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“You’re apologizing to garbage,” laughed Carlos.
She couldn’t help it. It was automatic for her to apologize for everything. For stupidly cleaning her two rings and leaving them in the kitchen on a paper towel that she later accidently tossed down the garbage chute. For asking Carlos, the building handyman, to let her rummage through the compacted garbage. For ruining Carlos’s Saturday morning.
Earlier, she’d stood at the compactor-room door, calling Carlos’s name over and over. She’d felt like Brando calling Stella. Carlos must have had his headphones on, and couldn’t hear her over the crunching and whooshing sounds of the compactor. She’d hoped to find him before he started compressing the garbage. She envisioned her diamonds in tatters, like sharp confetti. How could she have been so stupid and thrown out the rings? She cleaned them every week, like a ritual.
Finally, Carlos heard her knocking and opened the door with his friendly smile. “Sorry, I couldn’t hear you with the compactor on.”
Her shoulders sagged. “I guess there’s no use looking, now that it’s been compacted,” she said.
“Nothing is impossible,” he said. “Give me a minute.”
When he called her in, he had carefully arrayed the garbage in sections across the basement floor of the building. “I think, given the timing, when you said you tossed it down the chute, you should start over here in this pile,” said Carlos.
Wearing yellow plastic dishwashing gloves she’d brought from her apartment, she began to rummage tentatively through her neighbors’ garbage: coffee grinds, diapers, mysterious and unsightly orange scrapings and mush. The fumes were fierce and she tried not to gag. When she rejected a pile, she’d apologize to it and move on.
“Oh, look, someone didn’t recycle.” She held up a plastic bottle and showed Carlos.
“Who was that? Let’s check.” Carlos sounded upset. She found a ripped piece of an envelope nearby, with an apartment number on it.
“Oh, 11E. That’s Mrs. Walsh. I’ll have a word with her!” said Carlos. They both laughed out loud.
“Let’s judge the neighbors!” she said. “Maybe this could be a new game. Or reality show. But let’s face it. Who am I to judge? I’m on my hands and knees on a sunny day, looking for my engagement and wedding rings in a pile of garbage. And holding you up. I’m sure you have a ton of other things to do.”
Last night her husband Sam had been all excited about a salmon recipe he wanted her to try. He had seen it on some cooking show, and was talking about how it kept the fish moist without albumin, the white foamy stuff, forming on the top of the fish. He was convinced the secret was in the broiler timing and the foil wrapping. She had mistimed the salmon, and tried to quietly scrape the albumin off the top of the fish while he was watching the baby and TV. She was hoping she hadn’t overcooked it. Sam would be so disappointed. But he had loved it. She’d done something right. He’d been so furious at her last weekend for taking all those photos of red-haired cadets who turned out not to be his son Kevin, her stepson. How could she tell? Who knew there were so many carrottops at West Point graduations? It was from a distance. They all looked like Prince Harry to her.
Earlier in the week a neighbor on their floor had been shoving his garbage down the chute, his head hidden by the open door to the tiny chute room. He must have heard her walking down the hall, and he silently reached out his hand to take her garbage without showing his face. She was grateful he didn’t look at her, since she’d just smeared Carmex across her lips and had her hair up in a clip. She was wearing, right out of the box, a newly arrived sweater she had admired on her sister, who had then sweetly bought the same one for her online. It looked awful on her—since her coloring was completely different from her sister’s—and she wondered why the color was called “silver lake,” since it was more of a faded green suburban-house-paint shade. It was too big on her but that was fine, since she still had some baby fat. She wondered why she was having all these moments involving garbage with men other than Sam. What did it mean?
Now she was rushing to accommodate Carlos’s schedule, and hoping beyond reason to find her rings safe in the cheerfully pink-and-gray-patterned paper towels she liked so much she overstocked them—going to different DUANEreade drugstores to find them.
“Did you say the paper towels had pink in them? That’s good. Look over here.” Carlos steered her to a new pile. She examined the debris closely.
Her heart raced. Could it be she’d find them? What were the odds? The paper towel disappointed, although it did have a pink pattern in it. No sign of diamonds anywhere.
She hated the basement. Despite Carlos’s quest for cleanliness, it was a dirty city and she’d spotted rodents, periodically, on the way to the laundry room. She was relieved Carlos stayed with her during the garbage review, thinking his presence somehow protected her from small creatures.
Now, if only he could protect her from Sam when she told him the rings were lost. She snapped the gloves off her naked fingers and headed home.
Nancy Ford Dugan lives in New York City and previously resided in Michigan, Ohio and Washington, DC. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize the past two years, her short stories have appeared in various publications, including Cimarron Review, Passages North, The Minnesota Review, Epiphany, The Alembic, and The MacGuffin.
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