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"The Man Who Loved Garbage" by Bernadette Miller Published: Enigma December 2003

"Adventures" by Bernadette Miller A humorous short story. A rich, bored young woman hopes exotic travel will reveal life's meaning. Published: Enigma Summer 2003

"Salvation" by Bernadette Miller In this short story a young girl seeks help for her poor family. Published: Mountain Luminary Winter 1999

The Man Who Loved Garbage

   Collecting garbage had not been Jimmy's chosen profession. He'd drifted into it. At first he'd studied accounting at New York University. Mathematics proved boring so he'd switched to chemistry. But mixing compounds did nothing for his spiritual needs so he'd switched to philosophy. After debating man's ultimate purpose and discovering there was no answer, he'd quit college and tried odd jobs like messenger service and bellhop; perhaps experience would unravel life's mysteries.
   Then he tried Sanitation and found it refreshing to work outdoors where he chatted with neighborhood occupants. And there was an opportunity to meet pretty girls. Before, he'd been shy; girls probably wouldn't bother with a gaunt, redhead with freckles. Now, feeding refuse into his truck during sunny spring weather, he boldly shouted, "Hi!" and complimented the girls on their sexy designer jeans. In addition, there was the comradeship with playful co-workers--an enjoyable change from former jobs where employees merely killed eight hours.
   Despite Jimmy's contentment, his father, a wealthy manufacturer, was mortified that his son preferred gathering castoffs on the Upper West Side rather than joining his respectable firm. In their comfortable Queens home, he pleaded in the den, "James, quit your disgusting trade and come into business with me. Imagine: Burkholtz and Son Underwear. Wouldn't that look nice on our factory sign?"
   "Dad, I can't." Jimmy sighed and stared into the cold fireplace. His parents had loved him for thirty-two years; he was disappointing them. Yet, there was something hypocritical about business. Garbage, on the other hand, seemed pure and honest. No trickery here! People unashamedly dumped their trash. Besides, they genuinely needed his services. It was a useful occupation.
   "My God, what can I tell our friends?" Mr. Burkholtz groaned in his velour armchair. "My only son--a garbage collector. If Papa knew, he'd turn over in his grave!"
   "There, there, dear," Lydia Burkholtz said beside the fringed lamp and patted her blonde bouffant. "Let James keep taking a good sniff. He'll be delighted to sell underwear!"
   Upon hearing of the Burkholtz boy's lowly occupation, the neighbors agreed they'd always suspected he'd come to naught. Still, eager to help resolve the Burkholtzes' problem, Mrs. Romano urged Lydia over Canasta, "Persuade James to become a dentist like my Anthony! Then he could join the country club, meet the right people, find a nice rich girl."
   Lydia shook her head sadly. "He doesn't care about climbing the social ladder."
   Plump Mrs. Blumberg exclaimed, "Well, convince him to study law like my Herbert! A smart lawyer can write books and become famous!"
   Again, Lydia shook her head and passed cream puffs. "No, James doesn't care about fame. He says garbage makes him happy and that's what's important."
   Mrs. Romano and Mrs. Blumberg exchanged a significant glance. Finally, Mrs. Romano said with a sigh, "Dear, I'm afraid your son may never fit in."
   Mrs. Blumberg added, "Don't blame yourself, Lydia! You've done all you can for the poor boy."
   Stung by the neighbors' barbs at their son's latest profession, Jimmy's parents expected him to realize its absurdity and abandon it. Instead, he stubbornly continued. Because of the fresh air and exercise, he ate more and gained needed weight. And due to lifting heavy cans, he developed biceps that increased self-respect. His sallow complexion tanned, his gray eyes seemed to glow with health. After a year at his job he never looked better. Yet, his parents mourned the loss of their son's potential and pondered how to persuade him to forsake garbage.
   Returning one evening from a winning golf game, Mr. Burkholtz tried a different approach. In the den, he leaned toward his son on the convertible sofa and said, "James, you know my father was only a humble immigrant from Germany. But was Papa content with just a pushcart? No! He was determined to establish a successful business so the neighbors could say with respect, "Ah, there goes Mr. Burkholtz--the businessman!" Pausing, he sighed deeply. "But when you come home, what can they say? "Well, there goes Burkholtz--the garbage collector."
   "James, your father's right," Lydia Burkholtz said, putting down her Solitaire cards. "Don't destroy your grandfather's dreams."
   After awhile Jimmy stopped objecting. They were older, more experienced; perhaps they did know what was best and he was merely being rebellious. One wintry evening, while working along Columbus Avenue, Jimmy's chubby, curly-haired co-worker remarked, "How come the gloomy puss? You're no fun anymore! Don't flirt with girls, don't talk to nobody. Something bothering you?"
   "No," Jimmy replied. It was best not to involve Max in his troubles.
   "Maybe you been thinking too much," Max kidded. "You know what they say: too much thinking ain't healthy."
   Jimmy, swinging a bag onto the truck, said, "And you don't think enough." He immediately frowned at his impetuous remark.
   Max stiffened before the brownstone stoop, his jaw thrust forward. "You calling me stupid?"
   "Ah, forget it. I didn't mean anything by it. My mind was on something else."
   "Huh!" To vent his indignation, Max viciously kicked a snow-covered can. "Better watch out who you call stupid!"
   "Max, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult you. It's just that..."
   "What?" Max stood poised, prepared for a fight.
   "I don't know." Jimmy absentmindedly tossed the can's contents into the truck, ending the discussion. The men ignored each other. At the end of their shift, Jimmy turned in his uniform. Why should he waste himself with garbage when he could impress the neighbors by becoming a big-shot executive. And what was so terrible about marrying a rich girl, as Tony Romano had just done? That's what every American seemed to want--why shouldn't he? Yet, despite the logic, there followed a sense of dejection like a defrocked minister who'd lost his calling.
   After dinner, he hesitantly told his parents in the den.
   Elated, Mr. Burkholtz beamed at his son staring at the stern portrait of bearded Grandfather Burkholtz. "I knew you'd come to your senses! Finally, I don't have to hold my head in shame. I can tell everyone my boy's a businessman--just like his father and grandfather!"
   "Oh, we're so pleased," Lydia Burkholtz added and set aside Soap Opera Digest to embrace her son. "Someday you'll make us very proud of you."
   The next morning, Jimmy accompanied his father to their factory. Smiling, Mr. Burkholtz murmured instructions to the Cadillac chauffeur and led the way upstairs along thickly-carpeted corridors, past the steno pool, and into a large corner office with deep armchairs, shag rug, and marble coffee table. Proudly he pointed to the door sign: James V. Burkholtz, Vice President.
   "Son, this room's been waiting a long time for you. Of course, I don't want to push everything at you at once. But after you get the hang of it you'll love it!"
   As Jimmy settled behind the enormous walnut desk, his father outlined his duties which sounded dull. He smiled wanly. When his father left, he gazed past the heavy black drapes behind him; the park-like surroundings outside resembled a movie scene. Somehow life on gritty Columbus Avenue had seemed more real. Here, not a speck of dust marred the serene atmosphere where workers mechanically followed orders--like robots. He swiveled toward the desk, his jaw set determinedly. Well, at least give it a chance! He plunged into work. During the following weeks, Jimmy pored over graphs and charts, read The Wall Street Journal, and studied endless forecasts of the company's future profits and losses.
   The more he tried focusing on money, the more appealing garbage seemed. Finally he ignored the binders piled on his desk and stared through the window. In the old days when he'd hopped on the truck with Max, he could observe the neighborhoods whose leftovers he cheerfully removed. Like the newlyweds with their trash can filled with condoms. One day the condoms vanished; Jimmy waited in anticipation. Sure enough, months later, Mrs. Ruiz, very pregnant, smiled on the stoop. He'd congratulated her and later with Max attended the barbecue party that celebrated the birth. Now, the company's waste baskets offered the only link to the outside world. Jimmy retrieved from the steno pool's carpet a paper scrap and chucked it into a nearby basket. He shrugged at the middle-aged stenographer, who, misunderstanding, had smiled uneasily, "It's certainly nice to be devoted to neatness!"
   That evening, taking a walk, he gazed at the curb litter: cigarette butts, wadded tissues, an old shoe--a city's needs advertised in its garbage; the garbage collector an intimate witness to those needs. If only he could return to a satisfying job...
   Unbeknownst to him, his parents had noticed his growing misery: his silence and frowns. One afternoon, Mr. Burkholtz dropped by the corner office to rally his son's spirits by describing the delights of becoming a financial wizard. "Just think, you could emulate Howard Hughes! Expand our business into a billion-dollar corporation. Make the name Burkholtz famous! Imagine how proud that would have made your grandfather Burkholtz!"
   Jimmy's gaze strayed to the black drapes that now seemed like a coffin coverlet.
   Watching his son's reaction, Mr. Burkholtz fumbled with a cigar and stuck it into his jacket pocket. "Look, you need more time to adjust." He paused, gray eyes pleading. "James, is there any way I can make it more pleasant for you?"
   "No, Dad, you've been swell. I've enjoyed our lunches in the executive dining room. It's just that..." Jimmy's voice trailed off as he pivoted toward the window. He stared at the drapes. Could anyone know what makes another person happy? Slowly he swiveled from the window. "I'm going back to garbage."
   "No!" Mr. Burkholtz slammed his fist against the desk. "My only son, a garbage collector? I won't stand for it!" He struggled to regain his composure, ruefully rubbing his fist. Then, he leaned across the paper-strewn desk and said softly, "James, your grandfather worked in the coal mines, a common laborer the townspeople spat on. Papa broke his back to come here so his family could have advantages they never had in Germany. Now you throw it in his face. It isn't right!"
   "Dad, I'm sorry." Jimmy rose and donned his fur-collared overcoat. He paused at the door. "But don't you see? With all those advantages, I never cared about success. That's something you wanted, so I tried. Well, it didn't work out. Why can't you accept that?"
   Mr. Burkholtz rushed after him."James, wait! Let's talk more! Just because this job's a wash-out doesn't mean there aren't other opportunities! Become a tour guide, tune pianos, cure sick animals--anything, as long as it's respectable!"
   Jimmy, shaking his head, watched the elevator shut. His father would never understand. He left the building and relaxed at a movie theater before going home.
   Lydia Burkholtz knew something dreadful had happened when her husband burst in early from work. She anxiously watched him slouch in the velour armchair, puff on a cigar, and stare at Father Burkholtz's portrait without saying a word. Finally, after her coaxing, he described their son's snubbing of the company.
   "James will disgrace the name of Burkholtz! He's got to realize--"
   "Gus, please don't do anything hasty," she interrupted, trying to calm her distraught husband. "Give the boy time. He still needs to find himself."
   "At thirty-three? I'll find him, all right!" He waved a fist, then covered his face and moaned. "Lydia, Lydia, where did we go wrong?"
   They fell silent. Finally, she said with a sigh, "Send him back to garbage."
   "No!"
   "Gus, it's the only way." Bent over his chair, she entwined her arms around his neck. "Remember how wonderful he used to look? Such a healthy face, a million-dollar body. The girls were crazy about him! Now, he's pale, lost weight, acts as if he just buried his best friend. Please, Gus, do it for me--the person who loves you most in the world."
   Mr. Burkholtz frowned. "All right, but if he fails at garbage, too, so help me I'll have nothing more to do with him!"
   Lydia sighed in relief. "Dear, he won't fail. It's the only profession he ever wanted to stick with. Once he's happy, we'll have peace of mind."
   When Jimmy returned from the movie, he poked his head inside the den. His father greeted him with a forced smile above The Wall Street Journal. Rising, Mr. Burkholtz motioned his son to enter. Jimmy sat gingerly on the sofa, waiting for the next pep talk on the merits of increased profits.
   Instead, Mr. Burkholtz lit a cigar and paced across the carpet, pausing to clear his throat. "Well, my boy, sorry about our little misunderstanding. Your mother and I had a long talk and we decided...decided..." He paused, frowning. "Well, we think you'd be better off in garbage. I mean, we've noticed your unhappiness at Burkholtz Underwear and...let's face it, son, if your heart isn't in underwear, you're no good to my company." He puffed on his cigar to steady his nerves.
   Jimmy stared at his father. Finally, he jumped up and hugged the old man. "So relieved we agree! I'll go back to garbage tomorrow."
   "It's settled then." Mr. Burkholtz sighed a deep, regretful sigh as if picturing the neighbors' faces when they'd sweetly inquire how James was getting along in rubbish. "Son...maybe later...when you're more mature, if you ever change your mind--"
   "I'll let you know." Jimmy beamed at his father who left, shaking his head in bewilderment at his son's choice. Jimmy stretched, leaned back comfortably on the sofa, and kicked off his loafers. Why not throw a party, invite Max and the other garbage collectors... And maybe some West Side neighborhood people, too. Celebrate, like the Ruiz's barbecue party after Mrs. Ruiz gave birth. He grinned. Now that he was on the right road again, he could plan his future.


--THE END--


SELECTED PUBLISHED STORIES" The Performer,"Writer's Intl.Forum 1996; "Scheherazade,"Medicinal Purposes,End of Year 1999; "A Tailor's Heart,"Jewish Currents, 2000; "Hide-and-Seek,"Eyes,2001

A character study
A political satire

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