The two men began fighting over the empty cans and bottles in the early evening the way dogs fight over scraps of food.
The sun was still up but the beer had run out. The smaller of the men had drunk the last one and now he set his eyes on the returnables.

The pile of shining cans and gleaming bottles were heaped high in a closet that would smell forever of booze. There were scraps of trash and uneaten food tucked in between the bottles and cans, but make no mistake: This was a valuable mass of refuse.

The closet held maybe $15 worth of returnables and the small man reasoned it was all his. After all, this was his one-room apartment in downtown Lewiston. Everything in it belonged to him.

The bigger man begged to differ. He had bought the last case of beer and the 12-pack before that. Thus, most of those empty cans and bottles belonged to him.

There were three men and one woman in the room, but the dispute was waged between these two drinkers. Harsh words were passed. Points were made and then countered. All the while, the smaller man nursed the last of the beers and squinted at his rival over the top of the can.

The larger man fidgeted with his cigarette and tried to shout down his drinking buddy. After all, $15 would buy a good amount of beer. And wouldn’t you know it? He was almost out of smokes.

The sun went down as they argued. Lamps were switched on and orderly shadows filled the apartment. The two men argued while the other two watched in mute fascination.

The beer was gone and it was early, yet. They didn’t have 50 cents among the four of them. A crisis was at hand. State checks had been cashed earlier in the month. There was no more dough to be pooled.

There was no hope for the evening but for the heap of returnable bottles and cans. And the dispute was going nowhere.

The big man and the small man had been drinking together for years. One was in his 30s, the other was a decade older. They met in jail and found they had one great thing in common: both liked to drink and do little else.

Now, there was a rift. The small man wearied of arguing and he climbed to his feet. He produced a garbage bag and began to fill it with the empty bottles and cans.

Perturbed, the bigger man jumped to his feet as well. He tried to snatch the bag from his friend without grace. Bottles and cans clanged and rattled on the dirty, hardwood floor.

The smaller man shoved the bigger man. The latter absorbed the blow and pushed back. The smaller man stumbled and fell on his back upon the pile of precious returnables. He flailed his arms and legs in an effort to right himself and more metal and glass went flying.

It was a sad scene for the other two. All they wanted was another beer or two and maybe some engaging conversation.

Now the smaller man was seething from his fall. He clutched an empty beer bottle and flung it at his advancing foe. The throw was wild and it missed the bigger man by several feet. The bottle slammed against a far wall but didn’t shatter.

Barely flinching, the bigger man reached down and grabbed his friend’s foot. He dragged him out of the closet and away from this stack of 12- and 16-ounce gems. There was kicking and swearing and screaming. Both men ended up on the floor surrounded by bottles and cans.

No blood was shed, though. These guys knew how to drink and they knew how to fight without much calamity. Out-and-out fighting was a waste of effort, when scheming and planning the next round was always a priority.

“Alright, alright,” said the bigger man. “Let’s just bag this stuff up and hit the store. We’ll split a case of beer. And I need smokes. You got a problem with that?”

There was no problem. At least not for these seasoned drinkers. They filled four trash bags full of returnables and headed for the nearest store. Three men and one woman ambling down the street, each with a plump bag in their hands. They cast weird shadows, but harmony had returned to the pack.

Later, they sat and drank in the small apartment. They laughed and smoked and told dirty jokes. They didn’t count the accumulating mass of empty bottles because the first of the month was approaching. Each of them would receive a nice check from the state and high times would resume.

There was only tomorrow to get through. And the day after that. Love would find a way.

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter.

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