Jiménez watched the kids recede into the distance. It was the last house on that particular street, and a long, wooded section remained before the main road. He loved these two little rascals: after he finished tossing the contents of the cans into the garbage compactor, they would race the truck down the street until Old Bill, the driver, gunned the engine and left them behind.
They still had a long way to go, but the highlight of the route was past. Those kids always made him smile.
He would have loved to smile the next pickup day, but it wasn’t in the cards. The kids weren’t outside, and Jiménez himself was wearing a surgical mask assigned to him by Hamilton County. The lockdown order was strict, the streets deserted. Of course mom wouldn’t let them play outside on this of all days, not even on their sleepy cul-de-sac in the suburbs. Every house on the street was shut tight, garage doors closed and sprinklers off.
The inhabitants even appeared afraid to take out their garbage. That sucked. Empty cans today would mean a nightmare next time or whenever they decided that getting the smell of old macaroni out of their houses outweighed any potential risk.
“Another empty,” Carlos, his partner on the back of the truck, called up to Bill. “Drive on.”
It was a grey day, one of those spring afternoons in which nature can’t decide whether it wants to leave winter behind or give us another few weeks of cold.
And he was wearing a mask.
Yeah, a smile would have made for a nice change that day.
The next couple of pickup days were, as expected, a nightmare. Twice as many bags at each house, cans that overflowed with pizza boxes and takeout containers, not sorted into the correct recycling bin — which made it the trash collector’s problem, as no one was going to risk their life over a recycling violation. Recycling inspectors that they were at home waiting to get furloughed.
Jimenez counted his blessings. He was scared — after Williams tested positive, they all were — but he needed this job. His three-year-old’s college fund wouldn’t fill itself.
Anyway, it was kind of refreshing having the streets to themselves. One still looked carefully for any place a distracted soccer mom in an SUV could appear out of nowhere, of course, but the soccer moms were all at home.
The street where the kids played was never busy. You could pretty much jump off wherever you wanted, and jog alongside the truck to the next can. A lot of college kids collected garbage with the early morning shifts. It kept them in shape for football season, and if anyone asked, they called themselves ‘garbiologists’. The moniker had stuck; the new kid would always be the garbiologist until he convinced his buddies that it was the only workout that actually paid you good money to do it.
Of course, none of the college men would be on an afternoon ride, not even with the campus closed. And the few that had been on the morning shift melted away when the pandemic started. Apparently no one wanted to be out and about.
Except for the essentials. Funny how people suddenly realized that you were doing something important.
The kids at the last house on the street weren’t there. But at least someone had taken the garbage out.
Two weeks into the lockdown, he found something he’d never expected. On a bag outside one house was taped a sheet of paper with a handwritten note on it that said, simply: To Our Garbagemen, Thank You. It wasn’t signed, but it didn’t go in the truck with the other trash. It went, carefully folded, into the breast pocket of his coverall.
The warm feeling lasted until he reached the last house on the street, and then it faded. Were the kids locked up? What were they doing? It was obvious that they really enjoyed being outside, so this must be taking its toll.
Besides, this was the second time in a row that their big, black can had been empty.
Had something happened to them?
Two days later, he studied the house more carefully. The garage door had a row of small glass panels that allowed some light in. Jiménez thought he could see one empty space where one of the family’s two cars should be. But he couldn’t walk up the driveway to look. They’d fire him faster than a suburban housewife could say ‘suspicious character on my lawn’.
There was still no trash in the can.
Had they broken quarantine and driven off somewhere?
Or… had someone gotten sick. The father, with his bald spot. The mother, putting on a little weight but always smiling.
Not one of the kids — please, not one of the kids.
He didn’t sleep well that night.
The next pickup day, though it was Carlos’ turn to grab the trash in that can, Jiménez waved his partner off and did two houses in a row. He picked it up and cursed. Too light.
But wait, there was something in there. He opened pulled back the lid and found a tiny bundle of trash.
Jimenez smiled. The trash wasn’t wrapped in a regular trash bag but in a green bag with a logo in it. The bag said Pampers on the side.
That explained everything. A hospital stay. Kids probably out with relatives. Empty cans.
Jiménez chuckled to himself and at himself, and hummed the rest of the way.
Carlos looked at him funny, but Jiménez didn’t care.
The next day, one of the kids was looking out the window and waved, and that was when Jiménez knew that everything would be fine.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 300 stories published in 15 countries, in seven languages. His latest novel is Jungle Lab Terror (2020). He has also published another monster book, Ice Station: Death (2019), three science fiction novels: Incursion (2017), Outside (2017), and Siege (2016), and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019), Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.