited.

I could hear all sorts of sounds now. The sound of glass being broken, of doors and drawers opening. Heavy things being dragged across the floor. Footsteps going up and down the stairs. It sounded as if they were all in the house now, moving from room to room, floor to floor. They were on the second floor now, and I could hear things being thrown about. Knocked over. Then I heard the door to the attic open. Footsteps were ascending the stairs. Through the small slits in the door, I could see quick flashes from their flashlights. They said nothing to each other. I could hear them opening plastic bags and piling things inside-books, most likely. Then someone tried to open the door to the closet I was hiding in. I covered my mouth to hide my panicked breathing. After a few hard tugs, they stopped. I don't remember how much time had passed. In the darkness, I leaned up against the wall and closed me eyes with the same reasoning I had used when I was a child playing hide-and-seek: If I close my eyes and don't see them, then they can't see me.

I don't know how long I kept my eyes shut. The sounds of them looting my house seemed to go on for hours, and as the storm died away, so did their footsteps. When I finally opened my eyes, I could see natural light pouring through the windows into the main room of the attic. I undid the latch and stepped out, and they were gone. So too was everything else. All of the books, the records, the movies that I had put into piles were gone. I went down the attic stairs, and the second floor was the same. All of the beds, furniture, pictures, everything was gone.

Downstairs, all that was left was the glass from the broken windows. The only other thing left on the floor was the charging cord for my phone. At least they had left me that. Outside, the summer sun had returned. The storm that had passed through the night was long gone now, and the morning was still and peaceful. I unplugged the phone cord, walked down the front steps, and never looked back.

I sold the house to the lowest bidder. I never wanted to go back. At night I found myself driving by, to see if they came back. They never did. But now, on trash days, those evenings when the sun is low, and the tree lots are filled with the disposable remnants of the respective houses, I know that when the sun sets, they will return. When I drive down streets in the late afternoon, I expect to see them waiting in their cars on the streets outside. Waiting. Waiting. And at night, when I see the red hazard lights flashing outside my window, I close my blinds and stand there alone, under the cover of darkness.

Article © Joseph Lewis. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-11-08
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