“Garbage-Can Man,” Friend, Jan. 1992, 32
When the phone rang, Michael had no idea that the call would turn a good deed into a bad one.
Dad got up from the dinner table and answered the phone. He returned a few minutes later, hands held up as if he’d just scored a touchdown. “Great news!” he shouted. “The company has called me back to work. I start next month.”
It was great news. Dad had been laid off from the steel mill nearly two years ago. They had lost their house and now lived in a small apartment. It had been a difficult adjustment.
“Congratulations, Dad,” Michael said.
Crystal jumped up from the table, threw her arms around Dad’s neck, and squealed, “Oh, Daddy!”
Michael hadn’t seen her do that for a long time.
Mom sat quietly, smiling.
“Donna,” Dad told her, “this spring we hunt for a new house.”
A tear slid down over Mom’s smile. She got up from the table and gave Dad a long, tender hug. “Sit down and finish your supper, Fred.” She put on a coat and took the storage shed key from the key rack. “Wait here,” she said, heading for the door. “I have a surprise for you.”
That’s when Michael realized that he might have a problem. He knew that Mom had gone after Dad’s company coat. Dad had been proud of the coat, an award for ten years’ service at the steel mill. But he had refused to wear it after the layoff. Mom had stored it for safe keeping, though—just in case.
Several weeks before that, while Michael and Crystal were doing the dishes, he had overheard his mom and dad talking. She had suggested that Dad wear his company coat since the weather was getting cold.
“No,” Dad had said sternly. “I’ll freeze before I give the mill free advertising. Just get rid of it.”
The next day Michael had gone to the park as usual. He enjoyed seeing the pigeons and squirrels there on his way to school. He had paid little attention to the old man collecting empty bottles and cans from the garbage cans. But that particular morning he noticed the old man sniffing and sampling food scraps, stuffing what he liked into his pockets.
From then on, whenever he could, Michael smuggled biscuits or waffles or jam-covered toast from his own breakfast plate and left it in a neatly wrapped package for the man. Normally the man smiled gratefully when he found the food. It made Michael feel good inside.
But one morning the man reacted differently. He searched about the park with stark, jerky glances. When he saw Michael, he marched over, shook the wrapped breakfast in Michael’s face, and rasped, “What is this! I don’t need charity from any young wet-eared whippersnapper like you.”
Mortified, Michael had run.
He hadn’t left anything for the man again until yesterday. The weather had turned extremely cold, and when he saw that the man was wearing a thin, ripped jacket and was huddling under the viaduct near the park. Michael ran home, scavenged two leftover chicken legs from the refrigerator, wrapped them in a napkin, then stuffed them into a pocket of Dad’s coat and hurried back to the park. He jammed the coat into the garbage can, trying to make it look discarded, then fled—it was almost time for the man to get there on his daily round.
Michael’s recollections were interrupted when his mother came back. “Fred, your company coat is gone! Did you throw it away?”
“No,” Dad said. “Didn’t you get rid of it long ago?”
“No,” Mom said. “Just last week I had it out, thinking that maybe I could talk you into wearing it while it’s so very cold. But it had a big grease stain on it, so I put it back until I had a chance to take it to the cleaners.”
Michael looked worriedly at Crystal. She had seen him with the coat. But she just looked at the ceiling and didn’t say anything. He knew that he should tell what happened, but he was afraid to. I’ll wait to tell them tomorrow and not spoil Dad’s good news today, he rationalized.
The next day, when the family was returning home from church, Mom gasped and said, “Fred, that man is wearing your coat!”
Michael spun around to look.
Dad stared at the old man. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” Mom said. “See that grease stain?”
Michael blurted, “I think I’d better ex—”
“No need to concern yourself with this, son,” Dad interrupted. “Donna, go ahead with the kids up to the apartment. I’ll take care of this.”
“But, Dad, I want to—”
“It’s all right, Michael,” Dad cut him off again. “Go upstairs now.”
While Michael paced the floor, Mom sat watching out the window. Crystal’s gaze went back and forth from Michael to Mom as if she were watching a tennis match.
When Dad came in, he stared at Michael for a long moment. He didn’t hear Mom’s questions till she tugged at his sleeve and asked again, “Where’s your coat? Wouldn’t he give it back to you?”
“We were mistaken,” Dad said. “It’s not my coat.”
“Fred, I’d know that coat anywhere,” Mom said, astonished. “It’s your coat.”
“It’s his coat, Donna,” Dad said. “He said that his boy gave it to him.”
“Highly unlikely,” Mom said indignantly. “If he had a son, he wouldn’t let his father live on the streets and eat out of garbage cans.”
“It’s not really his son,” Dad replied. “The old man said that ‘his boy’ is like an angel, showing up just when he is most in need. When he’s starving, this boy shows up with food. When he was freezing, the boy brought the coat. Who could ask for more than that?” Dad said, gazing intently at Michael. “In my book, he’s a wonderful son.”
The next morning after breakfast, while Michael got ready for school, Mom said, “Michael, while you’re going by the park, would you care to dump those scraps for me? I’ve cleaned out the refrigerator, and the garbage man won’t come until Thursday.”
“OK, Mom,” Michael said. On the counter he found a neatly wrapped paper plate, piled with leftover food, sitting on Dad’s old work boots. “The boots too?”
“The boots, too,” Mom said. “Your dad is getting a new pair.”
Now both Dad and Mom knew! And better still, they cared too. Michael smiled to himself as he picked up the plate full of “scraps.” Who had ever heard of warm scraps from the refrigerator?