The Shopping Cart Man
The Journey Begins
The load on top of their station wagon was a thing to behold. It was a mass of gray canvas bound together by length after length of thick nylon rope. Each length was carefully and securely wound around an edge or corner of the roof rack, and then pulled tightly - oh, so very tightly!
The brownish‑gray '75 station wagon was already five years old, but kept in fine working order. Its proud owner, Frank, was a man who was just a year into his thirties. He would force the end of the rope between the rack and the tarp and then pull very hard on the rope, sometimes stepping on the length while pulling upward with his arms, using his foot as a sort of pulley to get the rope as tight as he possibly could. Then, holding the rope as taut and near to the rack as he could, he would do a double loop through the edge of the roof rack. With this in place, he would flick the loose end over the mass on the station wagon's roof and holler for his boy to "Catch hold of it!"
Luke, an amiable 11‑year‑old, stood with both hands raised high above his head, his fingers frantically outstretched, hoping to be helpful. Invariably, the rope would manage to fling past his hands and flop down across his head, draping itself unceremoniously down his front and back and lying uselessly on the driveway.
"Did you get it?" his dad, Frank, asked.
"Yeah, I got it!" Luke replied.
He grabbed at the rope with his right hand and pulled it off of his shoulder to free himself. It drooped limply in his palm like a massive strand of spaghetti. He let it flop to the ground and grabbed at the portion that was draped over the car.
"Pull it tight and then hold it," Frank said eagerly. "I'll come around and loop it through."
As soon as he felt the rope pulled taut, Frank hurried around to grab the loose end before his efforts to tighten the rope would be lost. He found his boy, Luke, holding the rope tightly in his left hand, while already tucking the loose end in between the tarp and the rack.
"Here, let me do that," Frank said.
"I can get it!" Luke insisted. "I can get it!" and he continued to tuck it in. Once the end was wedged through, he added to his father, "Here, take this and pull it."
Frank was proud to see his little man take the initiative. He realized he was breeding another generation of "roof rackers" as he so benevolently referred to "his kind of traveler."
"A couple more and we should be all set," Frank said, as he pulled the rope for the double loop through this side of the rack. "This extra loop keeps the rope from coming loose," he explained with a Mr. Wizard flare.
"I know, Dad, you've only told me a hundred times today," Luke replied as he turned to look around the garage. He walked from the driveway, where the production was taking place, into the opened garage. "Hey, Dad, isn't this Mom's makeup case?"
"What? What's that, Son?" Frank asked, as he busied himself with a knot.
The boy came out carrying a green American Tourister makeup case. Holding it up, he repeated, "Isn't this Mom's makeup case?"
"Oh, drat!" Dad managed.
He'd never been one to swear. He just had a certain way he liked things done and found surprises like this a tad frustrating. He looked over the tarp to see if there was somewhere he could sneak the little suitcase into it. However, every inch of it was secured. Actually, they were more than secured. Luke liked to say that the rope stretched back and forth across the tarp like Spiderman's web binding a criminal to a wall.
There must have been three times the amount of rope than was actually needed for the job. But, Frank always insisted on securing every loose flap, "Otherwise you spend your whole trip listening to the flap vibrating in the breeze," he'd point out expertly.
"I thought I told you to make sure we had everything loaded," Frank groaned to himself as much as to Luke.
"I did. I can't help it if Mom brings out stuff after we start!" Luke defended.
"Well, who? What?" Frank gave up. "Never mind, we'll put it in the wagon between the seats. We can fix it tonight when we stop. Tell your mother we're ready to go!"
It took another 15 minutes of people running in and out of the house, grabbing last‑minute items and taking last‑minute potty breaks before the whole family was sitting in the car ready for Dad to start the engine and get them on their way. Joyce, a woman in her late twenties, with a propensity for knitting, was up front sitting by her husband. She had a small sack at her feet with her yarn and needles ready to go.
Emma, the ten‑year‑old sister, had the entire middle seat to herself where she could stretch her little legs out just as much as she darn well pleased. She loved to read and had brought three books for the trip. Two of them were Nancy Drew mysteries. The third was C.S. Lewis' The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Her mom had promised that if she finished these, she'd buy her a new book for the way home.
"Or, the way out!" Emma had added.
"All right," her mom had agreed. "If you really do finish them that soon."
The two boys, Luke and Kenny, were stashed in the third seat, which faced the rear, in the back. Surprisingly, they preferred it that way. Four years separated these two, but Luke was so pleased to have finally gotten a brother, that he was still eager to have him share in almost every one of his adventures. Almost.
There were times when a little brother could be a bother, but such was not the case on car trips. These two liked to sit far enough away from everyone that they could joke with each other without being overheard. Being in the very back, they had the added advantage of riding backwards, so they could face the cars behind them. They loved to stare at the other drivers and make them feel uncomfortable.
"Did you bring the cards?" Luke asked Kenny.
Kenny's eyes lit up as he reached in his pocket and produced a small, black plastic container with about a dozen cards inside. He didn't say anything, but a bright smile flashed over his face, revealing his pearly teeth. Kenny never spoke. At least he hadn't spoken in over two years. Not since "the incident". The family was so relieved to have him back, that they had learned to live with his silent behavior, and rarely noticed it these days.
"These should do the trick!" Luke laughed, as he took them from his brother.
Kenny's skinny body vibrated in a silent giggle, as he hit his older brother's shoulder.
"I know, I know, very punny," Luke grimaced. "Now we can entertain our rolling audience for hours on end!"
Luke looked at the box labeled "Professor Winder's Magic Cards" and started rummaging through them. Some of the cards were the same on both sides. Others had fake cards printed on them in a way that, when those were held in a hand with other cards, they looked like there were more cards in that hand than there really were. Their favorite part of the box was the thin sheet of black plastic which formed a false bottom by covering up the cards when the box was flipped.
"This is gonna be the BEST trick!" Luke said, holding up the plastic strip. "They might not be able to see the other tricks, but they'll definitely notice cards disappearing!"
Kenny's head bobbed up and down with excitement.
"Everyone all set?" Dad bellowed from the front.
"All set!" everyone screamed back.
"Let's have our prayer!" Joyce replied.
"Who wants to say it?" Frank asked.
"I'll say it!" Emma said, as she closed her book and set it on her lap. The family all bowed their heads and folded their arms. Emma then said, "Heavenly Father, thank you so much for letting us go see Grandma. Pray that we'll all be nice to each other and not argue. Pray that we'll drive safely and no one will crash into us. Pray that we can make new friends. Amen."
"Thank you, Emma," her mom said, turning back to give her a smile. "That was very nice."
"OK, here we go," Frank said, turning over the engine and pulling out of the driveway.
The back seat erupted in song as Luke began the family's traveling song. Soon the whole family joined in as they sang, "We're on our way! Pack up your pack! And if we stay, we won't come back! How can we go? We haven't got a dime, but we're going. And, we're gonna have a happy time!"
This was followed by a round of cheers.
"What a bunch of cornballs!" Dad smiled, as he made his way through Modesto and to the Interstate. They headed north on I‑5 for a little over an hour. When they neared Sacramento, Dad hollered out, "Hey, kids! Who can find the Tower Bridge?"
Three heads suddenly popped up and bobbed around the windows, frantically trying to be the first. Luke pushed down on Kenny's head, trying to cut down on the competition. This led to some thrashing from Kenny, followed by a shout from Mom and a groan from Dad, as two high‑pitched voices and Kenny's thumping on the window simultaneously declared that they were each the first and that the others really weren't. This was followed by accusations of cheating and other unfair practices.
"Last time I try to make this drive fun," Frank muttered as Joyce gave him one of her looks.
They turned East on I‑80. As they passed a road sign, Dad called out, "Hey! It's only another 130 miles to Reno!"
"We should be able to eat lunch there," Joyce replied.
"But, I'm hungry now!" a voice from the back bellowed.
"For Heaven's sake!" Frank responded. "We just BARELY got started. Eat some grapes or something!"
Mom turned around and kindly asked Emma to open the food chest at her feet and get out some grapes for her brother. Emma rolled her eyes until she saw the little, red boxes of raisins. Within moments, all of the kids were chewing on their favorite snacks. None of them even bothered to ask why Mom didn't pack Lifesavers or candy bars. They were tired of being told how the sugar made them bounce off the walls, and even more tired of hearing dad's follow up lecture on how small the car was for any wall bouncing.
"I just hope Donner Pass is clear," Frank said to his wife.
"Did you bring the chains?" Joyce asked.
"Yes, but I hope I don't have to use them," he replied. "It's such a bother and we lose good time."
"I'd rather lose time than our lives," Joyce observed.
As they reached a steep incline, Frank's face brightened, "20th of December and not a flake of snow to be seen! This should be very good. We'll make great time!"
"Great time?" Luke whispered to Kenny. "We're barely moving!"
Kenny's body shook with laughter, which made Luke laugh until he snorted. This resulted in the backseat taking on the sounds of a pig farm until Mom said, "Boys!" followed by Dad pointing out, "That's enough!" and Emma rolling her eyes again in accompaniment to the word, "Brothers!"
"At least we're staying in front of THEM!" Luke said, pointing to a large RV that they had just passed.
The driver, a balding man in his late sixties, was behind the wheel. His purple‑haired wife sat in the seat beside him. She saw the boys and waved. They smiled and waved back.
"Let's put on a show for 'em!" Luke suggested.
Kenny smiled and nodded, as he looked for the cards.
"Hey, my turn first," Luke said, snatching the cards from his brother. "You can do the next one."
For the next few minutes, the boys tried to amaze the couple behind them with their card prowess. They held up hands that suddenly grew or shrank, depending on their whims. Luke actually let Kenny do the piece de resistance of making a card disappear in the little plastic box whenever he'd flip it over and give it a tap.
For the first few tricks, the couple would clap, or give cute surprised looks, or an OK sign with their hands. It didn't take long, however, for them to be visibly tired of the boys' tricks. The old man did his best to look away, farther down the road. But, try as he might, he was stuck behind what seemed to be an endless parade of card tricks done with cards that - at his distance - were too small to really see.
Just as the old timer was getting distressed, things got worse. The boys themselves became bored with the game. They started making funny faces and slapping their heads with their hands in a taunting way, or pulling at their ears until the grandmother became visibly disturbed and the grandfatherly man had had enough. He honked his horn.
It wasn't one of those quick toots that elicits attention, or a series of quick notes of greeting. It was a long, low blast of annoyance that lingered in memory long after the man finally removed his palm from the center of his steering wheel, which caused Dad to sit up alertly.
"What the heck did he honk for?" he demanded.
Frank looked back in his side mirror to see the old man gesturing wildly with his hands and mouthing indecipherable words. He watched the man with agitated confusion, oblivious to his own boys, who were slinking down out of sight in the back seat.
"What IS his problem?" Frank demanded, clearly irritated. "He's going ballistic! I think he's going to pop a vein!"
"Maybe you're going too slowly?" Joyce suggested.
"I'm going 60!" Frank said. "I'm not going to go any faster than that! It's only 55, thanks to Nixon!"
"Well, maybe he's just in a hurry," she added. "Why don't you let him pass?"
"Because then I'd be stuck behind him and I'd spend the rest of the day looking at a rolling wall in front of me!" Dad answered. "I'll just pick it up a little and see if I can lose this idiot."
As their car slowly pulled away from the RV, the boys tentatively poked their heads up and looked out the rear window. In spite of the gulf between them and their former audience, turned adversary, they were still intimidated - at first. This wore off in fractions of a second and they smiled at each other and then waved a fond, final, taunting farewell. The older couple tried their best to ignore them and slowed a little to let the boys get even farther away.
The boys snickered and gave each other the thumb's up and took turns holding out a palm to let the other to give him "five," trying to keep it quiet enough that Dad wouldn't overhear them. They weren't able to contain themselves, however. When Dad heard the commotion, he looked at his boys in the rearview mirror. He saw them smiling and bouncing around and asked what they were up to.
Luke wisely shifted the topic and said with a loud, proud voice, "Boy, Dad, you sure showed them! What was that all about anyhow?"
"I don't know, Son," Frank replied, sighing and shaking his head. "There are idiots everywhere, though. Just remember that!"
"Frank!" his wife chided him, trying not to smirk with agreement.
"Well, it sure seems that way," Frank said in a sullen, subdued tone as he looked at the road stretched out in front of him. "Who knows what type of people we're going to come across on a trip like this?"
©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
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