Vergatory

Thrift store confessions and parking lot redemption in Central Vermont.

This story originally appeared on Mutant Journalism, the Instagram account for Jeff Sharlet’s nonfiction courses at Dartmouth College.

Just five more Saturdays.

They come in all morning. Nonstop. Minivans, Rav4s, CRVs, Subarus. Mostly Subarus. They bring bags and boxes and sometimes just massive piles strewn across the back of the car. They bring jeans, sweaters, children’s books, coffee makers, board games, hockey sticks, picture frames, old stereos, Christmas ornaments. They bring trash. “You can’t dump that here. Take it to the drop down the road.”

Robbie got his first DUI four years ago, when he was 21. Skipped town before he finished community service. Says he wanted to visit his mom in the hospital. Got a second DUI in Florida. “Didn’t learn my lesson.” Eventually came back to Vermont. Pulled over again, thrown in jail. Saint Albans, where “there’s a flat-screen TV in every cell.” Got out, missed a day of community service, sent back to jail. Saint Johnsbury. The worst. “Only one TV in the whole place.”

Now he spends his weekends in the donation lot behind the Salvation Army on North Main. He likes it here, except when things get so busy he can’t even take a cigarette break. Like today. “Fuckin’ A.” Still, it’s better than shoveling snow and cleaning bus stops with the other work crew.

A dark green Outback pulls up. Robbie, cigarette hanging from his lips, walks over to take two blazers in a clear plastic bag from the woman in the passenger seat. Earlier this morning he found a ninety-dollar shirt in a bag of clothes, tags still on. “Who the fuck donates something like that?”

More donations come in than can possibly fit in the store. There’s an entire storage container just for the overflow. Some weekends Robbie drives the extra clothes up to a warehouse, past Hope Cemetery, where they get compacted, wrapped, and shipped abroad.

Robbie says he can’t believe how much clothing he processes every weekend. “They’re just givin’ it away? Fuckin’ A.”

“Those power lines are dangerous.” Robbie points to the lines running from the street to the back of the Salvation Army. All power lines are dangerous, he means.

During the week, Robbie cuts trees and maintains lines throughout Central Vermont. Part of a crew that gets subcontracted by the power companies. The pay’s good. Could be better. He likes it best when a big storm comes through on a Friday afternoon, knocking down trees that take all weekend to clean up. With time-and-a-half, he can make $900, sometimes $1000 in a single pay period.

Still, he says, they should pay more. Power lines are dangerous.

After a thunderstorm last summer, the big one that knocked out power all over the state, Robbie saw a fisher cat walk past one of the downed lines. It didn’t even touch the wire. Didn’t have to. The ground was wet. “Lit that fucker right up.”

A few years back Robbie watched a lineman working on a pole at a job in Hardwick. Three-phase line with a single tap coming off it, just like the pole here next to the thrift store. Routine maintenance. The lineman must’ve forgot the top lines were still hot. Reached up to grab something. Electrocuted. Right there on the pole. Robbie got him down on the ground, gave him CPR. Too late. “I felt his neck. He was done. Hard as a rock.”

Another Outback pulls up. A voice calls out from the shipping container. Erica. The boss. “Robbie, you gonna help carry donations or just keep standin’ around, talkin’?” Robbie flicks his cigarette butt across the lot. Break’s over.

Across his neck: Malika. She’ll be four in September.

The court gave Robbie permission to see her last weekend. He brought her to the town’s Easter egg hunt. They had a blast, he says. They always do. Malika’s mother Des — “my baby mama,” as Robbie calls her — came along. Wanted to keep an eye on her. On him, too.

Later that morning, Robbie’s new girlfriend showed up at the playground with her two kids. He didn’t know she was planning to come. Des wasn’t happy to see her. “She fuckin’ lost it.” Des cursed him out, cursed his new girlfriend out, took Malika by the arm, stormed off. Robbie’s voice rises as he recounts the scene. He lights another cigarette.

Robbie once caught his girlfriend (“ex-girlfriend,” he corrects himself) in bed with his best friend. He remembers coming home from work and finding the door locked. It was never locked. He kicked it down. Grabbed his friend, dragged him down the stairs—bop, bop, bop. Threw him outside and started kicking him, “right in the fuckin’ head.” Robbie’s felt insecure around women ever since. Used to feel a lot of rage, too, but he’s been working on that.

He’s looking forward to summer. Thinking about moving back to Florida. Holiday, near Clearwater, where his mom lives. He likes fishing down there. Saltwater. And it’s a lot cheaper than Vermont.

For now, he’s stuck in Barre. Can’t leave town for more than a week. If he misses community service, even a single day, they’ll send him right back to jail. “It’s the only thing holdin’ me back from doin’ anything.” He’s counting down. Almost done. “Fuckin’ A.”

Just five more Saturdays.


About the Author: James Napoli is the founder and editor-in-chief of Junction.

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