The Shopping Cart Man
"It'll be all right," Joyce reassured Sam.
He had stopped in the doorway of the Denny's restaurant. Frank and the boys had already entered. Emma was standing by Sam's side, trying to be supportive.
"I don't know," Sam stalled. "They just don't like my kind coming into nice places like this."
"They don't like nice grandfatherly men coming in to eat with their family or friends?" Joyce asked with a smile, trying to put him at ease. "I think you're mistaken. Come with us."
She reached out and took hold of his hand. As with Emma's earlier, he couldn't help but notice that her soft, smooth skin was a stark contrast to the dry scratchiness of his own. Emma grabbed his other hand and started to pull as she reached out to open the door.
"Yeah, come on, Sam!" she said, looking back at him with a smile. "You don't want to make us late! Dad hates it when we take too long. 'Got to get back on the road!'" she mimicked her father by gritting her teeth and trying to speak in a voice much deeper than her own.
"OK. All right. I'm coming," Sam said. "Just don't scold me, sir." He gave Emma a wink as the three walked through the door and foyer and into the restaurant proper.
Sam felt conspicuous and uneasy, as if all eyes were on him. He was particularly paranoid when a pleasant young woman with a nametag approached them. He was certain she was going to send him back the way he had come. He was so disturbed he couldn't even hear her question, and was relieved when Joyce responded.
The waitress was saying something and pointing. Before Sam realized what was happening, he found himself walking with Joyce and Emma in the direction she had pointed. They walked halfway across the room before Sam saw Frank and the boys sitting at a large table. They were waving and smiling. In the back of his mind, Sam played back the hostess' and Joyce's conversation and realized that they had been asked if they could be helped and Joyce had said she was with "them" and had pointed to the other part of her family.
Sam was now sitting. He was mulling over the ordeal, coming to grips with the thought of his actually sitting INSIDE a restaurant with a menu in his hands. His head was swimming. He was trying to convince himself that he was NOT about to get kicked out at any moment. He remained paranoid and skittish, jerking and jumping at the sounds around him.
Someone laughed and he was certain it was about him. He turned his head cautiously, but saw that it was just a group of men sitting together telling jokes after a long day on the job. He looked at them curiously, wondering what sort of work they had done, what it was like to work for a full day, to receive a paycheck at the end of the week, to have friends his own age, to -
He jumped suddenly, startled by movement and a voice on his right. He looked and saw a well‑built man standing there, leaning toward him. He had obviously just spoken, but Sam had no idea what it was he had said. He could certainly guess it well enough. The jig was up. He knew he had been found out and may as well go quickly without making a scene and embarrassing this nice family, who had already done so much for him.
"I'll go," he said, as he started to rise sheepishly.
"Pardon?" the lad asked.
Frank and Joyce were both looking at Sam and saying something or other to him, with quick concern.
"I'll go quietly," Sam repeated.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand," the waiter repeated. "I just wanted to know if you'd like something to drink."
Sam had risen halfway. His hands were clenched on the arms of his chair. He paused in that position and looked around the table in bewilderment.
"Water?" he asked, amazed.
"Yes," the waiter confirmed. "Would you like some water?"
"Uh, yes, please, certainly," Sam said slowly. "Certainly. I'd love some water. A nice, big glassful if that isn't too much trouble."
"Not at all, sir," came the reply, followed by the appearance of a large clear‑plastic pitcher which the waiter used to fill Sam's tall glass.
Sam sat back down slowly as the glass was filled. The ice made a tinkling sound as it slipped from the pitcher and tumbled into the glass. It sounded like the ringing of a bell. He watched the glass fill. His hopes and confidence filled along with it. He was coming to grips with the concept that he was going to be allowed to stay, and even eat, in this warm, inviting place. He decided he was beginning to appreciate what Heaven must be like.
With this thought, Sam caught a glimpse of his reflection in a window. He frowned and turned his head away quickly. Clearly, he felt there was nothing heavenly about his appearance.
"Frank, would you mind if I slipped into the restroom for a moment?" he asked.
"What? Uh, we haven't ordered yet," Frank stammered. Then, taking on the role of host, he smiled and said, "certainly. It looks like it's right over there," Frank pointed.
"Thank you," Sam said, ducking away uneasily. "I won't be long."
While Sam was away composing himself, Joyce turned to Frank and said, "It's sure nice of you to do this for him."
"Yeah, looks like he hasn't been in a restaurant for years," Frank observed. "I hope this doesn't turn out to be just too much for him."
"What do you mean?" Emma asked, eavesdropping.
"Well, too much of a good thing can be hard to take for some people," her mother explained.
"Like too much Christmas?" Luke piped in, also eavesdropping. "I don't think I could ever have too much Christmas."
"I thought you were coloring," Frank said.
"That just takes eyes and fingers," Luke explained, "not ears. I can still use them for other things."
"Such a clever boy," Frank said, as he gave a wry smile.
"We just don't want to push too much onto Sam too soon," Joyce said. "Just don't rush him. There's so much that we take for granted that he's just not used to."
"But, what about - ?" Emma stopped herself when she saw Sam coming back to the table.
Sam was still wiping his hands as he came to the table. It was obvious that he had just put in some concerted effort on his hair and beard. Both were damp. His beard continued to curl in some places and stick out awkwardly in others. Without speaking to each other, the family all knew to not say anything that might embarrass him. They just welcomed him back and let him sit.
"Luke, hand Sam a menu," Frank said, trying to prevent the topic of his appearance being brought up.
"But, he's got one right there at his place," Luke responded with confusion. He reached over and tilted the large, laminated menu for Sam, who had just sat down between him and Emma.
"Yes, thank you," Sam said. "Thank you very much."
He took the menu carefully in both hands and looked at the pictures on the front. His gaze lingered on the pictures of delicious meals. He opened it slowly and his eyes went wide. There was a two‑page spread of entrées, each one looked more succulent than the next. His mind panicked and nearly shut down at the overload of potentials. He just sat there letting his gaze roll across one photo to the next. He began reading the descriptions of each meal. His stomach gurgled loudly, but he didn't seem to notice.
"Well, have you decided yet, Sam?" Frank asked expectantly.
The others had already put down their menus and were eagerly waiting to place their orders or, in the case of the children, to have their mother place their orders for them. Kenny and Luke were busily drawing on their placemats. Emma was watching Sam closely, with a very satisfied smile on her face.
"Uh, it's just that," Sam stammered, "there are so many things to choose from!"
It was still difficult for him to grasp the reality of his situation. He paused, seemingly flustered. He didn't say any more.
Emma was the first to notice that Sam's eyes were tearing up. Sam took his napkin and dabbed them quietly.
"I - uh, I -" was all he could stammer.
"Just pick your favorite," Joyce coaxed.
"I've never had a favorite," Sam replied honestly. "I've always just taken whatever was given to me, or whatever I could find. I've never had the luxury of a choice before."
Joyce and Frank were moved at this humble reply. They thought of the many days and nights he must have spent scrounging for food, and wondered just how often he had gone to sleep still hungry. This led to the wonderment of where he had slept and how he had kept warm. There were so many questions, so much they could not even imagine about this man. Their musings were interrupted by Emma, however.
"Why don't you just pick the steak!" Emma said. "Dad says there's nothing better than a good steak!"
"A STEAK?" Sam said, a bit overwhelmed. "I don't think I could eat a whole steak! Besides, it must be awfully expensive -"
"Sam," Frank interrupted quietly. Leaning forward he said in earnest, "Please, don't worry about the cost. I'm not a wealthy man, but I can certainly afford to buy a new friend a decent meal. Please, let us do this for you."
Sam could see the sincerity in Frank's eyes. He looked over to Joyce and saw her nod in silent agreement. She blinked to confirm it.
Sam was on the verge of responding, when the waiter returned and interrupted them to ask for their orders.
"Well, I guess I'll have the steak," Sam said, giving quick furtive looks to Frank and Joyce who nodded in agreement.
"Great!" Emma said with excitement. She realized that she had never been excited about someone ordering dinner before.
"Would you like steamed vegetables or a salad with that?" the waiter asked.
"Salad or vegetables?" Sam exclaimed with surprise.
"Yes, it comes with either one you choose," the waiter explained.
"It comes WITH it?" Sam said. Seeing the waiter nod, he added, "Vegetables, I guess. I'm told you should always eat your vegetables," he added with a wry smile.
He folded his menu and tried to hand it back to the waiter, ready to be done with this ordering business. The waiter graciously took the menu and then asked, "And, would you like fries, mashed potatoes or a baked potato with that?"
"More? Do potatoes, come with it too?" Sam was beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed.
The waiter smiled and nodded and began to wonder why the family didn't take "Gramps" out more often.
"Uh, baked potato, I guess," Sam replied. Turning to Frank, he added, "I've always liked baked potatoes. At least I think I have. I can't remember the last time I had one."
The waiter had to again interrupt to ask about chives, sour cream and a seemingly endless array of other questions. Sam was greatly relieved when he finally moved onto the others for their orders. He was so stressed out that he believed he was beginning to sweat.
Sam was too preoccupied to notice a waitress who had approached their table and was now standing next to him, coffee pitcher in hand. The waitress stood there patiently waiting, trying to gain Sam's attention, but failing to compete with the daydreams of food that were now taking hold of Sam's attention.
"Luke," Joyce whispered to her son.
"What?" Luke asked.
Without speaking, Joyce nodded at the waitress and then at Sam. Luke had been too engrossed in his own menu to have noticed the logjam that sat beside him. He looked back at his mother and repeated his query. She nodded again, more emphatically. Luke caught on and his face lit up with understanding.
"Hey, Sam," Luke said in a loud voice.
Sam didn't notice, so Luke elbowed him hard enough to gain Sam's attention. He didn't wait for Sam to ask what was wanted.
He simply said, "Hey, Sam, the waitress wants to give you coffee."
"Never touch the stuff,” Sam said, eyeing the back of Emma's menu. He was too busy enjoying his visual heavenly fantasy to care to elaborate.
Frank, Joyce, and the kids were all somewhat surprised at Sam's reply, and wondered if Sam knew what he was turning down. They wondered if it was truly possible that the man that Frank had earlier accused of being a drunk trying to bum beer money from them, actually abstained from coffee. It was almost unthinkable.
"We never drink it either," Emma replied.
Sam didn't reply, he was busying himself looking at the dessert menu that was propped up on the table.
"I said, we never drink it either,” Emma repeated, purposely increasing her volume.
"Huh?" Sam asked. "Well, good for you, you'll live longer.” Looking around uncomfortably, he added, "I can't believe I'm sitting here. I can't remember the last time I sat in a fine restaurant like this, if ever."
He continued to look around admiringly.
"Yeah, uh, right,” Luke said, trying to not slight Sam's impressed treatment of what he felt was an ordinary family restaurant.
If Sam's reaction to the menu had been extraordinary, it was nothing compared to his disbelief as a baked potato and a steaming steak were slid before him. Sincere tears of joy and gratitude began streaming down his weather‑worn face.
"You people are just too much!" he exclaimed.
Emma beamed. Luke was embarrassed and felt uncomfortable sitting next to a grown man that was crying over a steak. Kenny smiled silently.
"Well, dig in everyone,” Frank said, breaking the awkward silence. "We're glad to do it, Sam. We just hope you enjoy it."
Several minutes later, the family had finished their meals. Sam, meanwhile, had only eaten about a quarter of his potato and less than half of the steak. Throughout the meal, he would take a bite and then lay his fork and knife down on his plate while he chewed. His chewing had grown continually slower, with the gap between bites taking longer and longer.
Finally, he pushed the plate back and straightened. He shook his head regretfully.
"You haven't even finished!” Luke exclaimed.
"Luke, be polite," Joyce reprimanded.
"I'm sorry folks,” Sam said forlornly. "I'm just not used to so much food. Leastwise, not so much food at one time!" He looked at his plate with yearning, but knew he couldn't take in more than he already had. "I'm sorry,” he repeated.
"So much food?" Luke whispered to himself.
"Don't be sorry,” Frank replied. "We just wanted to make sure you got some dinner. It looks like you did fine. Just fine."
"Yes, do you want some dessert?” Joyce asked.
"DESSERT?" Sam exclaimed aghast. "Oh, no! I couldn't possibly!”
"I could!" Luke interjected while Kenny nodded vigorously in agreement.
"I'm sure you could,” Frank smiled at his boys. He was about to add, "but, we have to hit the road," then thought the better of it. He let everyone order something. Sam chose not to place an order. He just sat and enjoyed the feeling of food in his stomach while the others ate. Before long, the family, and Sam, were back on the road again.
©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
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©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
Last modified: 11/15/12