Joe and Ginger

Joe and Ginger were a common sight in town. She always pushed the shopping cart, heavily loaded but neatly packed with bags and boxes. He always led the way, usually about 10 feet ahead. She was drab and ordinary looking. Ginger’s demeanor was quiet and polite. In contrast, Joe was intense, both in appearance and behavior.

We saw them more than most because we lived two miles out of town, not far from the county landfill, and it was the landfill that provided Joe and Ginger with their livelihood. They were scavengers. They spent hours rummaging through piles of trash, looking for items that still had value, or the potential for value. Then they hauled it into town, on a sidewalk-less street that was treacherous for pedestrians and even more so for pedestrians pushing overloaded shopping carts.

I was with my father, whom my mother describes as a collector of strange personalities, when we met Joe and Ginger at the landfill. We were unloading trash; Joe circled us like a vulture. He was thin and lanky, and would have had piecing green eyes if one of them wasn’t glassy and unseeing. He wasn’t mean looking, but he did look effective. Joe had lived a hard life, and was holding up pretty well considering.

Dad looked straight at Joe, offered his hand, and introduced himself. Joe’s stark demeanor melted immediately, and he enthusiastically introduced himself and his wife. We learned that they had moved here from Colorado and that they owned a single-wide trailer in town. Dad asked Joe about his family, and Joe emphatically said that they were dead to him. Then, without waiting, he explained — not by telling us about it — but by acting it out.

One second he was young Joe, and the next he was Joe’s father. He indicated the difference by turning his head and torso. Apparently young Joe was standing on the left of his father, so when he faced his father, he turned to the right. “But dad, why are you kicking me out of the house?” He turned to the left, “Shut up, son, it doesn’t matter now. Never much cared for you anyway.” Back to the right, “But dad, I love y…” Young Joe was cut short. His head snapped back, and Joe fell over. Then he scrambled to his feet, holding the back of his hand up to his mouth to indicate where his father had hit him.

This went on for a while. It was a one-man-show — a one-act play performed in a landfill. Joe acted out his father’s preference for his brother, his mother’s tormented lack of will, and eventually the final beating he took from his father.

Dad and I were fascinated. It didn’t matter whether the story was true — the way it has been told was masterful. A week or so later, we saw them in town. Dad pulled over, and invited them to dinner. Joe demurred, “Oh no, we couldn’t.” Ginger spoke up, and, in an incredibly calming voice, said to him, “Joe, it’s probably time for us to start meeting some people.” He protested but gave in quickly.

At dinner Joe did not disappoint. He told us story after story, each in his trademark, break-neck style. He told us about a confrontation he’d had at the landfill, where local scumbags ordered their pit-bull to attack him. He told us about moving their trailer to our town. In each story he was an innocent victim, maligned and abused. He painted a bleak but vivid picture of the world, and we couldn’t get enough.

But Joe was volatile and inconsistent. We ran into the two of them many times over the years, and Joe often failed to recognize us, whereas Ginger, even if she couldn’t place us exactly, knew that we’d met. Joe’s stories also tended to contradict themselves. We heard at least three different versions of how his eye got damaged.

The last time we saw Joe was in McDonald’s. I was in college by then, and dad and I were having lunch between classes. We were talking, as we always do, and it turned out that Joe was sitting in the next booth. He approached us, and raved about how great it was to see a father and son talking, exchanging ideas, advising, and listening. Which brought him to the subject of his father.

He performed exactly the same routine he did 10 years ago except that this time he didn’t throw himself to the ground. “But dad, I love y…” His head snapped back, and then he held his mouth with his hand, and glared at a father who wasn’t actually there.

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