by Barry Graham

Shane is the guardian of the building’s trash.

It’s in a part of the city that used to be low-rent but has been gentrified. Even the small apartments are more expensive to rent than entire houses in other neighbourhoods, except for the ones in the basement. Down there, it’s single rooms hardly big enough to be called studios, and shared toilets.

Shane lives in a room in the basement. He’s been there for years. He’s in his forties, older than most of the other tenants. He has some kind of work-from-home job. He takes breaks to stand outside the building and smoke and talk to his neighbours, especially the young female ones. He tells them he’s a good friend of the building’s owner, that they went to high school together. He tells them his parents are dead, he has two brothers, one brother is a lawyer, the other is a drug addict who’s currently in a homeless shelter.

He doesn’t talk about his job, whatever it is. It’s not his primary occupation anyway. What he lives for is to protect the contents of the dumpsters from homeless people.

The dumpsters are in the alley behind the building. The homeless people rake through them, searching for returnable glass bottles. They come in the morning, the afternoon and at every hour of the night. But, whenever they come, Shane is waiting. Whether their noise wakes him, or he’s already awake, he always shouts the same words. Some of the other tenants have the words committed to memory.

“Hey. Hey, asshole. This is private property. Can you read, asshole? The sign says NO TRESPASSING. This stuff doesn’t belong to you. Get out of here. Get out of here, and don’t come back. Don’t come back.”

He recites this every time, all of it, even if the person he’s yelling at apologizes and leaves right away. He has to say the whole thing, even if there’s no one still there to say it to.

There has only been one variation on his speech. Usually, the homeless people flee without argument, but there was one exception. When Shane yelled, “Don’t come back,” a young man answered, “Oh, I’ll be back.”

When Shane yelled, “Don’t come back,” again, as he always did, the man again said, “I’ll be back.”

“Loser! Fucking loser!” Shane yelled.

The man’s response was calm. “Loser? Who are you calling a loser?”

“You! You, you fucking loser.”

Shane is standing outside one afternoon, smoking, talking to a neighbour. “Homeless assholes keep going through the trash. They wake me up rattling the bottles. Assholes.”

The woman he’s talking to goes on smoking and doesn’t say anything, but another woman, who lives in the building and also works cleaning the corridors, is walking by. When she hears what Shane says she stops and looks at him.

“When you yell at them in the middle of the night, you wake me up,” she says. “So does that mean you’re an asshole?”

The other woman looks at him. “What, that’s you?” she says. “I live round in front, and you still wake me up.”

Shane doesn’t say anything.

For a few days he lowers the volume of his recitation, and then cranks it back up. But the other tenants start complaining to the owner. Now that it has been talked about in front of Shane, something has shifted, and the owner, who turns out not to be a friend of Shane’s in spite of their having gone to the same high school, tells him to change his behaviour or move.

It’s one a.m., and Shane hears the rattling of bottles in the recycling dumpster. He starts to open his window to yell, then remembers, turns away from the window, jogs from his room to the alley, careful not to slam his door.

The man picking through the bottles flinches when he sees Shane. “No hurt,” he pleads.

“Look, you can’t be out here—” Shane keep his voice low, so low that the other man’s whimper is louder.

“No hurt,” he says again. He doesn’t have an accent, so it’s not that he’s learning to speak English; he must have a head injury or mental impairment, and he’s terrified. “No hurt. No hurt.”

“This is private pr… Ah, it’s okay, man. You’re okay.” Shane wants to say something else, but he doesn’t know what. He turns away, goes back inside the building.

In his room, he stands next to the window and listens to the man pack up the bottles. He listens to the clumsy footsteps getting farther away. “No hurt.” He doesn’t know who the man was asking. He doesn’t know who he’s asking, either.

#fiction #poverty #loneliness #cruelty #compassion #homelessness #barrygrahamauthor