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The Shopping Cart Man


Chapter 3

Food for the Soul 

     They slowed down as they drove into town. All of the kids had their faces up to the windows, looking for food. Dad kept heading down the main street, looking straight ahead. Joyce looked for a nice restaurant.

     "I'd like to just drive through town," Frank said. "And, find something on the other end."

     "Why?" Joyce asked.

     "Because when we're done, we can hop back on the highway and get going again," he said. "We'll lose less time that way."

     "What does it matter if we drive through town before eating than if we drive through town after eating?" Joyce asked, confused. "Don't we end up driving through town either way?"

     "We have momentum right now," Frank explained. "And, if we wait until after we eat, and then drive through town, we won't have that same momentum. Not until we get back on the Interstate. This way we don't lose time in town getting back that momentum. We just hop on the Interstate and go."

     "But- " Joyce was about to question his logic, and then thought the better of it. Frank was pacified with having explained his reasoning. She figured that, since he did most of the driving, it was probably best to just let him drive however he liked.

     "Besides," Frank added, "this way we can see if there's any place good to eat that's near a gas station. If we don't find anything we like on the other side of town, we can always double back."

     "That's true," Joyce acknowledged, although she knew that the likelihood of actually doubling back was slimmer than the chance of the kids all falling back to sleep after lunch.

     On the far side of town, they found a McDonald's near a Phillips 66 gas station. They were actually right next to each other, which, for the day, was a fortunate and rare find.

     "Hey!" Frank said, pointing. "Check it out! Right next to each other! What a deal! Let's go there!"

     "But - " Joyce started to say.

     She had just seen a nice diner on the other side of the street. Her intended recommendation was drowned out by the cheering of the hungry travelers. Frank pulled into the parking lot and the boys beat on the back window, pleading to be let out quickly.

     Frank got out and walked around and pulled the tailgate open and the boys lunged out. They staggered about momentarily in their newfound freedom, then made a beeline toward the McDonald's. Emma was prepping to race around and join the boys, when she suddenly stopped still in her tracks.

     Her mother saw her strange behavior and was concerned. She walked up to her daughter and put her hand on her shoulder.

     "What's the matter, Emma?" she asked.

     Emma didn't speak. She was very quiet and leaned into her mother. She pointed slowly. Joyce followed with her eyes to see where her daughter was pointing.

     Coming from behind the back of the restaurant, making his way around a stained and smelly garbage bin, was a man. He looked to be in his late 50's or early 60's. It was hard to say. His clothes were old and unkempt. There were holes and patches with holes in his ancient pants and faded coat. Bare fingers poked through his tattered, knitted gloves. His hat was pulled down tightly over his ragged, greasy hair. It was an old hat that looked like it had hit its heyday in the '50's.

     Surely, Emma thought, such a hat could not keep a man warm. She could see that his bare ears were red, testifying to that fact. Her eyes quickly shifted to scanning his beleaguered face. His beard was scraggly and uneven. The whiskers had more salt than pepper to them. He had wrinkles that spread across his sunworn face. As he approached, she noticed his eyes.

     They were a brilliant blue. They seemed wholly out of place for this unwelcome vagabond. While his clothes cried out in decrepit desperation, his eyes seemed to have a calm serenity about them. There was a flicker of majesty in them that she could behold even from a distance. It gave Emma the sudden feeling of dignity and self respect that was well deserved. It contradicted every other facet of this man she had never seen before.

     Just as quickly as it had manifested itself, it was gone. The eyes were still as blue, but they lacked the magic she had glimpsed so briefly. She wondered what had caused the change. What she couldn't know was that it was at this moment that the man had seen her father.

     Whatever dignity or majesty he may have held within himself, fled as he once again became a beggar. With a feeble hand extended, the man began to slowly, meekly approach her father. It was clear he was begging for money, in spite of the inarticulate, barely audible mumblings that he uttered with what seemed like sincere humility.

     Frank made out the words "just a quarter," but smiled apologetically as he slowly shook his head and prepared to continue toward the restaurant's door. Emma was moved and shocked. Then an idea flashed into her mind. It was more than an idea. It seemed to her to be not only the right course of action for this man, but for them and their own core beliefs. As Emma watched her father turn away from the man, she became nearly frantic. She turned toward her mother and looked searchingly into her eyes with a mature look of concern that startled her mother.

     "What is it, Emma?" her mother repeated.

     "That man!" Emma said.

     "Don't worry, Sweetheart, he won't hurt us," Joyce comforted her and began to guide her with her arms away from the intruder.

     "No, no," Emma protested. "That's not what I meant!" She pulled free of her mother and looked up at her. "The Good Samaritan!" she said enthusiastically.

     "The what?" Joyce asked, confused.

     "The Good Samaritan!" she repeated. "You know, that story from the Bible!"

     "Yes, I remember the story," her mother replied, still confused. "But, what - "

     "We need to be the Good Samaritan!" Emma interrupted. "He's the man in need, and we need to be Good Samaritans!"

     Joyce saw that her daughter's eyes were sparkling with excitement. Emma was bouncing up and down. She called out to her father before Joyce had a chance to say anything.

     "Dad! Dad! Come here!" she called out.

     Puzzled, he came back toward the car.

     "What is it, Emma?" he asked.

     "That man!" she said. "We need to help that man!"

     "What?" he asked. "Why?'

     "Because we're Good Samaritans," Emma answered. "We have to give that man some money, so he can get some food."

     "We're what?" Frank asked.

     "Good Samaritans," Joyce put in, realizing that they had entered not only a teaching moment for their daughter, but the opportunity to show how well they actually believed the principles they taught their children in the lessons and stories that they shared so routinely. "You remember, we were just talking about how the Good Samaritan helped a man in need when no one else would."

     "And, this man is in need!" Emma said in earnest.

     "But, he just wants money to buy beer!" Frank said under his breath to Joyce.

     "We don't know that!" Joyce rebuked him mildly. "This means a lot to Emma," she added.

     Frank looked at Emma and saw that it was true. Emma was looking at him with puppy‑dog eyes full of expectation and hope. She had that pleading look that let him know that this was something from which she would not back down, without severe disappointment.

     "As I said," Frank reiterated, "he'll just use our money to buy beer!"

     "Frank!" Joyce interjected.

     "I'm telling you," Frank defended himself, "that's all these people want: money to buy beer!"

     "Daddy!" Emma persisted, "he looks hungry!"

     They looked back over at him. He had shuffled away from the doorway and back toward the garbage bin, but not out of view. He was coyly keeping an eye out for other newcomers whom he could approach with his plea for assistance. He did look hungry to Joyce. Frank still felt he looked more thirsty than hungry.

     "I'm trying to tell you, Sweetheart," Frank said imploringly, "he may be hungry, but he's probably just going to take the money and do something bad with it, like buy beer."

     "Daddy!" Emma responded, "should we really judge a man we don't even know? I think he's hungry and I think we should help him if we can."

     Not wanting to belabor the issue any more than they already had, Frank gave in. "All right, Emma. I'll give the man some money."

     He reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and fingered out a dollar. As he pulled it free, he began to walk to the man, passing Joyce as he did so. When he did, he leaned toward her and said under his breath, "But, I'm telling you, he's just going to buy beer."

     "Frank!" Joyce hushed back at him.

     Emma was all smiles as Frank walked right up to the man and nodded his head, excused himself and handed the man a crisp, new dollar bill. The man's eyes lit up. He stuttered an excited thank you, bowed his head several times and then quickly turned and hurried to the back area. He disappeared from view behind the garbage bin, leaving Frank standing without a companion.

     Turning back to his wife and daughter, he shrugged and mouthed, "See, I told you!"

     Kenny and Luke, who had entered the restaurant before the incident, came to the door and pushed it open from within.

     "Come on everybody!" Luke shouted as he poked his head through the doorway. "What's the hold up?"

     "That's just it," Frank said with a rude leer, "I've just been held up!"

     "Frank, please!" Joyce rolled her eyes.

     "What's that mean?" Luke asked.

     "Nothing," Frank said. "Let's go eat."

     "We've been Good Samaritans!" Emma said to Luke as she proudly walked passed him and inside.

     "You've been what?" Luke asked, looking at his mother.

     "Good Samaritans," she responded with a smile. "Come on, let's go eat."

     The family went in, ordered, and were soon enjoying some burgers and fries at a table. Emma suddenly stopped mid bite and sat up straight.

     "He's here!" she said, pointing.

     "Who's here?" her mother asked, then followed her excited gaze and turned to look toward the door. "Well, I'll be."

     "You'll be what?" Frank asked his wife.

     "Turn around and look," she nodded clandestinely.

     Frank turned just in time to see the man standing in the doorway. He had stopped and propped the door open with his back. A lady, dressed as poorly as he, stumbled in. She blinked and looked around briefly. When her eyes caught hold of the menu above the counter, they stayed fastened upon it. She inadvertently licked her lips, and caught herself in the act. She stopped quickly and tried to hide her hunger.

     She turned back to the man. He motioned with his arm toward the counter and nodded with a smile. He let her know that this special treat was real and would be for her. He walked with her to the counter and stood by her side. He ordered one of the children's meals and waited patiently for it to be prepared and delivered.

     The sack of food was soon handed over and graciously received. The man, proving himself to be a gentleman in spite of his appearance, escorted his lady to a table for two. He motioned for her to sit, which she did, and then he joined her. He pulled their meal out of the sack as if he were Santa pulling out the contents of a large stocking. He unwrapped the tiny burger and gingerly tore it in two. He handed the larger half to the woman and gave her a smile.

     Her eyes grew as the food neared her. She brought it up to her mouth with both hands. The dreamy look in her eyes seemed to cast aside her disbelief at her good fortune. He watched her bite into the bounty and smiled satisfactorily, then bit into his own. He closed his eyes and let the flavor and substance melt and swirl within him. They continued to eat with the gratitude and enthusiasm of a family enjoying a Thanksgiving feast.

     All the while, Frank, Emma, and Joyce continued to give furtive looks at the couple. Oblivious to the goings on, Kenny and Luke simply ate. Emma smiled with delight as she saw the man eat. She was thrilled to have done something kind for him. Joyce looked from Emma to Frank. Frank was clearly feeling guilty. He looked at the monstrous burger in his own hands and then over at the meager portions the couple was eating and felt very guilty.

     "See, Daddy!" Emma said with a mouthful of fries. "They didn't buy beer!"

     "Honey!" Joyce reminded her softly. "Not so loud, please!"

     "No, Sweetheart," Frank admitted. "They didn't."

     "He really WAS hungry," Emma added, "and he's sharing his meal with his girlfriend! We really ARE Good Samaritans!"

     "Yes, we really are," Joyce replied and then gave Frank a look that showed she shared his misgivings.

     "Oh, yes," Frank said with a dismal lilt. "We're GREAT Samaritans."

     Frank looked over at the man and saw him cross his legs under the table. Frank could see large holes in the man's socks. He looked up at the man's face. He had a contented look as he gestured to the small bag of fries and offered it to the tattered lady next to him, who smiled and took one that she dipped with a generous helping of ketchup. Frank slowly put his burger to his own mouth and nearly gagged on the bite.

    ©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer

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