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The Shopping Cart Man


Chapter 5

A Kind Offer 

     They stepped out and let the door close behind them. Joyce and Frank stood in the doorway a moment, trying to strategize. Meanwhile, Emma walked right up to the man Like picnic flies, he had returned. He was sitting on the curb of the walkway that surrounded the station, just out of the attendant's sight. His feet were clad in faded boots that rested in the gutter. His knees poked up and he was resting his forearms on them. He was hunched forward and had a blank expression. He did indeed have the appearance of one who was waiting.

     "Hey, mister!" Emma said, standing in front of him.

     He didn't move. He just sat with a blank stare. Had they not known better, they would have thought that he had been sitting there all day.

     "Mister!" Emma repeated. This time she reached out her tiny fingers and lightly touched his knee.

     At this, the man startled from his daze and slowly turned his gaze upward and met Emma's.

     "Mister," Emma smiled and continued to talk, but the man heard none of it.

     He was marveling at her smile. His eyes took on a dreamy look. He couldn't remember the last time that someone had smiled at him. He certainly couldn't remember when a child had last smiled at him. Most kids shunned him. This shunning, he knew, was encouraged by their parents.

     When they'd see him approach, they would quickly put an arm around their child and whisk them away. What hurt most of all was when he'd catch them telling the child not to look at him and to just keep moving.

     Not to look at him? Why, he wondered. Was he some sort of leper? Would looking at him really hurt the child so much? Was he so inhuman that he was unbefitting of the mere kindness of a look, a smile, a friendly nod, perhaps even a gentle "Hello"?

     And yet, here before him seemed to be a tiny angel of life. She was standing before him without quivering, without shrinking, without being pulled away. Where were her parents? Why had they not come to rescue their daughter from contact with him? He turned his head reluctantly, not wishing for this friendly apparition to disappear, but irresistibly curious.

     There they were, coming out of the doorway. They were approaching the girl. He knew what would happen next. They would see their daughter talking to him, and hurriedly grab the girl and pull her to safety while giving him a look of disgust. Perhaps he would become the unwilling recipient of several well‑placed words of derision. He had experienced such scenes all too often, and braced himself for another insulting encounter. It didn't matter that he had done nothing more to provoke it than to be guilty of sitting there. Still, he knew it would come.

     He saw the parents' awkward movements and knew that they were seeking fitting words of ridicule. As he braced himself, he wished he were as numb to the words as he tried to show. But, the truth was, that in spite of his calm, blank exterior, the words would still sting and hurt.

     The pair approached. As they did so, the man noted two things which surprised him. The first was that they did not come quickly. Usually, the parents would dash as fast as they could and snatch their youngster away from him as if too much exposure to him might somehow be harmful. The second was that they did not approach the girl. If anything, they seemed to ignore the girl and be more intent on coming to him. Were they that abrasive? Did they want to vent on him before bothering to rescue their darling?

     He simply sat and waited.

     The father was the first to speak. The man found that he had to listen carefully to catch the words. Rather than shouting harsh words in rapid succession, these came slowly, awkwardly, softly, almost apologetically.

     "Hi," the father began. "Uh, I hope we're not intruding..."

     The words continued to stumble out haphazardly. The old man was confused by what seemed like an awkwardly respectful tone and submissive way in which this man stood before him. He tried, but failed to remember the last time someone had spoken to him in such a manner. He was so distracted by this that he forgot to actually listen to the meaning of the words themselves until the parent had already slowly rambled on for several sentences.

     He became aware that the noise of speech had ended. He saw that the father was still standing before him, looking very uncomfortable. He sensed he had been asked something, but for the life of him, he had no idea what it was. He stared up at the stranger with unblinking eyes.

     The father shifted his feet and cast sideways looks at his wife. He whispered to her through the side of his mouth, "I don't even know if he heard me, Joyce."

     The old man saw the lady stepped forward. He noticed the sun hit her hair and make it glisten. It produced a sort of halo around her angelic face. She was bending down toward him, preparing to speak. He decided he wanted to hear her words and bent his full attention on her, watching as her lips began to move.

     "Could we?" she asked in a kind, almost pleading voice.

     His head was swimming. He had no idea what she was asking, but sensed that he wanted to agree to whatever it was.

     "Could you what?" he said at last.

     "Could we give you a ride anywhere?" Joyce continued.

     "A ride?" the man said, taken aback. A dreamy look melted into his eyes. He seemed to slide into another world. He went silent as a serene look eased its way across his face.

     "He doesn't seem to be all here," Frank whispered to Joyce.

     "Hush!" she whispered quickly, but softly.

     "Well?" Frank shrugged as he tilted his head toward the man a couple of times.

     "We'd love to give you a lift to wherever you need to go," Joyce added to the man.

     The dreamy, contemplative look had not left his face. His lips parted, but no words escaped them. He licked them, preparing to speak. The couple - and their girl - watched with anticipation.

     "I've always wanted to see Oklahoma," he said at last. It came out more as a statement of a lifelong goal, than as a request.

     "Oklahoma?" Frank straightened suddenly and repeated incredulously. "The musical?"

     "No," the man corrected in a surprisingly rational manner, "the state."

     "Oklahoma?" Frank repeated screwing up his face in puzzlement.

     "Hey!" Emma shouted, jumping with excitement. "That's right where we're going! He can come along! Can't he?"

     "Well, no, I was thinking more of taking him to a park or something," Frank corrected.

     "But, you said you wanted to help him!" Emma pleaded.

     "Yes, but Oklahoma!" Frank protested.

     "Frank, you did say you wanted to help him," Joyce reminded him with a coaxing tone.

     "I know, but Oklahoma!" Frank repeated giving his wife a surprised look.

     "What would the Good Samaritan do?" Emma continued.

     "He'd probably just -"

     "Frank!" Joyce cut in, stopping what she feared would be a sarcastic reply. "It doesn't sound like it would be out of our way. It would mean a lot to Emma. What could it hurt? He seems like a nice enough man."

     "I can't believe you're really saying this," Frank replied, looking into his wife's eyes.

     "I know," she agreed. "It's really strange, isn't it? But," she looked over at the man who had a pleasant look as he sat patiently, "it somehow seems like the right thing to do. I don't know why, but it just feels right." Looking back to Frank she added, "Maybe we really were meant to be Good Samaritans."

     "Maybe," Frank nodded, "because I can't seem to find a reason to argue against this. Not deep down, anyway. My head tells me this is craziness, but I can't explain to myself why I have to admit that something seems to be OK with it. I just don't get it," he conceded.

     He stood pondering for a minute. He was unable to shake the feeling that was overpowering him. As crazy, dangerous, spontaneous, and insane as his mind told him it was, something deep inside of him comforted him - nearly pled with him - telling him it was the right thing to do. Finally, he turned back to the man who still sat on the curb and seemed to be in a world of his own.

     "Mister," he said, "we can do that. We can take you as far as Oklahoma."

     "Really?!" Emma shouted, "We will?" She was jumping with excitement.

     "Really?" the man whispered. "I've always wanted to go to Oklahoma. God bless you! God bless you all!" he repeated as his face lit up with a shine that melted Joyce's heart and moved Frank as well.

     "Well," Frank said rather sheepishly, "you better gather your things. We'll be heading out soon."

     "I don't got much, but the clothes I'm wearin'," the man said. "but, I really would like to tell Bessie goodbye."

     "Is that the lady you ate lunch with?" Emma asked, concerned and feeling suddenly sad that he might be parting with a good friend. She wondered how hard it would be for him.

     "The lady?" he asked. He paused as his mind had to work to remember all the way back to lunch. When he did, a little grin of understanding crept across is face, "Oh, her! No, no that's not Bessie. I just happened to see her shortly before going in myself. She looked hungry, so I offered her a bite to eat. Come with me and I'll show you Bessie."

     He put a hand down on the curb to brace himself for standing, and twisted to lean on it. Emma bent forward to help him and Frank did the same. Frank gingerly, but firmly, took hold of the inside of the man's elbow and helped pull him to his feet.

     The man was surprised at Frank's strength. As he got to his feet, he straightened and turned to Frank and thanked him. Then he turned toward the side of the station.

     "Bessie's just back here," he said. "Follow me."

     They followed him as he walked to the side of the station and then kept going toward the back. They passed old oil drums and debris along the way. The man paused and pointed toward a large, blue trash bin with gray streaks of rust splattered across its face, particularly where streaks and scraps showed where the trash truck would grab hold of and lift the bin for emptying.

     "Bessie is a trash bin?" Frank asked, not meaning to say it aloud.

     "The trash bin?" the man asked surprised. Seeing the bin as if for the first time he laughed lightly and said with a smile, "No, no! Bessie's next to the bin!"

     Frank's gaze shifted. He saw dirt, rocks, cardboard, and an old shopping cart full of stained blankets as well as a squeegee and rags in the bottom area. On the front of the cart, tethered with old bits of wire and twine, was a tattered Christmas Wreath complete with a big, red bow. The wreath looked strangely out of place on such a cart.

     At the site of the wreath, Frank realized that this was as close as this homeless man could come to decorating his "home" for the holidays.

     Frank swallowed deeply and thought, "'Tis the season..."

     He still wasn't sure about who "Bessie" was and certainly didn't want to offend the man, but he had to ask for clarification.

     "Is 'Bessie' the shopping cart, then?" he asked with hesitation.

     "Oh, yes, she started out that way," the man acknowledged as he reverently walked up to it and ran his hand along the cart, straightening the wreath as he did so. "But, over the years she's become something more."

     "Something more?" Emma asked, looking at the cart with wide eyes and anticipation. "What?"

     "A good friend," the man said, lightly caressing the worn handle.

     "Um, Bessie never talks to you or anything, does she?" Frank asked awkwardly.

     Joyce shot him a wary glare as she shushed him with, "Frank!"

     "I just want to know what we're getting into," he whispered sideways to his wife.

     "No, no, no!" the man reassured them. "Bessie never talks. I'm not crazy, you know. It's just that," he paused a moment then added, "It's just that, well a man grows used to something he uses a lot. He gets familiar with it. He sort of learns to depend on it. And, in some ways he finds some comfort and support from it. Especially during the long, cold days of winter." He shook his head and concluded, "It's silly. I don't expect you to understand."

     "No, I think I do," Frank acknowledged. "I sometimes get that way about my car."

     "You hate that car," Joyce pointed out.

     "Well, it's kind of a love/hate thing," Frank corrected. "At any rate, I see what he's saying."

     The man's comment about long, cold wintry days moved Frank. He wondered just how many long, cold days the man had seen. And, he thought of the even longer, colder, black nights. He knew that the temperature must only be a portion of the coldness the man referred to. The most bitter cold probably came from people such as himself. He began to gather a resolve that what they were proposing to do truly was worthwhile and right.

     "You - uh - you just say your goodbyes," Frank said. "I'll get the boys into the car. We'll be out front waiting for you."

     He motioned for Joyce and Emma to follow. Joyce did, but Emma lingered a moment longer and stepped closer to the man.

     "I'm so glad you're going to come with us," she said with a smile. "You're going to be the best part about this trip!"

     She turned away quickly, causing her hair to flare up and then fall about her shoulders and then bounce as she skipped to the front of the building. The man watched her disappear around the corner and then turned back to Bessie. He patted her handle again as he spoke.

     "Well, Bessie," he said, "you've served me well. I guess it's finally time for us to say goodbye. Thanks for all you've done. I'm sure someone else will find comfort in you."

     He glanced at the belongings she contained. Most of them were simply to keep him warm. Others, like the squeegee and rags, were used to drum up small change for meals.  He wouldn't need them in a car, and didn't believe he'd need them in Oklahoma.

     He eyed the contents of the cart a moment longer.  His eye lingered on one object in particular.  It was a colorful blanket, with red, blue and purple squares. He had used it to cover himself on many cold nights.  He knew that it could grow stiff with sweat and grime. But, he also knew that after the cleaning of a good rainstorm it would become soft and inviting again. He stroked it lightly with his fingertips while his mind pondered his choice.

     Of the many things he had collected over the years, it was the one item he was most tempted to take with him. As much as he knew he wanted to keep it, because of the warmth it had provided, he knew, too, that some other poor soul could certainly benefit from the comfort it could offer.  When he realized this, it became a quick decision.

     "I'll leave it all for someone else," he said to himself, as he turned away from the cart.

     Another man would have been embarrassed at the thought of the tear that glinted in the corner of his eye - over a shopping cart - but, another man could not appreciate the bond he had felt and was now breaking. He turned away, and never looked back.

     The cart, its contents, and the wreath remained behind, perhaps to be discovered by another homeless person looking for what little solace they could offer. Or, perhaps to be tossed inside the dumpster and permanently removed from public view.  His heart hoped it would be the former.

     Frank and his family were sitting in the car ready to go. Joyce had just explained to the boys that they'd be taking on another passenger: a guest. Emma had touted the fact that they were all going to be Good Samaritans. Dozens of questions and quick answers were flying around the car as they saw the man round the corner. Suddenly, a thick silence filled the air.

     They all sat there frozen in place as the man approached. He sensed an awkwardness as he neared the vehicle and stopped. Emma pushed her door open and leapt out.

     "You'll sit in here with me!" she declared and nearly pushed the man into the car.

     He sat down and Emma pushed the door closed then ran around to climb in from the other side.

     "Welcome to our car," Joyce said, as she turned and gave him a smile.

     "Yes, welcome," Frank repeated, looking through the rearview mirror.

     Turning to Joyce, he whispered, "'Welcome to our car'?"

     "It seemed like a nice thing to say," Joyce replied lightly pushing his arm and smiling.

     "I'm Emma," Emma said proudly. "And, those are my brothers in the back."

     "I'm Luke," the older one said, "and, this is Kenny," he said, teasingly pushing on the back of Kenny's head.

     "How do you do?" the man asked Kenny.

     "He don't talk," Luke said with a serious, brotherly look. "There's nothing wrong with him. He just don't talk."

     "Doesn't," Joyce corrected.

     "Doesn't," Luke repeated.

     "Why not?" the man began to ask, but the words died on his lips. He sensed he shouldn't ask. He changed subjects and as Frank pulled out of the station and onto the road, he said, "I can't tell you how wonderful this all is. Thank you so much for letting me join your family on this trip."

     "We're happy to do it," Frank said, surprised at how sincerely he felt.

     They were nearing the edge of town in silence when Frank said, "Say mister, uh, what is your name? We can't very well call you mister, now can we?"

     "My name," the man said, a bit taken aback. "My name is -" his voice trailed off. He was obviously going into deep thought. "No one has asked me that in so long, that I don't rightly remember it. What would you like to call me?"

     "Huh?" Luke asked. He and Kenny exchanged puzzled looks.

     "Yes, what would you like to call me?" he repeated.

     "But usually, people tell other people what they want to be called," Emma said.

     "Well, you people are doing so much for me, I think it would only be fair to let you pick a name that you want to hear and say."

     "What an interesting offer," Joyce pondered.

     "A weird one," Frank mumbled.

     "How about 'Sam'?" Emma suggested.

     "Sam?" Frank asked. "Why Sam?"

     "Because it's short for 'Samaritan'," she explained. "And, that's what we're being."

     "That's what WE'RE being," Frank said. "Not what HE is."

     "Yeah but, -" Emma began to defend herself when she was kindly interrupted.

     "I think 'Sam' would be fine," the man, now known as "Sam", commented.

     "Great! Sam!" Emma smiled. "He's got a brand new name, now!"

     "Now, if we could only get him some new clothes," Luke muttered.

     "Luke!" his mother cautioned, "that's unkind!"

     "Sorry, but you're not back here," Luke said, trying VERY hard not to specifically mention the smell.

     Joyce was trying to find a polite way to chastise him in front of their new guest, but Frank interrupted.

     "No. No, Luke's right," Frank said. "We should get some nice clothes on him. At least, I think that's what the Good Samaritan would have done."

©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer

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©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
Last modified: 11/15/12