Shirtless Mike

A row of brown trash cans saluted from the sidewalk. Colin picked up his suitcase and put one foot forward, when a truck the color of sour milk appeared, every crease in its enormous frame filled in somehow with compacted crust and flattened filth. A decade of rust. Even the windows were dirty. Widening scuff marks ran up one side of its hull and coagulated reddish fluids dried on their way down the other, a cloud of invisible stink accompanying the garbage truck as it wobbled between parked cars on either side of the street, idling, rolling, reversing. It was an albino cockroach on wheels, a rancid beast exorcising malformed rage through a series of knife-like beeps. A brave soul in guano-colored overalls hung from the back of the beast with the bravado of a bull rider. He studied the pickings from above. First, he pulled one, then another of the trash barrels up and into the back of the vehicle, tipping the contents of the barrel, as the exposed guts of the vehicle churned and processed flotsam to liquefaction. Catching Colin’s eye was a rectangle of imitation wood with a skinny black tail that moments before had leapt from the top of an overstuffed can. Colin’s clock—the one that sat on his dresser—looked just like it. The squeal of the garbage truck and the sight of the clock reminded him of the morning he flew home to Seattle.

His alarm clock had wrenched him from sleep: motionlessness shattered, as the ivy atop his bookshelf pulled its shadows from the wall. Like a goldfish vacuumed from the warmth of its transparent domain, Colin was evicted without ceremony into the day. The alarm, a rheumatized, mechanized, asthmatic parakeet called out in unison with a telephone. And it might have occurred to him the two were competing for his attention, a notion that jamming his toe into the corner of the bed sufficiently discouraged him from investigating. He tried to say something into the telephone before he tripped over his suitcase and landed back into bed.

Colin opened the front door. Dennis stood on the other side, massaging the lenses of his glasses with the hem of a wrinkled blue button-up dress shirt. He said something as he was yawning. Yawning back, Colin retrieved his suitcase and they followed one another down a winding concrete path, past the concrete staircase leading to Shirtless Mike’s apartment. Posies in orange clay pots stood at the corner of every other stair.

Appointed with the task of collecting the rents and keeping track of the tenants, in addition to his old job of watering plants, trimming things and mowing the lawn, Shirtless Mike had lived in this two-storey Spanish-style apartment complex for a few years now, and his graduation from groundskeeper to property manager and groundskeeper, along with the hours he put in at his own landscaping business ensured Mike that he seldom had a day to himself. As a boy, he cared for his sisters from the time he came home from school to whenever his parents—both working two jobs—made it home themselves. He never complained if a neighbor asked how he managed to work so much. And though most were inclined to doubt he harbored any great powers of judgment, Colin admired him. This was despite the fact Shirtless Mike addressed everyone as Bro, and in spite of the fact that the empty truck he drove was bigger than his apartment. In the time that Colin had known Mike, he had seen the short, round man fully clothed on two occasions: in line at the grocery store with a jacket and shorts, a setting in which his tanned pectoral muscles, luxuriant chest hair, and patchwork of blurry tattoos could have spelled disaster for the appetites of anyone bumping carts with him in the aisle where quantities of bologna and other processed meats were kept; and at Easter, when Mike returned from church in a huge white t-shirt that read Got Jesus? in black letters.

Unaccustomed to passengers, Dennis’s library was situated on the floor of his black PT Cruiser; and when Colin attempted to move enough of the books to sit down, he realized how many more were behind him. Instead he lay on top of them without a seat belt, his suitcase in the hatchback, somewhere between Harlan Ellison and the complete works of Balzac.

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