This morning’s haul is spread across an old ping pong table in my garage. Empty spinach container versus a despondent honey bun wrapper. Compressed two-liter of orange pop staring at a regal kombucha tea bottle. Greek yogurt tub turning its nose up at the butterscotch pudding cups. The healthy stuff is new, maybe three weeks in a row. Either Jennifer is trying to change, or she met someone worth changing for. Or both. I’m assuming neither pleases her husband, Ben, a connoisseur of high-fructose corn syrup and porch swings.
Garbage tells a story same as an open purse, tea leaves, an ultrasound, scrapbook, or a secret journal. You can decipher a household’s financial status by the thickness of the bag. Folks with good credit and a substantial 401K use a fortified bag, the kind you could drop a car engine in without fear of splitting open. The paycheck to paycheck warriors get by with the dollar store variety, a fragile bag that rips at the slightest of intrusions, be it cereal box or popsicle stick. Pregnancies, beer guzzlers, bleeders via wound or cycle, food wasters, reading habits and on and on. It’s all there if you are curious about your neighbors, socializing is hard labor, and you don’t mind being a trash voyeur. You just need to untie the bag.
Near the bottom of a vanilla-scented, sturdy bag, balled up inside a destroyed pint of strawberry ice cream, is a note. It’s difficult not to smile. If you were a slice of pizza I would not eat you. I would hold you and never let you go. Their boy, Josh, a future poet, caring partner, or possibly Jeffrey Dahmer. You can’t get a hit if you don’t swing the bat. Don’t give up, kid.
My favorite garbage most weeks comes from a young couple three houses down. Their bag is cheap and flimsy, but it never reeks of spoiled fruit and monotony, never makes me gag. I always find dozens of lubricated Magnum XL condoms, flowers in various stages of death, and Chinese takeout. I’m not convinced they do anything besides fuck and eat, but their garbage smells like white-fire love. Not sure that will be the case in ten years, though. Don’t waste your bullets, it’s an eternal war.
Reinvention after a loss is as much about healing as it is about escaping. To suture a wound, maybe some men join a softball team or prowl the bars trawling for compliant bodies and closure at the jukebox, pool table or, if successful, on a stained bed in a ragtag motel. Maybe they buy a slick, black Mustang and become the creepy old cat who blasts hip hop on a routine trip to the grocery. Look at me, I’m not suffering. I’m not wrecked. I’m too cool for pain. Or they join an online dating service and make up a new them, a backstory not built upon their ordinary, forgettable DNA, but on who they never were. Witty and toned and well-read and well-traveled and moderately wealthy. Hit Me Up.
I took the garbage route.
Every Tuesday is another Christmas. Up early, black sweatsuit, scurry down the sidewalk like a famished rat, a bag of gifts in a blue receptacle. I know them. I rummage through their story every week. A friendship via trash and a lonely mind. Rot meets rot.
I like to believe that Jennifer and Ben or the young sex maniacs will one day root through my dumpster to discover who I am, that they are interested enough to untie my bag. Will they read my life correctly, or will they just assume I have really soft skin? I could leave a note as a clue: If you were a slice of pizza I would not eat you. I would apologize and ask you to come home.
A new couple is moving in almost directly across the street. They’ve been unloading boxes for a couple of days, and I’ve seen some of my neighbors talking to them, exchanging light information about one another. But I can wait, next week will tell me what lurks beneath the khakis and capris, whether they are freaks or health fiends or frugal coupon clippers.
The first bag from a family is like a first kiss. Holy hurricane, I want more, oceans of more. I want all of your garbage.
Chris Milam lives in Middletown, Ohio. His stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, Molotov Cocktail, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, and elsewhere, You can find him on Twitter @Blukris.