Death of the Shopping Cart Man: Part 3 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

The Shopping Cart Man is dead. The news spreads in whispered conversations held over garden fences and rose hedges. A butterfly lifts off a snap dragon to the left of the porch step and flutters silently into the air as I realize I will never see him in his ragged old blue sweater, patched brown jacket and battered slacks again. He was one of us. An avenue man, a collector of cans, bottles and abandoned shopping carts. A character, a neighbor, a man we called ours. The Shopping Cart Man is dead and the world feels suddenly different.

Mommy wheels the chrome and yellow stroller out of the house. It has vinyl seats with yellow and orange flowers. I watch her lift Sis into the stroller, my sister’s beautiful red hair casts light like a burning match.

“They’re opening up his house.” Mommy says, pushing the stroller before her. My mother loves it when anything happens in the neighborhood. Every neighborhood event means a walk. The only event that isn’t celebrated with a walk is the occasional escaped prisoner from the mental hospital. On those days she quarters us inside, listening to the radio for news of an arrest.

“Open the gate, Eleanor.” I walk before the stroller, my fingers flipping up the latch quickly before the pain of the heat can register. The sun is so hot on a Utah summer day that every piece of metal burns. We walk north to East 2nd and then cross M street to follow East 2nd west. The day is so hot and dry that I am already thirsty. We slip from tree to tree, grateful for the shade as the stroller rises and falls over the broken sidewalks that have been fractured by the ever reaching tree roots. Four blocks west and we are there.

People mill around quietly. Mother’s trailing children push strollers past the red brick house, their eyes locked on the opened door as two men in suits look but go no further. Unembarrassed, Mommy joins the crowd of onlookers.

“He died at Holy Cross Hospital.” I hear one woman say, her words interesting me because that is where I was born.

“They can’t even walk in,” another adds. We watch another man walk up. He disappears inside the house only to re-emerge shaking his head.

“There are newspapers stacked so high that if they fall a man could be smothered.” Now I’m fascinated.

“And he lived here all this time?” Mommy shakes her head as we gaze at the dilapidated three story brick mansion. We’ve passed it a hundred times on our walks. We’ve commented on the state of its roof, the trash in its gardens but somehow we never noticed the collection of shopping carts that sit waiting to be returned to the store.

“Why are there newspapers stacked so high?” three pairs of eyes turn on me. My mother’s mouth tightens, her eyes turning back on the house.

“Some people save things, they stack them up and keep them because throwing things out is…hard.” She adds the last word as if she understands.

“Why is it hard?” I ask, looking up at her. Mommy doesn’t answer right away. She is thinking.

“Imagine that you’ve had to go without. That you’ve been hungry or cold or poor. Then later when times are better, imagine that you can buy things and keep things and everything you have seems important and valuable. Everything, every cent, every dollar you have is valuable. When everything seems valuable then throwing things away becomes impossible. That’s how it must have been for the Shopping Cart Man. Every newspaper must have felt valuable.”

I nod my head because in a small way, I understand. Every toy I own is valuable, every bit of food we grow or buy is valuable. We don’t waste because mother survived the war and the memory of past poverty stalks us still.

“Was he in the war like you Mommy?” I ask Mommy who is young and beautiful not old and shabby like the Shopping Cart Man. The look she gives me tells me I’ve made a comparison that should not have been made. So I listen and in listening I learn that for five cents a cart a wealthy man who wore rags wandered our avenues collecting abandoned shopping carts, discarded bottles and aluminum cans. In the cold of winter, in the heat of summer, in the chill and bluster of spring and fall he collected, pulled and pushed the weight of metal shopping carts to the store before returning to this stately home that had been in his family for a very long time.

In my mind I see the newspapers and other assorted objects that crowd every space inside his home. They leave a thin maze like isle that winds from room to room upstairs and down, filling every space in that grand old house. Through neighborly reports and subsequent walks I learn of a large bank account, of valuable furniture uncovered, of silk rugs and Limoges dinner wear that hadn’t seen the light of day in fifty years.

A young nephew inherits the estate. The house is repaired and the world forgets about the Shopping Cart Man. But each time it snows, each time I see a discarded shopping cart, each time I hear the rumble of small metal wheels on pavement I think of him and wonder at the type of deprivation that creates that kind of poverty.

Through the window: Part 2 of Rain on a Cloudless Day

lace curtains
My life began on M street, that charming avenue of craftsman homes and brick apartment buildings where Box Elder trees give shade to the heat drenched streets and sidewalks. A multitude of children played then, as they do now, beneath their ever spreading bows. M street has never been a grand avenue, not like the more historical streets with their mansions with widow’s walks and coach houses. Those lay farther north and east along the gently sloping foot hills of the Wasatch Mountains.

I hate going to bed at 6:00 on a hot summer evening. I lay amongst twisted sheets and listen to children play. Close by a girl laughs in bright hot sunlight while a boy answers, his words lost in the constant hum of the cicadas. In my mind I see the sun lit flowers, hot sidewalks and heat blasted grass turned brown at the tips. To feel the crunch of that summer grass under my bare feet would be heaven.

Slipping out of bed I walk to the window that leads out into the back garden. There are many ways to escape 86. My favorite is through the windows. Even when the doors are open I prefer to travel by window. There’s a sense of excitement, of freedom, of going wild when you duck under the lace curtains and swing one leg at a time through a window. Looking out I see that the children in the apartments are playing hide and seek.

I know some of the children who live there. There is my friend Trina, and her brother Opa and there are the divorce kids who visit their father on the weekends and evening. Unfortunately there are more adults than children. Mommy hates the man she calls him the ‘itsy bitsy teensy weensy yellow polka dot bikini’ guy because he plays that same song every day on his record player.

The children who play hide and seek are the divorce children. The boy is hiding along our chain link fence. It’s not a good hiding spot. If he went back just five feet he could fit between the back wall and the apartment’s covered car park. I like to hide there. That’s where I found a dead ruby throated humming bird. It was the tiniest most beautiful thing I’ve ever found. I wanted to have it stuffed but Mommy made me bury it.

I slip through the window into the back yard wearing only my night dress. It’s made of beautiful green silk with lace flowers at the top. Mommy says it’s mostly plastic but I pretend it was made by silk worms. Of all the things I own, it’s the most beautiful. My cat Lilly sees me from where she’s been sleeping in the shade. She’s only a year old but she’s smart like a dog. She rubs against my leg the moment I drop down from the window. The yard is darkened by the shadow of the house and by our two cherry trees. Both trees are old. I imagine they were planted by the people who built our clap board queen Ann in 1910. The bark on the trees is shiny and smooth. Our Bing cherry is my favorite tree for three reasons. One it gives the sweetest fruit of all the trees in our yard, two it gave me an Abraham Lincoln commemorative coin which I found buried in its roots and three, its easy to climb. I walk around the Bing cherry, my bare toe outstretched, tracing the place where I found my coin. What if more coins lay buried under the trees?

I walk to the pie cherry and examine its base. I hate this tree. I want to cut it down but Mommy says I can’t. Its cherries are bitter tasting. She says they’re meant for pies. Apparently, their flavor only comes out when they’re cooked in sugar. I don’t understand fruit you can’t just eat. The only good thing about the pie cherry is the color of the fruit. I climb up onto the first branch and pick two sets of cherries. Each set I hang over my ears like long red bead earrings. I feel pretty in red. It’s like magic. Put anything red on me and I feel instantly pretty. Someday I’ll have a red evening gown and wear it to the opera. I’ve forgotten about the Divorce kids. They’ve gone quiet. I feel their eyes on me.

“What are you wearing?”

“An evening gown.” I answer with perfect nonchalant.

“You’re showing your shoulders.” Looking down I examine my shoulders and the thin lace strap that lays over each one. If I were wearing my red evening gown there wouldn’t be straps at all. “It’s immodest to show your shoulders,” they add as if I haven’t heard them.

I hear them but I ignore them because my mother is an L.A. hippy and my father is a knowledgeable Satan and I don’t have to live by church rules. Instead, I lay down in a thin patch of evening sun and close my eyes. I dream of red dresses and opera houses with crystal chandeliers and curtains as red as my dress. I feel the divorce kids watching me. Their worn old tee shirts and knee length shorts hiding their bodies from the evening light. If they bared themselves no one would be shocked, no one would reproach them because they live as outside the church’s grace as I do. The divorce will blacken them as much as my father’s excommunication has blackened me. So I lay in the sun, my shoulders bared while in the shadows of my room, Mommy finds an empty bed.