Christmas Cans

He that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he (Prov. 14:21).

Jason could almost feel the pebbly surface of the new basketball that would soon be in his hands. Just a few more cans and I can buy it, he thought as he turned the corner into the alley.

The sight of a short, skinny, bearded man looking through the trash bins behind the courthouse startled him back to reality. He didn’t want the man to see him, so he crouched behind a parked car. He had been collecting aluminum cans for the last three months and was going to turn them in to the recycling center to get the money for the basketball. Each day, Mr. Remington, the courthouse custodian, put a box of pop cans out in the alley for him.

The skinny man wore a lightweight jacket with a broken zipper. Underneath the jacket was a stained, hooded sweatshirt. There were holes in his tennis shoes, and he wasn’t wearing socks. Jason shivered when he thought about how cold the man must be.

The man continued sorting through the trash bins, pulling out bottles, newspapers, and old magazines and putting them in separate piles. He took a stack of magazines to an old bicycle that was leaning against the courthouse wall. The bike had high, V-shaped handlebars and a large wire basket on the front. The back tire rim was bent, and the two old tires didn’t match.

When the man was ready to go, he put the newspapers and bottles into a large garbage sack. As he got on his bike, Jason heard pop cans rattling inside the sack too. Jumping up, he yelled, “Hey! You can’t take those cans—they’re mine! Mr. Remington left them for me!”

The skinny man turned and stared at Jason. His lips were bluish gray, and his hands were shaking from the cold. “Finders, keepers, kid,” he said in a gruff voice, then rode out the other end of the alley.

Jason stared at the empty alley for a minute, wondering what to do. Then he ran around the courthouse and up the steps to the lobby, where it was warm. His dad was the county sheriff, and on days when he wasn’t busy, he met Jason in the lobby after school and drove him home in the police car. As Jason waited now, he thought about the man in the alley. Why was he going through the trash bins? Why wasn’t he wearing warm clothes? And why was he riding a bicycle in the middle of winter?

“Ready to go?” Jason turned to see his father standing behind him. He was a tall man who didn’t talk much.

“Somebody just stole the cans Mr. Remington put in the box for me,” Jason blurted out as they walked to the car. As they drove toward home, he told his father about the man in the alley.

“How many cans have you collected?”

“I have two big, green trash bags full of smashed ones, and with the cans I collect from the courthouse Christmas party next week, I’ll have enough to pay for my new basketball.”

“Well,” his father said, “you can get enough somewhere else—please don’t collect any more cans from the courthouse.”

“What? Those are my cans! Mr. Remington leaves them there for me!”

His father looked hurt. “Think about that poor man, Jason. If you can’t get cans somewhere else, you can earn money another way.” His father looked very serious as he repeated, “Think about it.”

Jason knew it was useless to argue. Hot tears began to well up in his eyes. He turned and stared out the police car window.

It was getting dark. The long shadows on the gray snow looked like strange dark animals playing tag with each other. I’ll think about it, all right, Jason thought to himself. Finders, keepers! He started to plan a way to get even with the man who had taken his cans.

They were almost home when the police radio came on. “This is County One,” his father said into the microphone. Jason was too upset to listen to what was being said. “Son,” his father said when he was through talking on the radio, “I have some business to take care of. Do you want to come with me?”

Jason kept staring out the window. “I guess so,” he said flatly.

The car turned sharply and headed toward the south side of town. Jason didn’t like this area; it made him nervous. Most of the houses were old and rundown. The stores didn’t have Christmas lights, and their parking lots were littered with trash. Cars had been left on the side of the road with their hoods up and their windshields broken. Jason began to wish that he hadn’t come along.

After going under a freeway overpass, they pulled into the driveway of an abandoned house. In the front yard two men stood warming their hands over a fire in an old steel drum. The strong wind whipped the fire, and the light danced across the police car. The men’s shadows stretched across the house like grotesque giants. “Jason, I have to talk to some men. Stay in the car and keep the doors locked.”

As his father walked over to the two men and began talking, Jason wondered idly why the men were out on such a cold night. After a while, his father turned on a flashlight and went toward the house. Most of the windows had been broken out, and there were no lights on. Jason’s eyes followed the beam of light as it searched the house. Suddenly it lit up something familiar: On the front porch was the bike with the V-shaped handlebars! Jason sat up in his seat and pressed his face against the car window to see better.

Three men came out of the house and began talking to his father. Jason tried to see if the skinny man was in the group, but it was too dark to see their faces.

The icy wind began to blow harder. Gusts shook the car and drove snow into the house. Jason’s father talked a little while longer, then came back to the car. When the car door opened, a gust of cold air blasted Jason’s face with tiny, sharp snow crystals. He shivered as his father started the car.

“Dad, did you see him, the guy who took my cans?”

At first his father didn’t answer. They drove for about a mile before he said, “Jason, the man who took the cans is not as fortunate as we are. He doesn’t have a job and lives in that abandoned house. He buys food with the money he gets from selling what old newspapers and cans he’s able to collect. Do you understand?”

Jason looked up slowly and nodded. “I understand that you’re going to let him steal my cans.”

As soon as they pulled into their driveway, Jason opened the door. Before he could jump out, though, his father put a hand on his shoulder. “Listen,” his father said quietly, “I think that he needs the cans more than you do. But you’re a good boy, and you’re old enough to make some of your own choices. If you feel right about taking those cans, go ahead. It’s your decision.”

The day of the courthouse Christmas party, Jason got out of school early. “Finders, keepers, finders, keepers,” he said over and over as he ran to the courthouse. He thought about all the cans that Mr. Remington would put in the box and about how much they would be worth. He thought about the new basketball and about his father’s words. Then he thought about how surprised the skinny man was going to be when he found that Jason had arrived at the alley first.

He had never done anything like this before. His heart was pounding, and his stomach was in knots. “Finders, keepers,” he repeated as he looked over his shoulder to make sure that no one was watching. He turned the corner and went into the courthouse alley.

Twenty minutes later the skinny man wheeled his bike into the alley. Jason was hiding in a doorway, his feet and hands aching from the cold. The man went to where the box of cans was kept. He stood quietly for a moment when he saw that the box was empty. Then he reached down and picked up two large green trash bags with red Christmas bows on them.

As the man opened the first bag, Jason heard the unmistakable clink of smashed pop cans. The sound sent a warm rush through his body, and he felt wonderful. Finders, keepers, Jason thought. Finders, keepers!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Mike Eagle