Mrs. Kray lived alone. Her husband had passed away some time ago and she, like Tony, rarely went out. Her trash was always neatly arranged: folded down boxes, containers that had been washed out, and toiletries at the bottom making a soft cushion for the rest of the garbage. Always on top were house magazines with detailed notes in the margins. Tony imagined she used to be a realtor checking out prospects for her next sale.
Mr. O'Brien was a high school gym teacher with a massive appetite for pornography. His subscriptions ranged from soft-core to outright depravity, where the only pictures were page sized photos of reddened vaginas glistening on the lacquered pages. There were six in all and each month a new set would arrive and an old set would end up in the trash next to its seeming opposite; Mrs. O'Brien's obsession, which were stitching magazines with patterns and ads for threads. The stitching magazines usually had some sampler that Tony would find highlighted in green or yellow with notes and thread types crossed off. Mrs. O'Brien would send these bits and pieces out into the world and each person stitched a new line.
The third tenant in Tony's building was a health-nut that died at the ripe old age of thirty-three. Mr. Weiland lived alone too, and he was the only tenant that Tony actually talked to in the early evening hours. Tony sat and smoked from the time Mr. Weiland left for his dusk run until the time he returned sweaty and panting. It fit into Tony's unique routine; it helped him keep track of time and tenants.
It took a while for new people to move in. Apparently Mr. Weiland was only keeping healthy for himself and no family or friends came to collect his things. Tony considered breaking through the police tape barrier one night, but it was only a fleeting fantasy to walk through that door; Tony couldn't risk being caught.
The new tenants ended up being a beautiful young couple, and Tony never heard any loud noises or fights coming through the thin walls. His usual stake out on the walk proved a bit problematic though because Mr. Keenan, his name was on the mailbox, liked to chat. He was a little too forward for Tony who liked to ease into new tenants by carefully watching them take their trash to the dumpster and recording what bags they used. The Keenans used white bags with yellow handles. This would help immensely when finding their trash amidst the typical black shiny treasures.
"Hi, my name's Jim. My wife, Tracy, and I just moved in to the 3C." He extended a hand and Tony shook it with his sweaty, smoky palm. He immediately put his hand into his pocket to wipe away Jim.
"I'm Tony, I live here." Tony's scratchy throat made the sounds, but his ears didn't register the noise from within his own body. It had been so long since Tony had spoken to anyone outside his own mind that he had to clear his throat of smoke to sound like a normal human being.
"Excuse me." Jim jaunted to the dumpster with his white bag and threw it over the top.
"It was nice meeting you, Tony. I'm sure we'll be seeing you around." Tony nodded his head and made brief eye contact with Jim Keenan. It unnerved Tony to know this man's first name. Tony waited for the man to disappear up the stairs before taking a breath and stubbing out his cigarette.
It was the usual routine for new tenants to throw out all sorts of random things during a move in. They decide what needs to bring with it familiarity and what needs to be discarded with all its memories or lack of use. Tony never liked the sheer bulk of all these items. He sifted through them to find out much needed back-story on the Keenans, but they were newly married and more than likely threw the most important items away before they packed together. Perhaps Mrs. Keenan threw away old boyfriend photos before Jim could see them, and perhaps he had thrown away old dirty magazines or movies before she could see them.
Tony and Jim would briefly talk each night about the weather, or where something was in the neighborhood.
"So Tracy and I are looking for a good place to eat around here, do you know any places?" Tony had no idea. He never went out, and now this simple question made him start to sweat.
"No, but it's supposed to be nice tonight, no rain."
"Right, but I mean, there has to be something around here we haven't already tried. She doesn't cook much, and all I can do is grill burgers, you know what I mean?" Jim's palm made a wave away from his body and came back so hard Tony could feel the forced air that preceded the smack on his shoulder. Tony was still as Jim's palm slid away, and he was left there shaken inside. His hand was so still the line of blue smoke that rose from his cigarette was straight as it flowed upwards into the tree.
"Whelp, I guess we'll have to do some looking of our own then, thanks, Tony." Jim walked on into the building. Tony could still feel Jim's hand crashing down on his clavicle.
It took a month after The Keenans moved in before Tony could actually get a good sample past the name brands of foods and detergents. They too never threw away important documents, which was disappointing, but expected with these youngsters. Tony guessed they were in their late twenties, maybe early thirties; it wasn't something you asked about or could readily surmise. What those telemarketers wouldn't give for the information Tony had.
In the most recent bag Tony had found what could be of promise down the road. Old newspapers with jobs circled in blue pen could mean that one of them was out of work or unhappy with what they were doing. But Tony never heard them fighting about money, or making any noise for that matter. So tonight Tony figured the trash collection wouldn't be that stellar again.
But at the bottom of the white bag was a little yellow and black canister of film.
Tony was shocked to find such a vital piece of trash. For the first time he sat back against the inner wall of the dumpster and puzzled over the small canister. The loading tab was no longer protruding from the felt slip on the side of the can. Tony's grimy fingers turned the roll over and over. It was used, but undeveloped. At this Tony slowly backed out of the dumpster leaving the O'Brien's and Mrs. Kray's nightly findings behind. Doing his casual look around the corner Tony emerged from behind the dumpster with his find and went back up to his apartment.
Inside he sat at his table amidst the other catalogs of tenant trash and cleared a space for the roll of film. He crossed his arms and laid his chin on them while staring at the little cylindrical wonder before him.
The obvious struck him at once. He would never be able to see what was photographed on the negatives inside the little can. Just having it in his possession would violate his decaying parole. Sure, he thought, it has been five years since I moved into this place from my one room cell. My parole officer rarely calls to check on me, but the hazards of this are enormous. Tony would have to go during daylight hours to a place that develops film and wait at least an hour in eternity to find out what was on this roll when it could just be family pictures or wedding photos. He never even walked past the photo-booth at the local supermarket, he always skirted around it lest anyone see him looking. There had to be a better idea.
Tony dusted off his phone book and paged through the photography section hoping to find a place that would deliver the pictures by mail. No one would have to know or see that Tony had sent this roll out, and the pictures would not be seen by anyone that could recognize Tony. There was such a place and Tony highlighted the address.
It took him five days of staring at the little canister before he decided to go through with it. He found an old manila envelope from tenants past and taped his address only to the front left corner. He slipped the roll of film inside and taped over the previous address with that of the photo-shop. He had no idea what type of money to send so he took a crusted ten dollar bill and placed it inside, sealing it shut. It would be another five days before Tony even considered mailing it.
It was at this time that Tony realized he hadn't been keeping up with the trash collection. Days had come and gone and he had not so much as glanced at the dumpster. The truck had undoubtedly emptied it, taking many nights of digging away from Tony, but strangely enough he didn't care. All that was on the table now was the crinkled manila envelope with an undeveloped roll of film and a ten crunched inside.
Postage was going to be a problem. Tony never got much mail himself so he never bothered to see what postage cost these days, nor when the carrier actually made his or her rounds. He figured he could take a dollar bill and a small note instructing the postman to get the thing delivered. That would cause too many holes. Tony would have to purchase postage and mail it off just like other people. This was a problem too. Tony didn't own a car. He didn't even know where the nearest post office was. Once again he looked in his old telephone book for the addresses of nearby offices and found one close enough to walk. This would be the first time Tony had been farther than the market, almost two miles out. This took days to decide but Tony finally ventured from the stoop out into the sunny streets into the world beyond his usual, and down the road where places still existed that he once took pictures of.
It was not such a bad walk and Tony's legs still carried him past the market to the post office. He lingered before the door for close to an hour before entering the building. He was out of breath from the walk and the pack of cigarettes he'd smoked just that morning. Once inside he waited in line and watched the people that came and went. There was a man in a business suit with large packages just ahead of him. Out in the vestibule there were some people checking their PO boxes, and right behind him was a mother and child waiting with brightly wrapped presents. Tony kept himself from looking back, but the child looked so happy and the impatient mother was bouncing foot to foot while she waited. She didn't notice Tony wave to the toddler who smiled back and flapped his hand back. The line moved and Tony stepped up to the nearest window.
"What can I do for you?" The lady seemed nice enough behind her counter as she weighed and charged Tony the eighty-three cents for postage. He slapped the sticker on the right hand corner of the envelope and prepared for the moment of truth with a deep wheezing breath as the lady pried the parcel from his grip and tossed it over her shoulder into a bin for outgoing mail. Now all Tony could do was wait.
He made the trip back to his apartment. Odd how commonplace the trip back from far away seems. The sights that were so alien now seemed normal. He stopped at the store for more chicken patties, box potatoes and cigarettes.
For weeks after this little trek Tony puzzled over the possibilities of the roll when he felt good, and the possibility of being caught in a parole violation when he felt bad. Every day he went to the mailbox after noting the times the carrier usually stopped to deliver. He'd never spent this much time awake during the daylight hours. Even before his own pictures sent him to prison he kept late hours working in his own darkroom on projects for local papers or magazines.
It took some time before the pictures arrived, which gave Tony time to focus on cleaning his own place up. Old tenants' trash now went back to the dumpster. His walls had slowly come back as he discarded all the old trash keeping only the current tenants on the table. He actually allowed himself to look down from his own window and watch the small children play football in the grass behind the complex. He never looked too long.
He was still bitter at all the trouble caused by his pictures. Children played by the pool in order to remember the womb, he thought. That's why he took a waterproof camera into the deep end to photograph the swimmers as they plunged into the water from the board. At night Tony himself swam into the deep end with goggles and twirled around pretending to be back within his mother in the dark suspension.
When children dive into the water, clothing has a way of slipping off or pulling free; reminding us of its unnaturalness within the watery stomach of the pool. When Tony was asked about them he said they were merely candid shots that he in no way planned to use for his or anyone else's pleasure. The trouble started with a young girl whose top came off when she dove into the pool. Tony snapped pictures without thinking and the girl became distraught at the idea of her newly found body being photographed so openly. Tony never once thought of anything besides the innocence of the whole ordeal. Parents got involved and Tony was barred from the pool, but that was not enough. An inquiry was launched and all his pictures were seized.
They made a strong case and Tony didn't have a good lawyer.
He was a model prisoner however and he was paroled after three years. It was inside that he learned to keep to himself and always know who's living around you. He was never allowed to take or develop pictures again.
The envelope of pictures arrived on a Tuesday. Tony felt relieved that the process worked and he was now in the clear of any wrongdoing. After clearing the table Tony placed the small envelope in the middle of the table and fixed himself something to eat. All while eating he stared at the parcel. There it was. After weeks of agonizing and waiting it was finally here. Tony had never given much thought to what was actually pictured. He looked around the room and saw the freshly cleaned walls and the space he now had left. It had now been over a month since anything new had been taken from the dumpster.
Tony waited another five sleepless nights before opening the parcel. He smelled the paper and felt the glossy finish before opening his eyes to see what was on the pictures. His heart was exploding inside and he could feel the blood pumping through his veins into his taut temples.
Tony opened his eyes.
The sickness rose from his stomach in one awesome spasm. In one moment the stink from years of waste descended down upon him in wave after wave of nausea. In each frame his own movements in and out of the dumpster were recorded like an animation flip book. He enters and exits the brown box with things in his hands and looks left and then right. The images held the sight of some sunken monster turned gray and skeletal creeping from behind the dumpster out into the light of the parking lot. The last shot is of Tony standing back beneath the tree blowing smoke into the branches as perfect shafts of light cascade down upon him.
BIO: Andrew is an associate registrar and adjunct faculty member at a small college in Cincinnati, Ohio. His work has appeared at Xenith, Work Literary Magazine and Streetlight Literary Magazine. His first novel is currently under consideration, and he is nearly finished with a second. He lives with his wife Kristen and their cat Mia.