The Essential Worker
  Stories by Jane Turner Goldsmith
  1  Chicken
 Dumpster Zone
3  Roadkill
4  Floral Arrangements
5  Shiny Shoes
6  Temporary Repair Only
7  Steady White Light
  About the Author  |  |  Summer 2023 Fiction Issue

Dumpster Zone

Essential Worker #2: "Joe"

February 16th 2020

The old window opens just a crack, but it is enough for air. The pane is greasy and clouded, a black spider curled dead in one of its cobwebbed corners. A red flash on its back, like the red pipes, if she looks out and up, criss-crossing the black ceiling of Central Market. To be sure it really is dead, she squashes it with a twist of toilet paper; economically, as she needs to eke out the supplies. She can’t find tissues to blow her nose or to protect the pillow from tears. There are no cleaning products in her flat, and there's no one to ask.

Through the pane she can see down to the dumpster zone at the border of the market, at the big bins with multi coloured lids: red, yellow, blue. Sparrows flit around on the ground, searching for scraps. Workers in their forklift trucks manoeuvre the bins back and forth, processing the rubbish before the day begins. Others in bobcats unload pallets of strange-looking fruits and vegetables: apples and pumpkin and celery and other varieties she has no names for. She hears strange beeping sounds too, and coarse shouting in a language she doesn't recognise despite her years of study. From somewhere beneath her, dumplings are cooking. She must be above Chinatown, but the smell is not like any dumpling she knows. Fried fat and sweet soy sauce mingle with the stale garbage smell—and coffee, and eggs, and bacon. She feels a swell of nausea and then her stomach rumbles, reminding her she is hungry. She couldn’t eat a thing.

It’s early, not yet six in the morning but the market is alive. It’s a small comfort to be reminded of life. Early shoppers skirt around the vehicles below her. She scans the faces, trying to read welcome or friendliness. There are none from her country, though she searches hard. So many people for so early. Different hair, skin, clothing, but it seems to her they all have hardness in common. There, a woman in a tartan scarf, chin thrust upwards, looking down on everyone. All sharp angles and lines. Other faces, weathered by the sun, or reddened with effort. They are all unmasked. This astonishes and terrifies her—don’t they know?

She could hold up a sign: No Wifi. Would anyone see? Could anyone help? But it would require kindness, and she challenges herself to find it. After two minutes, a woman with brownish-grey hair curling around a chubby face walks past. She doesn’t look up. Comfortable padding around her waist; soft, the age of her grandmother. She feels a twist in her heart at the reminder. She didn’t even get to say goodbye to Grandma; she wasn’t permitted.

She thinks about moving from the window, but there is nothing else to do, not today or for eleven more days. She has washed everything, again and again, all her underclothes are drying on a makeshift rack. She is fearful the water will run out; notices pinned up in the bathroom state the shower limit is three minutes maximum. Three minutes to wash away the blood, not enough time.

For the three nights she has been here she has not slept through till morning. The apartment echoes, the night sounds are unfamiliar, and the police officers who called by last night, rapping loudly, had frightened her to muteness. One of them, he seemed young, not much older than her, tried to offer her food vouchers, but what use are they when she can’t go out? She had kept her distance, under the table to be safe, but they didn’t seem to understand—don’t they know? The quilt on her bed is both too hot and not warm enough. Last night in fitful snatches of dozing she hallucinated her mother's food, envisioned cauldrons of stock bubbling on the stove top. The steam suspended her in a half-waking world, as she struggled to recall the details of her mother’s face. She couldn’t. There was only steam.

A man on a bicycle wobbles through the lane, though the passway is not meant for cyclists. He is slight with thin arms, fine black hair turning to grey. He could be from her country. Then she remembers that it is not her country anymore; her country wants her hidden. The man is shouldering a square fast-food delivery bag. The straps are not adjusted correctly and cut into his blades. The bag pulls back his bony shoulders. He overbalances in the path of a bobcat and it looks as if they’re going to collide. She waves her arms and calls out to warn him, though of course he can't hear her through the glass. At the moment she cries, though, he looks up. At first, she’d thought, his gaze was following the flight of a sparrow. But now she is certain he sees her. His look seems to say that he knows she is there, because she was there yesterday and the day before.

The man’s bicycle wobbles even more alarmingly as he returns his hands to the handlebars. The bobcat driver shouts. Just in time the man looks down and rights the bicycle, avoiding a collision.

He has seen her, but in the next second, he's gone.

There’s a sound outside her door, and then a faint knock, as if someone wanted to signal their presence, then changed their mind. Someone from the University, finally? She checks her phone, but still her enrolment has not been confirmed. She has checked countless times the last two days, but her phone has not updated. No emails in the junk folder. Soon her phone will run out of travel credit and then how will she obtain an Australian sim card?

Soon, too, she will run out of two-minute noodles.

She fits a mask over her nose and mouth and tiptoes to the door, not really sure why she is tiptoeing. Opens it cautiously. There is no one there.

On the floor stands a white plastic bag filled with items. Who has left this? Someone, some blessed angel, spirit of her grandmother, knows of her predicament. She lifts the bag and inspects the contents.

Ten packets of two-minute noodles. A box of tissues, six rolls of toilet paper and six packets of sanitary pads, maternity thickness.



  © Jane Turner Goldsmith, 2023

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