The Garbage Man

litter

“So, you admit you’re guilty?”

Officer Paul George had only started his interview, yet his scowl made it clear his patience was already paper-thin. But Nelson Edwards had never been in a police department before. He took a minute to look around. Six officers, both uniformed and in plain clothes, sat at or stood over desks, chatting about new and old arrests and active cases. Computer keyboards softly transferred information to the glowing desktop screens. One antique Selectric typewriter clacked away in a far corner of the room, operated by a cop who appeared to be as much an antique as the device. Radios blurted static-laced cop lingo. A wall clock reading 9 o-clock hung on a wall painted a flat, dull, bureaucratic gray green.

Finally, the officer broke the silence. “Well?”

He stared at George for a second. “This is different than what I expected.”

“What?”

“The station,” Nelson said. “I mean, I’ve never seen the inside of a police station. Ever. For anything. Heck, I’ve never even really talked to a cop until I met you tonight. No speeding tickets, no insurance reports. Nothing.”

“I’m glad to hear you’ve been such an upstanding citizen up ‘til now,” George said. The corners of his tired eyes crinkled with not-so-subtle sarcasm.

“It’s not that, it’s just that my only image of the police has come from television – you know, blaring sirens, hookers lined up on a bench, drunks throwing up in a cell.”

“Well this may come as a surprise to you, Mr. Edwards, but television isn’t always accurate. Not even those so-called reality shows.”

“Oh, I know that.” Nelson laughed at what he took to be the cop’s attempt at humor.

George’s sharp stare and what sounded like a growl confirmed in no uncertain terms Nelson had misunderstood.

“Alright now Johnny Clean Cut, knock off the BS and answer my question,” George demanded. “Do you admit you’re guilty of shooting the victim?”

Nelson took a deep breath and considered his options. “Look, I am many things, but I am not one to lie. I believe the truth is always the best route…”

“Well I am so glad to hear that…”

“…and the truth is, I shot the guy…”

“Ok, now we’re getting somewhere…”

“…but that doesn’t mean I’m guilty.”

George looked at Nelson again like he’d just flicked him in the ear.

“What does that mean, exactly?”

Nelson paused a split second, trying to put his thoughts in an order that would hopefully make as much sense to the cop as to himself. “It means that I shot him. But ‘guilt’ is a philosophical expression of regret for one’s actions. And I don’t regret shooting him at all. Not one bit.”

George guffawed.

“Wow! I haven’t heard that much semantic mumbo-jumbo since my Ethics 101 class in college!”

“Forgive me, but you’re wrong,” Nelson said, modulating his tone of voice, not wanting to throw more gas on a potential fire. “This isn’t just semantics,” he continued. “I am very deliberate with my words.  I work hard to say exactly what I mean, and to mean exactly what I say. And what I mean is, I shot him, but I felt – feel – entirely justified.”

“Justified or not, it’s still illegal. You can’t just go around shooting people just because they do something you don’t like. We don’t want or need any of that movie vigilante nonsense.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Nelson rose quickly, forgetting his right hand was cuffed to the chair back. The chair tipped forward, banging against the desk. Every officer in the room instinctively spun toward the metallic clang. Several dropped to their knees and simultaneously drew their guns.

George quickly waved his hands toward the wall of blue that had formed. “Stand down, everyone, stand down,” he said. “It’s alright,” he reassured, order now restored. “Just a moment of insanity on Mr. Edwards’ part. It’s passed. We’re all good.”

Nelson stood still as a statue, not daring to breath or even blink until all the officers re-holstered their firearms. He trusted the police, generally speaking. As much as anyone else who never encountered them. Still, he’d seen all the news stories about rogue cops shooting young black men to maintain a healthy dose of life-preserving doubt. Not that he was young or black, but it never hurts to be careful, he reminded himself. They slowly turned back to their paperwork. One or two focused a cautious eye in his direction for several minutes.

“Well, I have to say, that looked a lot more like television.” Nelson smiled involuntarily, exhaled and sat down gingerly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause a fuss. I just want it clear that I had a very good reason for doing what I did.”

“Fine.” George took his pen back into his left hand and hovered it over the yellow legal pad slanted across his desk. “Understand I’m not making any legal judgments, but for the sake of moving this along, I’ll take you at your word. Now tell me exactly what happened.”

***

“Mom, where are you?”

“I’m up here, honey. Hold on, I’ll be right down.” Helen quickly folded the last few items in the laundry basket, laid them on the appropriate dressers for herself and Nelson and bounded down the stairs.

Melissa scolded her mother. “Hey, be careful! You’re not a spring chicken anymore.”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Helen said. She wrapped her arms around her oldest daughter and held her tightly, her chin resting easily on the younger woman’s shoulder. “It’s amazing, but you still smell the same now at twenty-three as you did when you were a baby.”

Melissa gently broke the hug and laughed. “I certainly hope not, considering what I spent on this perfume, and knowing how bad babies can smell sometimes.”

“You know what I mean,” Helen said. She smiled gently at her daughter, now a grown woman. “You’ll understand someday when you’re a mother.”

“Well, I am not interested in having a baby any time soon so it may be a while.” Melissa returned her mother’s smile, love lighting her eyes. “Where’s Dad?”

“Your father? I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? You guys didn’t have a fight, did you?”

“No! Not at all.” Helen sat on the couch and patted the spot next to her. Melissa wedged herself into the corner of the couch and turned to face her mom. “I mean, he went for a walk about an hour ago and I haven’t heard from him.”

Melissa’s eyes crossed the living room to the family dog who lay snoring on his oversize pillow bed near the television. “Doesn’t he usually take Duncan with him?”

“Usually,” Helen said, “but not always. Sometimes he just goes off by himself.”

Melissa looked over her mother’s shoulder at the graying sky in the picture window. “This late? It’s getting dark out there.”

“Sweetie, I understand, but after nearly forty years, I don’t ask anymore.” Helen chuckled. “That’s something else you’ll learn if you’re very, very lucky.” She rolled her eyes. Melissa laughed sympathetically. She understood her father’s idiosyncrasies well enough to know why her mother sometimes opted for blissful ignorance.

“Seriously, I’m not concerned. Your dad just needs some time and room to burn off whatever fog is in his head,” Helen said. “He’s a good man and he’s earned that much. The only thing that bothers me is, sometimes he seems more upset when he comes back. Well, that and his outfit.”

“His outfit?”

“Yes. Once in a while, especially when he goes out later in the day like this, he wears his black sweatshirt and sweatpants. I’m always worried that he’s going to get hit by a car crossing the street or walking down that path through the park. You know how dark it gets in there under those trees. I’ve told him and told him to wear something easier for people to see, but you know your father. You can’t tell him anything.”

***

Officer George raised his pen above his yellow legal pad, already graffiti-ed with indecipherable notes. “OK, start from the beginning.”

“Um…” Nelson’s eyes fell to the pad and rose again to George’s face.

“What is it, Mr. Edwards?”

“Well, are you going to write down my statement? As opposed to typing it, I mean?”

George’s forehead wrinkled with confusion. “What?”

“Not to cast aspersions,” Nelson said. “I mean, my handwriting is atrocious too. It’s so bad that sometimes I can’t read what I wrote later, and I just want to make sure you get this right.”

“Listen, Mr. Edwards,” George said, not a sliver of patience offered or even hinted.  “Not that it makes any difference to you, but I am not a great typist. I write now, type later. I’m kind of ‘old school’ that way. Plus, you will get a chance to review everything before I ever put fingers on the keyboard. I have been a police officer for twenty-four years now, and every single second of my twenty-four years of experience is strongly suggesting you focus a little more on what you’re going to say and a little less on how I am going to write it down.”

The cop made a show of gently laying the offending pen on the notepad. Then he turned slightly from Nelson, took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped a speck of spittle from the corner of his lips. He turned back and raised the pen again, his now-clean lips smiling. “Can we do this now?”

litter 1Nelson lowered his head and laughed a little to himself. “Yes, sir. Really, there’s not much to tell. A couple nights ago, I went to the park near my house to take a walk as I do every night. And there was garbage all over the path, in the bushes and flower beds, everywhere. Just like every night. Dirty paper plates. Styrofoam takeout boxes. Fast food bags and cups – and not always empty, either. Plastic water bottles. Beer cans and booze bottles in the grass. Broken glass on the sidewalks where kids walk to the elementary school – the elementary school, for goodness sakes!” Nelson shook his head.

George cut him off. “And what? This made you mad enough to go back tonight and shoot someone?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“Well, what, exactly?” George pressed.

“The garbage made me mad, sure. So did the fact that I called the city seven times and asked them to either come clean it up or have the police do a better job patrolling the park” – Nelson quickly caught himself – “present company excluded of course…”

“Of course.”

“No, what really made me mad, and not just this time, but every night for weeks, months, heck the last couple of years since I’ve started walking each night, is that there are garbage cans every two or three hundred yards along the path.” Nelson started to rise again but he quickly checked the impulse as the other officers pivoted toward his voice.

George took up Nelson’s story. “So, you put on dark clothes, hid in the underbrush along the path, waited there until someone came along and littered, and you shot him. Is that it?”

Nelson paused. The words sounded silly coming out of the cop’s mouth. Frivolous. But Nelson knew to the core of his being, that he was right, no matter how ridiculous things appeared. “Right,” he said simply.

“Fine,” George exhaled as if he’d won a battle.

Nelson looked back at the clock on the wall. He couldn’t believe he’d been there an hour already. “No!” Nelson said, not even bothering to try to contain his contempt now. “I shot him because he has no respect. Not for the law, or the environment or for society. Not for our community and the neighborhood we all share. Most of all, for anyone else. They’re selfish and lazy. Pigs, every one of them. They think the world is theirs and they’re the only ones in it.”

George stared at Edwards, waiting for him to say something he could legally explain, if not outright defend.

“I mean, there is so much ugliness in this world. People hurting their kids and their spouses. Bullying everywhere. Politicians dividinlitter 2g us so they can conquer each other. Religious hypocrites hating and rejecting anyone who dares to believe something different from them,” Nelson explained.

“I get all that, but…”

“No buts! No more buts!” Nelson slammed his free hand on George’s desk. He took a breath, struggling again to contain his temper, handcuffs and police officers and guns and jail cells be damned. “I mean, it’s not that hard! Put your goddamn trash in the cans! Is that so much to ask?”

“Look, most of the time I simply pick up what I can and throw it away,” Nelson said, somewhat sheepishly. “I tell myself that bending over fifty times a mile is good cardio. But I decided a couple days ago that I’ve had enough. Just like in the movie: ‘I am mad as hell, and I am not going to take it anymore!’”

George stared at Nelson. “What are you talking about?”

Network,” Nelson said. “The classic film? You’ve never seen it?”

“Sorry,” George said. “No.”

Nelson shook his head and continued. “Look, I’m a simple guy. I don’t ask for much. I try to be a good neighbor. I help at church. I don’t live high off the hog. My wife and I, we’re not flashy. We have a nice, little house that we built into a home first for us, then for our kids, now for our grand kids.”

“Oh, you have grandchildren?”

“Not yet, but maybe some day. And when we do, guys like me, we just want to be able to enjoy whatever time we have left in a world that doesn’t laugh at us or spit in our faces.”

Officer George reflexively reached for his handkerchief again, but Nelson waved him off. “No, you’re fine. I wasn’t talking about you. I’m talking about the guy I shot, and everyone like him.”

“So, did you know this person?”

“No. But why does that even matter? He’s the same as all the rest of these jerks who can’t even take the time to give two craps about anyone else. I don’t know him, same as he doesn’t know me. But we shouldn’t have to know someone to care for them, to respect their place in the world. We all share a little bit of space in this world. Yet he has no problem violating that space which, for a guy like me, is sacred. I just want a place in my tiny little corner that’s safe and clean and quiet. Someplace I can go to get away from all the other crap in the world today without having to step over piles of garbage.”

Nelson slumped back into the chair. As usual, the relief of honesty made him feel palpably lighter. Officer George scribbled furiously, fighting to capture every word of Nelson’s statement. Finally, he stopped writing and stared at the page. After what seemed like minutes of silence, he looked up at the captive culprit.

“Mr. Edwards, no one will ever mistake me for one of those left-wing tree hugger types, but I do enjoy the outdoors every now and again, so I understand your frustration with litter — ”

“No sir, not with litter. With the litter bugs.” Nelson purposely lowered his voice.

“Right.” The cop wrote ‘B-U-G-S’ in the margin of his notepad, then pointed at the page. “Got it. Litter BUGS. Either way, like I said before, you can’t just go around shooting people who do things you don’t like.”

Nelson sensed the hammer was about to fall. He stared into his lap.

“I get where you’re coming from,” George continued, “but I have to charge you with something.”

“Like what?” Nelson asked, hoping he wouldn’t spend too much time behind bars.

“All things considered, and especially since the guy wasn’t really hurt, we’re probably looking at a misdemeanor of some kind.”

Nelson took a breath, one-part relief, one-part confusion, one-part suspicion. “Just a misdemeanor? What’s the penalty?”

“Depends. Judge’s discretion. Could be a $500 fine, could be community service.”

“Community service? Like what?”

“Usually, picking up trash,” George said. It was his turn to try to stifle a laugh. “You’re just lucky it was only a paintball gun.”

“No, he’s lucky it was just a paintball gun!” Nelson snapped, then quickly caught himself. “Well of course it was just a paintball gun. I may be mad, but I’m not crazy. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just wanted to teach someone a lesson. He’s lucky I didn’t paint a big ‘LB’ on his chest.”

Once again, George offered only a blank stare.

“Like in The Scarlet Letter?” Nelson prodded. “Hester Prynne? Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale? C’mon, really? You must know the Scarlet Letter. Where did you go to school anyway?”

George cocked his right eyebrow. “Mr. Edwards, please don’t push your luck.”

“No sir. I mean, yes sir.”

Nelson looked back at the wall clock. Another thirty minutes had evaporated. He realized he hadn’t called his wife. Officer George had started filling a form on his computer. “Sir, I never did get my one phone call.”

Officer George nodded toward his desk phone, his eyes locked on the screen as two fingers hunted and pecked on the keyboard. “Feel free,” he said.

“Um, sir, I can’t reach…” Nelson rattled his cuffed right hand.

“You’re pushing again, Mr. Edwards.”

***

Helen picked up the chiming phone.

“Nelson? Honey, where are you? Melissa is here. She’s been waiting for you since just after you left. We thought maybe you got lost. You are getting older, you know.” She looked at her daughter and smiled at her gibe and started to roll her eyes again.

Her eyes suddenly stopped, mid-roll. “What? Where? The police station?” Helen said.

“What’s wrong Mom? Is Dad OK?”

Helen shook her head and held up a finger to Melissa. “What in the world…What did you do?”

Nelson gripped the receiver with his free left hand. He looked at Officer George still slowly completing on his report. He debated for a second how to answer. He wanted to be honest but not alarm her.

Just then, another officer escorted a tall, twenty-something man across the other end of the office toward the holding pen. The young man wore a rainbow of blue and green and pink and red and orange and yellow quarter and half-dollar sized splotches, some still dripping down his grimy shirt and torn jeans. Nelson caught the man’s eye, glowering at him until the cell door clicked shut.

“Let’s just say I was taking out the trash.”

 

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