Picking up trash wasn’t very difficult, he thought, at least not compared to the juggling act at the office he’d face after he finally served his sent- er, volunteer community service time. What that Sanchez woman was doing for her penance he didn’t know. Maybe she’d batted her eyes at the head FBI man and convinced him that there was work to be done in the office, and she was the only one who could do it while he was out here in the fresh air, picking up …
Ew. Suddenly, the job became a lot less fun, as the loaded diaper right in front of him would be obvious even to a blind person.
Latex gloves … oh, thank goodness. He’d almost forgotten about them being handed out just before they headed for the roundabouts. He pulled his pair out of his back pocket and carefully rolled each glove up to the palm and then inserted his hands and rolled them back up.
The diaper carefully deposited in his trash bag, he took a deep breath and looked around. The other volunteers had already cleaned most of this roundabout, and the sisters were dutifully trouping behind Parker towards the next one. Only Alyssa was still pecking at the ground, like a mother hen cleaning up behind her chicks.
That out-of-control car was an interesting touch, he thought. If he was in real danger, however, no one worth his salt would try to off him in such an obvious manner. They … whoever “they” were … obviously were just trying to warn him, to make sure he’d better watch his back from now on.
Did he dare risk a call to … Kate? He’d better get used to calling her by her first name from now on. He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and glanced at the clock in disbelief. They’d been picking up trash at this one roundabout for almost 90 minutes. What a bunch of trashmongers Topekans were! No, that wasn’t nice. His job was to find that silver lining, to make sure that everyone thought that “Topeka Was Awesome”. He glanced at the trashbag again and then at mother hen Alyssa, who waved at him in response and then pointed at the others. He nodded and waved.
“I’m right behind you. Gotta call the office and report in.”
She waved and then moved away out of earshot, and he punched in his own office number.
The phone rang three times before someone picked up.
“K-Kate Sanchez. Um – City of Topeka. May I help you?”
“Kevin here. Didn’t take you long to find the access code, did it.”
“Not when it’s taped right on the phone, you dolt. How’s the trash detail going? You got a nice tan yet?”
He glanced at the trash bag. “Let’s just say that the job stinks.”
“I bet. Sorry I couldn’t be there, but someone had to hold down the fort here. So I poured me a big cup of coffee as soon as I got here and started to go through the specs of the “Topeka is Awesome” campaign notebook. I still think that we need to work a few ghosts into it.”
He sighed and glanced at the trash sack again, trying not to tear the bottom out of it as he dragged it through the roadside grass and moved towards the others. “Listen, maybe you have something there. There’s rumors of ghosts being seen around Topeka Cemetery, identifiable ones, and supposedly someone who died in Topeka High comes back occasionally to make him or herself known to people in the auditorium during play rehearsals. But that’s not why I called. We need to take a better look at that manuscript, you know.” A car whizzed by him a little too closely, and he jumped. “Look, I can’t talk now. Do you have a cell phone handy? I’ll text you when I can. I don’t want to make these nice people out here with me think I’m sandbagging.”
She gave him the number, and he punched it into his phone, flipped it shut, and walked perhaps a bit too briskly to where the others were standing around Parker, who was dispensing something to drink in paper cups.
“Sorry, folks, had to check on a problem at the office.”
Parker smiled at him. “That’s all right. We’ll take a break after we finish up each roundabout. Just tie your bag up and leave it over there with ours. By what I can see lying around here already, we’ll need new bags, anyway. Here – hope you like orange Kool-Aid.” He held an eight-ounce cup towards Kevin.
For a moment, Kevin froze. Nice Kool-Aid. Everyone drink the Kool-Aid. And then he looked at the shortest sister – Evie? – and saw with some relief the orange mustache across her upper lip.
“Ah … sure. Thanks.” He remembered to breathe again, accepted the cup, and took a deep drink, an ice cube bumping against his teeth. “Good.” He nodded at Parker. Surely he couldn’t be …
Parker had turned away. “Refills, anyone?” The taller sister, Chelsea, held out her cup, but the others shook their heads, and as they drained their cups they tossed the ice into the grass and their cups into their new bags.
Kevin sucked one chip of ice from his cup and followed suit.
* * *
Most of the trash that they collected from the other roundabouts was from fast-food restaurants, although Parker instructed them to collect the glass liquor and beer bottles in a separate container for recycling later, so Kevin soon didn’t have to think about what he was doing. Instead, his mind jumped between the campaign that he was supposed to be developing and what he and Kate needed to do yet with the manuscript.
It wasn’t just that the two of them needed to convince Topekans that their city was awesome, he thought. They needed some kind of incentive to keep it more awesome by keeping it cleaner. The new recycling initiative might help a little, but charging the non-recyclers four bucks a month more was a pretty negative incentive. How many Topekans would still think that an extra monthly charge by whichever trash service they chose was part of an awesome city? Not many. Maybe rewarding people with a monthly percentage of the profits from recycling things would work better, although of course the program would still have to sustain itself. What about setting up a volunteer program where squads of kids would go out and help those who for whatever reason couldn’t or wouldn’t recycle? That would be awesome, wouldn’t it? People could call a hotline and request a volunteer; some kid who needed volunteer hours could show up and help little old ladies separate their gin bottles from cardboard. Well, maybe not that. How about a paper shredder on wheels to move around the community?
He didn’t realize that he’d bumped into Mother Hen … er, Alyssa … he’d been thinking so hard. “Oh, sorry. I was concentrating …”
He realized that the other sisters were trying not to giggle. “Your lips were moving, Mr. Emile. Were you trying to remember something?”
He realized that his sack was again full. “Um … no … just trying to do a little office work out here, but in my head.”
Alyssa patted his arm. “That’s all right. But we’re done now, and you’re free to go. We’re all going to get something to eat at the Pad on North Topeka Boulevard. You’d be welcome to join us if you like.”
He fingered his cell phone in his pocket and remembered that he still had to make some arrangements with Kate about that manuscript. He hoped she had sense enough to hide it in a very secure place.
“No thanks, although I appreciate the invitation. But I really need to run an errand before I get any lunch and then head back to work.”
“Okay, then. Nice working with you.” Parker made sure that the bright-yellow trash bags were piled far enough from the road so that another errant driver wouldn’t smash through them, and then he led the way back to the cars, his wife and the three sisters dutifully following him like ducks in a row …
Oh, stop it. First hens, then ducks … what next? Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my?
And then he stopped dead in his tracks. That’s it!
* * *
He had been to the Topeka Zoo only a couple of times in his life. Animals weren’t really his thing, after all. He’d grown up in the city, and his family hadn’t even had pets except for a few tropical fish that lasted an average of two months in their tank, and one hamster in a cage that squeaked day and night until one morning when he realized that he could actually hear only the crunching of his shredded wheat and that the squeaking was gone.
Before his parents could say anything, he plopped his spoon into his bowl and raced to the utility room. Sure enough, the cage was silent and completely empty, even the shavings gone from it.
“Sorry, son, Buddy didn’t last the night.” His dad had come up behind him and put both hands on his shoulders. “He’s gone. I had to … um … bury him before he … um … started to smell.”
“Oh!” He had nodded, looked at the cage again, and then turned and looked up at his dad. “Can we get another one? Please?”
His dad had coughed and glanced at his mother, who had joined them.
She put her arm around him and gently led him back to the kitchen. “No, son. We don’t think that’s a good idea. Now, eat your breakfast so you won’t be late to school.”
It took him years until he realized what really had happened to Buddy. He felt his neck as he wandered between the exhibits and examined the animals and birds. They didn’t make much noise and didn’t bother anyone. Maybe that was a cue for him to stay quiet and out of sight for a while, too, while he formulated his campaign. And what an awesome campaign it would be! Built around the zoo, it would first capture kids’ attention. Next, the older ones. The little train that ran through Gage Park was a perennial attraction for grade schoolers, but what about the middle school crowd? Why not a go-kart track? Sure, they might have to take out one of the ball diamonds to accommodate it, but there were plenty of diamonds around the city to take up the slack. All they needed was a little creative scheduling to fit all the games in. And then for the older crowd, they’d bring back the sports car races at Heartland Park.
He rubbed his jaw and nodded. The idea was a little rough around the edges, but Wonder Girl Kate could help him come up with more ideas that would appeal to females. He hoped. Wouldn’t she
About the Author
Paul Swearingen is the author of “The High School Series”, six young adult novels available in e-book form via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, etc. A retired English/journalism/Spanish teacher, he managed to survive 34+ years in public, private, and government schools, including 22 years in the Topeka Public Schools. He also was a radio newsman and disk jockey, a newspaper editor and photographer, a personnel manager for a large retail store (now defunct), a long-time publisher of the National Radio Club’s magazine, “DX News”, and during a short, dark period was a telemarketer and sold cemetery lots.