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 housefly 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 squeak 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.”