“If we slow down, the trash’ll stink up the car,” Kevin said as he guided his mother’s dirty station wagon through the curving Pahala streets. He ignored Cory’s protests and continued to roll through stop signs and around half-blind corners. He drove fast enough that neither of them could hear their mother’s Dixie Chicks tape over the rush of the wind, but other than that the two brothers had no idea how fast they were going, since the car’s speedometer had been broken for as long as either could remember.
They clattered past what was left of the abandoned sugar cane plantation and swung onto the one-lane road leading to the dump. Little towns like Pahala don’t have curbside trash pickup – or curbs – so residents have to take their own rubbish to the dump. The Pahala dump was an open-topped semi-truck trailer parked under a metal chute with a broad, paved driveway winding up from the road to the top of the chute. The station wagon sent up a cloud of dust as it pulled onto the roundabout leading up to the trash chute. Its gears ground as Kevin pushed the car into reverse before it stopped rolling, and he backed it up, careful to leave enough room for the hatchback to open, this time.
An old, battered truck was parked next to the trash chute, but it seemed empty, so Kevin paid it no mind. Instead, he climbed out of the station wagon and waited for Cory to open the hatchback from inside – the only way it had ever opened, as far as either could remember. Kevin had just taken the lid off the first trash can when a noise came up at him from inside the rubbish container. Something had shifted, making a grating, metal-on-metal squeal. He paused and quietly set the lid back on the can when the sound repeated itself.
Kevin slowly leaned over the chute. Inside the half-empty rubbish container, ten feet below the boys, stood a skinny young man with a shaved head. At first he didn’t notice Kevin or Cory, who had worked up the nerve to join his older brother, because he was busy pushing and pulling at some of the more bulky objects in the bin.
As the two boys watched from above, the man bent over, picked a trash bag out of the sea of rubbish and stared intently at it for a moment, then flung it across the container. He put his hands on his hips, swinging his head back and forth, surveying the shifting, rotting mess he was standing in.
“What are you looking for?” Kevin asked suddenly, unable to restrain himself any longer.
The man jumped, jerking his head up to face them. His wide, startled expression faded quickly into what looked like anger, under the grime coating most of his face.
“Who are you? What do you want?” he snapped.
“I’m Kevin, and this is Cory. We want to dump our rubbish,” Kevin said, trying his best to say it matter-of-factly.
The man said nothing but continued to look up at them, his face unreadable.
“What are you looking for?” Cory asked him.
The man stared up at Cory for a moment, as if deciding whether or not to trust him. “I’m looking…looking for something,” he said, finally.
“But what are you looking for?” Cory repeated.
“It’s, it’s…it’s here, somewhere,” he said, ignoring the question as he tossed a brown coconut frond across the trailer. “That bitch, she said she’d throw it all away if I, she said it, but…she said…”
As the man below them trailed off, Kevin turned to Cory, pulling his brother out of the man’s sight. “He’s nuts,” he said.
“Maybe he just needs help,” Cory offered.
“What,” Kevin said, “you gonna go down and help him?”
“Hey!” the man’s voice echoed out from the chute. “Hey, kids! Hey!”
Kevin poked his head back over the bin.
“My trash bags are orange,” the man said as he dug around in the trash. “They’re white, but the straps are orange. I need to find the orange ones. Orange.” He paused, surveying the trash again, then jerked his head up to them. “Do you have any orange bags?”
“No…” Kevin said. “Our bags are black.”
“Black...” he said, loud enough to echo in the half-empty trailer. “What color are the straps?” Then without waiting for an answer he continued, “Maybe I should check? I should check.”
The man climbed onto a piece of plywood and balanced precariously as it shifted, floating on the sea of trash, looking for a minute like an amateur surfer on the world’s cheapest surfboard. Once he settled himself, the man tensed, leapt up and caught onto the rim of the trailer. Kevin and Cory stepped back as he pulled himself up, grunting and scrambling up the slippery metal chute, then rolled onto the asphalt at their feet.
He jumped up, bent over suddenly to rub one of his bare feet, then evidently thought better of it and straightened, looking at the boys.
“Well?” he said.
“Well what?” Kevin asked.
“Well what?” the man repeated sarcastically. “Well where are your bags?”
“Oh… they’re in here,” Kevin said. He opened the first rubbish can.
The man pulled the first bag out of the can, eyeing it for a second before dropping it to the ground. “They’re all black?” he asked.
“Yeah...” Kevin said.
“Besides, if you’re looking for something from your house you shouldn’t be up here,” Cory said. “These all came from our house, so they couldn’t be your stuff.”
The man stared at Cory, stared long enough to make the boys look away from him uncomfortably. With his eyes on his feet, Cory asked again, “What are you looking for, anyway?”
“My, my…nothing, it’s not yours, anyway,” the man said.
“We didn’t,” Kevin began, but he broke off as the man reached down and tore open the trash bag he’d dropped at his feet. Soup cans and tangerine peels and old rice and a hundred other remnants of their mother’s cooking spilled onto the asphalt.
“What are you doing?" Kevin asked. "You’re making a mess!”
The man shot a fierce look up at him, then went back to digging through the trash, scattering it around the parking lot. After a few seconds he stopped, then reached into the trash can again and pulled out another bag. He held it up and spread his arms, tearing the bag down the middle, raining napkins, chicken bones and Creamsicle wrappers all over himself. He flapped the torn, empty bag and dropped it onto the pile of rubbish before beginning to search through it, his hands stirring around in circles in front of him.
“Ok!” Kevin exclaimed. “You want our rubbish, you can have it, but we’re not cleaning it up afterwards!” Kevin knocked the lids off the two full rubbish cans, grabbed one and dumped its contents out onto the ground. He threw it back into the station wagon and grabbed the last can, dumping it out too. One bag rolled across the pile the man was searching through.
He slapped the bag aside, shouting, “Hey!”
The man stood up, then twitched as if he was about to lunge at Kevin, but he stopped when Kevin jerked back, almost falling. Then the man began to laugh, monotonous and too loud, as if he was trying to yell and laugh at the same time. There was no humor in his laughter, though he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely.
Kevin, his eyes wide and locked onto the man, reached out to touch Cory’s shoulder. Cory flinched, startled, as he too had been staring at the man, who was still laughing that strange, fake laugh. Kevin pushed his brother’s shoulder, urging him backwards, towards the car. Kevin hesitated, then decided not to try to get the last trash can, which was lying at the laughing man’s feet. Instead, he closed the hatchback and broke into a run going around the station wagon to the driver’s seat. He turned the keys, which he’d left in the ignition, and lurched the car away from the dump and the man, who, Kevin saw, was standing in the pile of their trash, watching them drive away. He didn’t seem to be laughing anymore.
“Who was that man?” Cory asked as the station wagon went around a bend and the rubbish dump disappeared from view.
“I dunno,” Kevin said.
“What was he looking for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what are we going to tell Mom and Dad?”
Kevin looked at his brother as he rolled the station wagon through an intersection. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“About the trash can we left,” Cory said. “What are you going to tell them?”
Kevin paused for a moment, his eyes more fixed on the road than they had been all day. “I know,” he said, finally. “We’ll go back later and pick it up, when he’s gone.”
After spending the next hour playing Nintendo and very deliberately not talking about their last trip, Kevin and Cory took the station wagon out to the dump again. This time Kevin drove much more slowly, the Dixie Chicks now louder than the cool evening wind coming in through the open windows. As they approached the rubbish dump Kevin slowed the station wagon to a crawl and sat up in the driver’s seat, looking for the laughing man in the fading light. Both boys froze when they saw that the beat-up truck was still parked next to the rubbish chute, but there was no sign of him anywhere.
Without saying a word, Kevin took his foot off the brake and slowly guided the station wagon up the roadway. He could feel Cory’s stiffness from across the car. Kevin stopped a few feet from the pickup truck and put the car in park.
“Stay here,” he said. Cory didn’t argue.
There didn’t seem to be any sign of the man, though Kevin noticed that the rest of their rubbish bags had been torn open, leaving an even larger, scattered pile of debris, with plastic wrappers, paper towels and open envelopes rolling in the breeze or caught in the long grass growing alongside the rubbish chute. At first Kevin didn’t see the missing rubbish can, until he noticed it sitting in the bed of the pickup truck. He froze, watching the truck for any sign of movement.
He spun at a sudden scuffling sound behind him, only to see Cory climbing out of the car. For once, Kevin was too scared to tell him to do what he said, and instead he waited for Cory to catch up to him before slowly approaching the silent pickup truck.
Kevin kept one eye on the truck and one on the bushes dotting the hill leading up to the rubbish dump – the only things nearby that were big enough for someone to hide behind. When the boys were within arm’s reach of the truck, Kevin took Cory’s arm and slowly led him in a circle around the truck, making sure the man wasn’t hiding behind it. He even bent over to check under the truck.
“Look,” Cory said.
Kevin straightened, and as he did he saw that the bed of the pickup truck was full of loose garbage, littered with everything from Tupperware to flattened cardboard boxes and pieces of lumber.
Barely tall enough to see into the truck bed, Cory was standing on his tiptoes, surveying the strange collection. “Is this all his stuff?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Kevin answered. “Let’s just get our can and get out of here.”
“Ok,” Kevin echoed, gesturing for Cory to get onto the truck. “C’mon, just grab it and pass it to me,” he added when Cory hesitated. “I’ll keep watch.”
Cory sighed, then proceeded to climb, quietly, onto the side of the truck. He paused as he searched for a safe place to stand before slowly working his way within reach of the rubbish can. He managed to lift the can, heavy for him even though it was empty, and walked it back to the edge of the truck, passing it to Kevin. As Kevin took the rubbish can its lid fell off, sending a loud crash echoing across the silent rubbish dump.
Both brothers froze, not daring to make a sound. Then the truck’s passenger door opened, but instead of the laughing man, a little boy climbed out. He was a short, skinny little kid with bushy hair and only one front tooth. His name was Walter, the brothers knew, and he was in their little cousin’s third grade class.
“Who are you?” Walter asked.
“I’m Kevin, Gina’s cousin,” Kevin said. “What are you doing here?”
“Watching Brad’s stuff,” Walter said, rubbing one eye with his fist.
“How long have you been here?” Kevin asked as Cory jumped down from the back of the truck.
“I dunno, Brad just said watch his stuff cause he had to go, but I dunno…” he trailed off.
“Who’s Brad?” Cory asked.
“My brother. He said Mom said I gotta listen to him but I no like stay here, I hungry.”
“Where did he go?” Kevin asked, quietly picking up the metal lid.
“I dunno, he just said for watch his stuff, I supposed to stay until he come back but I no like anymore.”
The two brothers looked at each other, and Kevin shrugged. “You should come with us,” he said. He put the lid back on the rubbish can and picked it up, walking back to the station wagon. As Cory climbed into the car to open the hatchback, Kevin saw that Walter was still standing next to the truck.
“C’mon,” he said. “You wanna stay here all night or what?”
Walter came to the car and got in the back, not saying a word.
When Kevin pulled the station wagon away from the dump, the single working headlight lit up the one-lane road leading back to Pahala. The man – Brad – was walking in the grass running along the road, heading towards the boys. He had one hand held up to shade his face from the headlights, but all three boys knew exactly who it was anyway. As Kevin approached him, Brad stepped into the middle of the road and raised his arms over his head as if signaling for help.
“No no no,” Cory said when Kevin began to slow down.
But instead of stopping, Kevin pulled the station wagon half off the road and rolled past Brad, bouncing over the rougher terrain before pulling back onto the pavement. Even in the dark, Kevin saw Brad’s wide, staring eyes go by the window. Kevin and Cory watched Brad disappear in the rearview mirrors for a second time.
“Is he following us?” Cory asked as Kevin rolled through the intersection leading towards Pahala. “He might be following us. We should have taken his keys or broke his truck or popped his tires or…”
“Shut up,” Kevin interrupted. “He’s not following us. It’s too far to get back to his truck anyway.”
Cory was silent, but he kept his eyes on the rearview mirror anyway.
“So where do you live?” Kevin asked, in part as a way to change the subject but also for the purely practical reason that it didn’t take long to drive to Pahala and he’d need a direction when he got there.
Walter didn’t answer, so Kevin kept asking. “C’mon, I gotta know where to take you,” he said. As the boys passed through Pahala, Kevin still couldn’t get Walter to tell them where he lived, so he just drove towards their home.
“What are you doing?” Cory asked when he realized where Kevin was headed. “We can’t adopt him.”
“I know,” Kevin said. “What else can we do?”
“What are you going to tell Mom?”
“I dunno. It’ll be just a little while, we can pretend he came over to play Nintendo?”
“I dunno,” Cory said. “What if we just tell Mom the truth? We didn’t do anything wrong, yeah?”
“I guess not…” Kevin said. “But we’ll take care of him for a little while, then.”
“Do you have food?” It was the first thing Walter had said since getting out of Brad’s truck.
“Yeah, we got frozen pizza still,” Kevin said.
“Ok,” Walter said.
“And you don’t have to sleep in a truck,” Cory added.
“Ok.” Walter smiled.
The beat-up station wagon with three kids and one rubbish can in it rolled towards home. Their Saturday chores finally completed, Kevin and Cory parked the station wagon out of sight from the street and waited for their Mom to come home so they could tell her about the people they’d met at the rubbish dump. Walter ate frozen pizza and played Nintendo, and he didn’t have to sleep in a truck.