Dirty Work

Michel Craig (Flickr/mcdemtl)
Michel Craig (Flickr/mcdemtl)

Behind my house and outside a fence but on my property, at the back of the barn, right next to the lane, is a grassy triangle. At weekends when my son’s friends are over, it’s a handy parking spot. Otherwise, it’s not used. It’s not even visible from the house. So why did I chase a couple of kids away from there this past winter? It was dusk when the car nosed cozily up to the barn wall, a boy and a girl inside. Had the couple no place else to go to be alone together? Probably not, in a land where kids often live at home until they marry. They weren’t bothering anyone, and except for the barking of the dogs, I wouldn’t even have known they were there. But the dogs did bark and when I peeked around the corner of the barn, I did know.

When I first came here 20 years ago, the lane was an overgrown track, and couples, assuming it was a dead end that petered out in a tangle of laurel and briar, would sometimes park smack in the middle and block it. I didn’t mind reversing and going around the other way, but I very much minded the trash I found when those visitors left. I got tired of picking it up. I wrote an indignant sign and hammered the post into the soft earth edging the entrance to the lane, where it soon listed, then fell, then was absorbed in the drift of leaves and clods of dirt, disintegrating into the mulch of faded candy wrappers, soggy-bottomed bits of cardboard, crumpled Kleenex, and all-but-invisible condoms, accumulating over the years. I picked up a great deal of it and even picked up trash in my grassy triangle. That is why I made a point of rapping on the window of a car I found parked there one afternoon half a dozen years ago. Trash in the lane is bad enough; on my land I won’t have it. I don’t care what you do as long as you take your trash with you, as I told the young couple then. They were in the front seat still, and they looked up, surprised. They never littered, they said.

Maybe they usually didn’t, but they did that day, and their trash of six years back made my blood boil all over again when I went to confront these latest offenders, already guilty in my eyes of leaving a mess. It wasn’t a farfetched assumption: I’ve never seen people litter as freely as the Spanish. I’ve even heard it said that littering is good because it provides someone with a job. I stepped outside the gate, ready to confront these newcomers, but my son, arriving home on foot just then, did it for me, approaching the car and suggesting in a pleasant voice that they find someplace else. “Can’t you see there’s a house here?”

I later thought why not try a sign again saying “Please! Take your trash!” I could even spray paint the message on the barn wall. And later still, when running up and down the lane during Spain’s state of alarm, each time I passed the grassy triangle on my endless laps, I recalled the young man in the car, his window rolled down to speak to my son, someone his own age. From where I waited, I could see my son beside the car and heard first him, then the guy inside, who protested plaintively, “We’re not hurting anyone.”

My son handled the situation well—he sounded reasonable, relaxed, even friendly. The two in the car, looking up at him, had nothing further to say. They put on their lights and drove off. Did they find a place where no one thought it was their business to bother them? Up and down I ran in the lane, wondering if they had still been in the mood when they’d finally found a spot or if their tryst had been ruined, if they’d resented being chased away or if they’d laughed later about us, the people in the house protecting every inch of their turf, including an unused grassy triangle at the back, along with their right to order someone off it. People, they’d think, unhappy to pick up after someone but not balking at other dirty work.

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Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


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