Westwind

Recycling Ain’t for the Rich

John Solowiej

I never told anyone my real name. Just always went by B as a kid. No one ever really asked me hey B, what’s B stand for anyways? Never told no one because I never wanted a name given to me by someone who dashed out on me and Dad. I ran away from foster care after Dad passed on. With no next of kin to place me with, the state tried to pair me with foster families but I always felt like a fucking rent check. Half those families are only signed up to be foster parents for the stipend they get for each kid they house. A lot of them treated you like a slave and I couldn’t have that.

Being out here, out West, it doesn’t matter what anyone calls me. Nobody knows me these days. Nobody needs to use my name besides Scraps. He and I don’t even know each other’s real names, but we got a real system working. We ain’t never gonna get rich recycling bottles up here in Santa Monica. They got too good at recycling. Can’t never find a bottle these days, especially not near the beach. Too many other bums around there already picked every can clean. They do daily. That’s why Scraps and me are headed south, down towards the harbor. Poor areas don’t give two shits about recycling, B. Scraps is only seventeen but he already got a mouth a mile wide. That’s why me and him make a good team. I protect the kid. We pool our resources.

Digging through the dumpster somewhere along Pico, a half mile in from the beach, Scraps asks me when we going to get down south to Long Beach.

“I read about a fishing town up in Alaska. All the guys there had jobs fishing,” he says. “They fished all different kinds of stuff, crab mostly.”

“So we’re supposed to be fishermen from Long Beach now?” I say.

Scraps stops digging, straightens himself upright to face me standing next to the can with our shopping cart. We stole it from a target in Westwood. It’s our bottle mule. But it also carries our personal affects. My raggedy backpack, filled with matchbooks my dad collected from restaurants, a navy blue pullover sweater with a front pocket (ripped), a photo of Dad from when he was young, a Los Angeles public library card with the only photo I had of myself, and a selection of revolving not-so-special street-crap that was half useful and half sentimental.

I still hold up the picture of my Dad from when he was around my age next to the library card with my picture on it. The shitty digital picture on the laminated card was so much flatter than Dad’s photo. Just that matte blue background engulfing my mugshot. Hours of staring at the side by side photos and the difference between us has become obvious to me. My eyes glare into the lens, focused, ready, present. Dad’s are gazing out. He’s got a thousand mile stare, his head tilted like he’s posing to look tough, but there’s the slightest curve at the corner of his mouth which fixes his lips to the same slant his whole head has. Very content. It’s nonchalance spills out through his eyes, into mine, where it seeps down to my chest, coming to rest in my stomach where it fastens itself painfully like a vice grip.

“Why in the hell would you wanna be a fisherman, Scraps?”

“I used to fish with a foster family I had when I was still in Seattle. It made me feel calmer than anything.”

“My Dad used to take me fishing too,” I say.

Scraps smiles and dives back into the can. “I can’t imagine your goofy ass holding a rod and reel. You probably get grossed out by fish don’t you? Probably can’t even take a hooked fish off a line.”

“Not if it’s fried,” I say. “My Grandma used to have fried catfish at her place on Easter. That shit was endless. Used to stuff myself something awful.”

“You a greedy sonofabitch, B,” he says. His pint little torso, fully submerged in garbage, his feet being pried from the sidewalk so only his toes can touch. With pants a size too big, Scraps’ legs are swamped in denim so faded, the fabric betrays the stains he’s accrued from jumping in and out of dumpsters.

“Holy shit, it’s a gun.” Scraps emerges, spilling over the waste that was covering him on to the sidewalk. He has yogurt, or what looks like yogurt, on his cheek below his eye.

“I bet it’s a murder weapon or some shit,” Scraps speculates.

I take the gun from Scraps.

“How much could we get for it? Hope at least a hundred.”

“A couple hundred probably,” I say.

My eyes aren’t leaving the writing engraved across the slide of the pistol. I run my thumb over the machined, blue-steel grooves.

*****************

I walk out of the pawn shop in Santa Monica. They wont buy the pistol for cash since I have no title to the gun. After already being rejected from two others because I didn’t have any proof ownership. The other two owners didn’t seem cool with buying a found gun from a homeless guy. The third shop wasn’t having it neither.

“How much ya get?”

“Nothing,” I say. “They wont take it.”

I put the gun in the back of my waistband and pull my shirt over, concealing it.

“Aw fuck, well, we should celebrate anyway. That pistol is our fucking payday. We just gotta figure out how to unload it.”

We walk across the street and down two more blocks. We go in the McDonald’s on the corner. In line for the register I see a baby in a stroller. Big brown eyes staring at me, legs pushing against empty air, pointer finger pulling a spit sapped cheek. I make a few funny faces while Scraps heads for the restroom.

I go cross-eyed, stick out my tongue, the whole nine yards. Baby sitting in the stroller giggles wildly, waving and gesturing which attracts the attention of her mother. Mom is filling up condiment cups full of ketchup while they wait for their order. She turns to see her baby looking at me. Me with my worn, grey sneakers. Me with my dirty, greasy, everything. Mom gives me an awkward smile, avoiding my eyes as she readjusts her daughter in the stroller. I always wonder when I see babies with their parents how many of them might grow up to resent the shit out of them.

“You ain’t gotta worry about me, Ma’am. I just like kids, those smiles are always genuine,” I say with a warmness.

A momentary smile of courtesy crawls across her face, contorting her mouth into a pursed-lipped expression vaguely resembling the genuine smile of her child. Scraps comes back from the bathroom after I order for both of us. We step over to the side where other customers are standing around waiting for their number to be called. Scraps sees the little girl in the stroller and bends a knee to get eye-level. He yanks out his ears and puffs out his lips so he looks like a cartoon monkey. The little baby girl responds, wildly clapping and giggling.

“Would you mind not playing with my daughter?” The mother says.

Scraps, still on a knee looks up to the woman and says, “Just trying to make her laugh.”

“Well don’t. Thanks,” she says in a stern tone. She pulls the stroller closer to her body.

“Cute fucking kid you got there,” Scraps says. “Hope she don’t grow up to be a bitch like her mother…that’d be tragic.” He’s looking over to me, expecting a laugh.

“Sorry,” I say to the mother. I hurry to grab Scraps and we slip into a booth to wait for our food. A booth off in the corner so we stay out of everyone’s way.

“Why you gotta just bow down to those people B?” Scraps says.

“Why you gotta freak them out by being all aggressive and shit?” I say.

“B, you treat those types of bitches like they better than you or some shit. You a person too. In fact, you a white person, ain’t nothing they can say that makes them better than you. They just look at you and you roll over like that.”

“That ain’t the point, Scraps. I’m white, you’re black, but for us right here––for me and you––that don’t matter. The point is sometimes you need to learn how to keep a lower profile. Shit’s gonna get you in trouble one day, bro. You don’t take any time to get all the facts or observe the situation enough. It’s some hasty shit, Scraps. Always.”

“Man you acting like a little girl who scared of pissing her teacher off. This is the real world, B. No white bitch with kids is gonna tell me how shit should go. Their lives don’t have shit to do with mine.”

“Maybe,” I say.

A fat little Mexican man comes out with two bags. He puts them on our table.

“Order 46?”

“Yeah,” Scraps says.

The man has a name tag that reads Manager. He looks to Scraps, then over to me when he starts speaking.

“Sir, I have to ask to you take your food and go, some of the guests have complained about the smell.” He’s awkward and embarrassed.

“Aw, fuck this guy,” says Scraps to me. “We just wanna eat, what the fucks the problem?”

“Please don’t swear, I don’t want a scene.”

“You got one asshole,” Scraps raises his voice. All eyes are now fixed on the situation brewing at our table.

So I intervene: “No, Scraps. We can just go outside. It’s a nice day anyway.”

The manager is eternally grateful. He thanks us and says, See ya next time! In a cheery supervisor voice that he puts on for every patron as he guards the threshold of the exit.

Out back––where we belong––the grease trap and dumpster sit behind McDonalds stepping in as our dinner guests. Scraps and I kick back on a curb that faces the rear of the place. We both just state at the dumpster sipping our cokes for a while.

“I bet there’s some plastic shit in there we can recycle. What do you think, B?”

“Yeah, probably.”

There is a pause as we work through our combo meals.

“You never told me where you from, B?”

“Don’t matter. I ain’t about to dwell on the past,” I say.

“Well, go on then, tell me anyway.”

“Nebraska.”

“I knew it! I knew you was from the South!”

“That ain’t the South, you shithead. That’s the Midwest. I’m a cornhusker.”

“What the fuck is a cornhusker? You got that southern twang in your voice or something. I knew you were from over there,” Scraps says, endlessly proud of himself.

“Whatever, I say. You always think you know right, Scraps.”

Tonight Scraps and I will get a motel for forty bucks we’ve saved recycling. Tonight we will sleep on a mattress that, for once, wasn’t discarded and left in some trash heap. Tonight we will have cable TV, showers, clean sheets. Tonight we can be nearly normal.

Next day we grab our Target shopping cart from its hiding place out behind the dumpster of the motel.

We’re walking South, towards Marina del Rey when a cobalt Merc SUV pulls up on the opposite side of the street to park next to a parking meter. Brunette climbs out. Well dressed, nice looking, business like, none of that gold-digger midday shopping- spree extravagance to her look like a lot of other broads around Santa Monica. A little more refined. A classy mom. Her two kids, a boy and a girl, look like their just getting to their rebellious preteen years agewise.

“Damn,” Scraps says. “She should adopt me. I’d make that worth her while.”

“Smartass,” I say. “I doubt she’d let you in the house, Scraps. Probably feed you on the porch with the dog while her real kids scarf down that good food at the table.”

We post up on the other side of the street, watching as she helps her kids out of the high back seat of the SUV. She drops her iphone and when she bends down to pick it up, Scraps lets out a whistle while he checks her out. She’s not fucking deaf so she hears Scraps, looks with inquisitive wide-eyes at our slummy asses and there’s a fear in her that makes her backdown and look away. We just sort of stand there in the shade of the storefront on the opposite side of the street while she drags her two young ones into the furniture boutique she’s parked in front of across the way. Scraps and I get to talking.

“How much you think her house is worth?” I ask.

“Girl like that? I put her in between four and five million, husband is probably a doctor/lawyer type,” Scraps says.

“You think she from Brentwood? Ain’t Beverly Hills, that’s for sure,” I say.

“Yeah all those Beverly Hills bitches go for the Porsche SUV, not the Mercedes, they gotta be keepin up with the Joneses.”

He reaches into the shopping cart, roots around a little, and comes out with the pistol. “We should do this,” he says showing me the gun and staring into me. “We can make our big payday right here.”

“Are you fucking nuts, man? You stupid motherfucker. First of all, there’s motherfucking kids over there with her. You wanna run over and knock off some mom and kids? You’re a hell of a lot dumber than I thought, Scraps. And you clearly don’t even know the first fucking thing about guns. Why don’t you look back at that gun real hard and see if you still think you’re so smart,” I say.

“Hey fuck you man, you do what you want, when she comes back out of the store, I’m going over there.” He inches a whisper’s distance away from my face, keeping his voice hushed, but strained with intensity.

He’s close enough for me to reach out and grab the gun from his hands. I wait a beat. I lift my foot knee-high and drive my heal down into the top of Scraps’ foot as I reach over to grab the barrel of the pistol with his hand still on the grip.

“I’m going to show you something you stupid sonofabitch,” I say as his other arm wraps around my neck, defensively restraining me while he maintained his tight grip on the pistol with his other hand. The quick change of footing takes my balance from me pushing me to my left, with Scraps tangled with my right arm, tightening his lock on my neck as we fall left on to the pavement. My head clanks with a parking meter behind us and I let go of the gun to to react. The contact with the parking meter on the back of my head jars me so bad I don’t tense up my neck muscles as we continue to fall. The concrete makes a thump as my head smacks against it, as well, knocking into a complete daze.

Scraps scrambles up as the wifey reaches the sidewalk on the other side of the street, coming out of the furniture store with her children behind her, the oldest, a boy, holding an iPad.

Scraps sprints to the other sidewalk as he points the gun at the wealthy family.

“Give me your fucking purse and your phone and your damn keys.”

Around the corner to our left a black and white patrol car rolls up to us and two asshole cops climb out. They’ve seen Scraps point a gun so they draw theirs, taking cover behind their open car doors while shouting, “PUT THE WEAPON DOWN AND STEP AWAY FROM THE WOMAN. LAY DOWN ON THE SIDEWALK WITH YOUR HANDS ABOVE YOU HEAD.”

Scraps reacts in the only way he thinks he can. He grabs the wifey and puts her in a hostage chokehold, using her as a shield and pointing the gun to her head at the same time. I watch from the other side of the street on my side, bleeding from a gash in the back of my head, still dazed. But I can observe the standoff enough to be conscious of the present but cracking my head twice so quick has me unable to get myself back up. So I lay there with blood wetting my hair and dripping down onto the pavement around me.

“It’s not real,” I groan.

No one takes any notice of me though; too focused on the standoff. Scraps starts to tear up, pointing the gun alternately at the cops and then back at the wifey’s head.

“B!” Scraps shouts though his tears. “B, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get into this.”

He has the gun pointed back at the wifey’s head. Tears start pouring out of me. There is no sound to this memory when I think back to it in later years. Just a silent montage punctuated with a loud crack.

But nothing happens. Wifey is still standing. She isn’t on the ground with her head blown off. Scraps isn’t covered in any blood. Scraps looks down at the pistol in disbelief. He sees the words etched in the metal frame––WARNING: Starter pistols are to be used by responsible, qualified adults only. Always keep gun a safe distance from eyes and ears. Never point a gun at anyone or use close to anatomy. Inspect guns before each use and replace if not working properly. NOTE: Eye and ear protection highly recommended.

I whimper on the far side of the street.

“It’s a just starter pistol. I tried to tell you. It’s not real. I tried to tell you. I tried to tell you but you wouldn’t listen,” I sob.

Scraps unhands the wifey as he looks continues to look down at the pistol. She rushes over to her kids and practically dives into them bawling, thinking her life may have just ended. The children too, are beside themselves.

A dart attached to a wire zips Scraps right in the shoulder and he begins to convulse and writhe as an electric charge from a police taser courses through him. He drops to the ground and continues as one of the officers charges Scraps’ position to slap cuffs on him.

I drift off, feeling my mind roll back away from the scene on the concrete covered in blood and my own tears.

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