AS A DIVERSION, I followed the Can Man around campus—always from a safe distance because he was shy. Was he John the Baptist incarnate? It was too soon to know, though he wore a waist-long, unkempt gray beard with black striations and the bees loved him, buzzing near, hovering for the sugary remnants on his tan arthritic fingers and those gooey flecks inside the cans of the clear garbage sack slung over his shoulder.
He listlessly pedaled his forest-green, 1970s ten-speed over sidewalks and jarringly wobbled up a curb with a “shit-SHIT!” bursting as if a lethal sneeze.
He rambled, to himself and perhaps unseen past enemies, friends, lovers—of song remnants married to dimming emotions—the dueling nonsense maxims of God and Satan. His desert might have been one of loneliness among tight-skinned twenty-one-year-olds with his crumbly, green flip flops serving as thong sandals and dime-store, twelve-year-old clothes his camel-hair robe.
It’s unclear why I followed the Can Man. I had presumed him alcoholic and schizophrenic. I imagined him pressed flat against the lowest strata, the weight of our riches and comfort pinning him fast as the water in a lightless ocean trench crushes a man from the vertical miles resting above.
Hindsight is 20/20. It seems obvious with the passage of years that I followed the Can Man because I believed him alcoholic and with three men on my father’s side suffering from this I needed to know this Can Man was a different species from what I was, that a twitch of destiny could never shove me in his place.
He came early in the mornings around seven-thirty, so I had to set my alarm to catch him. It was still a week before the start of the fall semester. The prior evening I had drunk beer on the patio and I was hung-over as I dressed and slipped on shower sandals. I sat on a wooden bench next to a stone tablet of our fraternal crest. The patio was scattered with aluminum cans and glass beer bottles. There were maybe fifty of them. The Can Man would come.
He was a creeper, that Can Man. Like a house fly on your arm before you knew it. I startled as I looked up from my daydreaming to him picking up the cans set along the long wooden bench like parapets. He worked solemnly, though he mumbled, “Devil” with each crumpled can he threw in his clear sack and “Saint-ey”, lisping childishly as he poured stale beer out of full ones. “Devil, Devil, Saint-ey,” his gaunt face froze and then tilted on his thin neck, fingers infrequently tugging at ring-tabs and sliding over aluminum as a blind man reads brail.
“Hey, Can Man,” I exclaimed.
He looked up—right at me, but without malice, setting a can down before picking up his bike to sneak away. He did this with such fluidity, such a smooth and eloquent escape that I wasn’t able to protest. The alcohol left undigested after my sleep had made me bold yet too dumb to get him to stay. It was a week before we had enough drinking guests over to warrant another Can Man visit.
This morning there were only twenty or so cans and bottles. So I went downstairs to a room we called the Pit-Pit because it was vaguely connected to the Pit through the TV room. This was where the pledges stored their cans and bottles that they would use to fund a charter-bus trip to visit another fraternity at some other campus of their choice. I went down there to steal a bag full of cans and bottles. It was a heavy, rattling bag. It would draw in the Can Man. As I neared the stairwell I met a pledge, the pledge-class president, no less.
“Hey!” he said. “What do you think you’re doing with our cans?”
“They’re not just your cans,” I said. “I bought some of these cans.”
“You can’t do that. If you take them, I’m going to tell Rex.” (Our fraternal president).
I sat the bag down. “Look. I need these.” I looked up at the ceiling tiles and reached into my wallet. “I’ll just pay for them.” I handed him a twenty, hating myself because all I had on me were two twenties.
“I retract my former statement.” He picked up his basket and continued on to the laundry room.
The extra cans and bottles were scattered around the porch quickly so no one saw and in random places to look natural. I waited on the bench. His bicycle made a slight squeak that I had trained my ears to hear. When I heard his I looked down at the red bricks, trying to be inconspicuous as he considered whether to begin collecting. Cans rattled and rustled into his plastic sack as I looked down. “Saint-ey.” Beer poured and his footsteps paced bricks, “Devil. Devil.”
I stood. “Excuse me, sir.” I walked toward him.
He looked up, heading toward his bike. “I don’t want your cans.”
“No, please. I’d like to talk with you.”
His hand motioned to push me away. “Proper channels. Proper channels,” he said.
“What? What proper channels?” I asked, nearing him.
“Call your governor. We’ll have a man out in twelve minutes or it’s free?”
“What’s free?” I asked.
He looked around, upset. “Everything! Everything, man, don’t you know that? It’s free.” He spoke loud with a lisping apostle’s rage. He looked up to the sky. Then raised a crushed beer can and showed the decay in his smile, “Why do you throw it away?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Actually, I’d like very much for you to have these cans.”
The Can Man picked a can off the ground. “I’ve been picking up for you kids for one hundred years.” He looked up at me. “It’s time. Go into the world. Get a job!”
I followed at a distance as he walked to a carnation planter with beer cans covering its oak rim. He stooped down before the planter and picked a can crushed into a disk off the red bricks. “You see that? That’s a Big Nic. Nickel got too big. Carry her back to my spot; flip her for a nickel that spends.” He scrounged over the cans on the rim. “Devil, Devil,” he poured beer, “Some Saint-ey in this here.”
As a breeze moved past him, green horse manure and burning leaves flashed to mind with the fear of confronting someone so dazed and inhuman settling in my throat. “Where do you sleep?” I asked.
“What?” I asked.
He didn’t look up. “World. I sleep at the world, the outside part.”
“Oh.” I scratched my head. “Where was that again?”
“Under rocks. Specs of sand—inside them; I do. The sleepy brains of strong-fisted police marble-ers. Up the butt of that beagle. And the crawlspace of public libraries. Sometimes I sleep also, there.”
“What are you doing to prepare for the future?”
“Future?” he asked.
“It’s what happens next.”
“Ah. No. I, I don’t think so,” his voice wavered and softened, “It don’t happen next.”
“Well, actually it does. Like earlier we talked about something and now we’re talking about something different. Time passed between that. Take that and extend it out to a really large scale. That’s the future.”
“Scale? You going to punch? I hit first, last.” He pointed to his thumbnail’s old, dry wound cleaved to the cuticle. “I hit you in between.”
“I’m saying that time passes and things happen. We have to prepare for what’s to come. You know? winter’s coming and it’s going to get cold. Don’t you remember things that happened to you when you were young?”
“Sure! Sure, man: things.” His eyes lit and moved like a child with so many presents. “They happen, they always happen. Bling blang bloom, they come at you and they move out like, like … Things are always happening. It don’t stop, it don’t start. It just is. Here we are, man. Here we are.”
“But things happen, things change, one after the other, we have these events that change us like a, like a bead of paint running down a wall that can never run upward again.”
“That what you think?” He patted my back with dry, rough fingers pressing. “Sorry, man. That’s a shit way to get these sidewalks and white walls figured. Keep working it. You got money, man. I don’t talk shop because I like you. Need fuel to burn me up. Starting to be stuck on the tight fingers and belly.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a bill. It was a twenty—all I had. He saw it. A twenty wasn’t something to be easily parted with. I had less than three-thousand in checking. Boozing and maintaining an early nineties domestic car, such as the Plymouth Laser, didn’t come cheap.
“Here,” I said.
He stuffed it into the pocket of his cargo shorts, wordlessly. The shorts didn’t suit him. Both he and the manufacturer had spent time fatiguing.
“Where were you born,” I asked. “Do you have relatives?”
He looked around like someone was watching, then headed to a black barbeque grill made of a halved barrel with angle-iron legs. He collected the cans around its legs. “Devil, Devil. Big Nic!” He toppled a Corona bottle to pour its yellow beer. “Mom and Dad were gone. Grandma was a waitress. Ink-black hair with length and eyes for sex-crash; then her face fell to the floor; bones shrunk.” He walked toward the couch beneath the roof’s overhang, throwing cans in his bag. “Devil. Devil. Hmm.” He ran a swollen-knuckled finger along his oily face and neck. “I stepped on a nail in the alleys when I was five-years. We couldn’t afford the shot to keep away trap-jaw. Trappity-trap. Trappity.” He shook his bag of cans and looked through it.
“Did you just wait and see if you would be okay?”
“We went to the guy, the busy guy—slicing, hacking—big slow… fingers! pinky finger not here on this one or there on that one—he was pulling babies out of a screamy—well—the too-old, the too-young whores in a lost freezer of Restaurant.” The Can Man placed the last can inside the weighty bag and slung it over his back. “We’re done here.” He squinted at the sun. “Ain’t no heaven, but I ain’t afraid to be dead. I seen enough for it to be enough.”
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