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I COLLECTED aluminum cans for pocket money the summer my dad went to jail and my mom lost her job. She was getting some unemployment, but things were already tough. My dad was serving time for cheque fraud and we had to go to churches on Thursdays to get expired supermarket bakery goods just to make it until her cheque came in.
When she could, my mom cleaned office buildings at night for a Vietnamese guy who paid her under the table. That didn’t happen a lot though, only when someone from his crew called in sick. The extra cash helped, but there was barely anything left after paying the bills. I was getting older and wanted to hang around the mall with my friends and buy cool clothes, not the secondhand stuff from the Salvation Army store I always wore. So I started dumpster diving in apartment complexes near the airport for pocket money.
The pilots and flight attendants who lived there really liked to party on the weekend. The apartment complex dumpsters were brimming with beer cans and liquor bottles on Monday morning after the jet setters took out the trash.
I’d wade into the waist-high effuse with a 40-gallon bag and rake handle to dig through the stinking mess with flies buzzing and ricocheting around my ears. Digging in the trash bins yielded a lot of aluminum, but I’d find other stuff too. One time I hauled a new stereo out just because the speaker wires were frayed. I guess the pilots made so much money they could just buy new stuff instead of getting it repaired. I’d find books and music too. That’s how I got my first Credence Clearwater Revival album. But it was the cans that I was mainly looking for.
Once I had enough cans to sell I took them to an empty lot near my house where there were still the remains of a soot-stained foundation, the house having burned down long ago. I crushed the cans with the heel of my foot and stacked them tightly in tough plastic bags for hauling to an old man who bought them by the pound. He then sold them to a recycler in the city at a higher profit.
The old man freaked me out. The tip of his nose was missing and the older kids who collected cans called him cut-nose because of it. The younger among us simply called him can man or mister.
Rumour was that Can Man was cut up in a knife fight in WWII when a Marine lobbed the tip of his nose off in a brawl over a woman while on shore leave. By the time I met him he was living with his invalid wife in a crummy little bungalow in a real white trash part of town. The weedy front yard of their house was littered with rusted car and machine parts. Can Man kept the recyclables in his garage and during the summer there was always a rancid, spoiled yeast smell hovering over their house because of the old beer cans.
We didn’t know if Can Man’s wife was senile or just crazy. When you knocked on the door to sell some cans, you could see her sitting in the dark living-room wearing her greasy muumuu watching TV. It was freaky because she’d be moving her lips without saying anything.
Can Man barely ever came out of the house until it was time to do business. When we showed up with recyclables to sell, he’d motion to us from the doorway with a change-purse gripped tight between his dirty unclipped fingernails, ordering us to bring the aluminum-laden bags closer to him.
The old man kneeled down to probe and prod the bags as if he were some measly king in a cursed land examining our blighted harvest. He shook the bags to see if any liquids were sloshing inside, threatening us that he’d never buy another bag from a kid who sold him cans with rainwater or beer still in them.
“There’s no profit in chicanery,” he warned us.
Can Man kept a large, rusty scale on his porch where he weighed the bags. Then he’d jot down the volume and the kid’s name in a notebook he kept in his back pocket.
When it was time to pay us, Can Man would mumble under his sour breath and dig through his ratty money-purse for loose change and crumpled up dollar bills. A good haul might fetch you two or three bucks. In other words: squat.
One time I brought some cans to sell around lunch time and I saw Can Man through the screen door. He was stooped over a TV tray in front of the woman cutting her food up in tiny portions and feeding it to her as the audience on the game show she watched clapped and hooted.
Can Man spoke low and sweet to her as he fed her the bites of food, kind of like the way parents talk to a small baby. It surprised me because the stingy old man was always in a foul mood with us kids. I didn’t knock. I don’t know why, Can Man was always buying cans. I just walked away. I came back a few days later to sell the cans.
This was right before the Fourth of July and I’d been digging through trash dumpsters even before the sun was up to get more cans. I wanted a little extra cash to buy fireworks. My plan was to head down to the river with some friends to shoot them off.
When I knocked on the door, sweaty and anxious to sell the load, a young man met me, and not Can Man. I stepped back surprised. The guy was in his early 20s. He wore a starched white shirt and black tie with a little cross pin and ironed trousers. His shoes were polished too.
With his clean shaven face and nicely combed hair, he almost looked like those door-to-door Bible people who handed out illustrated tracts about how to find salvation in Jesus.
I told him I was there to sell some cans. The young man shook his head. He said his grandfather was killed a couple of days before and that he was just there checking on stuff. That’s when I saw his eyes were red.
I couldn’t believe that this good-looking guy in front of me was cut-nose’s grandkid. I mumbled some forgettable condolence and started to back away when he looked over my shoulder at the aluminum can-laden wagon I had pulled over to the house.
“Those the cans you talking about?”
I nodded. He bit his bottom lip.
“Look, just put them on the side of the house,” he said.
Can Man’s old Ford truck was loaded with bags of cans in the driveway. The young man took a roll of money out of his pocket and peeled off two five-dollar bills. I opened my mouth to say that the bags were only worth a couple of dollars when he shook his head.
“No worries, kiddo.” He handed me the crisp bills. “God bless you.”
He shut the door and I left the cans there by the truck along with the wagon. I wouldn’t need it anymore now that Can Man was dead.
That summer when Can Man got murdered, I earned a whopping $33 from trash digging. Most of the money came from the old man’s grandkid.
I took the cash and bought three paper bags of fireworks at a roadside stand on the outskirts of town. I got bottle-rockets, cherry bombs, roman candles and firecrackers. My friends and I spent Independence Day shooting bottle-rockets into the slow-moving waters of the river. It was kind of cool to see them exploded underwater with a muffled thud. Sometimes an air bubble would rise from the concussion and tiny curls of smoke would dance on the waters.
After a while we headed to a clearing in the woods to shoot off the rest of the fireworks. The wind picked up late in the day and the woods were littered with the confetti of spent firecracker papers.
The topic of conversation among us in the woods was Can Man and his murder. We’d heard the cops caught the guy who did it. He was a junkie we knew who sold cans when he couldn’t make enough panhandling. He was only a few years older than us, but the guy was strung out when he stabbed Can Man and stole his change purse.
Someone made a joke about the miserly old man digging through his change-purse to pay the ferryman of the dead in exact change, and not a penny more. Even I said something about Can Man leaping up from his deathbed to grab the pennies from his eyelids and shoving them in his pockets because he was so tight-fisted.
We spent a good hour laughing about Can Man and his knife-scarred nose and his dirty clothes and his glum ways. Thing was, deep down I was troubled by what I was saying about the old man. I couldn’t get my mind off Can Man’s wife. I’d seen how tender he was with her that day when he fed her lunch. It was like he really loved her. All of the joking about the dead man made me feel even worse. I was just too scared to say anything good about him.
By dusk we had shot the last of fireworks. We got on our bikes and rode back home. I broke off from the others near the train trestle, since my neighborhood was on the other side of town.
The oncoming night brought a breeze, but the air smelled as acrid as a battlefield. The evening sun fell behind the horizon and street lamps flickered on. I coasted in the twilight past front yards where there were still little kids running around with sparklers in their hands.
I almost tumbled off my bike when a loud boom struck out against the rising moon. It sounded like summer thunder. I stopped, pulled over to the curb and looked up. The sky lit up with cascading silver, gold, blue, red and green splinters of light. It was the county’s annual fireworks display.
A shipping company in town moored a barge mid-river to shoot off fireworks for the Fourth. It was a big deal for the town. People liked to go to the riverfront with lawn chairs and blankets to watch the show.
The sky blossom of lights was followed by another thud. The air shook with rocket-fire from the barge. More colours streaked across the smoky firmament. The night air trilled with more bangs and whizzes. After about 20 minutes, the show ended.
In the sudden quiet of the night, I felt a weird sinking feeling in my chest as the smoke drifted across the sky. I’d almost forgotten that I was near the street where the Can Man and his wife lived.
I don’t know what got into me, but I wanted to go over there and see if the nicely dressed man was still there. I wanted to ask about his grandmother. I wanted to know what they would do with her. There was no way she could live on her own. The woman’s caretaker, a man that we kids both feared and derided, was gone.
It shook me up, thinking about the old man and his wife like that. Then I felt worse because I said so many bad things about him in the woods. I started pedaling my bike as hard as I could, trying to put some distance between me and Can Man’s house.
I was afraid that if I did go back to the house and knocked on the door, it would be the woman to greet me with a confused look in her eyes, demanding answers about her missing husband, and I had none to offer.
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