I was spending my first Christmas alone since my wife had left, so I was feeling even lower than usual. I still made the traditional breakfast casserole that we had together since we got married a decade earlier, ate it at the kitchen counter, then watched an old Christmas movie on television, keeping an eye on my watch. At ten o’clock, I looked out my living room window and watched the same old man turn onto the street from the far corner and make his slow way up the sidewalk to the near one. As always, he picked up any trash he found as he walked. Before turning the corner, he dropped what he’d accumulated in the trash can in front of the deli there, then disappeared out of sight. I’d been watching him do that from my third-floor apartment across the street for the past seventeen months. I didn’t know where his walk began or where it went next. I didn’t know his name or anything about him except the incidentals of his appearance: tall, thin, short-cropped white hair, jeans, sensible shoes, plaid shirt with a jacket in colder weather. There was nothing remarkable about him. He didn’t smile or frown, and didn’t appear particularly happy or sad. His only distinguishing characteristics were the precision of when he appeared each morning and the trash collecting.
After the movie, I took a walk of my own through downtown and out along the river. It was a grey day, but not especially cold. The trees were bare, the water brown and fast-flowing, and, with the holiday, few people were out. When I got home, I stopped in my foyer and looked around the empty rooms. The furniture stood completely still, and the photographs on the walls stared back at me. The silence seemed deafening.
I waited until after dinner to try calling my wife. I’d almost finished a bottle of wine by then, so I was both a little braver and more melancholy than I might otherwise have been. The call went straight to voicemail like all the others. I left her the same basic message I did each evening, but when I got to the part about missing her, my voice caught. I hung up before I began to cry. The break-up had been mostly my fault. I’d ignored her the past few years, and was aware of the distance growing between us, but did nothing to address it. It may have begun when I told her I’d changed my mind about wanting to start a family. It certainly worsened when I declined agreeing to a job opportunity for her that would have meant moving. Of course, she ended up leaving anyway, but later, and not because of work. She didn’t tell me where she went; she just left a note saying that she was going away and needed time. Almost all her things were where she’d left them in the apartment; I’d doubted she’d needed more than a satchel while packing.
I had the next several days off for vacation, so I watched the old man make his one block trek across the street each morning. On the last morning before I returned to work, I was waiting for him in front of my building a little before ten. The day was cold, but full of dim light, and I
could see short clouds of breath escape him as he approached. I watched him pick up an advertising flyer that had wedged itself against a storefront, a paper coffee cup from the gutter, and a plastic bottle along the curb before he came even with me. I trotted across the street and followed behind him the few steps to the corner where he dropped the items in the trash can.
“Excuse me,” I said to him. “I don’t mean to disturb you, but I wanted to ask you something.”
He turned and regarded me with no expression. His eyes were grey-blue, and up close, I saw that they were hooded and downturned a little at the outer edges.
“I live just across the street there.” I pointed. “I’ve been watching you come up the sidewalk here each morning for a long time. You always pick up trash on the way and then throw it away here.”
He glanced across the street at my building, then back at me before saying, “That’s right.” His voice was quiet and flat.
“Why do you do that? Pick up trash and throw it away.”
“Does it make you feel better, fill a need?”
“I don’t know. I’ve just always done it.”
“Do you do it on other streets?
“Sometimes. Not always.”
“Are you especially tidy at home?”
He shook his head. “Not particularly.”
A city bus crawled by us, grinding its gears. The old man watched it pass, then turned to me and said, “Well, then.”
“Thanks,” I told him. “Take care.”
He nodded, and I did the same. I watched him turn the corner. Then he was gone, and I was alone again. I stood there for several minutes staring at my reflection in the deli window starting up the next block in the direction the bus had gone. Before I came to the following corner, I’d picked up an apple core, a candy wrapper, a soda can, and the sports section of a newspaper. There was another trash can at the corner, so I dropped the pile in that. Then I stood still waiting to see what I’d feel. I felt no difference. A cold breeze blew an empty gum package against my foot; I picked that up and dropped it into the trash can, too. Still, I felt nothing. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done something good for no reason, so, perhaps it took more practice. I wished for it, I can tell you that.
William Cass has had several short stories published in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press. He has also received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.