The Cart Boy
William H. Coles
his will never work out,” Mr. Rich said sitting behind his metal desk, his thick arms crossed on his massive chest. On the wall were photos of him with his high school football team, with golf clubs and friends, on a family ski trip to Colorado, at the helm of a sloop with all six children and under full sail on Penobscot Bay, and a large print of him at the wheel of his vintage-fifties, two-seater, red convertible.
“You aren’t worth a damn at hiring, anyway,” he said to me.
Even after sixteen years as manager of his independent grocery store, I could never remember a compliment from Mr. Rich. He was a hard-line employer who thought the best management strategy was never being pleased with any employee. I’d learned to ignore him whenever possible.
“He’d just be a cart boy,” I argued.
“What’s this disabled shit?” he said.
“He’s got some spastic disorder.”
“I hope it’s not offensive.”
I’d never seen the kid. My sister, a volunteer social worker had counseled him after he had dropped out of a special ed school. “Don’t be a brute,” she said. “Give him a chance.” She was condescending as always, believing me responsible for my divorce after my wife went West with our children, and disdainful of my reclusive social life over the past few years. “It’ll be good PR,” she added.
The next week we hired this kid, Marion Passman, whose Mama, my sister later confessed, was about to send him with a one-way bus ticket to Arkansas to a father he’d never seen. Marion’s job was to retrieve shopping carts from the checkout area and stack them—front into end—near the main entrance.
On his first day of work I watched from my enclosed office that was raised up from the floor and with a big window so I could look out over the store. Marion walked with startling contortions, his back arched like a strung bow, defying gravity as if he were in a perpetual backward fall. His almost useless right foot jerked up as if he had stepped on a hot fire then it slammed down like stomping a roach while his left foot pointed delicately forward like a ballerina’s. To change direction, he thrashed with pinwheel movement as if balancing on a shaky high wire, left arm stiff with down-pointed fingers, his right bent and twisting.
“He’s an eyesore,” Mr. Rich said. He was sure Marion would scare customers to Summits, our competitor, where all the checkout girls wore tight sweaters and the stock boys looked like gym instructors. But most of our customers were fascinated, glancing back over their shoulders or peeking between aisles to see Marion. Not one customer complained to me. In fact, customers used words like “spunky” and “good-worker.”
As if to prove my point, the next day I saw from my office perch an always-friendly customer, a Ms. Booker, stare at Marion for a moment before walking up to him and complimenting him on his work. Marion’s jerks quickened and he gave a little spasm of a wave as Ms. Booker walked away to come to my office before she checked out.
“He’s got so much determination,” she said.
“He keeps those carts straight,” I said. “Delivery for you today, Ms. Booker?”
“That would be great. And please call me Celine.”
Celine lived in one of the many high-rise condos near the store. Rather than carry her groceries, she used the store’s “half-mile delivery service,” a special service I’d thought up to try to keep customers from switching to Summits. For six bucks, a bag boy would wheel groceries to a customer’s door within thirty minutes of purchase. If the customer wasn’t home yet, he left them with the concierge.
It was all going smoothly until Yolanda, a cashier, said it made her nervous having to watch Marion squirm around. “I ain’t required to work around no retards,” she said.
I told Yolanda to do her job. “Marion’s a good worker. Customers like him,” I said.
“He’s better than you,” I said.
“I got a friend stocking at Summits. Get me a real job.”
She went straight to Mr. Rich to quit.
“I knew there’d be trouble,” Mr. Rich said.
“She was useless,” I said, “Couldn’t tell broccolis from kiwis.”
I was sure Marion was not retarded; he just lacked education. After all, he was too busy trying to stay upright to have time to study.
Mr. Rich wasn’t convinced of Marion’s worth, but made no decision to fire him. “Just keep your eye on him. This ain’t a charity operation.”
The next few days passed better than I could ever have expected. Marion grew into his job. He had a system where as soon as someone unloaded a cart he would whisk it to the edge of checkout. He waited until he had collected three or four carts before he took them to the front. He watched for people having trouble separating carts from a stack too, and he’d stumble over to give a hand. Outside, Marion made swings through the parking lot like clockwork, clunking carts into a long train and pushing them up the concrete slope to the store front door to be brought back into service.
After a month on the job, Marion was walking around with this can of Three-In-One oil. I thought he’d taken it off the shelves but we didn’t carry it and maintenance said they never used it. I watched from my perch. Marion was oiling the carts! It took him a while to get the oilcan tip in place on the wheel, and then he squeezed. When he dribbled oil on the floor, he wiped it up with a paper towel that he kept in his pocket.
“Where’d you get that oil?” Mr. Rich asked Marion.
“I bring’d it.”
I told Mr. Rich he ought to have a few more employees like that.
I was pleased Marion was doing a lot better than Mr. Rich expected. But during the pre-dinner rush on a Friday, Mrs. Tanner slipped on a greasy spot and fell near the fresh grapefruit display. I helped her up. She was bruised but nothing broken. I couldn’t tell if she slipped on a Marion oil-dribble or the wet puddle from a leak in the automatic vegetable-spray pipe. But, just in case, I took Marion aside and showed him how to put a cloth under where he wanted to oil so nothing would get on the floor. He understood right away and from that time on there was not one fall from a possible oil slick and not one cart in the whole store wobbled or jerked.
The store ran smoothly for a while. Marion fit in as best he could and he was constantly on the move inside and outside the store. Because he dragged his right foot he had a growing hole on the top front in the rubber part of the shoe, his sock was sticking out, the skin of his toe exposed. At the lunch break I said, “Come on, Marion.” and we marched out the front door together walking three blocks toward the center of town. As we walked, people moved off the sidewalk gawking at him as if he had an infectious disease and I wondered if he was used to it, whether it ever bothered him. It was hard to tell. Then we came to a crowd of teenagers who stopped and stared, refusing to give way. Marion rambled out into the street to go around them. God! He didn’t have the right reflexes to dodge traffic so I moved him back on the sidewalk as quickly as I could.
I led Marion into the super-discount “Treat Your Toes” shoe store. “May I help you, sir?” a sales boy said turning so he didn’t have to look at Marion wiggling around.
“Yes, you may,” I said. “I want air high tops with the best tread.”
Marion didn’t know his size. The sales boy tried to line up a metal foot-measurer on Marion, but Marion couldn’t hold still.
“I’d think about a seven-and-a-half,” the sales boy said in an off hand way, trying to act as if this happened all the time.
“We got red, blue, black, silver, gray, and magenta,” he said.
“What you want?” I asked Marion.
“Red,” Marion stuttered.
“Red,” I said, to be sure the shoe-kid made no mistakes.
We got the right shoe size after three tries. Marion was a seven. They looked great.
As we walked back to the store, Marion glowed with pride. He couldn’t smile well but I could see it in his eyes. Pedestrians now stared in admiration as Marion’s shoes propelled him forward.
Slowly, over the next six weeks, Marion began spending more time in the store than at home, often working overtime without pay. One night he missed the last bus, and was waiting outside my office door just before I went home. He wanted to spend the night in the storeroom.
I knew Mr. Rich wouldn’t take on that kind of in-store liability. I called for a cab and told Marion I would pay, but the dispatcher was swamped with a Red Sox game so I decided it would be quicker and cheaper to take Marion home myself. I looked up Marion’s address in the employee file and checked a city map.
“I serry,” he stammered.
“Just point out your place when we get there.”
Marion knew all the right turns and we got to the projects just before ten.
Marion opened the door to his apartment and whirly-gigged his way in, knocking the door back against the wall, and I plunged into Marion’s home right behind him.
It was a two-room apartment with a bath and half kitchen, a public housing project left over from the fifties. The bedroom was just an extension of the floor space off to the right.
On a double bed with an uncovered mattress, four pillows—all but one without cover slips—propped up Marion’s mother. By the bedside was a wheel chair with black-leather folding seat and glinting bright-chrome wheels rimmed in thick rubber tread.
I saw Mom’s muscular legs splayed out on the bed; they looked strong.
“What the hell?” she said.
“I’m Harry Nugget.”
“He Mr. Boss,” Marion chimed in with surprising clarity.
Mom adjusted the half-buttoned man’s shirt covering her flat chest. Below she wore a sheer white slip grayed with use and ragged on the hem. I could see by the pubic shadow that it was all she had on, and she made no attempt to cover herself. With her right hand she grabbed the remote control and cut off the television catching an actor in mid-sentence.
Moving off the bed with the quickness of a squirrel on a limb, she sat easily in the wheel chair, released the brake and glided the few feet toward me. She stuck out her hand. “I’m disabled. Can’t breathe good.”
She gripped my hand with the strength of an oyster shucker.
“Excuse the mess. He knocks everything out of place.”
Marion probably slept next to the wall where there was a sofa with a pillow and a blanket in a heap on the floor. It was the only piece of furniture other than a small metal-topped table and two wooden kitchen chairs. The mixed smells of boiled cabbage, dried urine, and mildew hung in the air with the acrid taint of marihuana.
“You haven’t got much room,” I offered.
“Not for that bozo,” she said, smiling and showing faintly yellowed teeth with a space where the left upper incisor would have been. “We applied for a two bedroom in the Attica apartments but the waiting list is in the thousands.”
“Marion does a good job,” I said.
“That’s lucky. His father was a no-good. Left me before he was born. Hasn’t sent one nickel, either.”
“Well, Marion’s turned out just fine.”
“Pain in the ass most of the time,” she mumbled.
I said a few pleasantries and a goodnight. Marion’s mother gushed sweetness and urged me to come back for coffee sometime. As I left, she dry-coughed a few times.
We were always busy in the summer months but it wasn’t a happy time; even though sales soared, employees complained about the heat and customers’ tempers flared. On Thursday, Mr. Rich came brashly into my office with Antonio Silva, the security guy from Ms. Celine Booker’s apartment complex. Silva had a problem, Mr. Rich explained.
“Yesterday,” Silva began, “Ms. Booker unpacked her bags of groceries your store delivered. In the bottom of one sac she found a mangled rose.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Shut up, Harry. Listen,” Mr. Rich said.
“I thought it was trash at first,” Silva continued. “But Ms. Booker thought it was a message.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “Probably from the florist’s section. Got stuck on the bottom of a milk carton at check out.”
“But she had a card too, in an envelop unaddressed and unsealed.”
“Can I see it?” I asked.
“Ms. Booker is downright scared. She lives in a high-risk neighborhood. She’s seeing stalkers, hearing noises, freaks out at the usual hang-up phone calls even more than usual. She’s thinking she’s going to be violated. She wants protection.”
“Our delivery didn’t do that!”
“Listen to him, Harry,” Mr. Rich said.
“She’s suffered two attempted rapes within a half mile of the building in the last two years.”
I’d known Silva since high school. Maybe Ms. Booker was scared but I could tell he had the hots for her.
“Can I see the card?” I asked again.
On the front was a misshapen bird, drawn by a cartoonist, a cross between Big Bird and the Roadrunner, with wings and legs splayed out at impossible angles. Inside the card was a yellow happy smile face that said, “HAVE A GOOD DAY.”
“We got that one,” I said. “It’s not a good seller. Probably got in by accident.”
“Hey. One of the cashiers might remember if it was purchased here,” Silva said.
“Could you check?” Mr. Rich said. Silva stared expectantly at Mr. Rich. “Will fifty bucks an hour do?” Mr. Rich added.
“I can take the afternoon off from the condo. Won’t take long,” Silva said.
Silva loved this detective stuff for Ms. Booker. Throughout the afternoon he interrogated each cashier as they took their breaks and even stayed on to talk to the evening shift. He watched baggers, followed a few deliveries, and concluded the contact with Ms. Booker was not accidental. I did my own work.
Bingo. “I got it,” Silva said to me in the office well after six. “The cart boy bought the card.”
“Well, he’s not a rapist,” I said.
Silva wanted to set a sting operation. Catch Marion in the act. What he really wanted was prolonged time with Ms. Booker.
“We’ll just talk to Marion,” I said again.
Silva wasn’t happy. “If he denies it we’ll never know it was him.”
“It’s no big deal. He’s not dangerous.”
But Silva was like an ivory hunter after elephants. “It’s big for Ms. Booker,” he said.
So I called Marion over the store intercom before Silva could think of a plan.
“Cart boy. Front office, please.”
Marion jerked and flailed until he reached the creaky wooden steps with pipe railing that led to door. Going up seemed three times harder than staying level and he was panting when he entered the office. He maneuvered into a straight-backed, wooden chair. I didn’t introduce Silva.
“Yes, sir,” Marion sputtered.
I held up the rose and the card. Marion trembled.
“Did you put these in Ms. Booker’s grocery bags?”
He pointed to the card. He nodded, unable to speak out.
“Why did you do it?” Silva said.
“She nice lady,” Marion said. He managed to say he didn’t know about the rose. It was obvious he knew nothing. I asked Silva if he’d heard enough.
I let Marion go back to work and Silva made an appointment for him and me with Ms. Booker for five o’clock the next day. Case solved, perp confronted, slime confessed, Silva summarized to Ms. Booker on the phone. “We’ll talk some things over with the little lady about compensation,” he said smiling to me after he hung up. The next day Silva and I arrived at Celine Booker’s apartment early.
“Marion?” Celine said when I told her. “The cart boy? I never knew his name.”
“He has a crush on you,” I said.
“I can’t believe it …” she said.
“You’re an attractive woman,” Silva said.
“But I only talked to him once. I didn’t try to lead…”
“Oh, no, Ms. Booker. It was not your doing,” I said immediately. “He wanted to please you. And I’m sure he didn’t want to attack you. I’m sure of that.”
She thought for a moment. “Of course not. He can barely walk straight. He couldn’t harm me,” she said.
“I hope you will accept my personal, and the store’s, apologies,” I said.
Celine was very gracious, refusing to file a complaint. She was totally opposed to even the slightest reprimands. Silva frowned in disbelief. He wanted to jail Marion.
“Don’t cause that boy grief,” she said emphatically looking at Silva.
“We’ll treat him fairly,” I said before Silva could answer.
Silva said, “You might ask the store for a tad of compensation. For your inconvenience. It hasn’t been easy.”
“Definitely not,” Celine said.
“He’ll never repeat,” I said. “I can personally guarantee that.”
“You’ve had more than a modest inconvenience, Celine,” Silva persisted. “A threat, even. And I can make it so there is no skin off the kid’s nose.”
“It doesn’t seem right, Tony…”
“I won’t bother the boy. I know the owner and it won’t be no trouble for you at all.”
“Only if the boy is not affected.”
“It’s justice,” Silva smiled.
Mr. Rich was already in his office when I arrived for work the next morning.
“Five thousand dollars I shell out because the cart boy’s got his thing in a knot over some broad.”
“She didn’t want trouble…”
“Christ, Harry. I got the release. I wrote the check. Silva said it would keep her quiet. You’ve got to get rid of that kid.”
“Marion’s done nothing wrong,” I said. “It’s Silva making trouble ‘cause he wants to bag Ms. Booker.”
“Look, Harry, we put out five thousand dollars and a promise that he wouldn’t bother Ms. Booker again. I can’t take the chance he might screw up? What if anything happened to Ms. Booker, cart boy or not? Who are they going to come looking for? Me! And you!”
“You’re too involved, Harry. You can’t get too close to employees. Buying him shoes, for chrissake. Ruins discipline. Spreads resentment.” Mr. Rich’s face flushed. The little clusters of veins on each side of his nose were turning purple. “Talk to him. Tell him we don’t tolerate weird stuff.”
“I won’t do it!”
“Okay, Harry. You won’t do it! I’ll do it!” Mr. Rich got up and walked into the back of his office complex, as I went back to my office.
“Cart boy,” Mr. Rich called over the loud speaker a few minutes later. Marion made his way to Mr. Rich’s office.
Without Marion we were back to customers without carts when they entered the store and a tangle of carts near checkout. For an entire month customers questioned Marion’s whereabouts, citing how convenient he had made shopping. The baggers would take no responsibility to organize cart retrieval and we were losing carts to homeless rag pickers because carts were left in the parking area too long. Even occasional customers could see the difference in our service. So I added up the cost of cart replacement, noting the total saving on lost carts was more than Marion’s pay. Then I noted Marion’s oiling of the carts extended their life, saving even more money. I placed the report on Mr. Rich’s desk as proof of Marion’s worth. “Let me hire the kid back,” I finally said to Mr. Rich.
“Hire someone else.”
“I’ve tried. The baggers think it’s below their dignity. Even the homeless guys looking for day work say the pay is too low.”
After a few days of no more applicants, Mr. Rich finally agreed on a trial of having Marion back. I called the number Marion had someone fill out on his job application but it had been disconnected and reassigned months ago. So on my way home that night I decided to go by Marion’s place.
Within three minutes after I parked, Marion’s mother opened the apartment door holding a blue grey polyester coverlet over her chest and tucked under her armpits. Her legs and feet were uncovered from the knees down. She made no attempt to block my view. A man dressed only in his jockey shorts sat on the edge of the bed next to the wheelchair, a twist of smoke drifting upward from a cigarette in his right hand. He did not look up.
“Basement,” she said and closed the door.
The laundry room was just to the right as I stepped off the elevator. Marion sat straddling a metal folding chair and staring at an open comic book on a long table for laying out clothes. None of the washers or driers was running. He turned himself and the chair at the same time.
“Marion. What are you doing?”
“Reading,” he said with difficulty pointing to the comic book. “I got stay here ‘till nine o’clock,” his head jerked upward to the wall clock.
“Well, I got good news. Mr. Rich says he wants you back. You can start tomorrow.” He paused. Then he raised his shaking arm in a wobbly salute, influenced, I thought, by the military drawings in his comic book. “Yes, Cap’n,” he said.
When I arrived at the store before dawn the next morning, Marion was waiting outside the store employees’ entrance. It was good to see him back.
We were soon moving customers more smoothly with Marion back. A week after he started I left the store in midmorning to buy an intercom. Mr. Rich wanted to be able to call me to his office without using the overhead speaker. As I was coming back Marion was out front rounding up the carts. From a distance I paused to admire how surprisingly efficient he was seeing how difficult it was for him to walk in a straight line. He pushed a line of eight carts up the ramp to the store and the front cart nudged a loose cart at the top. The cart started rolling slowly—oiled to frictionless perfection—down the ramp, picking up speed. Marion anchored his line of carts by wedging them against the wall. The loose cart headed for Mr. Rich’s antique red convertible. With a burst of energy, Marion gained on it. I imagined a two-inch dent in Mr. Rich’s car door about waist high on the driver’s side. Marion put on even more speed, and more flailing too.
Mrs. O’Leary was still driving although she was eighty-two. Her car was parked head-in near Mr. Rich’s convertible. She put her foot on the brake, as was required in the new cars, to crank the motor and wrench the gearshift from park to reverse. She used two hands, twisting her body and reaching over the steering wheel; she pressed harder on the brake for leverage. Her foot slipped just as she went into gear, the flat of her heel full on the gas petal. The car lurched back out of control.
Marion was within ten feet of the cart when Mrs. O’Leary’s car hit him, knocked him down, actually bumped up over him like a car going over a speed bump, and then came to a halt against a concrete wall still dragging him underneath. The errant cart glanced off Mr. Rich’s car at an angle, barely leaving a scratch.
Marion was still gasping when I pulled him from beneath the engine block. Then unconscious, he lay still—a body without a twitch—gnarled up on the concrete, with little bleeding, just scrapes, an arm bone jutting through the skin, part of his scalp sheared off. I’d never seen him so peaceful, his eyes closed, his mouth relaxed, his lips in a faint curve that could have been his best shot ever at a smile. Someone else called for help. I sat beside him, touching his hand for comfort, even after he died.