Penniless, With Paperbacks

Chaz plunged feet-first into the dumpster. He was just above six feet tall, so he stuck up from the half empty bin like a golf flag. He disappeared for an instant as he bent down and picked up a heavy cardboard box, then reappeared as he rose to toss it out. Box after box landed at my feet until finally we found the gold: a bag of sandwiches, pretzels, and a variety of desserts. Earlier that day I was on a register shift at the bookstore when one of the baristas from the café approached and made a purchase.“Hey,” I said, “What happens to all the leftover food at the end of the day?”

“We throw most of it out.”

“What if you, I don’t know, bagged it up all nice and left it so someone could take it later?”

“What, you mean like take it from the dumpster?”

I tapped my nose and gave her the you-got-it-sister finger point.

“I could do that,” she said.

Hours later, on a humid summer night, I pulled my Taurus behind the store and shut off my headlights. Chaz and I opened our doors and the treasure hunt began.

Neither of us made much money and therefore had little to spend on food, which meant we certainly didn’t have enough for luxury items such as books. This was a trip of necessity. So when the bag of goodies landed at my feet, I immediately tore it open to see what we’d be going home with. But what I saw made my heart feel like it had tripped over a root.

“Uh, Chaz?” I said.

He looked at me with feral eyes and a childlike grin.

“You jumped right on top of the food.”

They say our howls of heartbreak could be heard throughout the fields, and that to this day, on humid summer nights, a whisper of an echo can still be perceived on the most silent Iowa plains.

“I’m so sorry,” Chaz said. “Maybe we can still eat it?”

“I don’t think so.” I held up the bag so that he could peer into it. Everything was smashed. The raspberry cheesecake had bonded to the roast beef and ciabatta sandwiches, and the coffee cake–oh! the coffee cake. There was nothing salvageable. We tossed the bag back from whence it came.

“What’s in all these boxes?” Chaz asked. There were about six of them and the edges had cracked opened when he threw them out. I bent down to inspect one and said, “Ohmygod, man, it looks like books.”

In case we missed other treasures, we glanced in the dumpster once more. We found an old paper cutter, a frayed extension cord, and, inexplicably, a giant, inflatable sombrero. We loaded our find into my car and took the freeway home. On the short, fifteen minute drive, our voices squeaked with excitement. Food would have been nice, but this was like getting steak when you expected meatloaf. The moment we stopped in the driveway, we took the boxes up to my room and rummaged through everything. There were a couple boxes of magazines, but everything else was small, mass market paperbacks. The front covers had been torn off and the bodies discarded as if they were pieces of spoiled meat. There were sci-fi, mystery, and thriller novels. But my favorite was by far the inadvertently humorous collection of short stories wholly devoted to vampire erotica.

“Dude, check this out,” I said and proceeded to read a scene involving blood, teeth, kisses, and fingernails. (This was before the whole Twilight phenomenon, so the fact that something like this existed was quite the shock–a hilarious, surrealistic shock.)

Chaz and I spread our collection across the floor like kids do with presents on Christmas morning. This was not what we expected, but we welcomed the surprise. Two English majors had found the equivalent of Cortez’s lost gold. We had barely enough money to afford groceries, but here we had a summer of entertainment. Sure, some of the books we didn’t plan to read at all, but that didn’t matter. We had a library of books upon books upon books!

In the following days, our friends came over and browsed our collection and took anything they fancied. (One of the first things to go was that kick ass sombrero.) We were the soup kitchen of books. Anytime someone stopped by for a visit we showed them the boxes and I made sure to show them the tales of sexy vampires, but few shared my enthusiasm for the amalgamation of sex, blood, and gratuitous kitsch. These books to us were like our children and we loved showing them off.

A few weeks later we went back to the dumpster to see if there were more valuables for us to plunder, but someone must have caught on to our scheme. The lid was chained and padlocked. But that didn’t matter. Back home we still had our books, stacked neatly in little pyres like an offering to the literature gods.


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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