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Scavengers

By Katy Read

The first one arrived early that morning: a small, unsmiling man riding an old bike with a wire basket. When he saw us carrying cartons out to the U-Haul trailer, he stopped.

"Got anything you gonna throw away?" He spoke quietly, as if conserving energy. His forehead glistened. The sun hadn’t climbed above the roof of our building, but already the air felt like a warm washcloth on my neck.

Mike and I glanced around at the boxes and furniture. Clearly, our stuff wouldn’t all fit into the cars and trailer. Here stood someone willing to haul away the excess, saving us a run to Goodwill. But what to jettison?

“Why don’t you come back in a few hours,” Mike said.

I watched the guy pedal away, wondering whether we had anything he would want. Our furniture was mostly hand-me-downs and rummage-sale finds that could have been replaced, even upgraded, at any decent flea market. We could afford nicer pieces, but Mike and I took pride in our simple possessions – the sagging futon, the rickety table, the black-and-white TV with its tinfoil-topped rabbit ears. Our things proved we weren’t obsessed with things.

The next pair arrived as we were struggling to wedge a railback chair into the trailer. The woman had long, graying hair. The man was lanky, with a gold cross dangling from one ear. They’d just come from Tennessee looking for work, he said with a twang that proved it, and were setting up a place to live.

"Whatever you don’t need, we sure could put to use,” he said.

Lamps and tables littered the lawn. Mike repeated what he’d told the first guy, to come back later. But the couple lingered, watching me try to push the wooden chair into a sliver of space.

"Here, let me give it a shot.” The woman flipped the chair sideways and slid it neatly into place. She stepped back smiling. “Sometimes all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes.”

We all stood there for a moment looking at the chair.

"Never mind," I said. "Let’s take it back out. You can have it."

"What? Look, it fits right in there."

"No, really. We've got all this other stuff to get in.” I waved toward the piles on the grass.

They loaded the chair into the trunk of their old brown Cadillac and drove off, engine thundering, leaving a puff of blue exhaust.

By late afternoon, our apartment was still strewn with odds and ends. Outside, Mike shifted boxes like puzzle pieces, working to open a few more cubic inches of space. The man from Tennessee returned alone. We let him go upstairs and help himself. He selected an old stereo and speakers, a coffee table with missing legs, a plastic dish rack, a potted plant that needed watering.

"The wife likes a little green around," he said.

After he left, the man on the bike returned. I felt a twinge of guilt; shouldn’t he have had first pick? But I hadn’t quite believed he’d come back. We gathered objects marked for the trash: a plastic parson’s table, a dirty throw rug, the factory-installed car radio that I’d had replaced with a good stereo. The man stacked the items in his handlebar basket. He said little, but seemed ready to accept anything.

"Could you use some milk?" Mike asked. "There's half a gallon upstairs."

The man nodded, and I ran to get it. When I opened the refrigerator, I spied a box of Bisquik, half empty, held shut with a rubber band. I hesitated, thinking it might be an insulting handout. I grabbed it anyway.

"It's probably pretty old," I apologized, showing it to him.

The man reached for the biscuit mix. He fit it into the pile on his bike, nodded thanks and rode off.

Another man was rummaging through a wastebasket we had set on the curb for the garbage collectors. “Man, this all you got?” he complained. But even he didn't leave empty handed. He took the wastebasket itself.

It was early evening when the lawn was finally clear, the apartment empty of all but drifting dust. Mike got into his truck and I climbed into my hatchback. The vehicles were so full we could barely see out the windows. Their sagging undercarriages scraped the pavement as we pulled out of the driveway. We headed toward the interstate, carrying more than I had ever realized we owned.


 

Katy Read's essays, articles and book reviews have appeared or are scheduled to appear in Salon, Literal Latte, Brain Child, Chautauqua Literary Journal, River Teeth, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has received second-place or finalist awards in a number of literary competitions, including the Chautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, the McKnight Artist Fellowships, and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.

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photo by Dinty W. Moore