The day had barely arrived.
Golden-year veteran Johnny Oldham circled the Food Lion and parked his prized red Caddy next to the dumpster in the back. The area was filthy with litter and grime and grease stains he didn’t want to think about too closely. He looked at himself in the rearview mirror. His eyes were hooded and baggy and tired. He shook his head. He still found it hard to believe that he was old.
He got out slowly so he wouldn’t hit his belly on the tiller or bend some joint the wrong way. He took off his jacket and threw it onto the passenger seat. He hiked up his sleeves.
Without bothering to close the door of the car, Johnny walked to the side of the dumpster and slid the panel back. The opened-door-keys-in-the-ignition chime of his car dinged furiously, but he ignored it.
Johnny could see all kinds of goodies through the white plastic bags – whole loaves of bread, bottles of orange juice, meat, and wilted vegetables, among other things. All of it was perfectly good, edible food, except for the meat. As for animal protein, he collected the roasted deli chickens at night right after they threw them out.
He filled a reusable grocery bag with food, enough to last perhaps a week. Maybe more, maybe less. When he was done, he took his bag and lugged it to the trunk of his car. The handles of the bag strained and stretched under its load. He put the bag in the trunk which, by the smell, had been used for transporting the less-than-savory-smelling cans over the last three weeks. He wished the Food Lion would throw away a few bottles of Fabreeze, but, unfortunately, the fabric freshener didn’t have a sell-by date.
Johnny had worked at the incandescent light bulb factory for thirty long years. He might have gone for thirty-five, but the advent of compact fluorescent lights had put the company out of business, much as the new light bulbs had displaced the old ones. Still, Johnny was set to enjoy a comfortable retirement, and to help himself be even more comfortable, he had purchased the Caddy hardly a year ago.
Then the parent company of the light bulb factory went bankrupt. His retirement package was one of the first things to go as the smoke cleared. He had nothing except his Social Security, his finite savings account, a mortgage, and a big monthly payment for his new car. He had no wife to help him bridge the financial gap. He didn’t know a single soft touch. He had no one but himself.
He’d be goddamned if he was going to lose the Cadillac, though.
Instead of the car, the house was the first thing that would have to go. Johnny put it on the market only to discover that what he could get for it was significantly less than what he still owed on it. The neighborhood had been steadily degrading for years, and Johnny had missed his chance to get out without losing his shirt because he hadn’t been conscious of what was going on with the houses around him. They had gradually been converted into rental units, sending his property values into a tailspin.
He couldn’t make the payments anymore. Johnny didn’t wait for the bank to take it. He wasn’t going to subject himself to the humiliation of being evicted from his own house, so he simply loaded up the Cadillac with clothes and memorabilia and drove away.
He found himself living in a single-wide out in the country. The portable housing unit tended to lean to one side, so Johnny didn’t park near there for fear that his house would fall on his car and wreck it. The rent was less than his mortgage had been, but it still didn’t close the gulf between income and overhead. He could barely keep the lights on, pay the rent, and make the payments on his car, including the insurance.
He thought long and hard about a second career as a Walmart greeter. He never went through with it, though. He had worked long and hard enough.
One day he was at the supermarket checking out when the man behind him said, “You might could save some money if you didn’t have to eat.” Johnny had laughed and agreed with him, and he didn’t give it another thought until he got into his car to drive luxuriously to his hovel. When he was behind the wheel of the Caddy, he could pretend the indignities of poverty were happening to someone else.
Johnny’s first job had been in a grocery store, way back when he was just a kid. He’d worked behind the deli counter. At the end of the day, they’d take the unsold rotisserie chicken and throw it away. They complained that it was a waste, but the manager had insisted.
He didn’t imagine that it had gotten any better in the last fifty years. In fact, it had probably gotten worse. He was old enough to have watched the world become a very wasteful place.
That’s when he got the idea to live like a bum. Unfortunately, he did not consciously realize that he wasn’t the only one.
Friday morning at dawn found him back at the dumpster. This time, though, he was not alone. There was a Mercedes S-Class sedan parked where he usually left his Cadillac. Johnny pulled up behind it, put the car into park, and grabbed his reusable grocery bag. He walked around the dumpster only to discover an older gentleman, not unlike himself sorting through the grocery store’s trash.
Johnny stopped in his tracks, dumbfounded. While it wasn’t actually his dumpster, he had come to feel a certain proprietorship over it. This German-machine-driving old fart clearly didn’t need the grocery store’s refuse. The S-Class had a starting price well above the maximum price of a fully-loaded Cadillac, and Johnny’s Caddy was well-short of fully-loaded.
“What do you think you’re doing, buddy?” Johnny asked aggressively.
“What does it look like?”
“This is my dumpster,” Johnny asserted.
“Your dumpster, hell,” the Mercedes man said dismissively. “I don’t see your name on it, not unless your name is ‘Food Lion.’”
“Yeah, well, you clearly don’t need it,” Johnny said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the Mercedes.
“I could say the same about you and that Cadillac,” the man retorted.
“I lost my retirement,” Johnny said.
“I’m in the donut hole.”
“I lost my house.”
“I lost my wife.”
“Sell the car.”
“You sell yours.”
Johnny had no reply to that. The men stared at each other. Stalemate.
They were still staring at each other when a Lamborghini roared up to the dumpster. As the driver’s door opened vertically, an even-more-elderly gentleman stuck a four-footed cane out the door and pulled himself up while leaning on it heavily. He took a few hesitant steps toward the other men, raised his cane slowly, and gave it a good shake.
“What the hell?” the sports car owner said. “This here is mine.”
“No, it’s not,” Johnny and the Mercedes guy said in unison.
The men commenced a three-way argument over the dumpster’s bounty. Their words were so heated that Johnny barely noticed the smell of extreme body odor and cheap booze as a crowbar came crashing through the Lamborghini owner’s head. Johnny turned to run, but he was too late.
Nature had reasserted itself.
After a teaching career, Jason Feingold began writing, with works published in various journals, anthologies, and collections. When not writing, he reads, keeps house, is a husband, raises a son, chases dogs, and volunteers as a Guardian ad Litem in his North Carolina home.