The Shopping Cart Man
Frank and Joyce hadn't said much as they moved the car next door for gas. They didn't need to. They both knew that they each felt the same way.
The boys hadn't bothered to ride to the gas station. They just ran across the parking lot and inside the station to find the bathrooms and then look at the souvenirs and candy. Emma had walked the distance with a satisfied look on her face.
Joyce excused herself to go keep an eye on the children while Frank pumped the gas. He got the gas started and stepped away to wipe the front window clean. He was nearly done before he noticed that the gas wasn't pumping. In checking it, he found that the tank was far from full. He set the latch on the nozzle again and stepped away to finish cleaning the windows.
He only took a couple of steps, however, when he heard the nozzle click. The latch had slipped. He worked it again and found that it wouldn't stay.
"Darn nozzle," he mumbled and stayed put holding the nozzle open to fill the rest of the tank.
He was still holding it, lost in thought about the man and his missed opportunity to do a genuinely good deed, when his thoughts were disrupted by movement at the restaurant. The door had opened and two familiar figures were coming out. It was the man and his lady friend.
Frank watched them both pull the collars tightly to them. They turned toward each other speaking words that Frank could not hear. She reached over and lightly placed her fingertips to the man's chest for a moment, obviously thanking him. He nodded in reply, and to Frank's surprise, they parted.
The unknown lady walked behind the restaurant and disappeared beyond the garbage bin. The man stood a moment, then turned away and began walking toward the gas station. Frank thought the man would come and thank him for the meal. He prepared himself by quickly digging into his wallet for a few more dollars. He held them in his pocket, ready to retrieve them, while his other hand held the gas nozzle.
Frank was tensing up, trying to think of the best way to let the man know that the gift of the meal was no great thing, that the man really didn't need to thank him, and that, in fact, he'd like to give the man a few more dollars. He was still trying to put all this into words as the man turned toward the station. He didn't even seem to notice Frank.
Frank's mind began to buzz. He felt that his chance to do right might disappear. He wanted to catch the man before he was gone. He wasn't sure what he was going to do, but he wanted to do something. He started to walk over to him, but the nozzle clicked and stopped pumping. He quickly stepped back to it and squeezed it to start the flow again.
Meanwhile, the man continued to walk and Frank was afraid he was going to lose him. He had to get his attention somehow, but he could hardly call out to him, as he had no idea what the man's name was. He certainly wasn't on familiar enough terms with the man to simply call out to him. He was nearly panicking as he tried to think of words to say.
His tension was eased somewhat when he saw the man sit down on the walkway's edge, near the station's front door. The pump clicked off again and jostled Frank's attention. He realized that he had been staring at the man. He turned and squeezed the nozzle again. It switched off almost immediately.
He squeezed it again and again it switched off.
"What the hey?" he asked himself and then looking at the pump's meter, he realized the tank was finally full.
He was surprised that so much time had passed. He still hadn't come up with a plan for approaching the man, but now seemed to be the time. He replaced the nozzle, screwed the gas cap back in place and walked toward the station to pay.
He figured his best chance would be to say something as he passed the man. He walked toward him, or rather the door. A thousand words pummeled his mind, screaming to come out, none of them seemed to make much sense, though. He was nearly to the man. He had only a step or two to go. He licked his lips, preparing to say something.
"Hi," he said to the man.
The man hardly noticed.
"Hello," Frank followed up, trying to make sure he had gotten the man's attention.
The man was sitting on the curb, looking down. Upon hearing Frank, he slowly looked up and their eyes met. There was no distinct sign of recognition in the man's eyes. Frank waved awkwardly to the man and repeated his greeting. The man gave a pleasant, little smile and returned the greeting.
Frank was on the verge of following up with something more when the station door flung open and his two boys rushed out between him and the man. The moment was gone. Frank walked into the station to pay. Joyce met him in there and, seeing he looked troubled, asked if everything was all right.
"Oh, uh, yes certainly," he fumbled. "It's just that, uh, I saw that man again."
"'That man'?" she asked, a bit puzzled. Then, realizing who he must have been referring to, she asked, "Do you mean the man from lunch?"
"Yes, he's right outside."
Frank nodded with his head. Joyce looked toward the door. It was just pulling closed. She could just see a pair of shoes through it. Most of the view through the door was obstructed by a hand painted portrait of Santa greeting customers as they entered the station. She could see better through the window to the right of the door, between a stack of Pennzoil canisters and a "Seasons Greetings!" window painting.
There, with his back against the glass, was the now familiar shape of the man. His brown coat was pulled tightly against his skin. Joyce could seemingly see his backbone protruding against the back of the tattered fabric. His hat was pulled down tightly, close to his red ears. She could see wisps of steam float away in the cold air with each breath he took.
Joyce couldn't help observing that the old man seemed chillingly content with his life. No, that wasn't right, she corrected herself. It was more a matter of him being complacent with it. Surely he wasn't content. She wondered where he lived, or at least where he spent his nights. She assumed it must be out in the cold, and wondered what - if any - covering he would enjoy. She thought that perhaps his only protection from the cold would be a bunch of discarded newspapers or, if he was really fortunate, perhaps an old, smelly blanket. She shivered involuntarily at the thought.
Now that she knew he was sincere when he asked for money, she felt terribly guilty for not having done something more for him. It wasn't because she wanted to look good in the eyes of her daughter, at least not now. It was because she felt a sincere feeling of pity for him. Not really pity, so much, but an odd sense of obligation. It was as if fate had given her and her family the opportunity to help a fellow sojourner and she and her husband had merely looked the other way.
How could they have done such a thing when they themselves were so richly blessed? How could they look at another of God's children, whose head hung down in despair and have not helped to raise it up again? A child of God? No. Well, yes. Surely. Yes, this was another of God's divine children, yet, he had seemingly lost his way somehow, she concluded. From the looks of the man, she surmised that he must have wandered into some of the lonely, foreboding paths of life.
Joyce wondered how long the man had been in such an abysmal state. She wondered at the life the man had lived. She wondered why it was that she had not been more willing to trust a hungry man who had simply asked for lunch money. What kind of world was it where people looked at each other as strangers who quickly categorized each other, and once that categorization was completed - without a lick of factual data - proceeded to base their entire, brief interactions with each other on that fast paced series of assumptions? She was ashamed to have fallen in step with such cruel prejudices.
"I wish we had done something more for the dear, old man," she said to Frank.
"So do I," Frank agreed. "I just don't know what to d- "
"Hey!" A gruff voice from behind them interrupted their thoughts. The attendant stepped out from behind the counter and made a beeline for the door. "'Scuse me!" he said, as he stepped between Frank and Joyce.
He pushed the door open and shouted, "Hey, you!" motioning to the man.
"I told you to stop hangin' around here!" the attendant shouted roughly. He waved his hand at the man, as if he were waving off a pesky fly that didn't know better than to continue to buzz around his face. "It bothers my customers! Now, get out of here!"
The man turned his head and saw the attendant. He moved slowly, like a bear being moved from a riverbank. He knew the message without needing to hear the words. He turned away and started to stand. It took him longer than it seemed it should. His old bones just weren't what they used to be.
"Quit stalling, and git!" the attendant shouted. "Don't make me call the cops!"
The man stood and started to wander off, back in the direction of the McDonald's. The attendant watched to make sure he would leave. He would have stayed there the entire time it would have taken the man to leave his property, if Frank hadn't interrupted him.
"Sir, can I pay now?" Frank asked.
"Eh? What?" the attendant said, stepping back into the warmth of his station.
"I'd like to pay now," Frank repeated.
"Oh, yes, certainly," the attendant replied, stepping behind the register and offering a settling smile. "Sorry about that. I keep telling him to take a hike, but he keeps coming back." As he said this, he glanced out through the words "Peace on Earth!" painted on the station's door, to verify that the man had indeed left.
"He comes often, then?" Joyce asked.
"Yeah. Too often, if you ask me," the attendant said. "He just comes and sits and waits. He'd sit there all day if I let him."
"Waits?" Frank asked. "What's he waiting for?"
"Who knows? Who cares?" the attendant said, as he rang up their bill. "I just don't want him waiting around here, see? It bothers people." He looked them in the eye with a knowing look and added, "He's probably just waiting for someone to give him money to buy beer! You know what I mean?" He then laughed until he snorted.
"Yeah, I know," Frank said dismally as he received his change. He tried to laugh, but only managed an awkward, crooked smile. He looked sideways and saw Joyce feeling equally uncomfortable.
"Thanks, mister," the attendant said. "See ya. Oh, and, have a merry Christmas!"
Frank and Joyce returned the greeting and then turned to leave together. They were both concerned about the man and what they could or should do for him. It could be argued that they simply wanted somehow to appease their guilty consciences. More than that, though, they knew they genuinely wanted to help him.
Joyce was just turning to Frank to ask what he felt they ought to do when the station door was again pulled open. This time it was Emma. She burst in with a mile‑wide smile and an eager look.
"He's here!" she said in an excited tone. "He's here!"
"Yes, we know," Joyce acknowledged.
"We were just going to talk to him," Frank added.
"You were?" Emma said with anxious surprise. "What were you going to say? Were you going to give him more money? Because I really think you should. That hamburger wasn't very big and it was awfully nice of him to share it with that lady. Do you think that was his wife? Who do you think she was? I bet they're still hungry. Don't you?"
"Hold on, young lady," Frank said, overwhelmed. "Take a breath!"
"We don't know," Joyce said. "We were just going to talk to him and say hello."
Frank sensed someone looking at him and turned his head to see the attendant. He couldn't decide if the attendant was surprised, curious, amused, distrustful of their motives, or simply could not hear all that was going on. At any rate, he felt uncomfortable. He turned back to his family and ushered them to the door.
"Let's go," he said.
©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
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©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
Last modified: 11/15/12