Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Chapter Seventeen: One Woman's Trash . . .

It was garbage day. Once again, Compass had failed to get the cans out to the end of Mina’s drive. She’d neglected to get the garbage out the previous two weeks – once because she was busy panicking over her mother’s sudden disappearance, and a second time because she was a careless, neglectful person who would soon be drowning in yogurt containers, furtive candy wrappers and potato-chip bags that Compass couldn’t even look in the eye – the garbage of the lonely, the confused, and the chubby.

The heavy grinding of truck gears and the hiss of truck brakes woke Compass, who was completely bewildered to find herself still in the attic, still seated at Henry’s desk. She raced downstairs and outside, waving her hands at the driver, not even noticing she still clutched the letter in her hand.

The driver looked a little surprised, possibly because Compass was in her pajamas, panicked hair all over her head, eyes red with the dust of someone else’s history. But he took pity on her and pulled over, taking a small crumble of curb with him as he misjudged the edge of Mina’s driveway.

“Thank you!” Compass panted at him. “Another week and they’d have to dig me out.” She hurried up the driveway to the garage to get the overflowing garbage cans, rolling them down to the waiting truck.

The driver was clearly new at his job. He got back into the truck and fiddled with switches for what seemed an inordinately long time. Mirrors moved and water splashed the front windshield, and there were some interesting grinding noises, but nothing significant happened for a long while. Finally the driver hit on the right combination of buttons and levers, and the back of the truck yawned open. He then climbed down and rolled the first can into position. He got back into the cab of the truck, there was some more mirror movement, some more effort by the windshield wipers, and at one point he moved his seat forward fast enough to nearly pin himself against the steering wheel. Finally he gave up, wriggled out and dumped the cans by hand.

Compass watched this Garbage Disposal by the Fourth Stooge, dumbfounded and desperately wanting to laugh. But she didn’t want to embarrass him, he was trying so hard, and her face started to hurt from the strain of keeping itself straight.

Once the garbage was all loaded onto the truck, the garbage man seemed pleased with himself. He brushed off his hands with satisfaction, then actually trotted up the driveway to where Compass stood watching.

“All loaded up!” he said, eyes shining. The guy had to be in his 60s. Post-retirement job, Compass thought, and once again resolved to open a savings account.

“Yes, I see that,” said Compass. The man stayed there, grinning, eyes twinkling at his truck. “Congratulations,” she said, since he seemed to expect it.

“I’m Dan,” he said, and stuck his hand out for her to shake.

Compass was a little taken aback by this. She still had the letter in her right hand, so she switched it to her left and reached her right hand out to complete the shake. Only Dan had apparently lost interest. They both stood there, hands outstretched and hanging in mid-air but not meeting. Compass, expecting another hand to counterbalance her own, found only empty space, and she stumbled foward slightly on the follow-through. Dan’s eyes were fixed on the letter in her hand.

“Uh . . . is everything OK?”

He regained himself quickly. “Oh. Yes. Yes, certainly.” He looked at her face for a long moment, then patted her shoulder and climbed back into his truck. He flapped his mirrors for a moment, almost like a salute, but probably because he was trying to move his seat back, and then he ground and hissed and rumbled away.

Compass was gob-smacked. “What the f-”

“Hey!” It was Mina’s next-door neighbor, also in pajamas and slippers, standing in front of his still-full garbage cans. “What happened?” he called to Compass.

“I don’t know,” she hollered back. “I think he’s new.”

She grabbed Mina’s cans – now minus their lids as Dan had neglected to remove them before emptying the cans into the truck – and hauled them back to the house.

Back in the house and back in the attic, Compass quickly forgot about the twinklingly incompetent garbage man. She returned the letter to the first box, then turned to the next box in the pile.

She found very little in the next two boxes. There were mostly receipts for things, tax documents, some medical records on Compass, the usual debris of life which most people throw away. Compass didn’t know why Mina had chosen to keep all this, but none of it yielded any results that she could make sense of. Besides that, it was Monday, and she had an afternoon class and a night class and no time to puzzle it out just now. The rest of the boxes, and the mystery she hoped they would answer, would have to wait.

The lovely weather from the weekend had decided to hang on for at least one more day. Seattle was awash in light, Seattlites everywhere frantically searching for that pair of sunglasses they’d bought the last time there was a reason to own sunglasses, but that was weeks ago, and why didn’t they come equipped with tiny little Clap-On devices? Seattle apparently had one of the highest rates of sunglasses consumption in the nation – the result of such sporadic need that they often got shuffled to the bottom of life’s junk drawers. It was too nice a day to waste, and she was teaching at her near-by campus rather than her far-away campus today, so Compass decided to ride her bicycle to work.

Seattle made Compass feel vaguely guilty about being out of shape. Every time she ventured into Nordstrom’s or the Bon-Marche-which-was-now-Macy’s-but-she-couldn’t-think-of-it-that-way, she felt so . . . . ungroomed. The people in there were so sleek and pretty, it was like being at an exotic cat show. It was odd, since the people on the streets were generally shrouded in bulky gray or black fleece and denim, but in these stores they emerged from their fleece chrysalides with perfect shining hair and clean nails and the firm buttocks of marathoners. Where did they come from, these elegant women, buying their size 2 Levis and slinky tailored skirts? And even more, where did they go?

Seattle was, comparatively, a thin city, and Compass often felt graceless and clunky next to the Persians and the greyhounds that surrounded her. Biking made her feel a bit better about herself, and when she arrived at work, glistening with sweat and self-righteousness, she felt more a part of the city.

Compass was a relative new-comer to the Pacific northwest. She’d moved here 10 years ago from her teaching stint in central Europe, unable to bear the thought of another midwestern summer. Or winter. Or election season. Seattle had everything Compass wanted: mountains to learn to ski in, oceans to learn to dive under, trails for hiking, rocks for climbing, and temperate weather to do it all in. Tragically, it also had everything Mina wanted, and no sooner had Compass unpacked the last box than her mother followed her here. Mina needed an audience for her antics, and Compass was it.

Her ESL class crept along, progress almost invisible at the glacial pace with which languages are mastered. It was a frustrating job sometimes, mostly because the English language was so bewildering. It seemed almost mean-spirited in its refusal to follow its own rules, and many questions had to be answered with, “That’s just the way it is.”

“Teacher! Why do you say, ‘pay attention’? Why ‘pay’? There is no money here.”

“Teacher! Why do you say, ‘get home’? There is no ‘getting,’ you don’t ‘get’ anything!”

“Teacher! Why do you spell it e-n-o-u-g-h, but pronounce it ‘enuf’?”

“What it means, ‘do’?”

“Experts” claimed that language learning was a process, as if there were anything orderly about it. In Compass’ experience, both as a teacher and a learner of languages, learning a foreign tongue was a helter-skelter, hodge-podge experience at best. Words attached themselves to your brainstem or they didn’t. Foreign grammar internalized itself in you or it wouldn’t. The stiff, formal language of the classroom helped her students not at all when they found themselves in a slang-gang of teenagers at a bus stop or confronted by the idiosyncracy of colloquial speech. It was no wonder that students (and their teachers) were often frustrated; it was a testament to the determination of these people that any of them mastered the language at all.

Today’s lesson was on pronunciation, and for the next few hours, Compass would try to teach people to bend their tongues in new and imaginative ways to make the ‘th’ sounds of this and think, to reliably distinguish r’s from l’s, to finally and forever make the distinction between Tuesday and Thursday, and to never again ask to borrow a ‘shit’ of paper. Just those few simple tasks would absorb them for hours and at best, yield mixed results.

Between classes, Compass had a few minutes to run to a nearby grocery store for a hummus sandwich. At the check-out stand, an international incident was unfolding. The customer was a tiny, aged lady of probably Cambodian or Vietnamese origin, the clerk a tattooed, tongue-studded American teen. The customer needed something which the clerk was unable to understand, both were aware of the other people in line, and frustrations were rising all around. They had fallen into the dreaded communication gap -- each trying to rectify the situation by waving her arms more wildly in a kind of pleading dance to the language gods to intervene. This apparently had been going on for some time before Compass got in line, and the clerk’s face was red with anger. The little lady’s voice was getting louder and more harsh, and finally she gave up, handed over a pile of bills, took her change, got her groceries and got out.

The clerk looked up at Compass. “You have no idea how hard it is to deal with foreigners day in and day out,” she said.

“I’m teaching as fast as I can,” said Compass.

Much later, back at Mina’s house, Compass peeled off clothes soggy from an unexpected burst of rain. She was struggling to free herself from an amorous sports bra when the phone rang. She was able to get to the phone just in time to hear the other party hang up. She considered dialing *69 but decided it was likely a telemarketer. Mina had refused to add herself to the do-not-call list. She regarded telemarketers as sport and had whiled away many a dull hour, pretending that she really would change her long-distance carrier, just as soon as they ran through all those options one more time, her mind was just a sieve these days!

Compass sat on the bench next to the phone and unpeeled her bike tights, trying not to notice where the dampness and the tightness had creased playful patterns in her fish-belly-white legs. She wrapped herself in her robe and was working on unknotting her hair when the phone rang again. This time she snatched it up immediately.


“Compass?” A voice whispered into the phone.


“Yes. It's me, Mark.”

“And yes, it's me, Compass. Why are we whispering and talking with such careful enunciation?”

“I’m across the street from the house.”

“Oh. OK. That doesn’t really explain the whispering, though.”

“I’ve been here for an hour. You’re late getting home.”

“I rode my bike. What’s up?”

“Are you dating a garbage man?”

“What?” Compass noted with some satisfaction that her bike shoes had left tiny little cleat marks in Mina’s perfect hard-wood floors.

“There’s a garbage truck out here, and the driver’s been sitting in it, smoking cigarettes and staring at your house for at least an hour.”

“Really?” Compass thought back to the events of that morning. “Have the mirrors moved at all?”

“Actually, I think they did once. Is that some sort of code?”

“No, he was probably trying to operate the cigarette lighter. That’s Dan. I met him this morning.”

“So why is he here now? It’s nearly 10 o'clock.”

“He wants to get an early start tomorrow? He forgot everyone’s cans but mine.” Compass paused. That seemed odd, now that she thought about it. “Everyone’s but mine? Mark, what’s going on?”

“I don’t know. I’m coming over.”

Compass gathered up her cats and put them in their crates, ready for a move. She didn’t know why she was doing it. Even just doing it freaked her out, as it seemed to indicate some kind of imminent danger. Dan the Twinkling Sprite of a Garbage Man suddenly seemed sinister, and Mark’s loud knock on the door nearly sent Compass through the roof. She yanked open the door, ready to read him the riot act. And she would have, had it been Mark on the other side.


NuclearToast said...

I knew he wasn't a garbage man! <gasp>

Ash said...

Favorite parts:

Garbage Disposal by the Fourth Stooge
OMG – so true about this: “Bon-Marche-which-was-now-Macy’s-but-she-couldn’t-think-of-it-that-way”
a ‘shit’ of paper – LOL!!!!
Twinkling Sprite of a Garbage Man

OMG - I hope you post the next chapter soon! I can't wait to read what happens!!!!!