Neighbors, tires and trash

I wrote this little meandering half nonfiction/half fiction thing yesterday after finishing reading Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen. I guess I got a little infected with her sort of flatly stated but descriptive and fanciful, almost stream-of-consciousness (not like Ulysses, but sort of “this thought leads into this thought that may not follow the point exactly”) style. Unlike her stuff, there’s no surrealism or magic-realism in this. It’s not that fanciful either. I was playing around with the repetition thing that Chuck Palahniuk talks about a lot, and the periodic focusing on small details in a slice-of-life little story mainly about nails in tires, garbage, people doing things half-assed and people just not caring about how what they do affects others. I’m not quite satisfied with the title or the ending (I didn’t really know how to end it), and I guess plotwise it doesn’t go much of anywhere, but it was fun to write and fun to take paragraphs and rearrange them like puzzle pieces until it felt more or less right. It’s always interesting to take something or at least a few details from my actual life and make them somewhat interesting. I haven’t posted anything in ages (and haven’t really written much new aside from journal entries in ages) so I figured I’d stick it up here in case anyone was bored.

It was the summer everyone started finding roofing nails in their car tires. We were the first, finding the nail in the right rear tire of my husband’s car. He thought it was a rock clicking along the road, picked up on one of the dirt road detours he drove on the way to and from work. He was looking for the pebble to pry it out until his carpool buddy said, “Dude, that’s a nail.”

It didn’t deflate, at least not enough to notice much, and not enough to have to change the tire before I drove it to the towing company in town that also did auto maintenance and repair. “It’s losing air now,” said the affable guy with the ready, small-town friendly smile once he pulled the nail out. I had told him when I called that I had a nail but the tire wasn’t losing air so I could drive it over. Now I could hear the hiss. He patched the hole, charged me $8 and handed me the nail, its flat head as wide across as half of the middle bone of my pinkie finger. That’s what kept the air in, like a plug.

“He could have picked it up anywhere,” the man told me. I thought of the somewhat crummy apartment building his carpool buddy lived in, the many roads through many towns to work. I thought of the bolt I picked up in my tire on a state highway going 55 miles per hour. Anything can fall off a truck, especially a trash truck.

The trash guys didn’t care what fell out when they tipped the dumpster up into their truck. It was like a toddler dumping a cup of Cheerios into his mouth, whatever didn’t fit bouncing around, lying on the ground. No one cleaned anything up. The shards of a shattered coffee mug, flat brown glaze and white clay, littered the area around my car for months. Glass glittered in the sun. I hoped none of the neighbor kids ran around barefoot.

The neighbor kids throw soda cans into the woods from their balcony. They leave clothes out on the dirt fire road behind the building to turn into sodden piles in the rain. They take apart the log fence, just repaired and painted last summer, gouged by the plow, they take it apart and build a log cabin on the dead lawn. It sits there for a few days before they reassemble the fence, looking worse than before. They hang out in their basement; I saw them in there when I glanced over, driving by with my car to put the bikes in from our basement. I went out on our rotten, moss-and-weed-growing, sketchy untrustworthy balcony one day and saw they had a couch back there, pushed against the concrete wall. The couch has no cushions.

I hear them setting off firecrackers at night, or shooting BB guns. I hear them shouting to one another as they scramble down the embankment to the swamp, shouldering an ancient green canoe. I hear them cackling out back in the rain as thunder cracks overhead. Some mornings I hear one of them playing electric guitar, faintly unless I’m outside, wailing away like Eddie Van Halen in one of his masturbatory guitar solos. We like that phrase but we can’t remember where we heard it. It fits. Some horny teenage dude finger-fucking a guitar, making it wail. The kid sounds good. I throw up the horns at the end unit, the unit closest to the dumpster, even though the front bedroom is the master and there’s no way that’s his bedroom. I extend my pinkie and index finger, fold the ring and middle ones under my thumb. I want to yell “Freebird!” but it’s a douchey thing to do, so I don’t. I don’t want to hear Freebird anyway. Freebird is a lame song. I don’t know why anyone asks for it. I want to tell him somehow that I like his guitar playing, but how? I don’t even know which kid it is. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him, or how old he is, if he’s a teenager or a college kid. He could be going to the university down the road and across the pond. How funny if his whole family moved here just so he could go to that university and not live on campus. I’ve heard of it happening. It sounds like a perfectly helicopter-parental thing to do.

Electric guitar is better than the kid playing the recorder. We heard someone practicing the same three notes on the recorder for an hour one night and it drove us nuts.


The dumpster is always full when I take out the trash. I don’t know how my neighbors buy so much stuff, throw so much stuff away. There are always boxes: children’s plastic playsets for the yard they don’t have. Air conditioners and televisions. One day I came home and a loveseat was upended in the dumpster, a couch beside it on the ground because I guess it didn’t fit. I took a picture and posted it on Twitter, that’s how much I couldn’t believe it. #isthisreallife? I waited for trash pickup to see if they’d take the loveseat out, but it was gone, the dumpster empty, when I saw it next. Emboldened by this, they started throwing away more big things: entire mattresses, folding tables, a stack of four patio chairs.

Add to this the construction garbage the landlord let his guys dump in whichever dumpster of whichever of the three or four townhouse complexes they choose. Two days after trash pickup I’ll go out with my one bag of kitchen trash and the dumpster will be bulging. The top flaps won’t close. There will be rolls of filthy carpet, of fiberglass insulation pink like toxic cotton candy. Sheets of dusty drywall, whole windows. The couch is behind the dumpster, pushed out of sight as if it was the same as throwing it away. All because no one wanted to pay a dump fee.

We wondered if there was some sort of small-town mafia deal going on here. Why else would the local waste removal company take whatever could fit in the dumpster? Like the post office flat rate boxes: if it fits, it ships. This after another place we lived, where if someone threw a soda can into the newspaper recycling bin, the sanitation company wouldn’t take any of the garbage and leave passive-aggressive notices explaining why.

We’d heard the landlord was crooked. The townhouse we lived in, it was supposed to be student housing for the university across the pond. It was built with grant money. He kicked the students out claiming they trashed the places, and remodeled them. Put in whirlpool tubs, hardwood floors, granite countertops. His and hers marble sinks in the upstairs bathrooms. Fake wainscoting made by gluing lengths of decorative molding to the wall and painting over it. He tried to sell them and the state told him no. So now they’re rented out. Water seeps into the basement from a corner of the wall whenever it rains, pooling under the stairs. The kitchen drawers are only two inches deep and all my spoons and spatulas get tangled up and jammed. Landscaping barely gets done aside from mowing the dead lawn, whacking some stray weeds. Weeds grow up in front of our garage, around the concrete stoop, and if I want them gone I have to put on my gardening gloves and dig them up with my little garden claw-rake tool. Branches from the tree or shrub planted too close to the building grow across our garage door, and I go out with titanium shears to hack them off so we can drive out of the garage without scraping the car, and get out of the driver’s side door without thrusting our heads up into bee-laden blossoms. The landlords never come by to see the neighbors parking against the fence across from the driveways like they’re not supposed to, or jamming the back dirt fire road with cars. One time I took a bunch of pictures of cars blocking the fire road, blocking driveways, parking everywhere but in the parking spaces (there were plenty of parking spaces, there always were). I printed the photos out and sent them anonymously with a type-written note about all the things the neighbors get away with. I never saw anything change, no notices scrolled up and tucked between the doorknob and the door frame, reminding anyone of the rules. There’s not a lot I hate more than when people get away with breaking the rules.


A couple weeks later, the tire pressure warning light came on in my car for the left front tire. 26 PSI out of the normal 32. My stomach clenched and I got down on my hands and knees on the warm, moist concrete, sand and pebbles biting into my knees, and listened for a hiss. I thought I heard it but my husband didn’t. I looked for a flat, gray disc of metal a bit smaller than a dime, but I didn’t see anything but pebbles stuck in my treads. The next day, I decided, I’d find it flat and either try to change the tire myself or call the towing place in town for a $30 tire change and drive it to them to get the tire patched for another eight dollars.

The next day the sensor and my tire pressure gauge still read 26. As I drove it to the gas station it rose: 26, 27, 28. I pulled up next to a woman with her hood propped open, a funnel stuck in her oil pipe, a child of maybe ten dancing around her. I glanced at her, almost said, “Car trouble going around?” but didn’t. Instead I fed quarters into the air machine and spent maybe 30 seconds of my allotted 3 minutes pumping air into my left front tire. When I was done, I couldn’t find the valve cap and panicked before spotting it right where I set it, gray and blending into the worn asphalt.

The next day I checked my sensors: still at 32. I figured maybe it was a very slow leak. I had this problem with at least one tire with every set of tires I’ve owned. The first time it was a sensor for my tire pressure monitoring system, corroded enough to let a tiny bit of air leak out. My sensors also go nuts the first really cold morning of winter, because of the air contracting in the tires. They usually warm up to normal as I drive, as the air inside warms up from friction, as the day warms up. If my tire pressure is diving at noontime in August then there’s something wrong.


It was the summer they decided to paint the facades of all the units. Just the fronts, the sides still bleached vinyl siding the color of a stone. It’s not like you couldn’t see the sides from the road, even. We wondered if the landlord finally got the okay to sell, if we’d be getting our eviction notices soon. We had no real lease and went month-to-month. But the rent hadn’t gone up in three years and we could leave anytime with a month’s notice.

They decided to paint the facades and apparently hired some random guy and his slow-witted teenage son. It took them weeks. They painted in swatches. The colors were much brighter than the original colors. Ours was the only unit with stained wood, and I swear they only stained the area around the door and big chandelier-displaying window and left the rest. They painted white trim and brushed white paint carelessly over the colored siding. They painted over our number. The weeds growing up in front of our garage were white with paint. The man asked me if it was supposed to rain this afternoon, and complained about the neighbors who didn’t move their cars and their grills and their children’s plastic playsets away from the building.

The way I found out about the painting was I left one day to go grocery shopping and found the guy power-washing the front. He had the power-washer hooked up to my outdoor spigot. If I paid for my own water I would have gone downstairs and twisted the yellow handle on the pipe perpendicular to the pipe. “Power washing, huh?” I asked casually.

“Washing, then paint,” he said, then told me he had to scrape the unit down the way by hand because they left their stuff in the driveway. “There’s a car in the driveway, there’s a light on. I knocked and no one answered.” I didn’t tell him we never got a notice. No mail, nothing tucked into the door, heaven forbid a phone call. Our landlords didn’t want to be landlords. They wanted to make a quick, shady buck, and now they’re stuck with us.

They painted the fronts through weeks of random rain, the man cursing at his clumsy son, cursing at the sky as they sat in their station wagon and waited for the rain to let up. After it rained, the front of our unit was as dark as if they’d actually stained it. They’d painted some of our trim and over our number but white paint still peeled from our threshold where he’d power-washed it off. There were bottle caps and wrappers and cigarettes all around our stoop. I picked up all but the cigarettes and took them to the dumpster. In the dumpster I saw an entire tomato plant, my neighbor’s. It still had red tomatoes on it. The pot it was in was a nice clay pot that she didn’t even save. I wondered if it was some kind of infestation or if the white paint slop had gotten it.

It was trash pickup day but they hadn’t come and picked up the trash yet. It was already mid-afternoon; usually they came in the morning. The flaps on top didn’t close, propped up by piles of kitchen trash bags on top of boxes for shelving units and desks, on top of probably a fully-assembled dining table or a refrigerator. Under that maybe a pile of PVC pipes and a stack of cabinet doors.

I saw something gray and almost blending into the faded asphalt as I walked away and bent to pick it up. A roofing nail. I wondered if there were sheaves of tar paper and stacks of shingles in the dumpster under the box for a crib and bundles of faded, ripped duvets. My husband had driven his car past the dumpster to the back dirt fire road to load kayaks on the car. He’d parked my car a few spaces away from the dumpster when we came home late and he couldn’t park in the driveway because his car was already parked in the driveway.

He usually parks in the garage. The only thing in the garage besides his car is a portable grill, one and a half bags of organic moisture-control potting soil, four or so thin plastic plant pots they sell plants in, a small gardening hand rake claw tool thing, a small gardening spade, two snow shovels, a short aluminum bucket full of dirt for the driveway in winter, a billion cellar spiders hanging from lazy webs, a welcome-mat sized swatch of carpet, and a broken AC unit. You’d think that, emboldened by our neighbors’ daring, we’d spirit the AC into the dumpster one night, but we never remember unless we see another huge thing in there, and then there is no room.

We’re the only ones who use our garage as a garage. No one needs a lawn mower. Their grills are all outside on their driveways. They all have entire unfinished basements to store all their crap, and they still can’t fit a car in a garage.

One year we had neighbors who turned their garage into a bar for their friends. They put an inflatable pool, one of the big eight-foot ones, in their driveway. They built a framework that fit into the garage doorway, all screened and with a screen door. The landlords never come by or maybe they got the okay because it was a temporary fixture they could remove at any time. They built wooden garden boxes and lined their driveway with them, growing peppers and tomatoes and lettuce. We thought this all meant they planned to stay for a long time, but they left a few months later, and we’re still here.


A week later my PSI was back down to 27 so I drove to the towing company/auto repair place and the friendly guy from last time pulled out a roofing nail, patched the hole, and charged me $8. My neighbor was there too, the only one I ever talked to, the one with the tomatoes. I don’t know her name but she’s older than us. She might be the age of our parents. She used to come out with a cigarette while I was on the porch, still in my chef whites with my knife kit on the concrete stoop, watering and picking at my two pots of scallions and dead-heading the pansies my sister gave me for my graduation from culinary school. I told my neighbor she could snip scallions any time she wanted, because they were growing like crazy and I had way more than I needed. She pointed out her basil and tomatoes and peppers and said I could take what I wanted anytime. I never did and she never did. It felt too much like stealing, even if we told each other it was okay. I wish I’d taken those tomatoes before the plant ended up in the dumpster, though maybe they were full of worms or covered in paint.

My neighbor had a nail in her tire too, a nail with a flat head half an inch wide. We chatted while her tire hissed and the friendly repair guy worked away at patching it. She talked to the neighbors I never talked to and said they’d all had problems with the roofing nails too. One of the kids in the end unit closest to the dumpster foolishly pulled a nail out of his tire as soon as he found it. The tire, of course, quickly went flat and he had to change it and drive with his flat tire in his back seat to the towing company/auto repair guys to get it patched. The rest of us, adults, wiser and older, knew to leave the nail in as a plug and save us the trouble of changing the tire.

We are so lucky we have a place ten minutes away who will patch tires for us at $8 apiece, I told her. The new tire store on the edge of town didn’t seem to have time for squeezing in small stuff in between bigger jobs. I called them and asked the morning I had my husband’s tire to deal with, and they said come back in the late afternoon. I had places to be that day. I told them I might call back. Then I called here instead. I don’t know why I call the guys on the edge of town anymore, I said. They’re young guys, younger than both of us, and they just keep fucking up. They always fix the fuckup, usually by not charging me after all, but they always fuck up first. And now they don’t understand business. They could get and keep loyal customers if they were willing to do a small job in between, and even make more money that way. I wondered aloud how long they would last.

“Why roofing nails? They’re not redoing the roof, are they? I thought they were painting,” my neighbor wondered.

I told her how our landlady explained to us, while showing us the unit $200 a month more expensive than ours because of the hardwood floors and granite countertops, that her husband let his guys dump their construction garbage in the residential dumpsters. “God forbid someone gets a nail in their foot,” my neighbor said. She teased the repair man for coming by and sowing our parking lot with roofing nails. “Not me,” he said, but laughed good-naturedly.

“No really, it must be bringing you good business,” she said. She said my husband had told her to come here. Whenever my husband and I walk out of the house together, she says hi to him but not me. I hear him talking to her sometimes as he’s coming in the door, but when I come out to greet him, she’s disappeared. Sometimes I go out to water my scallions and pansies or to clip bunches of scallions to freeze, and no one is out there, but then I hear a door shut, as if someone was coming out but saw me and changed their mind. Sometimes I go outside and I smell cigarette smoke but don’t see her, like she’s become a nicotine ghost.

She has a son, or anyway a guy lives there who looks like a teenager or twenty-something, and I know she’s mentioned “my son” to me before. Sometimes when I go out to get the mail he’s taking out the garbage. I wonder what he thinks about the dumpster situation. I wonder if he’s friends with the kids on the end, if he sits on their damp, cushion-less couch and listens to one of them play electric guitar while they all throw soda cans off the balcony into the woods.

I never see the neighbor kids out front unless they’re taking out garbage or getting the mail or driving off in their cars but I wonder if they’re out there smashing mugs, strewing roofing nails around like malevolent pixies. I don’t know why they would do that, but I don’t know why someone would take apart a fence and make a log cabin, or why someone would leave clothes in the mud out back, or why someone would throw a whole couch in a dumpster, or only make kitchen drawers two inches deep with a four inch front, or only paint well enough that it looks good from the road. I don’t know why so few people seem to care about breaking the rules, and why they get away with it.


~ by Amber on August 26, 2015.

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