He leaned back into his driver’s seat, closed his eyes, and waited to feel something for the dead man.
By Ethel Rohan
Brought to you by the Guernica/PEN Flash Series
Thirty years on the job and it was the garbage man’s first time to find a body. He dropped the dumpster lid with a clang and reached for his phone. Overhead, pigeons watched from their shit-streaked ledge. He second-guessed himself and opened the dumpster again. He had a corpse, all right. The dead man looked to be about sixty, and homeless. Likely died from hypothermia or a rotted liver, his eyes hollowed and the skin stretched tight over his face, as if his skeleton was already pushing through.
He called the cops and then his boss, his fingers numb inside the fog-thickened San Francisco cold. Above the dumpster, inside the redbrick apartment building, a naked window mirrored the full moon. He moved his head a fraction and a second, smaller moon appeared in the window below the first. The pigeons lifted into the sky, the beat of their wings like the sound of shaking-out bedsheets. He canted his head again and a third moon materialized, smaller than the other two. His head moved left and right, making the moons appear and disappear in the glass. He had never before witnessed this trick of the eyes. In the distance, the police sirens sounded like terrible singing.
The last corpse he had seen dated back twenty-two months and belonged to his wife, Evelyn. Married thirty-three years, Evelyn had delighted in telling everyone they had first met in kindergarten and that it was love at first sight. She knew he hated her to tell the story—too corny. That first time, she was sitting on the bright alphabet rug inside the classroom, her dark head leaned over a book and her lips moving as if talking to an imaginary friend. She tried and tried, struggling to make sense of the words and laughing at her own mistakes, her teeth like tiny pieces of mint candy.
The police officer cocked his thumb back toward the dumpster.
“This story will make one hell of a party piece.”
He supposed it would.
The police officer grinned, flashing a gold tooth up top. Just the other day, someone had told the garbage man the price of gold had reached an all-time high. He had always wondered at what people valued. Like who was to say coffee shouldn’t be priceless. Stupid, he thought. So fucking stupid.
The officer told him to return to his truck and wait. The authorities might have more questions once the coroner was done. He phoned his boss again and arranged for the remainder of his route to be covered by another driver. The sky was spilling into blue.
More vehicles and people appeared on the city streets. Passersby gathered to gawk at the police scene, the yellow-and-black caution tape holding them at bay as effectively as any wall. He leaned back into his driver’s seat, closed his eyes, and waited to feel something for the dead man. If it was a pretty girl inside the dumpster, he would feel something.
Police officers dispersed the onlookers and waved the garbage man on. He started the truck’s ignition and released the brake. The paramedics had already bagged the body. He wondered what becomes of the dead that no one claims?
He wanted to be cremated, but Evelyn had asked to be buried. With a wry smile, she had said he could visit. He had followed her wishes, but whenever he went to her grave, he refused to talk, not even to share news about their faraway children or to give her their messages of love. He didn’t believe in anything after death. Sometimes, though, in bed at night, he read aloud from a tattered, loose-leaf copy of Goodnight Moon. That was the book Evelyn’s black hair had poured over in kindergarten, the story she was trying so hard to read. They had read it to all three of their children until they too stumbled and struggled and finally unlocked the story for themselves. It comforted him to hear a voice in their bedroom again, even if it was only his own. In the rearview, he found that apartment window. Daylight now, the illusion would be gone.
Ethel Rohan is the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobody (forthcoming Queen’s Ferry Press, September, 2013) and Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books), the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. She is also the author of a chapbook, Hard to Say (PANK, 2011). Winner of the 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award, her work has or will appear in the New York Times, World Literature Today, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, Sou’wester, Post Road Magazine, and The Rumpus, among many others. She reviews books for New York Journal of Books and sometimes elsewhere.