After he ate his oniony hotdog, he pushed a piece of gum into his mouth. Tasty as the hotdog had been, he wanted something powerfully refreshing to erase it. As he chewed, the gum came to life: zesty, minty, spicy. Twenty minutes later he disposed of it in the garbage, for gum was not recyclable nor compostable, and he cared; perhaps not in an Xtra sort of way, but to a certain extent. He flicked the gum and the empty pack at the stinking, overstuffed garbage can, not noticing as he walked away that the gum had landed on the rim and sat stuck there, a tiny head, watching him go.
All day people passed the fetid garbage can, sometimes flinging rubbish in. Bits of trash tumbled out and merged into the wider city. Bottle caps rolled into the street and were smashed flat like medals won, or coins of unknown currency – something worth something, somewhere. Gauzey produce bags were lifted high and floated until the branches of trees caught them and held them safe from harm. And all through the afternoon and into the dark, quieting night, the little ball of gum sat, as if waiting for the man to return. An emblem of perseverance, of patience. A nod to the everlasting. Gum, after all, was forever.
Come morning, birds emerged before people stumbled from their houses. Flocks of pigeons swooped circles in the sky and then lined themselves up on sleeping rooftops. But it was a starling who landed on the garbage can and jutted its head toward the little ball of gum. Jut-jut, blink-blink. The yellow beak parted and plucked the gum from the bin. Up up up went the gum, clasped tenderly by the bird’s beak.
From above, it was easy to see how the waking world was criss-crossed with delicate bindings that strained to hold it together: roads and rivers and mountain ranges and rows of buildings and lines of cars and banks of wild grasses and hills and valleys of trash that formed patterns indiscernible from down below. Round as the earth, the little ball of gum had never felt less significant, nor more alive, than in those last beautiful moments before he was returned to the street where everything had begun for him. Down down down he was carried. The starling opened his beak and let the little ball of gum fall out onto the pavement, and in no time he had dried and flattened and made a lasting shape of his own. Day after day the people passed over him, including the man who had purchased him and chewed him and somewhat carefully disposed of him. The man never knew of the gum’s journey, and he went whistling through his days until his days ended.
But the gum knew, and would always remember.
Kristen den Hartog’s most recent novel, And Me Among Them, was nominated for the Trillium Award and won the Alberta Book Publishing Award for Trade Fiction. Her first non-fiction book, The Occupied Garden: A Family Memoir of War-torn Holland, was a Globe and Mail Best Book, written with her sister, Tracy Kasaboski. The two are currently at work on a new collaboration about their grandmother’s family in Edwardian London’s poorest neighbourhoods. Den Hartog lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter and their two beagles, Pollie and Panda.
She can be found at www.kristendenhartog.com
I’m taking a summer holiday, but litter is not… trashy stories will resume in a few weeks.
Until then, please browse the brilliant up-to-now poems, stories and miscellany and if by chance you are so moved, a donation in any amount to Frontier College would be greatly appreciated. The tab above will take you right to their page.
Happy rest of summer!