Channie Greenberg and Erika Cleveland

Erika Cleveland
“Unlikely Partners”
Gouache and pencil drawing in altered book
Inspiration piece

The Bearded Lady and the Garbage Truck Driver
By Channie Greenberg

Aya sighed as she pulled up yet one more file on her screen. She had applied to be a member of her town’s “dynamic environmental services department.” She hadn’t expected that she would be overseeing an army of trash trucks while attempting to develop cost effective means of acquiring dumping permits for outlying areas. Somehow, when she had interviewed, the position had sounded more socially valuable.

All things considered, hers was a good job. COVID-19 or no, her post enabled her to pay rent and groceries, and even to treat her son, Hillel, and her daughter, Miel, to new shoes and new shirts.

Although Aya had warmed those offspring against following her footsteps, they had not listened. More exactly, instead of becoming coders, supermarket mangers, airline pilots, or martial arts instructors, her children stayed married to the manipulation of words. One co-authored a few books with her and the other sought in the public relations departments of recording companys. To say it less politely, both were broke, hence both remained at home.

Fortunately, Aya, who, beyond being the destitute head of her household, was a prolific author, had taken advantage of a grant available to financial challenged women; she re-enrolled in college. Creative writing was nice, but utility bills, phone service, and her kin’s rice and beans cost real dollars.

Aya’s major had been Sustainability. Her minor had been Government Affairs. Her course load had included: Global Urbanism, Energy Systems, Advanced Water Management, Introduction to International Law, Public Policy in Democracies, Diplomacy Governance, Law in a Global World, Air, Water, and Soil Pollution, Climate Change and Society, Petroleum and Energy, and Environmental Justice.

That mom graduated debt-free and with honors. Yet, she had no job prospects. No one at her school had forewarned her that a graduate degree was necessary to work in her field. So, she was thrilled when her town had offered her the desk job in the waste management department.

However, Aya was less thrilled about her low status and about her building’s lack of employee cafeteria. To a greater degree, she lamented that trash collection was rife with misogyny. Her subordinates commented on her clothing, her hair style, and her figure. Baser was that her superiors had no compunction in literally cornering her in small hallways and in tasking her to work overtime so that they could make surreptitious overtures. 

Aya ignored most of her underlings, reporting only the worst offenders. As for her higher-ups, she photographed and recorded them on her cell phone and made sure that those aggressors saw her doing as much. In less than two months’ time, her supervisors began to leave her alone her. Her juniors, though, continued to cough aloud in her presence and to stage whisper snide remarks.

Nonetheless, that multi-strata contempt for women was not the greatest of Aya’s work-related concerns. The most awful was that her minions thieved.

In cahoots with a dishonest builder, one of the trucks under her auspices had been fencing stolen goods. Expressly, certain garbage collectors put appropriated items into clean bags and then hid those bags in their municipality-owned vehicle before driving those ill-gotten gains to people who transformed them into black market loot. Had one of her men not been hit by a car while on duty, Aya would never have been alerted to those illegalities. 

That is, one of her sanitation engineers had been struck while attaching a streetside waste holder to his wagon’s lift. It was his workmate who cried for long minutes in Aya’s office and who sputtered that just as the man was signaling for him to push the lift level, a sedan had come flying around the corner. Either that hit and run driver hadn’t mentally registered the garbage truck or he or she hadn’t mentally registered the worker. 

In any case, the garbage man had gone splat. Worse, since Aya’s people were tasked to scrub down biological waste after car accidents and fires, the man who was crying at her desk, along with some of his cohorts, had had to clean up the shattered bits of his partner. 

Blubbering like a child, that garbage man confided that it was karma that had brought about the fatality. Namely, his friend was a corpse because of the side business in which they, and a few of their associates, had been engaged; if they hadn’t been transporting “liberated” property, likely, there would have been no slaughter.

Suddenly, Aya’s job became interesting. After her guilt-ridden underling quit, she decided to mix it up with the reprobates. As opposed to forwarding her juicy information to the people in charge of her department or to contacting the police, Aya assigned herself the task of riding the truck servicing the neighborhood in which the pilfering was taking place. 

Her bosses, hitherto weary of harassment charges, looked the other way when Aya entered the office wearing overalls, a long-sleeved shirt, steel-toed boots, a helmet, thick gloves, and a reflective vest. Furthermore, they said nothing when she told them that she was going out on the streets for a week and that she would fulfill her paperwork duties later. 

Similarly, her son and daughter had said nothing to deter her from her ill-advised adventure as they knew her to exist, sometimes, in an imaginary universe, where benevolent protagonists succeeded and where evil antagonists failed. As far as Aya’s children were concerned, Mom was mouthing off about a new story idea, not about an imprudent, real-life undertaking.

While Aya had no idea how the bandits, with whom the trash collectors were in cahoots,  knew which families would be on vacation, at the office, or otherwise not present in their dwellings, she knew that contractors, like garbage men, go mostly unnoticed by the public. Elsewise, locals would have grasped that there were, amid their neighborhood, many innocent-looking piles of concrete in which single tiles had been arranged such that one among each pile pointed toward a potential target’s front door. To Aya, even “delivery” stickers “harmlessly” affixed to windows, constituted less odious criminal devices. 

Janey, the new hand meant to replace the expired driver, was bald, tattooed, and a grandmother of seven. She chewed snuff and used words that made Aya blush. In addition, she was an excellent source for meatloaf recipes and, allegedly, could concoct prize-worthy radish salad. Aya enjoyed their ripostes. 

On the third day of her atypical week, Aya “unburdened” herself to Janey. She told her that she had overheard that the fellows who had proceeded them on that route had been conveying stolen goods to a fence. She speculated, audibly, that she and Janey could earn extra money by likewise engaging in such pastimes.

It was good thing that no cars had been closely following their truck — Janey slammed on the brakes. She screamed at Aya, saying that it was bad enough that garbage collectors had to engage in heavy lifting, be aware of limb-eating gears, and stay alert to the needles and broken glass that frequently stuck out of garbage bags. Plus, the pet feces in their sacks reeked, and the lone squirrel that had jumped out of their truck, on their first day together, had unsettled Janey. That said, crime was not and would never be something in which she would engage. 

Janey continued to shriek, saying that if Aya disliked their respective responsibilities, she could drive, and Janey would jump on and off the truck. Janey would never, though, participate in law-breaking activities. After dabbing her eyes, she added that her late lover had been a cop. In the army, she had earned both her CDL and his heart.

She then shared that she had become a garbage truck driver because some silly technicality regarding her lack of a marriage license had made her ineligible to collect survivor benefits. She had also worked as an OTR, as a postal driver, as a tanker hauler, and as a driving instructor after her man’s death. 

Aya sighed. She articulated that she was not interested in committing felonies, but in deterring felons. She hadn’t gone to the town’s crime squad because she didn’t trust government officials, especially after her multiple, unpleasant encounters with the sanitation department’s bureaucrats.

Janey muttered something about “good cops,” shook her head, and then silenced herself. After exhaling loudly, she hugged Aya, rolled up one of her sleeves, and pointed to a long scar on her arm. Her disfigurement had come from the blade of a corporal who had mistakenly believed that women were of select, limited use. Janey had thought otherwise and had used her own knife skills to prevent herself from being raped. 

Afterwards, her commander had hushed up the offense. The corporal was transferred to a different unit, where he was rumored to have repeated his brutish ways. 

Meanwhile, Janey had garnered an unsavory reputation. On balance, it was that very standing that had intrigued her significant other to court her. Looking Aya in the eye, Janey whispered that decent men, albeit hard to find, do exist.

Later that day, Janey laughed instead of growled. She and Aya sniggered over the relative stupidity of criminals who employed cement squares to facilitate break-ins. As well, they sighed over the foolhardiness of garbagemen who persisted on risking jobs and liberty for a small amount of kickback and agreed that no quantity of boodle was worth jail time.

Equally, it was reckless to directly tangle with thugs. As a result, the ladies waited until the middle of the night to address the larcenies. Aya’s bosses and family remained clueless about her activities and goals.

Disguising themselves with fancy dress beards and garbing themselves in Janey’s dead companion’s clothes, the women drove to the periphery of the targeted neighborhood. They walked from block to block, righting each pile of pavers until no pile held protruding pieces. The local law breakers were not going to triumph, anymore, by using building materials to indicate hot spots for theft.  

Back at Janey’s car, the women high fived. The multiple, righted piles of cement were warning enough to the crooks that folks were privy to their goings-on. Hopefully, the burglaries would stop.

On their last day as coworkers, Aya assigned herself and Janie the cleanup of an illegal waste dump. In that copse of trees, the two sipped water and tossed back chips. The smell, the maggots, and the other unpleasant elements of their job had, over the week, lost much of their offensiveness. Just as trash collectors are invisible to the public, trash’s disgusting qualities quickly become imperceptible to its gatherers.

From her backpack, Aya pulled out the theatrical hair that they had earlier adhered to their faces. Janey took pictures on her cellphone. The women guffawed. Then Janey asked Aya why she was a garbage collector.

Aya admitted that she was really a desk jockey, that she had two kids, no husband, and a useless college degree, and that she preferred fashioning romance novels to supervising sanitation engineers. After her husband had left, she and her family had survived for more than a decade on a large inheritance that had been meant for her retirement. Until that money had run out, Aya had indulged in writing. 

Janey chortled and told Aya to quit her public service job and to seek work as an aide to the elderly. No nursing degree was needed for such employment and it paid well. Additionally, sweet, demented seniors, not randy men, could fill Aya’s working hours. 

In the months that followed, Aya did not quit her job. Conversely, she accepted a promotion to the position left vacant by the boss that Janey had reported for harassment and attempted battery. Rather, it was Janey who resigned.

She took a position helping golden agers at a local residence. When asked about that change, at one of Aya’s increasingly frequent potlucks, Janey had shrugged and said that a little spittle and urine in a setting abounding with consumer fraud seemed easier to deal with than  did raccoons, battery acid, pesticides, and a setting abounding with various types of property crimes. 

Aya had shrugged back at her and had then asked her to pass the dip. The skordalia was not to be missed.

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