"Paper products. You've got newspapers in there. The bin's for cans and bottles."
I glanced at the station wagon. It bristled with antennas and reflectors, but no identification.
"You work for the town?" I said.
He shook his head. "Independent." He flipped the lid of my trash container and slid a pocketknife from a leather sheath on his belt, thumbed it open, then sliced the topmost bag. His motions were fluid for a man with one arm. I briefly wondered if he had always been left-handed, or whether the accident, or land mine, or whatever, had forced him to learn.
"See, this here's what I'm talking about," he said, plucking a beer can from the tear in the bag. "You've got your cans mixed with your trash." He shook the can, sniffed it and grimaced, held it away. "Not even rinsed. And what's this?" He spun the can to show me the lipstick ring, still bright red against the imported green label. Tanya had called the color Strawberry Frappe. "You married?"
"What's that got to do with anything?"
He rummaged a little more with the knife, tossing around my trash and nodding. "No kids."
I said, "Is there a point to this?"
He dropped the lid and put his hand on my shoulder, then nodded down the street. His skin gave off the silky tang of medicated talcum powder. "Take a look, son," he said. "What do you see?"
The road curved away in the morning sun. In front of each house stood the standard brown roll-out container and green bin.
"Trash," I said. I glanced at my watch.
"That's right. Now look closer. For example the yellow house with green shutters. The Daltrows. Those people know how to recycle."
A block of newspapers, neatly tied with twine, stood beside The Daltrows' containers.
"Very tidy," I said.
"You're new here, right?"
"It's my first week," I said, then added, "my first trash day," feeling a vague need to justify my implied failure to comply.
"The way it works," he said, "recycling happens every other Wednesday. Cans and bottles in the green bins, rinsed and clean. Papers stacked and tied. All containers placed approximately one foot from the street: trash barrel, bin, papers, in that order, approximately six inches apart."
I looked at the rest of the houses. Amazingly, their containers all met his criteria, standing against the curb like orderly schoolchildren waiting for the bus.
"First Wednesday of the month you put out your larger items. Appliances, furniture, and so forth. Always to the left of the containers." He patted my shoulder. "Got it?"
I nodded weakly.
"Stick with me, son," he said, and got into the wagon. His wide shoulders tilted as he reached for the gearshift with his left hand, and the wagon rolled away. His brake lights flickered in front of the Daltrows' house and he got out and opened the wagon's tailgate. He swung the green bin up, braced it with his hip, and began transferring cans, one at a time, into a cardboard box in the back of the wagon. I hit the road.
That night Tanya laughed at me from the sofa. "What the hell are you doing that for?" Six green empties stood in a row beside the sink, rinsed clean. I was wiping the lipstick--Cherries Jubilee--from the rims with a damp washcloth. Tanya was into the second half of the twelve-pack.
I muttered something about the new neighborhood and social responsibility. It had been Tanya's idea to buy the house. Or, more accurately, for me to buy it. It was such a darling house in such a darling neighborhood; she simply had to have it. Tanya was currently between careers, had been for seven months. She was a hairdresser's assistant when we met, but quit shortly thereafter because the perm solution raised hell with her nails. The house, a four-bedroom colonial in a cul-de-sac neighborhood, was above my means alone, but I reasoned that Tanya would find work soon and help with the payments.
I got her a fresh beer and sat beside her on the sofa. The floral pattern hurt my eyes, but Tanya loved it. She had seen it in the furniture store and simply had to have it. She sat smoking with her long legs curled under her, tapping ashes into the opening of her current empty on the end table.
"Are you crazy?" I said. "Why aren't you using the ashtray?" I knew the reason. It stood on the coffee table, towering with lipstick-stained butts. She knew it would eventually drive me nuts and I'd empty it.
"What's the big deal?" she said, crushing the butt out and pushing it into the can. "You join the Boy Scouts or something?"
I took the can to the sink and tried to shake the butt out. It was like a goddamned lobster trap; the butt went in but it wouldn't come out. "People do things a certain way in this neighborhood," I said. "There are rules . . ."
Some part of me didn't want to tell her about the can man. She wouldn't understand. Before we met, Tanya had attended cosmetology school, but dropped out halfway through the course. She told me she sometimes had a problem with conformity. She was currently considering learning the bass guitar. She thought it looked easy. And every band needed a bass.
Tanya popped open the beer but set it on the end table without drinking. She didn't light another cigarette right away--signs she had something to say. I pretended to watch the Home Shopping Network. "Look at that thing," I said. "Cooks pancakes on both sides."
"You said we'd talk about a ring once we bought the house."
"Hell, even an omelet."
She stared hard at me. Her beer-watery eyes were the color of sea glass, the luminous green of shattered wine bottles recycled smooth by the sea. It was hard to look away. Most men found it hard to look away from Tanya.
I said, "The mortgage here . . . it's a little higher than I thought."
She looked at me for a long time, then lit another cigarette, puffing hard and staring at the TV.
I held my ground, but later, when the Miracle Rotisserie came on and neither of us had spoken, I said, "Maybe I'll pick up a jewelry catalogue."
Two Wednesdays later the can man said, "You're getting closer." The green wagon was parked across my driveway again. The can man had his foot up on my bin and leaned on his knee, gesturing at my recyclables with his pocketknife.
"Cans are clean," he said. "Papers look good, tied up and all."
"Couldn't help but notice, though. You eat a lot of those TV dinners, Lean Cuisines and whatnot. The tins are recyclable."
"You went through my trash again?"
"I don't mean to pry, but you're not eating too well. Pizza boxes, Chinese food, paper plates. Doesn't your woman cook?"
"It's not her strong suit."
"Smokes like a brush fire though, don't she?" He waved the pocketknife at the green cans in the bin. "Likes the imported stuff too. Must get expensive. She work?"
"I don't see how that's any of your business."
"Hell, just asking. I see things, they make me think, is all. Like that shipping box in there, the one from that TV shopping network?"
"She ought to peel off the packing slip, by the way. High ticket item like that beauty cream, two hundred bucks . . . you never know if you'll need to return it."
"Two hundred . . ."
"Anyway, I bet the woman's a looker."
"Model material," I said, puffing up. I didn't mention the week Tanya had spent doing a fashion breakfast in the city. She quit because she had to get up too early.
He nodded. "Uh-huh. Saw the Nordstrom bag in there. Likes to shop, happy when she looks good."
"That's right. Do you have a point?"
He shrugged. "Only that a woman like that can get expensive real quick."
"That's my business."
He shrugged again and heaved the bin onto his tailgate. "Things don't work out, I got a daughter about your age. Good kid, low maintenance. Maybe I'll bring her around."
"When are you going to stop parking across my driveway?"
"Soon as everything's right," he said, plucking cans from the bin and standing them neatly in his box. "Takes most folks a while, but I usually get them straightened out."
When I got home that evening Tanya, having seen through my stalling technique, showed me the jewelry catalogues she had gotten tired of waiting for and had picked up herself. She had spent the better part of the day narrowing her choices down to a dozen or so rings, circled in red ink, which she pointed out over the fast-food take-out I had brought home.
"This one's nice," she said, tapping the page with a long nail, which was freshly painted, I noticed, in a starburst pattern that matched her Rhubarb Poppy lipstick.
I grunted around a mouthful of fries and reached over to flip the page. "What about these?"
"Those are friendship rings. The stones are tiny."
"Yeah, but look how nice the bands are."
She flipped the page back again, smearing the friendship rings with ketchup. "These bands are better. Anyway, I just want to get an idea about the style. The right way to do it is go to a jeweler and pick out a stone. We can do that next."
When we finished dinner I hid the fast-food wrappers at the bottom of the trash bag.
I tied the jewelry catalogues at the top of the newspaper stack two weeks later. No sense hiding them in the trash. The can man had one open on his tailgate when I came out. He was parked across my driveway.
"Man's supposed to spend two months' salary on one of these things," he said. "You play pro sports or something?"
"You buying one?"
"Not from a catalogue I hope."
I shook my head. "Went to four jewelry stores. Ask me about color, cut, clarity and carat. The four C's."
"Maybe you ought to be turning these cans in yourself," he said, closing the catalogue. He heaved the recycle bin onto the tailgate and began transferring cans and bottles. "Get your refunds."
"Is that what you do?"
"Hell yeah. We're living in a throwaway society, son. Average week I can pick up seventy-five, a hundred bucks. Just from the stuff people throw out."
"Times must be tough . . ."
"Sure are. Shelter puts it to good use."
"Saint Margaret's Church, over on Crescent. They got a homeless shelter my daughter volunteers at. Money goes to food, winter jackets. All that." He held up a plastic soda bottle, tapped the recycling symbol on the bottom. "That says it all, son. Nothing wasted." I looked at the little triangle. Somehow we had formed our own bizarre version, the can man, Tanya, and me.
I said, "This daughter . . . she's the one you told me about?"
"That's her. Hell of a girl. Too bad you're engaged now. You would've liked her."
I watched him in silence. I thought of asking about his arm, but he said, "You must've been scared for a while though. About the baby and all. Bad timing."
"The home pregnancy test."
I felt myself nodding my head, which seemed to have embarked upon a short journey somewhere several hundred feet above the neighborhood.
The can man said, "Two pink lines in that little screen and you'd a been picking out maternity wedding gowns."
He laughed. I laughed with him, a hollow sound, like wind over the mouth of an unwashed bottle.
"You're doing the right thing, though, using them condoms. Don't want to rely on any of that other fancy shit."
I didn't ask how he knew that. Didn't want to know. That night I asked Tanya how she was feeling.
"Pretty good," she said, which made sense given the amount of rinsed cans already on the counter.
"No sickness . . . like in the morning or anything?"
She shook her head, which also made sense since she rarely got up before noon.
I sat down. "Think we'll ever have kids?"
"Hope not," she said, holding her hand away and staring at the stone on her finger, which she did between each hit of beer. "I want to travel."
I had some more questions but she was mesmerized by a 131 piece makeup set on the shopping channel. I imagined she simply had to have it.
When I came out two weeks later the can man had a look, like he had something to tell me. If he wasn't parked across my driveway I might have fled.
"How's that fiancÚ of yours?" he said.
"Fine," I said. "I know about the makeup set."
"Uh huh," he said absently, then, "She switch to domestic?"
He flipped the trash container's lid and pointed to the slice in the bag.
"Light beer?" I said.
He nodded. "I'd think you were saving money, what with the ring and all. But these aren't even rinsed." He seemed offended.
I looked at the bag like it was a nest of snakes. "Lipstick on the rims?"
He shook his head. "None."
"Is that all?" I said in a faraway voice.
He shook his head again.
That afternoon I left work two hours early. A red convertible was backing out of the driveway as I approached the house. As we passed on the street the driver twisted his low-carb, light beer body in my direction. I thought I'd been spotted but he was only primping his hair in the rearview. Young, blond, a face straight out of a boy-band.
I bet Tanya simply had to have him.
When I pulled out of the garage two weeks later the can man was on his cell phone. He flipped it closed as I approached, then nodded at the living room set standing near the curb: sofa, love seat, and recliner. For fun I had set them in a triangle, the way they had once stood in the living room. The floral pattern didn't look much better outdoors.
"Redecorating?" the can man said.
I shook my head. "Recycling. Maybe the shelter can use it."
He held the cell phone up. "Daughter's on her way with the van."
I nodded and looked away.
"Listen," he said, "sorry about that other one. She was . . ."
"A throwaway," I said.
"You get the ring?"
I had been fingering it in my pocket. I held it up on my pinky. The stone glittered like a fallen star in the morning sun. "I've kept it on me since she left. Almost threw it out a dozen times."
"It ain't easy. Give it a little more time, son. It gets better."
I shoved the ring back into my pocket. I eased into the love seat and motioned toward the recliner, and the two of us sat in the small triangle of furniture, talking trash and waiting for the van.
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