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NO ONE EVER REALLY knew where old Joe came from. Sometimes, he doesn’t really remember himself. He’s always just been around.
JOE’S TRASH, proclaims the meticulously hand-lettered sign on the side of the ancient black Ford pickup. Worn wooden slats—once painted white, but now a soft charcoal—cage the truck bed, making a place to hold the stuff he collects. Trash, not garbage. He doesn’t take food, organic stuff. Most of the folks who hire his service use that for composting anyhow.
He’s been doing this since he can recall, making the rounds every morning and every afternoon. To Leonora’s Beauty Shoppe, where the second “p” on the sign is a little crooked because Leo’s husband, Ray, got into an argument with her during the painting of it, telling her that plain ole “shop” was good enough for his ma and gran. How come it weren’t good enough for his wife? They ain’t never got round to fixing it and sometimes, if you squint at it at just the right angle, the sloppy “p” looks like one of them computer emoti-things that Ernie’s kids tried to explain to him one time. Like a scrunched-up face sticking its tongue out at you. No matter, though. The white paint on the sign is flaking and the red letters fading after years of scorching in the Texas sun. Ray keeps promising Leonora that he’ll fix the sign, touch it up, but since he’s been saying that for the past eight years, Joe reckons it’s just one of those things married couples say to each other; a conversation more habit than heard.
Joe picks up old towels, empty plastic squeeze bottles, and all sorts of trash from Miz Leo’s. Even old plastic capes and used-up hair rollers and such.
Next door to the beauty shop is the package store; just an eighteen-by-twenty hole-in-the-wall with a liquor license. Manny Hernandez owns the place and has Joe haul off all the cardboard boxes, packing materials, and other stuff that comes in shipping. Some he can resell, some he just uses to store things in.
After the liquor store and the beauty shop, Joe goes around to several different houses, some in the subdivisions. Then it’s out to some of the outlying ranches. Those, he only hits about once a week or so. Ranchers are the best at separating out the trash from the garbage. Sir Andrew (who wasn’t really a “sir” but came from England, so the name stuck) and his wife, Carla, of the Coupe Ranch are his favorites. They’ve made up several plastic bins and labeled them: one for scrap metal, one for glass and bottles, one for cardboard and paper, and another for plastics. They’re always real careful sorting so Joe doesn’t have to.
Joe takes his time going to and coming back from the ranches, stopping at scenic lookout points and wide areas in the road to pick up cans and bottles left by the day-trippers and the passers-through.
At the end of the month, after everything is sorted, he makes his trips into Cedar Springs to the recycling center and drops off everything that can go there. Two days a week he’s at his roadside stand: JOE’S TRASH, the sign reads, just like on the truck. From hubcaps to cabling to mysterious boxes of assorted odds and ends, the stand pretty much has something for everyone. He mostly gets tourists in the summer, stopping to ask for directions or to ask where the nearest toilet is. He’s got an outhouse out back of the shed, but he doesn’t let ’em use it. Makes ’em go next door into Hills and Dales. Man has to have some standards. Tourists usually drive up in monster SUVs, all decked out in multiple coats of shiny paint, screaming to anyone who looks that they’ve got more money than them crooks at Enron and less taste than a drunk after a bottle of cheap tequila.
If they do stop to buy, the men’s gazes just slide right past his ebony face; he can almost hear them thinking “boy” or the word his foster mama taught him never to say. Sometimes if it was dusk, they’d miss him entirely, his deep dark face blending into the shadows, his soft white curls cut tight to the scalp. Just another shadow, he’d think to himself. Like I always been. Just another shadow boy. Don’t know where he come from, don’t know who he is. Just been here all along. He watches them peer into the dim shed, then smiles, white teeth flashing, startling each and every one. They’d always buy something then, usually some stupid-ass piece of tourist crap that someone else had already thrown out. Guilt, fright, whatever. Got them every single damned time.
He’s old enough to remember Pappy Joe, no relation, sitting in the same rocking chair, making nice to the stuck-up bastards from the city as they tried to cheat him out of a dime or a quarter for some piece of stupid-ass junk as they drove up in their swooping huge Chevys, Fords, and Olds. Pappy Joe would just laugh and laugh after the tourists left, telling the younger Joe that the bigger the car, the smaller the dick. Joe used to get all heated up about it, angry at everyone, but time passed and eventually so did Pappy Joe, then all of a sudden it was just him, on account of Pappy Joe left him the business.
He’s mellowed now, decades and decades later, doing what the old man had always done before him: collecting, reusing, refurbishing, and selling. Occasionally finding small treasures among the detritus of other people’s lives. Now he is the old man, joints creaking almost louder than the door of the truck, tipping an imaginary hat to his lady customers, joking with the local folks. Sometimes just sitting there in the rocking chair, waiting. For what, he isn’t sure. But it’s certainly coming.
When he finds the tied-up bag at the side of the road, back near Bear Creek, he thinks he’s hit it. Jackpot. Some rich bitch tossing out her furs. It isn’t until he opens the bag wider that he begins to retch.
© 2010 MARIA LIMA