It was another trip to the dumping grounds. Just me and Mom this time. We drove in the battered wood-paneled station wagon which would backfire without warning every few minutes. Country western music played on the radio. Neither of us spoke. The night before there had been a dust up between my parents that spilled over involving my older brother Darrel, who ended up getting his jaw broken by Dad. Now there’s a doctor’s bill and no money to pay it.
Mother smoked as I studied her silhouette from the passenger window. I wondered what she was thinking. I wondered if she loved my father, if she loved me, if Darrel really was her favorite as I suspected. I wished I could talk to her like a friend or even a son, but ours was a family of few words and gestures were the only things that told the truth.
To get money for school clothes, we picked fruit right along with the migrant workers who—as the seasons began and ended—appeared and disappeared from the fields like the fruit itself. But it was October now. The Folgers Coffee can that held our spare cash was empty but for a scrim of dust and a pack of spent matches.
Desperate people comb the dumping grounds, and we were no different. Darrel and I had already been there seven times since in September. The site was illegal by any definition, but the county never looked, and rich people weren’t the types to have garage sales.
The dump sat in a vast gully surrounded by boulder sentries and swaying evergreens. It reminded me of a library book I’d read, Gettysburg with slain soldiers lying everywhere. The stench here must have been a lot like Gettysburg as well. There was war where people died and then there was a war where people raged inside themselves.
We carried our gunnies and worked our way down the rain-slicked slope, trying not to slide or topple. I offered my hand to Mother, but each time she batted it away, so cruel thoughts trundled through my head, images of Mother tumbling down the craggy slope, landing broken and helpless in the garbage along with everyone else’s unlovable junk. And then, of course, I felt guilty and despicable for thinking such things. I was thirteen years old, nearly a man. I should have known better.
We sorted through trash for a couple of hours, Mother combing her own heap a few yards away, me trolling a mound that looked fresh. Over the top of an upended sofa I watched her dip and search, the ends of her tangled hair brushing sweeping mud that looked like sewage. Wearing a jacket two sizes too big for her, she resembled an anorexic scarecrow, or a haggard ghost, not my mother at all.
In my hunt I discovered a toaster, a Mason jar filled to the rim with pennies, some dirty magazines which I flipped through but left, an electric drill, silverware, a box of unspent shotgun shells and a long-handled flashlight in mint condition. The last thing I found was a college sweatshirt with a faded Harvard logo. I put it on over my flannel shirt and zipped my coat all the way to my chin. I wondered if the owner of the sweatshirt had really gone to Harvard, and if so, what classes that person had attended, what grades they’d gotten, had they met a lot of pretty coeds at frat parties. I figured they must be smart to have gone to a college like that, and now they were probably somebody’s doctor or dentist or lawyer.
When we were through, we scrabbled back up the slope and this time I didn’t offer Mother my hand even though she had a rough go and kept slipping. If she fell, she fell. Some people break themselves almost every day.
We drove home in the same smoky silence we’d come. Charlie Pride was on the radio, jaunty as ever, singing about how crystal chandeliers light up the paintings on the wall. I felt like kicking in the console or grabbing the steering wheel and driving us off the road, but instead I reset my thoughts on the owner of the Harvard sweatshirt.
At home, Dad was passed out drunk in the living room of our trailer, a bottle of Mogen David squeezed between his thighs like an enormous glass erection. Darrel came out of his room with his face bandaged and a plum slug sucking his upper eyelid. He didn’t ask what treasures we’d brought home. Instead he had his own garbage draped over a shoulder. I started to ask where he was going, but I knew he was running away again, but would be back in a day or two.
Mother had dropped me off and I hadn’t asked where she was going either, figuring it was to get smokes or re-up her alcohol supply. As Darrel stuttered out the creaking screen door, I thought I heard our station wagon backfire in the distance, but it could just as easily have been gunfire.
I took off my jacket and stood in front of my comatose father. I puffed up my chest hoping the letters that spelled Harvard would somehow stretch bigger. I told my dad I was home from college, that I’d got all A’s and had met a girl named Rebecca who was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. I kept at it for ten minutes or more, until I ran dry of make-believes and lies, and when I was done it was the longest conversation the two of us had ever had.
I snuck out of bed later, not that my parents would have heard or cared. I loaded a gunny with clothes and sundries. I left that Mason jar of pennies next to a full ashtray. I walked down the steps and into the dark, whistling, with a brand new flashlight in my hand.