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Aluminum '91

Aluminum '91

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Michael J.


Aluminum ‘91


Dewey and Joe the Cannon were just about through for the day, working their way up Germantown Avenue towards home, ignoring the beeping horns as they cleared the two-lane street of any aluminum cans they happened to find, and it was no great surprise that Joe was getting a little distracted. He had found a worn tennis ball a couple of blocks down, and had bounced it off every flat surface he could find until he had been joined by a playful black and brown mutt. Two streets later, the dog and the ball were gone. These were just the preliminaries though to his favorite distraction: the grills on the 2500 block. They had just appeared one summer’s day: three large barbecue sets arranged along the sidewalk in front of an old boarded-up storefront. Columns of white smoke chugged into the air overhead from three blackened chimneys, while three large men, wrapped in white aprons, worked their magic below. They were experts all: the one on the end bravely popping the hatch to his barbecue and immediately


disappearing behind a wall of smoke; to his right, wielding a large bent paint brush, the guy in the middle was skillfully splashing a dark red sauce out of a plastic, baby blue pitcher across his rib-jammed, hissing grill; the tall fellow next to him confidently loaded a pair of pink and white racks of meat on his through a curtain of shimmering heat. Joe would have stood there all day if Dewey had let him. Dewey straightened up with a grimace and deposited four squashed cans into his cart. He saw that he had lost Joe again. He slid the toothpick in his mouth forward, holding it with two fingers, and shook his head. “This weekend.” Dewey inhaled the rich smoky fumes. “This weekend Joe,” he said louder, “we’re going to buy us some of them ribs. A slab a piece. Yeah.” He removed the toothpick. “I’ve been tasting them all month.” This had gotten Joe’s attention. “A whole slab...?” “Uh huh.” Dewey shook the cans down in the trash bag with his free hand and adjusted the neck. He coughed, but, to his relief, he didn’t do it again. “Let’s go.” They wheeled their dented metal carts past the snaking line of people crowding the uneven sidewalk: couples, trios and quartets of all ages talking about the day’s events or catching up with people they hadn’t seen in weeks, their children playing in and around the line. Up front, a gray-haired woman and a stocky bearded man were collecting money and handing out stained brown paper bags from inside an old


garden shed. Joe stared back like a child who doesn’t want to leave a playground. Everyone looked like they were having so much fun. Dewey didn’t look back. He could still smell the ribs, but he knew they would have to wait. Just three more days, he figured. They had to stick to their plan. Their big plan. He had been drilling that into Joe’s head all month. It would be their reward for all their hard work. It would be a way of celebrating. That’s why Dewey didn’t want to cash in all the cans and metal they had collected so far. He wanted to bring it all in at once. It would be a bigger payday that way. And then…then Dewey and Joe the Cannon would never pick up another man’s trash again.


Joe couldn’t believe their luck. They were on the home stretch, had just started up the block where they lived, when they noticed a long trail of cans in the street. He laughed out loud as he picked up an armful from the trolley tracks. “They must have spilled out of the back of a trash truck or something.” He tossed them into a bag. “Can you believe it Dewey? It’s like a sign or something.” Joe bent over for more. “Well…” Dewey scratched his beard as he studied the line of blue and red and green cans. “I will admit it seems providential.” The toothpick fell from Dewey’s lips as he realized the trail ended


in front of their house. He started down the block; then broke into a trot. Had someone told the city he and Joe were squatting in the boarded-up house or had the owner come by and cleaned up the place? Had there been a fire? Joe turned. “Hey, you’re not going to make me pick up all these cans by myself, are you?” Joe dropped his smile, along with the cans in his arms, and dashed on to the sidewalk. “Dewey?” Dewey stopped on the pavement. The house looked about the same as it had when he and Joe had left that morning: twisted porch, weathered, cracked boards covering the windows and door, overgrown yard. No official notices stuck up anywhere, just cans scattered across the yard and the sidewalk. “They’re.” Dewey fought to catch his breath. “Ours.” Joe charged the house. Dewey would have followed but he had pushed himself too far. A volcano had erupted in his chest and he couldn’t stop coughing. His entire body shook, and, straining to breathe, he grabbed hold of the twisted fence. Five minutes later, Joe emerged from behind a board. He was carrying a baseball bat. Dewey looked up. “All of it.” Joe smashed the bat against the fence. “Every last can!” Then he walked out of the yard. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he swung on the closest pole. “Damn it!” The metal street light bonged. The people down at the trolley stop couldn’t take their eyes off


Joe. They didn’t know what the trouble was, what he was yelling about, but he appeared crazy. Crazy and armed. Some anticipated trouble, and, not wanting to get involved, started walking towards the next trolley stop.


Dewey was very careful as he approached the door. It was quiet on the second floor, but he couldn’t tell if there were people in the front room or not. He didn’t want to startle anyone if there was. He slowly pushed open the door, peering in from the dark hallway, and was relieved to find the people there were out. Four, maybe five people—it wasn’t easy to tell in the closed, dark room—lay across the exposed floorboards. There weren’t any lights, and the smell… The smell was about the usual. Eric had had people over. Dewey moved inside. “Who’s that?” “Eric?” Eric cleared his throat. He was sitting against the wall, staring into space. “Eric,” Dewey said in a normal voice. He knew he wasn’t going to wake anyone up. Eric didn’t move.


“Eric.” Dewey stepped over someone’s outstretched arm and poked Eric on the shoulder. “You here when they came?” Eric’s head slowly tilted. “Eric, was you here when they came?” Dead, half closed eyes. “Um…yeah.” His head went back and he scratched his nose. “Cooking…tense.” He pointed at the floor. “We went down. Me and the guy in the hat.” He rested the back of his head against the wall. “Beetle thought it might be cops. But it was Jose. Guy with the red truck?” “Yeah.” “He told us he would set fire to the house if we made any trouble. We didn’t want any trouble. Didn’t want any cops.” He scratched his ear. “All he took was just some cans, right?” Dewey turned. “Yeah,” he answered with a tired sigh. “Just some cans.”


“You can’t trust anyone.” “Sure you can.” Dewey decided he wasn’t going to let Joe feel sorry for himself. He slowly lowered himself on to an old green sofa. He slipped a small bottle out of his jacket pocket. “You can’t do everything yourself.” He twisted the lid off and took a sip. “We should have cashed them in. I told you we should have cashed them in.”


Dewey studied what was left in the bottle. “I told you before why we couldn’t. That wasn’t the plan.” Joe thumped the bat on the floor. “You and your plan.” “It was a good plan.” He put the cap back on the bottle and returned the whiskey to his coat. “I’m gonna’ kill Jose.” The bat clunked on the floor. “Him and that kid.” Dewey pushed himself up from the sofa. He didn’t like it when Joe talked like this. “For what? Stealin’ some cans? Isn’t that how we got them?” “No.” Joe shifted on a plastic orange crate. “We didn’t steal a thing.” “That’s not what that woman over on Cambria said.” “She didn’t know what she was talking about.” “And neither do you. You ain’t gonna’ kill nobody. Not over some damn cans and pipe.” Joe brought the baseball bat down on the floor again. “Why don’t you ever get mad? You spoke to Jose about helping us out, and the first thing he did was drive over here and grab our cans. And the rest.” Dewey looked down. “Oh, I’m mad. Madder than you know. But at myself. I should have told him about the cans after we were ready to cash ‘em in. Not before. That was a…a miscalculation on my part.” “He took it all.” Dewey could hear the pain in Joe ’s voice. “Not everything. We still got 6 bags and our carts. He missed


some stuff too.” “We’re supposed to be gone soon. What are we going to do?” Dewey didn’t know. “I’ve got some ideas, but in the mean time, we’ll need to get back to collecting. We can still do that.”


It had taken them over two months to stockpile as many cans as they had. Dewey and Joe had started with one trash bag, one Wednesday morning, about 5 AM. Dewey remembered because he had seen the time on a clock that hung over a local bank. They had taken the black, plastic bag from a trash container bolted to the wall of the bank, and scoured every street, avenue and field for every last can and piece of metal they could get their hands on. They had collected bent lead pipes; took turns getting sick melting plastic cables down to get at the copper wire beneath; cheered when they found copper pipes; ran off with a flattened street light; and one day had even found a manhole cover on the sidewalk. For some reason, Joe was nervous about taking the manhole cover, but like Dewey always said, “If they wanted to keep it, then they shouldn’t have left it out on the street where somebody could take it.” They cashed in some of what they had collected—especially glad to be rid of the cumbersome street light--for food. Then they had replaced the children’s wagon they were using with a shopping cart the next week. No small victory in a neighborhood where shopping carts


were locked up every night. Two weeks later, they had had to get another cart. Dewey in particular noticed a change when they added the carts. They made the job a little easier. He didn’t tell Joe, but some days the carts were a blessing with his tired back and legs; the last couple of weeks, he had been using them more and more to prop himself up.


Starting out the next day, each of them taking turns at cursing Jose, every muscle in Dewey’s body ached. He talked to keep his mind off the pain. “…they don’t chain shopping carts up at night in the suburbs.” He was sitting on a small plastic stool. He had a trash bag in his right hand. “Ever been to the northeast?” “Yeah.” Joe had heard Dewey talk about shopping carts in the suburbs before, but he let him go. He wasn’t listening anyway. He had taken a couple of long pulls from Dewey’s bottle for breakfast, much to Dewey’s displeasure, and was off in his own little world. He threw a bunch of cans at Dewey’s feet. Dewey frowned and then picked up the cans. “You drive by those markets at 12 at night and you see the carts, shiny and new, sitting all over the parking lots, right by the sidewalk.” He shook one of the cans. “Anyone can take them, but nobody does. And if some little old lady takes a shopping cart home, it’s okay because the market people know she’s gonna’ bring it back the next day. They don’t have their guards


run after her like she stole the crown jewels.” He emptied the can on to the ground. “Because out there, nobody has to boost a damn shopping cart.” Joe tossed a couple more cans Dewey’s way. “Things haven’t changed as much out there as they have here.” He shooed away a bee. “Not yet anyway. Can’t believe what this place has turned into.” Joe frowned. “You know I was thinking.” “I figured.” He had overheard Joe talking to himself a little earlier. “Maybe we could get some money from George.” “Your cousin?” Dewey shoved two more squashed cans into the trash bag. “My brother’s Godfather.” Dewey thought for a second. “Well that’s up to you. He’s no kin of mine. You know I don’t like asking people for anything. I would have never asked Jose for help if our load hadn’t been too big for our carts.” Joe’s eyes narrowed. “Jose.” “Now let’s not get started on all that again. You had me up half the night talking about it as it is. Like you said, you could ask that guy George for money.” Joe nodded. “ Yeah, cause, you know, day after day, I get a little more worried.” “I told you there isn’t any cause for that. They won’t start looking for you for weeks or months. Maybe not even ever.”


“Not ever?” Dewey looked at the passing cars. “Well, not right away anyway.” “Why not? The police around here know me, what I did. Two of them arrested me. And if I’m still here in August, I’m sunk.“ Dewey pushed himself to his feet with all his might. “I told you I ain’t gonna’ let that happen.” “You?!” He grimaced. “What are you going to do? You’re not a lawyer. You aren’t anyone.” Joe’s bottom lip quivered as he became more excited. “And what am I to them? Just another bum. Nobody’s going to miss me.” Dewey’s face froze. “We are not bums.” Joe wasn’t listening. “Tiny Mikey said I should just go in for the two years and do the time. It’ll be good for me. Make a new man out of me. Give me a fresh start. But I’m not going…easy for him to say what I should do…he likes prison. Locked up in that…” He suddenly glared at Dewey. “And now we’ve got junkies living on the 2nd floor. They’re probably going to burn the house down one of these days. Let them in because you thought it’d be good to have someone there with all our cans downstairs. They weren’t much help when Jose showed up though, were they?!” Joe glared at Dewey. “We were supposed to be gone by now. Gone.” Fists pounded at his thighs. “But we’re still here.” Joe kicked a can across the sidewalk. “What’s it to you anyway?” He moved closer. “Wrong or right, it makes no difference to you. You and your damned


talk. I’m going to jail. Jail. After I’m gone you’ll probably move on and never say another word about me.” Tears shined in his eyes. “Except how stupid I was and how there wasn’t anything you could do to change that.” Dewey set his feet apart on the pavement, readied his right arm and took a deep breath. Joe was scared, angry and a little drunk, and Dewey knew, under the right circumstances, he might take a swing at him. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Joe moved in. “You think it’s all my fault ‘cause I threw in with Sam. I admitted it was a dumb thing to do, but you just won’t let me forget it.” “Now you just back off right now,” Dewey yelled with all the anger he could muster. “Dumb damn kid. Lettin’ that whiskey go to your head like that. I told you it would. Whining to me like I’m your girlfriend or something.” He coughed. “You think you know so much about me and what I’m thinking? Well tell me, what am I gonna’ do after you go up?” Surprised, Joe stared back. “You do twice as much work as me. You’re fast. And get more done while I’m coughing in the morning than I do in an entire day. Here.” Dewey reached deep into his jacket and pulled a square of money out. “Take the damn money. Ditch me.” Joe stared at the rectangle of green and white paper. “That’s all the money we got in the world. We worked for that. Together. But I know you can move faster without a wheezing old man with a shopping cart. You could be on a bus and out of here in no time.”


Sweat streamed down Joe’s cheek along his jaw. He blinked as if he were just waking up. “You don’t believe what I say so we might as well split up anyway. I told you I was going to keep my promise. I won’t let them take you away.” Dewey straightened his jacket, having yanked it sideways when he pulled out the money, and put a couple more steps between him and Joe. “Stupid people I deal with. Acting like I’m…well I don’t know who. Your father? Someone who you thought was a friend? Your coach?” A passing woman frowned at Dewey. “And shame on you too. Pretty woman like you making a face like that.” Dewey picked up the can Joe had kicked. “Mmm mmm. Dark and lovely.” He watched Joe out of the corner of his eye. He was out of breath. Joe lowered himself into a crouch. “I’m sorry Dewey.” Dewey relaxed. “And you were going to hit me too.” Joe blushed. “I was not…” “Fool kid wants to hurt a tired old man. I hope you’re happy.” Joe removed his baseball cap. “You don’t know what it’s like having this over my head.” Dewey waved him away. “Everybody’s got somethin’ hangin’ over ‘em. You just can’t let it stop you in your tracks.”



Their next stop was Gurney Street--the block running between Mascher and Front--an infamous one-stop shopping place in North Philly where you could get almost anything you wanted, legal or otherwise. There was bedroom furniture, designer lamps, radial tires (Like new), bunk beds, wall length mirrors, antique credenzas, hub caps. On the one side of the street, salesmen worked out of a pair of garages connected to the corner homes there, and on the other, they worked out of a row of truck containers that had been dropped along an apron of land above a railroad embankment. They told everyone who stopped that they were sure they had what they were looking for just out of reach in the back. All they needed was a little time to locate it. “Can you give me half an hour?” Dewey and Joe couldn’t buy anything there—the prices were too rich for their blood—but at the end of every week, the shop keepers would find themselves with more inventory then space and had to dispose of it behind the containers. It was no easy task. Some hated parting with the stuff because, like all good sales people, they were convinced they could get the right price if they could only find the right customer. Dewey and Joe had only been there two weeks earlier, and were reluctant to return because they didn’t think there would be anything there they could sell. However, they didn’t have much of a choice. They were standing over one pile of junk, while a woman named Mary Elizabeth (And a deaf man who everyone had always assumed was her son) picked through another. Traffic was cluttered and loud on


Gurney, but back here it was quiet. Joe held up an old toaster. Dewey shook his head. Joe dropped it. “I was thinking, I’ll have to get past Johnson to talk to George.” “Johnson.” Dewey chewed on the name like it was gristle he had found in a 20-dollar steak. “If I was five years younger I’d show him a thing or two.” A handful of bees danced angrily in the air above, and Joe backed away from the pile. “I’m younger than Johnson and I wouldn’t even try.” “Give a man a badge and a club and he forgets where he’s from. Big Bad Security Guard.” Dewey leaned back and shaded his eyes with his hand. “Whew. That sun’ll rip the skin right off you. Let’s get in the shade.” Joe shrugged. “There’s nothing here anyway.” They moved under the overgrown branches of a gnarled tree. “I knew Johnson’s aunt when I lived over on 4th Street.” Joe was tired. “You told me.” “Mmm-hmm. Pretty lady too. Knew how to dress—even on her income. Made a man proud to be seen with a beauty like that. And dance…” Dewey’s teeth appeared. “….ha, she sure could dance.” “And you knew Johnson when he was a kid…” “Yeah.” Dewey ducked between the trees and undid his fly. “Of course then,” he said over his shoulder, “he was just a little kid with a big mouth and no friends.” He sighed. “The kids used to beat him up


almost every day after school. I even stopped ‘em once, but what’s one day when you suffer the rest of the week?” “Jesus suffered.” Dewey zipped up. “Now that’s just plain blasphemous to mention Johnson in the same breath as Jesus.” He reappeared. “Besides, hardship’s a little easier when you know what it’s for. Jesus knew why he was suffering. Most people don’t.” Dewey sat down. “And Johnson didn’t know why those kids were beating him up any more then he knew why his daddy did every Friday night. Funny thing is, I think he remembers me stopping the kids that day, but he holds it against me.” “Sounds like him. Meanest man I ever met.” Joe removed his cap and closed his eyes. “Whew. It’s hot.” They still managed to end the day with 9 bags of cans in total, and Dewey, with Joe’s approval, decided they should make a night of it. Cashing in the bags—and a box of copper elbows Jose had missed—they went out and, with some of the money they had saved, bought three bottles of wine (All grape), potato chips, candy bars, lunch meat and some rolls. They finished two of the bottles that night, sang a little and the next day, Sunday, they rested.


Dewey and Joe slowed down as they approached the intersection at American Street and Lehigh Avenue. Johnson worried them so much that they had walked down the opposite side of Lehigh Avenue to make


sure he didn’t see them coming. They hoped. Cars, trucks and buses roared back and forth as their drivers hurried through the yellow light, and Dewey and Joe stared at the red, white and blue building across from them. “He’s not outside.” “That doesn’t mean he isn’t there,” Dewey replied shrewdly. He rubbed his chin. “Still, there’s a good chance you’ll catch your friend’s eye before Johnson even knows you’re there.” Joe stared at the market from behind a traffic light. “If he’s there.” “Expect Johnson to be there. That way at least you’ll be prepared.” “Okay.” Joe looked up at the green light. “I’m going.” “Well so am I.” Dewey held tight to the shopping cart. They had been collecting cans on the way over. “Wait up.” Joe was practically running and Dewey, excited, started

coughing, trying to keep up. They reached the corner. “Okay. Okay.” Dewey coughed. Then he looked up. After a couple of minutes, he still hadn’t managed to spy Johnson anywhere in the market’s windows. “I’ll head up the street, so if you have to leave or finish your talk with your cousin early—“ “He’s not my cousin.” Dewey frowned. “Whoever he is, if you finish early, I’ll be right up the street.” “Okay.” Joe started towards the parking lot.


“And don’t do anything to that bank. It’ll make everybody look.” “I won’t.” “Leave it alone, right?” “Right.” Dewey watched Joe go, feeling anxious. It was a feeling he had had a thousand times raising three sons. This, and where he happened to be standing, reminded him of a time thirty years earlier. He was walking with his son Franklin, at this very intersection, and on the opposite corner, there used to be a small tower where a railroad worker was stationed. He was there to change the traffic lights when a freight train passed through or the tracks needed switching. Dewey was friendly with the guy who had the morning shift, Vic was his name, and Franklin wanted to go inside the booth. Dewey remembered that day like it had just happened. It was a Saturday, and Vic had invited them both into the cramped space. He had even sounded the horn for them. This was back when the trains ran through North Philly more frequently, long before the warehouses up and down American Street had started to fall to suspicious fires; before Dewey’s trouble at work, before his arrest, before Khe Sahn; before Diana had left him for Gerard Wilson. He wondered, like he sometimes did, where his boys had finally wound up. He hoped they had had better luck than him. Hoped they didn’t hold too much against him. Then he looked around, and continued down the block, talking to himself, speaking to Franklin, Art and Gene


(His other boys), even to Diana, not really paying much attention to where he was going.


The first thing Joe did was punch the side of the blue and white Can Bank. It was about the size of an RV, and had turned up in the market’s parking lot one morning a couple months earlier. It was part of some company’s recycling campaign and encouraged people to trade in their empty aluminum cans for money. It would dispense coins to people for the cans they dumped in a door in front. Just the going rate, but Joe didn’t like the competition. There were still plenty of cans littering the streets, but he worried that one day, they might disappear. Then what would people on the streets do? He reached into his jacket and pulled out a half-eaten bar of chocolate. He carefully unraveled the layer of paper wrapped around the foil beneath; took a bite. The chocolate coated his teeth, and, for a second, he was in heaven. A black Trans Am roared into the parking lot, passing right behind him, and Joe, impressed, watched it speed away. It looked like a fast car. Faster than anything he had ever driven. Joe had had a car back in high school: an old red Chevy. He and a friend of his, Tommy Gonzalez, from shop class, had suped it up. It was his dream car. Then one Saturday, a little drunk, he had driven through a red light into a gray station wagon. The accident immediately flashed


through his memory: he could feel himself sliding in his seat, the car folding around him, the windshield exploding. Then someone yelling at him through the mangled door. There hadn’t been anyone else in the station wagon and the driver hadn’t really been hurt all that bad, except for a bloody nose. Joe, however, had had to stay in the hospital a month. The doctors had had to sink pins into one of his arms and a wrist, and they had had to stitch up the left side of his face. He closed his eyes. He still could feel every pain from the crash to the hospital. And the nightmares… Joe kept dreaming he was still trapped in his shattered car, folded up in the front street against the hard, plastic wheel. His father picked him up when Joe had finally been released from the hospital. They had driven home in silence. It wasn’t until dinner that night that Joe was informed how much he had placed the family in debt. Their savings were now gone, and his father and mother had had to borrow money from relatives. His father didn’t know what they were going to do, taking money from relatives, and told Joe that he would have saved them all a lot of trouble if he had just had the good sense to die. Next day, Joe gathered up his belongings and, still unsteady on a pair of wooden crutches, staggered out, never to return.

Joe was staring at a dented Caprice Classic as the memory of that day receded, and he wiped his eyes. The car rolled past, guiding his


thoughts elsewhere. The Caprice needed shocks and a muffler. A rectangular Pontiac sedan went clunking after it. He knew it needed a transmission from the burnt smell that trailed in the air after it. He loved cars. He shook his head, and finished his candy bar. It tasted so good, so sweet. It made his teeth tingle. He threw the wrapper to the ground and ran a finger along his gums. He didn’t want to talk to George with chocolate and nuts in his teeth.


It was a little crazy at the front of the market. Five cars were parked in front, and beyond the poles, men and women were quickly lifting


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