Author's Note: I wrote this several years ago. Thought I'd share it, though.
At first, she thought it was a dog. One of those feral ones with the desperate eyes, scrounging and digging about. Or perhaps a raccoon or fox or some other creature with ragged ears and white teeth. The dark silhouette moved about on the pile, sometimes barely distinguishable from its background. Its legs were long, and as it suddenly stood up, she realized it was a human being.
She grimaced. Oh, god. It's worse than I thought.
She edged closer to the figure, stepping as best she could over loose paper and shards of metal. It, or he or she, she supposed, resolutely refused to look at her, even when she came to the base of the pile it was sorting through. She supposed that she should say something, in the interest of making peace and all that, but suddenly realized that she did not know what to say. They should understand a friendly 'hello,' shouldn't they? And not misinterpret it as some sort of malice?
"Hello there!" she called. "Hello! May I have a word?"
The figure continued to ignore her. She sighed and tried to continue.
"I would just like to talk about the relocation program…"
At that, the figure turned and looked at her, revealing itself to be a tall, thin man of uncertain age, with a dirty but clean-shaven face and bright eyes. A Dumpman. She straightened her jacket instinctively and raised her head. Unfortunately, at that moment a slight breeze picked up, burning the inside of her nose with the scent of rotting miscellanea. She pushed on. "Surely… surely you've heard about our… the new bill? It's for… for you, you know. To help you get out of this… dump."
"What are you doing here?" asked the man. "Where are the rest of you? I thought you were too scared to come out here alone." He snorted. "Scared of us! Hah! Well, I'm really not interested in your bill. You can leave now." He turned and went back to his rummaging.
He was more articulate than she expected. "No! We don't want to send you back on the streets! We want job training programs, and guaranteed housing, and rehab…"
"Spare me, lady," the dumpman interrupted. "I don't want your 'rehab.' Or your jobs, or whatever the hell you're offering. So you can just go back and pick up your sign again, 'kay? 'People Are Not Rats,' or 'Cleanliness is God' or whatever."
"People Should Not Have To Live Like Rats." She repeated the slogan automatically. "And they shouldn't. I mean, look at you."
He was covered in filth. She could see that. True, he was wearing actual clothes, not rags, and he was thin, not emaciated. The dumpman wasn't barefoot either; he was actually wearing thick boots. But he was in terrible disarray. His shirt had holes, for goodness' sake, and he looked as though he hadn't showered in some time. He was greasy and grimy and very tan, but that may have been dust.
"You can't possibly like living like this. We're trying to offer something better. Better than scrounging and eating rats, at any rate."
"I don't eat rats, lady, but if you want to think so, fine. Makes you feel better." He paused for a moment, then reached down expertly into the shattered maw of a television screen, pulling out wires without even scratching his hand. He put them in one of several plastic bags looped over his shoulder, then turned away.
She stared down into the nest of glass shards in horror, imagining the razor edges slicing into her well-lotioned hands. "Now see… see that? What if you'd cut yourself? You have no sanitation, no medical care! All this glass, you could get infected! Please listen, we could get you out…"
But he was leaving, and she realized that she might soon have to actually climb onto the pile of refuse in order to follow him. She tried one last time. "At least, tell anyone else you meet about it, would you? Anyone who would be interested in leaving this… place." Or rather, anyone sane enough to want to leave this hellhole. She scolded herself inwardly. These people have no choice, or think they don't. They're desperate and hardened by the world's cruelties, so they don't think they can trust anyone. They're victims, and she shouldn't blame them for their straits, no matter how unwilling they are to change.
As the dumpman passed out of sight on the other side of the pile, she girded herself and stepped up, gingerly testing a garbage bag's sturdiness. It seemed to hold her weight, so she continued up, calling to the dumpman to wait, if only he'd listen to her, learn about how much better a life he could have, if he'd only listen and sign his support for her petition…
She soon stopped trying to get his attention, finding that she had to put all her attention into climbing. She certainly hadn't worn her very best shoes to the dump, but she had wanted to make a good impression. But unfortunately, her penny loafers were not suited for climbing, and she groaned at the thought of how filthy they must be getting. She stepped up, and wrappers flew from beneath her feet, making her slide back. Her pleated skirt dragged on the ground; accumulating god knows how many different species of germ. She clutched at a jutting piece of wood, almost whimpering at the filthiness of it. She realized that she should probably stop.
But she couldn't just leave. It was important that they solve this 'dumpman' situation before it became a big problem. In these conditions, the people must get terribly ill, and they would die unless someone intervened. Expensively intervened. And what kind of role model was this for the children, if people were allowed to live here? Oh, yes, it's just fine to go out and live in a garbage heap. That's perfectly acceptable. Not to mention how awful it must be for the people living here. She could barely stand it herself, just visiting. And of course, having people so poor that they had to live off garbage in the richest country in the world was embarrassing. Unacceptable. It had to be stopped.
The dumpman climbed much faster than she could, but he kept stopping and looking for some scrap on the ground and adding it to his bagged collection, so she still managed to keep him in her line of sight. As she continued, she began to become aware of a sort of crude path, an area where the larger pieces of debris had been pushed to the side. After that, the going was much easier, but she still watched nervously for shards of glass and metal or slippery piles of paper and plastic. She had already cut her hand on a sharp wire, but at least she had the comfort of knowing that a sanitary wipe was waiting for her back at the bottom. Something that these people didn't have.
She looked around, down the slope of the hill she was on, and gasped. In front of her, thrown into sharp relief by the late afternoon sun, was an unbelievable, sweeping vista of waste. A vast valley of garbage that stretched upwards through a garbage alluvial plain to garbage foothills and the base of a garbage mountain. She was scaling another peak herself, and could see across to more mountains and valleys stretching back and back until they were obscured by the thick haze. Fruited plains of refuse and purple mountains of junk. She shivered and turned back to following the dumpman up the slope.
The garbage pile didn't gradually slope off, but instead simply halted, coming to a stretch of flat plateau, overlooking the trash landscape on one side, and the space outside the dump on the other. She could see the network of roads connecting the dump to the cities, traversed every day by great fleets of trucks. She could even see the group of protesters by the gate, looking small against the mountain. The dumpman was just standing and waiting. He raised his eyebrows at her and whistled.
"Pretty determined, aren't you? If you really wanted to come in here that much, you could have just asked. We don't get too many upper crusts." He gestured grandly. "Enjoy the view. Nice real estate, huh?"
She didn't reply.
"Are you looking to see the village? 'Cause it's hidden from view behind the next hill."
"Village?" This was news. "Are you organized? Do you have a leader of some sort? Could I talk with him about…" She fumbled with her now filthy jacket for the petition, smoothing the wrinkles and groaning inwardly as her fingers left greasy smudge marks. She didn't have a replacement. "About our new bill?"
"No." The dumpman turned around abruptly and began the descent.
But she had an idea now, and it formulated as she followed him down. If she could somehow get it through to the leader how deleterious their pseudo-community was to themselves and to the greater community, she might get the rest of them to move out and let the landfill workers do their job. Bury all this garbage; get it out of the stinking air. Letting everything sit out in the sun like this couldn't possibly be healthy.
The way down was harder than the way up, and the plastic wrappers only seemed to become slipperier as she went on. She was so focused on the placement of her feet that she didn't see the village until she was right upon it.
At first, she wasn't sure what she was looking at. The whole area had been cleared of large pieces of garbage, creating an unnatural-seeming flat space amid the hills. It was filled with buildings, making concentric circles around an open area in the middle. The shacks, no, shelters, no, houses were the most mixed-up buildings she had ever seen. They seemed to be constructed from an odd combination of wood, metal, concrete, and mud, all pasted together in ways that did not seem to obey the laws of gravity. Patchworks of aluminum and cloth served as walls and PVC pipes as chimneys. Yet they were not dilapidated at all, and she could see several that seemed to be under construction. There were fire pits and pieces of machinery lying about in the cleared streets, under wires crisscrossing from house to house, hung with lights. She could see small trees growing in the streets, though they looked so out of place she had to blink to be sure of it, and many smaller plants lining the street in cooking pots and laundry baskets full of soil. There were people everywhere, some entering and leaving the village with belts of plastic bags or patched-together carts, others in the center clearing, setting up what she supposed were tables and hanging banners from wire to wire.
Her eyes popped. She was expecting something more resembling a third world hovel, not the experimentations of a mad toddler. This looked almost livable, if it wasn't for the smell. While she watched, the dumpman she had followed stepped into a small shack topped with an impossible complex of metal and plastic pipes. She saw his hand reach up and twist a knob above him, making water rush down as he scrubbed off the dump's grime.
Running water? How could they possibly have running water?
When the dumpman came out, he was wearing a set of clothes as eclectic as the houses, woven out of patches from so many different cloths she could hardly tell his shirt from his pants. He saw her face and grinned.
"Surprised?" He picked up his plastic bag of items and walked nearer to the center of the village.
"What…" she murmured. "How…"
"This dump is served by what, three states, Canada too?" The dumpman snorted. "That's a lot of people, a lot of garbage. There's a lot fewer of us. We have everything, more than enough, more than we need if we just figure out how to use it. This is Thanksgiving."
She frowned. "Thanksgiving was yesterday."
"For you. But nobody buys turkeys after Thanksgiving. They're sick of it. It's much more economical to just throw it away. Free up shelf space, right? It's still good when it gets here."
Now she could smell the food cooking, in old ovens or makeshift ones or open fire pits. Mixed with the scent of garbage, it was somewhat nauseating, but no one else seemed to mind. None of the other dump people even spared her a second glance, even when she reached the center of town and saw the glittering decorations being hung on every crazy building. She saw people hunched over benches tied together with wire, cutting moldy spots off apples and removing seeds carefully. She knew where the trees had come from.
"But why?" She shook her head. "Why do all this? So much trouble, when you could just go for help and live like normal people. Surely getting off the streets wouldn't be as hard as making a civilization here?"
The dumpman looked at her pityingly. "We're not all from the streets. We're factory workers, grocers, cleaners… we don't want your jobs. We work for ourselves and take what you give us for free. You work to make things for us now. You think we're bottom-feeders? Hell, we're the top of the food chain!"
Her mouth fell open. She tried to reply, but it seemed that all reason had flown out the window. People from the cities were immigrating to the dumps?
"Oh, did I hit a nerve? That's why you want us out, isn't it? Don't want all your lower class to say 'screw it' and leave. Well I'll tell you something." He leaned forward. "This is our Eden. We like it here. You can take your rat race and shove it."
She wanted to say that he was being ridiculous, that he couldn't possibly expect to live like this, that this was completely untenable. But the words died on her lips. It was no good. There was only one last chance.
"Could you at least tell me who is in charge? I'd like to speak with him…"
The dumpman coughed. "No one in charge, lady, I've already told you. We're all in this together, you know?"
It was getting dark, and she felt a jolt of fear that she wouldn't be able to find her way back. The dumpman must have read her expression, because he offered her help finding her way back. She shook her head mutely, and wandered back through the streets, between the patchwork houses, a slight breeze making a few select wrappers roll and flutter along the ground like tumbleweeds. She wanted home.
"Oh," she heard his voice call behind her. "And keep on throwing away your things. You never know what we might need."