by William Michaelian

His job that afternoon was to clean up along the roadside, bring the cans and bottles back to the barn, and dump them into boxes so they’d be ready to take to the county dump. Carrying an old five-gallon bucket, he walked between the vineyard and the west end of the house until he got to the road, then started by picking up whatever would burn. This included papers of all kinds, cigarette cartons, small pieces of wood, cardboard, rope, and miscellaneous articles of clothing. One thing he’d learned not to burn was a diaper. Diapers were dangerous.

After covering about a third of the quarter-mile distance, the bucket was already full, so he stopped and dumped everything out. He struck a match and held it to a section of newspaper he’d found and soon had a small fire going. When he was sure the fire wouldn’t go out, he continued on. By the time he’d reached the other end of the vineyard, he had filled his bucket two more times. He looked back down the road. All that was left of the first fire was a tiny bit of smoke. The second, which had some wood from a broken grape box, was still burning.

Once he had the last fire going, he sat down next to the vines to take a break. As usual, he’d hung onto a few of the longer cigarette butts he’d found for his own use. Officially, he wasn’t old enough to smoke. But he didn’t see that as a reason to deprive himself of the pleasure. His father smoked, his mother smoked, and so did his brothers. Every now and then, the men even let him take a puff from one of their cigarettes. In fact, if it weren’t for his mother, who for some unknown reason decided he should wait until he was sixteen, they might have given him his own pack. But mothers were like that. They didn’t always make sense. One minute they looked at you with dreamy eyes, and the next they were madder than a hornet.

Being nice to his mother was getting to be more of a challenge. For one thing, she asked way too many questions. He liked his dad’s approach better. About the only question he ever asked was if he wanted to go fishing. She, on the other hand, wanted to know where he was going and who his friends were, and if there were any girls involved. She was especially worried about the girls. What bugged him most was that when there were girls involved, she always seemed to know. He could never figure that out. Did he come home wearing a certain look? Did she smell perfume? Or was it just some weird motherly instinct?

He smoked two of his cigarette butts and watched the fire. A pickup went by, then a car. He waved each time, because both were being driven by neighbors from further up the road. The pickup belonged to a man named Lindahl, who had a small vineyard and took care of about three thousand chickens. Or his wife did, at any rate. His wife hated chickens, but she was the one stuck with collecting and candling the eggs. She worked all day in a smelly room no bigger than a fishing cabin, while her husband stayed outside in the fresh air. He knew, because that’s where his mother bought their eggs. The car belonged to an old widow woman he liked, although they’d never met and never spoken a word. Every afternoon at the exact same time, Mrs. Ford drove to town to buy something for supper. Half an hour later, she drove back. The only day this didn’t happen was Sunday. On Sunday, her son, Dale, who was unmarried and an accountant, took her out for a hamburger and a milkshake. The funny thing was, Dale looked almost as old as his mother, only not as interesting.

The summer sky was breathless and full of dust. A few weeks earlier, the neighbor across the road had scattered several truck loads of peach culls on the avenue at the end of his property. All that remained now were pits. He listened to the sound of a tractor rumbling in the distance.

Finally, he decided it was time to get up and work his way back to the house. The first thing he picked up was a beer bottle with a hard clump of dirt plugging the end. So it wouldn’t be as heavy, he tapped the bottle against the side of the bucket. But instead of coming out, the dirt fell into the bottle. Rather than fight it, he put the bottle in the bucket and continued on. He picked up three beer cans and smashed them on the road with his shoe, then a wine bottle that hadn’t quite been emptied. After pouring its warm, sour-smelling contents onto the ground, he added the cans and bottle to his collection.

A minute or so later, a big truck hauling boxes of fruit roared by, covering him with dust. Knowing what to expect, he turned his back in time and closed his eyes until the wind died down. When he opened them, he noticed a feather on the ground that had come from a dove. The feather was in good shape, so he put it in his shirt pocket with the rest of his cigarette butts. He liked feathers. He had a lot of them in his room, in the corners of his mirror and on top of his chest of drawers. Crows, hawks, blackbirds, mockingbirds, doves, owls, woodpeckers, sparrows, pigeons — he had them all. And he would never tell anyone, but he wanted to give one of his feathers to a girl someday. It made a lot more sense to him than giving a ring. Who that girl was, he had no idea. But he loved her, even now.

About half the way back, he stopped for another smoke. So far he’d been lucky, because there had been more cans than bottles. The bucket was fairly light. Still, there was no hurry. As soon as he got back, his father would only find something else for him to do, like changing oil in the tractor, unloading sacks of sulfur from the pickup, or shoveling weeds by the pump.

He thought some more about the girl. What did she look like? Where did she live? Did he know her already? Somehow, that didn’t seem possible. If he knew her, he would be able to tell. And so would she. He liked most of the girls he did know, but that was different. He had even kissed some of them — behind the cypresses next to the school gym, and in the shadow of the stadium during a football game. He had even done one or two other things — the kind of things his mother was probably worried about. But he wasn’t interested in getting into trouble, just in finding out.

Having a car would help. He knew that much. Just being able to go somewhere after school, or on Friday nights — that would make a big difference. A pretty girl beside him on the seat, her head on his shoulder, her soft hair flowing down. Where would they go? Nowhere. For a drive in the hills, maybe, or through the countryside, past the sleeping houses late at night. They could listen to the radio and talk. It didn’t matter. What mattered was being together and just passing the time. Knowing things were all right.

Another car went by. This time it belonged to a Mexican family that lived around the corner and one road over. They were on their way home from town. The mom was driving, the two youngest girls were in the back, and their older sister, Rachel, was in front. Everybody waved. He and Rachel had been going to school together since kindergarten. They were good friends. She was very pretty, had long black hair, and spoke with a slight accent. Her voice was different than most girls’ — musical somehow. He knew she worked hard. Every fall, she picked grapes with her brothers on their father’s farm, and helped box raisins. In the winter, while her father and brothers were pruning, she helped her mother in the kitchen. And yet she still got good grades.

After they’d gone by, he threw away the rest of his cigarette and covered it with dirt. When he’d first seen their car, without really thinking, he’d hidden it behind his leg. The thought made him smile.

It took him another fifteen minutes to pick up the rest of the cans and bottles. As always, the bucket had gotten heavy toward the end. He looked back down the road. While he was standing there, his father noticed him from the yard and started walking in his direction. “What’re you looking at?” he said when he was still a few feet away.

His father’s voice made him jump. He turned around and smiled. “I don’t know,” he said. “Nothing, I guess.”

And nothing was the only other thing they said.

William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.

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