Read an Excerpt
All but one of the black trash bags, heaped curbside on East 4th Street, were tufted with fresh snow, and looked, to Talmadge, like alpine peaks in the moonlight, or at least what he, a lifetime flatlander, thought alpine peaks might look like if bathed in moonglow and (upon further reflection) composed of slabs of low-density polyethylene. Admittedly, his mental faculties were still under the vigorous sway of the half gram of Sonoma County Sour Diesel he’d smoked a half hour earlier, but still: Mountains. Definitely. When he brushed the snow off the topmost bag and untied the knot at its summit, he felt like a god disassembling the Earth.
Micah would surely object to this analogy—the problem with dudes, he could hear her saying, is that y’all can’t even open a freaking trash bag without wanting to be some kind of god subjugating the planet—before needling him for making any analogy at all. “You’re, like, the only person in the world who overuses the word ‘like’ the way it’s actually meant to be used,” she’d once told him. Which was true: He was an inveterate analogizer who couldn’t help viewing the world as a matrix of interconnected references in which everything was related to everything else through the associative, magnetizing impulses of his brain. Back in college he’d read that this trait was an indicator of genius or perhaps merely advanced intelligence, and while this had pleased him, he was also aware, darkly, that he’d inherited the trait directly from his Uncle Lenord, which wasn’t a DNA strand he longed to advertise. Uncle Lenord, who repaired riding mowers and weedwhackers and various other small-engine whatnots out of his carport in Wiggins, Mississippi, was a fount of cracker-barrel similes—hotter’n two foxes fucking in a forest fire; wound up tighter’n an eight-day clock; drunk as a bicycle; spicier’n a goat’s ass in a pepper patch—but no one had ever accused him of genius-level or even advanced thinking. Frankly no one had ever accused him of any thinking whatsoever, with the possible exception of the girlfriend of one of Talmadge’s Ole Miss fraternity brothers. She’d interviewed Lenord for a Southern Studies 202 term paper about the effects of clear-cut logging on rural communities, so presumably—since the girlfriend scored a B-plus on the paper—Lenord had been forced to think at least once. He debriefed Talmadge on the interview a few weeks later, when Talmadge was home for Christmas break. “Girl had titties out to here,” Lenord confided. “Woulda jumped on that ass like a duck on a Junebug.”
With a gloved hand Talmadge sifted through the bag’s contents: donuts, Portuguese rolls, kaiser rolls, bagels, cookies, cream horns, Swiss rolls, challah, and muffins. The effluvia of the Key Food bakery department, most of it edible but none of it salable, discharged to the curb. He transferred two of the Portuguese rolls and two pistachio muffins into the burlap satchel he wore messenger-style on his shoulder, and then, remembering that Matty was coming to dinner, added another roll and muffin to the bag. Then one more Portuguese roll, and on second thought another, because he remembered that Matty ate like a pulpwood hauler.
The cream horns were fatally smooshed; otherwise he would’ve taken three or four. Weed gave him a monumental sweet tooth. He considered the cookies but they were nestled in a wad of paper towels drenched in something blue—Windex, he guessed. The challah was hard as seasoned firewood, and should have, he noted critically, been thrown out the day before. Ditto the bagels, though he didn’t care about them, since day-old bagels were his easiest prey. Unger’s over on Avenue B had the best ones anyway, and Mr. Unger—testy, fat-jowled, an aproned old relic from the bygone Lower East Side—put out two or three full bags of them nightly. The only problem with those was Mr. Unger himself, who would sometimes charge out of the store to demand payment. Talmadge was always quick to skedaddle but Micah relished the fight. “They’re trash,” she’d say. “They’re my trash,” he’d reply. And so on and so forth until Mr. Unger would fling up his arms and shout, “Freeloaders! Freeloaders!” The whole exchange was avoidable since there was a two-hour window between the time that Mr. Unger locked the shop, at seven, and when the Department of Sanitation trucks rolled up at nine, during which time the bagels were free for the loading, but Micah operated on her own narrow terms—angry fat-jowled relics be damned.
After retying the bag and replacing it onto the heap, Talmadge went about frisking the other bags. He was after the pleasant dumpy squish that meant produce, which he found after several gropings. He wrestled the bag off the pile—it was unusually heavy, suggesting melons—and opened it on the sidewalk.
“Five dollars,” he heard someone say. One of the canners at the bottle-redemption machines, about six yards down the sidewalk: a hunched, skittery black guy in a long charcoal overcoat, no taller than five-foot-five though possibly five-foot-ten if he would or could stand up straight, and while he looked about eighty—owing partly to his posture, but also his rheumy eyes which were capped with the kind of wildly unkempt and woolly gray eyebrows one saw in portraits of nineteenth-century lunatics—he was probably closer to sixty. With an empty plastic bag hanging from his hand, he was staring at the machine marked cans as if squaring off against it in a brawl.
“Five fucking dollars,” he said to it. He looked to his left, where a short, disfigured Chinese woman was waiting with a can-filled handcart and where another canner Talmadge called Scatman—grizzly-sized from the multiple overcoats he was wearing, and sporting his trademark vintage earphones—was feeding a huge cache of Evian bottles into the maw of the plastics machine; then to his right, where Talmadge was watching him with an opened bag of mucky produce at his feet; and then finally upward to where a sign, perched above the bank of machines, read automatic redemption center. Talmadge had once suggested, jokingly, that he and Micah ought to transplant the sign to the Most Holy Redeemer Church around the corner on 3rd Street. She didn’t think it was funny but then funny wasn’t her thing.
Scatman wasn’t scatting. Usually he serenaded his deposits, and accompanied his collecting, with mumbled scat-singing, or something resembling it: skippity dip da doo, bop de-diddlee, bam bam bam. Hence the nickname. Talmadge wasn’t sure whether Scatman’s vinyl-covered earphones—padded and brown and big as coconut halves—were related to the scatting, or if indeed they were even connected to anything, but he’d never seen Scatman without them, in warm weather or cold, so he supposed they served some function. As for the Chinese woman: Talmadge knew her, or was anyway familiar with her. She was a part-time canner who walked a fixed route in the early evenings, plucking cans out of the corner trash barrels with a plastic, purple-and-lime green pincing tool of the kind sold in toy stores. Their paths crossed often enough that she and Talmadge would sometimes acknowledge each other with a flick of eye contact or more rarely a nod. He called her Teeter, because the grievous shortness of one of her legs caused her to teeter down the street. But Hunch, and his five dollars—he was someone new.
“That’s what I get?” he was saying to Teeter. “Five dollars?” She crinkled her face but said nothing. He looked back at the machine. “Well, mothafucka,” he said, and chewed his lip for a moment. “Yo, man,” he said to Scatman. “Five dollars. That right?”
“If that’s what it say,” said Scatman, without looking over, and in a voice Talmadge found mildly startling: Scatman spoke with the smooth basso timbre of an old-timey broadcaster. Smoother than that, even: a parody of an old-timey broadcaster. Talmadge had never heard Scatman utter words before, only the bips and bams and ba-dings of his scatting, spluttered and muttered with all the grace and suavity of someone with an index finger lodged in an electrical socket. He’d reasonably expected to hear something more jagged.
“Motha-mothafucka,” said Hunch, and then hit the machine with
the side of his fist, rattling the fiberglass panel and blinking the lightbulb inside. This, now—this was more than mildly startling. Teeter flinched, then looked down toward the cans in her cart, pretending to notice something new about them. Scatman kept plugging away, staring straight ahead, his scat-free silence further starkening the moment. Talmadge was too busy watching their reactions, the gears of his brain gummed up by the sinsemilla, to monitor his own—something he realized too late. Before he could dip his hand into the produce, and with it the direction of his gaze, Hunch swung his own gaze toward Talmadge and shouted, “The fuck you looking at?”
Houston Crabtree was his name, and if he knew that Talmadge had christened him Hunch he might have tried corking Talmadge’s mouth with a five-cent redeemable Coke can. Might have, that is, rather than would have, because a simple assault charge was an express ticket back upstate to the Mid-Orange lockup. And, most likely, to twelve weeks of Aggression Replacement Training: for Crabtree, the motherfucking cherry on top. Not that he’d ever let consequences stop him before. The first kid who’d called him a hunchback—this was back in Georgia, midcentury—found a baseball bat ringing his larynx. Kid was just seven years old but talked like Bobby Blue Bland after that. As a baby Crabtree had rickets, which’d crooked his spine, bent it like a fish hook, and the older he got, the worse his spine hurt, and the higher he needed to be just to roll out of bed. Some days, it was like walking around with an arrow sticking halfway out his back. Today, for instance. Today it hurt. Reaching in to those corner trash cans, stooping to root through those recycling bins, hauling that plastic bag over his shoulder like some dollar-store Santa Claus: today was like having a whole quiver of arrows jutting from his back. Today was a motherfucking Injun massacre. And all for five dollars. Five even: the precise amount, to the penny, of his urinalysis testing fee. Five dollars, and now this fatassed Don Cornelius saying “If that’s what it say,” like that’s what it didn’t say, and weeble-wobble Ching Chong behind him with a whole truckload of cans, maybe enough cans to clear his back parole fees and get a steak, a cheeseburger, whatever, anything besides that no-turkey turkey soup at the Renewed Horizons shelter. Five dollars, and now this glassy-eyed white kid staring at him as if there really were bloody arrows stubbling his back. “Yo,” he said, angling a few steps closer to Talmadge. “I said, the fuck you looking at?”
Whether dread or meteorology was to blame, Talmadge didn’t know, but he felt suddenly colder, as if a polar gust had just turned left on East 4th as it was nipping its way southward down Avenue A. The snow had been coming down in layers—a blast of chowdery snow followed by fifteen minutes of clear gelid air followed by another white blast—but now it was swirling, snow globe–style, and showing zero signs of another leisurely break. New York City hadn’t seen this much pre-Thanksgiving snow in twenty years, he’d read earlier that day while checking Facebook at an internet café on St. Mark’s Place. Busiest travel day of the year, and flights were running four hours late at LaGuardia blah blah click. The temperature must have been in the teens, he figured, with the wind so blowy that he had seen two people go by shielding their faces with folded newspapers. None of this bothered him, however—he had a boffo parka, cadged from a dormitory dumpster at Richard Varick College, and Matty was coming in on Greyhound. Plus, Talmadge loved it when the earth fought back, when it jostled and jerked like a horse shaking flies off its back. He’d muttered words to this effect after Hurricane Katrina leveled his parents’ beachfront home in Gulfport, and only his stepmother leaping in front of him, screaming no, had stayed his father from committing second-degree murder or at minimum aggravated assault.
Crabtree was in front of him now, those wild eyebrows converged into an indignant, frowning V. But as he was sizing up Talmadge, his eyes bouncing from the trash bag between his feet to the fuck hate and holy goof buttons on his satchel to the black titanium barbell skewered through his right eyebrow to the tasseled, earflapped wool cap of vaguely Incan design atop his head, the anger in his eyes was getting nudged out by something like confusion. Talmadge was tall, yet so lanky and slim as to seem wispy—a “long tall drink of water,” as his Uncle Lenord said, though Lenord had modified that to “long tall drink of bullshit” after Talmadge dropped out of college to, as Lenord put it, “let people draw shit all over his face.” Slouchy and gawky, he seemed uncomfortable in his body, as if he were a victim of shoddy biological tailoring who’d been fitted with a frame one size too large. Or as if, at twenty-three, he still had some growing left to do, an impression bolstered by the palefaced splotches in his downy, flaxen beard and the boyish or possibly girlish softness of his big pacifist eyes. Even the tattoo on his left temple—a purplish star, which the tattoo artist in Hattiesburg told him signified celestial longing, a yearning for new (or possibly Renewed) horizons, new maps, new ways of being, a pure shine of light in the polluted darkness—reinforced the delicacy of his features, evoking, in its coloring and placement, something midway between mascara and an earring. Micah called him “angelheaded,” which was only credible if you specified which angel—gentle Jophiel, perhaps, but not sword-swinging Michael. Yet the sentiment was fair: With his velvet-painted-Jesus visage, his spare, reedy chassis, and his timorous bearing, Talmadge Bertrand had the look of someone too sensitive for the scraggy existence of a mammal, with a face that wouldn’t appear inappropriate above a golden harp. He could see Crabtree puzzling now at the sight of him, that freewheeling anger curving back on itself as the old man struggled to decipher the context of this angelheaded manchild rooting through the Key Food garbage. “The fuck you doing?” he finally said.
“Getting dinner,” Talmadge said, which he sensed wasn’t the ideal answer, given the situation, but it was the truthful answer, and really the only explainable one.
Quick and incredulous, Crabtree said, “You eating from the trash?”
“Yeah,” Talmadge said. “Look at all they throw away. It’s criminal, man, it’s everywhere. Here, look here”—from the bag he pulled out a bunch of carrots, ferny green leaves attached, and bent a limp one to demonstrate—“there’s nothing wrong with these, they’re just soft. No difference if you cook them. And look”—now he fetched a fat tomato, blighted with a dark moldy blotch—“see, that just needs cutting out.”
“Boy, what’s wrong with you?” Crabtree said, the anger frothing back up. Five dollars, he thought, and now here he was messing around with a talking sewer rat. There wasn’t no end to it.
“What’s wrong with them?” said Talmadge. “There’s hungry people in the world. There’s people starving. And look at all this. They’re burying all this food.” At this point Micah’s voice took over, as it always did, not just in the script but in Talmadge’s inflections and intonations too, with even her zonked-hillbilly accent creeping in, as if he were wholly channeling her, or flipping the switch on some prerecorded message of hers: “It’s a bankrupt system, man. Waste doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t affect profits. They’ve built it into the system. Everything just gets rolled downhill. Check it out, man. Fifty percent of the edible food in this country never gets eaten. Half of it, seriously. Never makes it into a mouth. And no one cares, man. Because we’ve been conditioned not to care. We’ve been taught to dispose. And not just food, but—”
“What the hell, ratboy,” Crabtree cut in. “Whoa, let me tell you something. You don’t know your dick from your ass.”
“Okay,” Talmadge said again.
“Not if you think what you’re doing can change nothing.”
With a meek shrug, Talmadge said, “I’m just changing me.”
“Then don’t be preaching at everybody.”
“I wasn’t preaching. You asked me—”
“Know what you are, man? Do you know?”
This was clearly a rhetorical question though Crabtree granted Talmadge a few unappreciated moments for response.
“You a provocateur,” he said. “That’s right. A pro-voc-a-teur. And that’s bullshit, you know what I’m saying. Bullshit. That’s nothing.”
“Due respect, man, I’m just minding my—”
“Let me tell you something. Provocateur, man. That’s what you are. I was with Bobby Seale in New Haven, you understand? The Black Panthers, man, you know what I’m talking about? New Haven. That was war, man. But this shit”—he waved an ungloved hand at the trash bags on the sidewalk, at the satchel ’round Talmadge’s shoulder—“this shit is worthless, man. You ain’t—you ain’t even got a right.”
“We all have a right,” Talmadge mumbled.
“Shit,” said Crabtree, then puffed his cheeks before unloading an aggrieved exhalation. Too cold for this shit, he thought. Too cold for anything. Weather like this, even a polar bear’d be crying for its mama, asking to crawl back in that warm mama-bear coochie to hide. The wind was spinning all those invisible arrows poking from his back, whirling them around in his flesh. He had pills back at the shelter but the pills didn’t work. Reefer worked. Rock worked better. Junk worked best. But all his old nursing aids had been forcibly retired by The People of the State of New York v. Houston Crabtree. “Five dollars, man,” he said blurrily, half to himself, a quarter to God, the rest to the dumbass kid. “I got fines to pay. No job. I don’t pay the fines, I gotta go back to doing a bid.”
The sudden shift in tone came as a relief to Talmadge, as though a knife had been lowered.