People were coming and going all around him. It looked like it was about to get busy. He emptied out cart corral’s three and four. This gave him a total of 17 carts. Not a bad start. The tricky part was going to be where to stage them while he acquired the rest. He needed an area where he wouldn’t be blocking too many parking spaces. And it also needed to be close to the store. There was no sense in pushing a train of 77 carts from one end of the parking lot to the other.
He took a couple of the carts with bum wheels over to corral’s one and two—the staging area for the unusable carts. José knew that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over. That was sort of the life of a cart pusher: empty out corrals, watch them get full again, empty out corrals, watch them get full again. Insanity.
Corn Mouth jogged while she pushed over a cart. An empty pop bottle in the basket bounced around wildly.
“Got one,” she said. “Want me to add it to the train?”
“No. I can do that,” José said. “Hey. Make sure that you put like four or five together when you collect them. Margie hates it when you just grab them one at a time.”
“Oh. I can do that. Is that my first lesson?”
“Just a tip.”
She gave him a thumbs up and went to the other side of the parking lot.There were two tumbleweeds mounted on the curb, their front tires stuck in the grassy island that bordered the entryway and the parking lot. If a cart made it past there, it was as good as gone. Someone would either steal it and take it home to … well, José never understood what people actually did with the carts when they stole them. Push around random shit? The most likely scenario for a tumbleweed past the entryway was for it to get damaged, either by a car or a gust of wind sending it into a ditch. Even with its solid metal frame, it didn’t take much to put a cart out of commission.
When Margie first hired José she had told him that his job as a cart pusher was like herding sheep. These carts are your kids. They’re always going to go off on their own. They don’t know any better. They need a shepherd to bring them back. That shepherd is you. Can you be a shepherd, José? Can you bring them back safely and unharmed?
At the time, he thought it was the dumbest thing he had ever heard. They were carts, not kids running away from an orphanage. They carried groceries, clothes, and rambunctious toddlers who liked to stand on the metal bar in between the rear wheels (God save any child who was caught doing that while Margie was on the floor).
But whether José liked to admit or not, Margie’s dumb analogy had imprinted onto him. Since he had been hired, he had lost only seven carts: three were from a freak snowstorm, three blew away on a windy day, and one was stolen by a group of college punks who needed it for their annual college bed race. Seven lost carts was a low number, a good number. It was the reason he had been dubbed the cart guru at Meijer. Did his impeccable work ethic stem from him wanting to do a good job, or had Margie brainwashed him with the whole ‘carts are sheep’ bullshit? Tough to say. Either way, it was a paycheck. He needed that money for movies, clothes, and midnight’s out at Coney Island. If believing in some lame mantra about carts kept the paychecks coming, then that was fine by him.
José added Corn Mouth’s cart to the train, making 18. He went over to corral’s five and six and began emptying them out. He caught a glimpse of Corn Mouth pushing three carts across the parking lot, singing away, happy as can be. He wondered what song she was singing. She probably had a good voice. He wished that she would come closer so that he could hear it.
A total of 22 carts were pulled from corral’s five and six. Only one of them had a bum wheel. He added the 21 carts to the train, making a total of 39. Just over halfway there. He moved the cart train backward to an area in front of some empty parking spaces, just far enough away (but not too far) to give him room to build his train. He felt all his muscles tightening up when he moved them.
77 is going to be a hell of a lot harder than this. Can I really do this? Before I wanted to do it to be cool. Now, Corn Mouth is here and I feel all weird about it. Is it worth killing myself to impress a girl?
Yes. Yes, it most definitely is.
Corn Mouth arrived with five carts, singing at the top of her lungs. José recognized the song: “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, only she wasn’t singing I’m the bad guy when she got to the refrain, she was singing I’m the caaaaaaaaart guy. Hilarious. There was something about the way she moved that he found attractive. She didn’t have some sort of identifying walk or hip movement while she pushed the carts. How she walked would have seemed quite normal to anyone else who was watching. But for José, it was an all-encompassing allure: the singing, the walking, the pushing.
She can push those carts all day.
His feelings were all over the map. That’s how it usually went with teenage attraction. It was senseless, unquantifiable madness. He liked the way she looked but he didn’t like the way she ate. Imagine trying to do a dinner date. Or how about inviting her over for Thanksgiving. He’d have to tell his mom to scrap the corn casserole. She would be mad at first, but later she would understand. Maybe it was mean to think about those things. Maybe there was something about him that she couldn’t stand, that she was thinking about right now. But what could it be?
No matter. He needed to stop referring to her as Corn Mouth. From now on, she would revert back to Veronica the Beautiful.
“I got five!” Veronica said. “Whoop! Whoop! Look at me. Whoop! Whoop!”
José smiled and let her add them to the train.
“What do we have now?”
“44,” José said. “We’re getting there.”
“And we haven’t even emptied out all of the corrals!”
“Put the itty-bitty in the front. That’s where I’ve been putting them.”
“The shorter cart.”
“So many nicknames for things. José, you’re adorable.”
She moved the itty-bitty to the front of the train. A woman who was clutching a grocery list the length of the Constitution took notice of the cart train. She stopped, looked at José and Veronica, then continued on her way.
“Do you think people are starting to wonder what we’re doing?” Veronica asked.
“I don’t think so. This is about the length that I’m used to.”
“That’s what she said.”
“I need to go inside real quick and get some rope,” José said.
“I want to tie the carts together so they don’t sway too far left or right when I push them.”
“You’re so smart.”
“It’s standard cart procedure.”
“Standard cart procedure? You say that like you’re a cop or something. God, you really are into this whole cart thing aren’t you?”
“Living the dream.”
“I’ll go get some more tumbleweeds while you’re gone. I saw some over by the bus stop.”