Joe locked the shop’s door but waited inside until the storm passed. It was really coming down, but it was one of those late afternoon, New England thunderstorms that had built all day and then crescendoed into a downpour around supper time, and would be over soon.
It was Tuesday, which meant Cedar Street—usually a good haul. After the rain had stopped, Joe went out to his Ford Ranger pickup truck and dumped the water out of the six blue recycling bins he had collected over the past two years since he started his hobby. He arranged them by bottle size and style—the first two bins, closest to the cab of the truck, were for plastic soda bottles; the two middle bins were for beer bottles; the last two were for both soda and beer cans.
He didn’t know exactly when he started or where the idea had come from, but he enjoyed it—walking around town, each day a different street, a different take.
The shop, on the other hand, was his wife’s idea. It was a Christian bookstore called The Son Also Rises and it was supposed to be a retirement project for the both of them, but after Caroline got sick, he figured it was only a matter of time before he sold the place.
Joe drove to Cedar Street and parked his truck in St. John’s parking lot, where he knew his bottles would be safe. Before starting his run, Joe went to the cemetery behind the church and checked on the grave—the grass was coming in thick but the potted Gladiolus had died and were slumped over, their little, dried heads resting on the stone’s base. He touched her name and then left to start his work.
Father Delany was sitting on the rectory’s porch, sneaking a cigarette, when Joe walked up. “Hi, Joe,” Father said, trying to secretly stomp out the butt.
Joe nodded in Father’s direction as he shoved a roll of plastic trash bags into his back pocket.
“The recyclables are right over there,” Father said, pointing to the garage.
“Thanks,” Joe said and plucked the few redeemable bottles from the bin, which was usually pretty sparse—maybe a few empty bottles of red wine, which were nonrefundable, and canned vegetables, which also did Joe no good, but today he found two soda bottles and three beer cans, which was unusual.
Joe picked up a can of Budweiser and looked at Father—
“The monks invented champagne; no harm done,” Father said.
Joe forced a chuckle and dropped the cans into his trash bag.
“How’s the shop?” Father asked.
“It’s OK,” Joe said. “Slow but steady.”
“Caroline would be proud of it,” Father said. “And your daughter? I haven’t seen her since the service.”
“All is well,” Joe said.
“Don’t forget, we have that support group every Thursday night. Don’t hesitate to come,” Father said.
“Thursday night is Pine Street—but thank you.”
Joe carried on down the street, each driveway punctuated with a blue, town issued recycling bin. He laced the trash bag’s strings through his belt and tied them together. His next stop was 4 Cedar Street—the Johnson’s house.
Caroline would have found this dirty and bizarre, and there was a time when Joe would’ve thought the same thing—a task for the homeless or the mentally ill, but now, he found it therapeutic. He got the same feeling from picking as he did vacuuming the shop’s floor, or dusting the plastic Mary figurines and remembrance candles. It wasn’t something he could really explain and he didn’t have to; he answered to no one now.
Mr. Johnson—his first name Joe could never remember—was playing catch with his son as his daughter etched chalk drawings onto their driveway. Mrs. Johnson sat on their porch and waved to Joe as he got closer. She was friendly, almost obnoxiously so, but probably because she had been a little hesitant of Joe’s picking at first. He had seen her, looking suspiciously out her window at him the first couple of times he picked; but he was soon deemed harmless by the neighborhood watch, and last year she even left him a Christmas gift—an empty six pack of Michelob Ultra with a card that read “Happy Holidays.”
The Johnson house was one of Joe’s most lucrative stops—at least a thirty pack of beer each week, maybe more—but as he approached the bin, he saw there was nothing of value in it. There were some water bottles and two empty bottles of Barefoot Pinot Grigio, Mrs. Johnson’s favorite wine, but no beer, no soda, no value.
Joe looked up at Mr. Johnson, who said, “It was full this morning. Someone must’ve beaten you to it.”
Joe was confused. He had never seen another picker on this street. He knew Sonny Mariani occasionally picked, but never on Cedar Street; he usually stayed on the west side of town.
“Does this mean there’s another ‘Trash Man’?” the little Johnson girl asked.
“That’s not nice, Sadie,” Mr. Johnson said to his daughter. “Joe’s not a ‘Trash Man’.”
“It’s OK,” Joe said, smiling. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“I don’t know where she got that from,” Mr. Johnson said, his face flushed.
“It’s fine, really,” Joe said, looking at the empty bin.
“Joe is your teacher, Mrs. Santos’ husband. Remember Mrs. Santos?” Mr. Johnson asked his daughter. The girl nodded shyly and hid behind her father’s leg. “The kids loved Caroline, by the way,” Mr. Johnson said. “She was a great teacher.”
Joe nodded and asked, “Do you know who took your bottles?”
Mr. Johnson shook his head and shrugged.
Joe carried on, walking to the next stop—Norm Lewis’ house. He fixated on what Mr. Johnson had said and the thought of someone else picking; another Trash Man. He looked around the neighborhood, but other than a few people, mowing their lawns or doing other household chores, there was no one outside.
Joe had gone to school with Norm Lewis nearly half a century ago. Joe never really liked him but he had always been around, a part of Joe’s life. His wife was friends with Caroline, who invited the two over every month for dinner. It drove Joe crazy, having to put up with Norm, but he did so with quiet grace he knew Caroline appreciated. The couples were polar opposites—Caroline was originally from Boston, the daughter of old money; she had a master’s degree, won Teacher of the Year three times, and was Cold Springs’ first female Town Counselor. Joe had grown up and lived his entire life in town; he stayed at home, running an informal, jewelry repair shop out of their garage as he cared for their daughter, Becky. He did most of the cleaning and the cooking—what Norm called “women’s work.” Sophie, Norm’s wife, had stayed at home and had little education. She enjoyed Tupperware parties and cheap, afternoon talk shows, unlike Caroline, who hosted book clubs and directed the local theatre’s summer production. Norm had worked at the Pioneer Paper Mill and retired when it closed, spending his “golden years” raising his cholesterol and drinking.
One time, at the annual Parish Picnic, Norm had introduced Joe to a friend as “Caroline’s wife,” to which Norm and his friend had a good laugh. Although it didn’t bother Joe at the time, and he had forgotten about the incident for many years, every time he came to Norm’s recycling bin, he remembered it. He remembered how he often introduced himself as “Caroline’s husband,” not “Joe, Caroline’s husband,” or “Caroline’s husband, Joe,” but simply “Caroline’s husband.” It was, after all, a title to be proud of and the only one he ever had.
Joe’s cellphone began to vibrate, pulling him from his memories as he walked up Cedar Street. He fumbled with the thing as he tried to get it out of his pocket. It was his daughter, Becky, who had bought the phone for him. She had programmed it to show her picture whenever she called. She looked just like her mother—they had the same soft cheek bones, the same brown eyes, and they shared the same cowlick at the tip of their foreheads, which, no matter how they wore their hair, never went away.
He hesitated with the phone in his hand, but then closed it and put it back in his pocket.
He had only seen his daughter once since her mother’s funeral. She called often but they didn’t speak much, and when they did talk, they talked about nothing. Joe told her about Mrs. Johnson’s Christmas gift and how the shop was doing the last time they met; it was at the Drunkin’ Donuts on Center Street. She had driven almost two hours from Boston for stale coffee and bad doughnuts.
“What about you, Dad?” his daughter had asked him.
“Are you still doing the bottle thing?” she asked. “Do you need money?”
“It’s not like that. The money is fine,” Joe said, watching the steam rise from his coffee.
As Joe approached Norm’s recycling bin—which was usually overflowing with Budweiser cans and little bottles of whiskey—he saw that it had been picked clean. If Joe didn’t know Norm, he might have thought he had quit drinking, but it was no coincidence that his was the second bin that had been emptied.
“Nothing over here, either,” Mr. Starzyck said from across the street, noticing Joe’s confused stare. “Someone came by earlier and cleared me out.”
“Who was it?” Joe asked.
“I couldn’t tell you.”
Joe nodded and waived.
It was only 6:30 PM and although he should’ve known enough to turn back and go home, he didn’t know what he’d do with the rest of his night. He liked to pick at this time of the evening—right after work but before dinner—because the task ate up the most lonely hours of his day. At the shop, there was always something to do—he could dust, clean, arrange and rearrange, but at home there was really nothing for him, except his wife’s many trinkets—the portraits, the vases, the back-stock of her favorite plastic St. Anthony statues—which now occupied Becky’s old room—and her clothes, which Joe could not bring himself to get rid of. A lifetime, a literal lifetime, of her style, touch, and decisions decorated their house. Her house.
Joe carried on toward his next stop—Bobby Gentile’s house.
The sun had returned after the earlier storm and was beaming through a few broken clouds, before slipping behind the hills for the night. It was a nice evening for a walk, though the humidity was returning, building up again for another storm tomorrow. His wife would have asked him, “Why not golf? Or bowling? Why the bottles and the trash?” Joe didn’t have an answer, at least one that made any sense. All he could say was that it felt right, correct.
Bobby Gentile had dated Joe’s daughter at one point, but that was a long time ago; that was a different Joe, when his life was more than broken bottles and redemption centers; that was before he was the “Trash Man.”
His wife had always liked Bobby, but Joe found him a little obnoxious and loud. The only thing the two men had in common was that they had both lost their fathers at a young age. Joe didn’t know what Becky had seen in him. It was a messy break up, too, with Bobby showing up to the house on a few occasions, drunk and wanting to speak with Becky, who had left him for college. The kid was just a townie with nothing better to do than try to relive the past.
Joe was, however, pleasantly surprised that Bobby had come to the funeral. He didn’t come up to the casket, but Joe saw him, in the back of the funeral parlor and at the cemetery. Joe heard he had bought a house on Cedar Street, but didn’t know how the kid could’ve afforded the place, and although Joe hadn’t seen much of him since he moved in, he always left his recyclables out.
Bobby was sitting on his porch, and when he saw Joe approach, he stood up and came jogging down to the end of the driveway toward him.
“Hey, Joe,” Bobby said, waiving for him to wait.
“No bottles?” Joe asked, noticing a patch of dead grass near the mailbox, where the recycling bin usually sat, full of beer cans and pizza boxes.
“They’re in the garage. I’m locked out.”
Joe looked down at the row of blue bins, lining the remainder of the street—there may still be something left for him down there; he may still find some bottles, and with them a purpose for the day.
“Is there any chance you could help me get in?” Bobby asked. “Do you have any tools or anything?”
Joe looked back to the bins, and although he wanted to keep going, he figured he was too late—someone had beaten him to it. There was another “Trash Man” and that hurt in a way Joe would be too embarrassed to admit.
“I’d really appreciate it,” Bobby said.
“I’ll take a look.”
Bobby lead Joe around the garage and to its window.
“Do you have a hammer?” Joe asked.
“In the garage,” Bobby replied.
“No spare key?”
Joe jimmied the window with the pocket knife Caroline had bought him for his fiftieth birthday, but the window wouldn’t budge. It was a pretty old house and the wood around the window seemed to be warped.
“I might have something in my truck,” Joe said. “I’ll be right back.”
“Thanks, buddy,” Bobby said, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
Joe walked down the street with his head down, the glow from the neighbors’ lights reflecting in his glasses. He found a pair of pliers and a tire iron in his truck and drove back to Bobby’s house.
“Anything?” Bobby asked, his eyes big with hope.
“I found these,” Joe said, holding the tools.
He used the flushed end of the tire iron to pop the window up and pry it open, breaking the lock. Then, he presented it to Bobby, who was already opening his arms for a hug—he wrapped his arms around Joe, who stood with his hands by his side, lifting one arm up to adjust his glasses, which had slipped to the bridge of his nose.
“Stay right there,” Bobby said. “I have something for you.”
Bobby pulled himself through the window and a few seconds later, the garage door creaked open with the squealing of chains and metal.
“I meant to give this to you at the funeral, but I didn’t want to bother you,” Bobby said, handing Joe a card, which had been bent and worn at the edges, as if he had been carrying it around since the funeral.
“Thank you,” Joe said. “Caroline would have appreciated it.”
“She was always so nice,” Bobby said.
Joe nodded, having run out of a response to such statements; the funeral, and all that had come with it, had drained him of cordiality.
“Do you want a beer?” Bobby asked.
“No, that’s OK,” Joe said. “I should get going.”
“Come on, one for Caroline.”
“Really, I’m fine,” Joe said, trying to back away.
“I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Wait right here; I have a few inside,” Bobby said and went into his house.
Joe thought about getting in his truck and driving away, but he didn’t want to be rude, and even though neither he nor Caroline drank beer, he knew that his wife would have stayed for one.
He poked around Bobby’s garage as he waited for him to come back. In the corner, next to a realtor’s “for sale” sign, was a big, blue tarp, covering something Joe couldn’t make out. He meandered around, and although he didn’t want to be nosey, he lifted the tarp and saw them—a stack, a glass castle of empty bottles. They were unsorted and shoved into cardboard boxes, old milk crates, and empty cases of beer. Bobby had no technique, no reasoning to his pick, and without order, the bottles were just garbage. Joe looked around and couldn’t believe it—he himself was the “Trash Man.” There could be no other.
He began shoving the bottles into his trash bag, and when that was full, he grabbed one of the cardboard boxes of mix-matched cans and ran to his truck. He thought about going back for more but he didn’t want to push his luck; after all, he didn’t need the money, he just needed to send a message.
Joe climbed into his truck and drove off before Bobby could come back outside.
“What a weasel,” Joe said to himself as he drove down Cedar Street. “That son of a bitch.”
The adrenaline subsided by the time he got to the end of the long, winding street. He stopped at the bottom and pulled out the card Bobby had given him but he couldn’t go back, not now.
Father Delany had gone back inside and the rectory lights were all off. The sun had just about set and the purple glow of twilight caught the stained glass of the church’s windows. From where he was, he could see the parish cemetery, where his wife was buried, but the gates were closed and he couldn’t get in to see her.
Instead, he got out of his truck and looked at the bottles he had stolen. He picked one up, but it was wet from the earlier storm and he dropped it. It fell to the pavement with a crack. He liked the sound—it was disruptive and dirty. He picked up another bottle, wound up, and threw it as far as he could, over the church’s steeple and into the cemetery. Then, one by one, Joe picked up the rest of the bottles and threw them as far and as hard as he could, and waited with anticipation until they exploded with a pop, somewhere on the other side of the church.