The Shopping Cart Man
A Night=s Stay
The sky was black. Only a few stars peered down on the car as it sped along the lonesome highway. Sam sat with his head near the window and his eyes glued to the outside. He watched dark shapes whiz by, guessing at their substance. Occasionally, he could see them pass another car heading in the other direction. He'd watch its headlights grow until their intensity seemed to burn his eyes, then suddenly they were gone, blanked out in the moment they passed, and he would turn to see the red taillights shrink off into the distance.
Joyce turned back to check on her family. Little Emma had snuggled up against Sam and had fallen asleep. Joyce had lost most of her concern about the man. He seemed sincerely nice. Emma looked so peaceful and content with her head against Sam's arm that Joyce couldn't help but smile. She felt a warmth well up within her and nudged Frank. He was stirred from his driving stupor and asked what was up. Joyce simply motioned with her eyes and a nod of her head.
Frank looked in the rearview mirror and saw his daughter at peace.
"Yeah, I know," he said. "Kind of cute, isn't it?"
"She's really taken to him," Joyce whispered. "Hasn't she?"
"Well, who wouldn't?" Frank replied. "He's a darned nice man."
"You weren't too taken by him when we first saw him," Joyce pointed out.
"Oh, yeah. Well, that was different," Frank mumbled.
"You know, I wonder how many people were just like us?" Joyce asked. "Passing him by and not giving him a care."
"And, how many more are there like him?" Frank added. "Decent people down on their luck, who just need someone to take a moment and care."
They sat in silence only a moment until Frank mused, "And, I wonder how many times Sam had gone over to that gas station, only to be turned away by that guy."
"He sure seemed to know all about him," Joyce agreed.
"Apparently, not. He only THOUGHT he knew all about him," Frank corrected.
"I wonder what more there is?" Joyce wondered. "I mean, what's his story?"
"I've been wondering that too," Frank admitted.
"He seems decent enough," Joyce said. "You'd think he'd have a job, a family, a home, something somewhere."
"Maybe he lost his job one day and never got another," Frank said.
"I don't think it's that simple," Joyce said, sneaking another a look back at their passenger.
"You think his wife died and he lost it and just wandered off?" Frank asked.
"Oh, I hope not!" Joyce said with a start, and then added, "But, I would think it would take something like that. I can't imagine a man as nice as he is going through life single. Surely he must have been married once. He's not a bad‑looking man."
"Eh? Maybe I should grow a scruffy beard," Frank said with a teasing glint in his eye as he tugged at his chin.
"I don't think so," Joyce said without hesitating.
"We're coming up on a town," Frank interrupted. "I think we're near enough to Salt Lake City. Let's call it a night."
"There's a Travelodge up ahead. Let's just stay there," Joyce suggested.
"Sounds good to me," Frank agreed.
Kenny and Luke were awakened by the stopping of the car. Their bleary‑eyed heads slowly bobbed up, followed by questions of where they were and what was going on. When they saw their mom heading into the motel office, their questions were answered. It wasn't long before she returned and got back in the car.
"Do they have a pool?" Luke asked expectantly, as Emma stretched awake.
"They sure do," Frank replied.
Their shouts of "Yippee!" were quelled when they saw their dad point straight ahead and say, "It's right there!"
The light layer of snow covering the slide, steps, and lawn chairs surrounding the pool was not a welcome sight.
"Never mind, Kenny," Luke said glumly, looking at the empty cement hole before them. "It's an outdoor pool."
"What do you expect at a motel?" Emma asked with a sensible flare that annoyed Luke even more than the snow.
Frank drove over to the room Joyce had indicated, and the family piled out of the car, Sam included. Joyce walked over to Sam and handed him a key.
"I was able to get you the room right next to ours," she explained.
"Room?" Sam asked, bewildered. "I can just stay in the car." He made feeble gestures with his hand.
"Not when it's snowing!" Frank exclaimed.
Sam was about to explain how much warmer the car would be compared to what he was used to, when he was interrupted by Emma.
"Why can't he stay with us?" she protested.
"Because there are only two beds," Frank replied.
"Well, can I stay in Sam's room?" Luke asked eagerly.
"No, I don't think so," Frank said. "I think Sam would like his privacy."
"But! -" the kids all tried to protest.
"But, nothing!" Frank said firmly. "Now, go with your mother."
Joyce took the cue and with a firm, kind voice ushered her kids into action. They gathered bags and took them into their room. Frank turned to Sam and pointed to the other door.
"Well, Friend," he said, "this would be your room."
He walked Sam to the door and put the key into the lock. He gave it a turn, twisted the knob, pushed the door open, and then stepped back. He put his hand on Sam's shoulder and gently guided the bewildered man forward and into the room.
Sam crossed the threshold and stood within the room as if in a daze. So much had happened already that day, he didn't think he could be more overwhelmed, but he was. Frank flipped on the light and startled Sam as features of the blackened room burst into view.
He looked down at the brown, shag carpet and straight across the room to the mirror outside the bathroom. There was a TV on a dresser to the left, next to another large mirror. Opposite it, and filling most of the room, was a large bed, flanked on either side by nightstands bedecked with lamps. Sam stood speechless, his eyes growing moist as he looked at the broad stripes on the bedspread.
"It's all yours, Pal," Frank said at last, not knowing what else to say to ease Sam's mind and make him feel at home.
"I don't - I don't know what to say," Sam stammered.
"Say you'll be ready for breakfast by 8 and I'll be happy enough!" Frank said, forcing himself to sound calm and cheerful. This was all new territory for him as well. He felt awkward and uncomfortable, but also more than a little good about his efforts.
"I don't - I don't deserve this," Sam said, as he turned back toward Frank. He kept his head bent toward the floor and his hands came close together so that his fingers fidgeted nervously with each other.
"Sure you do, Sam," Frank said reassuringly. "You deserve this and much, much more. Have a good night's stay, Friend!"
Frank tried to think of something more to say as Sam continued to stand motionless, but brimming with emotions. For lack of other words, he simply said, "Good night," as he stepped out of the room and closed the door quietly.
Sam continued to stand alone in "his" room, trying to come to grips with the wonderful treatment he had received, when he was startled by a light tapping at the door. He stepped to it and opened it slowly.
"Yes?" he queried.
It was Frank.
"I - uh," he stammered, "I seem to have forgotten to give you your key."
He gingerly pressed the key into Sam's hand. Sam took it, still very bewildered as Frank again backed out of the room and said his farewell, closing the door softly behind him. Sam peered down at his hand and looked at the large, oval key holder and the brass key that was connected to it. He held the key up to his face, letting it dangle from its forest green plastic key ring.
"My key?" he whispered as a tear streaked down his cheek.
"Is everything all right?" Joyce asked as she and Frank began to prepare for bed.
Joyce had gotten the kids through their evening routine while Frank was next door. The boys had already brushed their teeth and were in their pajamas, jumping on one of the beds as Emma shook her head called them both "childish" as she climbed into her rollaway bed.
"Boys!" Frank said in a stern, hushed tone, "knock it off! Just get in bed. We have another long day ahead of us, tomorrow." Turning back to Joyce, he replied softly, "Yes, everything's fine. I think this is all a bit much for him, though."
"What do you mean?" Joyce asked, concerned.
"I just don't think he's had so much attention in quite some time," Frank explained. "And, there are so many changes for him. A 'new family,' eating in a restaurant, new clothes, having to groom himself, a roof over his head. Imagine begging for food from day to day, year upon year, and then suddenly knowing that you're guaranteed a next meal. I think it's just all a bit much for him to comprehend. Not to mention getting a new name! How can you not know your own name?"
"That poor man," Joyce sighed wistfully, as she brushed through her hair. "That poor, sweet, old man."
"You've got to wonder just how long he's been on the street," Frank agreed picking up his toothbrush and loading it with paste.
"Well, hopefully things will turn out better for him in Oklahoma," Joyce surmised.
"Yeah. What is it about Oklahoma anyway?" Frank asked with a mouthful of minty suds.
"Maybe he has family there or something," Joyce mused, joining Frank in the toothbrushing routine.
"Maybe," Frank agreed. "If so, they're not exactly very supportive, are they? If they've let him slide all these years, who says they'll be any help once he shows up again?"
"You never know," Joyce said, trying to be positive.
"Yeah," Frank countered, "maybe he doesn't even have any family out there. Maybe he's just some old, delusional man with a spontaneous yearning to go ANYWHERE away from where he was."
"True, but why Oklahoma?" Joyce asked. "Isn't that some sort of odd coincidence?"
"Yeah, very odd," Frank agreed. "You're sure none of us said anything about going to Oklahoma before he mentioned it?"
"I'm certain," Joyce said. "You were the first one to talk to him. You didn't mention it, did you?"
"Of course not!" Frank exclaimed. "Why would I?"
"It must have just been a coincidence, then," Joyce said.
"That's some coincidence," Frank agreed as he put down his toothbrush and headed to bed.
"Well, we'll just see what tomorrow brings," Joyce said, as she headed for the bed.
"Aren't we going to have a family prayer?" Emma asked eagerly.
"Of course we are," her dad replied.
The family knelt by their beds and bowed their heads. Frank asked Emma to be the voice of the prayer. The prayer she gave was full of the traditional thanks and requests, with one key addition, "...And thank you for helping us find Sam! He's wonderful. Please help us get him back to his family...."
Emma was still beaming as she lay down in her bed and Frank shut off the light.
Sam stood over the sink, staring at his reflection. He saw the deep creases in his forehead and bewildered look in his own eyes. He reached up and touched his cheekbones, pulling on them with his fingertips, trying to remove the deep circles under his eyes.
He absently stroked his scraggly beard with the back of his hand. He did this a few times before he realized he was doing it. He squinted a moment and nodded his head with determination. He grabbed the toiletry kit that Joyce had given him, and pulled out the scissors, razor and cream.
He looked at the scissors a moment, then back at his reflection. He nodded again and pulled a patch of whiskers tightly with one hand as he brought the scissors up and then clipped it off. As the sink began to fill with discarded whiskers, Sam couldn't help but smile. There was something freeing about the experience. He felt as if he was shedding his old life and preparing himself for a new one.
His trimming became increasingly energetic and enthusiastic.
©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
For More Information Contact:
©2006, 2012 by Douglas V. Nufer
Last modified: 11/15/12