The Can Man

Justin Pupecki and I were standing on high bridge—a stretch of train tracks joining together two cliffs in the woods behind my neighborhood—passing back and forth a bottle of Canadian Whiskey Pupecki had stolen from his parents.  I was a sophomore in high school, fifteen years old, and because it was my first time drinking whiskey, I was taking small sips (it tasted like gasoline), unable to match Justin’s heroic swigs.  It was a late afternoon in the fall. Staring through the cracks in the bridge, there was about a hundred yard drop into the Nashua River which once powered the mills and helped make Kilroy an industrial powerhouse.

I wondered if I would feel the impact upon hitting the rocks in the river, or if I would just instantly die, all the lights and chemicals just clicking off without pain. 

My mother had recently come back from the mental hospital. She was supposed to be recovering, but instead she was fighting with Mimi and Poppy, claiming they were not her real parents.  When she wasn’t trying set up a meeting with her blood family in the Bronx, she was in court, arguing with my estranged father over money.

It was all becoming too much. 

“So good,” Pupecki said, taking his lips off the bottle.  “I could sit here all day.” 

“It tastes like shit,” I said. 

“You’re just a rookie,” he said.

Pupecki and I were always competing about who was more mature or more adventurous. I wanted to be cool, rebellious, like he was. We were often reckless and imagined ourselves outsiders and roughnecks.   

Pupecki would beat the shit out of me sometimes, when he was on acid. Once, when we were hanging out at the pit—a sand dune that looked like God had scooped the dirt straight out of the earth—he pulled a plastic bag over my head. I couldn’t breathe.  I started kicking him and trying to pull his hands off my neck.  The son of a bitch was laughing. He had the bag over my head for twenty seconds, which seemed like forever.  When he took the bag off my head, I started crying, thinking of how fragile my life was.  I tried to fight him, but he was much too big.  He threw me to the ground and kept laughing.  Just laughing.

Most of the time, though, Pupecki was nice to me. We’d smoke pot, watch The Doors old concert footage in his room, and go swimming in his pool. 

It was much better than being home with my erratic mother.

I looked down the tracks to see if a train was coming.  “My parents are fighting again,” I said.

“Get over it,”  Pupecki said.  He handed me the bottle of whiskey—the brown liquid swirling inside of the bottle.  “There are worst things in the world.” 

“Like what?” I said.  I took a sip of the whiskey, and my throat was on fire.   

Pupecki picked up an empty bottle of beer next to the track, and he smashed it against the rail.  “You could be dead.” 

Pupecki had problems of his own. His father had AIDS and was wicked sick.

“I’m so sick of being in this town,” I said. 

“Me too.  I want to go to Austin,” Pupecki said. 

“I want to go to California.”

“Alaska.” 

“Mexico.” 

“Timbuktu.”

“The Mississippi River.” 

“Florida.” 

We both looked down the tracks, the woods dense on both sides, and I imagined the cities somewhere out there, just a train ride away.  I thought of my mother running away from home at sixteen.  Maybe that was the best path for me.  I thought of the beaches in Florida.  They didn’t have winters there. 

“I’m going to hop one of these trains,” I said.  “I’m just going to leave.”

“You’re not going to do shit,” Pupecki said.  “You don’t have the balls.” 

 I had a problem back then, and I still do today, because the moment someone tells me not to do something, well, I’m sure as hell going to do it.

“I’ll prove it to you,” I said. 

We waited a half an hour, and when I heard the train blow its whistle and saw the steel horse slicing around the bend, exposing itself like a nightmare, I braced myself for the jump.  I could feel the train rumbling through the tracks, and as it came around the corner, I ran next to the roaring machine. I jumped onto the side of one of the cars, grabbed the ladder, pulled myself up by my arm strength, and swung into an open box car. 

As I sat down on the metal box car which smelled like dirt and sweat, I couldn’t believe I had survived.  I never thought I could ever leave Kilroy, but now I watched my hometown fade from me like a flame gently extinguishing on a matchstick.  It was a good feeling.  I saw Pupecki standing there, watching the train leave.

I figured that I was heading West, out towards Springfield, because the train was moving away from Mt. Wachusett.  I sat near the open door, trying to remain somewhat in the shadows.  I knew a little something about train hopping from all the railroad stories I had read.  Poppy loved to read train stories, and he passed all his old magazines on to me.  In those old pulps, the bulls were the meanest sons of bitches in the country.  I was terrified of being discovered, but, for the moment, I was enjoying watching the New England countryside gallop past the open door.

I wasn’t blue about leaving it all behind. I imagined crossing the border into Canada on Christmas Day while the snow piled up on the Earth, catching salmon and frying it over a campfire in Oregon, and making love to women.  Somewhere out in Kansas, I’d work for a man painting his house and he would pay me with my first guitar. I used to play it at your age, he would say, but I can’t find the time anymore.  Then I’d ride the trains at night, picking old folk songs like Do Re Mi and I Ain’t Got No Home.  Those old bulls would never catch me.  I’d always be free.     

I took my time to watch the scenery.  The moon was full, and it was warm for early November.  The weathermen were calling it an Indian Summer.  Birds were flying over a swamp passing on the right side of the tracks.  The wind was cool, but it was loud colliding into the cars.  Barren trees rose out of the algae-covered water and birch trees dotted the landscape.  A few more minutes, and the Nashua River came into view, running next to the train, the moon reflecting in the water. 

Sometime after that I fell asleep. 

I woke up as the train started to slow down, and I saw red crossing signs.  When the train came to a stop, I heard someone say, “Come here, Kid.  I got something for you.” 

Without thinking, I stuck my head out of the car, and I felt someone grab me by the collar.  I was thrown out of the car, and I slid down the embankment on my back. 

The voice said, “Stay off my fucking train.” 

I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for that lousy trick.  I stood up, dusted the dirt off my jeans and rubbed the dust out of my eyes.  My back was sore, but I was glad the man hadn’t broken my nose or blackened my eye.  Well, it was only an aching back, and I was right next to the Nashua River.  I could smell the water.  He wouldn’t fool me next time.  I was terrified, but after the train was gone, I felt my bravado return, and I just had this feeling that nothing in the world could harm me, though I might have thought differently if I had any idea what was waiting for me in those woods.     

I walked down the track a bit, trying to see if I could find the perfect spot to call home for the next couple of days.  I was hungry, and only had two bucks and a smashed candy bar in my pocket. Further down into the woods, the land dropped in a gradual incline beyond the Nashua River. I walked about a mile before I saw a red glow behind a few pine trees. A campsite. As I approached, coming up the track carefully, I heard pieces of wood crackling in the flames.  Closing in, I noticed a half dozen or so aluminum cans scattered near the tracks.  It wasn’t just beer cans, though.  There were Coke cans, orange-soda cans, cranberry and tomato juice cans—a collage of every type of can I had ever come across.  And next to the entrance of the clearing were four or five gallon garbage bags filled with cans too.  I wondered if I should turn around, but I couldn’t let fear hold me back now. 

The fire was in the center of a few pine trees, and the flames carried the light to the top of the trees.  As I walked through the open trail covered in pine needles, the forest began to shrink, the light from the fire completely catching my eyes.  Until the fire became bright, and I saw a man sitting on a log, covering his face with hands caked with dirt.  I waited behind a tree and watched.  The man looked to be alone. He put his hands away from his face and stared into the fire. 

I recognized him then.  

Everyone knew him as Kim the Can Man.  He was the only homeless man that came around Kilroy, collecting aluminum cans and cashing them in at Shaw’s or Victory’s for five cents a pop.  People tried to hand him quarters, but he refused in his broken English.  He accepted cans only.  He was always smiling when you saw him.  Seemed like the happiest man in the world.

I stepped out from behind the tree and walked into the firelight. 

“Hello,” I said. 

Looking away from the fire, Kim nodded and smiled, revealing a toothless grin.  He didn’t say anything back.

No one really knew how Kim ended up in Kilroy, but the rumor was that he came over from Korea, after the war, and every week he sent his can money back East to his family.  He was trying to save to bring them to America.  Everyone in town thought his story was a fine example of the American Dream.  No one really knew where he slept at night, and when I looked around at the campsite, I couldn’t seem to understand whose dream Kim was living.  

“I didn’t expect to meet you out here,” I said. 

He nodded again.  Always smiling.  Dirt covered his face.  He wore a knitted skull cap that was also covered in dirt.  I figured that was the dirty and careless lifestyle I would have to get used to now. 

“Tonight’s my first night,” I said, hoping he understood me.  “My name’s James.”  He simply nodded and smiled, nodded and smiled. 

Next to Kim was a canvas bag, and on top were a skillet, a few sets of silverware, and an extra set of clothes.  There was another bag on the log next to Kim.  There was a sleeping bag stuffed into another sleeping bag. 

“I’m finished going back home,” I said.  “Never again.”

Kim just kept nodding and smiling. 

I said, “I ran into my first bull tonight.  He threw me off the train.  Next time I see him I’m going to fight.” 

Behind Kim, near a bunch of ferns, was a collection of tires stacked in a circle, and it looked like a box was being used as a door.  Over the tires was a tarp, and I figured that was where Kim went when it rained and maybe even when it snowed.

  From behind me, a man walked into the campsite and across the clearing to the fire.   “What the hell are you doing here kid?” the man asked. 

I turned around to face an old man, probably around my grandfather’s age, with gray hair and a red face.  I figured the red face meant he’d been drinking.  He was white, but his skin looked like rubber from being out in the sun.  He had a gray goatee right on his chin.  He was tall.  Maybe about 6’7.  When he moved around the campfire, he looked like he was walking on stilts.  He placed a carton of eggs and a package of ham next to the fire, holding a loaf of white bread underneath his right arm.

I knew, from reading all those train stories, hobos were a community.  They even had their own terminology.  They stuck it out together. 

  “It’s my first night,” I said.  “I’m trying to find some adventure.”  

“So,” he said, “you’re running away from home?” 

“No, sir,” I said.   

The man handed Kim a bottle of water, and Kim drank it quickly.

“People call me Queeney,” he said.  He sounded Irish or English or something like that.  “You got a name?” 

“James Tully.” 

Queeney took a stick of butter out from the canvas bag and placed a slice onto the skillet.  He held the skillet over the fire.  “You hungry?” 

“Sure am.” 

Queeney said something to Kim in strange language.  I thought it was Chinese.  Kim just kept nodding and smiling. 

“Where did you learn Chinese?” I asked.  

“Korean,” Queeney said.  “We’ve known each other since the war.” 

The butter was crackling, and Queeney cracked the eggs and dropped them in the skillet.  I could hear the eggs sizzling over the fire. Queeney threw the pieces of ham on the heavy-looking skillet, and the veins in his arm stood out from his skin. 

“This is great,” I said, looking out beyond the camp fire and into the hilly countryside.  The stars were bright, and I tried to see if I could find Venus.  “Where do you think we are?  New York?  Canada?  The Nashua River runs forever, right?” 

“You must be crazy, kid.  You’re in Massachusetts.” 

“In Mass?” 

“Almost in Nashua,” Queeney said.  “Where you coming from?” 

“Iowa.”  I couldn’t help lying.  I wanted Queeney to think I was far from home, especially since it seemed Kim didn’t recognize me.  I thought I could get away with any old story.   

Queeney stoked the fire with a stick.  “I like my yoke runny,” he said.  “It’s really an art form, you know.  You have to watch the eggs carefully.”  The eggs were going from clear to white on the skillet.  “If the yoke is cooked all the way through, then the eggs are ruined.  No point in even eating them.”  He flipped the ham onto the other side. 

Kim was staring into the fire, watching the pieces of wood glowing amber.  He kept tapping his foot as if he were keeping beat to a song in his head.  Kim said something to Queeney, and Queeney shook his head no.  Queeney kept shaking his head no, but Kim just continued smiling and nodding, smiling and nodding. 

“Why you running?” Queeney asked.

“Not running.  Starting a new life.” 

“You’re just a kid.  Get back on home.” 

“No reason for that.” 

“No family?” 

“Depends on what you mean by family.” 

Queeney slid the spatula underneath the outside of the eggs.  He said, “Can’t have the bottom too burnt either.  That’s what makes keeping the yoke runny tough.” 

“My family’s dead,” I said.  For some reason, it felt better to imagine them dead instead of alive and worrying about me.  Maybe I could convince myself that was true. 

“You’re too young to be alone,” he said. 

“I’m not alone.”

“Believe me, kid,” Queeney said.  “Out here, you’re alone.” 

He opened the bread and put six pieces along the outside of the fire.  He was watching the eggs, trying to gauge the yoke, his eye squinting above the pan.  “It’s almost ready.”

Kim was staring at me again, smiling and nodding. His eyes creased at the crevices of his eyelids when he smiled, and I could see the fire reflecting in his pupils.  He slid his shirt over his head, and there were burn marks all over his body.  I could see dirt lines around his biceps.  He was skinny. 

“After this sandwich,” Queeney said, “you’re going home.” 

“I’m never going back,” I said.  “Never in a million years.” 

“Listen kid.  I know better than you in these matters.” 

Kim’s foot kept beating against the Earth, keeping time.  His legs were shaking. 

“Are you running?” I asked Queeney.

Queeney slid the eggs in between the pieces of bread.  Then he placed the ham over the eggs.  “This is my home.”

“Right here?” 

“Close enough.” 

I said, “Are you alone?”

“Watch it, kid,” Queeney said.  He handed me my sandwich.  “Eat and go home.” 

I grabbed the sandwich.  “Never again.” 

Queeney handed Kim his sandwich, and we all started to eat.  When I pushed the two pieces of bread together, the yoke started to run onto my fingers.

“Perfect,” Queeney said.  “It’s perfect.” 

 Queeney and Kim both ate quickly, but I took my time.  I didn’t want to leave yet.  I wanted Queeney to tell me some train stories so I could see what was in my future.  I was about to ask, but they started to argue in Korean. 

After they finished arguing, Queeney said, “Why don’t you take that sandwich with you on a walk?” 

“I want to stay,” I said.  “You could tell me train stories.” 

“Train stories?” 

“Ever been to Florida?” 

“Boy, kid, you’re really alone.  Time for you to go.” 

I licked the yoke from my fingers.  “I don’t want to.” 

“Kid,” Queeney said, “I don’t ride the trains for adventure.  Like I said, this is my home.  You better leave now.  I can’t help you when Kim gets his ideas.” 

Kim was smiling and nodding, smiling and nodding. 

“You don’t ride trains?” I asked. 

“You see those burns?”  Queeney said.  “All over him.” 

I looked at Kim, saw again the marks all over his body, and nodded my head. 

“How you think he got those?” Queeney asked.

“From riding the trains.” 

“He was branded,” Queeney said.  “After the war, a bunch of men from his hometown caught him doing something with a boy.  For punishment, they took scalding metal to his skin.” 

“For what?” 

“You don’t want to know,” Queeney said.  “Kim likes the way you…”  He was trying to find the right words.  “He thinks you look pretty.” 

“Pretty?” 

“Go home,” Queeney said.  “He’s going to make you scream, kid.  Go home.” 

Kim was smiling and nodding, smiling and nodding.  He stood up from the log. 

“Get out of here,” Queeney said.  “Go home.”

I ran from the fire, down the tracks until I figured I was far away from Kim.  I could hear Kim and Queeney laughing in the woods.  My legs were burning.  I kept wondering if the Can Man was following me, so every couple minutes I would sprint again.  I walked down the tracks, towards home, until an hour or two later, I saw a train light coming around the corner and illuminating the night, heading back in the direction towards Kilroy.  I hopped the train, and I watched the landscape pass by the open door.  I didn’t fear those bulls anymore.  They were nothing compared to Kim.  I was being slingshot back into the past, and this time, I understood that I had never actually moved, but everything else, the ground, the Earth, was moving beneath me.  I had to find another way out.    

***

Joseph A. Lapin graduated from Florida International University (FIU) with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing.  He is from Clinton, Massachusetts, and lives in Long Beach, California, with his fiancé and dog.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Slake, Tigertail: A South Florida Poetry Annual, and the LA Weekly.  During the day, he teaches creative writing at a rehab center, and he is seeking representation for his novel, The Adventures of James Tully

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