The Trash Man
A short story
I have long wanted to try my hand at fiction. I wrote this a few years ago and have never published it anywhere so you’re the first. I am not educated as a fiction writer so I have work to do. But the first step is just putting it out there. It’s a little on the long side, I’m warning you, and I’ll have some shorter essays coming up soon.
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 correctpile, 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 questionable websites, 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 his judgment 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, notreasure hunter. He had no criminal record he passed his drug screen. 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 amillion 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 neverimagine 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 couldfind. 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 plays 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, wondering how such a young man came to this place.
'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 awaytheir 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 setting an ambush andpretending it were unplanned. ‘You know Martin, don't you? His father and your fatherwere 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 thecalculated assault, yours the sneak attack. Do you want to take a walk?' She assented, and looped her slender, tanned, tastefully jeweled 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 hadaccepted 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…to do something for…’
Her mother turned red. 'You can't help her, though I love you for wanting to do so. 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 also beautiful. She just needs, something, she needs...'
'Stop it. She needs something she will never find and she will never allow me, oryou 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 ofit. I don't know how. But Martin will have to spend a year without me; you do know that even if I’m there, I’ll only see him about every third day anyhow, don't you?'
'Yes, dear, but I know he'll be seeing nursing students and drug reps and all sorts of other women 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 of 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 wrongwith 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 hada 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 doingfine. 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 amissionary to India, 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 theunspoken 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 on the small of her back 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 plasticbags of empty food containers and rotting egg shells, bags of bacon grease and paper-towelrolls. Worn and torn clothes and broken toys. Bags spilled open sometimes. He hadcleaned them up, and always felt like he was going through human lives, like a voyeur or perhaps an archeologist. 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 a few months to earn book money.
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 tothe admissions committee at 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 found a small apartment and 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.
‘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 toCalifornia 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, andwhere 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 mightneed. ‘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, soft, brutal way that only a Southern woman can.
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 Caleb saw other things. Poor families with nothing; comfortable families with healthy, happy children. Old lonely men cleaning house, it turned out, before movingaway to be with children or grandchildren. He saw grieving families and eager Mexican men working to pay for dresses for their daughter’s Quinzinero 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 by Mr. Ramey, a much sought after contractor.
‘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 man who was huffing in the heat of the sun, pullingrotten timbers and throwing them down into the mass of garbage, so that in the evening thebulldozers could turn it all under and move it all around. That was the thing. Caleb sawthe 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 thisone!’ The contractor thanked him and climbed back into his truck cab. And on the side ofthe timber, which had clearly been inside a house, was a faint series of notches. As helooked at it, Caleb realized it was a record of a child’s growth. Tiny dates were carvedthere. 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 it was no Grail and he felt no release from his quest.
The next day his sister Cecilia came by to visit, and brought him lunch from theCrazy Pig Smokehouse. 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 aBible, 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 age6, according to mother. She had wasted it by teaching dance when she could be servingmankind. Cecilia once told her that she had served, personally, a large portion of the local 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 shewas 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 hadexpected.
Caleb rose to kiss his mother’s cheek. ‘Reverend, I’m Caleb. What brings you herewith my dear mother? Cecilia and I were just having a little lunch. Can we offer yousomething? 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 recenty biography of St. Paul, by N. T. Wright?’
His eyes widened at the suggestion of a bookshelf, and he smiled at the bookrecommendation.
'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. The Lord 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 amemory of something sublime, some moment of utter rest and purpose, some sense of the numinous, and he faltered.
'Just remember to honor your father and mother. God gave them wisdom so that theycould 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 people 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.
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 Appalachian spur of a mountain-chain of garbage. And that perhaps, his job was to uncover a talent long buriedin 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 forthose 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. I’ll not leave the hospital at all. I’m sorry, I really am but it has been my dream. Still, 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, broken, beautiful 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 history of 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 shop, or to a local church thrift store. 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 animpression of something from Dante.
One morning, as day broke on the image of hell that the dump sometimes seemed toportray, a broken down old Dodge truck, well-worn, pulled up to the edge. A womanclimbed out. She was a little younger than the trash-man, and her belly was heavy with pregnancy. 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 waswhere broken things go, drawn inexorably to their resting place.
She did not appear bruised or beaten, for those marks would have suggested at leastattention. She appeared a prisoner of disdain. An afterthought, except when she was the target of his venom. 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, with heavy mascara and sometimes covered with sunglasses were desperate when he could see them.
They said 'thank you for trying,' in a well-spoken language of sorrow.
They also cried, quietly, '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, andwas a head taller, a foot wider and more massive from hard work. It was a redneck standoff that even the reader of classics had grapsed from his childhood. It hung in the air 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 atragic 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 inFebruary, so heavy that all the piles were covered, and he could pretend that he worked inthe mountains of North Carolina, or in the West. At least until the next pile of garbagecame 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; he more gaunt as she was more ample.
His woman grew heavy, in both body and soul 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 just did not know how.
It was no surprise to anyone, especially Roxanne Blackwell, that half a year intoresidency, her fiancee broke their engagement. Duke had long taken pride in the divorce rate of its surgery residents so at least that had not yet married. 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 and tuck her safely back into the bed of her childhood home.
Martin left her for a woman named Katherine (whom he referred to as Kat) who worked for the Duke Foundation. She was a fund-raiser, and in truth, her pedigree was far more impressive for Martin's life than Roxanne’s 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. Even as she knew it was inevitable and probably the right thing, Roxanne couldn’t help but think the words, ‘trashy bitch,’ and then pray for forgiveness for her thoughts.
Roxie wept in her mother's arms, but her mother could not know that she wept fromrelief 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 therefor you. An administrator! Who saw that one coming! At least it wasn't some therapist or secretary that humiliated you!'
It was a season of the heart all around. 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.’
He laughed but then slipped into reverie.
’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 torepent 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 myparishioners praying for you...the ones that aren't praying for you because your motherasked 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 getthrown away, along with the people.’ They little understood that last statement. Perhaps even Caleb did not.
But 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 hadreturned 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 his shift on a cool, windy mid-March evening. The sun hinted, on thehorizon, 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. But there would be honeysuckle on the hills and laurel blooming white and lavish.
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 its wheels, flinging mud and left, while its driver, in sun-glasses, strained to look away. He looked vaguely like someone Caleb 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. Wonderingwhat to do next, he opened the car door and heard a sound as faint as a whimper. He knewall 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 from a burning bush; like a blinding light on the Damascus road.
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 three newborn babies. Three blood covered infants, two boys 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 after-birth. 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. He cried 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, those blue-painted sad eyes, surrounded by last teary rivers of mascara.
They were 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 to the police; on him and on the babies, and to show that while it came from here, it was not the same blood that had congeled in their mother’s dark, brown hair. Their mother, who lay waiting for a proper examination and burial, in the family plot of an esteemed family a few hundred miles to the East.
She would not rest in that vast mountain of waste.
It took a few hours for the law to find the pocked-skin man, who had discarded his Meth lab, his heroin, and his woman’s only hope of a future with her little ones which was embodied in the form of a high chair. He had discarded all of it and all of them; a family aborted before there was any danger of love or success. He was as dead as the woman in the rug, from the same pistol, albeit by his own choice.
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 own eyes pouring tears down her faceand 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'dbe...' 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 apartmentwhen the call came. It was her mother, who despite her anger, despite the frozen surfacewith 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 Blue Ridge Foothills.
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 wassad; he felt he was meant to raise them himself. Their father, whom Caleb had wanted to onfront (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 to the local deputy, '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 Atlantawas waiting. The children had been with his mother and sister, but their aunt was comingto 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 and the stench. Them, 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 ayoung 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 toher face, covering a soft cry.
'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 canalways 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, thepurpose 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 three children, beautiful and devoted, running along behind him as he moved with grace through collegeand 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. Bothof them bore the lovely scars of something larger than themselves; of a fire that had sweptover them and through them. She wept, like everyone did, when they recalled the story that was their own epic, their own odyssey through uncertainty.
And she knew she, too, had found her place and her calling with the trash-man who was so much more.
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 yearsmarked on the other three 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 useit.