Trash by Tom Wade

The first time I stepped onto the soft, thick layer of pine needles, I didn’t know what I'd find. The few bottles and cans I saw when driving by were easy to pick up, but hidden in the underbrush were more I hadn’t seen. I have arthritis in my hips which made careful and slow as I moved through the high grass and weeds lest I step in a hole or trip over a root. The pangs from bending over added a bitter note to each piece of refuse I collected.

My indignation and distress intensified as my forty-gallon bag filled up. After a half-hour, the pain in my hips gave way to fatigue. My anxiety about being seen worsened as I discovered the job was going to take longer than I had expected. Abashed, I didn’t look up when I heard cars on the street. I worried about being perceived as someone duped by irresponsible people, or as being a forlorn soul without significant duties to fill his days.

My neighborhood has been plagued with discarded items over the last ten years: cans, bottles, fast food bags, tires, car radiators, boxes of used-up insulin containers, mattresses, box springs, mirrors, furniture, baby carriages. And other unwanted objects strewn along the side of streets, in front of vacant lots and undeveloped space. Disheartened to see all of this litter, I will on occasion take a large black plastic bag and trash grabber and go to clean it up. While most of my effort is spent on beer bottles and hamburger wrappers, I tangle with heavy objects several times a year. The small stuff frustrates me, big stuff leaves me despondent.

For instance, one spring day, when riding my bike, I saw a box spring and mattress on a creek bank a half-mile from where I live. Lying at the bottom of a steep slope of about fifteen feet, the garish pink-swirl on the mattress integument caught my eye. My spirits sank, it was a problem I didn’t want to tackle, but I didn’t believe anyone else would remove this bulky trash, half obscured and not on the right-of-way. For this reason, along with having developed a disregard for what gawking drivers might think, I ventured down the slope and dragged the box spring and heavy mattress up to the edge of the street.

Sore from the difficult exertion, with one arthritic hip in intense pain, I wondered if seeing this debris out in the open would irritate my neighbors, or if kids might push it back down the bank. Doubtful that it would ever get cleaned up, I made a call to the transportation department. The next day I felt my doubt was unwarranted. By chance, I spotted a prison litter detail carting away the gaudy-colored bed parts, engendering a flicker of pride in my accomplishment. But the flicker was doused a week later when I saw several tires tossed in a ditch two blocks away. I felt the pessimism return.

Tom Wade is a retired state government employee. He has been an ombudsman volunteer (advocate for residents) for long term care facilities for seven years. His essays have been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Communion, Jenny, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Wilderness House Literary Review.