Trash Picking

By Michaele Jordan

Ruth carefully toed the aluminum can on the sidewalk so that it up-ended. Sure enough, brown liquid gushed out, and she waited patiently for the can to empty before squashing it under her heel. She stooped down, more than a little bit stiffly, so she could pick it up and deposit it in the appropriate pocket. She didn’t always bother to crush the cans, but today was the day after trash day, and she expected to find a lot of cans—so many of them that she would need to conserve space.

She stood back up (even more stiffly) and saw Mrs. Carter watching her over the hedge she was trimming. Mrs. Carter raised a hand to her mouth as if to cover a cough, but actually to cover her smirk of amused contempt. Then she smiled and raised a hand in polite greeting.

Ruth smiled just as politely and waved back. She knew exactly what Mrs. Carter was thinking. How could she not? Kevin—God rest his soul—had teased her mercilessly for years. “You look like a bag lady,” he must have told her a thousand times. “All the neighbors are laughing at you. Some of the kids even say you’re a witch.” But he had always smiled when he said it, secretly pleased that she was more interested in doing the right thing than in what the neighbors thought.

So Ruth went right on patrolling the neighborhood with her little cart, picking up all the litter. Her cart had a large pocket for plastic bottles, and two smaller ones—one for aluminum ones, and another for steel cans. There was yet another for paper, not to mention the receptacle for plain old trash. There was one last pocket for the occasional item which was—by whatever astral fluke—worth keeping. She had carried home all sorts of lost treasures in that pocket: rings and necklaces, sunglasses and garden tools, and once even an iPod, that only needed a new battery to work fine. She loved that iPod; it made her feel young.

The daily walk also made her feel young. Back in the day, she’d used to have a dog, a silly looking mutt with a pug face and long, droopy ears. She’d often joked that his twice-daily walk was what kept her in shape. But the dear old thing had died when she was in her early fifties; she’d been in poor health at the time, and had not wanted to risk getting another one, for fear it might end up outliving her. So she’d started walking without the dog. Nearly twenty years later, she had to admit she could have gotten the dog, but she was more certain than ever that the walking kept her young. She had several routes, and did at least three miles a day.

Today she was checking her ‘country route,’ which took her down an old state road that had been superceded by a freeway. For years, it had been a lonely stretch, bordered only by large agricultural lots (once you were past the Carter cottage), but a couple of new subdivisions had gone in recently, and traffic was beginning to pick up. She approached the County Road 47 crossing, already looking ahead to the junction with SR 273, where all the yahoos went speeding—except during rush hour, when it was transformed into a giant, motionless traffic jam. Since it was the middle of the day, Ruth was not worried about the traffic jam.

It turned out she had looked too far ahead. Just as she reached the corner of 47, a yahoo came hurtling out of nowhere and took the corner onto Main Street way too fast, sideswiping her little cart and barely missing her. She jumped backwards in the nick of time, glaring and hissing curses, as recyclables scattered in every direction.

“Hey!” she snarled in a voice so loud and angry that the driver heard her, and turned his head to look. Did he actually see her, with her burning eyes telegraphing rage in his direction? Did he actually hear the curse, or sense the howl of retribution she called down on him? Did he perceive her will made palpable, and forged into a blade of malice aimed at his heart? There was no knowing, but then, it didn’t really matter anyway. It was done, whether he saw it or not. He turned his head and, in turning, somehow pulled the steering wheel around also. Pointing him right at the telephone pole.

She didn’t watch, or look after him. She didn’t need to. Slowly and rather painfully, she squatted down, recovered her cart and started picking up the spilled trash. Good thing she had squashed the cans; otherwise they’d have been rolling all over the place; instead most of them were still in reach. The paper, too, had not scattered far, but had fanned out smoothly like a deck of cards, which made it easy to recover.

She didn’t even look up at the shriek of the crash. It really was an awful sound, but she was getting pretty deaf, and had learned to ignore noise back when the kids were practicing to be rock stars. The plastic had been scattered widely and she had to push herself back up (which proved even harder than getting down had been) and go after it.

As she drew closer to the wreck of the car wrapped halfway around the phone pole, she heard the moan. “Help me, please,” he whimpered, and she looked at him, more than a little surprised that he was still alive, let alone conscious. She must be getting old, after all. “Please, lady.”

She stooped, so very stiffly, to pick up an apparently indestructible liter soda bottle that was rolling in a circle. “Don’t worry,” she told the wounded driver. “I’m sure there’ll be someone along to pick up the trash real soon.” She deposited the plastic bottle in the correct compartment of her cart and strolled on toward a soggy newspaper just up ahead.


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Michaele Jordan was born in LA, educated in New York, and lives in Cincinnati. She’s worked at a kennel, a Hebrew School and AT&T. She’s a bit odd. Now she writes, supervised by a long-suffering husband and two domineering cats.

Her first novel, Blade Light, was serialized in Jim Baen’s Universe, followed by her period occult thriller, Mirror Maze. Her stories have appeared in Buzzy Mag, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Abyss and Apex, and Perihelion. Horror fans will enjoy her ‘Blossom’, series in The Crimson Pact anthologies.

Her website –– is undergoing reconstruction, so wear your hard hat.

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