The woman flops down on the bench and drops her trash bag between her feet. With elbows on knees and cheeks in hands, she stares at the sidewalk. Everything aches. Back. Legs. Neck. Her shoulder is stiff and her hands raw. All because of the sack. Oh to be rid of the garbage.
Unbroken clouds form a gray ceiling, gray with a thousand sorrows. Soot-stained buildings cast long shadows, darkening passageways and the people in them. Drizzle chills the air and muddies the rivulets of the street gutters. The woman collects her jacket. A passing car drenches the sack and splashes her jeans. She doesn’t move. Too tired. Her memories of life without the trash are fuzzy. As a child maybe? Her back was straighter, her walk quicker… or was it a dream? She doesn’t know for sure.
A second car. This one stops and parks. A man steps out. She watches his shoes sink in the slush. From the car he pulls out a trash bag, lumpy with litter. He drapes it over his shoulder and curses the weight. Neither of them speaks. Who knows if he noticed her. His face seems younger, younger than his stooped back. In moments he is gone. Her gaze returns to the pavement.
She never looks at her trash. Early on she did, but what she saw repulsed her, so she’s kept the sack closed ever since. What else can she do? Give it to someone? All have their own.
Here comes a young mother. With one hand she leads a child; with the other she drags her load, bumpy and heavy. Here comes an old man, face ravened with wrinkles. His trash sack is so long it hits the back of his legs as he walks. He glances at the woman and tries to smile. What weight would he be carrying? She wonders as he passes.
“Regrets.” She turns to see who spoke. Beside her on the bench sits a man. Tall, with angular cheeks and bright, kind eyes. Like hers, his jeans are mud stained. Unlike hers, his shoulders are straight. He wears a t-shirt and baseball cap. She looks around for his trash but doesn’t see it.
He watches the old man disappear as he explains, “As a young father, he worked many hours and neglected his family. His children don’t love him. His sack is full, full of regrets.” She doesn’t respond. And when she doesn’t he does. “And yours?”
“Mine?” she asks, looking at him. Shame.” His voice is gentle, compassionate. She still doesn’t speak, but neither does she turn away.
“Too many hours in the wrong arms. Last year. Last night….shame.” She stiffens, steeling herself against the scorn she has learned to expect. As if she needed more shame. Stop him. But how? She awaits her judgment. But it never comes. His voice is warm and his question honest. “Will you give me your trash?”
Her head draws back. What can he mean? “Give it to me. Tomorrow. At the landfill. Will you bring it?” He rubs a moist smudge from her cheek with his thumb and stands. Friday. The landfill.”
Long after he leaves, she sits, replaying the scene, retouching her cheek. His voice lingers; his invitation hovers. She tries to dismiss the words but can’t. How could he know what he knew? And how could he know and still be so kind? The memory sits on the couch of her soul, an uninvited guest.
That night’s sleep brings her summer dreams. A young girl under blue skies and puffy clouds, playing amid wildflowers, skirt twirling. She dreams of running with hands wide open, brushing the tops of sunflowers. She dreams of happy people filling a meadow with laughter and hope.
But when she wakes, the sky is dark, the clouds billowed, and the streets shadowed. At the foot of her bed lies her sack of trash. Hoisting it over her shoulder, she walks out of the apartment and down the stairs and onto the street, still slushy. It’s Friday.
For a time, she stands, thinking. First wondering what he meant, then if he really meant it. She sighs. With hope just barely outweighing hopelessness, she turns toward the edge of town. Others are walking in the same direction. The man beside her smells of alcohol. He’s slept many nights in his suit. A teenage girl walks a few feet ahead. The woman of shame hurries to catch up. The girl volunteers an answer before the question can be asked, “Rage, rage at my father, rage at my mother. I’m tired of anger. He said he’d take it.” She motions to the sack, “I’m going to give it to him.” The woman nods, and the two walk together.
The landfill is tall with trash, papers and broken brooms and old beds and rusty cars. By the time they reach the hill, the line to the top is long. Hundreds walk ahead of them. All wait in silence, stunned by what they hear… a scream… a pain pierced roar that hangs in the air for moments, interrupted only by a groan. Then the scream again. His. As they draw nearer, they know why. He kneels before each, gesturing toward the sack, offering a request, then a prayer. “May I have it? And may you never feel it again.” Then he bows his head and lifts the sack, emptying its contents upon himself. The selfishness of the glutton, the bitterness of the angry, the possessiveness of the insecure. He feels what they felt. It is as if he’d lied or cheated or cursed his Maker.
Upon her turn, the woman pauses, hesitates. His eyes compel her to step forward. He reaches for her trash and takes it from her. “You can’t live with this,” he explains. “You weren’t made to.” With head down, he empties her shame upon his shoulders. Then looking towards the heavens with tear-flooded eyes, he screams, “I’m sorry!”
“But you did nothing!” she cries. Still, he sobs as she has sobbed into her pillow a hundred nights. That’s when she realizes that his cry is hers. Her shame is his.
With her thumb she touches his cheek, and for the first step in a long time, she has no trash to carry.
With the others, she stands at the base of the hill and watches as he is buried under a mound of misery. For some time he moans. Then nothing… just silence. The people sit among the wrecked cars and papers and discarded stoves and wonder who this man is and what he has done. Like mourners at a wake, they linger. Some share stories. Others say nothing. All cast occasional glances at the landfill. It feels odd, loitering near the heap. But it feels even stranger to think of leaving.
So they stay. Through the night and into the next day. Darkness comes again. A kinship connects them, a kinship through the trashman. Some doze. By early morning most are asleep.
They almost miss the moment. It is the young girl who sees it. The girl with the rage. She doesn’t trust her eyes at first, but when she looks again, she knows. Her words are soft, intended for no one. “He’s standing.” Then aloud for her friend, “He’s standing.”
And louder for all, “He’s standing!” She turns; all turn. They see him silhouetted against a golden sun.
–Max Lucado… Excerpt from “The Next Door Savior”