by Carol Reid
part 1 of 2
From the first day of creation when I commenced to make my rounds collecting trash, it struck me that the residents of Hammersea Road were not the most neighborly of neighbors.
Seems living south of town brings out the lone frontiersman in a person. First one to clear their seven-eighths of an acre feels a real proprietary interest in the place... watches the next one to build on a parcel near him with a bleak suspicious eye... suspecting that his neighbor’s well is going to siphon off his own, suspecting that his neighbor’s septic field is not deep enough nor set up right and that the effluent will taint the land, and each angles up his house whatever way is best not to see his neighbor’s face, for the only welcome view of a neighbor is the backside.
From where I drive my truck down to the flats the houses look like a clutch of sisters forced to share the same room or the same man, each one’s back turned to the other’s, each one truly believing the thing to be theirs alone. And beyond the houses the great grey sea bashes against the built up cliff, picking away the earth, crumb by crumb.
They pay me, each of them, seven dollars and fifty cents a month to haul away their trash once a week, that’s providing they pack it up neat and tight and leave it at the bottom of the drive. Right to the house service costs more, ten dollars monthly. Most go for the seven fifty and those I hardly set eye upon, except to extend greeting in the holiday season. But those that pay ten, with those I get acquainted a little. If I cared to know, there’d be little I couldn’t tell you about a man, knowing the nature of his offal, though once in a great while they do surprise you.
It was probably in June that the trouble started. Spring had come late and it had stayed wet, even after the warm-up and after the blossom had come out.
“Too damn late for the honey flow,” Semple Ferguson growled at me as he handed over two limp plastic bags, each knotted at the top to make a handle. He cocked his head strangely and I imagined he was squinting up at a narrow blue crack that had appeared between the clouds. To this day I wonder what Semple looked like behind that veil.
First day he come out to meet me all decked out in his beekeeper’s garb, boots and gloves taped tight to his legs and wrists, hard hat festooned with yards of black net veil, trash bags in one hand and smoldering smoker in the other, I admit I choked a little.
I seen a movie once, years ago, Robot Monster was the title. That was what come into my mind at that moment, though at the movie I wasn’t scared. In the movie you know it’s just a guy inside a costume pieced together on the cheap from deep sea gear and a gorilla suit, but when Semple came stumbling toward me, no face, no skin, no eyes showing that I could see, for a minute I just didn’t know what was in there coming at me.
By June, though, it no longer rattled me in the least to pick up trash from Semple, for in fact he turned to be a regular type guy, a bit too serious about human life, maybe, but who isn’t when you come right down to it?
That business about the honey flow had him almost as riled as it had the bees. I could hear the hives behind the house rumbling like little volcanoes as the mist settled down again into heavy rain.
“No good,” he snarled through the black netting, “bees won’t go out, trees won’t get pollinated, no honey for the comb...” He growled again, but resigned, like a beast that’s given up struggling in the trap. I thought of my own little patch of garden at home, growing quietly, unbothered by the buzzing things. When the time was right, the bees would come.
“Well, old Mrs. Bradley will be happy,” I said and wished I had just shut up, but I kept on talking, didn’t I?
“Yes, she been praying for rain ever since she put in those new tomater plants. The Wondergirls. Need 48 days of rain to set fruit in 96, so it said on the crates I hauled away last week.”
Semple said nothing, but his veiled head was pointed like a pistol toward the back side of his neighbor Bradley’s house. I threw his trash into the back and got into my truck, and even with the doors shut and the windows rolled up tight, still I fancied I could hear the purring of the hives and the little sucking sounds of Semple’s breathing behind the veil.
Somehow that day I was all het up and hungry for conversation, and I was happy to see young Harlow McKay puttering in his greenery as my truck rattled up the drive. I chalk it to just plain neatness that Harlow was persuaded to pay the extra for right to the door service. He had one carton for paper waste, another for cans, (neither of which I was to take away) and next to this, two sleek black plastic bags were waiting for me, just like every Thursday.
Some suspect such persnickety tidiness in a man, but I’d come to know Harlow for what he was, and it didn’t rattle me any longer. I tossed the trash into the carrier, making noise enough, but Harlow stayed crouched as he was, fussing over some seedlings he was setting into raised beds.
“You and your neighbor Semple should get together and curse out this rain,” I said, not meaning anything by it of course. Nothing they or I could do about the weather. He looked up, looked through me for a minute, then his faded blue eyes sort of focused in.
“Beck,” he said. No “howdy,” no “thanks for not messing up my trash,” just “Beck.” And then he laughed a little, though whether at me or at himself I’ll never know for sure. Then he motioned for me to come into his garden.
“Prince of Reds, Beck,” he said, cupping his hands over the little tomater plants like the Pope giving blessing. “Hardy to forty degrees, early bearing.” He tweaked the tiny leaves, a bit too hard I thought. “I’ll be harvesting by the first of August, rain or no rain.”
I believe he would have too, had he lived so long. He stood up then, so tall all of a sudden he could have stuck his head right through the cloud cover into the blue, had he stretched his neck just a little, but he didn’t.
“Semple’s still grumbling about the weather, eh?” I nodded yes. Maybe Harlow really didn’t care whether he saw the sun again, as long as the garden grew fast and strong enough to suit him. Semple wanted sun, and all there was was rain, and that seemed to satisfy Harlow.
Like most Thursdays I was glad enough to leave Hammersea Road behind as I hauled my load to the dump site. The place depressed me after a while, all those people living out their separated little lives, keeping as apart as if the other had a catching disease, though I suppose that’s as must be.
I believe in working together, I do, working together for the common good. We’re a community in Nature after all, aren’t we? Tell them that on Hammersea Road and see where it gets you.
Well, a like thought, maybe not in so many words, got me beckoned into Ma Bradley’s kitchen, Thursday next. She was stepping smartly up to her letterbox as I come up her driveway, and I wished her good day as I drove past. At the house I slung the trash bags over my shoulder and tossed them into the back. As usual, they were light as a feather, and slack, tied loosely at the top with paper covered wire. I watched her walk up, shuffling through a fat wad of envelopes, arranging them in some order that made sense to her, I reckon.
“Nice to know you’re not forgotten,” I said. I get little correspondence myself. Never could get into the habit of letter writing. The old lady studied me for a bit, and I wondered if she’d forgotten who I was.
“Can you stop for tea, Beck?” she said, finally. Sounded like she sighed when she spoke, but I think it was the bronchitis bothering her. No matter how chipper these little old ladies look, just get to know them a bit and nine point nine times out of ten, you’ll discover some damn thing wrong with them. Either that or they’re completely off their nut. You’d think the race of man would have worked itself out better after all these generations; a little stronger or more perfect somehow. Wiser at least.
I didn’t say no to the tea, though. It’s thirsty work, hauling trash on a summer morning, rain or no rain.
“How are the Wondergirls growing?” I asked her as we sat at her dinette drinking dishwater tea out of little cups so thin and brittle it was like sipping off a butter knife. There was a hairline crack in mine, stained orange from tea. All I could think of as I drank was that crack, like the trash man didn’t rate a first class cup. People don’t expect that I would notice things, but I do.
I reminded her, “I picked up the crates week before last. Vandermere’s Wondergirls.”
The old lady’s face went shadowed and she chewed on the inside of her cheek.
“Come on with me,” she said, and led me out back to her vegetable garden. It was kind of a weedy patch, and with the long wet spring the crops weren’t up to much. The bush beans were lying squat against the ground and the corn stood about knee high, to a grasshopper maybe. But the tomaters, my god Mabel! They stood tall and lissome against the stakes, covered with blossom. On the lower stems the fruit was already perfectly formed in miniature, smooth green as Chinese jade.
“They’re doing all right, aren’t they, Beck?” she said in a faraway kind of voice. Then she put her hand out to the tallest of them and Lord Almighty Jesus strike me dead as I speak if it didn’t stretch out its leaves to meet her hand and let itself be petted and stroked like a living, knowing thing.
Copyright © 2008 by Carol Reid