Trash Picker

Emma actually stopped Paul on the church steps. Blocked his way. Emma, Paul’s former sister-in-law, and her posse had been waiting, though Paul had not given indication to anyone from the old neighborhood that he’d be attending the funeral. He’d been disconnected from his troubled history for like … hell, forever, it seems.

Still, they guessed that Paul would show. And why shouldn’t he? Michael is his son. Was. Was his son. He is grieving, Paul is, Can’t they see? Maybe, but they don’t care. Here they are at the top of the steps under a bright September blue that kind of reminds Paul of the 911 day. Beautiful, beautiful. Emma, now a middle-age plodder, and two lug-heads bulging from their Sunday best, with arms crossed upon bellies. These must be her sons, the tadpoles that long ago glided barefoot in backyards at barbecues under a spent summer sun as fireflies began to flicker.

Marky and JP, though Paul can’t quite decipher who’s who. Never could, actually.

Well, what are they going to do, beat him up?

“Really?” Paul says suddenly conscious of the slack in the suit he hadn’t worn in years. The slightest breeze sways the material. “Bones” was his nickname as a kid and it seems he heads that way again. Emma and her sons are a wall.

“Michael doesn’t want you here,” Emma says.

Michael died in a car accident. He was 35. Left an ex-wife and two daughters. Paul’s granddaughters who he’d seen for the first time, just 15 minutes ago, as he backed his pickup into a tight squeeze. Paul glimpsed tweens hooked beneath a woman’s arms. Michael’s ex is blonde, nice figure, shapely calves. It is hard to tell who was holding up whom. They walk as if on ice. Even emotional trauma does strange things to the body. Paul picked up from somewhere that she and Michael had split five years ago. Around the time Paul’s ex-wife Jane died.

And spotting them, Paul had felt nostalgia for a life he’d never lived. Maybe he could meet them this visit. Maybe simple curiosity would overcome the distaste they harbored for him. Like Emma, they no doubt blame Paul for Michael’s path.

If this meeting with the grandkids was to ever take place, perhaps not in the aftermath of Michael, but possibly a few months along, Paul wonders what they’d make of him.

Paul just turned 60 but he keeps in shape, and fancies that he looks a bit younger than his years. He thinks of Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Denzel Washington, Liam Neeson; older men whom women might still find attractive, even if those guys weren’t rich and famous. Men who take care of their bodies, determined to play the game until the reaper whistles. That’s Paul. Push-ups, sit-ups, walking, Watch what you eat. You can cheat time, for a while anyway.

The goatee works well with his angular features, or so he’s been told. He’d had two long-term relationships since he left Jane those years ago. Both girls walked. He dates occasionally, though these can be disasters. The last one tarred him shallow and stormed off, sticking him with the bill, of course. Mostly he’s alone and doesn’t much mind.

“This is my son’s funeral, Emma.”

They’re at arm’s length now, but Paul’s two steps lower so that she still holds the high ground. Emma could knight him. He smells her dowdy perfume. She wears sunglasses and directs her hatred toward him by the tilt of her forehead. She won’t let her hair go gray.

“He specifically asked that you not attend Paul. You should honor that request.”

Paul doesn’t seek proof that Michael had actually said it.

“You gave him great DNA,” Emma adds. “The way he lived. The way he died. He’s all yours.”

“Pardon me,” Paul says trying to wind his way around Emma. But Marky and JP shift and block.

Paul sighs “I’ll just talk to the priest,” he says straightening his tie like a comedian. Well, it is absurd. “What would the Padre think? You know, that whole forgiveness thing? Christianity? He’d let me in for sure. Or I’ll just call the cops. Legally, you can’t do this, Emma.” He presents his case like it’s a mackerel he caught. “It’s just not the sort of thing people do.”

She snorts. “You’re certainly the expert on that, Paul. You can’t do this morally. You shouldn’t, anyway. Show Michael his respect. Just leave.” Michael had been driving home from the Irish Rover when his car swerved off Route 13 and rammed a tree. Dead on impact. Died drunk. No other victims. That’s something at least.

“You go from calling Michael mini-me, which is your worst insult, to saying I need to honor the sacred dead,” Paul says. “Which is it, Emma? Did you like Michael? Or did you think he was a lowlife?”

“I loved Michael enough to organize interventions. I wanted him to not to be you. I loved his daughters enough to pay for their schooling. I was there, Paul. You were hiding out.”

“I wrote you a letter. I wrote a lot of letters. I wrote Jane one. I wrote Michael one.”

“Michael’s. Got it right here,” Emma says.

Paul had fallen into a trap, he realizes, as Emma gleefully rummages through her purse. She holds up the envelope.

“Ah!” Traces her finger along the seal. Michael hadn’t opened it.

“Jane didn’t read hers either,” Emma says. “She knew there wouldn’t be no money. You never sent money.”

“I don’t have money!” Paul insists.

“Just another deadbeat dad.

“If I could do it all over….”

“Don’t!” Emma demands.

“Last week was 22 years sober,” Paul says, looking at the ground.

“Well, whoop dee doo,” Emma says. “You didn’t go to Jane’s funeral. Why the hell you here?”

“He’s my son.”

“She was your wife.”

“My ex.”

“Well, then, Michael’s your ex-son.”

Paul gives an “I can’t win” shrug.

A cloud shadows by, softening Emma’s face.

“Michael did not despise you,” Emma says, seeming reflective rather than reflexive for once. “You are like smoke from a fire that burned out. You didn’t exist. He didn’t exist for you until now.”

“I got sober.”

“You just said.”

“I….” Paul is stuck.

“Yes, and everybody you hurt, the family you abandoned, for instance, should take your apology and just accept?”

Paul motions to the church steeple rising behind her, nods to the higher things that should pull us past grudges and into forgiveness. Emma’s not buying.

“That 12-step program,” she says, “You people. You addicts and drunks, who put the rest of us through hell think that saying sorry makes it all OK. ‘Oh, me! Oh, my! It’s a disease and I am helpless.’ Nobody sins anymore. We just have our diseases.”

“But the steps include trying to make amends,” Paul says. “They include admitting we were wrong. That I was wrong. I am a sinner.”

“Looky here!” Emma says, “I got a letter from Paul saying he’s sorry. I’ll put it in the lockbox with the one I got from Hitler, apologizing for his mistakes.”

“So now I’m Hitler.”

“You’re not St. Francis, are you?”

Paul had forgotten how hard Emma tried to be funny. And she was, in a mean histrionic way. Sardonic and cutting, even as she performed good works. She made family gatherings interesting, that’s for sure. Jane always had problems with her.

“You really want this, I can see,” Paul says. “But is this really what Michael would have wanted? What Jane would have wanted?”

“Yes.”

Paul hesitates as mourners file by. Some faces he recognizes from the old days. One or two nod, people he’d never personally harmed. He was a drunk, but he could be great fun when he wasn’t raging. He been abusive, though. And when he broke Jane’s arm that time, he’d gone to prison for 19 months, even though she dropped the charges. That’s when he finally got sober. When he had no choice. He joined AA behind bars.

Paul feels the slight pull against reality, like a tide taking him out. Something’s not firing, right, but it’s a good sign he notices. He wishes he’d gulped a Xanax or two before he’d gotten out of the truck. Just to ease the edge.

Paul sees that the right thing to do is to simply leave for Michael’s sake. He’ll honor his son some other way.

The shifting of his weight singles intention.

“Here,” Emma says, handing him Michael’s Mass card.

Paul looks at the rendering of a gold cross, turns it over, makes out Michael’s birth and death dates. He can’t read the print underneath, but guesses it’s something about running the good race or whatever.

A few hours later, after a drive along the Delaware River and stopping back at the hotel to change into his normal clothes and then check out, Paul’s a bit surprised to see that the Irish Rover is crowded.

Of course, lunch wasn’t his thing when he roamed. He’d always been nocturnal.

This is a huge moment at the bar, but Paul doesn’t hesitate. Not at all. In fact, he’s impatient. He doesn’t even think about calling Curtis, his sponsor.

“Budweiser and a shot of Jameson,” Paul tells the bartender, a cute youngster with blond hair, blue eyes, and too much ink. A would-be artist. No doubt. He won’t do craft beer, though some of the names on the list make him smile.

Let’s see will it be Belligerent Ass Nut Brown Ale or Big Cock IPA?

Not for him. Not in this lifetime. The first gulp of the fizzy tastes like the battery fluid that squirted onto his lips once when he tried to fix his truck.

The second, like heaven. He raises the pint to the streams a windowed glory, toasts Michael. He raises it again, toasts to 22 years of sobriety. Gone. Just like that. Then comes the whiskey clearing his esophagus like a machete, smoothing the way for shots to follow.

Paul knows where this leads. When an alcoholic relapses, he goes right to ground zero. He becomes just as bad as he’d been when he reached the “Do you want to live, or do you want to die?” moment. Of course in prison, that question was moot. You are going to probably live. In hell. But still, this won’t be gradual decline. It will be free-fall.

So forget about pacing yourself.

Paul does in fact eat lunch. But he downs … how many shots and beers? He doesn’t count.

“Celebrating?” the bartender asks. She’s worried. Sweet.

“You could say.”

“What’s the occasion?”

“My son died and they didn’t let me go to his funeral. Didn’t let me see the burial, either. Threatened to cause a scene if I even tried. I guess I could have watched from a distance. I’m used to that.”

Ah, there it is. The beautiful face (and she is beautiful, this girl, use your imagination) wilting from open rose into a bud like a film in reverse. Different emotions shrink the flowering: surprise, acceptance, sadness. Even a little anger, feeling maybe that she’d been set up. Well, he won’t bother her again. He’s passing through.

She turns, practically runs to the other end of the bar where there doesn’t seem to be any need for service at the moment. So that is his bid for pity. Yes, indeed. You find yourself right back where you’d been when you last pissed into the abyss.

In Calgary. Paul works for Uber, listening to the stories of customers who he never sees again. On nights before trash pickup, he cruises some of the more well-to-do neighborhoods and snatches pearls from curbed memories. Paul sells these items on eBay. Amazing what people throw out. Just two weeks ago someone left a hand-carved wooden end-table, the epitome of circular sturdiness and a deep bow to 19th century craftsmanship. And houses going through divorce hell? They’re like Sam’s Club markdowns.

The bartender’s not quite done, though. He admires her persistence. When Paul pays the bill, she says, “Sir, I can get you a cab.”

“Way expensive,” Paul says, brandishing his smartphone. “Uber.”

She smiles as he walks too carefully toward the exit (left, right, left, right). Her good deed for the day.

When Paul pulls his pickup out of the lot, he says to himself, “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

Again, just like old times.

But he’s got a stop the make before rolling onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and beginning the long ride home. It will take a week and a half. (You’d have to anesthetize Paul to get him on a plane.) And maybe, hopefully, he’ll call Curtis somewhere along the way before he kills himself on the highway, just like his only son Michael did.

First though that stop. Paul had passed it on his way to church. They’d erected a little shrine to Michael by the side of the road where the accident happened like people do. Paul had slowed, made sure he got a good look at the name printed on the huge photo, standing next to a cross, flowers, and mementoes of one sort or another. There was a baseball glove, basketball, Eagles jersey, trophies, Boy Scout medals.

Paul had glowered. He’d always hated those markers. We all have troubles. No need to tell the world about yours. He’s thinking Michael would have hated it too.

Flesh of my flesh blood, blood of my blood.

Paul pulls onto the shoulder, puts the blinkers on. He steps out of the truck like thousands of times, except now he loses footing, falls hard.

Well, of course. He’s drunk.

He picks himself up limb by limb, like some robot in a cheap sci fi. His hands are scuffed, his elbow’s bleeding. He knocked his forehead as well.

He wrestles with the shrine, ripping and tearing and tossing the pieces into the backseat. He’s crying, but more in rage than mourning. He falls again; it’s as if the debris fights back. But he won’t quit.

Even as he sees a cop car and even as that cop car pulls in behind, Paul keeps frenzying, heaving the stuff into the truck. The cop sounds his siren once; a warning that Paul doesn’t heed. Paul doesn’t even look. He hears the police car door open, the cop step out. A few seconds of just watching.

Finally: “Sir, you need to stop.”

Paul looks at the cop who stands in mighty silhouette against the brightness.

“I can’t!” Paul cries. “I just can’t.”

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