My husband was sorting garbage in the basement below 10 floors of apartments in Kansas City. The room was deserted and gloomy, filled with deep shadows underneath a couple of long dim lights. From the edge of a towering pile, I made out discarded remnants from other people's lives: rusted toaster, charred wooden rolling pin, chipped ceramic dish.
"What about this?" I asked, bending to pick up a book about rescue dogs.
"Nobody buys used books anymore," said my husband, Andrew, barely turning in my direction. He was handsome, that much was certain. But he'd been out of work for six months and it showed on his face. His bright blue eyes had dulled. I watched as he leaned his muscular body forward, sifting through the garbage.
"This is awful," I said, throwing a plastic toy telephone back onto the pile.
Andrew said nothing. Instead, he glanced at me and stretched out his arms. For a moment, I thought he'd stop what he was doing and come to me, declaring that we could forget our troubles and everything would be all right. Instead, with outstretched arms, he bent his knees and lifted a large wooden cabinet. Struggling against its weight, he tottered, faltering, carrying it toward the door.
"Can I help you?" I asked.
"No," he replied in an unwavering voice. His face was usually calm yet now it looked fierce, glistening with sweat.
"I really hate just standing here not doing anything," I said.
"The cabinet is almost bigger than you are," Andrew said with a laugh. He set it down, wiping his forehead on his upper arm. The air inside the room was unbearably hot. We were in the middle of a July heat wave bearing down on the entire Midwest. On the fields and wide plains outside Kansas City, a vast stretch of stifling air had settled. Nothing stirred.
Watching Andrew take a deep breath before he lifted the cabinet again, I was reminded of his father. Roger had been a farmer up until he got too sick to work and then sold his fields for a fraction of their value to a shopping mall developer. Roger used to haul everything on his back and joked he worked harder than any old mule. His body was so stiff when he woke up in the morning that he'd crawl on his hands and knees across the bedroom to reach the bathroom door.
"Things have gone from bad to worse," I said grimly, wiping my hands on my shorts. "And now we're reduced to sifting through other people's garbage."
"I could take the janitor's job," Andrew said. "But you don't want me to."
"You'd be with the girls in their school," I said. "They'll be embarrassed in front of their friends. If we can hold out until you get a respectable job..."
Andrew stiffened. "Sarah, my father would say that it's the man who makes the money," he said. "Money doesn't make the man."
"You're right," I said. "It's just..." I abandoned my words the way the building tenants had abandoned all these possessions. I didn't want to admit that I also worried about what his own friends might think, the guys he rode bicycles with almost every summer morning.
I remembered the very first time I saw Andrew. He was standing in a group of bicyclists, men and several women in colorful clothes that stood out in the gray dawn like a palette of tempera paints. As I approached, my bicycle hit a pothole and began to wobble. I wondered why the bicycle was shaking so much and assumed it was because I was new to riding. I started to panic and then realized I had a flat tire. I stopped, pulled over and wondered what I'd do next.
A man in the group spotted me. He walked over briskly, wearing a yellow bike jersey and black shorts. There was something graceful about his gait.
"Let me help you with that," he offered.
I thanked him, and as he took the bicycle from my hands I felt as if I were entrusting him with my child. He spun the tire slowly, examining it like a doctor studying a patient's wounds, then stopped the wheel, pointing at a thumbtack sticking into the rubber. He pulled it out and the tire let out a huge sigh of air.
"Do you have your spare?" he asked.
"I should have," I said uncertainly.
He unzipped the black pouch under my bicycle seat and extracted a cinnamon-raisin protein bar.
"I'm afraid you can't fix your flat with this," he said, smiling and tilting his head at me. I caught his eyes, the deep blue shade of a lake, the spare line of his chin, the toned curve of his shoulders.
"I thought I'd packed one," I said, embarrassed. "I mean, the guy at the store said he had everything ready for me."
"Never depend on anyone else for your survival," he said. "I was in the navy with a good group of guys, but we were taught you have to count on yourself."