The thing about being way out in the country is that there’s no trash pickup. It makes you acutely aware of exactly how much garbage you produce, especially when you have to frequently pack it all up in your car and then drive to dispose of it.
So on our recent trip out to rural Virginia, I found myself headed to the dump. I didn’t really know where it was, so I kept slowing down on the highway. People behind me must have been irritated, but no one honked. As I pulled into the dump, a man greeted me. “I saw you headed here,” he said, “and you kept slowing down at strange times. But then I saw your DC plates and realized that you weren’t from around here.”
I laughed, and we started chatting. He had worked at the dump for many years, and lived right up the road. “They call me Flatwood Willie, ’cause my name’s Willie, and the road that runs right here is named Flatwood. What brings you around here?” he asked me.
The honest answer was that Shawn’s old boss lends me his farmhouse for a week every summer, so that I can reconnect with my kids and their Canadian cousins. It’s a kindness born out of loss, and I was trying to figure out how to explain it.
“I know this guy,” I started, and then paused, not knowing how to proceed.
“Oh!” he said, a smile coming to his face, “a guy.”
Oh no, I thought, wrong assumption. Should I go with it, or not? Knowing that I might bring my kids to the dump at some point that week, I decided against it.
“No, that’s not it,” I said, stumbling over my words for a minute. “Well, here’s the thing, my husband died and this ‘guy’ was his boss so he lends me his house to get away during the summer.”
“Woah,” Willie said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Anyway, this trip always helps clear some of the stress out of my life. I love it out here.”
It was clear he did too. We chatted about where I was staying and the beauty of the land. He was kind and really warm. As we parted, he promised me that we’d see each other around.
He was true to his word. The next day, as I walked along a country road with my sister-in-law, he drove by and stopped to chat. When we got back to the house, I told the kids about running into Willie.
“You have a friend at the dump?” Claire asked, her eyes wide. “Mom, you make friends everywhere!”
“Kiddo, your dad worked at the dump,” I said.
She didn’t know that, and neither did her brothers. “Oh, yes,” I said, “just after college, before Daddy moved to Japan and met me, he had a job at the dump in Canada.”
Their eyes were wide. I couldn’t believe I had never told them this story. “Dad’s job was to get the trash that had flown out of the dump and put it back in the dump,” I said. “As you can imagine, it was a frustrating job!” (I think the word Shawn had used with me was “Sisyphean.” I had to look it up, as I’d never heard someone use such a word in casual conversation.)
I continued with my story. “Dad didn’t work there for long. Eventually, he got a job working as a porter in the hospital where his mom was a nurse. But he never forgot it. Sometimes, when I’d put something in the trash like an old knife blade, he’d get upset and remind me that doing something like that was really dangerous for the people who collected the trash. He showed me how to properly dispose of things like that.”
“So,” I said, “Dad learned a lot from working at the dump.”
As we left at the end of the week, I returned to the dump with the kids. They were piled in the back with two of their cousins, and as we headed there, they all wondered out loud if they’d meet my new friend.
As luck would have it, Willie was at the gate. I hopped out of the car and went over to him. “Hey there,” I said. He got a huge grin on his face. “How are you?” he asked.
Before I could reply, I heard the kids chanting from the car. “Flatwood Willie! Flatwood Willie!”
He started laughing. “They know my name!” he said.
“I told them about you,” I said, “and the story of our meeting actually led to me telling them a story about their dad, who worked at the dump in Canada. They loved hearing it.”
He smiled at that. “That’s awesome,” he said. We chatted for a bit longer and the kids kept waving at him.
“I hope I see you again,” I said as I was leaving.
“Me too,” he said. “I’ll be here when you come back. I’ve been here all my life and don’t plan on going anywhere. You take care.”
It was a small series of interactions – ones that he’ll probably forget. But I won’t. Because my kids now know another story about their dad, courtesy of a man I met in the unlikeliest of places.