The Garbage Touch

     Neal Carson was not so unlike anyone else, at first.  He grew up in an average city, went to school, and made friends.  He played sports, had several hobbies he enjoyed, and when he grew up, he went to work.  But when the curse fell upon him, his life changed forever.
     People speculated as to why it came to Neal.  They thought that perhaps he had broken a solemn promise, or that he had harmed someone harmless, or that this thing was simply inherent in his family line.  But it was all speculation, as I said.  The truth is, the first two theories most likely had more to do with Neal's curse than the third - though some have broken trust and done harm in unwitting imitation of their forbears (at least in part).  But the fact was evident in any case.  From that fateful day onward, whatever Neal touched became dirty, worn out, and useless.  Whatever he touched turned to garbage. 
     There was the time, before he knew the full extent of his malady, that he opened his car door, got in, and drove to work.  When he arrived and sought to open the door again, it fell off of the hinges - a heap of rusted metal covered with oxidized paint.  
     Neal had held a fine white-collar job.  But after disaster struck, the papers he pulled from his inbox would become smudged, yellowed, and crumpled, and his outgoing mail was rendered completely unreadable.  This did not bode well for the future of his employment situation.
     I will spare the description of what became of the first hamburger he attempted to eat after this unhappy state of affairs began.  By now you are most likely getting the idea, and you may even think you are familiar with the story.
     "Oh, yes," you say.  "I think I remember this myth.  He ends up touching his daughter, or someone he loves, anyway.  And we are to learn the danger of making hasty wishes or thinking rash thoughts without thinking of the consequences first."  Well, that's a fine lesson, but this isn't that tale - nor would I describe it as a myth.  Neal certainly didn't wish for his ailment, at least not in any direct or intentional way.  And in fact, he did touch several people early on.  They didn't die; they merely becamse filthy and foul.  It was nothing a long shower and a trip (or two) to the laundry couldn't remedy.  But it was enough to cost him his friends, and his job, and his family.  No, it didn't kill those he touched.  But it nearly killed him.
     Late one night, feeling dejected and lonely, Neal walked from his apartment to a nearby bridge that spanned a busy thoroughfare.  He had plans, you see, to try to end his misery quickly by throwing himself into the way of the speeding traffic below.
     But deep within, he must have had an inkling that misery can't be extinguished by miserable means, for he hesitated, reconsidering his decision.  He stood there thinking on the bridge, and looked forward.  The traffic raced beneath him, the car lights in the distance blending into the stars made faint by the city's glow.  There was a billboard a short distance ahead, advertising the latest item on the menu of a popular fast food chain.  An image of a giant burger patty flipping through the air dominated the flaming background, with the words A different kind of cooking printed boldly across the bottom of the sign.  Neal gazed at this and continued to ponder his predicament.  Another thought entered his mind:  "What about Eunice?"
     Eunice was the elderly woman who occupied the apartment next to his.  She had always been friendly to him since he had moved in, and he had often helped her carry in groceries from her car.  He had to stop doing so after her lettuce wilted and her suddenly rotten eggs broke and soaked through the paper bag (Eunice usually chose paper), but she continued to be friendly to him and was not standoffish in the least.  He realized now that what he was thinking of - even the idea that he was thinking it - would trouble Eunice a lot.  
     Neal looked down, and knew he mustn't do it.  And as he sorrowfully hung his head, a large truck that might have served to crush him passed harmlessly below instead.  He noticed that it was a garbage truck.
     He went home then, not necessarily in perceptibly better spirits but with renewed resolution.  He arrived at his door, taking care to turn the handle with his long sleeve over his hand.  He didn't need to unlock it; he hadn't been able to safeguard his place since the day he broke off a wasted key in the lock.  Besides, he had nothing much remaining to him that any thief would have been interested in stealing.
     As he began to let himself in, Eunice startled him.  "Good evening, Neal," she said in her usual friendly tone.  Neal appreciated the fact that while she was always kind, her greetings were without condescension or overt pity.
     "Eunice - it's late.  What are you doing up?"  He backed up a step as she approached.  "Don't get too close... my disease, you know."
     "It's all right," she replied, the sound of modest excitement in her voice.  "I have something for you."  She revealed a pair of gloves from behind her back.  "They're good ones," she said cheerfully.  "I have some myself."
     "They'll rot away if I take them from you," Neal answered dispiritedly.
     "Maybe not.  There's a special liner inside.  And if I put them on for you, it might help."  
     "I guess it wouldn't hurt to try."  Neal couldn't bring himself to discourage her seemingly pointless positivism.  "Thank you, Eunice."
     She pulled one glove onto his right hand, and began to do the same with the other.  As she did, she slipped, and her hand touched his.  He instinctively retracted, but it was too late; contact had been made.  Eunice was soon covered with a film of dirt and grime, and smelled most unseemly.  Neal wondered how she could have been so careless, considering the simplicity of the task.  How could she have been so careless?  But his attention was diverted to the gloves, which to his surprise did not crumble away as he had feared they would.
     "Oh, thank you!"  he exclaimed.  "I'm sorry about... well, you know.  But thank you.  Now I can use my telephone - if you'll excuse me, that is."
     "Of course," Eunice smiled.  "And don't worry about it."
     Neal was pleased to find that his phone directory remained intact as he awkwardly flipped through the pages.  It was the fourth book he'd requested that year, and he feared that he might have to start paying for them if he continued to destroy them.  He was relieved of this small concern now as he found the number for Metro Disposal.  He left the book open on the table, and went to try to get some sleep before morning.
     He awoke somewhat more refreshed than usual (as much, anyway, as that description could apply to him), feeling ready to go forward with his decision of the previous night.  He actually called too early, for he was answered by a recorded message that indicated the office wouldn't open for another hour.  He passed the time as patienly as he could, and tried again as soon as he thought he'd get an answer.
     "Metro Disposal," a woman's voice said impassively.
     "Yes... is there someone there I could speak to about employment, please?"
     "Hang on a second."  He was put on hold.  He tapped his foot and absentmindedly drummed his fingers on the table, his hands sweating a bit within the gloves he still wore.
     "This is Gene.  What can I do for ya?"
     "My name is Neal Carson, and I was wondering if you were hiring."  Knowing the unattractiveness of desperation, Neal resisted his temptation to just come straight out and beg for a job.
     "What kind of work are you lookin' for?"  Gene didn't sound rude, but plainly wasn't overly conversational, either.  Neal found this appealing, since he felt that the less he had to tell about his predicament, the better.
     "Well, anything, really.  I mean, I thought I could haul garbage."
     "You got any experience?"
     "Um... no."  Neal was worried then.  It hadn't occurred to him that qualifications might be necessary for such a job, but now that he thought about it, he supposed that it stood to reason.  He knew from his own life (especially in recent times) that garbage cans could be heavy.  He considered that the workers probably had to work fast, and he suspected that the hours might be long.  Nonetheless, he was determined to proceed.
     "You can't drive a truck without some background and a license," Gene said.  "But if you want to, you can come in and apply to do the loading - you know, on the back."
     "Great!  Neal replied, and then restrained himself, knowing it might sound strange if he was too noticeably excited.  But he meant it.  "I'll be right down."
     He immediately drove to the Metro headquarters, his thoughts absorbed with trying to come up with an explanation should anyone ask about his gloves.  He'd have to wear them if he didn't want to ruin his job application.
     But he needn't have worried.  To his relief, the office environment was casual, even spartan, and he was offered a chair in the otherwise empty reception area.  He sat there and filled in the spaces, having come prepared with all of the information he knew would most likely be requested.  He returned it to the secretary.
     "Thank you, ma'am," he said.
     "Gene'll call you if he can use you," she answered.
     But a week passed, and Gene didn't call.  So Neal called and asked for him.
     "This is Neal Carson.  I came in and applied last week to haul trash."
     "Oh yeah, yeah.  Almost forgot about ya."
     Neal paused in case Gene was going to continue.  But he didn't, so Neal asked, "Do you have any job openings?"
     "Well, I'll tell ya what.  A guy just walked off on me this morning.  Can you work today?"
     There was no question.  "I will," he answered, grateful for his timeliness.
     "Good thing you're persistant.  Come on down.  Wear somethin' you can get dirty, but we'll getcha a uniform, too."
     "Okay."  Neal didn't bother to say it would be hard to find something he couldn't get dirty, although when the thought crossed his mind, he had to suppress a laugh.  He hated to do that, having not laughed for some time.
     He went to work.  Nobody ever asked him about his gloves, because everyone wore gloves.  And when they wore through from time to time, no harm was done - save that some of the lower quality plastic bags tore, and that didn't draw attention since it sometimes happened anyway.  Nobody ever asked him why his uniform was dirty, because everyone's uniform was dirty.  And nobody asked him about his beat up car.  Not many people around could afford much better.
     What he discovered was that, for the most part, people treated him decently - often better, in fact, than he had been treated in his former workplace, where competitive attitudes and professional aspirations had often reached unpleasant heights. 
     And people respected his work.  He worked long hours, and he worked overtime.  He helped out by covering shifts for people, and people helped him in return.  He worked late, and early.  Sometimes he worked so late that it was early when he was done.  He worked when he was sick, until his body gave up and quit getting sick because it knew sickness wouldn't prevent him.  And whenever he needed them, Eunice was there to give him new gloves, and put them on, and accidentally touch his hand with hers.  After three or four times, Neal gave up warning her.
     It must be said that Neal got frustrated many times.  He felt like that sometimes when those bags broke ("why do people have to overfill those flimsy bags!"), or when he was told he was going to have to work an extra hour that he hadn't expected.  But looking inside himself, he had to admit that the real source of his anger was his situation in general.  He sometimes silently pined away for his old buddies, or ex-girlfriends, though they had long since forgotten him.  He daydreamed about his old job, even though honesty required him to admit that in many was he felt more comfortable where he was now than he ever had there and then.  Nonetheless, when he was troubled about these things, he would occasionally risk taking off a glove and touching something, hoping as hard as he could hope that perhaps his ailment had deserted him so that he could set about retrieving what was lost.  But it hadn't; the facts remained as they had been.  He wanted his life back, but try as he might, he couldn't devise a way to traverse the sea of garbage that separated it from him.  So he stayed on his side of the sea, and worked.
     For more than ten years Neal struggled along in his new world, losing himself in his labor, and getting some satisfaction, at least, from the knowledge that curse or no curse, he provided a much needed service.  And what at one time had seemed unthinkable to him eventually became his resignation:  he would most likely remain untouchable for life.
     He dwelt one night upon this very idea as he arrived at home, so tired he could barely keep his feet.  He'd worked another long shift, and it felt wonderful to finally have a rest.  He breathed out.  Tears filled his eyes suddenly, and behind those tears was sadness, but also a great deal of relief.  "This is my life," he said to himself quietly, as he opened his door and ambled into the kitchen.
     It was wintertime; it had been dark when he'd left and it was dark now.  Neal reached blindly into the fruit bowl for an apple, and biting into it, he believed it must have been the best apple he'd ever tasted.  He reached for the switch and turned on the light.  He looked down to gaze at this miracle fruit he had found, and discovered with amazement that one fingertip of his glove had worn through.  The skin of his finger touched the apple's skin before his own eyes.
     Another tear fell, and he cried out, "Hey Eunice!  Come look!"