John was unbelievable with a trash bag. He threw the lighter ones from his hip, like an uppercut. The heavier bags were more like a hammer throw. You could tell he was accustomed to using, and needing to use, all the muscle he had left.

By Jake Maynard 

In third grade, my friend Brett and I launched a startup called J&B Raking. We charged five dollars an hour, which we split, and offered discounts for “family” and “the elderly.” We made a few business cards from construction paper the color of a road cone but I’m left-handed, so my palm smudged our contact info, and Brett had an undiagnosed case of dyslexia, so his looked like we only charge three bucks.

This was before Facebook and we biked around handing out cards to the weirdos that stood around our tiny Main Street smoking and cat-calling teen girls. But they didn’t have yards or trees or five dollars, so Brett used his Lutheran Church connections to secure us one job, with Ms. Quist, a powdery and ancient woman who lived near the park. She was so old that the little store she ran downtown had been her father’s shoe-making shop. She literally still sold penny candy. Sometimes, in the ensuing years, we’d forge notes as written by Brett’s stepmother, saying we’d been sent to pick up her cigarettes. Despite that, Ms. Quist was shrewd enough to haggle us into ten bucks for her whole yard with a maple tree so broad and leafy that biologists should probably go study it. An anxious kid, I knew it was up to me to remove every single leaf, while Brett kept getting distracted by the older girls feeding their gigapets on the bleachers of the baseball park across the street.

It took us six hours over two days. I was just learning to divide, and I remember experiencing one of my first jabs of regret when I calculated that our hourly rate equaled one-wide-mouthed bottle of Mountain Dew. (The wide-mouth bottle had just hit our local pop machine.) Brett was less concerned. His dad was an entrepreneurial drunk who slurred that we just had to “establish out reputation.” We were using my dad’s rakes. We hadn’t figured out how to carry them on our bikes yet. And when the raking was done, we celebrated by diving into our mound of leaves, forgetting about all the dog shit we hadn’t bothered to separate.

My reputation established, I spent the next ten years doing the same kind of work. Raking leaves and mowing grass became bailing hay, shoveling horseshit, and cutting firewood. Sometimes we worked for Brett’s dad and he paid us with beer. (“If you can learn to work like a man, you can learn to drink like one.”) My dad would pay me to do work, too, but he had this murdersome habit of asking me to do something, not telling me when to do it, then immediately doing it himself. He’d then stomp around the house slamming doors. At work, he was a union guy: teamwork, safety, collective bargaining. He let it be known what he thought about his smirking, lazy, know-nothing, numb-nuts, shit-for-brains bosses. But still he passed along the larger message that to labor well is to submit. Show early. Stay late. Do more than is asked of you. We weren’t poor, but we couldn’t afford idealism either.

I would’ve rather been sitting behind a counter somewhere reading, but our town only had two stores. One only hired Evangelicals and the other only hired girls with big tits so guys like Brett’s dad would hang around. My girlfriend at the time, a couple of towns away, got a job waiting tables at a cafe owned by a woman who, years later, would be prosecuted for entering the Capitol on January 6th. (She took a selfie in the Rotunda.) Every day, this old guy getting his coffee would ask her for a fur burger. She was sixteen and our county’s pageant queen. The owner thought it was hilarious. We were both told young what our bodies were good for.

For a few years I was spared the grind of a steady job due a couple promising seasons as a JV wrestler but when I suddenly quit to join a punk band called Remember the Losers—also the name of our first song—my parents told me to get to work. We never talked about extracurriculars or enrichment or college resume padding. They knew about sports, and they knew about jobs. Whether or not they said it, they believed that labor is morally instructive. An ethic, more than any one skill, is what my folks had to share. Even if I wanted to be a historian or maybe or a musician, I could pick up some prowess by hucking trash bags.

And huck bags I did. I was fifteen years old and my parents thought it was a great idea. No one asked about safety. The garbage job had originally been Brett’s but his family was going to the beach for a few weeks, and I’d been asked to fill in. After he got back, we agreed to split the job because no one wanted to work early morning Saturdays and Sundays. If a heavy trash day was expected, like after a holiday, we’d work together on “the garbage truck,” which was just a regular dump truck. There was no compactor in the back, so we had to toss the bags up over the top. I only weighed 112 pounds, and sometimes the bags would hit the rail, teeter there, and tumble back down onto my head.

The owner was John, a mostly deaf, eighty-year-old, first-generation Italian who wore two huge, spring-loaded knee braces overtop his jeans. He walked like a heavy appliance being rocked into place, and he paid us seven dollars an hour but was good about rounding up. He was from Kushequa, a village of about forty people down the hill from us that once had a brick factory well-known to antique brick collectors. John was proud of that fact. People called him the mayor of Kushequa, and he was proud of that too. He adored his two long-haired cats and every Christmas Eve his family ate squid. I’d also heard he once backed over one of his workers’ dogs in the driveway while picking him up before dawn. Supposedly, they kneeled together and wept over the flattened body. Then they gathered themselves and went on hauling trash. That’s what is meant when people say essential labor.

John was unbelievable with a trash bag. He threw the lighter ones from his hip, like an uppercut. The heavier bags were more like a hammer throw. You could tell he was accustomed to using, and needing to use, all the muscle he had left.

His business covered the backroads, tiny villages, and hunting camps without municipal trash service. We started at five AM in pure, inky darkness. We saw foxes and bears and deer. Once I opened a trash can and a mother possum with babies on her back flashed her tiny teeth and hissed at me. I kicked over the can and waited for them to scurry away. There were lots of moments like that, flashes of unexpected life. I’d always thought our town was dead, but to see it at that hour reset my ideas of stillness. It was just differently alive. I watched the snow turn from black to blue like a fading bruise. The edges of everything were hammered round with unbroken snow that dropped from the eves when people rekindled their wood stoves. Sometimes we’d pass a house at the exact second that a light flipped on. Fuzzy with tiredness and sometimes hungover, I remember feeling deeply moved by those first moments of light. I’d always felt alone in my hometown, but something about being up at the same early hour with other people prepping to go to work sparked something. It wasn’t solidarity, but a broader sense of connection. We all shared the same doldrums. The same joys, the same routines, the same landfill.

But that was winter. Summer was different. The bags were slimy and vile, ecosystems of maggots and flies. One of our last stops of the day was at a bait shop that threw out their leftovers. Once, a bag broke open mid-air and a plague of mealworms rained down on my head. I threw up. Brett and I had just discovered drinking, so we were always throwing up. Another time, after work, I reached into my pocket and found a salted minnow.

Once, John and I stopped at a hunting camp at dawn and found that the owner had packed three huge contractor bags full of heavy construction scrap. Because there was no compactor, John had strict rules about bag size. He’d told the guy three times he wouldn’t take construction waste. I tried to lift the bag and couldn’t. It was like throwing a section of sidewalk. John saw me struggling and he slid down from the truck seat. We had driven a half-mile on a back road specifically for this camp, and now John was furious. He pulled a knife from his pocket, slit open the trash bags, and scattered the scrap all over the driveway.

Pulling back onto the road, he said, “Consider your service cancelled,” and we laughed.

I remember thinking that he had my back. Compared with the other driver that sometimes filled in, I guess he did. (The other guy loved to rip sulfuric farts, seal the windows, and laugh like a slo-mo machine gun—tuh,   tuh,   tuh,   tuh—while we gagged.) But we did have to climb on top of the truck a lot and stomp down garbage bags to make extra room. Brett used to jump from the railing and elbow drop the boxes. Sometimes I’d do flips onto them. But once, suddenly, I remembered my mom’s stories from the hospital where she worked. I thought of all the addicts in my family. The heroin sitting on the table at the trailer where the older guys sold me pot. I started treating every bag like it might have a dirty needle in it, and I made sure that Brett did, too. Because, at most jobs, there’s nobody to protect you but one another.

Some people chose John for primo service. At one old woman’s house, we went into her garage to pick up her trash. At another, we tiptoed into her kitchen and get the bag from under the sink. The cabinets and counter were the same shade of poodle-skirt pink, and all the appliances were coated in TV-yellow bakelight. The job had many similarly voyeuristic moments. I learned who had babies and who lived off takeout and who lived off of wine. I learned who shredded their bank statements and who threw out family photos. There was, I was beginning to understand, a secret literacy inside all work.

By nine or ten we rolled into the McKean County landfill, the highest point in the county and getting higher every year. In the winter, the sun was low and pointless and the wind sent the crows screaming by, hardly indistinguishable from the swirling black scraps of plastic. Semis lined up at the weigh station below the trash mounds. A lot of their license plates were from New York and New Jersey, places without anywhere left to put their trash. I remember learning that trash was one of rural Pennsylvania’s top growing industries, and at first I felt a terrible sense of complicity from the top of those mounds, looking out at the brown folds of hills. But then Jon would tell me to unlock the dump bed and flip the handle and slowly the hydraulic pump would rise, rattling, dripping purple hydraulic fluid, and our town’s trash would tumble out. It looked so small in comparison, little more than a pile of dog shit in a parking lot. The bulldozer would come next, and I would watch it in the side mirror as we drove off, throwing carbon into the cold air and spreading my day’s work into the larger heap.

Jake Maynard is the author of the debut novel SLIME LINE, available now from West Virginia University Press.