Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2023    poetry    all issues


Susan Wilkinson

George Vendura
Water Uphill

Stephen Parrish
Bury Me Standing

Dustin Stamper
Chinese Finger Cuffs

Conor Hogan

D.F. Salvador
The Long Vacation

Elliot Aglioni
Mortimer Causa

Terry Mulhern
Watch out for snakes

O.T. Martin

Nick Gallup
The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fortune

Ian R. Villmore
Love Is an Anchor

Katrina Soucy

Dan Timoskevich
The Point

Writer's Site

George Vendura

Water Uphill

I’m just a garbage man, but God gave me the eye. Sometimes I pick up broken things, and I fix them. When I come around the corner and see a pile of trash by the street, I’m on cloud nine. I ease Bernice to the curb and throw most of the stuff into her back compartment and pull the lever. Her compressor whines. But every once in awhile, there’s something that makes my heart go pitter patter. I gently place it beside me in the cab along with the day’s other treasures.

It ain’t that bad a job. The pay’s okay. It’s got its benefits. I get to move my arms and legs with nobody in a suit and tie looking over my shoulder. Good outdoor work—not cooped up in a tiny room like Herman, my supervisor. I can smell the fresh air, at least when I’m upwind of Bernice, and I get to drive out of the city to the dump two or three times a day.

It’s amazing what people throw away. So many things, just a little damaged. A touch of glue, a dab of paint, another hinge, and they’re as good as new. I can’t count how many bicycles I’ve placed in the cab over the years. Maybe on Pine Street I might find just a frame. Or the wheel’s folded in half because some goofy kid tried to ride three friends on it all at once. A bent wheel’s no problem. I already have four spares hanging in the garage that might just fit. Even if they don’t, I’ll find the right one by the curb in a day or two.

My nieces, my nephews, the neighborhood kids . . . they all ride Caruso specials. I also bring ‘em to Father Porcelli who knows other families that need them. A little buffing with some steel wool to get the specks of rust off the chrome, and they’re making someone happy again.

Every day, more prizes. I give them all away. I mean, how many birdhouses does a guy my age need? Not just kids’ stuff. The chandelier that’s in Mrs. Sabatini’s dining room that needed a few wires . . . Mrs. Mancuso’s sewing machine, oil and a belt . . . Mr. Bellomo’s lawn mower, a spark plug and an air filter . . . even the accordion after I removed the dust balls that’s now in the old timers’ home on Steeple Street.

There was the boy without a father two houses down from mine who was going a little south—a loose nut, a wobbly wheel. It happens to all of us. One day I stopped by with a basketball hoop I’d picked up on Foster Road. I tried to talk to him as I set it up in his driveway. He didn’t answer, but he sort of hung around behind my left shoulder as I worked. I just kept talking away while I tightened the bolts as if I hadn’t noticed. The next week I showed up with a basketball, almost brand new, and then a month later with a nice fiberglass backstop. He started coming around. Before I knew it I was tousling his hair and giving him noogies whenever he missed a shot.

“Mr. Caruso,” he said to me a few years later when he finally finished college. “I want you to be the best man at my wedding.”

I choked up. A big palooka like me, a best man, even though I’m old enough to be his father.

Then there was the evening little Emily knocked on my door with tears running down her cheeks. I looked into her cupped hands. My mouth dropped open. A baby robin, a little thing with a hanging wing.

“Momma mia,” I said to myself, “I can’t fix no robin!”

“Please,” Emily begged with pleading eyes.

A broken doll, that’s no big deal. But a living being, full of fear, is another matter.

I plopped Emily on the stool by my workbench and brushed away her tears with the clean corner of my shop rag. I told her that I’d try and sent her away with an uncertain smile on her tiny face.

Me and the robin, we had a staring contest. For a long time I just sat there, all 250 pounds of me, while this tiny creature, less than an ounce, glared back from the middle of the table, feathers on one side drooping, full of its own doubt and pain.

I spent half the night digging in the garden looking for worms with a flashlight hanging from my mouth. No luck.

For hours more I played with a razor blade, toothpicks, and Popsicle sticks, all the while making what I thought were adult robin noises. By morning he was all splinted up. Emily was delighted.

“Why the light bulb?” she said, peering into the shoebox and stroking the little head with a finger.

“To keep him warm.”

“What’s that for?” she asked, pointing to the spaghetti soaking in the glass of warm water. The stuff was a little yellow from the crushed vitamin pill I mixed in.

“He thinks it’s worms,” I answered. “Watch.”

I held a wet noodle above his beak, and the little fella opened wide for his new mudder. Emily clapped her hands and laughed

We named the little bugger Henry. I sent him home with her. He still lives there without a cage.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Some people say that because I’ve been by myself all these years that I’m just a lonely guy with a garage full of junk. But it ain’t so bad. I have my bottle of Elmer’s glue, and my clamps, and my jars of paint. How can I be lonely? I just keep busy. The other drivers, every night the same. A six pack of Miller and the sports channel. Me? Sometimes in the middle of the night while I’m working on something really delicate—a music box with a broken ballerina—I think about Colleen and how it didn’t work out, but what’s past is past.

Now the things crowding my workshop are my friends. God gave me the eye, and I can see when something that no one wants any more still has a lot of good. Each one has a soul. It ain’t junk—at least not after I’m through. All that it may need is a gentle touch, some patience . . . .

An old rocker might sit on the table for two or three months. You just look at it for a long time not knowing how to start. At first, you’re tempted to quickly bang in a nail here and there. A schlock job.

Time . . . time . . . . I’ve learned that you just have to give it time. You study it. You stroke it. You talk to it. You reassure it. You wait. And eventually it talks to you—maybe in a whisper or whimper at first, about where it hurts, what it needs to be whole again. You see how it’s really made, and you do it right—carefully drilled slots, wooden dowels . . . . You caress it some more. In the end you’ve got something good—better than it’s ever been. Alive again. Something you love and that loves you back.

Sure, I’m just a garbage man. To the pencil pushers in city hall, I’m at the bottom of the heap. That’s why my salary’s not as good as the town’s electricians, the plumbers, or even the pothole fillers. But I can’t believe how lucky I am. The big shots on the mayor’s floor, they get company cars. But a Cadillac weighs only 5,000 pounds. Me? They gave me Bernice, fifteen tons empty. I named her after Bernicia, my grandmother from Palermo, who was also big. Best of all, they actually pay me to load the front of her with things that are still beautiful. Some days the cab is so full I drive home half leaning out the window.

No ringing phones. No one running up to me with piles of papers making crazy changes. And as I make my rounds every day, I get to watch. I have time to think.

Sometimes, something that’s real good isn’t by the curb yet. I wait. I just wait. The statue of the angel on the front lawn of the house on Astoria Boulevard—so lovely. For years I slowed down and looked in her direction every time I drove by. Eventually I could see the chip on her elbow all the way from the road.

I waited. I waited some more. Sure enough, one day as I turned the corner, my heart did its little pitter patter. There she was, finally, leaning against the can. By this time the left wing was busted, and her curls had all worn away. But in my mind’s eye I could see her when she was new, fresh, and full of joy. I slipped my arms under her real careful—so as not to hurt her any more. As I picked her up and cradled her against me, her head brushed against my cheek, and I had to catch my breath. As I gently placed her in the passenger seat, I resisted the temptation to kiss her.

Back behind the wheel, I put Bernice into gear and eased down on the accelerator. At every red light I looked over at her, and my chest swelled to think that she was finally mine.

As soon as I got home I placed her on the work table. For a long time I just looked at her. I then reached for my putty knife. I filled the bigger holes with cement. Next came the layer of wet plaster. Ever so tenderly I swirled my fingertip around her head and then down to her shoulders, and her hair was curly again. I touched the corners of her lips, and she began to smile. I worked on the missing wing for hours—Michaelangelo and the Angel Gabriel. I textured each and every feather and carefully tapered the edges. As I caressed her slender legs I could feel my spirit enter hers. Before I knew it, she was graceful and vibrant again. She looked like she could fly. Better yet, she looked like she wanted to fly. I nestled her in the garden under the maple tree. Now, every time I step outside she makes me feel light and young.

Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep I open the mangled folder by the bed with the scraps of paper. My poems. Some from a while ago, others more recent but still not right. But they’re mine. Here and there I touch up a line or two. As I turn the pages, I find the last Christmas card my sister Angela sent five years ago. I sigh. I look back up at the ceiling. It’s been such a long time since I’ve seen her and her children even though they live only a few miles away. I try not to think about it. Instead, I just shuffle into the garage. I take out a needle and some thread, my sandpaper, a jar of red paint. A ripped teddy bear and a toy soldier with a dented drum are waiting for me.

I do okay. Besides my broken friends on the workbench, my customers are my family. They’re part of mine even though I’m not part of theirs. Most smile and wave. Once in a while someone says a couple of words about the weather. Of course there are a few that are not so nice—the ones that treat you as if . . . well, like you’re a garbage man.

At Christmas there are gifts of all types—lots of coffee mugs, a case of beer, a bottle of chianti, an envelope with a few bucks. Sometimes they come out to meet me. Other times something’s just left on top of the garbage can without even a note. All well and good. All very appreciated.

It’s nice how you get to know your customers over time. You can tell a lot about them from reading their garbage. Every address is a book. Years are like chapters. Each pickup’s a page. The paragraphs are what people throw out. The baby clothes, the first highchair, the sandbox, the kiddy swing, larger and larger shoes—first sneakers, later, high heels. One day there’s a little girl in pig tails with a jump rope. Before you know it you turn the corner and she’s been transformed into a young woman getting into a limo in a bridal gown.

Funny. The same people who pull down their curtains and wouldn’t dare allow their own priest through the front door think nothing about the confessions in their trash cans. You see what they wear, what they eat, how they sleep. Secrets? You don’t have to sneak up to the house and peek into their bedroom windows. You can see the ripped nighties, the girlie magazines. If you’re a good garbage man you turn your eyes away.

You learn what they value and don’t value. You see their yesterday’s. What they once held precious—their old books, faded uniforms, torn photo albums . . . broken dreams that they’ve finally given up on. You notice if they’ve been fixed before. And you can tell by the nature of the repair whether they were treated with love and respect—the number of patches, the quality of the paint, how carefully it was applied. You discover so much by how their pasts are discarded. Whether the item is placed reverently by the curb as if saying goodbye to a dear friend, so that it now looks like a dignified old man waiting for a bus—or crushed inside with the potato peels.

You peer into their tomorrows. The boxes from their new stuff proclaim their future hopes—the workout equipment, the golf clubs, the computer, the new TV.

Open or closed? Some pack their empty beer cans in cases, piled high like trophies. Supermarket brand or hoity-toity? Others squirrel their booze bottles in ten layers of plastic. It’s hard to fool a garbage man. You can hear them rattling around when you swing the load into Bernice’s bin.

Even the condition of their garbage cans—how often they’ve been replaced, how close to the curb, how packed or empty. Whether the contents are neat or sloppy, whether they’re separated out, wrapped in newspaper, tied up with cord, or sandwiched between cardboard.

You know if your customers are rich or poor, trying to save a dime or blowing the bucks like they’ve just won the sweepstakes. Whether they’re living high on the hog on king crab legs or just squeaking by on macaroni and cheese.

I feel for each and every one. Little Billy on Wilson Street with the banged-up head after that football game; Ed, the fireman, who broke both legs and was out of work for a year; crazy Mrs. Kelly on Chamber Street whose cat always gets stuck up the tree. I still hurt for some of them—the couple on Blanchard who never get along.

Other memories make me smile. The lovely lady, the one I’ve seen in passing for so many years on Buttonwood Drive—so kind. The one who always keeps to herself. More often than not, she’d be walking slowly beside her mother, helping her along, one hesitant step after the other. Other times she’d be serving the older woman on the porch swing who’d have a hand-knitted Afghan over her knees. They’d be on opposite sides of a table, teacups in hand. sipping delicately. So formal, so polite, like from days gone by when women still wore white gloves to church on Sunday.

One August day it was so hot that I was driving with my head outside the window just so I could breathe. Even then the air hitting my face felt like I had just opened an oven. My clothes were sticking to me. Bernice, she smelled especially bad. I turned the corner. There she was standing by the curb in the God-awful heat just waiting with a pitcher of ice water and a glass on a metal tray. So nice. So very much appreciated. I stepped down, all sweaty, and pulled off my cap.

“Please take the entire pitcher with you,” she said in a quiet voice. When she spoke she enunciated her words ever so carefully like a grade school teacher afraid to smile. “You may return it some other time.”

That night I couldn’t sleep. Even my poems didn’t help. I lay in my bed in the dark, looking up at the ceiling, thinking. Surely, just another kind person on a route with a lot of other nice people. Besides, she wasn’t exactly young. I imagined her friends all getting married 20 years earlier and moving on while she chose to stay home to take care of her mother.

I was a little nervous the next week as I rang the bell. No answer.

I left a note with the empty container. “Grazie. Thank you.”

Afterwards as I made my rounds of the neighborhood it was not possible to push her out of my mind. As I turned onto Buttonwood there she’d be again—her usual routine, walking alongside her dear mother, such a slow pace, her hand gently under the old woman’s elbow. So simple. No makeup. An unkind person might say plain. But I couldn’t help but take notice—such a lovely thing, and at the same time so delicate, like Grandma’s espresso cups from the old country that Angela got when Momma died. That’s okay. Angela can use them. She always has a house full of company, although I haven’t visited in years. Besides, what does a big dummy like me surrounded by empty pizza boxes need with espresso cups? I’m not exactly the kind of guy who eats with a napkin on his lap. I wonder if the lovely lady would disapprove.

Over time there were other hot spells, and again she’d be standing at the curb. Not every scorcher, but often enough. One day ice water; on another a Coke. Sometimes a paper plate with two cookies. Just being nice, that’s all.

In time her mother grew more stooped, more infirm, and it took them over an hour to inch around the block. I know because I do one side of the street for several miles before looping back later for the other side.

The summers went by. The mother eventually had a cane, then a walker. I kept watching. I’d catch myself stretching my neck as I turned onto Buttonwood Road. A moment of joy! At the same time, a stab of pain. Eventually the mother could no longer stand. She’d be slumped in a wheelchair, too weak to hold up her head. I’d click my tongue. It was just a matter of time. Every few feet the lovely lady would stop to tuck the blanket back up under the old woman’s chin. She was trying so hard to be brave, but then each time I saw her, just like her mother, she’d seem a little more lost, a little more tattered.

“It’s okay, lovely lady,” I heard myself praying. I’d look at her forlorn figure in the neat but drab clothes in the side mirror as I drove past. I’d make the sign of the cross. It was all I could do.

For a while a Ford began to appear in the driveway. I actually saw the fella once or twice. Seemed like a regular guy—not too much hair.

She started dressing differently—pretty outfits with a bit of a waist. She even applied some color to her cheeks. Not a lot, but enough to notice. She looked nice. I was happy for her. Why not?

I noticed the empty cans of diet drinks, the cartons from the gym equipment, the cosmetic wrappers. Then one day the shiny Ford was gone and the empty potato chip bags reappeared. A month later a stack of glamour magazines was piled alongside the cans.

Later that night I lay sleepless in bed staring up at the ceiling. Colleen Sullivan. She was very, very beautiful. I so much wanted to take her to the freshman dance. How she lit up when I asked her, but her Irish parents said no. They didn’t like someone whose grandparents were born in Sicily.

My thoughts drifted back to the lovely lady. Maybe, just maybe, I began to think. But then I snorted. I forced the silly thoughts from my head. I remembered from catechism, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife. Okay, so the lovely lady wasn’t married, but nevertheless I felt dirty. It’s just not good to want something too much—to covet things that were never meant for me, that’s all.

But she was still so beautiful to me in her dreary clothes, even when she’d be on her hands and knees in the garden covered with dirt.

I watched. I waited. I waited.

There was a period when I didn’t see her and the elderly woman. Not a few weeks. More like six months. Then one day as I rounded the corner there were boxes and boxes stacked ever so neatly by the curb. The top one was open. I looked inside. Old-lady clothes.

I knew.

I took off my cap, held it to my chest, and raised my hand to knock on the door. But then I didn’t. I couldn’t. What was I doing here? What’s a jerk like me got to say?

I took a clean scrap of paper from the garbage and did my best. It wasn’t my greatest poem. Very short. But it was from my heart. I signed at the bottom. Under my name I added, “P.S. I said a Hail Mary for your mother.” That’s all. I squeezed it into the crack of the door.

Afterward as I drove along, I again wondered why God makes things to break and people to suffer. Why do all His creations start off so fresh and new only to get old and tired? How terrible that everything and everyone gets all chipped and bent until one day you find yourself standing by the curb. In the meantime, before you wind up in the back of the truck for that final trip to the dump, you reach out with trembling fingers and try to gather up a little joy.

I heard this professor on Bernice’s radio once explain how everything goes downhill. Like water. Mountains turn into dust. Nothing can ever get better by itself.

Water, mountains, even people, the radio professor said. You start out like a shiny bicycle—bright, cheerful, happy to be alive. Then after a month or a year, a single speck of rust appears on the chain, perhaps on the handle bars . . . . The bike that only yesterday was spanking new gets grease on the spokes and hits some bumps in the road. Can’t do anything about it. That’s the way it is. Someday even the sun will go out. That’s what he said.

I thought about it as I drove along. What then? Maybe there’s a big garbage man in the sky who gently removes the darkened stars and takes them to His workbench. The next day He plugs them back in, and they shine again, good as new. Or does He just toss them into something like what the radio professor called a black hole and start the compressor?

As I considered it all, I got sadder and sadder. I tried to snap out of it, but I just couldn’t shake off the gloom. I wanted to push it all out of my mind. I’m just a garbage man. I don’t get paid to think. The city tells me to toss the stuff into the back of the truck.

I happened to spot a table by the curb just ahead—not brand new, but decent. One of the legs was a little loose, that’s all. But after listening to that radio show, what’s the use? After all, this man’s a professor. He knows what he’s talking about.

I reached for the table. It was all in my hands now. The cab or the bin? I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes as I shoved the table up Bernice’s backside and pulled the lever. A few hours later at the dump I lingered. I just couldn’t help it. I watched as the dozer pushed some dirt over what was left of it. I wanted to cry.

For a long time my heart felt heavy every time I drove along Buttonwood. I slowed down as usual, but the curtains were now always drawn. The flower beds were choked with weeds. The paint was peeling off the porch swing. I wanted to go up to the door, but I didn’t. What could a big dummy like me possibly say?

Then one day, again, it was ghastly hot. My clothes were drenched. As I turned the corner my heart skipped a beat and did its little pitter patter. There she was, standing by the garbage cans, tray in her hands, swaying unsteadily, the water in the pitcher shaking. My eyes went up and down. My lovely, lovely lady . . . so much thinner, so shattered. Her forehead was creased. Her eyes were weary, sunken.

I took off my cap and stepped out of the truck. She said nothing. She bit her lip as she just stood there like a statue, stiff, with eyes cast down as she tried to fight back the tears.

Ever so gently I reached for the tray, but she held it so tightly that I had to tug a bit to get it away. I placed it on the nearest can. Even then her hands remained extended—empty, so empty, as if she didn’t know what to do with them. I searched for words. How I wish I had finished high school. Maybe I’d have learned not to mumble when I try to speak.

Everyone’s been kicked in the teeth. Like the day I showed one of my poems to Angela, and she just laughed. I keep telling myself that it was such a long, long time ago. A human being is no different from a bicycle. It may have a scratch or two or a bent spoke, but I can see into its splintered soul, even if everyone else has given up on it. Even if it’s given up on itself. Alone, all alone by the curb, it’s tired, and it’s scared. It’s as if it wants to stop living. As if it can’t take another breath. It happens to both bicycles and people.

But deep down it’s still so very, very beautiful. I know. I can see. And even though I’m not sure at first exactly how I’m going to fix it, something inside tells me that I surely can and will. I reverse time. I carry the water back up the hill.

In the end a tattered heart becomes whole again, and suddenly there’s joy. Not only joy for the thing saved. Double joy. There’s my joy too. I bring it back to life and get it to smile in the sun again. I share a gift with the Creator.

Before I knew what I was doing I lowered an arm and slipped it under the lovely lady. I picked her up ever so gently so as to not hurt her any more. She didn’t resist. As I cradled her against me her hair brushed across my cheek, and I had to catch my breath. Slowly, ever so carefully, I placed her in the passenger seat.

Back behind the wheel, I put Bernice into gear and eased down on the accelerator. At every red light I looked over at her and felt my chest swell.

Time. Time. It would take a little time, but I knew I could do it. All that was needed was a gentle touch, a little patience. In its place there would be something good—better than its ever been. Something you love and that loves you back.

I’m just a garbage man, but God gave me the eye. Sometimes I pick up broken things, and I fix them.

With a Ph.D. in physics, Dr. George Vendura has 43 publications in various technical journals and six patents. His solar cell inventions have enabled NASA-JPL’s Sojourner, the first exploratory robotic vehicle on the surface of Mars. He is also a creative writer. Credits include The Reader’s Digest, The New York Daily News, and numerous local publications. He’s recently completed Bronxcapades, a memoir, and State Penn, a novel, for which he is seeking representation.

Dotted Line