Hey, everyone! Here to promote his new collection THINGS YOU NEED is my friend Kevin Lucia, who brings us a glimpse into the world of Clifton Heights, NY and one of it’s residents Gavin Patchett…
The Sidewalk Scavenger
I don’t know if the same phenomenon exists in your town, but “sidewalk shoppers” are fairly common here in Clifton Heights. A kind of code exists among us: items placed on the sidewalk the night before garbage pickup are fair game for anyone looking for something they need. In fact, some people make a point of setting out decent, lightly used items they don’t want or need anymore, simply for this purpose.
Back when they were first married, my parents did a fair amount of sidewalk shopping. Dad has recounted several times how his first apartment after graduating from Webb Community College was furnished entirely from items found on the curb. He and Mom have often waxed nostalgic about how, within their first month of marriage, they found our first dinning room set on the curb, along with two recliners and a television dolly, all at separate locations, within the space of several weeks.
Mom’s hobby was restoring old pieces of furniture and selling them (she’d make a killing a today on Ebay). I remember, as a child, riding around Clifton Heights with my parents in Dad’s truck during the summer months, one week bringing home a coffee table, the next an old china cabinet, or an end table or nightstand. Mom would strip the item down to the wood, re-varnish and finish it, then sell it either to Save-A-Bunch Furniture (a used furniture store housed in an old high school out on the edge of town; I’ve always found that place terribly unsettling, for some reason), to Handy’s Pawn and Thrift, or she’d sell directly to folks around town.
Like everything else in Clifton Heights, however, for everything bright, sunny, and normal, a shadow side also exists. I myself have sidewalk-shopped occasionally (once I found one of those cheap pressed-wood bookcases – brand new – standing outside a house on Hyland Avenue), and so have several of my friends. Other folks, however, don’t sidewalk-shop, so much as they sidewalk scavenge.
These folks aren’t looking for free items they need or materials they intend to use (when Chris Baker was building a deck for his house, he, unbelievably enough, found a hundred dollars-worth of treated lumber neatly stacked for garbage pickup on the curb of Theiser Avenue), so much as they’re looking for metal which can be scavenged and turned in for money at our scrap metal processing yard, Greene’s Recycling.
It’s not uncommon to see, every Wednesday evening (the night before garbage pickup), the same trucks and minivans prowling around town, filled to the brim with old grills, filing cabinets, boxes of old pots and pans, copper pipe, bags of wire, old bed frames or metal folding chairs, or anything else metal, which is then turned into Greene’s for cash the next day.
Please understand I’m not disparaging anyone who collects scrap metal. In fact, the shadow side I’m talking about are not the sidewalk scavengers, though I’m sure I lead you to believe that, just now. No, there’s a shadow side to both shoppers and scavengers…and that’s those who don’t seem to be collecting anything at all.
They just drive. Endlessly around town, Wednesday night. They stop before countless houses, searching through items left on the curb, with a distant, lost look in their eyes. And yet, no matter how much they look, or how many houses they stop at…they never seem to find anything. They never manage to find what they need – whatever that is – and they get back into their cars or trucks or old minivans, drive off, and keep searching.
Forever, it seems.
After I recovered from the tragedy with Emma Pital, after I dried out and got sober, I left my duplex (which had never really become a home, honestly), and finally moved into the family cabin on Clifton Lake, like my Mom and Dad (who now live in Florida, enjoying retirement, golf, and nicer weather) had always wanted.
In the process of moving my stuff in and arranging things the way I’d wanted, I put several pieces of furniture and small appliances at the end of my driveway for garbage pickup. Some old kitchen table chairs, a recliner whose springs were shot long ago, two rickety end tables, and a twenty-year old microwave that was five times the size of my current one. I also got rid of a rusted old filing cabinet, and a box of random tools Dad had for some reason collected in the garage over the years.
Believe it or not, I also put boxes of books out on the sidewalk, but they weren’t novels or anything like that. They were thirty-year old accounting textbooks, from when Mom was studying to be an accountant. Plus some other nonfiction titles, flavor-of-the-month type books like diet books, self-esteem and positive thinking books, books about stock investments, or health and fitness books. Knowing well the sidewalk shopper code, even though Clifton Lake was a little off the beaten path, I arranged everything neatly, so if anyone should stop by, they wouldn’t have to paw through an untidy pile in their search for whatever they thought they needed.
That was the first time I saw him. Not a sidewalk shopper, or even a sidewalk scavenger looking for metal, but someone else. I was sitting on the front porch, Pepsi in my hand, composition notebook and pen lying on the deck, ready and waiting for me to start sketching out the first few stories of Things Slip Through, when he pulled up to the end of my driveway in his old Dodge Caravan.
Like I’ve seen so many others do, he hopped out of his van, approached the collection of things I’d left at the end of my driveway, and proceeded to methodically and efficiently pick through items, looking for whatever it was he needed.
At first I didn’t pay much attention. I took a drink from my Pepsi, set it down on the deck, grabbed my composition notebook and pen, and started toying with a Lovecraftian story of the time my friends and I were messing around in Old Bassler House, the abandoned Victorian farmhouse on the other side of town. I quickly got lost in the story, and forgot about the man.
After about twenty or thirty minutes, however, it occurred to me I hadn’t heard his van pull away. Figuring I’d just gotten too caught up in my writing, I glanced up, and to my great surprise, saw his Dodge Caravan still idling at the end of the driveway, him still standing over my discarded wares. Not searching through them, just standing, staring, his hands slack at his sides.
Curious, as well as concerned, (and, admittedly, intrigued, also), I set down my writing materials, dismounted the porch, and casually walked toward him. I remember feeling the need to walk slowly and cautiously for some reason, so I wouldn’t startle him, or scare him away. Like he was a wild animal that would bolt if I approached too quickly.
At the time, I didn’t understand the instinct, and even now, I’m not sure if I understand it any better. Regardless, the comparison to skittish wild animals is remarkably apt. I’ve also come to realize that, in many ways, I committed a breach of etiquette that day. While conversation between home owners and sidewalk-shoppers is completely acceptable, there is no conversation with people like this man. We put our things on the curb or at the end of our driveways, and they come, after we leave. That, I think, is supposed to be the extent of our interaction.
I didn’t know that, however, the day I approached him. The look of muted panic on his face spoke volumes, however, when he turned a wide-eyed gaze on me when I neared him. “Evening,” I said, tone casual and light. “Looking for anything in particular? Don’t suppose you’re thinking of taking up accounting, because if so…this is your night.”
He looked up from my detritus and stared at me wordlessly, eyes wide and unfocused. Several seconds passed, during which I noticed his hands twitching slightly at his sides.
“Hey – everything all right? I don’t mean to pry, but you don’t look so good.”
His mouth moved, but no sound came out. Finally, his eyes seemed to focus a little. He coughed and said in a weak, tremulous voice, “No…no. I’m fine. I thought…thought I saw something I needed…but I was mistaken.”
He said nothing more. Just turned, walked stiffly to his idling Dodge Caravan, and without another glance at me, got in and drove away.
I stood at the end of the driveway for several minutes, watching the old minivan leave. Something about the man’s gaze had unsettled me. As I mentioned, it was like watching a startled animal poised on the edge of flight. I thought – and today, I still believe this to be true – the man had teetered on the edge of hysteria the entire time.
Also, he’d looked terribly lost. Distant. As if he wasn’t quite sure where he was, or what he was doing. That, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d been lying. That he had been interested in something I’d put out for garbage pickup, but what it could’ve been, I had no idea.
Ten minutes later I’d returned to the front porch and was sitting in my chair, notepad and pen in hand. Instead of working on that story about Bassler House, however, I found myself writing aimlessly about a man driving around town in an old Dodge Caravan, looking for something he couldn’t seem to find, something he didn’t understand, or even know.
For some reason, I didn’t sleep well that night. The thought – of someone driving around Clifton Heights forever, locked in some kind of tortured loop, looking for something they needed but was doomed never to find – kept me tossing and turning the whole night. That, and I woke several times, sure I heard a car idling softly at the end of my driveway. I felt convinced the man in the Dodge Caravan had returned, and was looking over the things at the end of the driveway, for something he needed. The three or four times I got up to look, however, I saw nothing there.
The next morning, I woke before garbage pickup, dressed in sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt, walked to the end of my driveway and looked over the items I’d set out. It looked like everything was there, but even so: I felt, deep inside, something was missing. That the man had indeed returned in the middle of the night and found what he was looking for, thought I couldn’t tell what was missing, if anything.
Over the next few weeks, on Wednesday nights, I began seeing that same Dodge Caravan everywhere. Either driving ahead of me, turning around a corner, parked at the end of a cul-de-sac, or idling along a curb, beside items piled up for garbage pickup. When I’ve driven past it parked along the curb, I haven’t seen the driver. Either I passed just after he’d gotten back in, or he somehow knew I was driving past, and was waiting for me to continue on my way before he got out.
He isn’t scavenging for metal. He isn’t looking an end table, a book shelf, or leftover lumber. My theory? He’s desperately looking for something, but he doesn’t know what. Why he’s looking for it, I don’t know. Nor can I imagine what he does when he isn’t slowly driving around the streets of Clifton Heights, looking for something he can’t find. Where does he live? Eat? Sleep? Does he sleep? Or is he always driving? Is it always Wednesday for him?
Also? No one seems to notice he’s there. People walk by his parked minivan without a second glance. Though I’ve yet to actually see him looking over the junk left on sidewalks, I believe that if pedestrians happened by as he was conducting his search, they’d walk right past, as if he wasn’t there. I also believe that, if I mentioned him to Sheriff Baker or Father Ward, both would give me a puzzled look and say they’ve never seen him, either.
Why did I see him? Why do I keep seeing him? (I do, every Wednesday night) I don’t know. All I can think is that, for some reason, something caught my attention when he stopped at the end of my driveway, and because I crossed a line and not only approached him but also spoke to him, I now see him everywhere. See his van, anyway. I’ve yet to see him again. Another crazy thought?
For some reason, I feel like, if I ever do see him again…I’ll suddenly recognize him. I’ll know who he is, and know why he’s trapped, forever driving his Dodge Caravan around the streets of Clifton Heights on Wednesday nights. I don’t think I want that, at all.
And some nights, I swear – in that hazy twilight between waking and sleeping – I hear a car idling at the end of my driveway. But every time I get up to look, there’s nothing there.
Clifton Heights, NY
“This is sophisticated adult fiction. With an edge. At times, the book virtually becomes folklore: clever, witty, elegant folklore, with a sting – many stings – including moments of iconic dread.” – Robert Dunbar, Bram Stoker Award Winning Author of THE PINES and WILLY