trashHighway Cleanup

by Nicholas Rys


I was young, but old enough to know I should be doing the right thing. I finally understood the priest on Sundays and began to wonder if everyone else kneeling with their eyes closed was thinking things as dirty as I was.

I remember walking along the side of the two-lane highway leading out of town, and I remember wearing a bright orange vest and rubber gloves and old clothes. Picking up other people’s cigarette butts and beer cans and old newspapers and coffee cups wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun Saturday morning, but we got hot chocolate on the way and, as a “thank you” for our service, the newspaper at which my mother worked would give us coupons for free gas station sandwiches.

My mother said it wasn’t about the sandwiches or the hot chocolate, but about doing the right thing and sometimes you had to clean up other people’s garbage. I guess that was part of being Christian. I was young, but old enough to know that there was a Hell and that it was scary and that I might go there if I didn’t do what God called me to do and if I couldn’t hear God calling me to clean up trash on the side of the highway then maybe I haven’t been hearing him call me to do other things so I should at least help clean up the mess that’s already here.

I started thinking about Hell and how I didn’t know anything about it and how that made it even more frightening, and then I thought about how I didn’t want to die. After my grandmother’s funeral and seeing my father cry, and after Uncle Jeff’s funeral and seeing my aunt sob, I knew you could never know when it was coming. I was young, but old enough to know it wasn’t fair.

He was so vibrant and just had those twins with my aunt and wore his tumors like something he earned, not something to hide. I remember when some redneck in the grocery store parking lot asked Uncle Jeff if that was some new punk rock hairdo he had on his head, and my uncle said, “Yeah, it’s called skin cancer, you asshole,” and the guy couldn’t apologize fast enough, but my uncle just laughed at him as he started the van, and we all drove away.

I was young, but old enough to know that death was permanent. I picked up cigarette butts with my fingers that started to sweat inside the gloves, and my mother told me to use the poker stick they gave us but I knew I couldn’t get all the little black scraps of trash bags and endless cigarette butts with those clumsy pokers.

I remember walking ahead of my mother and her coworkers to the overlook that was supposed to be scenic. I remember walking beyond the rock path and seeing a shredded black trash bag pinned to the ground and being fairly certain I was responsible for it, and I remember walking into the tall grass and seeing the rusted frame of an old bicycle resting off next to the flapping trash bag. I remember the smell was awful and, as the trash bag was coming into clearer view, I could see it was filled but not full and stale but not damp and was attracting a lot of flies. My mother’s voice began to call out for me not just in a passive tone, and I knew I couldn’t get the bag because something muted but still awful smelling was pouring from it. But I still couldn’t help walking towards it until I saw a rib cage stripped of flesh and blood, rendered bare and bleached by the sun. And then I noticed the rest of the skeleton, and I thought there is no way this is what it looks like. I was a bit unsure but then I saw the fingers, those long and brittle and unmistakably human fingers that looked just like the dummy from science class.

On the drive home, I sat in the backseat because it wasn’t safe to sit up front. My mother was telling me that we did a good thing today and this time we were lucky to get rewarded, and she asked me what kind of sandwich I wanted from the gas station. I remember nodding and telling her my order, but never telling her what I saw in the field behind the overlook. I started thinking that I better start listening up because maybe God was calling to me and if I didn’t start to listen I might end up on the side of the highway with my innards left to rot away in a plastic bag as the rest of my flesh slowly decomposes into a brittle skeleton and becomes entangled with the long, wild grass as the flies buzz violently around what remains of me.

As my mom went on talking about how important it was to help others and the planet, I couldn’t stop thinking about the smell and the sound of the flies and the fingers I saw. She never asked what I was doing over in the tall grass behind the scenic overlook, and in that moment I thought maybe if I don’t say anything to anyone, none of it would be real. Maybe if I never talk about it, it didn’t happen in the first place. I thought that was a pleasant thought, and I did my best to focus on it just like I would try to focus on good thoughts at church, and I ate my ham and cheese sandwich while we drove home.

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Nicholas Rys lives in small town Ohio. He writes, teaches and makes music and is part of My Idea of Fun, an artist collective and archive based out of his hometown of Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
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