The Shopping Cart Man
"Really, you shouldn't," Sam mildly protested as Frank pulled the car to a stop in the KMart parking lot.
He was embarrassed by the attention, but even more embarrassed at the thought of offending his newfound friends. He wanted to pull back and turn down the generous offer, but at the same time, he couldn't. He knew he needed clothes, and that he had no other means to get them. He had to relent to Emma's and Joyce's urging and coaxing.
Emma had already gotten out and run around to his side of the car and opened the door. She was now reaching in for his hand to pull him out. Her smile was breathtaking in its jubilance. She was nearly jumping with excitement. He reached out his hand and took hers.
The contrast between her soft, white hand, and his rugged, rough and dirty one shocked him. He suddenly withdrew it as a leper may have pulled back from the view of a passing queen.
"Come on!" Emma repeated. "It will be all right! It'll be fun!"
"I doubt that," Sam managed to say under his breath.
All the while, his thoughts were awash with surprise at how his uncomely appearance and texture did not seem to deter the little angel. He knew that the touch of his hand must have been a disgusting shock for the girl, but here she was holding out her hand to him again, daring to be touched once more by the foul being that he was.
He looked into her eyes and saw pure innocence, devoid of human ills. He was touched and moved within. It slowly dawned on him that the thing that would make this sweet person happiest would be to try to care for him. He knew that he did not want to deny her that happiness, and resolved to do whatever it took.
"I'll come," he said at length, and climbed out of the station wagon.
As they approached the store entrance, Sam stayed in between the kids. He would have looked like a grandfather flanked by his family, if it weren't for his ragged, decrepit appearance. He could suddenly feel the dirt on his face, and the sweat matted into his hair. He felt like he didn't belong and hesitated.
Frank was nearby, and also felt the awkwardness of the situation. He stepped closer to Sam and said, "It's alright Sam, we're all with you."
"Yes, please don't feel bad. We're happy to have you with us," Joyce added in a sweet way that made Sam believe her.
Their reassurances made him feel much better. He looked down and saw Emma smile up at him. He smiled in reply and felt a weight lift from him. Sam was suddenly shocked by the sensation of the little girl's fingers wrapping tightly around half of his own. He looked down and saw her holding his hand. He felt a lump grow in his throat but only managed to smile.
"Come on!" Emma urged. "Let's go get you some clothes!"
She started through the door and pulled on his hand. He followed. His feet hesitated a moment, but his heart pushed him forward.
Once through the entryway, Sam looked around at the shelves of clothes, food, pharmaceuticals and other items he could see. He saw the customer service desk and the young woman staffing it. He paused a moment, and raised his right hand to his chin and rubbed his fingers against his ragged beard, looking contemplative and nervous.
The whole family saw his hesitation and wanted to help ease him into feeling more at home.
"Frank, do something," Joyce coaxed.
"What should I do?" Frank asked.
"I don't know," Joyce confessed. "Just talk to him or something. I think he's about to run out or something."
Frank stepped over to him and asked if he was all right.
"I, uh," Sam stammered. "I, uh, I need to use the bathroom."
"The restroom?" Frank asked. "Oh, uh certainly. I think it's over that way." He pointed beyond the customer service desk.
"Oh, yes," Sam replied, reading the large, red sign that spelled "RESTROOMS".
Sam still didn't move.
"Is there something else?" Frank ventured, doubtful on what to do, and a little fearful that Sam would want him to follow him inside.
Sam leaned close to Frank. Frank was nearly overwhelmed by the good man's breath and odor, but tried desperately not to flinch. He could see that Sam wanted to say something private to him. His mind was racing with guesses as to what that might be. He was a little fearful at some of the possibilities.
"It's just that," Sam paused. Frank's heart was pounding so hard he thought it could be seen through his coat.
"It's, uh," Sam stammered again.
"It's just what?" Frank asked patiently.
"It's just, uh -" Sam paused and then in an even lower voice, with his mouth right up to Frank, he finished, "It's - uh - do you have a comb?"
"A what?" Frank asked. Then, realizing what the request was - and feeling extremely relieved - he said, "A comb? Oh, yes, certainly!"
Seeing that Sam felt self conscious about his appearance and his quest to remedy it, he decided to maintain the low profile of the transaction and slyly reached into his back pocket and produced the wanted item. He slipped it into Sam's palm like an uncle slipping a twenty to his nephew after high school graduation.
"Thank you, so much!" Sam said, with a great deal of relief in his eyes. "I really appreciate it!"
"Not at all," Frank said. Then adding as Sam hustled over to the restrooms. "Keep it!" Under his breath he added, "and I really mean it."
Frank stepped back over to Joyce who asked what that was all about. She had not been able to hear the hushed conversation. Like Frank, she had also wondered what on earth Sam was asking.
"Oh," Frank said calmly, "that? He just wanted to borrow my comb."
"Oh, that's sweet," she said with a motherly smile.
"Sweet?" Frank questioned. "I guess that's what you call it. I think he just feels very self conscious about being here in his current condition."
"Who wouldn't?" Luke asked.
"Now, Son," Frank replied, "no rudeness. Sam seems like a very nice man. We should make him feel like a member of the family."
"Oh, I know, Dad, I know," Luke replied. "I kinda like the old guy. But, I'll sure be glad when he gets a shower!"
Kenny nodded his head and smiled. He bobbed up and down so enthusiastically, it reminded them of Dopey in Disney's "Snow White". "Only in the cute way, not the dopey way," Luke would have pointed out. It made them all laugh and eased their tension.
They were still giggling as Sam emerged from the restroom. He had tossed his tattered hat into the trash with the paper towels. His long, gray hair was wet and combed straight back. He had obviously spent considerable effort at the sink scrubbing his hands, face and head. Even his scraggly beard was somewhat combed. He had done his best, but the long whiskers curled and looped in awkward ways. He was still tugging at it, trying to get it to behave.
"Now I know why those fancy hairdressers talk about 'taming' hair," he said, as he approached his new benefactors.
This put them all at ease and they burst out in a full chorus of laughter. The clerk at the customer service desk looked over to see what the commotion was all about. All she saw was a group of happy people sharing a moment that she could not possibly interpret, and returned to her work.
It seemed like only a few minutes had passed, but it was well over an hour. The family had coaxed, encouraged, and at times applauded Sam as he shopped for clothes. Joyce had stepped up and taken charge. She marched him into the shirt section, then the pants section. She even got him socks. And, to his embarrassment, but great thanks, underwear. She made sure to pick out a two or three of each item so that he would have changes of clothes.
He didn't dare try on clothes, lest he stain something that did not fit. The shirts didn't worry her so much, but Joyce had to finally convince him to try on a "best guess" pair of pants, so that they could be relatively certain of his size. To everyone's relief, that first pair was a good fit, and Sam said he'd take them. Luke had muttered that that was good because no one else would ever want to wear them now, to which he got a nudge from Frank, who couldn't help but smile and repress a bit of a laugh.
After a stop for shoes and a decent coat, they headed over to the toiletries department, while Frank went in search of a duffle bag for Sam to store his new belongings. Sam was soon outfitted with a new comb, razor and scissors for his beard, shampoo, and - unbeknownst to each of them - the three kids separately, but simultaneously, handed him a stick of deodorant. He smiled self‑consciously, but then they all laughed.
"I'll use them all!" Sam promised.
"Why wait?" Emma suggested inadvertently.
As they were heading to the checkout stand with a basket full of goodies, Joyce paused.
"You know," she said, "there's really nothing wrong with him putting some of these things on in the dressing room."
"You can do that?" Luke asked with cautious surprise. "Isn't that stealing?"
"No, no," Joyce calmed her wide‑eyed youth. "It's OK so long as you keep the tags and show them to the check out girl." She tossed a toothbrush and toothpaste into their basket.
"I don't know," Luke fretted uncomfortably. "Putting on stuff that isn't paid for doesn't seem right."
"It's just like when Mom gets you shoes," Emma put in. "You always put them on and wear them out of the store."
"Yeah, but that's just shoes," Luke clarified, "not a whole wardrobe."
"It'll be fine," Frank confirmed. "Come on, Sam, let's get you dressed up."
As Sam stepped toward the door to the dressing room, Frank handed him a little, plastic cylinder he had picked up from the hygiene area.
"While you're in there, you may as well put some of this on," he suggested. "No offense intended, Sam."
Sam looked at the cylinder and immediately recognized the white sailing ship on the red background of the Old Spice bottle. He smiled and blushed at the same time.
"Certainly!" he said. "Thanks, I'll put on an extra dose."
"What was that?" Luke asked his dad.
"Just some deodorant," Frank replied offhandedly, as he turned his gaze back from the door Sam had used.
"Deodorant?" Luke exclaimed with a concerned expression. He looked panicky. "But, we haven't paid for it!"
He looked imploringly at his mother. She tried very hard not to roll her eyes. Frank used no such restraint and simply waved to her to take over the conversation.
"It will be all right!" she explained. "We'll just pay for it along with everything else."
"But, he's using it NOW!" Luke restated his position. "And, we haven't paid yet!"
"But, we know we WILL pay for it," Joyce continued.
"Jeepers, lighten up already," Emma said.
Even Kenny was nodding in agreement.
None of this helped Luke. He still felt violently dishonest, and paced back and forth while they waited. He was certain the whole transaction had been caught by some sort of security guard and at this very moment store management was planning on sweeping in to arrest the whole lot of them. He decided then and there to keep aloof of the whole situation and physically keep his distance. When they would go to the checkout counter, he'd simply stand back a few feet so that he could claim he had nothing to do with anything once the checkout girl caught them with the stolen goods.
What seemed to Luke as an eternity, passed. Finally, Sam emerged looking much better than he had before. His beard was still behaving wickedly, but he looked much better in the new clothes and shiny shoes. He carried his old threadbare clothes draped over one arm (carefully concealing his underclothes).
"Well, I guess I'm ready," he said.
"Yes, let's go pay for this booty," Frank said, while Luke vigorously nodded his head in frantic agreement.
At the word "pay" the reality and charity of the situation struck Sam again.
"I really do deeply appreciate this," he said meekly.
"Don't think about it," Frank said with a smile. "We're happy to do it!"
Frank put his hand firmly on Sam's shoulder. It sent a warm, calming sensation through Sam, the magnitude of which Frank could never fully understand.
"Say, you even smell better!" Frank added with a wink. He walked over and patted Luke on the head, tousling his hair. Luke stopped and backed away, still concerned.
They paid without incident. Once outside, Sam unceremoniously and unequivocally dumped his old clothes into the trash bin out front. He couldn't help allowing a satisfied, grateful grin to spread across his face. It was accompanied by a warm feeling deep within his chest.
©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
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©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
Last modified: 11/15/12