Palo Alto Weekly 21st Annual Short Story
Scrap and Salvage
"So, we just dump everything in the hole and leave it there?" Belinda was shouting to be heard over the roar of heavy equipment.
"Yeah, that's the drill," Jackson called back.
"What ?" A massive tractor, its wheels as tall as Belinda herself, was moving earth just a stone's throw from where they stood. Jackson could feel the unstable ground of the landfill vibrating the soles of his feet.
It was a lightless autumn morning, still early, and the three cups of coffee Jackson had downed were doing little to quell the dull feeling between his eyes. Belinda had arrived at eight to help him with the hauling, sporting a borrowed pickup truck and a companionable grin. Regardless, Jackson was in a funk. Nothing new, this dark mood of his; it had stuck to him like a shadow through the bright months of spring, summer, and now into October. Still, some days were harder than others, and this one had that look about it.
As always, Belinda confronted his mood with gentle authority. " C'mon, Jackson, move on," she would chide. "That's all behind you now--it's time you took stock and got back to business." Jackson wasn't taking stock. Lately, Jackson wasn't doing much of anything beyond the basic necessities. He bathed and dressed himself and earned a baseline living working for Bernard. He usually remembered to eat something, and he drank strong coffee for energy.
At this moment, though, what little energy Jackson had mustered was being sapped by the cheerless acreage of the city dump. A rancid smell, like rotting orange peels, assailed his nostrils. Swaths of earth were peeled back like scabs and Jackson saw, half-buried, an entire world of anonymous, discarded things festering in the broken soil. Palms to his eyes, he tried to block the assault on his senses, but there was no escape from the smell or the noise--the rumble of behemoth tractors and the slam and crash of dumpsters consolidating their dross. Great , Jackson mused, a sneak preview of hell.
Belinda's voice was just behind him now, and he could smell her leafy scent. Its effect was instantly medicinal. "Well, this is more fun than I usually have before lunchtime." She still had to yell for her voice to compete with the tractors. She had a slight drawl, a vestige of her North Carolinian childhood, which elongated each syllable. Jackson found the cadence pacifying.
"Whatever floats your boat, B," Jackson retorted, and then he willed himself to be more appreciative of her help. Belinda was here this morning strictly as a well-intentioned volunteer. A doctoral candidate in art history, she was (he reminded himself) no more in her element in this unfortunate place than he was.
Jackson knew he was lucky to count her as a friend--especially now, when his state of affairs had worn his other friendships thin. During those long months when he was out of work and deserted by his girlfriend of seven years, Belinda stoically became his regular morning companion. She lived in the carriage house next door, and through those hard times it was she who made sure he got out of bed each morning. Every day before her morning lecture, she would arrive on his doorstep, her long hair damp and smelling like a garden. She came bearing banana muffins warm from the oven, and in exchange she asked only coffee. She liked to watch him brewing it, grinding the beans just so before pouring them into the French press. Then the two of them would sit on his porch, sipping and saying very little.
Not long ago, Jackson had been a lively conversationalist. Belinda, friend of three years now, no doubt remembered those days. Lately though, words eluded him. Sometimes, perhaps to break the silence, he would bring one of his collections out to the porch and show it to her piece by piece, proudly explaining each object. At such moments Jackson became animated. His collections were legendary. They comprised everything from antique woodwind instruments to Regency-era miniature landscapes. They filled his small home, and he devised cunning ways to display them.
Belinda seemed to enjoy his collections, too, and when he showed them to her, she plied him with questions and kept him talking until, suddenly noticing the time, she would dash away to her lecture. Sometimes, Jackson noticed her regarding him in a certain way--a tentative look, full of some clouded expectation. It vaguely registered with him that she was attracted to him. Preoccupied as he was with his recent disappointments, Jackson struggled to imagine any joy that a romantic involvement might bring him. He couldn't, and so with resolute passivity he ignored whatever it was that Belinda could imagine.
When Jackson thought back on passion and how it felt before this new numbness set in, it made him pine not for love, but for meaningful work. He mourned the loss of his job. What luxury, to be able to lose himself in a project--to feel some deep connection to his livelihood. For now, though, Jackson was working for Bernard, doing odd jobs, accounting, and the occasional run to the dump. It paid his mortgage.
Bernard Geller was the next-door neighbor from Jackson's childhood in the town where Jackson grew up--and where they both still lived. Had he been a warmer, less scholarly man, he might almost have been a father figure for Jackson, whose own father traveled constantly.
Geller had made a name for himself as an art dealer. He was known as a businessman with a well-trained eye and a preternatural knack for procuring rare and coveted pieces.
Jackson's parents were friendly with Geller and the wife who'd later left him. On long summer evenings as they sipped Manhattans by Geller's pool, young Jackson would slip away unnoticed to explore the house at his leisure, eyes wide and fingers searching. Geller's house teemed with the material contents of a life well lived; it looked part museum, part rummage sale. Mysterious, primal smells haunted each room. Parts of that house had fascinated Jackson: a tiled atrium hung all around with Grecian friezes; a sparsely furnished room whose wooden walls were given to Japanese Sumi-e. In one unused bedroom were walls densely covered with original illustrations from Edwardian children's books--watercolors, mostly, but some pen and ink, and even a few oils.
For Jackson, these pieces had a life of their own. He spent hours gazing at them, imagining the stories they depicted. As he grew older, he came to recognize some of the artists: Maxfield Parrish, Arthur Rackham, Jessie Willcox Smith, and others. As a college student, Jackson had once gone to a rare book sale and stumbled on a seventy-year-old edition of Rip Van Winkle. He was surprised to find inside it color plates of several watercolors from Geller's walls.
Returning to the house now, decades later, in the professional capacity of Geller's assistant, handyman, and gardener, Jackson was moved to see how little the house or its contents had changed. Much of the familiar artwork still hung in its familiar places. But to Jackson's great disappointment, the Edwardian illustrations had been replaced with a series of botanical studies.
Three mornings ago, Geller asked Jackson to clear his study. It was a task that called for laborious cataloging, filing, deciphering, and no small amount of disposal. After two full days of work, Jackson entered the study on Wednesday to find that Geller had intervened overnight. What items remained in the study had been crudely swept from desktops, pulled off of shelves, and flung from flat files and drawers. A large and unwieldy pile now commanded the room's floor space.
"Just haul that stuff away," Geller had said curtly. "Don't bother sorting. Take it all to the dump."
· · ·
"Well, " Belinda drawled loudly. "Shall we?"
Jackson turned to look at her as, with an elegant flourish, she pulled on a pair of his work gloves. She might have been proposing tea. He felt a pang of envy at her ability to feel so undaunted by their surroundings.
In the back of the truck was a small mountain of Bernard's debris. Belinda was standing in the truck bed now, perusing odd pieces amidst the junk: a faded lampshade, a tired-looking rug in a feminine palette. "We gettin' rid of everything?" She had to yell to compete with roar of the nearby machinery.
"That's what ol' Bernie said: 'Dump it all.'"
"What about this?"
Jackson looked to see Belinda holding a flat plywood crate streaked gray with mold and about the size of a doormat. "What about it?" he asked.
"Well, what's in here?"
"What's in there is going in the dump--that's all we need to know," said Jackson. He had no idea what was in there, and he lacked any compulsion to find out. It was junk. Geller had given clear orders, and in light of the fact that Jackson was now no more than a glorified junk man, he felt no inclination to review or assess the contents of that box. He pulled the plywood crate from Belinda and heaved it onto the ground beside the truck.
They stood there, staring at the crate, and Jackson tried to shrug off the sense of hesitation that Belinda now embraced. There was no doubt that Geller had slated this box for landfill. Could it have been an oversight? A rash mistake? The fact that the box was nailed shut clearly indicated that something had at one time been placed with care inside, and remained there at this moment.
"Come on, let's just open it," Belinda said.
"We can't," Jackson countered. "It's nailed shut, and I didn't bring my tools."
"So you want to just throw it away, without even knowin' what's inside?" Belinda was bristling now. "Jackson, what is wrong with you?"
All Jackson wanted was to finish up and clear out. Belinda just didn't know when to quit. Even if there were something worthwhile in that moldy box, they had no means of pulling out the nails that secured it. "OK, B," Jackson challenged, "find me a hammer and I'll open it."
"Why don't you ask them?" She gestured with her chin towards two Hispanic men unloading building debris from a trailer.
"Fine," Jackson said. He picked up the crate and walked purposely towards them, Belinda following behind him. "Excuse me," he called. "You got a hammer I can borrow?"
The men stopped their hauling and turned to him, wiping their foreheads. They looked at each other and then back at Jackson. "Yeah, I got a hammer you can use," said one of the men. "For twenty bucks." He smiled ambiguously.
"I don't have my wallet on me," Jackson said.
They all were quiet for a moment, and then Belinda tried. "Do you drink coffee? We'll trade you a Thermos of Jackson's coffee for a hammer."
The two men laughed good-naturedly, and the one who had offered the hammer said, "No, I don't drink coffee." He reached into his vehicle and produced a metal toolbox, from which he pulled a hammer and handed it to Jackson. "Just bring it back when you're done," he said.
"Thanks, man," Jackson said, shaking hands with both of them before turning back to the borrowed truck.
He and Belinda lay the crate on the truck's tailgate and Jackson set to pulling out the nails that held the plywood cover in place. Nearby, the giant tractor roared to life again. In a few hours, the ground they stood on would be reshaped and unrecognizable, Geller's refuse buried under five feet of soil, the road they were on closed and rerouted. Jackson expected this crate would probably find a grave here. And yet, with Belinda watching excitedly as he drew the second nail from the plywood, something began to crack open inside him. He felt an unfamiliar sensation he couldn't name. There were possibilities here. There was a chance of something, perhaps something precious, waiting inside this grimy packaging.
The third nail came out grudgingly, and Jackson removed his gloves to pry the crate's lid off with his fingers. It was old wood and had swollen a bit; the lid was compressed tightly into its place. He strained and pulled, and at last it came loose. Gently, Jackson eased the contents out of the box.
The top layer was a sheet of thick rag board, grayed with age and handling. A scuffed printed label was visible in the center of the sheet, and Jackson and Belinda bumped heads as they leaned in to read it.
"S mithsonian ," it said, and underneath was a Washington, D.C. address.
Belinda was starting to bounce up and down like a young girl, fists pressed together. " Oh, what ?" she demanded. "What is it?"
"Could be anything," Jackson said coolly, but his hands were shaking as he pulled away the rag board. Underneath was a shiny layer of tissue, the kind Geller used in his flat files, where the better-quality prints and watercolors were stored.
Gingerly, Jackson peeled back the tissue, then paused.
"Tell me!" Belinda was dancing around. But Jackson had seen the top inch of the artwork inside, and that was all he needed. He knew what it was. Nothing could compare to the bright, gem-like palette of a Maxfield Parrish, and Jackson would recognize this particular piece anywhere. It was only a print, but he knew exactly what he would find underneath it, each piece carefully separated by a sheet of archival tissue. It was Geller's Edwardian illustrations.
Twenty feet away, the landfill tractor pushed a ton of earth over someone else's discarded effects, but here there had been a reprieve. Sometimes, a man who has stood too long on the edge of a precipice needs a good shake to make him come away. Jackson was shaken now. In his limbs began something like an adrenalin rush, but slower and more staggering. His hands felt cold and his ears were ringing. The sky was still dim, and no miraculous fingers of light burst through the cloud cover, but there were possibilities, and Jackson could see them now. Joy could be recovered as easily as it was lost or cast off, and a man could reclaim himself with no more effort than he had spent in the losing. Today , he thought, today could be a day for reclamation.