Fiction by Dan Chilton
Pull to the curb. Set the engine to neutral. Parking brake on. Climb out of the truck. Two steps down. Black containers in the back of the truck. Blue containers stay on the curb. If the back of the truck is full, press the red button and wait forty-five seconds. If it’s not, climb back into the truck. Move on to the next house.
It’s a new route but the methods are the same. It’s early morning and the only people to be seen are skinny blonde women in expensive-looking yoga pants and wireless earbuds. Their ponytails swinging back and forth across their backs as they pass on the opposite side of the street. They do not look at me or acknowledge my presence within their neighborhood. Passing by like a ghost chilling your spine as it’s only hint of existence. Like a stagehand in all black, lurking in the shadows.
Another stop. Black container’s full. Two hands to lift it into the truck. Empty the contents inside. Back on the curb in the right spot. Back in the truck. Moving to the next house.
Someone told me once that in Disneyworld, the guests are never supposed to see any of the employees cleaning or removing trash. Else the magic will be broken. So, they’ve got some underground network of tunnels or secret doors or something where the crew can pop in and out quickly enough to throw out the bulging bags of fast-food scraps before the family wearing the Mickey Mouse ears can have their trip ruined.
Another stop at the curb. One black. One blue. Two hands on the black. Into the back of the truck. Back on the curb next to the blue. A woman is standing nearby in her yard looking my way and sipping from a wine glass, one of her little fingers sticking out to the side. Rule number one: avoid eye contact. Collectors learn early that if you happen to break the Disneyworld spell and they see you, don’t make it worse by looking them in the eyes. Skirting her gaze, I move back towards the driver’s door.
“Hey, you’re new here, right?”
A moment to process. Rule number two is to never address them unless there’s no way around it.
Looking in her direction, the roots of her blonde hair are just visible— displaying a brunette hiding underneath.
“You’re new on this route. Right?” she asks again.
I say that I am. Though her words are more of a statement than a question.
“Well just so you’re aware… the last one before you wasn’t so good. He’d come too late in the day and wouldn’t put my trash cans back in the right place. It’s not that hard to put them together. Facing the right way. Just off the curb.”
The black and blue are slightly askew, not quite pointing in the right direction.
“I called your office to find out the details on this route and what the exact policy is you’re supposed to be following. They say you’re to be out of my neighborhood by 7:15 AM at the very latest.”
“Anyways, I did talk to them about my displeasure with the last one of you who picked up our trash. Told them my piece on how they should punish him. I’m glad they’ve got someone new now.”
Thank you, ma’am.
Rule number one lingers as I avoid those overly blue eyes and try not to stare at the tiny streak of brunette lurking beneath the blonde. Fool’s gold. There’s a timer ticking in the back of my head. 6:35 AM. Thirteen blocks to go. Twelve houses per-block. Six per-side. To make it back in time and not get another write-up, some corners will need to be cut.
“Go on now,” she says as she secures the front white-washed gate and turns back towards the sterile two-story house. Indistinguishable from the two neighboring houses. Each a photocopy of upper-middle class utopia. Manicured hedges and all.
Quickly and silently realign the black and blue in front of her gate. Three inches apart. Six inches from the curb. Facing the street. Lids closed.
Back in the truck. Pull to the next house. One black. No blue. Throw the contents of the black into the truck. It’s now full. Press and hold the big red button. Keep hands and feet away from the back. The buzzing begins and the mechanical lift starts the process that will last precisely forty-five seconds to finish.
There’s a story that’s circulated the hub for years of some kid falling into one of these lifts as it was processing. The Collector at the time had been wearing headphones and wasn’t near the back. Hadn’t heard the screams of terror as the lift crushed the life out of the kid. Hadn’t known about it until the next day when he’d been called in early when the night crew stumbled upon the mess. The Company had paid out millions. Now headphones aren’t allowed. Now Collectors have to stand by the red button until the lift is done doing its job.
Another flash of blonde in my peripherals on the other side of the street. Calculating in my head the rest of my route, the time is concerning.
At the next stop, the black and blue have been mixed. There are blue contents in the black and black contents in the blue. There’s no time to sort as Company Policy mandates getting back to the hub on time every day with only two excusable tardies each month. Throw the black into the back. Put it back on the curb. Next, throw the blue contents into the back. There is a large clank in the truck that sounds like a piece of metal. Most metal can’t go in the truck or else it could damage the lift. If the lift gets damaged, it comes out of my pay. If I lose my pay, I won’t be able to pay my rent. No rent money means out on the streets. It will need to be found before moving on to make sure there’s no damage to the truck.
Two steps to get into the back. Inside the truck full of the neighborhood’s excess. Bags of cat litter with holes leaking out like sand. A cracked smartphone that looks nearly new. A box of empty pill bottles. An old Bible next to a couple of hardback romance novels. And beneath it all, a black handgun.
Picking it up with a gloved hand, its weight is satisfying. I don’t know much about guns. Never having been able to afford one. Looking at the black steel in my gloved hand, the realization strikes that I’ve never actually held a gun before. The closest being a visit to The Patriot’s Museum downtown sometime last winter.
A flash of blonde from behind allows for a full picture. A Collector standing in the back of a Company truck holding a gun, dark skin juxtaposed to the entire neighborhood.
Rifling through the back, there’s a purple satin shirt with the tags still on it. Wrapping the gun in it, I place it beneath the driver’s side seat and move on to the next house.
Black in the back. Blue on the curb. Looking at the plastic digital watch on my wrist to calculate the rest of this morning’s route, the tardy write-up lurks ahead of me.
At 8:07 AM, the garage is empty of people. All but one other Collector have already gotten back, as evident by the packed-in Company trucks. Driving along the rows of trucks parked in numerical order from 001 to 078, there’s nobody else to be seen in the bay.
Pull into spot 064. Shut off the engine. Check the parking brake. Take the keys out of the ignition and place them on the dash. Remember the guy who killed his battery by leaving them in last year. Remember how he lost his job without warning. Two steps down to the pavement. 24 inches between the trucks on either side. Tomorrow, the trucks will be clean again and ready for another round of collecting, the evening crew having earned their cozy place within the bay.
“Sixfor, you’re late.”
A Beige shirt walking this way with a clipboard in hand. I’m a brown shirt. Meaning that I’m a Collector. The evening crew is an orange shirt.
“Seven minutes over. Unfortunately, that means I’ll need to write you up.”
His name is Robert. The morning soup who puts on a friendly act to all of the brown shirts even while he’s handing down Company chastisements.
I say, OK. That I understand.
“Nothing personal, Sixfor. You know it’s just Company policy.”
I’m certain he doesn’t remember my name. The nickname Sixfor only took a couple of weeks to emerge and now it’s all the Beiges know me as. Sometimes they say it with an upturned lip. As if it’s clever.
He scribbles nonsense on his clipboard.
Beige means a degree. It means that you do paperwork. It means you get a big paycheck and drive a nice car. That there’s a naturally brunette blonde woman with a bottle of expensive wine and sleeping pills waiting for you at home.
Holding out the clipboard, “Please sign here and initial here.”
Take the pen with the Company logo on it. Mark the spots with a scribble. Sign away my monthly bonus.
Waving and saying goodbye, the walk to the bay door is less sweet than usual. At home, there’ll be something easy to eat like microwaveable chicken or instant ramen. Then, off to bed for a few hours before a second shift at the Quik Mart. Then, back to bed for a few hours. Then, back here by 4 AM sharp. An exhausting cycle but one that can’t be broken without ending up on the streets. Mom and dad had left some money behind but the State had taxed the hell out of it, taking their share. The debt collectors just behind them, like vultures on an already picked carcass. Anything left was small numbers in a tight checking account.
“Hey Sixfor, did you forget something?”
He’s next to the truck looking in at where the gun is laying, wrapped in purple satin.
Rushing back towards the truck, I explain that there’d been a perfectly good shirt with the tags still on it in one of the black bins. That it only had some small stains that could be cleaned.
“Come on, man. You know that’s against Company Policy. I can’t allow you to take any of the collection home with you.”
I say, I know. That I was hoping he’d let it pass this one time.
“I wish I could. You know that I like to run a laid-back shift. But when it comes to the Company rules, I gotta stick to ‘em. It’s the only way I get’ta keep wearing this badge.”
He knuckles his nameplate with the company logo brandished across it in gold text. Below, in much smaller black text, his name.
I say that I understand. That it won’t happen again.
Reach under the seat. Gently unwrapping the gun from the shirt. Leave the thing deeper under the seat. Hand over the satin. Try to look sheepish in doing it.
“Because I like you, I’ll keep this between the two of us. Just keep in mind that if it wasn’t me here, you’d have been in deeper trouble. You’re lucky it’s me.”
I thank him and offer what should look like a genuine smile.
“See you tomorrow, Sixfor.”
He walks back towards the air-conditioned office, whistling some familiar song. Quickly grabbing the gun, I place it in the waistband of my matching Company brown slacks. The metal is cool against my skin. I watch the beige of his shirt walk away and imagine dark red creeping across it.
Two blocks to the bus. $1.25 per ride. $2.50 a day. $50 a month. Five miles to home takes approximately thirteen minutes. Today, the bus smells like urine and sterilization cleaner. Distinct from the sour smell of garbage that others can most certainly smell on me. A smell that’s not easy to forget. A man in rags is sleeping next to me in the far back of the bus, his beard colored different shades of dirt. Slipping out of his hand is a stained brown paper bag with a bottleneck peeking out of it. Drunk and asleep on the bus before 9 AM with no destination in mind. No Company write-ups. No Beige shirts breathing down his neck. No stuffy suburbs with rich housewives looking down their noses from their front lawns.
No bed in a heated building.
He shifts, snorts, and rolls over away from me.
Twelve minutes in. Pull the yellow cord to make the bell ring. The bus pulls to the curb. Climb down the stairs next to the now-empty black and blue. The bus pulls away, leaving me standing on the sidewalk adjusting my pants to accommodate the extra weight beneath my waistband.
My apartment is just around the corner. An old building that hasn’t been renovated in years and has a specific flavor of mothballs in all of the hallways. Mostly old people and poor college students live here. People who can’t afford to live closer to downtown. And me. Unit 213. Second floor. It’s a studio with a half kitchen and bathroom. No washing machines in the building. The water heaters usually stop working around 11 AM.
Inside, the threadbare couch is more comfortable than it has any right to be. Laying the handgun on the cluttered coffee table, between mugs of stale coffee and empty beer cans, it strangely doesn’t look out of place. There’s one last beer inside the fridge which opens with a sigh of relief. Clicking on the TV, some infomercial for antidepressants that might cause heart failure blinks on. Exchange the remote for the gun. It’s black steel with a plastic diamond-patterned pad on the grip. Having seen enough action flicks with dad years back, memory serves well as my thumb fingers the button on the side. The magazine drops out and lands on the spotted carpet. Picking it up and feeling its weight, there are no bullets inside. The thing is grimy and spit only does so much.
“…if you or a loved one are having feelings of emptiness, thoughts of self-harm, and/or suicide, ask your doctor or local pharmacy if this treatment is right for you…”
The first beer after a shift tastes especially refreshing and always goes down the fastest.
The gun is light without bullets. Like an illegal paperweight. Considering where I could even get bullets from, nothing comes to mind. A couple years back, the Law of Averages was announced on all of the news stations. A new license required for all firearm and ammunition sales after some poor Mexican kid somewhere out in North Carolina pulled a gun on some redneck harassing his mom at the park. Supposedly, the guy had a history of sexual assault and harassment. The kid got six years. The guy, a slap on the wrist. The judge cited good behavior and a respectable family life and career. The riots lasted two weeks before crackdowns began.
The license costs four months of cumulative pay for a Collector.
“…ever since I got on this treatment, I feel like a new person! Like I can finally be happy with everyday life. My wife and I almost split last year but now we’re seeing a couple’s counselor and talking again. All because of this treatment and…”
Click. The TV flicks over to another channel. On this one, a preacher with coal black hair that looks painted on is talking to a congregation of countless beige faces.
“…Christ says that we are to be colorblind, my children. That we shall not see the dark skin of our neighbors or the urban accent of our waiters. No, my children. For we live within a world of forgiveness and acceptance. We must emulate Christ in our sight and look past the station of our skin to see the sinner beneath…”
The guy in unit 207 sold me painkillers once a couple of weeks back after nearly throwing out my back on a shift. Cracking his door, a whiff of sweet skunk smell drifted out into the hallway. He had held out a plastic baggie with a handful of blue and white chalky pills inside. Handing a wad of bills in return, the clutter and haze of his apartment creeps back into memory. Cluttered vinyl collection in old milk cartons; clothes thrown over the backs of chairs; a silver handgun on the table next to a glass bong and an overfilled ashtray.
He answers the phone after three rings. Just as I remember that his name is Domo. In a hushed voice, I ask about the bullets. He says that he has some extras he’d be willing to sell me. I ask how much. He tells me the price for three and it’s a week’s pay. He tells me that it’s fair and that it costs him more than that and that he’s giving me a deal. I tell him OK. That I’ll come pick them up before I leave for my night job later that evening. I say goodbye and the phone line goes dead.
“…we must accept the lower stations of our fellow sinners as they work towards the forgiveness of the Lord, our God. For they are just like us, my children. They too seek the pearly white gates of eternity…”
The gun’s weight feels good.
Black in the back. Blue on the curb. If it’s too heavy to lift, too bad. Find a way to get it into the back before moving on. Company policy mandates that no trash can be intentionally left behind. Company policy also mandates that Collectors cannot ask for help from residents under any circumstances. Including, but not limited to, emergencies. Those are restricted to the Company emergency radio and sanctioned by middle management— those who wear beige and drink beer that’s sold in individualized boxes and sealed in wax. So, hope that nobody is throwing out a back-breaking TV or old furniture, stained from wine or sex or something worse.
Domo had handed me six rounds of bronze cased ammunition from a bare hand. Handing over the wad of cash that could have paid a large chunk of next month’s rent, the bullets quickly disappeared from sight deep into my pocket where they silently clattered on the long walk back to my room. The night was long and unfriendly, the black steel having kept me awake with its visions of blue and red. Of an even smaller unit than this one. Of scheduled meals and court dates.
The gun now rests securely beneath the brown of my Company-issued jacket.
Pull to the next house. Only a black, no blue. Empty the black. Back on the corner. Back into the truck. Moving down the street.
Twenty empty blacks and two mixed blues later. Once more hopping out of the truck down to the hard pavement. Black and blue are mixed again. Frustration. Denial. Acceptance. Grab the black. Throw it into the back. Too much force causes the whole thing to go deep into the back of the truck. Climb up the ladder and into the sinking trash bags with a sigh. Finish emptying the container. Throw it out of the truck. Back down on the pavement. Move back towards the driver’s side.
A quick glance says that it’s the blonde from the other day. Holding another glass of wine. Her little finger extended even further than before. The brunette roots are magically gone now.
“Excuse me, but your company policy says that you need to place my trash cans back in their proper place on the curb. Just how they were before you got here.”
I nod to show I hear her and move back to realign the trash cans. Six inches from the curb. Three inches apart.
“Also, you’re barely making it on time today,” she’s looking at an expensive looking phone in her hand. “It’s already past seven.”
The gun in my pocket feels heavy. Screaming at me.
I say nothing.
“Better hurry on up.”
Back in the truck. Pulling around the corner to the next block. The blonde is watching from her front lawn with her phone to her ear.
It’s 8 AM exactly back at the bay. All but two spots are occupied and it’s quiet. Pull into spot 064 and kill the engine. Check the keys aren’t left in the ignition. Parking brake on. Drop down onto the hard pavement.
“Sixfor, welcome back.”
Robert. His clipboard is out in front of him, as usual.
“Glad to see that you’re back on time today. Let’s work on making that time a bit earlier each and every day. Okay? The sooner all the Collectors are back, the sooner us management gets to go on home.”
The comfort of the office comes to mind with its snack food and heaters and couches. The office that Collectors only visit to sign for missing paychecks and write-ups.
Pointing to a spot on the clipboard, “Please sign here.”
I ask what it is.
“Just an agreement that you’ll be back before 7:45 starting tomorrow. It’s just a formality, nothing to get concerned about.”
Begrudgingly, my hand takes the pen and marks the paper.
“Keep up the good work, Sixfor.”
He turns and begins to walk away, whistling to himself.
The weight beneath my jacket is screaming again.
“My name isn’t Sixfor.”
He turns to face me and fingers the clipboard.
“I said, my name isn’t fucking Sixfor. It’s Alex.”
He says OK. That he didn’t mean anything by it. That he would try to remember. He shuffles back towards the office, gripping his clipboard in front of him. Not looking back at me.
The beige of his shirt turns dark maroon as he walks away. The steel screams subside into silent clarity. Company policy disallows subordinate behavior; cursing; violence. I know this. Yet, the walk out of the bay and into the morning sunlight feels better than usual.