The Can Man
Daniel R Norby
On an overcast morning in late September, Donny was clearing away trash and collecting cans near the North Fargo train trestle adjacent to his back yard. The train trestle crossed the Red River joining tracks from Fargo to Moorhead. He felt a private pride in keeping this area clean, but this is not to say that the wasted quarter acre was of any immaculate beauty. It was an overgrown with weeds and infested with years of broken glass.
Assistance from the State paid for telephone service, and some of his rent, heat and food. But he still needed the can money to make ends meet. Soon it would be too cold to collect cans and Donny would take his winter break and survive on the meager savings he managed to accrue over the rest of the year. "The lean time," he called it.
"Crush the cans flat," was his father's mantra. "You get more in the bag that way." The words rang in Donny's ears every time he flattened a can under the heel of his cowboy boot. There were a lot of cans here today. He figured some teenagers must have had a party here last night. Some of the cans had dark red lipstick on them. There were also new, glossy words in red spray paint under the trestle. His illiterate mind was unable to make any sense of the words. He only saw them as red, dripping slashes that looked somehow ominous and cruel.
He emerged from under the trestle just as a light rain began to fall. Near the river he thought he saw a broken bag of garbage lying in the mud. But as he stepped closer he could see that it was the body of a young girl. His heart crashed in his chest as he stood over her flat, breathless body. Her dull green eyes stared up the riverbank with raindrops falling into them and trickling out as tears. Around her milky neck was a ring of ugly, purple bruises. He saw a crust of blood inside her right nostril and a trace of dark red lipstick on lips that had turned blue.
He ran his awkward run to his home and knocked on his landlord's door. Donny lived in a dumpy, gray renovated house with his landlord, Dale, on the main floor. When Dale answered he had to ask Donny to repeat himself four times before he understood. The combination of Donny's usual garbled speech, his struggle to catch his breath and his panic became a troublesome mix. It sounded like "dead go... dead go..." to Dale until he finally understood Donny was saying, "dead girl." Dale still had Donny take him to the river to see the body for himself before he called the police.
TV news cameras arrived while the police were questioning Donny. Donny recognized the reporter from TV - her name was Stacey Sybell. She stood near a cameraman as he filmed Donny talking to the cop. The cop asked him how he found her, and if he'd witnessed anyone at the scene. Donny became embarrassed and spoke softly as he answered the cop and the cop quickly became frustrated trying to talk to him. It wasn't Donny's fault that he hadn't witnessed her death or anyone fleeing the scene. All he could do is point to her body, now covered in a black bag, and state the obvious. "I saw her over there." A dog could have sniffed out the body and been as much help.
That night Donny watched himself on the news. He was relieved to see that they only briefly showed his face. Mostly the TV showed a close up of the police officer that Donny had spoken to. "Unfortunately the can man was cleaning this area," he said. "We found the victim's lipstick on some of the cans but since the can man had already crushed them, it will be very difficult to find any fingerprints. With the morning's rain, additionally complicating matters, it's unlikely we'll find anything useful at the scene. The bruises on her neck may be the only evidence we have unless we find DNA evidence under her fingernails or elsewhere on her body."
The camera cut to Stacy standing in front of an ambulance as paramedics loaded up the dead body. "With the limited evidence, Fargo police have a difficult task ahead of them as they go on the lookout for a killer. This is Stacy Sibel News center seven."
That night, after a fitful effort to get to sleep, Donny fell into a vivid dream. He was standing under the train trestle transfixed by the red spray-painted words drawn in their crude angles over the calico of previous graffiti.
Donny smelled a thick odor of dead leaves and rotted wood. The sound of rustling grass pulled his attention from the graffiti. He saw the dead girl lying as he'd found her that morning with her muddy hair and pale blue skin. She sat up slowly as if pulled by invisible hands. Her face was darker now and slightly rotted and her wide, staring eyes had gray, sunken circles around them. She opened her purple lips as if to speak but instead of words, dark, wet clods of dirt spilled from her mouth and into her lap. A plump worm wriggled through the dirt. She pointed to the spray-painted words. Donny understood her - she didn't need to speak - she was inside his head somehow.
He painted this, Donny thought, unsure of who he was or what he'd painted.
He turned back to the girl, who was being consumed by worms. They had taken her eyes and were turbulently devouring the meat beneath her skin.
Donny began each day of can collecting with the dumpster behind the Barleycorn Bar and Restaurant. This was a popular bar with the college kids and a substantial score for Donny due to the fifty-cent special on Pabst Blue Ribbon cans.
Donny dropped out of high school at sixteen and took the only "real" job he'd ever had washing dishes at the Barleycorn. He had held the job for six years until Louis, the kitchen manager, fired him for eating the leftover food off the dishes that were brought back to him. There's nothing wrong with the food that came back. It was just leftovers from someone's table, Donny had thought. It was headed for the trash anyway. He barely made enough to pay for his meals and he could sense how he made people uncomfortable by the way they avoided their gaze and hurried to finish their meal or their cigarette if he entered the break room. Donny just thought it was better to avoid situations where people felt they had to try to make conversation with him. He thought he was doing them a favor by working straight through and he never complained about being on his feet for eight hours straight. But he still knew it was wrong to eat the leftover food. It was a subject of disgust among the waitresses and amusement among the cooks. When it got him fired it was an embarrassment he couldn't forget and dear God, how his father beat him for losing his job.
After that his father made him help collect cans. Donny used to see people he worked with while he dug through the Barlycorn's dumpster but after a few years Donny didn't see any familiar faces. He guessed that they must have moved on to careers, marriage and families... all concepts that Donny knew about through TV. But there was one person that never left, one who lingered like a vindictive spirit.
"Donny!" barked the unpleasantly familiar voice of Louis startling him. Donny jumped up straight in the dumpster to see him pulling a large plastic garbage can on wheels. The wet trash inside the can was steaming in the cold air.
"Lookin' for some dinner in there, Donny?" Louis asked, showing his spear-toothed grin.
"No," Donny said. His voice sounded like someone playing a note on a jug.
"Gotta dump the trash," he warned.
"Go ahead," Donny said attempting indifference.
Louis lifted the garbage can. Donny saw that the bag was not tied shut as it was supposed to be - as he had always done - and the garbage emptied in a vomitous gush into the dumpster and over Donny. Louis peeled the scumbag liner from the can and dropped it in laughing at Donny, now knee deep in slop.
"Bon appetite," Louis said and pulled the can back into the Barleycorn.
Donny's father used a wreck of a truck to collect cans with but Donny knew he was too slow to get a driver's license so he sold it and used a shopping cart instead. He would make several trips to the recycling center after filling the inside of his cart and tying full bags around it so they hung from the cart like over-ripe fruit.
After he made his final trip to the recycling center he would park his shopping cart behind his house and go down the crumbling cement stairs to his apartment. Usually he worked until sunset but the wet garbage Louis dumped on him had chilled him to the bone so he went home early.
Every day he tried to shower off the filth and even though he washed with soap, the smell of waste permeated him until it seemed his very bones reeked with the sour stench of refuse. But like mechanics that no longer noticed the oily grime that permanently resided under their fingernails and in the wrinkles of their hands, he no longer noticed the smell. Though today he guessed he must stink from the trash Louis dumped on him. The wet garbage also made his rash itch. He'd developed the rash over a decade ago. At its worst the rash would spread from his belly down to his ankles but usually it was fairly docile and lingered around his waist like a diaper rash.
Donny looked in the mirror repulsed by his dopey reflection. He couldn't blame Louis or his father or anyone who had tortured him and his anger fizzled into his usual sad self-loathing. Some days Donny would shave his weak beard and trim his thin mustache, but usually he avoided looking at himself. He knew it was his looks that instantly marked him as an outsider. Not to say that Donny was ugly, he was too nondescript to be ugly. His pale green eyes were only a bit brighter in life than the girl's were in death. His nose and cheeks were covered with red blood vessels that looked like the roots of his red hair trying to push their way through his pale skin. One might think that Donny was a drunk, like the cartoon hobos with the bulbous red nose, but because of his father, Donny abhorred alcohol. His father was the one who first told him he was ugly. He was never shy about calling him stupid either and if he had to, he'd run his point home with a gnarled, arthritic fist.
Donny went outside preferring the sound of the cold wind whistling through the bare trees to his own thoughts as he casually picked up trash around the trestle. He liked clearing the trash in the fall the best. It would soon be too cold for the teenagers to hang out here and Donny would get rid of nearly every scrap of trash. If there was only a way to keep them out of here for good this little area could be nice. Just as Donny was about to go home with his bag of trash he spotted a magazine fluttering at the edge of some long weeds. When he was a few steps away he was able to see the glossy pages with large, flesh-covered pictures. A dirty magazine. He picked it up and looked around to make sure no one saw him with his contraband, then stuffed it in his trash bag and went straight home.
His father had caught him looking at a dirty magazine once and pinched his wiener hard enough to make it bleed. "You want your little prick to fall off?" He said over Donny's tears. "Fuck one of these whores and it sure enough will. Or maybe you were thinking of playing with yourself? Your dead mother sees everything you do, pervert." Donny didn't look at another dirty magazine again.
He reached into the bag and pulled out the magazine. It had dried mud smeared across the cover and inside were pictures of naked women with their legs spread wearing expressions of open-mouthed rapture, fierce clenched teeth and painful ecstasy on their faces. Then he came across a photo that someone had burned the eyes out of with a cigarette. He thought of the dead girl in his dream with the worms spilling from her sockets and the voice of his father threatening him, "Your dead mother sees everything you do..."
Donny threw the magazine in the kitchen garbage where he could bury it under the rotting food to remove any temptation.
"I'm sorry Mama," he said over and over with his head bowed to the garbage can and his hands clasped before him. When he was finally ready to warm up his dinner he made tomato soup and a Velveeta sandwich. On bone chilling days like this Donny loved the sensation of warming from the inside out with hot soup.
While eating his dinner he watched TV. He watched a lot of TV but he especially enjoyed the company of it while eating. He thought to himself how pretty Stacy Sybell was as she reported new information on the dead girl. "The victim has been identified by her parents as seventeen-year-old Janis Tollman a junior at North High. Her parents told the police that she told them she was going out yesterday not saying with whom or where. If anyone has any information they are urged to..." Suddenly the TV snapped loudly, emitted a cloud of smoke that smelled of ozone and went black.
"No!" Donny said out loud, dribbling soup down his chin. He set down his meal and ran to his TV. He turned it off and on again, unplugged it and plugged it in but it was no use. In an intense whisper directed to heaven Donny pleaded, "Please Mama... no. I said I was sorry. I won't ever look at a dirty magazine again. Papa, I'm sorry. God... everyone... I'm sorry... please." He prayed desperately over and over until he felt a glimmer of hope that he may have been heard and tried the TV once more. Again, nothing. He went back to his soup, which had turned cold, and ate in lonely silence.
There was nothing to do without TV so Donny went to bed early. He couldn't imagine life without his TV. He decided he'd have to use his winter savings and not take the time off this year. Better to work in the bitter cold then sit here for three months in his dark basement alone with his thoughts. When he finally fell asleep he dreamt he was painting the trestle. All over it was a smooth, shiny white except for the red words that he painted. Donny painted over them again and again but the red spray paint kept bleeding through to the surface.
Janis stood behind him watching over his shoulder. "What are you doing Donny?" Her breath smelled like mud.
"This is my place and I don't want this here anymore." He dunked his brush into the paint and slapped it on the red letters to demonstrate that they wouldn't go away.
"Do you want to know what it says?"
"I don't know."
"It says, 'Together Forever.' It's something people say when they're in love." She took a few casual steps toward Donny.
"Were you in love with him?"
"No, I barely knew him."
"Then why did he put that here?"
"It's a sick joke I guess. His head isn't right."
Janis laughed, "No, not like you. You're head is...different but your heart makes up for it. You have such a good heart. His is bad." Janis moved in front of Donny. He could see beetles crawling in her hair.
"Are you dead?" Donny asked.
"I'm not sure what I am."
"Are there other dead people here?"
"Who? Like you father?"
"Yes. Is he here? Can you tell him I'm sorry? Tell him don't break my TV."
"Your father didn't break your TV, Donny. It just broke."
And there under the trestle with them was Donny's father. He had similar facial features to Donny but they were washed out and wrinkled as if someone had bleached Donny and put him away wet.
"What are you doing down here?" his father asked, staggering towards them like a mad dog.
"I'm painting," Donny said.
"What are you doing with her?" Donny's father hooked a knobby finger at Janis. His breath was as sour as his overalls but smoky too, from whiskey and cigarettes. "What do you want to do with her?"
"Nothing," Donny said.
"Yeah, Don. Tell him it's none of his business," said Janis.
"Shut your mouth whore, I know why you’re here." Donny's father bore a stare into Janis, which seemed to mean that the dead can't hide secrets from each other. "You just wanted to get fucked but you got a little more didn't you?"
"Shut up!" Donny yelled at his father. Janis had been through enough pain she didn't need to suffer his insults as well.
"What did you say to me?" Donny's father clenched his fist.
"I told you to shut your mouth. This is my place. You don't belong here."
"That's right Don, just look at him. He's just an old drunk, you're smarter and stronger than him - you always were." Janis touched Donny's arm.
"You're letting her fill your head with bullshit. You think you're getting stronger? Smarter? You're still the same worthless tit you've always been." He walked away from them towards the river his fist unraveling to wilted fingers. "Sweet dreams...reality doesn't change." He did not look back as he waded into the water and disappeared under the surface.
"You are getting stronger," Janis said and laid down in a strange weightless fall that brought her to rest in the position Donny had found her in a few days before. Slowly she sank into the ground until the bank of the river consumed her.
Donny would have avoided going to the Barleycorn if it weren't such a treasure trove of cans. He hated Louis for being so petty. Donny figured Louis was bitter because he worked at the Barleycorn after all his friends had moved on, and he took that bitterness out on him.
No more, thought Donny. Life isn't kind, that's not my fault.
Louis came out for a smoke to find Donny digging inside the dumpster.
"What's for dinner Donny?"
No more. "Your mother," Donny said and giggled to himself.
"What did you say? What did you fucking say? That's it. You're going down retard." Louis ran back in the door and came storming out with a bucket of used fryer grease. Donny hurried out of the dumpster but he couldn't tie his bags and leave with his cart in time. A few cooks came out to see what Louis was so mad about. Louis was moving too fast though and the oil was sloshing out of the bucket, down his leg. He slipped on his greasy shoe and fell with the bucket spilling over washing him with brown oil. The cooks gawked for a moment then exploded into a scream of laughter. The owner came out to see what the hell was going on and saw Louis covered in fryer oil.
"Well?" said the owner. "Don't just stand there. Clean that mess up. We could get fined for that." Then he turned to the other cooks. "Get back to work."
"Have fun," said Donny, leaving with his cans.
"Fuck you, retard." Louis ran over to Donny and punched him in the arm.
"I know you are but what am I?" said Donny and laughed ignoring his throbbing arm.
He hurried through his rounds so he could shower and get to the Thrifty Mart before it closed.
"Can I help you?" A salesman offered, standing an arms length from Donny.
"I need a TV," Donny pointed to the sets to clarify.
"Well... This one is ninety-five. You can bring it to the cashier when you're ready." The salesman found another person he could help and left.
The TV was smaller than his old one. He looked at the other sets. They're probably too expensive, he thought. But then he started studying the tags and by God if letters and numbers didn't seem to rise from the haze of gibberish to become...words. Donny hadn't read since school and even then it was a struggle. Now the words were as clear as if they were being spoken to him. He read, "close out" on a model that was just as big as his broken TV. It was actually five dollars less than the little TV and he also saw that it was a display model so he could save another twenty dollars.
He couldn't have been more proud pushing his TV home in his shopping cart. With the money he saved he treated himself to something very special. A hot pizza delivered right to his door. He ate his feast and enjoyed the large, clear picture on his new TV with his feet resting on the old one.
That night he dreamed that he was sitting on his couch with Janis, watching a cowboy movie on the new set. They laughed as a poker fight erupted into a bar room brawl. One cowboy broke a bottle on the bar creating a makeshift knife but was punched out before he could use it.
"I'm so proud of you," Janis said. "It was great how you stood up to Louis today and just look at how clear the picture is on your new TV."
"You should have seen all the money I saved by reading the tags." Donny gave a sidelong look to Janis. "Did you do that?"
"Are you making me smart?"
"No Donny. You read before, in school. You wrote too. You just haven't done it for a long time."
"But why now? Why would I remember?"
"I don't know," Janis shrugged, "So, how much money do you have left?"
"Over ten dollars."
"I bet that's enough to buy some paint for the trestle - you know, like in the dream last night. I mean, you really want to paint it, don't you?"
Donny noticed the lighting in his apartment was different. It was brighter. The growth of weeds around his windows was gone.
"Where did the weeds go?" Donny asked.
"This is your dream. You tell me." Janis laughed. "Here, let me show you something." She led him to his room in front of his dresser. Donny looked in the mirror. It was his face and his red hair but his cheeks weren't knobby or shattered with red veins. He was clean-shaven, his eyes were bright, he looked...normal.
Janis leaned in close to him. She didn't smell like dirt tonight. She smelled like lilacs. "You can be anything here."
Donny had never kissed a girl before. Janis was warm and smooth and Donny trembled as they undressed each other. He explored the warmth and softness of Janis's body as it became exposed. Donny hesitated when it came time to drop his tightie-whities and was relieved to see that his rash did not exist here.
They continued to kiss as they moved to his bed. Janis guided him to her and he felt the merging of their bodies. As they made love, Donny looked into Janis's face. It didn't look like any of those girls in the magazine. Her expression was pleased - her face was beautiful.
Afterwards Donny asked her, "Are you real? I know I'm dreaming but are you somehow real inside my dream?"
"Yes Don. You could say that." Janis said to him stroking his hair. "Remember our dreams Donny. If you're ever afraid just remember me."
The next morning Donny bought a gallon of white paint and a brush. He knocked on Dale's door to ask him if he could borrow a screwdriver to open the lid and proudly told him what he planned to do with the paint.
"Why do you want to waste your time painting down there?" Dale asked him good-naturedly.
"It's my place. I care for it. It's mine." Donny's chest puffed proudly and he smiled.
"I see," Dale returned the smile. "I didn't know you were a painter Donny. I'll take a look at your work later. I might have you paint the garage before the snow falls, if you're interested. There'll be a hundred dollars in it for you."
"Sure!" Janis must have known somehow, Donny thought. She must have known Dale would ask me to paint the garage if I panted the trestle today. One hundred bucks - no collecting this winter. Hotdog!
He went down to the trestle knowing exactly which part he was going to start with. He stepped over a few freshly broken bottles on the rocks, used the screwdriver to pop the lid of the can and stirred the paint with the stick that the man at the paint store had given him as he counted one hundred stirs in a whisper to himself.
"This is my place," he said softly and slapped the paint over "Together." The red spray paint didn't rise to the surface like a bloated corpse. In fact, a few eager drips of white were already making trails over "Forever." Then Donny smelled cigarette smoke and heard the footsteps on the gravel behind him.
"What the fuck are you doing?" said a thin-faced man with black hair and a worn brown leather jacket.
Donny jumped and toppled the paint can as he spun around.
"That's my art you're painting over."
Donny stood frozen with white paint dripping down the brush and over his arm. The man snapped a case on his belt and pulled a Buck knife from it. The shiny blade had a wicked four-inch curve that clicked as it locked into place. "Now get the fuck out of here."
Donny knew he had to act quickly before he thought too much. He dropped the brush and grabbed a broken bottle - like the cowboy in the movie.
Like the cowboy in the dream.
"If you're ever afraid remember our dreams," Janis had said and now Donny understood why she came to him, why she helped him - he understood everything.
"You killed her." Donny said.
The mocking grin on the man's face slipped to absolute severity. "Now why would you say something like that?"
"I know you did it," Donny's body was ridged.
"Who's going to believe you?"
"The police will believe me. I found her."
"Oh yeah," The man's mocking smile returned. "I remember you on the news. They said you fucked up the crime scene by crushing the cans. I guess I owe you one. Go ahead - I'll let you run home and call the cops."
But Donny stood there, now unsure of what to do. What could he tell the police? He was no good at describing anything, and the man would be long gone by the time he called the cops.
"Whatcha going to do with that bottle, retard?"
Before he could answer, the man came at him. It took a moment for Donny to unlock his joints and the moment proved precious. The knife tore into Donny's abdomen. A bolt of pain nearly caused him to drop the broken bottle but then Donny plunged the glass into the man's eye and cheek. He screamed in pain, anger and shock then curled up on the ground clutching his ruined face. Donny slumped back against the trestle, he saw his blood pooling on top of the paint, his mouth felt like it was full of wool and his neck was as loose as rope. For a moment he thought he could hear Dale's voice coming from the end of a tunnel where it drifted farther away until there was nothing.
It took Donny most of the winter to recover but at least he was able to spend some quality time with his new TV. He watched his story on the news, which told how Dale had been on his way to see how Donny's painting was going when he saw the fight. He called 911 and saved the lives of both men. But the real hero was Donny, who had found and subdued Janis Tollman's murderer.
Stacy Sybell told the story on location from the trestle, "Twenty-five-year-old Pat Farrick posed as a high school senior and told several North High students that he had moved to the area and would be attending South High that fall. He was able to gain friends easily by obtaining alcohol and he also gained the affection of Janis Tollman. He told her to keep their relationship a secret and used Janis's affection to lure her here where he strangled her to death. Another area girl has now come forward to say that Pat had tried to start a similar relationship with her. He's now being linked to two other murders in Indiana and Minnesota."
Donny enjoyed some celebrity from his heroism and received several visits from Dale and other neighbors in the hospital. He also got a visit from the Mayor who told Donny that the city had decided to fence off the area to prevent any future trouble there. If Donny would like to continue to be the caretaker of that plot he would receive a key to the fence and a salary from the city, which was far more than he made collecting cans. Donny heartily accepted.
Janis's parents also visited and though they were still visibly grief stricken over the loss of their daughter, they were very thankful for his bravery. They insisted on giving him something. Donny finally agreed to accept a lawn mower from them to help with his new care-taking job.
When Donny came home from the hospital the first two things he did were shave his mustache and clear away the weeds from his basement windows. The entire spring he picked up the countless fragments of glass - fifteen garbage bags in all. Just as he thought, with no kids hanging out at the trestle it was easy to clear away the trash. He used his extra money to buy grass seed and planted flowers by the river. Soon he transformed the wasted space into a park. To Donny it was a memorial to Janis.
He finished painting the trestle so it was clean and white without a spot of graffiti. Well, that's not entirely true. There's one small bit of graffiti written in ballpoint pen so small that no one would ever notice it. It said, "Donny + Janis" in Donny's child-like script.
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