Part of my probation had me on community service and because I’d stolen a Hostess truck I was forced to pick up litter for Hostess’s “adopt a highway” program. They had several miles of ditches on a two-lane blacktop just outside of Cedar Rapids, and I had until the end of summer to complete my work. But I wanted done early so one weekend I woke up and biked to the hardware store. I bought work gloves, Hefty bags with the yellow draw-string, and a ball cap with no print on the front— the kind with breathable mesh and adjustable snaps. I put on the cap, stuffed the gloves and trash bags into my backpack, and headed east.
It was early June, bright and sunny. The ditches, planted in prairie with “do not spray” signs next them, had yet to grow so I could walk through with relative ease. I mostly picked up crumpled fast food wrappers and plastic bottles, and an occasional random bit of car shedding—like a hubcap or piece of rubber. After I filled a bag, I’d leave it on the side of the road for some Hostess employee to come by with a truck. They’d do this off and on all day, or until I was finished.
Midmorning, this guy from Hostess drove by with an arm load of Little Debbie snacks. He said, “See, if only you’d asked. We’re a friendly, giving bunch.” He dropped the snacks on the ground and pulled ahead, up to where I’d left a bag. He hoisted the bag in his truck.
I pulled off my gloves and threw them in the ditch. I grabbed a canteen of water from my backpack. I gathered all the snacks and sat down and ate. Beyond the ditch was a scraggily tree line with smatterings of Buckthorn and Walnuts. On one side of the trees was a newly planted cornfield, just popping out of the ground. Maybe a half-foot tall. A sparrow flew by, and then perched on the barbed wire fence.
A little while later, still collecting trash, I walked up on a guy—an older fella—wearing khaki pants, a windbreaker, a white hat, and New Balance tennis shoes. We introduced ourselves. His name was Robert. He was holding a Hefty bag, just like mine, and it looked pretty full.
“You’ve been finding a lot trash,” I said. “You do this a lot?” He was standing on the other side of the road.
“I like to help out,” he said.
“That’s cool,” I said.
“You wouldn’t believe what I’ve got here,” he said. He walked over and opened the bag. Kittens were all balled up on top of each other.
“Holy shit,” I said. He pointed down the road. There were crows picking at something.
“The mother,” he said. “She must’ve gotten hit. Well, I found these little critters in the ditch, huddled together.”
We both stood there for a minute without saying anything. These kittens felt like a real burden. “What do you plan to do?” I said.
“I’m not much of a cat person,” he said.
“Me neither,” I said. I said, “I hate cats. But I might like kittens a little more.”
“Hmm,” he said. He took off his hat and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. He took off his jacket and tied it around his waist. His arms were tan and wrinkly.
He was tall. He had a long face and sad eyes, but I pictured him handsome as a younger, more upright man. Now, he was slumped, sad, and looking confused about what to do with the kittens.
Robert looked down the road to where he’d parked, next to a narrow bridge over a small trout stream. “We could drown them,” he said. “It might be best.”
“Like I said, I’m not much of a cat person,” I said, “but I’m not sure if that’d be the best idea.”
“Animals are a waste of money,” he said. “I’m thinking about all the food and shots and water for these little critters. I have a strong belief that that money could be otherwise used for starving kids in Detroit. Or Africa.”
“It seems a little brutal to kill off the kittens,” I said. I didn’t think that’d be a convincing rebuttal for Robert, but I had to say something.
He started in the direction of the bridge. I looked around. The wind had died down. It was still and eerie, like a church in silent prayer. I trotted to catch up with Robert and noticed several bits of trash in the ditches that I’d have to come back for.
“Robert,” I said, “we can’t drown the kittens.”
Robert turned to face me. “I have a boy,” he said. “A little Guatemalan I donate to as part of Children International.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Really fantastic, Robert.”
“I got a letter from him the other day that said by giving just a few more dollars a month he and his family could have a bigger house, maybe some running water.” Robert sighed and sat down on the side of the road. His legs pointed toward the ditch. He took off his hat and scratched his head. “People who spend money on these cats instead of giving to real people are not doing God’s work.”
After that comment, I knew it’d be pointless to argue.
Another minute passed. Then, for whatever reason, I grabbed the garbage bag from Robert, yanked it right out of his hand, and started up the road. I didn’t know where I was going but I knew I couldn’t let Robert drown those kittens. I walked for a while, then looked back. Robert was still sitting, staring at the ditch. The kittens purred.
I marched on, toward the pile of Little Debbie snacks I’d left in the ditch, telling myself that I was finally—finally—doing the right thing.
Keith Lesmeister is an MFA student at Bennington College. His fiction has appeared in Midwestern Gothic and The Waterhouse Review.