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Short Stories for Children of all Ages: The Can ManThe Can Man


The homeless man slowly pushed his battere
d shopping cart down the sidewalk. At
the corner trash barrel, he stopped and
poked through the garbage with a long
stick. He leaned into the barrel and dug out an
empty soft drink can, which he dropped into
his cart.
As he approached Tim, the man waved. Tim returned the wave with a smile. Almost
everyone called the man The Can Man. But not Tim’s parents. “We remember when Mr. Peters
lived in apartment 3C,” Tim’s mom told him. “He used to work at the auto body shop before
it went out of business, and he couldn’t find another job. He’s been down on his luck for quite
a while now.”
“Getting chilly,” The Can Man said as he rattled by.
Tim looked at the gray sky. “It sure is,” he said. He zipped his jacket up higher and
slipped his hands into his pockets.
A few minutes later, Mike whizzed up on hi
s skateboard, his cheeks red from the cold.
“Want to go skateboarding in the park?” he asked.
Tim shook his head. “Nah. It’s no fun always
borrowing your board and your brother’s
old gear.”
“Maybe you’ll get your own board for your birthday next week.”
Tim shrugged. “Dad says we do
n’t have any extra money for toys or sports stuff this
year. Too many bills to pay.”
“Bummer,” Mike said. He kicked away
from the steps. “I’ll see you later.”
Tim watched his friend speed away. Silent
ly, Tim wished for a skateboard for his
birthday, even though he knew birthd
ay wishes don’t really come true.
Tim knew exactly which board he wanted. He
had been eyeing it at Overtime Sports
for months, and now it was going on sale. But
even at the reduced price—and with the money
Tim had saved from his allowance—th
e board was still too expensive.
I need a job,
Tim thought glumly,
so I can earn money to buy the skateboard.
Down the street, The Can Man threw two more
cans into his cart. The empties hit the
growing pile, clinking like the co
ins in Tim’s little sister’s pi
ggy bank. The sound gave Tim an
Early Saturday morning Tim rushed to get dr
essed. In the kitchen he grabbed a pair
of rubber gloves and four big plastic bags from under the sink.
“What are you up to?” his mom asked.
“I have a job to do!” Tim said. Then he adde
d with a grin, “Don’t worry. I’ll be home in
time for lunch.”
Outside, the cold air raised goose bumps on
Tim’s arms. He jumped down the stairs and
headed for the first trash barrel on the side
walk. An empty can lay right on top. After
checking several more barrels, Tim had filled
half a bag. At five cents a can at the
redemption center, he figured
he would have enough money for a skateboard in no time.
A few blocks from the park, Tim stoppe
d in to see Jamal at Bunus Bakery.
“Do you have any empty soft drink cans?” Tim asked.
“I usually save them for The Can
Man,” Jamal said. “He needs them.”
“I need them too. I’m going to use the money to buy myself a skateboard for my
birthday,” Tim told Jamal. “I’ll
even work to earn the cans.”
“Well...” Jamal hesitated for a few moments.
“Maybe this one time. I do have some
crates you can carry to the back room.”
“It’s a deal!” Tim replied.
After he had moved the crates and collected the cans as payment, Tim ran down the
street, stopping at every trash barrel, store,
and restaurant. By noon he had two full bags
of cans. He clattered them up the stairs of
his building and plopped down on the top step.
Collecting cans was harder than Tim though
t it would be. His gloves were sticky, and
his clothes smelled like the root beer he’d spi
lled on himself. But the thought of a brand-new
skateboard made him smile. Very soon he’d ha
ve one of his own. No more borrowing Mike’s
“What do you have there?” Tim’s mom asked wh
en he dragged the bags into the kitchen.
“They’re full of cans for recycling.
I’m earning money for a skateboard.”
“Doesn’t Mr. Peters usuall
y collect the cans around here?” his mom asked.
Tim nodded uneasily. “Yeah. But I’m only go
ing to take them until my birthday.”
“Well, you can’t keep them in here,” his
mom said. “Take them to the basement, and
then wash up for lunch.”
Tim knew it was no use arguing, so he bumped the bags downstairs to the basement.
They crackled and clanked with every step.
Sunday after church, Tim hurried from one
stinky trash barrel to the next, collecting
empty cans. For the rest of the week, he had
to wait until after school. Tim knew The Can
Man always took the same route, so he started
in the opposite direction. That way he got to
some of the trash barrels before The Can Man did.
On Saturday Tim awoke to icy drizzle squiggling down his window. With a groan, he
dragged himself out of his warm
bed and into the kitchen.
Tim’s dad patted him on the shoulder. “Sorry, Ti
m,” he said. “It looks
like you’ll have to
stay indoors today.”
“But this is my last chance to
collect cans,” Tim protested.
“I can’t let a little rain stop
His dad looked out the window. “Okay, but don’t stay outside too long.”
On the sidewalk, Tim poked through a few
trash barrels. The rain made the garbage
smell even worse than usual, and ther
e wasn’t a single can to be found.
Keeping his face down to shield it from th
e cold rain, Tim ran toward the next trash
Tim jerked up his head. “Oh,
sorry!” he exclaimed.
“You okay, kid?” The Can Man
“Yeah. Sure.” Tim looked into the
cart. All he saw was an old bucket of
paint and a few empty soft drink cans.
The rain pinged on them hollowly.
“Haven’t found many cans lately,”
The Can Man said, poking his stick into the tras
h barrel. “How are you doing? I’ve seen you
out collecting.”
“I have seven bags full of them at home.”
“Seven?” The Can Man said, his eyes wide.
“My birthday is tomorrow,” Tim explained.
“I’m going to use the money to buy a
skateboard. What are you collecting for?”
The Can Man shrugged. “Wouldn’t mind a new
coat before the snow starts flying.”
Tim swallowed. “Oh.”
“Well, kid, see you around.” The Can Man pu
shed his cart down the sidewalk, his ripped
jacket flapping open with every step.
When the rain stopped, Tim called Mike. Then
Tim dragged his bags of cans from the
basement to the front of his buildi
ng. He sat on the steps to wait.
Mike rolled up on his skateboard. “Looks like you’ll have enough for a board once you
turn in these cans,” he said.
Tim nodded. “I guess so.”
The boys looked up as the clatter of The Can Man’s cart came toward them. The Can
Man stopped at the bottom of the stairs
. “You need help with your bags?”
“Okay,” Tim said.
They loaded the bags into the cart, and The
Can Man pushed it while Tim and Mike kept
the pile from toppling over.
At the redemption center, it took a long time
for Tim and Mike to push all the cans into
the machine. Tim collected his coins in
a paper bag he had brought along.
By the time the boys were done depositing
the cans, The Can Man had left. Tim looked
outside. Small flakes of snow were sprinkling
down from the sky, lightly dusting the parking
lot. He shook the bag that held his money. Th
e coins rattled like a cart full of empty cans.
Suddenly Tim headed outside.
“Hey, where are you going?” Mike called after him.
Tim ran and caught up with The Can Man.
Holding out the bag of coins, Tim said
breathlessly, “This money is for you.”
The Can Man stared in surprise. “But you ea
rned it. You worked hard for your money.”
“It’s okay,” Tim said. “I want you to have it.”
The Can Man blinked a few times as though sn
owflakes had blown into his eyes. “Thanks,
kid. What’s your name anyway?”
“Tim,” Tim said.
“Thanks, Tim. My name’s Joe Peters,” The Can Man said, smiling.
“I know,” Tim said. “My mom and dad remember
you from when you lived in our building.”
The Can Man’s smile faded. “That was a long
time ago.” He sighed. Then he shook the
bag of coins. “Thanks again.”
“You’re welcome,” Tim said.
When he got home, Tim plunked down on the fr
ont steps of his building. So he wouldn’t
get a skateboard for his birthday, but some
how it didn’t matter that much anymore.
The next day, wearing new birthday jeans,
Tim wandered outside to wait for Mike. On
the top step, Tim’s foot bumped into a large plasti
c bag. It was tied closed with a long string
attached to an empty root beer can. Tim ligh
tly kicked the bag. Something was in it. He
untied the string and peeked inside.
“A skateboard!” he gasped.
Tim slowly ran his hands over the painted
wood and spun the wheels. The skateboard
wasn’t new, but it was fixed up with a fresh co
at of paint and oiled wheels. It even had his
name painted neatly across the bottom.
Just then Tim heard the rattle of The Can
Man’s cart. As he approached, The Can Man
looked up and waved.
“Happy Birthday, Tim,” he called.
Grinning, Tim waved back with his new skateb
oard. “Thanks, Mr. Peters. Thanks a lot!”
Laura E. Williams
The can man
New York, Lee&Low Books, 2010

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