Mrs. Boylan next door put up a new clothesline. The old one had fallen months ago-this was back in mid-February, in the midsts of a deep cold. The line froze through and broke like licorice sticks, three pieces. A shirt fell with it, too, one of Mrs. Boylan's blouses. The bottom hem stuck in the ground and the whole frozen garment stood there, dead still dead still, frozen as a February afternoon.
It was fine with me and Hazel that Mrs. Boylan was no longer to be hanging her wash on her front porch for all to inspect. But one of her hanging poles was gone too (actually just lying useless in the back yard after being uprooted, maybe, by some kids in March), and one side of her new line was now strung from my hanging pole.
My wife didn't agree with this, either.
"You talk to her," she told me, the both of us studying from our dining room the infiltrating inches of line as if waiting for it to do something further. "You offer to put back up her pole, if that's what it takes."
My wife, Hazel, has little stomach for a fight.
Mrs. Boylan answered in a robe.
"You were about to take a bath?" I asked, intruding.
"No," she said.
"I won't keep you."
It was getting dark. I went to the kitchen, the back door, switched on the backlight. "There," I said, pointing to my side of the new line.
"It was the Samson boy," Mrs. Boylan said.
"He should have put up your pole," I said.
"He was in a rush. I thought he would."
"You need to give clearer instructions."
Mrs. Boylan went back to the living room. I turned to a window, shrugged for the benefit of my wife, though I couldn't see through the window to see her there, there next door now, and followed Mrs. Boylan.
Mrs. Boylan was sitting on the sofa, sitting back. All the shades were to. Somehow, I hadn't noticed this before. Mrs. Boylan had her robe open, there her slip and panties extended all out of shape.
I looked again. All the shades were to. No light in the room, so no shadows. I didn't think too much about it. Hazel would be watching for some sign of progress, so it had to be quick. I went over to Mrs. Boylan. I don't find women my age much attractive, but still. We did what we did. Afterwards, I went back home.
"It was the Samson boy," I said. "He did it."
"Of course." Hazel nodded and considered the matter closed.
I started stealing trashcans.
It began on a sleepless night, just two nights after the thing with Mrs. Boylan. I had no worries about Hazel. I was awake with the impulsiveness of the whole episode, as though Mrs. Boylan and I had done this before. I was awake with how quickly it all happened, how quickly it was over. She zipped me up nice as you please and told me, "I'm sorry for any trouble, Mr. Burns." The next day I put up her fallen pole and rehitched her line. I gave it a good, tight knot, a sheepshank. Mrs. Boylan thanked me a wished me good day and had me walk around the outside of her house.
That sleepless night I was also wondering if the Samson boy got the same for his services. Certainly, there was no talk about the neighborhood that Mrs. Boylan was like that.
So there I was, wide-awake, and I heard the garbage truck make its run. I heard the hollow thumps of freshly empty Rubbermaid's making their way down the street.
I got up. Hazel stirred a little, I think, but I didn't think I was doing anything suspicious at the time and so worried little about disturbing her.
I put on a robe and slippers and went out. The lawn was damp and chilly, giving my heels impersonal licks as I trudged forward. The neighborhood was quiet except for the fading of the garbage truck, the fading conversation of trashmen.
I took a hold of my lone garbage can and started rolling it back up the driveway. I paused a second and saw two cans in front of Mrs. Boylan's, their tops face up in the grass like unfortunate turtles. I went over and took one. I rolled both mine and the other to the side of the garage, then reconsidered. The other can had BOYLAN written on it in thick, black marker. Below, an address that was not mine but close. So I took the Boylan can back to my tool shed. Plenty of room. I went back to bed and lay there until Hazel awoke. I pretended to sleep until she went downstairs to start the coffee. Then I went to the bedroom window and looked out at the curb.
Mrs. Boylan still had only one trashcan sitting out there. Being awake the whole night made my previous actions feel more like a dream than if I had actually dreamed them. The daylight seemed alien and harsh.
Later that morning, Mrs. Boylan called. Hazel answered, but I could tell.
I was finishing breakfast. Hazel leaned against the archway into the living room. I was cornered.
"Yes," Hazel said when she realized who it was. "Yes. Yes." She nodded. "Did they? No. No, we got ours, didn't we?"
Now Hazel was looking to me. I was blowing on my coffee and nearly put the hot liquid straight to my lip. She swiveled the mouthpiece under her chin and she asked me, "Our trashcan was still there this morning?"
"What?" I asked. "What's that?" Somehow, I managed to return the cup to its saucer with hardly a drop spilled.
"Trashcan," Hazel said.
"I was up early and brought it in this morning. What of it?"
Hazel reassured Mrs. Boylan we had ours and left it at that. Once she hung up, she was telling me, "To think. As if we kept tabs on her trash. What would we want with a thing like a trashcan for?"
I hesitated to offer anything.
She came over and sat next to me. She smelled fiercely of baby powder that morning. "You saw her trashcans? Why were you up so early?"
I panicked. "The trash truck woke me," I said. "I was tired. I didn't even look around. Couldn't tell you if both of her cans were out there or not."
Hazel nodded as if all this solved it. "It would be just like that woman," she said. I did not press her for more.
Hazel never went to my tool shed and suspected nothing. Still, I almost pulled out the stolen can once to show her and confess, "It had nothing to do with what happened with Mrs. Boylan," though this would have begged its own explanation. I felt a confession would ease my mind, though the theft had nothing to do with Mrs. Boylan herself. I didn't think of her at all when I stole the trashcan. I never even identified the thing as Mrs. Boylan's during the whole process. It might as well have been Herb Stanfill's. Herb lived on the other side of my house.
So to prove it, I took one from across the street, from the Fieldings, the next week. Again, it was a sleepless night. This was never a habit of mine before on trash day.
I took from the Stahls, the McAffes, from old Dr. Rooter. One a week. These houses covered a good spread of the neighborhood. Going much farther from my own house made me nervous. The streetlights felt like roving beams casing the inside of a prison, but suspicion never seemed to turn to me.
The hardest part was lying there half the night, waiting for the revs and gasps of the municipal truck. Getting up was out of the question-it left the slightest opening for Hazel to finger me. The tool shed could hold at least ten more-despite the wheels, these cans stacked quite nicely.
We had Mrs. Boylan over for dinner one night. Hazel's idea, just to make it clear we had no hard feelings about the clothesline.
The women talked trashcans most of the evening. The Stanfills, the Stahls, the McAffes. Old Dr. Rooter, even.
"I've never heard so many complaints before," Hazel said.
"No, never," Mrs. Boylan agreed.
"Do you think they could just be getting lazy and throwing the cans in with the trash?"
"But why just one a week? It seems too regular." Mrs. Boylan quite studiously finished her peas. "More peas, please."
"Mr. McAffe called the city," Hazel said. I passed the peas. Hazel offered butter, which was turned down. "They took his name, but they didn't promise anything."
Mrs. Boylan spooned herself another helping. "For Christ's sake, are they eating the damn things?"
Hazel excused herself to check on the pie in the oven. The first couple of times Mrs. Boylan and I were left alone were tense for me, but since she showed no sign of knowing me beyond the general neighborhood filiance, I stopped grasping for something to fill the silence between us.
While Hazel clinked through the silverware drawer, possibly for a fork to stick the pie with, Mrs. Boylan said, "You should be worried the most, with your one can and all. The way you stuff it, I'm surprised they haven't taken it just to teach you a lesson. Those people hate lifting much."
I shrugged. "Just been lucky, so far."
Mrs. Boylan hummed a kind of agreement. I looked at her for the slightest sign of avoidance, or secrecy, of hiding something for Hazel's sake, even just the recognition that she knew I was looking for something that she wasn't going to give me.
She just sat there, munching peas. I could tell by the way her jaw moved that she was smushing peas on the roof of her mouth with her tongue. It made a nice, buttery paste-I had a habit of doing that, myself.
I started going to other neighborhoods, just to make sure my habit wasn't relegated to just my one little cluster of houses. I had to prowl around at first until I got down the sanitation department's schedule. I slept five hours a night tops and snapped awake at three a.m. without fail, even on weekends. I dreamed every now and then of trashmen being dragged behind me like beer cans behind newlyweds. "Move it along. Move it along," they yelled to me.
The cans were not so uniform in other neighborhoods. Besides, my tool shed was already full now-getting out the lawn mower was becoming dangerous business. So I started dumping cans soon after stealing them: in the park, in the river, at other addresses. I even went into the bad areas of town a couple times and had to steal while people were still out on the street, not even thinking of going to bed yet.
These were the easiest thefts. I expected people to rush out after me after slamming the trunk closed on their emptied receptacles. I expected them to give chase, shout out, "I'm going to get you, mutherfucker, trash-can stealing mutherfucker," the works.
No one bothered. A woman watched me once. She was tall, even without her gargantuan high heels. She wore leopard-skin, tiger-skin, and a wig that would have frightened the color out of either of the two beasts.
"Hey," she called out, but it was the wrong kind of hey, far too familiar. "Hey, baby, you got a thing with trash or something?"
I hurried on my way.
At dinner, I smushed my peas, didn't complain about the lack of mustard in the frank and beans, did justice to Hazel's chicken. I routinely looked out the dining room windows, into the yard, to that shed. Mostly, it was just dark and I saw only a dark reflection of myself, but I would not have been surprised to see a signal fire, a bright flame stinking of scorched plastic.
"You look tense tonight," Hazel said between round-trips to the kitchen. "I don't think your early morning drives are doing you any good. Why don't you mow the yard tomorrow?"
I cut myself on a can my next time out. It was old and aluminum. The cut had a dark streak in it from the filthy, filthy, filthy can. The streak wouldn't come out even with a good washing. I washed so long, Hazel was up before I was done.
"Are you not well, dear?" she said through the door. "Do you want me to start you some Alka-Seltzer?"
I played sick most of the morning. Hazel checked on me every half-hour. Mostly, she put her hand on my forehead and frowned at me sympathetically.
But she didn't complain any when I said I was going to mow the yard.
The stack of trashcans had tilted from neglect. If it started to fall, I wouldn't have had the strength to stop it. Crushed under the evidence of my crimes. I just managed to get out the mower and slam the shed door. The stack struck up against it with a thwang.
Hazel had hung out sheets to dry. They made hallways of fabric I toted my way down and up. Every time I was in sight of the shed, I expected it toppled; every time I was in sight of Mrs. Boylan's back door, I expected to see her at it.
No such luck with either. I did the back yard, the sides, then on around to the front. I ran the mower back and forth over the same spots and watched Mrs. Boylan's windows. I waited for her shadow to head toward the front of her house. When it did, I pushed on over to her lawn. On my way, someone passed and honked. I nodded, my hands busy on the mower.
When I got over to Mrs. Boylan's lawn, she was watching me through a window. I waved with urgency, and she came out onto the front porch, cigarette in hand. Flowered dress, hair in a bun.
"Do your lawn?" I called out, my hand shading my eyes from the sun.
"Samson boy did it Thursday," she said. She scratched her nose with the hand that held the cigarette.
"It's warm," I said. "It's looking a little long already."
Mrs. Boylan took a cursory toke and said, while exhaling, "You'll get nothing for it."
I turned back. "Who needs it, then?" I considered it a kind of victory. I left the mower leaning against the shed.
The next morning I overslept: 4:15. In the dark, I went to the shed and opened it. I thought I'd see at least a silhouette of the stack as it fell, but I only heard the heavy thump. I pulled the trashcans off one at a time and heaved them over the fence into Mrs. Boylan's yard. The sound of them landing was louder than I expected, but no one seemed disturbed. I imagined how they'd look when the sun came up-like an explosion in a nearby Rubbermaid factory. Blue, rectangular shrapnel. I left the bottom trashcan, Mrs. Boylan's, in my shed. I turned it upside down and made her address, written on the side in thick, black marker, look funny. At least, it would seem funny the next time I got to look at it.