Paint Cans: A Fable


There was this guy, and he cared about the environment. He never threw mostly-empty paint cans in the trash when he was finished with a painting project. “Paint is bad for the environment,” he said. “It goes in the landfill, it ends up in the groundwater.”

So he put his old paint cans in the shed to await the day when he could carry them to the paint disposal place across town.

All his friends said, “Listen—all you’ve got to do is to throw your old paint cans in the trash, put some garbage on top. The trash men will carry them right off. They’ll never know the difference.”

The guy said, “You like drinking paint, do you?”

“Pardon?” his friends said.

“You like drinking paint? That’s what you’ll be doing if everybody throws their paint cans in the trash. It gets in the groundwater, you know.” His friends went away chastened.

The years went by, and the guy repainted rooms, touched up the shutters, re-did the trim. The paint cans piled in his shed—a dozen, two dozen and more.

“You’re crazy,” his friends said. “Just throw these paint cans in the trash—a few this week, a few next week, a few the week after that. They’ll be gone in no time.”

“I’m not a polluter,” the guy said.

“Then take them to the paint disposal place,” his friends said. “Who wants old paint cans taking over his shed?”

“I’m going to take them to the paint disposal place,” the guy said, with a firmness that quailed his friends and cheered his heart.

More years passed. The pile of old paint cans grew ever higher, so great was the guy’s conviction.

In the fullness of time, the guy sold his house. Moving day approached, and he thought of the mountain of old paint cans in his shed.

“I am not a polluter,” the guy said. “In all these long years, I have never thrown a paint can in the garbage. Not one!” His voice trembled with more conviction than ever. “I am a busy man, and a good one. I am moving, for crying out loud! And the paint disposal place is many miles away.”

So under the cover of darkness he loaded all the paint cans in a borrowed truck and placed them—quietly, quietly—in the nearest construction dumpster.

Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.