Tony was a garbage man who lived alone with a pair of cats above a bar and grill. He was heavyset with ears like prunes from his years as an amateur boxer. He’d driven the route solo for more than a decade: a rundown neighborhood of bungalows, apartment buildings, and old brick storefronts on the south side of the city.
He saw the little girl for the first time on a snowy winter day. He was surprised because her small house had sat empty for a long time, and he was caught off-guard when he came upon a trash can beside the curb at the end of her driveway. She was sitting on a couch in front of her living room window and watched him as he maneuvered the mechanical arm above the truck from his cab. She looked to be about eight with a head of brown curls and big eyes. It was just after noon on a Wednesday and she was dressed in pajamas, so he guessed she was home from school sick. He worked his levers to lift the trash can, empty it, and set it back down. When he finished, he raised his hand in a small wave and smiled. She did the same. He drove on through the snow.
The following week, the little girl was in the same spot dressed in her pajamas, and they waved and smiled again when he finished emptying the trash can. As he left, he whispered, “I hope you feel better soon.”
Five more weeks followed of the same interaction with the little girl before he noticed that she had begun to lose some of her hair. Clumps of it were missing from one side and the forward portion of her head. They exchanged their waves and smiles, but he paused before driving on, blinking.
Over the next several weeks, she lost more and more hair. Only about twenty feet separated the curb from her front window, so over that time, Tony thought that he could also see her eyebrows grow patchy. On the day he realized that she’d become completely bald, he stopped the truck a few houses away after their exchange and put his head down on the back of his hands on the steering wheel. He sat like that for several minutes blowing out a breath and driving on.
That night, like most, Tony had his dinner sitting at the bar and grill beneath his apartment, sipping beer. As he drank, he usually watched the muted television mounted in a corner, but on that evening, he stared straight ahead at his image in the mirror above the row of liquor bottles. He sat there thinking, considering.
The following Wednesday, he brought a water bottle, a roll of paper towels, and a box of aluminum foil with him in the truck. An alley sat behind a group of storefronts where he collected trash shortly before the little girl’s street. One of the dumpsters there always held discarded stems from a flower shop. Before emptying that dumpster, Tony got out of the truck, chose a few of the freshest flowers, and wrapped the bottoms in dampened paper towel and foil. When he got to the little girl’s house, he emptied the trash can, then climbed down from his cab, and faced her. He held the flowers up, pointed to where she sat looking, and set them on the lid of the trash can. He made his small wave and smiled. She did the same, but her eyes had widened and her smile was a grin.
Several more weeks passed during which he brought the little girl flowers. Each time, he saw the flowers from the previous week in a vase on a table next to the couch. Once, a woman he assumed was her mother stood behind the little girl with a hand on her shoulder; the woman patted her chest and nodded after Tony set the flowers on top of the trash can. Another time, the little girl was wearing a knit cap. At one point, a clear bag mounted on an IV pole with a line running to her wrist appeared next to her. Each time, they waved, he smiled, and she grinned.
Buds had just begun to appear on trees the first day that Tony didn’t see the little girl in the window. He set the flowers on the trash can lid and looked at the couch where she always sat in her living room. The car that was usually in her driveway was gone. A small breeze ruffled the collar of his jacket; a dog barked somewhere nearby.
Perhaps a month passed while Tony continued to leave flowers on the trash can in front of the little girl’s house, but he never saw her sitting in the living room again. Finally, a day of heavy-bellied clouds came when he climbed down from his truck before emptying her trash can because there was something on top of it: a paper plate of brownies wrapped in cellophane and a funeral card with a photo of the little girl on the front. The words, “Thank You”, were written under her picture. He looked up at the house, at the empty, still couch where she’d sat, and he began to cry. He stood there with his big shoulders slumped and shaking for several minutes before he returned to the cab with the flowers and card and emptied the trash can. A few drops of rain dotted the windshield. He climbed back down and set the flowers he’d brought on the lid of the can. Then he drove on to finish his route, as he had for many years before and would continue to do for many years after.
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories accepted in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he received a Pushcart nomination and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.