Yesterday’s Garbage

A trash collector uncovers a neighborhood mystery in Jon Hassler's short story of family secrets.

"Yesterday's Garbage" Illustration by Owen Freeman
Illustration by Owen Freeman

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The best grade of garbage in this city comes from the Hillcrest neighborhood, and on Thursdays when I make my run through the alleys of Hillcrest, my wife, Caledonia, rides beside me in the truck, admiring all those fancy backyards. Caledonia seldom climbs down out of the cab. She trusts me to inspect the garbage.

I know her taste. It’s jewelry and reading matter. Now by jewelry I don’t mean diamonds and rubies. You won’t find precious stones in people’s garbage. I’m talking about the bigger, cheaper pieces—the kind a woman can pin on her coat. Last Thursday I came across two. One was a big-eyed owl sitting on a silver moon crescent. One of the owl’s rhinestone eyes was missing, but we have scads of rhinestones in a box at home. We found one about the right size and glued it in the socket, and Caledonia wore it to bingo, where four people said how nice it looked. The other piece I found was a fancy letter of the alphabet, all complicated with curlicues. Caledonia thought it might be a capital C, but at the wrestling matches Saturday night somebody told her it looked more like an E, so now she wears it upside-down and it looks great. It doesn’t look like anything.

As for reading matter, it’s newspapers and letters. Caledonia keeps an up-to-date file of newspapers, both the Star and the Tribune. I’ve never been too crazy about having all those newspapers in the house (we’ve had to close off two rooms upstairs because they got packed so full of paper), and I’m not too crazy about letters, either—especially after what happened to Mrs. Nichols. But Caledonia likes to read, and sometimes in the evening she’ll pull out an old letter and read it to me and ask me to identify whose garbage it came out of. I’m right about half the time.

There’s a certain brick house in Hillcrest where the garbage has always been worth a close look. Our tablecloth comes from that place, along with no end of ornamental whiskey bottles and the .22 revolver I shoot rats with at the dump. It was at that house one Thursday that a letter addressed to Mrs. George Nichols turned up in the trash I was dumping into the truck. I snatched it up and wiped off the grease (most people being in the habit of throwing out their mail with their table leavings) and I handed it up to Caledonia in the cab. She read it while I worked the compactor.

Not all your garbologists have compactors, you know. My compactor is two years old, and now I don’t see how I ever got along without it. I press a button near the tailgate and the compactor moves like a paddle wheel, pushing the garbage forward to the front of the truck. It keeps the trash from all piling up at the back end, and it squeezes it together so I only make about half as many trips to the dump as I used to. It isn’t as slick as the compactors you see in junkyards that can press a car down to the size of a bicycle, but it’s a real work saver. And it’s fun to monkey with. If you work it right, you can get a good-sized cat to fit in your pocket.

When I climbed back into the cab that day, Caledonia said, “This letter is from a hospital out in California.” I coasted downhill to my next stop as she read it to me.

“Dear Mrs. Nichols: Polly Jean’s condition remains stable. Nearly a year has passed since her last serious withdrawal from reality. She remembers absolutely nothing about the Centennial parade nor what she did while it was in progress. Chemical treatment, as I insisted from the start, has proved the most efficacious means in cases like hers. I would not hesitate to release her today; however, my colleagues suggest we wait one more month in order to be absolutely certain. Therefore, if she has suffered no setback by November 1, you may come for her. I assume by this time you have explained everything to Mr. Nichols. I suggest that both of you come out to California to take her home.”

The signature was a scribble with “M.D.” written after it.

We had often seen Mrs. Nichols puttering around the yard. She always wore a sunhat and a little polka-dot scarf that took Caledonia’s eye. But we had never seen anything of Mr. Nichols. Caledonia said he was probably a salesman on the road. Caledonia said it was clear that Polly Jean was their daughter and had been sent to an insane asylum, and now she was cured and about ready to come home. Caledonia said she expected Polly Jean to be a skinny blonde. I said redhead and bet her a quarter. Polly sounds like a redhead to me.

Later, while we were having coffee and rolls at the truck stop, Caledonia asked me, “Why do you suppose George is being kept in the dark?”

“George who?”

“George Nichols. Don’t be stupid.” Caledonia took the letter from her purse and read, “‘I assume by this time you have explained everything to Mr. Nichols.’” Then she gave me a foxy look and said, “Wouldn’t you think a man would know about his own daughter being in a nuthouse?”

“You’d think so,” I said. “We know it, and we’re not even related.”

That evening at supper Caledonia put down her spoon and said, “Polly Jean is the daughter of Mrs. George Nichols, but not the daughter of Mr. George Nichols.”

“How do you know?”

“It has to be. George Nichols is that woman’s new husband, and she hasn’t told him about Polly Jean yet. She hasn’t wanted to tell him her daughter is crazy. You do the dishes, and I’ll find the proof.”

The proof, of course, was in the china closet, where Caledonia files away the mail. While I threw out the sardine tins and paper plates and washed the spoons, Caledonia searched for envelopes with that Hillcrest address, and she came up with a handful of old Christmas cards. Up until three years ago, all the cards were addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Howard Gronseth, and the notes on the back began “Dear Howie and Blanche,” and some began “Dear Howie, Blanche, and Polly Jean.” Then for a year or two they were addressed to Mrs. Gronseth all by herself, and the notes began “Dear Blanche,” or “Dear Blanche and Polly Jean.” And the cards from last Christmas were addressed to Mr. and Mrs. George Nichols, and very few had notes on the back, but those that had notes began, “Dear George and Blanche and Polly Jean.” Sure enough, George was Blanche’s new husband.

That night Caledonia tossed and turned till I thought I wouldn’t get a wink of sleep. Finally, about the time the squirrels started their racket in the walls (that’s three-thirty, or earlier on stormy nights), she said, “There’s a deep-down reason why Blanche is keeping George in the dark. And it’s a dirty shame, what with it being October already, and Polly Jean coming home on the first of November. Family secrets are a bad policy.”

“I need my sleep,” I said.

“Polly Jean must have done something unmentionable before she got sent away.”

I put my head under the pillow and dozed off, but it wasn’t long before Caledonia poked me and said, “When was the city centennial?”

“Two summers ago.”

“The letter says Polly Jean doesn’t remember the centennial parade. Well, I remember the centennial parade, and it was on the Fourth of July. Go up and get me all the papers from the first week in July, two summers ago.”

“I need my sleep, Caledonia.”

“All the Stars and Tribunes for that week.”

For the rest of the night, Caledonia rustled paper. She snipped out articles about the shooting, and I made three more trips upstairs, tracking down news about the investigation. While Howard Gronseth and his wife Blanche and his daughter Polly Jean, who was fourteen, were standing in a crowd watching the parade, somebody stuck a handgun into Howard’s back and shot him with a .22 bullet. It’s an unsolved murder to this day, because the police never came up with a suspect, and they never found the weapon. But, as Caledonia pointed out, the bullet that killed him must have been fired from my rat gun, the .22 revolver I found two years ago in the Nichols (or Gronseth) garbage. Put two and two together, and you get Polly Jean killing her father and nobody knowing it except Polly Jean and her mother, and maybe a couple of shrinks. And now me and Caledonia.

By the time we got it all figured out it was dawn, and I had to get up. Caledonia rolled over and snored.

Some people, if they knew what we knew, would have gone to the police. Take Bud Long, for instance. He’s caretaker at the dump. He’s in charge of covering up the garbage. Bud Long would have called the police first thing. Not that Bud’s a troublemaker. It’s just his way. He’ll call the fire department every time there’s a grass fire, and he’ll call the power company every time he sees a busted insulator on a power pole, and he’ll call the police every time he sees something the least bit out of the way. Caledonia says once you tell things to the police, they start dropping in on you all of the time, and maybe they’ll even drag you into a courtroom. So we decided to keep the whole Polly Jean affair under our hats.

But I couldn’t put it out of my mind. I felt sorry for Mrs. Nichols. The next Thursday, after a hard frost, we saw her pulling up the stems of dead flowers by the back door, and I told Caledonia she ought to get out of the truck and strike up a friendship with her. I said Mrs. Nichols would be glad to know somebody she could talk to about the murder, rather than keeping it all to herself. But Caledonia said Mrs. Nichols wasn’t her type, and furthermore she had lost interest in the case now that she had it solved.

“But Caledonia,” I said, “just think of what the poor lady is going through. She has a lot on her mind, keeping that secret all this time. Maybe if she talked it over with you, then it would be easier for her to tell George. Family secrets are a bad policy. You said it yourself.”

“As far as I’m concerned, what’s done is done, and it’s her problem. I want one good look at Polly Jean when she gets home, and that’s about it. I’ve got two bits on blonde.”

And I’m sure that would have been Caledonia’s last word on the subject—if I hadn’t brought Mrs. Nichols home with me.

It was the last Thursday in October, the week before Polly Jean was supposed to be released from the hospital in California. Caledonia had the flu, and I went to Hillcrest alone. Mrs. Nichols was out by her back door again, this time sweeping the patio. I stopped the truck in the alley, same as always, and she paid no attention. A word to the wise saves nine, they always say, and I decided to tell her what I thought about keeping George in the dark. Sometimes it takes an outside party to point you in the right direction.

So standing by her garbage can, I said, not very loud, “Blanche.”

She looked up with her mouth kind of hanging open, surprised. She wasn’t a bad-looking woman for her time in life. We stared at each other across the back yard for maybe two seconds, and I knew what was going through her mind. She was wondering how her garbologist happened to know her name. Then she went back to sweeping.

After I emptied her trash into the truck, I took a few steps across the grass. “Blanche!” I said, louder than before—louder than I needed to, for she gave a little jump and dropped her broom. She came down off the steps and walked toward me very slow. She had her head cocked to one side, like a pup, and she seemed to be smiling, but when she got close I saw she wasn’t. She had the wrinkles in her forehead all twisted up—that look people get when they’re surprised and scared at the same time. She said she didn’t believe we had met.

“How is George?” I said.

“George is fine,” she said. “Do you know George?”

“I never see him around here.”

"Yesterday's Garbage" Illustration by Owen Freeman
Illustration by Owen Freeman

Mrs. Nichols started walking backward, then she turned and trotted over to her back step. I was afraid she’d go inside before I got it off my chest, so I hollered at her as she was picking up her broom and opening the door. What I said was, “Tell George what Polly Jean did, or you’ll be sorry.”

They were words with a strong effect. She turned wild. She came off her back step at a run, shouting, “Who told you what Polly Jean did? Nobody knows but me! Polly Jean is ready to come home!” And she rammed her broomstick into me and broke one or two of my ribs. She reared back to jab me again, shouting, “Polly Jean is coming home!” but I got her by the wrists and sat her down on the grass. Then I let her have it in the forehead with my fist.

Then she died. I knew she was dead by the way she laid there, limp as a chloroformed cat. I don’t know if I could have been arrested for that or not. She hit first.

Bud Long would have called the police to explain what happened. Not me. I stood there for a little while, turning my head very slow, an inch at a time, looking to see how things stood. The back yard was pretty well hidden by high bushes. The only neighbors who could have seen us lived next door on the east side, and they weren’t home. They hadn’t set out garbage for two weeks. I decided to put Mrs. Nichols in the truck and take the afternoon off.

When I got home, Caledonia said it was the wrong thing to do. She said I should have left her in her own back yard. I said I could take her back, and she said that would be worse yet. Caledonia said the police can tell if a body has been moved. She said no end of trouble comes from moving bodies.

“What’s done is done,” I said. “Here she is. What shall we do with her?”

We were standing at the tailgate of the truck looking in at Mrs. Nichols. She was lying on top of all the stuff she had thrown out. Her forehead was black. Caledonia didn’t look so hot herself, crawling out of a sickbed and standing in the driveway, barefoot. She stood there thinking for a long time. I said, “Look here. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I don’t want to worry about this problem overnight.”

Caledonia said, “Scrunch her up so she fits in a leaf bag.”

So that’s what I did. It only took three squeezes by the compactor. The hard part was crawling in there between squeezes and turning her lengthwise. It was hard to do because my ribs were hurting. Then wouldn’t you know, we couldn’t find a leaf bag. Here it was October and I had been hauling plastic bags full of leaves every day, and now I didn’t have a bag when I needed one. Leaf bags were one thing I never thought to save. I had to run over to the hardware store and buy a package of five. Seventy-nine cents, plus tax.

Slipping Mrs. Nichols into the first bag was tricky.

Besides my ribs hurting, she had a couple of splintered bones that kept tearing the plastic. But with Caledonia’s help, we got her bundled up good. We tied one bag shut and then slipped her into the next, until she was inside all five bags.

“What if the bags burst when I dump her?” I said.

“We’ll be in trouble.”

“You can’t take her to the dump with only that little bit of garbage, “ said Caledonia. “Look at all the blood. You need a full load. If you dump out a full load, she won’t be so noticeable.”

I looked at my watch. “I can’t get a full load before five. It would take me that long to get to Hillcrest and back.”

“For this, anybody’s garbage will do,” she said. “Get going.”

I tore through a neighborhood on the way to the dump. It wasn’t my territory. Most of the cans were only half full, so I had to make twice as many stops to fill the truck. Wherever it looked like nobody was watching, I left the cans helter-skelter in the alleys. And every time I lifted one, the pain in my right side took my breath away. It felt like Mrs. Nichols was still jabbing me with that broomstick.

I got to the dump before the gates closed all right, but I had to wait my turn to unload. There’s always a line-up of trucks if you get there around closing time. Some garbologists will keep their loads at home overnight and go to the dump first thing in the morning when it’s not crowded, but I’ve never been one to do that. I don’t believe in carrying around yesterday’s garbage.

When it came my turn, I backed up to the edge of the pit and raised the box and dumped. Then I got out of the cab and looked down into the pit. Blanche was the biggest item in my load, so she was easy to spot. There was a sharp leg bone sticking out through all five layers of plastic, but otherwise the package held together. Bud Long was down there chugging along on his front-end loader. It’s the new yellow machine Caterpillar makes, and you can see by the way Bud drives it that he enjoys his work. He covered my load with two scoops of dirt, then he drove over it a few times to tamp it down. He looked up and waved at me and I waved back, in spite of the catch in my side.

It feels like my ribs never healed right. Now, more than a year later, I still favor my right side and I can’t lift my right arm as high as my left. Caledonia says it’s a reminder not to get personal with my customers.

At first there was quite a flare-up in the newspapers about how Mrs. Nichols disappeared without a trace, but now things have settled back to normal. George Nichols has a new wife. That makes a complete turnover in that house since Howard and Blanche used to live there. Sometimes on Thursdays we see the new Mrs. Nichols out on the patio reading a book. From the alley, I’d say she’s a real peach.

As far as we know, Polly Jean never came home. The new Mrs. Nichols was sunning herself last Thursday, and I had all I could do to keep from speaking to her. I wanted to ask her what she knew about Polly Jean. I wanted to know if Polly Jean was going to spend the rest of her life in California. I wanted to know what color Polly Jean’s hair was.

But the catch in my side told me to keep my mouth shut. And so did Caledonia.

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