The Tin Man
His wife had died ten years before. Together they had raised two boys, Steven and Bill, who had long since moved out and called most weekends but rarely visited. They didn’t live very far away, but Mel had always felt as though he were intruding whenever he went to see them. (Steven managed the family business, Mel’s Shoe Emporium. Bill taught Math at a high school in Sussex.) And so Mel found other things to pass the time, like playing chess against himself or solving a puzzle or reading a good book. But most of all he enjoyed walking through the woods with his shotgun, pretending to shoot at birds.
On his way back home one autumn afternoon he picked up an old tin can that was half-buried in the ground. He placed it on a branch, counted twenty paces and took aim. As he eyed his target through the sight he noticed that a flicker of sunlight had broken through the trees and sparkled in the can. But suddenly he felt the way he did when aiming at a bird and he couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He lowered the shotgun and took a step back. The sparkling can reminded him of a Christmas Tree ornament and he thought of his boys and of his late wife.
In 1966 Mel’s family was the first in the neighborhood with a projector camera and every Christmas he woke up before the boys and hid behind the couch to tape them tiptoeing out to the tree in their pajamas to see what Santa had brought. The camera had a bright light and it reflected off the ornaments, and now, staring at the dirty tin can hanging from the tree in the woods, Mel’s heart fluttered when he realized how long ago those days had been, and how desperately far away they had become.
When he got home he went straight to the attic, found the box of film and loaded it into the camera. And there his family was on the screen; his boys were boys again, his wife played with her hair the way she always did when he filmed her. She had thick blonde hair back in those days and she would curl it in her fingers while pretending not to be flustered by the camera. She would often look into it and tell Mel to shut it off.
“I’m serious, Mel,” she would say.
“It’s not recording.”
“I can see the little red light.”
Mel would smile. “Tell me you love me.”
She would smile back. “I love you. Now turn it off.”
Mel sat in the attic and watched every roll of film in the box. The next day he went to the cupboard and emptied every soup can into the sink. Then he went to the garage for the cans he had saved for minor hockey. He called the grocery store and bought a dozen flats of canned goods and emptied them all. He drilled holes in each one and tied a string through each hole. By noon he was back in the woods, looking for the tree with the old can on the branch. When he found it he placed all the cans on the tree then took twenty paces back and looked at them sparkling in the sunlight. And he dreamed of a time when life was good, when everything sparkled around the Christmas tree, and he was hiding behind the couch, looking through the camera. He heard his two boys coming downstairs in their pajamas.
“Holy cow!” Bill gasped when he saw the Big Wheels parked in front of the tree.
“Look!” Steven said, pointing to the Hot Wheels racetrack that was set up on the living room floor.
“Holy crap!” Bill said.
Mel tried not to laugh when Bill spotted the camera and realized his father had heard him curse.
“Take down your socks,” Mel said, the camera still running. “See what else Santa brought.”
The old man walked home from the woods that night saddened yet again by the very real fact that it was all such a long time ago
The next morning he called the grocery store again. This time he bought almost every canned food they had, nearly a thousand cans—soup cans, tuna cans, dog food cans—it cost him dearly. It took him two days emptying them in the backyard, then drilling and tying the string. It took him three more days to decorate ten more trees. But it was worth it. He spent every day lying on his back in the middle of the woods, the cold earth below him, the cans sparkling and swaying in the trees. And now, with eleven trees surrounding him, he was not only able to dream about Christmas, but of any day he wished. After that, Mel decided to decorate all the trees along the path. He called the recycling plant in the city and had a dump truck deliver the load.
It took him three months to decorate the trees. And every morning he awoke and went into the woods to dream. He returned often to the time when he and his wife took the boys camping in PEI. The ferry ride was especially fun, the boys wide-eyed down where the cars were parked, the waves crashing up against the side of the boat, and then up on deck, a blue sky, a cool and salty summer breeze and the island blurry in the distance. His wife wore big sunglasses and a red and white striped sweater that made her look like Jackie O. The boys hung their arms over the railing and looked out at the water.
“Are there sharks in there, Dad?”
“Huge. Like Jaws.”
They would drive to the other side of the island, to Cavendish, where they stayed at a campground near the ocean. They had to walk through a hay field to get to the beach. The boys used to hide in the hay and Mel and his wife would try to find them and they would laugh and scream and wrestle him down. They took pictures of only their heads sticking out of the hay, and at night they would roast marshmallows on an open fire. Mel’s wife always burned hers but she would eat it anyway, saying she liked it that way. Mel would concentrate and brown one perfectly and then give it to her and watch her enjoy it for real.
Mel often fell asleep under the sparkling trees and he would keep dreaming and sometimes when he woke up he would see the cans and would think, for a brief moment, that he had died and was with his wife in heaven. But then he realized it wasn’t that way and he would pick himself up from off the ground and make his way back home to the quiet house.
One afternoon Steven dropped by. He had a question about the store. When his father didn’t answer the door he walked around to the back of the house and saw the cans on all the trees. He followed the path he knew his father took and found him laying on his back in a pile of leaves.
Mel didn’t hear his son when he approached. He was dreaming of Halloween when Steven was seven and had insisted on being Wonder Woman. He was dressed in his mother’s red leotards, a brown bra and a long black wig. When Mel tried to tell him that he couldn’t dress as Wonder Woman the boy got upset.
“Because she’s a woman. How about Batman?”
“I don’t like Batman.”
Mel’s wife took a picture of Steven with the leotards pulled up over his belly, and the bra that hung down to his waist. She told Steven it was a wonderful costume and out he went.
Mel woke up. He had wanted to keep dreaming about how Steven and Bill (who was dressed as a ninja) had come home that night, each with a pillowcase full of candy.
“What are you doing?” Steven frowned.
“Nothing,” Mel said, sitting up and brushing himself off. He noticed the wrinkles around Steven’s eyes and realized that Steven was now older than he was that Halloween night.
Steven looked around at all the cans in the trees. “What’s all this?”
Mel smiled. “A hobby.”
“You did all of this yourself?”
Mel nodded. “I did.”
The whole forest seemed to sparkle. “There must be over a hundred trees,” Steven said.
“One hundred and seven,” Mel smiled.
“This isn’t what normal people do, Dad.”
“Go home, Steven.”
Steven looked around again. “I don’t like it,” he said. “I don’t like it one bit.” He held out his hand. “Come on, we’re going to see Dr. Christiansen.”
Mel pulled back. “I’m not going anywhere.” He lay back down in the leaves and closed his eyes.
Steven took him by the arm to try and lift him up, but Mel slapped him till he let go. Steven took another look at all the cans, sighed heavily then left.
The next day Steven returned with Bill. Mel was lying in the same spot. They snuck up on him, grabbed him by the arms and lifted him up.
Bill leaned in close to his father. “This is for your own good, Dad.”
Mel struggled but there was nothing he could do. Steven and Bill dragged him out of the woods and had him committed to the mental hospital that overlooked the St. John River. Mel tried his best to show that he was competent but he was in his eighties now, and when he worked himself up he would become flustered and confused, and the boys` lawyer easily spun it into delirium. It didn’t help that his sons had taken pictures of the backyard and had showed them to a judge who ordered Mel into the hospital’s care.
And so nothing sparkled for Mel Tinsel anymore. Doctors came in every day at the same time and treated him like a child, asking him silly questions about what day it was and how he felt. Whenever Mel got upset a nurse would come and poke him with a needle that made him sleep without ever dreaming. Steven and Bill visited him the first few months but after a year they stopped coming altogether.
Years passed and Mel got used to living in the room and sleeping without dreaming; he had completely forgotten about his wife and sons. There was a young doctor whose first name was Steven, and Mel was drawn to him but he didn’t know why. Sometimes a nurse would wheel him out into the hall and he would notice things sparkling in the hall lights, the silver of a pen, raindrops on the windows, and this would excite him and he tried to get out of his wheelchair to lie down on the floor but they would stick him with a needle again and he would wake up in his room.
One day a nurse working with Mel had a can of pop and Mel asked if he could keep the empty can. He was allowed. Soon Mel had a collection of cans and when December came he asked if he could decorate the Christmas tree in the lobby using his cans. Everyone agreed, and it was a very humble but very beautiful tree. They didn’t know what it was about the tree, but that it made everyone feel happy when they were around it, a giddiness they attributed to it being the holidays.
On Christmas Eve, Mel sat in front of the tree where he told stories of his family, of his two boys opening gifts and how beautiful his wife had been and how she used to curl her hair in her fingers when the camera was on her.
He died on Boxing Day. He was 98 years old. The following year the nurses decorated the tree with cans again, in Mel’s honor, and every year after that. They called it Tin Man’s Tree. Whenever visitors asked about it they would be told about the little old man who had first decorated it with pop cans and who had come alive that one night to tell stories of his family, and who had died a few days later. And for some reason when they were told this story, they found that they could not stop staring at the tree and smiling.