by Jeff Archer Black
February came around again and as usual the gates to the forest preserve were still locked up for the winter. Why the place was locked during the winters I don't know. Why was there a problem? Did people drive into the river? Down a hill? Throw snowballs at the deer who wandered freely being there were no humans around? Anyway, that didn't matter to me. I parked at the gate and walked that good mile uphill to the big old circa 1936 stone block shelter with my arms full - fold up chair which looked like fishing gear to some goofy folks in it's thin blue canvas bag, big black leather soft sided briefcase full of paper, blank and used, and the obligatory escape cooler with a 7-pack of beer for inspiration - winded as hell on arrival. Good for me, I thought. A little balancing act for the anti-exercise I was about to subject my body to - drinking, smoking, writing about the birds, mostly crows, the patches of snow on the ground, the well built fire I always tended to, even in the summer, how many good steaming pisses I took on the ground around the corner from the shelter. It was my wave.
Propped up drunk on the 7th of the 7-pack in the fold up chair next to the fire I sat the last empty can of beer on the cement floor at my feet & gave the dead soldier a proper boot crushing burial & placed him on top of the nice neat little pile of other crushed flat beer cans that had been gathering way up on the stone ledge to the left of the giant fireplace in the shelter.
In the winter, all the garbage cans & dumpsters were removed. No people, no trash, so they thought. Not that way, really. What you got was a bizarre assortment of shit strewn everywhere. Except for my crushed beer cans. The idea was, when spring comes & the park department came in, opened the gates & cleaned up, they'd have no problem with my leftovers. A quick whisk into the bucket. Or, maybe one of the local poor who cruise the park system collecting cans for recycling could make three or four bucks a week and would give out a silent thank you to me for making their job a little bit easier.
The first day of March came & so did I, right back to my fire & scribbling & smoking & drinking, the crows, melted snow now in puddles & in a mote around the shelter. No other brave strangers did the walk up that hill all day, not a one. I liked it that way. Hell, even the men who liked men who I often had to turn down the proposition of a blowjob from being I'm not gay didn't come out. They usually didn't at all in the wintertime.
So I did what I usually do alone there. Crack a beer, write what the fire would sound like in English - Kerplak. Pip. Ssszzt! Tip pap. Karap! - drink, think, smile, smoke, crush cans.
It was on the second crush that I saw it. Don't know why I didn't notice it the first time. There up on my little neat pile of crushed cans was a stranger. Actually, a 6-pack of strangers. There in my pile was a different brand. Crushed, just like mine. What's this? For a moment my head swelled. I have changed the world. I have singlehandedly inspired people to stop being such thoughtless slobs. I took a couple steps back to think about this & saw all the uncrushed cans in the shelter, in the corners, in the fireplace, on the tables laying on their sides quietly swaying in the breeze. Nope, guess not. But, there was one person who caught my wave. Someone else of the same conscientious mind who chose to act the same way as me.
Then I remembered, I've seen this before. I rushed to the journal from the previous & first year I'd come to the shelter way out there. My eyes scanned the sloppily written pages, got to the crappy picture I had drawn of the face of the big blocked stone wall which the fireplace was built around & right there on the bottom line of the page was, Odd, there's other crushed cans in the S.E. corner of the shelter. That's all that was said.
I sat back down & got lost in the implications of such a thing. Question #1, Who is this person? My first inclination was to lean to the theory of it being myself - sleepdriving to the preserve in the middle of the night, or just simply in a riproar drunk & forgetting to remember doing it. That theory was immediately found incorrect because you'd have to put a gun to my head to make me drink THAT brand of beer. Shit tastes like it was scooped up out of the circus piss trough & mixed with a touch of alcohol. It definitely was not me. I hoped.
I then went into the face dance thing our minds do when we try to picture a person we've never seen with our eyes. Kinda like picturing what a sexy sounding D.J. on the radio looks like just by the sound of the voice. I reeled on that one for a good three more, no, four more beers. The buzz took over & railed my mind somewhere else & the whole can thing was dismissed for the rest of the day.
On returning all decked out in layer of flannel on layer of flannel - a cold one, 34 - the usual armsful of stuff on the 6th of March, a Saturday, again, this time on the first crushed can I found more of the shit brand cans - 12 of 'em now - recount - no, 13. Wow, holy shit, now the fellow can crushing citizen has taken up my idea of the 7-pack. It's just enough, ya know. Sometimes ya wanna have just one more beer since there's 45 minutes of sunshine left.
Who the hell are you? I said out loud. I had to know. Scheming, scheming, scheming, how do I find out? Leave a note? Come out every day? Put the cans in a different place & see if she or he follows my lead?
Well, that's just what I did. Moved the cans. And left a note. I first removed all my cans from all the shit brands & put them up on the ledge on the opposite side of the fireplace. I plopped them down & turned one upside down, went to my case & got out the trusty black sharp tip marker & wrote, Who Are You?, on the bottom of one of the cans. I counted them then figured the pile to be one short. Going to the other side of the fireplace I found the misfit can under a few of the others, pulled it out & spilled six of so of them on the floor. Picking them up, I saw it. On the bottom of one of the shit-beer cans, in red marker, the question, Who Are You?
I actually crapped my pants a little bit. I was thrown back in my chair with the can in my hand, astounded stupid. Could it be that someone actually thought to write the exact same thing I thought to write in the exact same place at the exact same time. Or just the day before? Could I have done this the day before and not have any recollection of it?
Reaching to my just opened can of beer on the picnic table I pulled it near, took a big hit & stared it down thinking, There, I've gone & done it now. I've drank myself insane. I put the can back in the shit pile & went home.
March 9th, a Tuesday, all the cans were placed on the right side of the fireplace. All the slobs cans were gone though. The recyclers I assumed swooped in but weren't tall enough to see the crushed ones up on the ledge. They didn't take the empty box of Trojans out of the north-west corner or the empty bag of pork rinds trapped in the north-east corner.
Only one person made the long haul up to the shelter. I was ready. Ready to meet the other crusher.
Up walked a 40 year old puffy man with a dark purple down feather coat on.
"How are you?" he asked.
"Real good, how 'bout you?"
"A little winded from that walk."
"Yeah, it's a bitch but good exercise."
He said, "I could think of a better way to exercise."
I didn't want to hear what that was. He was gay & I knew it then. He had that look in his eyes they all have when desperate enough to come to a public park to find sex. Same look as drunk & desperate straight men chasing women in a bar.
I asked him, "You drink beer?" hoping against hope that he wasn't the other crusher.
"No," he said. "I don't drink at all."
I said, "That's a good thing 'cuz this is my last one."
He must've taken that as more of a brush off then I intended it to be because he said, "Have a nice day," & left right there. The crows laughed. So did I.
I crushed another empty can & placed it on the right ledge of the fireplace. "Well I'll be go to hell," I said when I looked up & saw the two WHO ARE YOU? cans somehow stuck to the side of one of the rafters way up above the fireplace. I walked back to the picnic table, climbed up on it then to the north-west window ledge to the west window on the right side of the fireplace to the front of the fireplace & reached up. The cans were hung by the pull tops by two splinters of wood pried out with a knife or something.
And there it was. The communication center.
I pulled my can off the splinter, scaled the ledge back to the crushed can pile picking one up then realizing I needed my black marker. Crawl back down. Crawl back up with pen and crushed can in hand. I stood there up on the ledge for the longest time trying to figure out what to write in answer to the question, WHO ARE YOU? What I thought to write didn't have a chance of being fit into a space so small as the bottom of a beer can. I didn't want to put my name or phone number or any identifying information on it because if someone was to get murdered or raped there, who would they look up first? Yeah. What the hell to write? Beerdrinker? Writer? Intermittent loner? Human being? Thinker? Farter? Goose watcher? Worker?
Well there's a helluva question, I kept thinking. I stood on that ledge for a good half hour & came to the conclusion that it was not physically or philosophically possible to answer the question, Who Are You?, on the confined space of the bottom of a can of beer. Too complicated such a description could be. I uncapped the black sharp tip marker wrote, I Don't Know, and hung it up on the splinter next to the other can that posed that question.
The next time I had a chance to return to the shelter was two Saturdays after, March 20, the first day of Spring. The gates were open so I drove up, walked to the shelter, plopped all my stuff down & climbed to the window. I stopped & noticed that the whole place was cleaned & swept, the picnic tables all straightened out. But they missed one thing. Two things actually. The cans on the splinters way up above. I couldn't read them from the window so I climbed up to the ledge over the front of the fireplace & pulled them down. There was my black ink I Don't Know. I flipped the shit brand can of beer over in my right hand & saw in red marker, Me Either.
The summer passed & all the cans went into garbage barrels except for the normal slobs donations to the ground. That was the last I ever heard of the fellow can crushing citizen, possible other writer, the lord queen woman of all mens dreams who's super easy, the bum who hides there when it really rains, the best friend I might have had if we'd arrived at the same time one of those days, the simple stranger of similar mind, or proof of my own multiple personality disorder way off out there drinking, thinking, smoking, writing, pissing as someone else who has real bad taste when it comes to beer.
Copyright 2006 Jeff Archer Black
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