Trashload This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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     I plan my time carefully: 10 minutes to bike from the park to the tree, 15 minutes to clean up the tree, five minutes to get home by the time I promised my mother.

Armed with two bags, I lean my bike against the "Stop Ahead" sign and trudge through the dead leaves of the suburban neighborhood. Before me is Big Tree, so named by my friend. It's enormous, with a thick, hollowed-out trunk and branches that reach low across the ground as well as up and out to shade the entire lot, twisted and smooth, a veritable jungle gym. It's a place where on Saturday afternoons children often play, swinging on ropes that hang from boughs.

It is also a dump. Paper cups from fast-food restaurants, candy wrappers, cardboard and more cover the ground. The tree hollow is worse, a nest for beer bottles and cans. The sight has always repulsed me. How can children play so near this? I resolve to clean it.

The work goes quickly, but soon it goes too fast. My first bag grows full and I haven't even gotten to the area around the tree. Quickly, I scavenge two more plastic grocery bags, but I am still worried. It looks as though I will be late getting home.

A car drives by. I keep my eyes down to avoid eye contact. I hate when people stare at me. Me, the crazy girl who's at that tree again like she is every weekend. What in the world is she doing? They pass, and I'm alone again, bending and picking up garbage. But it's not long before another car passes. This time, I find the courage to glare back, thinking, Hey, I'm here and I'm cleaning up your tree. I don't even live around here, but I figure this place should be clean. You have a problem with that?

Oh, horrors, the car pulls into the driveway next to the lot. I continue working, my head down. When I look up again, the passengers are gone and, to my relief, I am alone again.

But not quite. A few minutes later, my adrenaline-acute ears hear a front door slamming and footsteps. A man in a red plaid shirt and jeans appears at the edge of the lot, holding his own garbage bag and looking at me. All words slip from my tongue, but he steps to my rescue.

"You want some help?" he asks. Stupefied, I nod, then say, "Sure. Thank you." He joins me. We continue in silence, my face too red to say anything. Oh gosh, someone's actually helping me. It's nice, but a little embarrassing.

A minute later, the man's wife appears, toting a garbage bag. Next to her is another woman, a friend, and they're chatting merrily. Without a glance in my direction, they begin picking up Styrofoam and rotting cardboard as though they were on a Sunday outing. I don't know what to say. My peaceful solitude is broken, but these people are here to help me. And despite my shyness, I am glad.

Soon, more and more people arrive, bringing family and friends. Each gives me a little smile and a nod that I return, and then they turn to clear up as though they were at a party. It's quickly becoming one. Everyone is chatting and bumping into each other, saying things like, "I'm so glad this place is finally getting clean." One man climbs up to the knothole in the tree and tosses out the cans and bottles. Despite the trash and ugliness, everyone is smiling. With each new arrival, my spirits lift a little more, and my smile widens. I'm laughing with them now, so happy that I don't care I'm late getting home. People, ordinary people from this neighborhood, also care about this tree.

***

I come back to reality with a thud and survey the lonely lot. I've cleaned the bottom portion of the tree, but now I only have one bag for the cauldron-sized knothole at the top. I scramble up Big Tree and begin emptying the hole. An endless stream of beer cans and cigarette packs, plus a bottle of pills, pours forth ... I reach deep into the hole, then deeper, stretching half my body inside. And still there's more.

My hands slip, and I realize the ugly fact when I turn to survey my ever-growing pile: there's just too much garbage. I can't drag it all home. I have nowhere to go with it. My mother will be worried and angry. There are garbage cans in the houses nearby, but I'm too scared to ask. Besides, what kind of person rings a doorbell to give you trash?

After a long, wrenching debate with myself, I pack all the heavy bottles into one bag and start up the sidewalk. I peek in one edge of a driveway. A thin, well-dressed woman emerges and gazes at my curious examination.

"Can I help you?" she asks. Too late for me to turn back now.

"Um," I begin then quickly motion at my load, "I was picking up some trash around the tree - and I obviously can't take it all home. I-I was wondering if you could throw this away for me ... in your ..."

The woman walks over and peers into the bag I hold, all the bottles of booze.

"What's this, just trash?"

"Yeah."

"Okay." She takes it.

"Thanks."

I am red-faced, tense and ashamed when I hear young children clambering from the van asking, "What's that? What's that?"

"Just trash," I hear her answer. "Now, are you going to do what I told you about -"

I don't want to hear more. I want to run. I walk back toward the tree in a painful dream, wondering, What have I done? Given alcohol to a house with kids? That woman must hate me.

A branch runs its twigs through my hair. My hand moves to my head. The twigs wave gently in the breeze, dark lines against a blue sky. I look to the base of the tree where no filth remains. Big Tree is thanking me.

And finally, I smile.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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