by A. D. Smith
Harold Tinkham was a slender standoffish accountant, with black horn-rim glasses. He worked for a struggling small accounting firm in a mid-size city of the Pacific Northwest.
Harold’s painfully strict attitude for details and a low self-esteem made him ideal for his career. For Tink, which is what everyone called him, figures on a page could be relied upon to make sense. The administration of numbers in a column held no surprises for him. Unlike people who embarrassed him and shunned his approach, documents were happy to encompass his attention. Numbers were his friends, sequences were logical and reassuring truths, and having his desk neat and tidy was a must.
Tink’s adventure began when his garbage can was turned upside down just before the Thanksgiving holiday. He was frowning at the large, golden sugar maple leaves which had invaded his otherwise manicured lawn. The ragged-edged leaves rocked back and forth and flittered in the breeze, only to land at his feet.
Tink pulled at his curly brown hair and shoved his glasses back up his nose in protest. He thought it unfair that he had to continually pick up his neighbor’s leaves. After all, he didn’t have any giant leaf-making vegetation in his yard! He was not contributing to the neighborhood’s fouling, so why should these leaves flitter into his yard! A blustery northwest wind picked up and pressed against Tink’s thin pressed slacks. “Brrr,” Tink groaned.
The breeze was icy and smelled of smoke from a nearby chimney. As he picked at the leaves stuck between the teeth of his broom rake, he heard the blaring bleeps of the garbage truck backing down the alley. It reminded him that he had not made a last-minute canvass of his garbage can. He always made sure it was filled to the brim. After all, he paid for a full can of garbage, why pay for anything less.
He rushed back to his postage-sized rear yard to take a quick look. Once Tink was satisfied that his plastic 33-gallon sized can, the largest he could buy, was full, he pivoted on his heels and mentally prepared himself for another bout with the pesky leaves. As the heavy diesel smell from the forest-green garbage truck assaulted his sinuses, Tink happened to peer back to the alley. A round-bellied man with a bright orange and yellow safety vest over a plaid wool shirt, rolled off his high driver’s perch and dropped with a crunch to the graveled alley below. He wore an old sea-green seahawk cap on the far back half of his balding head. Tufts of hair poked out on either side.
Tink thought the man looked like a clown with his beady eyes and large nose. Tink chuckled and leaned up against the gray-painted, rough clapboard exterior to his house. He really didn’t want to play with the leaves, watching the garbage man seemed to be a better alternative.
He watched the driver waddle back toward the rear of the truck and then briefly pause midway. He opened a compartment above the rear duals and reached into the dark rectangular alcove and brought out a black plastic bag.
Tink smiled as he remembered how his mother use to call the garbage collectors G-men. He was about to turn away and make his way back to the front yard when he noticed something very odd. The man had transferred his can of garbage into the plastic bag.
Tink recalled his lowered jaw which had dropped in dismay. He couldn’t understand why the man separated his garbage.
The chubby man slung the bag full of garbage back into the same chamber from which he had previously procured the plastic bag. Then he returned the garbage can to its perch, flinging the lid onto the can, and waddled back to the cab.
Blue-gray smoke spiraled upward as the truck moved forward. Tink stepped out into the alley and stared after the garbage truck. The truck bounced over the interceding crossing, a paved boulevard, and proceeded into the next alley. Tink watched carefully, but the man did not bag his neighbor’s garbage. He banged the can on the edge of the rear opening, tilted the can, pouring the trash into the void and returned the can back where it first sat.
Tink took his glasses off and gaped at the man as he began to re-climb into the truck’s cab once again. He rubbed his eyes, and looked again. He just couldn’t understand why the garbage man had singled out his garbage.
The garbage truck lurched forward again, moving down the alley to the next set of cans. Tink watched as the garbage man emptied the pair of cans in to the rear compartment, but he had never repeated what he had done with Tink’s garbage.
Tink knew he had to make a decision. Should he pursue and follow after the garbage truck and attempt to solve this mystery, or should he negate his curiosity and return to the house, always to wonder why. Then, there was the possible outcome that he could follow the truck and still not find out why. The truck was growing smaller in the distance.
Tink was reminded of one of the few times his calculations on the Mrs. Wiemer’s taxes would not balance. It rarely happened to him. He was always extremely careful. He was the only one in his office who methodically filled out a checklist for each client. But try as he could, each time he ended, the totals didn’t match. It made him crazy for days until he found out that his calculator had a psychotic break and refused to answer any equation the same way twice. It finally winked off, never to return to service again. What Tink remembered the most about that episode in his life was the huge sigh of relief he felt when he discovered why he could not do his job. The mystery was replaced with the identification of the cause.
Tink knew he couldn’t go through the not-knowing again and searched his pockets for his car keys. He fired up his father’s blue and white 1965 rambler, the only thing he had left from his parent’s estate, and gave chase of the garbage truck. It wasn’t much of a chase, as the truck driver continued his methodical route down one alley and up another. Tink felt every pot hole and ripple on the uneven dirt surface through his seat. The journey carried him behind back yards and the backside of life. Tink had never seen his neighborhood and his town from this angle before. Front yards of trimmed lawns and white washed porches concealed the dreads of the back yards filled with rusting automobiles and forgotten appliances.
As the garbage truck driver went about his business, Tink never saw him repeat the same behavior as he showed in front of his garbage can. He followed the lumbering truck at about one hundred yards, through a dozen alleys, behind stores and an industrial area until the truck bounced and rocked up on the highway which lead west of town.
“Where is he going now?” Tink wondered to himself.
Tink knew that the transfer station for the community’s trash refuge was east of town. That was where he had dumped off a couple bags of leaves last week. If the garbage truck was full, it was logical to assume that the truck driver should be headed in the opposite direction.
He followed the truck for a couple miles out of town. Houses thinned out along the highway’s berm and the countryside opened up into stubble fields and ditches filled with amber colored cat tails. The road began to gently swing into a long arching curve. Tink looked across the barren field to where the road nearly doubled back on to itself. He noticed another garbage truck parked on the gravel edge. It started to pull away and made a u-turn in the highway, which would soon make it an oncoming vehicle. But when Tink looked again, the departing truck exposed a black SUV which was parked on the side of the road.
The truck which he was following flashed its lights in greeting as the two trucks passed each other. The garbage truck which Tink was following, pulled off the road, coming to a rest nearly at the same spot that the first truck had previously sat. Tink saw a gravel road leading away from the highway. It was a good place to pull off the highway and watch the interactions of the truck driver and the SUV operator. Tink slowed and pulled off onto the side road. He found the new road cut through the landscape, disguising him from view. Tink turned off the engine and left the car to climb up the side of an embankment and watch the truck driver.
By the time Tink got situated and could see the truck, the driver had already left his cab and was shaking the hand of a tall, slim, bald man dressed in a layered dark suit and tie over a white shirt. A blue-gray smoke ring rising up from behind the black SUV alerted Tink to the presence of another participant. He could not see him other than a sleeve and shoulder.
The driver moved back to the rear of his truck and retrieved a bulging black trash bag. He carried it back and handed to the bald man in the suit. Since Tink had never seen any other stop where the garbage man had placed garbage into a bag, Tink had to assume that the trash bag which the garbage man was handing over, had to be his refuse. Tink watched mystified as the garbage man waved and returned to his truck. He fired up the truck and turned the truck back on the highway, back the way he had come.
With the absence of the truck, Tink was able to get a good view of the second man. He joined the first man at the rear of the black vehicle, where they opened the hatched back window. The second man, who wore a similar dark suit, was darker-skinned with stringy, braided hair, which hung down below his shoulders.
The bald man tossed the plastic bag into the vehicle, while the second man slammed the hatch closed. They then moved back to the front of the vehicle by parallel routes, the bald man to the driver’s side and the darker man to the passenger seat.
Tink again had to make another decision. Did he continue to follow, or did he give up and go back home.
‘I have come all this way, I might as well follow it to the end,’ he thought to himself. He slid back down the grade and rushed back to his car. His old Rambler sputtered and coughed black sooty smoke as Tink noticed the black SUV crossing his view of the rear mirror. They were traveling back the same way Tink had traveled, repeating the route that the garbage trucks had taken. Tink put the car into reverse and entered the highway backward, only to see a screeching orange pickup narrowly missing him. The driver waved his fist angrily at Tink as he recovered from his swerving maneuver and preceded on down the road. Seeing a close-up look at the side of the pickup as it flew by, annihilated his comfort level and set off an instant knot in his stomach. As he drove down the road, Tink felt his palms began to sweat and his knees started shaking. He began to doubt his decision to continue following his garbage.
‘After all, what could they gain by taking my trash,’ Tink wondered to himself. At that moment, the black vehicle ahead of him darted off the highway and entered a graveled road. Tink slowed down and turned off the highway before coming to a halt at the intersection. He looked up at the road sign. It was labeled ‘road 162’. Tink looked down the road. He could see a dusty rooster tail coming from the vehicle as it traveled down the predominately straight road. The road disappeared into the far distance where Tink could see the trailing edge of an intermittent ridge. There were no trees, no streams, only sagebrush and greasewood.
Tink swallowed, cracked his neck with both of his hands and prepared himself to follow after the two men. He flipped his gear shift into drive and resigned himself to going the last mile to solve this mystery.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by A. D. Smith