At Home with Old Dad
“Old Dad,” I said, “if I didn’t go to school, I could help you every day.” Old Dad didn’t say anything. “You listening? I said, if I didn’t go to school—”
He put down his coffee cup. “Heard you,” he growled. His voice was always rough, growly, as if he had thorns in his throat. “You’re going to school, Joyce.”
“Give me one good reason!” I hated school. It was starting again in four days. “Why do I have to go?” All summer I’d been happy with Old Dad.
“Same reason I told you last year, and year before, and year before that,” he said. “You learn everything you can, Joyce. You go there and learn.” He took his keys from the nail by the door. “You coming?”
We walked on our private road through the field, down the hill, and through the woods. People thought, because we ran the dump and lived near it, that we lived in it. We couldn’t even see it from our house!
It was a cool sunny day, and the wind sounded nice in the trees. Saturday was our busiest day. When we got to the dump, Old Dad opened up the work shack, and I ran on down the road to unlock the chain.
Oak and pine trees lined both sides of the road. All summer wildflowers grew along the edge of the road—blue sailor, daisies, king devil, and bugloss. Now fall was coming, and there were goldenrod and asters.
I knew everything about our road. I knew the animals that lived near it—red squirrels, woodchucks, chipmunks, raccoons, and a skunk family. Once when there was snow on the ground, I found a big orange-and-black butterfly frozen into a rut. I took it home and warmed it up. It came back to life and I let it go. Old Dad said it was a monarch, and it would go to Mexico for the winter.
It wasn’t even seven o’clock yet, our opening time, but already people had dumped big plastic bags of garbage outside the chain. Some people left their garbage there even when we were open.
Couldn’t they read the signs? There were two of them tacked to a tree, where everybody could see them. The first was red metal with printed white letters. Old Dad said it was official.
QUEENSHIP TOWN RESOURCE
Hours 7:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Monday–Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Under that was Old Dad’s own sign. He had printed on cardboard with a black marking pen.
RULES: NO LEAVING GARBAGE
AT GATE. DON’T PUT FOOD
GARBAGE WITH OTHER STUFF.
DRIVE SLOW INTO DUMP.
THIS MEANS YOU!
I walked back up the road, whistling. A car went rattling past. I heard Old Dad working on the dozer. At the dump, first you saw a big open sandy place that almost looked like a beach. No flies, no smell, hardly any garbage around. Old Dad took care of things. “Now they all talk about recycling,” he said. “I was doing it twenty years ago, before they even knew the word.”
Food garbage—meat bones, eggshells, banana peels, rotten tomatoes—went in the ravine in back of the dump. Every day Old Dad buried it under fresh earth. The bacteria in the soil worked on it and broke it down, and pretty soon it wasn’t garbage anymore. It was nice, beautiful, rich soil.
Every spring when we made our garden by our house, Old Dad brought a load of earth from the garbage pit. It was the best soil. Our sunflowers were eight feet tall; we grew huge juicy tomatoes, green peppers that shone like glass, and lettuce, turnips, potatoes, and cucumbers. Everything we wanted. Anything would grow in our garden. We had an asparagus patch, too, and rhubarb, and a strawberry bed.
Old Dad had special places for everything. There were open sheds where he worked on stuff that could be fixed up, like refrigerators, TVs, and washing machines. Anybody who wanted something Old Dad had fixed only had to ask.
Right behind Old Dad’s work shack, we piled metal—tin from barn roofs, copper wiring, aluminum cans, and cast-iron radiators. Nearby was a bin for magazines and newspapers, and another bin for rags. When we’d collected enough rags, paper, and metal, we loaded our pickup truck and drove into town to Ace Recycling.
People brought all sorts of stuff to our dump. Big stuff like stoves, dryers, couches, beds, and mattresses. And small stuff like books, balls, bikes, skateboards, games, dolls, and even computers.
We got pots with holes in them, pans without handles, glasses, jars, dishes, clothes, shoes and boots, curtains, radios by the dozen, lamps, tables, trunks, cribs, pictures and paintings, vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, plants, thermoses, skis and sleds, jars of pills and bottles of medicine, eyeglasses, and oh . . . everything. Most of it was junky, but lots of it was still good. I never understood it. People spent all that money, and then they threw their things away.
All morning, cars and pickup trucks poured into the dump. In and out, in and out. I was on the baby dozer behind Old Dad, standing up, my hands on his shoulders. We pushed sand from the sand bank into the fresh garbage pit. One minute, flies and smells, then just as quick as the dirt covered the garbage, they were gone.
A minivan drove in. The lady behind the wheel tapped the horn. I recognized RB Byrd and his mother and sister. “You go,” Old Dad said, stopping the dozer so I could jump off.
Mrs. Byrd pulled a big stack of newspapers from the back of the wagon. I tossed them to one side. RB poked his sister Bubba and pointed to Old Dad. “Ape Man,” he said in a loud, stupid pretend whisper. I glared at him. I knew how Old Dad looked. He was short, with short legs and long arms, and sort of sloping shoulders. When he walked, he swung his arms and had a bow-legged swagger. I liked the way he looked! I liked his little blue eyes and big, thick, bristly white eyebrows. I liked everything about him.
I threw the last bag of Byrd garbage into the pit. I heard their car drive away. Good riddance to bad garbage!
Later, in the afternoon, so many cars were in the dump they got jammed up. People threw their garbage in all the wrong places. Nobody paid any attention to Old Dad’s rules. They couldn’t wait. They threw the stuff out of their cars and drove away.
Old Dad started shouting. “Hey, you! Come back! Screwballs! Jerks! Don’t you know how to read signs?”