Dump Pickers

We weren’t the only ones at the dump. An old man carrying a green bucket was following his skeletal wife. They moved slowly, but deliberately through the trash. He kept a perfect, measured distance from her so that when she stopped to examine treasures more closely, he was at arms-length. The bucket extended, tilted toward her, waiting.

There was a young woman too. In her twenties. She was wearing a tight, tie-dyed shirt, blue jean shorts, yellow hip boots, and a wide floppy-brimmed sunhat. She was carrying a large, red mesh onion sack over her shoulder. It was filled with cups and plates. She moved slowly, scouring the ground with each step, occasionally stopping to lift goodies out of the garbage with her yellow, rubber-gloved hands to inspect them. She was a regular.

Once, on a Sunday morning, as Dad and I searched a heap of appliances looking for a new toaster, she approached us. She said it was because she was interested in a lampshade that I’d been carrying around for most of the morning.

“It’s not for sale,” Dad said, as he picked up an electric can opener.

“But it would look great with a lamp I found here last week,” said.

“Tough,” Dad said.

She persisted.

“I’ll give you two dollars for it.” She smiled and winked at me.

Dad rolled his eyes. Tossed the can opener aside.

“Don’t be a seagull,” he said.

She looked at me.

“You’re a pretty little girl,” she said. “Maybe you shouldn’t be walking around in all of this.”

She waved her hand over the sea of throwaways.

“Nobody’s too pretty for the dump,” Dad said.

The woman shook her head and walked away. She wasn’t angry or disappointed. Maybe she didn’t want the lampshade anyway. Sometimes, when you’re at the dump, all you really want is someone to talk to.

Dad was deep into it now. Sweating, tossing things aside. Muttering to himself. I wasn’t sure what he was looking for anymore, and I doubt he knew either, so I walked over to the old man.

“Finding anything good?” I asked.

He tilted the bucket toward me. It contained orange saucers and cups. They matched, which was a rarity.

“We found these just over there beyond the boat with no bottom,” he said. “There are more if you want some. We only needed a set of four.”

“Joshua!” His wife piped up. “Don’t give things away. People need to find treasures on their own.”

The old man smiled. He fished around in his pocket then held out his fist. He asked me to close my eyes and open my hand.

“No peeking,” he said.

It was smooth and warm. Oval-shaped.

“Abby!” Dad yelled from behind me.

I opened my eyes and looked over at him. He was holding up an iron. Smiling as if he’d won the lottery.

“Mom need one of these?”

“Yes!” I shouted.

When I turned back to the old man, he was looking at my hand.

“It’s an egg,” he said.

It was small and blue, like a robin’s egg, but heavy.

“Solid,” he said. “It’ll last.”

Both of us watched as the tie-dyed woman with the onion sack walked out of the dump toward the path that twisted through lilacs and tall grass.

“Thank you for the egg,” I said.

He smiled.

“Better put it in your pocket,” he said.

Dad dangled the iron by the cord, like a fisherman showing off his trophy bass.

“Pretty nice, hey?”

We had missed church. Again. Dad was drinking. As usual. But he knew that finding things for Mom, things she could use, was a way to soften her. Yes, it was horrible that he had taken his nine-year-old daughter to the dump again. And it was shameful that he was drinking so early. But in his lost, childish way, he was doing it for her.

“What do you think?” he asked.

It was a little tarnished, but the cord was intact, and there weren’t any buttons missing.

“I think she’ll like it,” I said.

He shook it back and forth.

“It’s still got water in it!” he said. “Must be a recent drop off!”

He gave it to me, then knelt to rummage through a box of old newspapers. I held the iron and thought of Mom, and I wondered if she ever smelled the dump in our clothes when she did the laundry on Sunday nights. Scrubbing and rinsing. Scrubbing and rinsing. Trying to wash away Dad’s drinking and the wandering nature of her little girl so we could be a normal family.

A studious, well-mannered girl who went to church and said her prayers instead of dump picking. A stay-at-home mom who baked cookies and raised a garden of roses and daffodils instead of beets and potatoes. And a sober father who worked a steady job and spent his nights and weekends at home. Mowing the lawn. Washing the car. Taking out the trash instead of bringing it home.

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KJ Stevens – husband, daddy, writer – lives in Alpena. His Stories, Observations and Wonderings will appear the second Thursday of each month in The Alpena News. K.J. can be reached at kj.stevens@gmail.com. Read him here the second Thursday of each month.