Gene Washington (PhD University of Missouri, Columbia) is a native of the Ozarks of Missouri. He is Professor Emeritus of English at Utah State University. He has published essays on eighteenth-century English writers, especially Swift and Sterne, in Swift's Studies, English Language Notes and The Sternean. He has published articles on the pedagogy of writing in College Composition and Communication, The English Journal and Technical Communications. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Rough Draft, New Mexico Humanities Review, Yefief, Isotope and Petroglyph. He is the author of a novel, The School of Donnina Visconti, and a memoir, An Epitaph and An Elegy. Several of his plays have been performed across the country in theaters from Utah to New York City.
See other work by Gene Washington in Weber Studies: Vol. 18.3 (Fiction), Vol. 13.1 (Fiction), Vol. 6.2 (Essay)
I used to be a meat-associate at Wal-Mart. Now, I team with Reed to sort through junk for saleable items. It pays enough, with other part-time work, to get by. I can't say that Reed agrees with me, but I like to think we're doing something for the environment, too. Muppet, my dog, generally goes with us. Sniffing around gives her something to do. When she barks, we know we ought to be careful, might be something alive and dangerous somewhere in the pile. Something with hantavirus. You have to be especially careful when you're working a pile in bad light or at night. Our best time and the widest selection of junk comes when people put out stuff during the city's spring and fall clean-ups. Some of it is just twigs, branches off trees, or grass clippings. But sometimes you'll find some metal objects there, things like bed springs, handle bars off bicycles, maybe a chair or two, a couple of rugs. Some things, like the marbles kids used to use, don't sell good. But some do, like vice-grips, a chainsaw blade, or copper tubing. People use the tubing to keep the bugs out of their houseplants. All you have to do is wrap it around the thing. It sends out a vibration when the bugs walk on it. Shakes them right off.
But you don't get people throwing things like that away much, what with the housing market and the economy down. Homer Smith, a second cousin of mine, or something, paid us three fifty for a chair we found. He said he needed something more comfortable to fish from. I remarked to Homer that I thought he'd be better off using his fishing time to get more exercise. But he didn't seem too impressed with the idea. Could be he didn't hear all of what I had to say. Deafness is known to run in that side of the family.
"Where'd you get that coat?" Reed turned his head away from me to look in the rear-view mirror.
"I bought it at that fancy men's store on Spruce." The coat fits good. It's my belief that it has some dead air pockets woven in somewhere that gives it good insulation. It has a soft feel to it, kind'a like Muppet's coat, when you stroke it the right way with your gloves off. It has some gold buttons on the sleeves that go good with its velvet lapels. I'm thinking about adding some gold braid to the pockets.
"You look like a goddam freak."
"I had some time to kill."
"Don't give me that shit. You wanted to impress the clerk."
"I was tired of looking. I could tell she wanted me to buy something." Reed turned his head to look out the window.
Sometimes you meet real interesting people in this kind of work. Some of them are responsible for making the pile you're working at the time. Like that woman last week. We'd found this mattress in her pile. I call it her pile, but I really didn't know that for sure at the time. I didn't ask her if it was hers. The mattress looked like it was in good shape. It had a label on it that said BLENDED COTTON FELT. It was an item I needed real bad at the time. I'd been sleeping, with a couple of other men in a house on Front Street, on a piece of Styrofoam. The house is owned by an old lady on oxygen. She coughs a lot. To get to where I slept, which is on the second floor towards the back, you have to use a ladder which puts you up to a rickety balcony. Then you have to climb through the bathroom window I share with the other renters. Mrs. Brandom, the old woman we rent from, says that the inside stairs had been condemned by the city as unsafe.
I tried a couple of times to get my rent reduced by offering to give her a hand around the house. What with that cough, I told her, I didn't think it was a good idea for her to carry out her own trash. She just said she'd think about it. But when I suggested a small rent reduction for just handling her oxygen supplies, she shut the door in my face.
Matter of fact, I was a little behind on the rent for the month. I talked with Reed about that very subject while we were examining the mattress.
"Can you loan me a few bucks," I asked Reed.
"I don't loan money to anyone who buys a coat to impress a woman."
"All I need is seven-fifty."
I did make a point of telling Reed that I'd find the money to pay him for my use of his truck this month. I was expecting a substantial return on some beer cans I'd found in Mrs. Brandom's garbage.
Then, just as we were about to load the mattress, along with other heavier stuff, in Reed's truck—he has a hoist on it—a woman came running out.
"What are you doing?"
"Loading this mattress in this truck," I said.
"And we ain't never lost a load yet," Reed said.
"No, you ain't," the woman said.
"You ain't loading that mattress on this truck. It and the springs that go with it happen to be a part of my personal possessions."
"Where's the springs?" I couldn't see any in the pile. Some of the neater piles I call a "stack." Somehow it makes things go easier. Your neater pile. It's my way of acknowledging the extra effort that goes into stacking your junk good.
I asked Reed if he saw any springs in the stack. I noticed an old tire laying up on somebody's yard near a tree. Probably killing the grass there.
"You mean this pile?"
"No I don't."
I looked up and down the street just to make sure. "My friend Reed here don't see no springs, either. Maybe your neighbor took them? Before we got here."
"What time would that have been?" The woman was looking at Muppet.
"Sometime today, I suspect. What time is it now?"
"I don't know. I don't own a watch."
"I don't either. And I ain't never found one that works."
"Me neither," Reed said.
The woman looked to be about thirty or thirty-five. She had this funny, frizzy, kind of hair you sometimes see on the cover of women's magazines in the grocery store. She wore sandals and a robe. Her legs looked a little skinny, like she wasn't getting enough exercise or something. Or it could have been a simple iron deficiency, like one of my aunts had. Which is easily correctable today.
"So, how did this particular mattress get out here?" Reed asked.
"My ex put it here. While I was downtown shopping. He put these other things out here, too." She was pointing at what I recognized as female items: some shoes, a scarf or two, some kitchen items.
"Is that a crock-pot?" I asked. I was looking at a white, shiny thing with a couple of black handles on it. I hadn't actually seen a crock-pot, but I thought I would ask anyway.
"I am taking that back, too," she said.
"Can I look at it a minute?" I asked. At the time, I had a particular interest in gadgets that had timers on them. And I thought this might be one. There's a good market for them, especially among working mothers, if you know how to find them. I suspect that's because you don't have to watch it all the time while you're feeding the baby.
"Sure. Just be careful, and don't drop it."
Reed started laughing. "Didn't I just say we'd never lost a load. And we never drive in the wrong direction once we're loaded. I ain't responsible about the times we're unloaded and in a mood of relaxation."
"Has your dog had his shots?" The woman was again looking at Muppet.
"It's a her. Besides, it's my understanding she's too old for shots."
"I had a shot once. I'll never do it again." Reed was examining a piece of green plastic.
"I hear it ain't as important for dogs as it is for people."
"Shots for dogs."
"Could be. Could be because there ain't no government agency to provide for that kind of service." The woman was looking at Muppet again. Then, she looked at me.
"Good looking coat."
It turns out she had divorced her husband for not supporting her and her kids. He drank a lot and hung out at bars, looking for people to tell his story about the war to. He liked to talk about lugging parts of a mortar through the swamps of Vietnam.
"Was that an 81-MM piece?" Reed asked. About that time a car with its radio blaring went by.
"I said, was that an 81-MM mortar your ex carried."
"I don't know. All I heard him say was the word mortar. He didn't have a picture of it. He never said much to me about how it looked. And I never asked."
"If it was an 81, every piece of that son-of-bitch is heavy. And there ain't a natural handhold on any of them."
"I didn't know that," I said.
"That it was heavy. Was that in Vietnam?"
"It's heavy everywhere. Yeah, I was in Nam." Reed told me later he got out ninety days early for a story he made up about being accepted for seasonal work as a climbing ranger in Yosemite Park. "It was the easiest way to get out. Not as many documents to forge. `Sides, the C.O. didn't know nothing about climbing. He was from West Texas, or somewhere flat."
The woman didn't say anything. She was busy keeping an eye on me and her crock-pot. I lit a cigarette and thought about our next move. I could see that Reed wanted to go on to the next pile of junk. To get to it, you went down to the corner and made a right. It was about half down the block. Maybe a little more. That's another thing about this kind of work. You have to schedule good. What I mean by that is you have to know where you're going next. It's not so much timing as planning and a good sense of direction.
Funny thing about that next place is how the water pools around there when it rains. If you're quiet, you can sometimes see a frog there. If you see two, you can bet they're making out.
"Ain't you going to help me carry my possession back to the house? It ain't far."
I almost got tears in my eyes thinking about her situation with the mattress. She reminded me a little of my sister after her last divorce. From a personal perspective, it was something about the eyelashes. They looked like they'd been in a lot of heavy smoke.
"Do you have any hash in the house?" I asked the woman.
"No, I don't have no pot."
"Just a thought."
It was definitely something about her eyelashes that reminded me of Irene. But then the feeling that she was like Irene went away just as quick as it came. Working with junk does that to you sometimes.
"Sure, we'll carry it back. Where do you want it?
"The bedroom. That's my house there." She gestured toward a house across the street.
"Which room is that?" If I had the right house in view, it looked like it only had a couple of rooms. One was definitely the kitchen. You could see right through the window to a refrigerator. There were a couple of cats sitting on it. Probably getting ready to make out. I've heard you can tell from the position of the whiskers.
"Anywhere you put my mattress is the bedroom."
The house had a porch. So me and Reed decided to put it there. Since the porch didn't have any steps up to it, we had to throw it up. Then we leaned the mattress against a wall at the back. Flat out, the porch just wouldn't hold it all. The corner where the tab BLENDED COTTON FELT was knocked some of the paint off the wall. The woman didn't seem to mind. She went back in the house. Soon we heard the TV come on.
"You know," Reed said as we were going on to the next stop, "a mattress is a damned sight more personal than most things you can own."
"That's what I've always said. Even it does smell like cat piss. They're your cats."
"Yeah. You and me are laying in the same shade on that one."
Thinking about that woman and her needs got me to thinking about something I'd been running through my mind a lot lately.
"What's your idea about this kind of work?"
"Picking up junk?"
"Yeah." It was a subject I hadn't brought up with Reed before. I knew I had to be kind of careful. I wouldn't say Reed had a bad temper. But he did get pissed off easily when he heard something that bothered him.
"It's shit work."
"Besides what?" Reed's truck was making so much noise I guess he didn't hear me. Or it could have been Muppet, who was in back on our load, barking at something she saw somewhere. I'd been meaning to ask Reed what year his truck was and how many miles it had on it. I could see that the speedometer was broken. Or something bad had happened to it. But something else always got in the way.
I told Reed I'd found a bumper sticker that would look good on his truck. A red, white and blue one. I'd been of the opinion for a long time that he needed something to spiff it up.
"What's it say?"
" `God is dead—Nietzsche. Nietzsche is dead—God'"
"I don't know. I could ask around."
Sorting through junk-piles is generally good solid work. Most days you go home feeling good about people and how they handle their affairs. But it can have a few problems. One thing is the competition you can get. It can be downright cutthroat. Some of the other guys, and some gals, even work your piles without your permission. Or steal stuff off the truck. All this newfangled recycling over at the landfill don't help things, either. Me and Reed have personally seen places where there ought to be lots of junk just disappear. Then, you've got the storage problem. All that stuff you can't dispose just hanging around. Sometimes smelling bad.
We have also noticed a drop-off in the friendly receptions we used to get at the landfill.
But what bothers me as much as anything is what I've heard called "growing" your business. How to expand, get bigger. Without sacrificing your personal investment or product quality. It all started about the time I bought my coat. Somehow, it caused me to give more thought to my future and my career goals.
"I've been thinking we ought to specialize in a particular kind of merchandise here."
"You mean this junk?" Reed gestured through the back window toward the load we had.
"Yeah. Get a little organization in this. I can even see us going public with it."
"With this. What I'm thinking about here." I lit another cigarette and start to explain. "What we need here is an angle. I'm thinking we need to specialize in parts. It would help us expand."
"Well, not just parts. But parts that replace other parts. Or look like they would."
"What does that mean? `Look like they would.' A part either fits or it don't."
"Yeah, but how many people have the thing they want the part for with them when they actually acquire that part? What if you was looking for a replacement carburetor for your truck here. Would you go to the trouble of trying the carburetor on it before you acquired that part?" I turned to check our load. Muppet was laying on top of our load, doing her little trick. She had her legs and paws straight up in the air. It's her way of attracting attention. "You see my point here?"
"No. For one thing, my transportation here is modified for fuel-injection. And how many times have you found a fuel-modification kit in any of the piles we work? For another thing, I'd make sure whatever part I acquire fits. I'd at least have the model number, or something."
"Well I don't want to say here that there ain't a few problems in expanding." I was, at the time, out of transportation except for a kid's bicycle I'd found last month. "I'd volunteer to pedal around, looking for new territory. After hours, of course." Reed didn't say anything.
He pulled his cap down lower over his eyes and just looked straight ahead. I noticed that there was a different kind of crack in the windshield.
I went on to explain to him that my idea was to start slow and then work out from there. Maybe get another truck. Then a couple more, with a good quality hoist. Hire a few Mexicans. Train them in parts-recognition. Maybe put them in uniforms, maybe something with velvet lapels and gold braid. Begin a slow penetration of neighboring towns, like Owlton and Thayer. I even suggested that it would be the kind of business you'd be proud to leave your heirs. Something big enough for everyone to have something to be proud of.
"I don't know." Reed seemed a little different. Like he gets when a load shifts.
"What? Putting our staff in uniform?"
"No. That's a screwy idea. I mean working new territory."
"To expand, you have to work new territory. That's just good business."
"Owlton or Thayer. That's just for a beginning."
"Don't Junior and Bill work Owlton? And ain't they mean sons-a-bitches?"
"My idea was to work it more at night. Or when they're on vacation. At least at first."
Reed is a big man with a gorilla-like build. His legs and arms were too long for the rest of his body. Muppet likes him. That's because she's what I call a Mediterranean type dog. She just flat likes people. Just like people in those areas like other people.
I said Reed has a gorilla-like build. But he really doesn't. If you just saw him driving his truck, and nowhere else, you might think he did have that gorilla type build. But if you saw him actually working a pile, you'd be surprised how average his shoulders are. I suspect it's those long arms and legs that give him that gorilla look.
"Where you going to dispose of your parts?"
"I was thinking of a mail-order business. A catalog with pictures. Once that caught on, we could go public with a store, then a chain of them. I'd heard you work that like a franchise."
"People pay you to use your name and business concept."
"What is it?"
"Selling replacement parts, like I said."
"Yeah, I know. But is that all? What if we can't find any parts that anybody wants, or the parts don't work?" Reed was looking in the rear-view mirror.
"We'd fix them up first. I've been studying on that some. I can see that as a separate part of the business."
"The part of the business that don't deal directly with picking up junk and selling it. Like I said. Fixing up parts that don't work. Before we sell them."
"I don't know." Reed reached out a hand to steady the side-mirror. I could see that the duct-tape he used to hold it on was frayed. One end of it was flapping in the wind. You could even hear a little song-like sound from it.
"You don't know what?"
"It's like I said. You can't sell a carburetor to people who have fuel-injection on their vehicles."
"I suspect there's a lot of people out there who still drive carburetor powered cars. Or would like to try one."
"Nah." Reed muttered something under his breath. His mouth was starting to look like you'd clamped it with a pair of vice-grips.
I wanted to give Reed every opportunity to think about my plans. He's the one who introduced me to this work and asked me to join him. He had the hoist. And the truck. Besides, he made some good cheesecake. With a choice of either raspberries or strawberries to put on it. He said he actually enjoyed mixing all the ingredients, glazing them, and sharing the results with friends.
By the time we had about finished sorting through the next pile, it was getting dark. A woman came out on a porch to watch us. She was looking for her newspaper, or something. Then, she looked at us. I waved at her, but she just turned and went back in the house. I told Reed I thought she might be going to call the cops. It was the way she hurried back in the house.
"I don't see no reason for staying here any longer, do you?"
"We ain't through here yet." Reed was turning over what looked like a police scanner. It had several knobs on it. And you could see part of the glass where you read things through.
"I ain't seen a replacement part in this pile yet. Or one I could fix up. To sell through our outlet."
"Outlet. I'm thinking here we ought have a place to sell our replacement parts. A thrift shop." I got the idea from one of the men who roomed with me. He worked at the Thrift Sports Shop, over on Saddle Hill Drive or somewhere. His job was to sweep up around the place and help out his boss with garage sales. That's where they got most of the goods.
"I'm thinking we ought to call it `Thrifty Parts, Incorporated,' or something like that. If that don't work out, you can always change it. If you have good customer relations and a quality product."
"Where's the money coming from?"
"It don't cost you anything for a name."
"I mean the shop. Insurance, taxes, overhead?"
"Venture capital." The wind had come up. It was beginning to look like rain.
"What's that?" A couple of kids in about a `76 Chevy drove by. The one in the passenger's seat was mooning us.
"They pay you for your business idea. Especially the one they see a
potential for growth in."
Reed was looking at my coat.
"I'm thinking here we need to get you a different coat. I heard on TV the other day that the clothes a man wears affects the way he thinks…his state of mind, that sort of thing."
"Thinks about what?"
"I don't know. Things. Like this crazy thing you've been hounding me about."
I could see that he was getting a little annoyed about my new concept in junk management. Maybe even a little jealous of my coat. So I decided to let things cool off for a while. We went ahead and finished the pile, put Muppet back on top of the load, and made plans for the next day's work. A new sub-division was going in on the eastside of town. Carpenters, electricians, and the like throw out a lot of re-workable stuff.
I'm sitting here smoking a cigarette and patting Muppet. She has her head twisted up, looking at me out of the corners of her eyes. She knows I'm thinking about my future. She's worried about it, or something.
I start to think about my idea of expanding our business by specializing in parts. Reed's still dragging his feet about it. What he needs to see is the potential in the idea. Stop those doubts, which I put down to his war experience or an all-around character development. My daddy, who grew up in West Texas, used to call Reed's type "a hard dog to keep under the porch." Right now I'm thinking of asking my landlady's opinion about how to move Reed on with growing the business. The problem is she's not talking with me about anything but the rent. "Slip it under the door, damnit." She recognizes my knock.
One idea is to seed a pile or two with some quality parts. I got the idea from an article I read about a guy who attracted investors to his mine that way. My problem is a little more complicated than that. There are a lot of things waiting to be picked up to use that look like gold, especially when it's dark. It's a different thing with good seed parts in broad daylight. It involves not only how the parts look, but also how and where to get them. Lowe's Home Improvement, Home Depot, or some other local outfit? I'm running some of the options through my mind right now.
But before any of that happens, I've got to figure out how to get through the window to where I sleep. Somebody's taken the ladder I use to climb up to it. The drain pipe looks secure. But I can't chance it with the buttons on my coat. And the holes in my jeans might snag something. Besides that, I've got a full bladder. So I figure I'd better walk right away over to Wal-Mart. While I'm there, I'll see if I can convince one of the meat-associates to put me up for the night.