by Sean McElhiney
I packed my work-stuff, pens on the left side
of the file drawer, notes on the right; the two hanging files I pushed to the
back of the drawer, as usual, then I bagged the trash. I emptied my garbage
into the bag in the lunchroom, then grabbed the bathroom trash and tied the
whole thing off. I knocked off the air conditioner, killed the lights, and
walked out the door, trash in hand.
The moonlight was different; I remember that
now. It had a haziness to it, a foggy translucence. A fleeting thought—a touch
to the senses that would not have been remembered had it not been for
the events that followed. Day-to-day existence is littered with this kind of
thought, these almost memories—a strange scent, an odd-shaped
flower, uneven headlights on an approaching car—little eye and ear and
nose catching things that come and go and only stay if something grand
encompasses them and keeps them there.
In the car the air-conditioner still whined
from hours ago when it was needed; now it got cold fast. I shut it off, then
turned down the radio which blared too loud after the loss of the noise of the
air-conditioner. I ran the windshield wiper to get the condensation off the
glass, then turned the fan on high and set the vents to aim at the
So if I was thinking of anything as I pulled
away from the office, this was it: it was nothing. Barely thinking: feeling,
reacting—cold, warm, loud, quiet. Just reacting really. Isn’t that what
we’re all doing most of the time?
The green plastic garbage bag with its office
odor of coffee grounds and cigarette butts and mostly-empty microwave meal
containers rested on my lap. I turned right, right again, then bump.
The front of the car lurched up. I
thought curb. You’ve hit the curb. But I was turning the corner behind the
building where there was no curb, heading toward the dumpster.
As I quickly slowed the car, the right back
tire bump-bumped softly, and something in my stomach went sour. A quick
identification shot to my consciousness: Animal. Ignoring instinct, I rifled
possibilities—large bag of garbage, bag of grass, old carpet, dirt, mattress,
rocks—in a futile split second.
I stopped the car. In the rearview mirror my
brake lights illumined the thing I’d hit. I could make it out now.
Rags. Old denim. Blue pants, black with
dirt. Sooty, leathery arms. Mangled, distorted legs. Overcome by a rush
of nausea I jumped out of the car, buckled over, lost it.
No longer sealed in the muffled cocoon of my
car, I could hear the moans. I listened intently and moved closer, trying to
make out words. The moaning turned into a wrenching, inhuman scream.
“Oh man, are you, oh God,” I
The rags writhed and whimpered.
It, he, was bloody and gritty. Young, no older
than thirty-five, his grimy hair was here and there matted down and sticking
up; his bare feet were twisted and crushed into one another. The bottom of one
foot, hard and black, faced up at me and the other was wrong the other way. I
ran, leaving the car running, its hum and my victim’s cries receded behind
“A bum, some homeless guy, a derelict. I hit a
bum,” I shouted into the phone.
“Slow down. Take it easy,” 911 said.
“I crushed a homeless guy with my car,” I
enunciated forcefully. “He’s hurt bad.”
Back behind the building my headlights shone
on the side of the dumpster and I could see the tied-off bag of trash on the
ground by the driver-side door. My victim whimpered like a whipped dog.
“Help is on the way,” I assured him as he
rolled his eyes back into his head and clenched his fists in pain. “They’ll be
here any minute.”
“Son of a bitch,” the bum groaned, then he
drew a staggered breath, aimed a piercing stare at the inside of my eyes, and
“You’ll be okay!” I snapped and I turned
toward my car.
Real fog rolling in now, anger; I tried to
shake the feeling off.
“You shouldn’t sleep right in the middle of
the damn street,” I growled, turning back. He squinted up at me.
“Is this murder?” I said. “If you die am
murderer just because you decided to sleep on the pavement?”
“Son of a bitch,” the bum said again, and he
squeezed his pathetic eyes shut.
A stream of hard white light then lit up his
gray-red face as a police cruiser pulled up behind me.
“Get up,” the cop ordered as he stepped out of
his car. The cold light burned an impression of the bum’s blinking features
into my mind’s eye.
“I hit him,” I said. “I didn’t see
him. I had
no time to react.”
“Hit him?” the cop said.
“Rolled him over. Rolled over him. I didn’t
know what it was at first, then it was too late.”
I looked up toward my fading car. The trash
bag was open and coffee grounds were scattered like so much mud.
“Trash. I was doing the trash. I drive it
around, you know, so I don’t have to deal with things – with things like this!
There’s always some bum. Some hobo, you know? Some car. Some couple parking.
Somebody prowling. There’s always something to avoid so I drive it instead
of walk it. I was doing the trash.”
A neat stack of food-smeared plastic
containers stuck out of the coffee grounds as if they had grown there. My
“Move out. You can’t stay here,” the
policeman said, then he poked me with his nightstick.
“It gets cool a lot faster now,” I said, “what
with the fall coming on.”
“You can’t be here,” the cop said, and he poked me again.
“The pavement is warm,” I mumbled, staggering
to my feet. “It’s just a parking lot.”
“Don’t let me see you here again.”
He poked me once more, then shoved me back
away from my trash.
I sidled off the pavement and walked, wounded, through the gravel
brown grass field, away from my dreams, toward my deeper dream, this life under
the tree-cover by the edge of the freeway. The fog was getting thicker.
“Doing the Trash”
was originally published in New
Times, San Luis Obispo, CA, in 1993.
Sean McElhiney is the founder
and host of Writing Itself, a
podcast featuring conversations with writers from all walks of life.
https://www.writingitself.com. He is a crew member at Trader Joe's on
California's Central Coast, where he lives with his wife and two pugs.
is an artist and
writer living in Roselle Park, NJ. Sean attended Syracuse University
where he earned his BFA in Illustration. After
graduation, Sean moved to New York City where he spent time
working in restaurants and galleries while pursuing various artistic
opportunities. After the birth of his children, Sean and family move
to Roselle Park in 2015. He actively participates in exhibitions
and art fairs around New Jersey, and
is continuing to develop his voice as a writer. His work can be found online
at www.justseanart.com and @justseanart on Instagram.