Monday, October 7, 2013

Many Happy Returns

The city where I live has a bulky-item trash policy, which goes as follows: Twice a year, free of charge, you can schedule a curbside pickup of your unwanted junk. This doesn't necessarily stop people from dumping their unwanted junk in alleys or public parks or in someone's orchard on the outskirts of the city limits -- but if used properly, the policy works extremely well.

If used properly, people dump their unwanted junk at the curb, where it lingers until someone picks it up.

Recently, my mother came over for dinner and expressed concern about a heap of trash outside a home two blocks away.

"Oh, they must be moving," I said, dismissively.

I had passed the pile for the last few days on my walk with Baxter, and then later gone back with my car to pick two old windows out of the hoard. What I will do with these windows, I have no idea, although Pinterest has 2,477 suggestions for me. I could just as well have let them be, since I'm way too busy to refurbish old windows, and now I have two junky old windows in a corner of my backyard where old things tend to accumulate. I mostly hide the pile with a tarp; when I do remove the tarp -- to add another old thing to the pile of old things -- it's always surprising to see what's there.

Where did all this junk come from?

Oh, yeah. From me.


Over the years, W and I have disposed of a number of things using our city's bulky-item pick-up policy: our first couch, which Baxter chewed to tufts of stuffing; a massive roll of 1970s-era carpet that had covered our original oak floors; a recliner with a sprung spring; a rusted wheelbarrow with a flat tire.

Often, the things left out on the curbs never make it to the county dump, or if they do, it's by taking a more circuitous route. Someone passing by will decide they need the couch, even if its cushions are missing stuffing. Someone will decide that decades-old carpet that smells vaguely of death and strongly of pets is the perfect covering for their own floors. And someone, no doubt, has found a Pinterest project for a rusted wheelbarrow with a flat tire.

On one occasion, the disposal truck came lumbering down the street and I tore myself away from my laptop to inform the driver that he was too late -- my junk had already been reclaimed.

"It's amazing the trash people will pick up," the driver said, shaking his head.

I thought this was a curious comment, coming from a disposal truck driver, but I feigned a shared incredulousness.  "I know! Isn't it crazy?"


Last spring, after sitting on our 2011 tax return for almost 12 months (which I felt must be some sort of national record), W and I decided to spring for a new couch, an L-shaped sectional that fit our front room much better than our current couch and had the added benefit of not being covered with cat hair.

But what to do with the old couch?

It still had life in it, I reasoned. We could give it to someone who needs a couch and wouldn't mind spending money on professional cleaning, Will suggested. And so, because the space could not bear two couches, we moved the old couch onto our patio.

I'm ashamed to say how long it lingered there, looking more and more shabby every time I opened the patio doors. Suffice to say, before too long, it was now a couch that we would not suggest to any of our friends or acquaintances. Immediately, other things appeared on top of it - empty boxes, bags of trash that we were too lazy to bring to the actual trash can and instead dumped at this convenient halfway point. Leaves collected there. A neighborhood cat discovered it.

Will and I had become the kind of people who have indoor furniture outside their home.

"Oh, don't go out there," I said to a friend, who was wandering in the vague direction of our patio doors.

"Why not?" He laughed. "Is that where the dragon lives?"

"Worse," I said. "So much worse."


After months of waiting for no reason at all, I made the thirty-second phone call to the disposal company, and they gave me a pick-up date. The night before the scheduled pick-up, W and I lugged the couch to the curb. I checked on it a few times that night before going to bed - or rather, I forgot about it completely, only to be reminded by its ghostly rectangular shape every time I passed the front windows. What is that? Oh, right. Our old couch. Still there.

But in the morning, before dawn, it was gone.


In the crazy rush of last spring, W and I took my spring break to fly to Cleveland and drive back to California -- part of a research project for my second novel. We visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, spent a half-day wandering around Oberlin College, visited my hometown of Napoleon, Ohio and rekindled a decades-long friendship. We saw an aunt and uncle in Chicago and met a friend downtown for coffee the next morning. In Omaha, we had dinner with a college friend and his family. Okay -- so part research, part memory-lane.

But in between, we drove, putting thousands of miles on our rented Toyota. When I drove, I sang or chattered to W or listened to one of thirty discs of Stephen King's Under the Dome. As a passenger, I took notes on the topography, the vultures that circled, the town names, the restaurant chains, the brown historical markers. We visited the landlocked lighthouse in Gretna, NE. We visited the pony express station in Gothemberg, NE. We saw Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff (for you Oregon Trail fans). And we drove. And drove.

Every now and then, on a lonely stretch of I-80, we would see someone's castoff belongings - armchairs missing a limb, mattresses that may well have fallen off someone's station wagon. It would be sitting on the side of the road, as lonely and poignant as Willa Cather's big plow against the sky - and then as we came closer, we would see that it was indeed nothing more than a pile of junk.


After five days or so, we were back in California, heading south from Sacramento. It was full-on spring here, not the stinging sleet of Cleveland or the half-melted slush of Laramie, WY -- but spring. It was a good day to be alive. I began making a mental list -- laundry, pick up Bax from my parents, grade the papers I'd lugged across country and back without once glancing at.

We took our exit from the freeway, and began wending our way through the few twists and turns to our house. Less than a block away, I braked and we both stared out the window.

"Is that...?"

It was.

On the side of the road, bridging an overflowing gutter, was our couch.

It had returned.

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