Garbageby Stephen Dixon
Shaney Fleet is the owner of a working-class bar, and his problem is garbage. When a private hauler tries to coerce Shaney into purchasing collection services, he resists. Soon no hauler will remove his black-listed trash, and garbage that is not even his own begins to appear at his front door. Ultimately, his apartment is torched, his head bashed in, and his bar closed by the health department. In this well-wrought parable of modern urban life, literal garbage becomes a metaphor for the petty encumbrances, bureaucratic entanglements, and apparently insoluble problems that surround Shaney. As in the works of Kafka and Beckett, the mood is at once ominously threatening and irrepressibly comic.
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By Stephen Dixon
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 1988 Stephen Dixon
All rights reserved.
Two men come in and sit at the bar. I say "How you doing, fellas, what'll it be?"
"What are you, about to close?" the stocky one says.
"No, it's just empty for a change. Still want to stay?"
"Sure. Beers. Whatever you got."
"I have draft, I have bottles. Domestic and imported in both."
"Two draft whatever kind you want. We're in no rush."
I draw the beer and give it to them, ring up the tab and set it down between them.
"You Shaney?" the stocky one says.
"You're the owner of this bar."
"Owner and bartender both."
"Well lookit, Shaney, you pour a good beer. Nice head on it. You don't often get a head on beer anymore at bars and you got a beaut on yours. That's good."
"It's the way you draw the beer that gives it the head. I can almost make the head any size I want."
"Yeah, how so?"
"You hold the glass under the spout a certain way, at a forty-five degree angle, like this." I take a glass from the sink rack and hold it at the forty-five degree angle in front of them. "Then when—"
"Put it under the tap for real and pour yourself one on us."
"No thanks. I have only one drink a day and that's a stiff belt at the end of the evening after I close."
"Smart man. Won't drink more yourself because you know what it does to you. That's unusual for a bartender."
"Not so much when he owns the place."
"But you were saying about pouring your beer, Shaney?"
"How'd you know my name by the way?"
"Oh, a pal of ours comes in here and says it's a good spot for a sandwich and beer and your name's Shaney, that's all."
"What's his name?"
"Dave is it?" he asks the thinner man.
"Dave. I don't know his last."
"Dave?" I say. "I don't think I know a Dave, at least not well enough to say I know the name right away."
"He used to come in," the stocky one says "and maybe he still does. And we were around the neighborhood, doing some late work here—we're salesmen—and I said there's where Dave mentioned that bar and the owner's name is Shaney. If your name was John or Jim I wouldn't've remembered it."
"That's what he told me," the thinner man says. "The part about there's where you are."
"But about getting the good head on the beer. Show me carefully so I can tell my other bartender friends who don't know about it."
"I'm sure they all do, if they've been tending bar for more than a week. It's not a new trick."
"No, you'd be surprised. Most of them say it's the beer today that won't make a good head. So it'll be my kind of service to them, you could say, because I know it should bring in more customers. Every drinker likes a big head on his beer, one he can wipe off his lips."
"You actually want to know?"
"Why, do I sound like I'm kidding you?"
"In a way."
"I'm not, honestly. Go ahead, show me."
"You hold the glass like this, pull down the tap and let the beer out of it into the glass. Then when the beer's about an inch and a half from the top, you pop the tap handle to its nonpouring position same time you straighten the glass under the spout and catch the beer that's still coming out. Of course you can't be at the end of your keg and you have to have enough pressure in the pipes and the beer's got to be a certain temperature—forty-two degrees is the best. Not too warm or too cold."
"Now I know. By the way, Shaney—"
"You want another beer? I'm not pushing, but you finished yours so fast."
"No thanks. It'll get me fat."
"On the house. Always a free one after the first one for a new customer who looks like he might drop in again, and you're under no obligation to take more than a sip from it."
"Okay, what the hell. Give me another."
"Me too," the thinner man says "not that I'm asking for it on the house. He's having one, I'm going to too." He drains his glass and gives me it.
"Listen," I say "you're a new customer too."
I get two glasses out of the refrigerator and draw them another beer each.
"It also helps to have a fresh chilled glass to get that head," I say, giving them their beers.
"By the way, Shaney," the stocky one says "who does your trash pickup?"
"My garbage? What's that to you? I'm curious."
"You see, we also represent a company that does garbage pickup and they'd like to pick up for you. Stovin Private Carting Service."
"Never heard of it. Eco Carting does mine. They're good and reliable and come in the worst of storms, so I'm sorry but I can't."
"Well we're new around here, though very modern and organized, and would like to pick up for you instead of Eco. How about it?"
"I told you, I'd like to. But I don't even have that much garbage for one carter."
"If you don't let us cart for you there might be heavy trouble with Stovin's when I tell them. They want to cart all the business garbage in the area—at least all the bars around here and grocery stores. Kelly's Bar just signed with us and he was being picked up by Eco before."
"Look, what are you guys? You musclemen, that it? Well I like Eco, been with them for years, and that's that, okay? So get lost."
"You want a broken window, Shaney?"
"Don't start with me. Two of you, I'll still give you a busted head each."
"And don't give us that tough crap talk either."
"He's right," the thinner man says. "Don't be smart, Shaney. Better for your health. Better for all our healths, because if we start having it out, everybody's going to get hurt."
"My health is good. Don't threaten me. Do, I can call the police."
"You just do that," the stocky one says. "Just do. You'll not only have broken windows, you'll have a burnt-out bar. Now what do you say? Our rates may be a little higher than Eco. But we're a very good carting service, very reliable too. Sun or rain, and if any other carter tries to move in on you, just tell us and we'll deal with them for you."
"I don't need any protection from anyone but you."
"Get Eco to protect you then."
"They don't do that. They're an honest carter."
"So are we. Except we need the business now, a lot of business, as we invested heavily in trucks and stuff and don't want to stay in debt. So I'll ask you a last time. You changing over to us?"
"Just a matter of curiosity, what are your rates?"
"Sixty a month."
"You crazy? Eco's is thirty-five."
"I said we're a little higher. But it'll be worth it. We pick up five mornings a week."
"Eco does it every morning but Monday."
"I'm telling you what we do, not Eco. Maybe we can pick up more trash for you than them—how about that?"
"They take away everything I put on the street. And if it's something like an old sink that's too heavy for me, they come right inside."
"Hey, I'm tired of talking. You in with us or not?"
"All I want is for you to get out of here, all right? Don't worry about paying." I grab the tab and tear it up and throw it on the floor. "There. Now just get out."
"I'd like some kind of answer for my company."
"You don't know what to tell them?"
"Don't get too excited with your words, Shaney. Be nice, stay calm. Let my bosses know through me you're both those ways. That's the minimum I can do for you for your foam lesson and free beers. If I were you I'd tell me to tell them you're thinking about it. That way you have time."
"Time for what?"
"For thinking about it."
"I'm thinking about it then. That make you feel better?"
"Good man." He puts a ten dollar bill on the bar and leaves with the other man. I yell "You paid too goddamn much, fella," as they go through the door.
I call Kelly and tell him what just happened and ask if he really did switch from Eco to Stovin.
"I had to, Shaney. I know those bums. They throw a brick through your window one night, next night they drop a stinkbomb when customers are around and so on. Next thing you know your life and trade aren't worth a dime. It's protection money you're paying them, and with your temper, maybe protecting them from you. They also cart. So you get less carting, so what? Stick what they don't pick up in the corner trash can, but at least you'll be alive."
"What do you know what happens if you go to the police?"
"That I don't advise and don't tell Stovin's you asked me about it. But go, and bricks, bombings, I hear everything but jet fighters can come down on you at one time. Give them the sixty and forget about it."
I don't know what to do. Maybe they'll give up on me now knowing I'm absolutely against them carting for me and they'd be better spending their time trying to change the mind of another storeowner who's an easier mark. I'll just take a wait-and-see attitude without maybe stirring up more trouble with them by calling the police.
Same two men come in two nights later and sit at the bar. The stocky one says "Hi, Shaney."
The thinner one says "How you doing tonight, Shaney?"
A young couple, almost teenagers—I didn't check their ID's because business isn't so good and they looked over the minimum age—are sitting at the other end of the bar. I just finished giving them a couple more tequila sunrises and I go over to the men.
"Those two down there," the stocky man says. "They're not junior undercovers, are they?"
"What's your name?"
"Why you want to know?"
"You know mine, I want to know both of yours. I don't see why that should be a problem, and it'll be easier for me to speak."
"I'm Pete, he's Turner. But those kids down there."
"Why would they be?"
"Or the fellows at the table in back. They look it."
"No, nobody here's anything but plain customers, which I wish you guys were too."
"We will be if you do what we ask you to and not what we don't like. You called Kelly, didn't you?"
"Kelly told us. He didn't volunteer so don't go getting back at him. But we knew you'd call him so we called him ourselves today and first he said no and when we said you already told us you called him, he said yes you did. He advised you right, didn't he?"
"He advised me to let you cart my garbage."
"And you're taking his advice, right?"
"No, I don't think so. I don't want to be protected."
"I can't afford sixty, that's another thing. It's too much."
"If we made a special deal of fifty for you, but nothing less, you'd do it, right?"
"Let me think about it."
"Think about it now. We don't want any more stalling."
"I need time to think. I don't make money decisions quickly."
"I said think about it now. Get us some beers just to make it seem more like we're here for pleasure and not so much hard business."
I start drawing them their beers.
"And put a real big head on those, Shaney, just like the other night."
I give them the beers with a big head. Pete puts a ten on the bar. "Keep it. See—already you're twenty dollars ahead with us. So consider the first month as only being thirty dollars for our services, five less than what you pay Eco, if you go with the fifty we'll charge you a month. Now what do you say? I can only give you three more minutes of thinking time. Things are picking up for us around here, so we're very busy."
"How would I explain to Eco?"
"Just say you felt it better going with us because we gave you a better deal."
"Fifteen dollars more a month is better with one less pickup day?"
"That you don't tell him."
"Suppose he says what was the deal so he can maybe meet it?"
"You say you already made up your mind."
"But I know Eco personally. George Ecomolos. He comes in for beers every now and then. I know his garbage guys. They've been with him for ten to twenty years and I give them free shots and a sandwich every now and then. They're nice guys—Eco himself a nice guy too. No, I can't do it."
"Don't worry. Once you stop paying Eco to cart for you, he won't come in to drink again."
"I said I can't, that's it. You want trouble, well all right, you're talking to the guy who can give it. Big deal. Bust a window of mine out or throw a bomb in whatever it's made of—explosives, fire—but you'll wind up in more trouble than me. Believe me, much more."
"Don't be silly—we can't be. Now is it no or yes? Just sign your fate with a single word, Shaney. Yes or the other?"
"No, damn you. I said no."
"Okay, pal. See you."
"Bye bye, Shaney," Turner says.
They get up to go.
"Wait," I say when they're almost out the door.
"Okay for a quick change of mind," Pete says. "As I said, we're very busy."
"No, forget it. I almost changed it but I can't. I'll take my chances. I'm also calling the police."
"You're getting so silly it's ridiculous."
"Remember, these people are my witnesses. They saw you in here."
"Saw what?" the young man at the bar says.
"You going to involve these nice kids, Shaney? Besides, they seem too young to even be drinking. You could lose your license."
"I'm nineteen," the young man says "and she's legal age too."
"No, you're right," I say to Pete "I'm leaving them out of it. I'll do it all on my own. My father had a bar before me, did you know that?"
"Not interested," Pete says.
"Hey bartender," one of the men at the back table yells "bring us another pitcher of beer."
"And my grandfather on my mother's side before him and some great-uncles too. They were all tough and I'm tough, tough as you guys, that you better believe. Maybe tougher because it's for so long inherited."
"I'm sure of it, Shaney. I'm shivering in my jeans. And get your old man and hundred-year-old uncles to stand up with you." They leave.
"What was that all about?" the young woman says.
"Something. But if you don't mind I'd like you both to go now, last round on the house, but come in again when I'm not so shaken up."
They leave. I get the back table a pitcher of beer and fresh glasses and call the police.
Two detectives come later that night. One says "We'll keep someone out front tonight if you want. We'd also like to hook up a recorder under the bar with a foot pedal on it, just in case they come in again, so we can get them on tape. Unless they threaten you when you've witnesses or you get it recorded, it's impossible to prove who's telling the truth. Customers in back know anything?"
"They heard us arguing maybe, but didn't know what it was or were too stewed to. And I don't want recorders, just police protection. But I swear to you, those same two come in again when you're not around, then no questions or anything I'm going to hit them over the head with my club."
"Don't hit anyone. Let us do the hitting for you if it has to come to that."
"I want them to know I mean business."
"So they'll know, so what—you want to get yourself killed? Maybe they won't come back. Sometimes it's all words and no deed with them and they don't even work for who they say they do but just want the money on the spot, in cash. We'll check in with Stovin's tomorrow early. For now what do you say to kicking those clowns out and closing up for some rest?"
"I'm closing regular time only—nothing's making me do otherwise. I don't want those punks thinking they scared me even a half hour out of my place."
I close at three, clean the bar, refill the stock and put the garbage out on the street and have my double shot of scotch and beer chaser and lock up the place. A police car's parked across the street. I go over to it and the man inside says he's been assigned to the post for the night. I walk home. My phone's ringing when I unlock the door.
"Shaney my love," Pete says "what's been keeping you? Boy, was that stupid of you calling in the law. Stupid, stupid—what could you have been thinking of? Anyway, they can't stay there forever—even cops got to make pee. When they finally give up the watch as unproductive we might dynamite the joint with you in it or not—we haven't as yet quite decided. You still don't want us to work for you though, right?"
"Last time I can be talking to you like this. No more polite social teas and cutesy-pie chats from me, so also don't bother with taps and tapes. Now once more—make up our minds. We haul a hell of a great barrel of trash."
"Oh well. Maybe you'll be a good lesson for some other possible dope," and he hangs up.
Excerpted from Garbage by Stephen Dixon. Copyright © 1988 Stephen Dixon. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Stephen Dixon is the author of fifteen novels and fourteen short story collections and has published hundreds of stories in an incredible list of literary journals. He’s twice been a finalist for the National Book Award and his writing has also earned him a Guggenheim Fellowship, the American Academy Institute of Arts and Letters Prize for Fiction, the O. Henry Award, and the Pushcart Prize.
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