Doug the garbage man didn’t mean for it to become a habit, meeting up with her every night. The meetings began at the end of the driveway and ended up as long walks in the dark. He started doing it because he felt stuck, in a rut, purposeless.
The first impromptu meeting occurred about five weeks ago at the beginning of October. Doug’s wife started wearing a homemade pink cape in honor of Breast Cancer awareness month about the same time. She hadn’t taken it off since, except to shower. Doug doesn't understand yet that being in a rut is no different from finding a groove; it’s all just a matter of perspective. But in a few months that very thought will occur to him without prompting during an argument with his wife.
When Doug got off of work he pulled the truck into the driveway and parked it next to the Fried Dough trailer – tarp-covered and tires blocked until next year’s fair season. A shadow-casting full moon hung high above the kids’ tree fort in the backyard. Doug grabbed his dinner (a bag of what he called “lunch leftovers”) and hopped down from the truck. Really, the bag held garbage he’d gleaned from the dumpster behind the Whole Foods Market. Today’s pull resulted in day-old organic rolls, “Dolphin-safe” tuna salad past its freshness date and a slightly bruised organic mango. His wife always asks him “What’d ya have for dinner?” and Doug always answers, “Lunch leftovers”. She doesn’t know he picks the garbage for his dinners. Doug doesn’t know she wears nothing but the cape until just before the kids get home from school.
Doug took his “lunch leftovers” out to the kids’ fort and climbed up the child-sized ladder, gripping the brown bag in his teeth, his hands and size 12 work boots taking up too much space on the wooden rungs. With a grimace and a fleeting thought of, what if I get stuck here, Doug pushed his way through the child-sized doorway. Born. He stripped off his reflective, high-visibility rain coat and spread it on the damp floor. Stretched out diagonally on his back, his six foot body just barely fit from corner to corner. He folded his hands behind his head as a pillow, sighed and looked up through the tree branches feeling pleased that his kids’ wanted an open-topped fort. Doug watched the moon slowly track across the sky and eventually out of his narrow field of view before sitting up to prepare some dinner.
He tried to cross his rickety knees, Indian style, like the librarian used to make them do in elementary school. Back then, Becky, the girl with the booger-green freckles and nothing but pink clothes, made fun of Doug – called him the Tin Man and said he wasn’t flexible. In third grade Doug didn’t know what flexible meant but he knew enough to be embarrassed anyway. Becky stood on her hands any chance she got so that her pink ruffled undies showed off to the books on the shelves and all the starring boys. Then she’d drop over backwards so that her feet met the floor again and her whole body made a bridge. One by one, the gawking boys would blush and crawl under her, all except for Doug. He couldn’t be that close to Becky and not want to kiss her again, not want to taste her pink bubblegum lips. The first and last time he’d gotten close enough to make contact, back in 2nd grade, sharp little teeth behind Becky’s bubblegum lips drew blood.
Doug gave up trying to cross his legs. He leaned back against the wall of the fort and prepared his “leftover lunch” garbage feast. Elementary school and Becky’s pink everything slipped back into a hidden nook of memory as he chewed slowly, savoring the free and easy meal, thinking about nothing much. Just then, the lights came on in the house. He heard the kids’ feet slapping noisily across the floor and his wife yelling at them to “get upstairs and in the tub before your father gets home!” He could see her through the window. She was still wearing that damn Breast Cancer cape even though Breast Cancer Awareness month had ended two weeks ago. Doug heard people talking about her in town today. He didn’t disagree with their speculation about his wife’s sanity.
A dark form appeared in the cone of cool, blue streetlamp light at the end of the driveway. A car passed, its headlights reflecting off a low pair of masked eyes. Vortices of mist tumbled in the car’s wake. Doug stuffed what was left of his sandwich in a pocket and reached for the bruised mango. He left his neon raincoat crumpled on the floor and exited the fort via the yellow curly slide.
She met Doug near the mailbox, just like always. “I’ve got a surprise for us tonight. I’ve never had one of these before. It’s a mango. Will you share it with me?” Doug held the mango down toward Raccoon’s nose. She put a paw on Doug’s out-stretched hand, chattered and sniffed the air. Their shadows were blunt and short-lived as they stepped out of the streetlights’ reach and ambled down the road together.