Arthur Gold woke in the dead of night to the sound of a diesel engine idling outside his window. For a moment he felt disoriented, confused as to the nature of his surroundings. Then he realized he was in his own bed in the house where he had lived for the past thirty years, and he wondered why that should seem strange.
But mostly he was annoyed at the low gravely sound of the engine that had penetrated the thin gauze of his sleep and jarred him into wakefulness. He parted the blinds with trembling fingers and looked through the plastic slats out into the street.
The garbage truck was parked just at the end of his driveway, a thin silhouette in the weak radiance of the street light. Its headlights cut twin paths of light out of the darkness, and Arthur couldn’t help but think of them as eyes glowing out of the face of a metal monster.
The feeling of annoyance faded and was replaced with an unfamiliar sense of fear, and the fact that he didn’t know why he was afraid, made the sensation all the more terrifying.
He waited, for how long he could not tell, and still the garbage truck sat there, engine growling, waiting.
But waiting for what? Arthur wondered. And with this unanswered question his feeling of terror grew, for he knew somehow that this truck was not here to haul away his empty milk bottles and assorted kitchen scraps. It was waiting for something else. Waiting for-
Arthur saw the light in the cab come on as the driver’s side door, the one facing away from him swung open, and he could see the shape of a man stepping down from the cab. For a moment the body of the hood hid the figure from view, but then it crossed in front of the headlights and stepped onto the snow that covered his lawn.
The snow puzzled Arthur. He didn’t remember it being winter. But there were so many things he didn’t remember these days, and now the figure was striding across the lawn closing in on Arthur’s front door.
The doorbell rang.
Arthur didn’t want to answer it. He wanted to stay and hide under the covers until the thing at the door gave up and went away. But Arthur had often felt that there were times in his life when he had no choice, that despite what the poet had said, his path had been chosen for him, and this was one of them.
The first foot out of bed felt the shock of the cold floor most keenly, the second, less so because it knew what to expect. Arthur’s arthritic fingers grasped the cane that leaned against his bedside table, and his legs forced him to rise. In spite of the fact his eyes had grown weak he had no trouble finding his way to the door even in the dark.
The bell had not rung again, but Arthur knew that the garbage man was waiting for him on the other side of the door. His left hand fumbled for the porch light switch, and then for the doorknob.
The door swung open to reveal a middle-aged man wearing faded overalls, holding a clipboard and peering at him through squinted eyes, momentarily blinded by the porch light. “Gold?” he asked. “Mr. Arthur Gold?”
“Yes?” Arthur said. “What’s this about?”
“I think you know Mr. Gold.”
The words cut into him like a knife, because part of him did know. But the other part, that part that kept on fighting even when he knew he was going to -no don’t say it, don’t even think it- that part rebelled. “What do you mean? Why are you here?”
“I’m here for you Arthur,” the garbage man said. “I’m here to take you away.”
And then Arthur knew the truth in full and he shrank back from the door. “No, you can’t. I won’t. Not in that!” The garbage man regarded him with a strange expression on his face. “I’m not garbage!” Arthur meant to scream, but the words dribbled out of his mouth in a pathetic hiss.
“I didn’t make it this way,” said the garbage man. “I’m only the messenger, an intermediary, if you will. Some of you see a skeleton with a scythe, others an angel with glowing wings. They choose the form I take, not me.”
And then Arthur remembered. He remembered why it had seemed odd to him to wake up in his old room, why the snow on the ground had seemed so out-of-place. It was because he hadn’t lived in his old house in nearly three months. Not since April. Not since the stroke had sent him to the hospital. But it was winter now, of course it was, because it was winter for him. It had been for some time now.
He remembered other things too. He remembered the pittance of a pension he received from the chemical plant where he’d worked for thirty-seven years. He remembered the four get-well cards that had come from his children, two of them identical, save for the hurried inscriptions scribbled on the inside. He remembered lying on that bed, unable to move, dying, alone. He remembered thinking how he had felt forgotten, discarded, by all the people he thought he might have mattered to.
The defiance in his heart dissolved and he hung his head and stepped out into the snow.
“You’re right,” he told the garbage man. “That’s my ride. Let’s go.”