The Garbagemen's Strike
Edward Gauvin translating the French of Jean Ferry
Since no one knew what to do with the trash while the garbage men were on strike, we burned it in the little central heating boiler. But the ashes wouldn’t burn, and soon we didn’t know where to put them. I was very tired back then, even more tired than usual, and I couldn’t call up the energy to haul the ashes that were piling up all the way to the heap at the intersection, whose growth the concierges in the neighborhood surveyed—not without pride. I dumped the ashes between the boiler and the little nook, and soon there were a lot, because to make the garbage burn I was also burning my ration of coal nuts. Now, a bad precedent, worse habits, the fire going out one day—in short, we soon wound up throwing out things that weren’t ashes, things we’d have been better off burning. In a little apartment like ours, a heap of trash like that was really unpleasant, all the more so because it began to slide, to spread here, there, and everywhere, and there was no end to sweeping in that dim little room with the boiler. We threw everything on that ash pile: oyster shells, banana peels, an empty can, fabric scraps, it was a regular landfill. But I was so tired…
So naturally, what had to happen happened. One morning, where the pile had been, was an old beggar who reproachfully watched me cross the room, probably because I wasn’t giving him anything. He’d put so much care into taking shape from our trash that apart from him, everything was now clean and orderly in that little room. Scrutinizing him with despair, I found the ashes in the filth of his grayish cast; from the banana peels he’d made pallid fingers, shapeless and trembling; from white eggshells the whites of his eyes; and from fabric scraps the tatters that clothed him. And toward me, he extended the tin can which had seemed useful for begging. He fit precisely into that little recess, and with a heavy heart I knew right away that there was no getting him out of there now.
The next day, the strike was over, the garbage trucks rolling merrily down every street. But my panhandler’s still there. I don’t know what to do. We always have to go through that little room to get to the other half of our apartment; anyway, we really had to light the fire again, and where he is, he can’t possibly be cold. He never speaks, barely even moves, but each time we pass by, he holds out the tin can with a trembling arm and, despite every thought I can muster against charity, I go back to the kitchen for some change if I don’t have any. No one dares walk by him now without giving him something. The concierge says, “Just bring him down with your other trash. Once he’s in the can, you won’t be able to tell him from everything else!” Easier said than done. I don’t have a big enough shovel, and he looks so cozy over there by the boiler. Maybe he’ll leave when the fire goes out.
The cats are lucky indeed. They don’t see him, they don’t even know he’s there, and they sleep right where he does.
Like we didn’t have enough troubles already!
Edward Gauvin has received fellowships and residencies from the NEA, the Fulbright Association, the Centre National du Livre, and the Lannan Foundation. His translation of Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud's selected stories A Life on Paper (Small Beer, 2010) was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award and won the Science Fiction & Fantasy Translation Award. Other publications have appeared in Conjunctions, Subtropics, The New York Times, Tin House, PEN America, and The Southern Review. The winner of the John Dryden Translation prize, he is a contributing editor at Words Without Borders, and writes on the fantastic for Weird Fiction Review.
Though Jean Ferry (1906-1974) made his living as a screenwriter—best known for his collaborations with Clouzot, Buñuel, Louis Malle, and Georges Franju—he was involved in many notable movements of 20th century French literature. He was a satrap of the College of 'Pataphysics, an Oulipo guest of honor, and the greatest specialist of his day in the works of Proust’s eccentric neighbor, Raymond Roussel. Ferry’s only book of prose, The Conductor and Other Tales, was published in 1953 and recently brought back into print. Andre Breton called Ferry's story "The Society Tiger" "the most sensationally new poetical text I have read in a long time." Translations of Ferry have appeared in The Coffin Factory and Weird Fiction Review, and are forthcoming in Subtropics and Birkensnake. Wakefield Press will publish the first English translation of The Conductor this November.