One mississippi two mississippi three mississippi four mississippi, belch. Hank counts the intervals in the truck engine’s belching as it inchworms its way down the narrow alleys, the sound muffled by the early morning dark. He’s complained to the city mechanic, but it’s always the same response: there are priorities in city spending, and a truck that runs, belching or not, isn’t a priority. So, every four mississippis the engine belches and Hank begins his count anew. He almost wishes he were still riding the bumper instead of up in the cab. But he’s been promoted, or that’s how it’s supposed to feel, driving instead of hauling cans. At least the heat works.
Back when he hauled cans, he’d get so cold that by the time he got home his hands would be too icy-stiff to turn the doorknob, and he’d have to knock until Versa opened up for him. She’d let him in and they’d sit in the kitchen with the woodstove blazing, and she would remove his gloves like she was peeling a banana, and then she’d put his big, callused, hands in her own, and gently warm his fingers. Cold hands used to mean the love of his wife, of being finally warm enough to remove the rest of his work clothes and take her into the bedroom. That was when Versa wanted him, right after his hands warmed, before he had a chance to clean the stink of work from his body. Jesus God, he misses those times.
Four mississippi, belch. As Hank maneuvers his truck out of one alley to get to the next, he spots Lina Collins’ truck a few blocks down, stopped, at the entrance to an alley. At first he thinks she’s behind his own house, thinking how funny it is that someone else takes his own trash away. Why isn’t she moving? Has Versa forgotten to bag properly, or has the damn can turned over as it does in the wind no matter what he does to weigh it down? They are not supposed to stop the truck for more than a few seconds. This is another mandate from above: don’t stop, keep moving, be efficient. She must be broken down, he thinks, and wonders if he should go help. Lina’s an odd one and Hank doesn’t have it in him today to deal with her. He coaxes his own ailing truck across the street, like a barge lumbering through water. He takes a last look up the street and sees Lina jump in the cab and her truck moves away, sucked into its next alley just as Hank is into his.
In the early early morning, Lina rises. Even on the days she doesn’t have to work, it is dark when she awakens, not the grayish dark of almost-dawn, but the dark of the middle of the night, the dark of the early am hours. It is the dark of bakery workers night-custodians second-shift 7-11 employees, of garbage collectors, which is what Lina is. Waste disposal technicians, they are supposed to call themselves—that’s what it says on her paycheck. I am a waste disposal technician, she is supposed to say when she is invited to the mayor’s house at Christmas with the rest of the city employees. Lina likes the mayor; he’s a nice man, and it’s nice that he has them over for eggnog and cookies and tries to make them feel not-invisible, but she can’t say all of those words, all that technician stuff. She doesn’t mind being a garbage collector.
So. In the early early morning, Lina rises and makes her way through her little house, wends her way through the hallway stacked with bundles of magazines—each bundle contains exactly 23 issues. The magazines must be bundled in chronological order, must no longer contain any tear-out ads—those go in a different place—and cannot be mixed with other titles. Ms. may not be bundled with Cosmo. Not even with Teen Ms. Once she gets through the hallway, she has to make it through the living room. Although she has to slide sideways to move around the room, and despite the fact that she can no longer open the curtains to let light in the front window for fear that someone who doesn’t understand will look inside, she loves this room.
This is where Lina brings the things she rescues from ending up at the landfill, things she finds and sets aside somewhere safe each morning as she and her fellow “technicians” rumble through the alleys. Up in the cab, she has developed a kind of sonar, an ability to know there will be something worth saving in the next set of cans, and, although she is not supposed to and she’s learned not to do it more than a couple of times each trip, she sometimes stops the truck and scoops a treasure or two out of the garbage cans before her two bumper riders can pick them up. She timed herself once: she can stop jump out scoop treasure get back in and under way in 45 seconds flat. She’s not sure why neither of her guys has ever said anything about this; she knows they’ve seen her do it. But, she continues, and they say nothing. Unlike the magazines, she cannot bundle the treasures in the living room in such tidy packages. Instead, she creates little sculptures of these items, mesas and canyons of Campbell’s soup cans, skyscrapers and pyramids made of green and brown bottles, and it pleases her.
Lina thinks she might be a hoarder. She thinks this because of the show she has begun to watch on television. It’s like the one where family and friends try to get their drug addicted, alcoholic, bulimic, anorexic, shopaholic, gambling addicted relatives to go into “treatment.” Lina doesn’t watch that show; she is embarrassed for the family and friends sitting on the couch in the hotel room where the intervention is “staged,” their tears flowing or painfully repressed, some angry, some just plain beaten down by the actions of their addicted sondaughterhusbandwife; she hates the addicts with their self -serving reasons and excuses—I was raped, my mother/father didn’t love me enough, my pain is greater than yours--all of that crap. But, this new show, this one about people who collect things and can’t get rid of them even when faced with divorce or eviction, she likes this show. So now she is pretty sure she is a hoarder. She likes saying the word. It sounds like safety, like it should be accompanied by a picture of a warm, fluffy blanket. “Look at my hoarder,” you could say as you wrapped yourself in it. “See how warm and unassailable I am,” you would say. Hoarder. To hoard. To save. To be safe.
He no longer comes home with cold hands, and at first Versa seems not to want his touch, seems not to know if she wants him at all. He isn’t the same person, she tells him; she isn’t sure who he is. He can’t go back to riding the bumper, can’t refuse the promotion to driver, and Versa claims she’ll get used to this new Hank, this Hank with warm, softer hands who smells now of soap and diesel fuel.
Sometimes he stands at the back door like he used to when his hands were too cold to turn the knob; he waits, wondering if she can sense him there, hoping she’ll open the door for him, wishing she’ll take his hands in hers like she once had, and pretend to warm them in hers. He longs for her to take him inside.
to hoard (verb)
In the afternoons, when Lina gets home from work, she settles in to watch her programs—this new one about hoarders, and the ones she orders when she Googles the words she learns from the TV show—hoarder, compulsive saver, squalor saver. Documentaries about people like the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, who died with (or some say because of) their hoard. Lina’s favorite is Ida Mayfield Wood, who kept a diamond necklace in a Cracker Jack box in among the thousands of boxes of her other precious things. Practical, thinks Lina, who would think to look there? After she watches a biography of Ida, Lina places her favorite watch, the one she found at the bottom of a can several months back, in a Mike-n- Ikes box. It is still a little sticky from the remnants of the jellies, but Lina imagines that the Cracker Jack box must have had a sugary residue, and probably even some peanut skins stuck inside, and if that hadn’t bothered Ida Mayfield Wood, then this won’t bother Lina. The watch is still in there but Lina doesn’t feel much satisfaction from the placement of the box yet—she’s moved it around, placing it first in the kitchen cupboard where she keeps the cereal—cardboard, boxes, rectangles, 90-degree angles, these shapes belong together—but that isn’t quite right, so she moves it to the bathroom—the colors on the box match her towels, but for reasons she cannot yet identify, it does not belong in a bathroom. Finally, she places it in her bedroom closet, high up on a shelf, a shelf that hasn’t yet been designated for anything specific, which is what the watch in the Mike-n-Ikes box seems to be—nothing specific. That’s where it is now, but it bothers her, it nags. She’s thought about removing it, maybe putting the watch in a different container, or the watch and box both in a new container and then in a new spot, but she hasn’t figured out where that might be, so for the time being, it’s in the closet, and it’s an uncomfortable itch in the back of her brain, like the one she gets in the back of her throat when she eats popcorn.
Versa knows Hank worries. She wishes she could tell him not to, tell him everything is, will be, fine; she wishes she could reassure him that she is fine, explain that it will just take time, that she’ll get used to it; she wants this to be the truth; she wants to be the kind of woman, the kind of wife, who can ‘be there’ for her man, no matter what; the problem seems to be . . . the problem is that she’s not that woman, that wife. She thinks Hank is right to be worried; there is something to worry about; she sympathizes with him in his anxiety; it is well founded.
Versa knows what Hank does not. She knows that it was the dirty, ripe smell of garbage that made her want him. Before the promotion, it was the way the smell got into the calluses on his hands, into his hair right down to the roots. The smell was as much Hank as his gray eyes, the scar on his left thigh, the sound of his voice. When they made love, she felt the smell seeping into her, thrusting into her, and as much as it should have repulsed her, she instead felt that it made them both beautiful. She never told him that she kept the sheets from their lovemaking out of the wash for days, burying her face in them as soon as he left for work, inhaling the commixture of rotten food, her sweat, his semen. Only after the power of the smell diminished did she allow herself to put the sheets in the laundry. Lately, she wishes she’d thought to seal a few sets of the used linens, maybe some of Hank’s undershirts, in plastic so she’d have that part of him now, and later after he retires. After he’s been completely washed away from her.
As it is, there are times when she knows he is outside the door waiting for her to acknowledge him, to let him in, and she almost cannot turn the knob, cannot make herself allow this stranger in.
Val Pexton is a Wyoming native who grew up on a cattle ranch in the southeast of the state. She holds a BA in Studio Art from Humboldt State University, a BA and MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wyoming. Since 2001, Val has taught in the English Department at UW. She has published short stories in The Owen Wister Review, Copper Nickel, and theotherroom.com. Currently, she is working on a novel.