Don’t look up, look at the ground — don’t look up, look at the ground. I loved her once, but not anymore. I loved her once, but not anymore. Now it’s the orange bag and the black bag and the clamps. I clamp on this and I clamp on that. Have to go slow if I am going to notice, have to go very slow if I’m going to see. I have to see to clean this up, all this. I have .92 square miles to go still, by the clock. And I’ve been at it for too long.
When the trucks rumble by, I don’t look up. When the cans whirl by my head, I stay down. Don’t look up, never look up. Never look up. When you look up that’s a sign of confrontation — that’s what Greg the Uncle said. Greg the Uncle knows because he got his face bitten by a bulldog, some kind of big dog. His face shows indentations. Ancient tooth marks.
So I find the glass and the plastic bottles and the plastic strips and the balls of newspaper and the mouse heads and the jars of peanut butter and the old screws and bolts and the pink plastic cigarette holder with the chip in it. I put all of these things in the black bag, which means trash. The orange bag is light because it means keeping things, but it’s difficult to find keeping things unless the bolts are new or it’s money or it’s a ball, but it’s not easy to find these things because who doesn’t want them? I look down and I see more debris. It blows and it juts. I see it and I want to take it in.
I feel the buzz against my leg because that’s Tyler and Tyler wants me to come home to make him food because he can’t cook because he says he’s allergic to the touch of food (but not the taste). I know he made this up so I’d do more work, but Tyler is Tyler and he’s my genes so it’s fine to make him Muenster and butter sandwiches and fried lettuce and pickle surprise. He never complains, which is one thing I like about Tyler. One thing I don’t like about Tyler is when he gives me a “Gangster Hug,” which is tripping me and then pile-driving me into the floor. He does this a lot. He doesn’t do either super hard, but if I fall on my bruised hip again it will hurt even more, and it already hurts from the last time. I don’t answer the buzz. It can wait.
Then it’s an old romance book with a curled spine, and it’s half warped, and it’s bits of a coffee cup, including the handle, and it’s a picture frame twisted into a coil, and then it’s a doorknob, and bits of cloth, and then (lucky me) two muddy pennies and a dime, but I will take them because it’s like getting paid for what I love, and I do like walking out here, up and down, in a straight pattern, just taking care of it. I’m the one who takes care of it.
I walk slowly because what’s the hurry? I walk slowly because I like to. I walk slowly because here time is my own. I can stick it in my pocket. I can stick it in my bag. Back there, time is not my own. Back there, time is his or hers or theirs or someone else’s — someone invisible. A teacher. A priest or whatever. Something. A missing relative I must talk to. I’d like to just be left alone, me and myself. Everyone exists between my ears, and I won’t get in trouble if I don’t look up. Don’t look up.
These shoes are old and gray and smooth in places. These pants are scoured in dirt and rubble. I don’t care. Do I seem impressive? Does it seem I’m worth a photo?
The black bag, orange bag, clumpity clump. Use the gloves so your fingers don’t fall off. It’s not warm and everything is damp and clammy. And now it’s raining again, spitting in odd intervals.
Then the buzz against my leg again. This time I stop. I don’t like to stop for obvious reasons, but also there’s Tyler. And if Tyler is hungry I’ll pay for it later if I don’t. He’s older but she says he’s helpless. I’m younger, doing my part. She’s away for some days, how many days? We don’t know how many days. If we had a calendar maybe we would. She doesn’t tell us until she returns. But we have macaroni and there is the apple tree and we have water. We have these things in abundance, so we wait. We have a big thing of cinnamon, but you have to swirl it into something. Which is the problem.
This mile, I will clean. This square mile is my mile. I do not own it, but I will clean it. It will be good to clean it because then I can take care of it. If we had a cat or gerbil or little dog or parrot, I would take care of that, also. But the only thing we have are salamanders. We have them in abundance, also. Tyler tried once but they died. They die quickly if they dry out. They dry out when they are kept, so now we don’t keep them.
I call him and I tell him I will return.
I cross 687 and go back the way I came. I will do the other side now. I will get back to him this way.
Don’t look up, don’t look up. Keep your clamps near the ground and clamp. The gloves also help. The gloves keep the stab wounds at bay. She said I was worldly like that. She said I knew how to do things, how to fix things. Maybe. But if I can only find a long enough screw, the mailbox would be presto. If only I had a bit of string, I could fix the blind that doesn’t go up or down. If only I could locate a new handle, we could flush the toilet without reaching into it.
The ground is grainy, not smooth. Do not lift your head to the tourist bus, even if the fumes make you cough. Cover your mouth with the back of your hand, bite the latex on the glove. The ground is irregular and beautiful. There are shards of eggs, and dried worms, and ants going crazy on it. There are bits of moss and caterpillars in places. These things you don’t have to pick up, because they are nature and they return to it eventually. So don’t worry. The things you have to pick up are the parts that are Styrofoam and aluminum and rubber. These things are not part of your one square mile. They do not return. So have to use the clamps.
One time Tyler helped me. He had potential, but the problem was he looked up. He looked up often, and then he missed the things in front of him. I found twenty dollars once by looking down. Tyler would have never seen that twenty sitting in the grass. He would have kicked it and thought it was an old leaf. But he will finish school. He’s better at school than most — he can do geometry and he can do Algebra, too. He can read a book. But out here, he’s too scattered. You have to not think. You have to just see and reach. You see a lot if you’re your eyes. Thinking is the obstacle.
This side is tougher because the sun is in my eyes, and when it’s like that I need something for protection, but I don’t have anything, so I have to use my hand and that means up and down with the hand, like I’m saluting the sun, which I’m not. Those who worshiped the sun — I can understand that. It makes a kind of sense. If I didn’t know better, I would worship the sun. I worship nothing — that’s what I worship. Things are bigger and better and more important than me, but I just don’t worship them. I walk straight, one foot in front of the other. I do that.
Back in the better days, I had a soft spot. I had the time. She was part of me. She made things. She said she never made the same thing twice. Sometimes she would make a nest. Sometimes she would make a pot. She was great at making little sculptures of horses and cows out of sticks and bits of twine. She would paint them and occasionally glue hair to them. Or bits of dried flowers or reeds. She would make cars from bottles of old fingernail polish and stones that looked like wheels, and she would paint a heart on them or a green-and-yellow lightning bolt. We would walk down to the creek and watch the shadows of minnows finger through the muddy water. We looked for crayfish but rarely saw them. The floaty insects glided over everything like executioners. Something went sour, but I don’t know why. Maybe it was boredom. Maybe it was too much time. If I had only been able to net a crayfish, impress her. Or maybe she wanted to hear my heart songs. She hummed all the time, but I never knew the tune. I was in my own head. Tyler says I live there too often.
But the water shimmered.
“Would you be with me?”
I wanted to. She touched my face, and I held hers in mine. She kissed me under the chin. She kissed my neck. Hers tasted of sweat, salt. The gnats troubled us as we pressed into the ground. There were ants. There were the sounds of grackles in the bowers. The whisper of water over rock. The breeze through her hair.
But then Tyler buzzed me. He couldn’t find the can opener, and he was hungry.
“I’m sorry,” I breathed. “I can’t avoid it.”
There is always tomorrow, she said. Don’t worry, she assured. She hummed me a song, but as I pulled my shirt back over my head I could feel the tug. I knew.
When I called her, she let me ring through. That happened. After two weeks I gave up.
The orange bag I bought at the market. It was priced at two dollars — used. The black bag — we always had that bag. It lurked in the basement, dusted over, and spider-webbed underneath the bench. Contained old screws and nails, but minus some poke marks it was fine. The orange bag kept it separate in my head. Keeping things and not keeping things — keep everything separate. That is important.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It will be fine.”
His fingers shake and it’s impossible to miss the pick marks. When I’m not there he goes at his jawline and neck. If it begins with a mosquito bite, even worse. I have to dab him first.
“Hold on, let me clean you up,” I say.
“Hungry! Hungry! Where is the food? Hungry! Hungry!” It is worse than the other days. For no real reason. It is his way of missing me. It is his way of staying on top.
Boil water, stir the macaroni. Toast. Cheese. That is it.
He sits across from me, not next to me. He does his math. I wish he could hum or that we had a radio. Something to take the noise out of my head. This continual vibration. Tomorrow, I will lift the empty bags again. For now, I empty them. Some day she may return. She calls us “halfsies.” Tyler and me — each a half, not a whole. If only we were whole brothers, she said. That would make her sit and pay attention. Then, maybe there would be photos and cake.
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