Joe drops the can the way you’d drop a dead body. He grips the handle on the back of the truck the way you’d wring your fingers around someone’s neck. He hoists his foot on the back step the way you’d kick it into the soft flesh of someone’s temple.
As we ride to the next stop, I cling to my spot on the other side of the truck. With the cold morning wind in my face, I try to focus on anything other than what Joe looked like when he murdered Mike.
Monday morning, they found Mike lying face down below the truck’s open door. It’s Wednesday, and they’ve put us back on the same truck, the same route, and they expect us to carry on like nothing happened.
I look at our new driver’s face through the side-view mirror. I wonder if they told him about Mike. I wonder if they told him that the morning they hired him, a dead body was found outside this very truck. I don’t suppose it came up that the previous driver’s skull was broken with such force that it was little more than a deflated sack of flesh.
I’m just assuming that last part. I wasn’t there. I didn’t even see Mike’s body, just the red stain he left behind. I noticed the stain and the flurry of activity around it as soon as I walked into work that morning. My supervisor stopped me before I could get too close and told me he had some bad news. Mike had a heart attack, he said, and fell out of his truck and died on impact. I tried to look past his shoulder at the folks cleaning inside the cab. I asked him why there was so much blood. Before he answered, he turned me around and guided me back inside. He told me Mike slammed his head real good when he fell out. I asked why they’re cleaning his seat too. He shrugged his shoulders and guessed that when it happened maybe Mike was eating one of those meatball subs he always got. The mess on the seat was probably just marinara sauce. The cleaners clean up more than just blood and brains, he said.
Joe got to work a few minutes later, and I told him what happened. He told me he knew. He nodded, said that the police called him earlier that morning. Then he walked away. He was too calm. Too confident. My heart pumped molasses through my veins. I took in a deep breath and tried to remind myself that it wasn’t like they arrested him or anything. I probably would have let it go if it weren’t for the last thing Mike told me.
That last thing is why I can’t stop picturing his brains inside the treads of Joe’s boots.
Our new driver pulls the truck to our next stop. Joe and I both hop off the back and walk to a heap of garbage bags. I grab four, and Joe grabs the rest. We throw them into the back of the truck, and instead of glass breaking and plastic squeals, I hear nothing but the sound of Mike’s skull splitting open on the pavement.
We head to the next stop and I look at Joe. He’s a guy cut from an iron-weave cloth, rough around the edges and bullet proof. Solid muscle, graying hair. His hulking stature dwarfs my thin frame. I never noticed that before.
He looks at me. I blink my gaze away.
I think back to that night. The last thing Mike said to me. He pulled me aside and whispered that he had a weird feeling about Joe. I asked him what he meant, but he didn’t give me a straight answer, just mumbled about being caught up in something not right, something illegal maybe. I shook it off and told him I didn’t want to know.
Twelve hours later, Mike was dead.
Our truck pulls to a stop. When there’s a single can, Joe always goes alone. I stay put and watch him. I focus on his hands. I never noticed that pulsing, raw strength stretching the skin tight across his fists. I wonder how much effort it took them to crush Mike’s spine.
Joe dumps the can into the back of the truck, then puts it back on the curb. He grabs the bar, and without effort, hoists himself back onto the step. The truck moves to the next stop.
The compactor starts to churn. In just a moment, inches from where I stand, 60,000 pounds of pressure will flatten this mountain of garbage. And anything else in its way.
“What’d Mike tell ya?”
Joe’s voice startles me. I clear my throat. “What?”
“I know Mike talked to you that night. What’d he say?” He stares at me. From here, I notice his knuckles turn white. He’s tightening his grip on the handlebar.
The two-ton compressor hums as the packer descends. The garbage inside groans then erupts with screeching metal and smashed glass.
I’m doing my best to act normal, like I haven’t been picturing Joe scraping the skin off Mike’s face with his boot. “He didn’t say anything,” I say. “He just said goodnight and left.”
His lips crack apart in a lopsided smile. I’m greeted by a row of jagged teeth. “That’s good,” he says. His free hand pulls an empty cigarette box out of his pocket, then crumples it. “That’s what I thought.” He throws the box in the compactor just as the packer hits the bottom with a loud hiss.
Our truck pulls to our next stop, and Joe hops off. The compactor is opening back up. I see the flattened cigarette box, pressed deep into the mess of this morning’s collection.
I try to look away from Joe. I try to ignore the echo in my head of Mike’s bones breaking, the sound of his skull scraping the asphalt, the sound of Joe’s boot against Mike’s tender flesh.
I remind myself that the police said it was a heart attack.