Dorothy plucked another plastic bottle from the dumpster behind the Classic Town Mall. The bottle still held three quarters of its brown-colored fluid and her cheap trigger-handled claw slipped and let it drop. Damn kids can’t finish what they buy. She tried again and this time used two hands to pinch it and releasing it to fall to the pavement.
“What do you think, Rosie?” she whispered to no one. “I should water the bushes with this tooth-rot?” She didn’t wait for a reply. Using rubber gloves, she picked up the bottle and waddled over to the concrete barrier where she dumped the Coke into the dirt on the far side. With the bottled stuffed into a plastic bag, she returned to her collecting.
It was the day after Christmas and the weather had finally turned cold. Thirty years ago there’d be snow a foot deep. ‘Uh course, I wouldn’t be caught dead back then, pickin’ trash. I’d have organized a contest, a class drive. Rosie was such a clever child. She would have won, I’m sure.
From the top of the pile in the bin she mechanically selected a paper sack and within found a half eaten carton of french-fries. She opened her coat and dropped a limp fry into the waiting mouth of Rosie the rat who’d perked up from her deep pocket. “Too many of those’ll get you fat, my dear.” The rat busied herself with feeding the morsel into her mouth. Dorothy watched the delicate way the rodent’s hands worked at the food.
Next to the loading dock, at the back of the tall, cream-colored building, a door opened and a big man, hair like a monk, a center round of pale skin reflecting the light from within, called out to the woman, “Dorothy, it’s damn chilly out today, why don’t you come in ‘n sit a spell? I’ve got coffee.” He paused and took in the bloated bag of recyclables. “Set your bag near the door, no one will bother it this early.”
When she heard the door open, Dorothy lowered her claw and gathered the neck of the bag in her hand readying for a slow, if determined flight. The familiar voice of Sam, the mall manager, a student from her past as a primary school teacher, eased her mind and cancelled her travel plans. “You promise?” she asked, more like a statement.
Sam pushed the door wide in response.
“How’s the pickin’s these days?” Sam had directed her to his well-ordered office, a couple of industrial-looking chairs, pulled away from the wall provided a congenial arrangement for conversation.
“Like you care.” Dorothy sat, back straight as if awaiting immediate orders to leave.
Sam poured and offered her a cup, double sugared. “Come now, Ms. Dorothy, relax. You know I don’t hold a grudge.”
The old school teacher narrowed her eyes as she watched Sam doctor her coffee just the way she liked it. “You been spying on me?”
“Ms. Dorothy, it’s me, Samuel Corey, the kid who could balance a yardstick…”
“Sam, shush now. The classroom is no place for your tricks.” Dorothy patted her pockets finding them to her liking, soft or rigid, depending on their contents. When she came to her left breast-pocket the rat squirmed beneath her touch. “Rosie did always laugh at your antics.” She opened her coat and dipped her hand to pet the docile animal. “She had the strangest sense, though. Loved the rain and the rumble of thunder.”
Sam drained his cup. “I’ve got some cookies in my lunch, would you like one or two for your friend there?”
Dorothy drifted on. “She always did follow her own voice.” The woman laughed and tapped her cup, now empty. “Tadpoles in my favorite coffee mug. ‘Oh, they were gonna die in the heat, Ms. Dorothy,’ she’d say.
“She was just a tadpole herself, poor thing. I told her the waters had come up. I insisted I should drive her home. She was always so confident. ‘I’m almost a grown woman, Ms. Dorothy,’ she’d say. Grown woman, ha. She was barely, barely…”
“I’ve got to unlock the doors to the mall. Why don’t you sit here and have another cup. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Dorothy blinked nostalgia from her eyes and looked around, suspicious. “Who are you? Where are my things? Where are my gottdamn—precious possessions?”
Sam led his old school teacher back through the rear door to where her bag of bottles and cans lay undisturbed. “Here are a couple of treats for your friend. Don’t spend too much time out in the cold, now. The weather looks fit to snow.”
Dorothy held out her hands expectantly and tucked the cookies into an already bulging pocket. “Rosie, Sammie has treats for you.” With her bag dragging behind her, she turned and said, “Sammie, don’t let that head-strong girl walk home alone, ya hear? The clouds hide their malicious intent and will not rest until they take, they take…” Dorothy’s pedantic description petered to mumbling as she lifted her head to the grey skies. “Storm’s comin’. Need to take, yes, yes. Need to take care.”
Sam returned inside, but caught a glimpse of Dorothy shuffling across the backstreet to the dumpster behind the grocery store. He watched as she paused and appeared to speak to no one. Looking up he noticed a snowflake drift down to land and melt on top of the rusted lid of the garbage container.