Shopping Cart Stories and Ordinary Socks

January 11, 2008
By Jordan Jennings, Barrington, IL

Today was a day like all the rest, nothing stood out, the weather was pleasant, and Mary was ordinary. Little was to be expected, nothing hardly ever was. Mary’s alarm always went off precisely at six o’clock; she would slip off her blue flannel nightgown, start her coffee and slowly get into the shower, the dial set exactly halfway between hot and cold. Three minutes later Mary would dry off her simple, petite figure and go to her closet, where there set out for her would be her favorite gray suit, her grandmothers pearls and her extremely worn in brown penny loafers. Mary had never been one to embrace bold colors and hectic patterns. Organization and routines kept her as content as she could be.
Mary was alone in the world, residing in her nondescript, middle-class, Chicago apartment with the company of her orange tabby cat named Felix. During the week she worked for the local library where she returned wandering books to their proper shelves and minded her own business. Every morning, Mary walked to the bus stop at the corner of her street. Her bus always arrived at 7:15 a.m.
However, today Mary’s alarm did not go off at six. Chaos immediately entered the picture. Mary could not function with this unexpected change, and she frantically attempted to get dressed, hoping that she would not miss the bus. But just as Mary locked the door, she saw the big, steel gray bus pull away. She was out of luck. Today she would have to resort to walking to work. It was a hot, and sticky autumn day. As Mary began to walk, she noticed the leaves were slowly fading from green to orange, and she knew the warm summer weather would soon disappear. After a few blocks Mary realized that her body was not quite up to so much exercise, and she would soon have to rest.
Mary was quite out of breath when she finally sat down, on the park bench. The maple trees perfectly shaded the seat enough for her to escape the hot sun. Mary sat on the left side of the bench, attempting to steady her breathing. The park was unusually crowded for a Thursday. Mothers and their mischievous children ran by chasing balls, while a group of college students sat studying in the grass.
After several minutes, Mary noticed a homeless man stroll by with his dog and a shopping cart containing a stained feather down comforter, a collection of empty bottles, a woman’s pink sweater, a teddy bear and loads of unnecessary junk. He was a man of medium height, a bit plump in his old age. He appeared to be in his late sixties, however the red, faded cashmere hat atop his head hid his grayed hair. He sat down on the right side of Mary’s bench without making the slightest eye contact. A few minutes passed, and two men walked past them dressed in business attire. To Mary’s surprise, the homeless man began to spit at them, cursing under his breath, breaking the silence.
“Grmph…politicians, arrogant sons of b****es always think they are doing the best for the country. Heck, Buck here could make better decisions then half of them, blindfolded with their hands bound. Isn’t the right Buck?” The dog barked.
Mary was slightly taken back, this strange man’s voiced boomed into the air, lost in the wind. A little bit intrusive for her liking, and his strong, distinct odor of whiskey and his mangy dog did not appeal to her. Mary preferred cats. However she was still a bit out of breath, and decided to stay put for a few more minutes.
“ Back when was a kid, politicians and clowns were the same thing,” he said. “Ha I even went to the circus once. I fell in love as quick as dynamite, with the trapeze artist, gorgeous tramp she was. Man, was she delightful, her silk purple costume, and rouge that complimented her blond flowing hair. I didn’t mind the elephants, or the lions either; they didn’t stop me. However, her husband, the Ringmaster wasn’t too pleased. Let’s just say that was the shortest love I ever did have. “
The disheveled man continued to talk, however Mary was uncertain whether the conversation was directed to her. Homeless men were crazy after all, everyone knew that. He continued on, “ It wasn’t until years later I discovered what real love was. It was complicated, rebellious, and a piece of perfection. I married June in the summer of 1959; we were happily married for twenty-three years. I will never forget her scent, she always smelled of sweet lavender. She was blond of course, that woman drove me mad. I was the luckiest man alive. Fifteen years later, Grace was born, what a sweetheart and what a surprise. That was not exactly planned, if you know what I mean. Ohh look at me how rude… here I am rambling on about my life and you don’t even know my name. I’m Stanley. Stanley Brown. You may call me Stan, or Brown whichever suits your fancy. And you are?” The homeless man asked.

Mary was very hesitant. She quickly surveyed her surroundings, looking for an escape route, just in case. Mary never talked to strangers; in fact she never talked much at all. She was a quiet, and reserved person, talking to strangers didn’t not exactly suit her best interests. But, there was something about Stanley Brown that captivated her. His humor entertained her and Mary felt a bit of pity tickle her heart.
“I am Mary Woods, lovely meeting you,” she said with a forced smile. Her body became tense, her mind still racing. What could she possibly be getting herself into she pondered. He’s a smelly homeless man, with a ratty dog for a companion, and he now knew her name.
“Of course, of course it’s a pleasure. “ He responded. “Now what was I saying? Oh yes. What a shame, what a shame. Losing a love one kills a man. But losing two, it’s unbearable. That d*** car of mine killed them. A d*** politician stole them from me. I’ll never forgive myself for not chasing after her, and Grace. Twenty-six years ago and I’m still beating myself up about it. I still wake up at night, expecting to roll over to see my beautiful June sleeping peacefully next to me.”
Stanley leaned over abruptly, to grab his tattered briefcase, lying beneath his feet. Mary jumped back, startled by the sudden movement. He quickly unhooked the bungee cord straps that were bound tightly to prevent it from spilling its entirety along the city sidewalk. With a sudden snap, the briefcase popped open, revealing an interesting collection of ancient Time magazine covers, a few photos, dog biscuits and extremely stained copy of Moby Dick. He flipped through the pictures, withdrawing a sun spotted, black and white photo of a woman in white, holding a small child. The woman’s features were bold, and captivating. Her smile, innocent, yet still provocative.
“ Here ya go, take a gander…beautiful ain't she, quite the looker?” Stanley handed over the photo to Mary, slightly hesitant to completely let go of the photo of his beloved wife, and daughter.
“God, rest their souls. Mr. Brown, I’m so very sorry for your loss.” Mary could feel his pain, as her mind wandered back in time. She too had lost love ones, her parents died when she was quite young. But the “love” she remembered, was nothing like the love Stanley had described.
“Nah, God don’t exist, if He did, they’d still be here, and I’d still be working. And that’s Stan to you Ma’am. Call me Stan. “
“ Where did you work Stan?”
“ Mary, right? Is it ok if I call you that?”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
“Well, Mary, you wont believe this, no one ever does. But in my previous life I worked for the Chicago Board of Trade. Finances. That’s right. A businessman, that was me. But, I’m content here on the streets. I’ve got my dog, my memories, and a cart full of treasure. Can’t forget the Jim Beam.”
Stanley was right. Mary didn’t believe him, how could she. Successful men do not just throw their lives away. And even so, if Stanley was who he said he was, did heartbreak really hurt that bad? But, no matter how hard Mary tried to grasp Stanley’s current situation, she couldn’t understand. Mary had lost track of time, and now she was truly late for work, but it did not faze her.
“ Please dear, tell me a bit about yourself.” He pleaded.
Mary suddenly blushed. No one ever seemed to notice her. She was plain, and often blended into the background of her surroundings. But the park did not hide her from Stanley. Stanley cared, or so it seemed, even though she was not blond. He appreciated that this little women was amused by his conversation. She took another breath and slowly began to collect her thoughts. Matter of factly she explained, “ I work at the Newberry Library, I own a cat named Felix, and today I missed the bus.”
“Cat lover eh? One time, I took a business trip to New York City, rats and cats are about the same there. They run wild, digging through trash, eating left over food scraps. Mongrels, all of them. New York’s a lovely place though, you ever been there?” He asked.
Mary shook her head; she had never left the comfort of Chicago. She hated to travel, and never had a reason to.
“ New York’s quite the city of lights. Beautiful skyline. The people there are bit snobby for my liking, they never let the tips of their noses see the sidewalk. I almost got arrested there once. I was on a business trip with my buddy, Robert Mitchell. Such a clever bloke, heck he still brings me a coffee and newspaper occasionally. Funny how things change, he just can’t seem to understand why I left the firm. Anyways, the genius dared me to throw a baseball off a bridge and hit the Staten Island Ferry. We liked to call that entertainment. I practiced first with a lemon, hitting the ferry right on the nose. No big deal, I was an all-star baseball player in High School, among other things. The bet increased, now it was time for me to be a champ, and move up a to the next level. It was baseball time baby. I grasped the baseball in my hand, letting my palm touch every inch of it. I tossed it up in the air a few times, attempting to focus, and postpone the results. I threw the baseball as hard as I could, and held my breath. And boy, did I do some damage. The d***ed thing broke one of the lights. I was a winner.
However the cop that was watching from afar didn’t think so. Robert and I ran like h***. Who would have ever though that two thirty year old business men would be running from the police, all because of a stupid baseball. Man, those were the years.”
Mary laughed. Stanley Brown was quite the character. Mary was beginning to feel comfortable, and was shocked that someone who looked so different could be so easy to chat with. The afternoon was soon drifting into night, and the air was getting a little cooler. She noticed, Stanley beginning to gather his things, and readjust his briefcase. He abruptly stood up, and called Buck’s name. He was getting ready to depart.
“Where are you going? Please don’t leave,” She begged.

“ Well, my times up. It’s getting late, and I must return to the church.”

“ The church?”
“ Forth Presbyterian. It has the most comfortable stairs in the entire city. Those religious nuts, are quite generous, and I’m rarely bothered.”

“Will I have the pleasure of meeting you again?” Mary became a little bit disappointed.
“Depends, on which way the wind blows.” He said. And with that he strolled away with his shopping cart of treasure, his mangy dog, Buck, and his tattered briefcase. Mary watched him walk away, until all she could barely make out was the red of his cashmere hat. She had never realized how much life she had left to live. Mary would try to take risks; she would try to embrace change, and push boundaries. She was jealous of Stanley.
When Mary returned to her apartment that night, she hung up her gray suit, put her grandmother’s pearls back into her jewelry box, and carefully set her brown penny loafers at the end of her bed. Mary washed her face, brushed her teeth, and put on her blue flannel nightgown. Just before she climbed into bed, and turned off the light, Mary went to her bureau, opened the top-drawer, and removed her bus pass. She smiled, then quickly, and neatly ripped it in two. Tomorrow she would walk.

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