Everyone, where I lived, had seen the old man collect junk from the streets of town. They knew him for his full head of white hair and thin body as he passed down the walk seeking our refuse. In time, they came to recognize his special habits: they mentioned how he carried always the one and the same canvas bag for the paper cups and plastic he picked from the sidewalk. While he became a regular fixture of the street, his purpose in collecting his items remained a mystery. When the people asked, he told them simply and without hesitation, “I’m putting it all together.”
“But tin cans and oily takeout boxes?” I told my friend Matt when we first talked of the man’s intent. “He must be crazy.”
“He’s a daft, old man,” Matt agreed.
A few weeks after criticising the man, we saw him as we went wandering the streets after school. Candy wrappers and glass bottles lay by the sidewalk, prime material for any trash collector, but the man walked by these, his face bright and satisfied.
“Hey, weren’t you the one who liked to collect this stuff?” Matt called. He thumbed to the trash by the walk as the man came near.
“I don’t anymore,” the old man said, smiling. “I’m done with my work and happy for it.” He passed by us without another word.
So what had he done, I wondered, as I stood there beside myself. The loose trash he had picked up seemed good only to chuck in garbage cans. And why was he happy that he had toyed with all our trash, anyway? When we asked later around town, no one could offer us a clue.
The questions I raised continued to bug Matt and me, so we went to visit the old man at his home to get some answers. He lived at the edge of town in a tall house by the forest, as we knew since folks mentioned it in speaking of him. When we rang at his door, the old man recognized us from our encounter on the street.
“So, you’re curious,” he said when we told why we had come. “Well, I’m flattered that some people would be. I had felt sure I was the only one in town to whom it could matter.”
I gained an idea from these words that he must know how strange people thought him. I felt a smidge of sympathy on realizing this: it seemed the man had more perspective on things than I had given him credit. I gave him a smile to come across the kinder for it.
The old man showed Matt and me inside and led us to the part of the house where he had collected his junk. “Go in and look around,” he said when he opened the door to it, his voice hopeful. We stepped into a tall, high room of brilliant white walls. By the wall on our right was the trash. While garbage and, for a large part, unclean, it did not smell; the old man had to have aired the room often and long to dispel any odor. The trash itself rose like a mountain toward the high ceiling.
Matt told me later that he thought it resembled a huge crown, which I can understand: the mountain of it bore many peaks just like a crown has spikes. As we made our survey, we were struck by the plenty the awesome mass contained. We saw a million colors on the labeled cans. Shafts of polished metal braced the mountain’s sides as if pushing it inward and upward. Painted wood stuck from its face like rays of light. At its center, we saw green soda glasses reflecting loops of plastic cord and crumpled newspaper. Cellophane wrappers sparkled in used yogurt cups. All of this seemed to hold together as one despite it being so many items. Whether it was the polished metal or the plastic cords that did it, I felt unsure to say.
As I observed it on three sides, I knew the old man had worked with the trash for it to have the form and order before me. The mountain was no heap; it had become more through his making. I realized then the reason that he was happy with it: he had gained a sense of completion from having assembled the many cans, rods, and plastic cups into the great work in that room. I was no one to argue against his feeling it as I marveled at the mountain.