The Shopping Cart Man
"You see, Luke," Dad said, while looking in his rearview mirror at his somber boy. Luke was sitting in the far back with his back to his father. "We didn't get arrested after all. We paid for everything and everyone's happy."
"Arrested?" Sam asked with concern. "Why would we have been arrested?"
"Oh, that's just Luke," Emma burst in from beside him. "He's always afraid that if you do something illegal, you'll get arrested."
"Well, you do, don't you?" Sam asked. "What was illegal? I saw you pay for these clothes..."
"Yeah, we paid," Emma continued, "but Luke was all worried about you putting them on BEFORE we paid. He thought that was illegal and they'd arrest us."
"Well," Sam said, turning slightly toward Luke behind him, and speaking up so Luke would be sure to hear, "I think that's admirable. Any boy with that much consideration for the law will make a fine man some day."
Luke didn't say anything. He didn't even turn around. But, as the car continued down I‑80, toward Oklahoma, he decided he kind of liked this man, Sam.
They drove on and on. Hour after hour. Anyone who has driven across country has become familiar with the tedium of endless days of driving. Sitting in the car, keeping eyes on the road, letting trees and signs fly by. Seeking for small things to keep the mind occupied. Estimating distances from one turn in the road to the next horizon. Watching passing cars for interesting license plates. Searching passing signs for letters of the alphabet. Listening to radio stations fade into and out of range. Tedious, endless driving.
Even on the best of drives, the days seem to wear on for weeks. Pile in a few kids, and the drive can take on a life of its own. It was fortunate for everyone that Sam's presence put a bit of a neutral plug into the normally enthusiastic - and equally endless - chatter and antics from Luke and Kenny.
Joyce turned her head, trying to look casual. She saw the man - Sam - sitting behind her husband. He had a pleasant look on his face, from what she could see. His head was turned toward the window. He was staring out at the landscape as it raced passed. His clothes looked good on him. His hair was still a matted, greasy mess, but it was combed as best as he could. She could tell that he had really tried.
She thought his efforts with his beard were cute and almost laughed, in spite of herself, as she looked at the gnarled and curled whiskers. He had really tried here, too. She wanted to grant him that dignity.
She turned farther and could see that Emma was smiling with her book on her lap beside the man - beside Sam. She had to keep reminding herself that this stranger, this man, had a name that he had given them the opportunity to give to him. Or, what was that again? It all seemed so surreal. They had actually named this man? He was in their car now? They were taking him to Oklahoma? They barely even knew the man. In fact, they DIDN'T know him. That was the whole point, or was it? She was beginning to confuse herself and her eyes slid toward her husband.
She looked at the puzzled look on his face. He seemed to be running through a conversation in his own mind. She saw his eyebrows twitch, furrow and relax multiple times. She guessed that he was rehearsing the events over in his own mind, probably asking the same questions of himself. She watched him for a moment. He was oblivious of her stare. She reached her hand over and brushed his arm.
"Frank?" she asked quietly.
"Huh?" was all that he managed to reply. He was rattled for a moment as he shook his thoughts free and brought himself back to the present. He turned his head and saw her attempt at a smile. "Oh, uh, what is it?"
"I was just wondering -" she began, but he finished.
"If we did the right thing?" he asked very softly.
"I've been wondering that myself," he admitted. "It's strange, but the more I think about it, the more it seems right. I think we're going to be OK here."
"That's what doesn't make any sense," she agreed. "It shouldn't be OK. It should be a terribly frightening thing. As much as I'm concerned about what we're doing, the more at peace I feel about it. He really does seem like a nice man."
"They all seem nice before they flip," Frank added.
"Frank!" Joyce exclaimed.
"I know," he said. "Just kidding."
"It's not funny!"
"I know. He does seem like a good man, though. And, I can only imagine what must be going through HIS mind. Here he is going across country just to see Oklahoma! Couldn't he just go to the library and check out some picture books?"
"I really don't think he has a library card," Joyce grimaced.
"I suppose not," Frank agreed. "I'm afraid they probably wouldn't have let him in either."
"I can only imagine the kind of life he's led," Joyce sighed wistfully, stealing another look at their guest. "How many people do you think he sees in a day? Asking for help. Getting none. How can anyone live like that?"
"Yeah, I know. I know it all too well," Frank said. "I was one of the ones who snubbed him, remember?"
"But, you're not snubbing him now!" she added hopefully. "This could be the start of a whole new life for him."
"A whole new life?" Frank asked. "In Oklahoma?"
His mind drifted a moment or two as he tried to picture Sam panhandling in the panhandle state.
"Say," he said at last, "do you think he'll want a ride home?"
"A ride home? What do you mean?"
"You know, when we head back home," Frank explained. "Do you think he's going to want us to take him back with us?"
"I don't know. I hadn't even thought about that!" she admitted.
"I guess we'll just take it one day at a time."
Sam sat staring idly out his window. To the casual observer, the flat desert terrain offered little of interest, but Sam's eyes were pulled toward it as if in a trance. Emma continued to steal furtive looks at him, and kept smiling from ear to ear, very pleased with herself. Sam hadn't said a word in hours. He just sat and stared out the window for mile upon mile.
Joyce had thought he had fallen asleep, but when she saw his head turn to view some passing feature, she nudged Frank and nodded toward the man. Frank nodded knowingly. He had been able to see in the mirror that Sam's eyes were wide open in some state of wonder, he had supposed. Joyce considered beginning a conversation with him, but thought the better of it, deciding to not disturb him.
"You know," Sam said out of the blue, "if you keep your eyes fixed on the wires, it looks like you're sliding up and down as they pass."
"Huh?" Emma asked alertly. "What slides up and down? What's passing?"
Sam's eyes never left his window. He reached his hand up and pointed to where he was staring.
"Out there," he said. "See those telephone lines?"
Emma moved beside him, and leaned forward in front of him so she could look out his window. Having overheard them, Luke was intrigued. He leaned over to his own window in the back.
"Yeah, what about them?" Luke asked.
"Well, they're supported by those poles we keep passing," Sam explained.
"So?" Luke asked.
"Put your eyes in one place," Sam continued. "Focus on one spot on the wires. Pretend that spot is traveling with you, moving along the wires. Each time the line comes to a pole, it shoots up to a point and then rushes down again until it gets halfway between poles. Then it goes up again."
"What do you mean one spot?" Luke asked.
"I think I know what you mean," Emma said, getting excited. "It's not really one spot on the wire, but a sliding spot. Like if you were able to stick your hand out the window and hold your finger out touching the wires. If you kept your finger steady, and let it slide, you'd be looking at that 'one spot' but the spot would slide along the wires, right?"
"Precisely!" Sam said, pulling his gaze away long enough to give her a smile.
Joyce paused in her knitting momentarily as she and Frank listened intently to this odd conversation, while Kenny slept in his little compartment between the seats.
"Do you see it, Luke?" Sam asked.
"No, you mean - wait! I do see it!" he responded with excitement. "Yeah, the wires go up and down and just keep sliding! Weird!"
"Now," Sam added, "don't imagine you're sticking your finger out the window, but pretend YOU'RE out the window. Imagine you're some sort of skater up there on the wires, sliding along on the top of them."
"Hey, I see what you mean!" Luke said. "Hey, this is fun. Here I go - UP! And back down. UP! And back down. Sheesh, I'm gonna get dizzy!"
"Aah!" Emma screamed with a laugh. "I fell off! I didn't see that turn coming!"
Joyce looked over and saw that the telephone poles had taken a turn away from the road to make way for a ravine. She smiled and had to suppress a little giggle.
"Hey, here we come back again!" Luke shouted. "Get ready! Hop up there! NOW!"
In their minds, three skaters were now up on the wires doing an impressive balancing act at breakneck speeds. They must have kept this up for over an hour.
Just as they were ready to move onto other diversions, little Kenny woke up. Luke explained the game to him and they all joined in anew, laying claims of passing each other on the wires. Emma suggested they try a relay in which their imaginary skaters passed a baton between each other as they took different wires and occasionally managed to slip over to cross wires and climb higher or farther out, depending on what the lines provided. Then they'd come slamming back together again.
"They're really getting into that, aren't they?" Frank commented to his wife.
Joyce's knitting stopped for a moment again as she looked back and saw the four of them eagerly looking out the window toward the wires. Sam was pointing and smiling as he warned Luke about an upcoming transformer. They all shouted with delight as Luke pretended to hit the pole and fall "dead" in his seat.
"Yes, they are," Joyce said, smiling. "They certainly are. It looks like the kids are really taking to Sam, too." She smiled broadly as she looked back at her knitting and busied herself again.
"Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea after all," Frank said, giving a look in his rearview mirror at their antics.
"He seems like a very nice man," Joyce added. "I wonder how he came to be so down? Do you think he's always been a -" Joyce hesitated. She tried to finish it, but didn't dare say the word.
"A 'bum'?" Frank whispered.
Joyce nodded, keeping her face turned away from the back and trying to hide her dejected look from Sam.
"I don't think so," Frank surmised. "I have a feeling there's quite a story behind our new friend."
They continued driving for several hours. They played the wire‑skating game during much of it, but also the standards of the alphabet game and others. At one point, Emma suggested playing "I Spy With My Little Eye," but Luke nixed it. He said he really didn't like that one. Emma and Sam played without him, while he and Kenny entertained motorists with their magic card tricks.
Around 5 pm they pulled into Elko. Frank smiled when he saw a sign advertising the annual "Cowboy Poetry Reading" that would be held in January. Elko was one of those quaint Nevada towns that was steeped in its own traditions.
"It's good to have traditions," Frank thought silently. "Do you want to stop for dinner?" he asked Joyce quietly, trying carefully to not be overheard. He didn't want the kids to hear the question, in case she didn't want to stop, but they did.
"What's the next city?" she asked.
"It's Wendover," he replied. "Another two hours or so."
"We better stop then," she surmised. "I don't think anyone's starved, but I don't think we can hold out that long."
"There's a handful of tiny towns in between," he suggested.
"Yes, but who knows what they have?" she added.
"Good point," he agreed. "Let's stop." Looking in the rearview mirror he loudly asked, "Who's hungry?"
Sam was taken aback by the thundering reply. He'd never experienced anything like the chiming chorus of "I am!" that suddenly rang through the car. They chanted it over and over with increasing decibels. He covered his ears and looked around in startled amazement. The kids suddenly noticed their new friend's reaction and were just as suddenly concerned when they realized they may have harmed the old man in some way. Joyce gave them a warning glare. Everyone sat in tense anticipation for a moment, like a rock teetering on the edge of a cliff, wondering how Sam would react to this outburst.
His head was scrunched down into his shoulders. His eyes were clenched shut. He had shifted and propped his fingers into his ears, causing his elbows to stick out to either side.
First one eye relented and cautiously opened, looking around timidly, then the other did the same. He kept his fingers in his ears as he slowly peered around. Seeing no hint of further abrasions, he slowly let his hands drop, with his fingers still primed for reentry. The family continued to fret and stare, waiting for his response to the onslaught.
"Well, I'll be!" he said slowly. Then he added, as he still looked about him, "I'd have to say these fine children are hungry!"
The smile lines that quickly grew across his weathered face relieved the tension and everyone smiled back and then burst out in infectious laughter.
"Sorry, Sam," Emma apologized with a sheepish shrug. "We'll be better!"
Everyone agreed and laughed some more, as Dad pulled into a service station for gas.
©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
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©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
Last modified: 11/15/12