“Someone needs to do a cart run,” said Mr. Forton. “And everyone else is busy right now, Deidre.”
“Um, OK,” said Deidre. She had been stocking boxes of healthful cereal on the lowest shelf when Mr. Forton had sidled up to her looking sheepish.
“This doesn’t mean that I don’t like you,” said Mr. Forton. “This isn’t a punishment. But Leslie quit and there are a bunch of carts scattered around the parking lot and someone has to go get them and everyone else is busy.”
“That’s fine,” said Deidre. “I’ll do it.”
“You’re a good employee,” said Mr. Forton. “And on a personal level, I like you.”
“Thank you,” said Deidre. She didn’t know if she should tell Mr. Forton she liked him too. She kind of did, she supposed, although she’d never liked how open he was with his dislike for Leslie. The moment to say something passed by without being used, an empty vessel tumbling into oblivion.
“The carts can’t just stay there in the parking lot,” said Mr. Forton. “That’s the thing.”
Deidre’s patience for having the lack of ramifications of this directive explained to her had reached its limit. “I’ll do it now,” she said, and she headed for the front of the store.
“Use the strap,” Mr. Forton called after her. “You’re not in trouble!”
The strap was five feet long and it had a plastic hook on one end. It was used to keep the shopping carts together while one was pushing them in a line so that the front few wouldn’t separate from the train and careen into a parked car thereby denting it and making its owner angry or, worse, sad. Deidre twirled the strap in her hand while she surveyed the parking lot from the sidewalk in front of the store. There were only five cars, all clustered on the far side of the dirt strip in the middle of the lot. All of the parking spots along the sidewalk in front of the store were reserved for people with physical disabilities and they were all empty. Most of the carts in the parking lot had been pushed up onto the dirt strip among the scraggly bushes by customers too lazy to return them to the store but conscientious enough to not just leave them on the blacktop where they would be in the way of other cars. But there were also a few stray carts that had just been left to pursue their own ends out among the parking spaces, rolling here and there as the wind and forces even more subtle guided them. One of these carts was even lying on its right side. Deidre wondered if someone had hit it with their car and just left it to lie there, its two left wheels dangling, useless.
Still twirling the strap, Deidre walked out into the parking lot. She was glad she’d worn a sweatshirt to work. Most of the accumulated snow had melted in the sun yesterday, but today’s weather was back to the dreary cold typical of the season and what snow remained was hanging around in sickly, petulant little heaps. Deidre headed for the lone cart in the far corner of the lot. She figured she’d start with cart farthest from the entrance and then work her way back toward the store, collecting the carts as she went so she could get them all in one go. The cart run didn’t feel that degrading. Not so far, anyway. Certainly no worse than mopping up the vomit of a customer’s sick child who had eaten a free sample of chili-mac and immediately puked to the inexplicable surprise of its mother, which Deidre had done three days prior with no assurances from Mr. Forton that the task wasn’t a punishment and that he liked her on a personal level.
Deidre had never really understood why Mr. Forton disliked Leslie so much. Everyone knew that Mr. Forton sent Leslie on cart runs as punishment for being his least favorite employee, but no one seemed to know why Leslie was his least favorite employee, not even Leslie herself. She wasn’t lazy, for example, or chronically tardy or rude to customers. When Leslie wasn’t doing cart runs, she and Deidre often worked together stocking shelves or on adjacent registers which, considering how slow the store usually was, gave them lots of time to talk. Their conversations covered a wide range of topics and Leslie was an attentive listener. Deidre liked her. She even confided in her a little, which Leslie seemed to welcome. She was sad that Leslie was gone now. Forton’s Foods didn’t have many employees and none of the others were girls of Deidre’s age.
As Deidre reached the cart in the far corner of the lot, another cart caught her eye. This cart was out on the sidewalk past the northeast corner of the building, technically not even on the property of Forton’s Foods. Deidre wondered what could have compelled a customer to push a cart all the way out there only to abandon it. Maybe they were planning on stealing it but had a change of heart? Or maybe they were planning on stealing it but once they got it that far, one of its wheels started sticking and they were like, great, of course the cart I steal is gonna be one with a bum wheel, forget this, I’ll go steal from the Diamond Food, their carts will roll nicely. Deidre chuckled to herself at the little scenario she had imagined as she walked to the cart out on the sidewalk, the strap draped over her shoulders like one of those scarf things priests wear, whatever they’re called, the colorful ones that look, like, religious.
Once Deidre got to the cart on the sidewalk, she probably wouldn’t have noticed the other cart farther down the street on the north end of the block if not for the aquamarine-colored ribbon tied to its handle and flapping eye-catchingly in the wind. It was especially eye-catching for Deidre because aquamarine was her favorite color and the ribbon on the cart was very close to her ideal shade of aquamarine. Deidre wondered who would have pushed a cart that far from the store, affixed a ribbon to its handle, and then left it there. Was it the same person who had left this cart where she stood now? If so, what was this person’s deal? She sighed and headed up the sidewalk toward the cart with the ribbon. She was getting cold. Her sweatshirt wasn’t warm enough for a cart run of this duration. She had not anticipated such an ordeal.
She saw the next cart as soon as she got the to cart with the ribbon. Standing on the corner and rubbing the silky material of the aquamarine ribbon between her chilly fingers, Deidre looked down the street to the east and saw another cart from Forton’s Foods about 50 yards away, its front wheels on the sidewalk, its back wheels in someone’s yard as if it had been parked there to keep it from rolling. Also, the cart had been elaborately decorated with red and pink streamers. When Deidre got closer, she saw that, in addition to the streamers, there were two candy bars resting in the cart’s child-seat: a Chew-o Bar and a Scrumpy’s Bar. Her favorites. This couldn’t be a coincidence, especially considering the aquamarine ribbon too. Aquamarine was not a popular favorite color, as far as she knew, but whoever had left these carts here had known it was her favorite color and had known her two favorite candy bars. She stood looking at the cart, its many streamers fluttering around her, without touching it. She left the candy bars where they lay in the child-seat. Had her parents done this? One of her friends? A secret admirer? She looked around to see if anyone was watching. She saw no one. The neighborhood was quiet, the houses were dark. Everyone was at work or school or napping the dreary afternoon away. But, although there were no other people around, there was another cart farther down the block, peeking out from behind a shrub.
Deidre felt nervous as she approached the next cart. She was sure whoever had arranged this for her probably intended for her to feel special, appreciated, cared for. But how could they have known she would be the one doing the cart run? How could they have known that Leslie would quit and the task would fall to Deidre? Maybe Leslie and Mr. Forton were both in on it. Maybe Leslie was hiding somewhere and Mr. Forton was pretending that she had quit so that Deidre would be the one to do the cart run and find this special, personalized trail of carts. It seemed odd that Mr. Forton and Leslie would work together considering their mutual distaste for each other, but they both liked Deidre, or she thought they did, so maybe they had agreed to work together for her sake and the sake of whoever had decorated the carts.
When Deidre rounded the shrub and got a closeup look of the next shopping cart, she felt a prickle behind her eyes and a swathe of goosebumps rose on the back of her neck. Someone had set cardboard down in the bottom of the cart and arranged a miniature scene on top of it. There was a long table made out of real wood and on both sides of the table, little paper dolls sat in little chairs. At the head of the table, a paper doll of a little girl in a green party dress stood on her chair with a little paper cake adorned with seven paper candles in her hands, raised in triumph over her head. The girl’s face, rendered simply but skillfully with black ink, was filled with joy. The other paper people around the table looked either awed or surprised as they had, Deidre remembered, in real life. This was a scene from her seventh birthday party. She was the little girl standing on the chair holding the cake over her head. She had been so elated at the attention, at being the central focus of all the celebration and fun, that the excitement had mounted within her to unbearable levels. Desperate for some kind of release, she had grabbed the cake and jumped up onto the chair at the head of the table, the Birthday Girl Chair, and she had held the cake aloft, head thrown back, eyes closed, a pose of exquisite drama. It had become the stuff of family legend.
Not depicted in the scene arrayed in the bottom of the Forton’s Foods shopping cart was what had happened next. In her exultation, seven-year-old Deidre had realized that nothing would spoil the transcendence of her moment like climbing back down off of the chair, setting the cake down on the table, slicing it up, adding dollops of ice cream to each plate, distributing the plates, and everyone eating their piece of cake and making polite conversation. Well, she hadn’t been aware enough to realize all of this, but she had certainly felt it. So she had spiked the cake face down on the table with all of her tiny might. Her mother still didn’t see the humor in the story to this day. When she told the story, it was about how Deidre had grown up to be a nice young lady despite a troubled, reckless beginning.
The fact that this story was featured in the cart seemed to indicate that Deidre’s family was behind all of this, or at least a member of her family was, although she couldn’t think of anyone in her family who was this artistic, not even in her extended family. Not that she knew of, anyway. Maybe they had hired someone to help them? Or maybe this wasn’t the work of Deidre’s family. She had told the story to a lot of people. It was one of her favorite stories about herself. It made her seem passionate and dramatic in a way that she really wasn’t anymore but still wanted people to think she was.
The next cart was not as far away. It was in the same yard, actually, sitting under a tree only about sixty feet from the birthday-party-scene cart. And, another fifty feet beyond that cart, Deidre saw another cart in the paved driveway in front of a closed garage door. Was that the last one? She looked around in all directions, walking out into the middle of the street, even, and saw only the carts she’d already investigated. It seemed she was nearing the end of the trail. The thought made her even more nervous. She didn’t like not knowing the source of the cart trail and she didn’t like her own lack of control in the situation. She felt like she was being drawn forward whether she wanted to continue or not. Maybe it would have helped if she had seen even one other person since she’d started the cart run, but she hadn’t. It made it feel as if the personalized carts didn’t have a source, like they’d just manifested themselves from her own subconscious.
And the next cart, the one under the tree, did nothing to help allay Deidre’s unease. Attached to the outside of the cart was a piece of cardboard cut and painted to look like an orange guitar. The top half of a real mic stand with a real microphone on it stuck out of the inside of the cart. It looked as if the mic stand had actually been welded or soldered to the cart, whatever the proper term was. Deidre hoped this cart wasn’t referring to what she thought it was referring to, but to what else could it be referring? When she was in 6th grade, Deidre and her friends Bryan and Quentin had formed a band for the middle school talent show. She’d borrowed her older brother’s guitar, which had indeed been orange, and she and the guys had learned the song “Cool It” by the band, Empty Threateners. First of all, Deidre had no idea that “Cool It” was filled with sexual innuendos. Looking back on it now, it was obvious, but she’d been too naïve to understand them at the time and Mrs. Falmonetti, who had been in charge of monitoring the auditions for inappropriate content and was an awful candidate for the job, had been too oblivious to understand any of the lewd references either. So then, during the talent show itself, during the first verse of “Cool It,” right when Deidre’s nervousness and self-consciousness were finally starting to slip away and she was beginning to lose herself in the performance, a string broke on her guitar and she had no idea how to fix it so they had to stop the song so that her brother could come up out of the audience and change the string for her, which was humiliating because it made her look like the amateur with the borrowed guitar that she was, not the cool rock-and-roll girl that she wanted to appear to be. Then, after her brother changed the string and tuned the guitar, Deidre apologized to the audience and said they were going to start over, but on the second attempt, they only made it halfway through the chorus before the assistant principal came out on stage and made them stop because of the inappropriate lyrics, which had been such an awful, embarrassing moment that Deidre had sincerely wanted to transfer schools, especially after Quentin explained to her what some of the lyrics really meant and revealed that he had known what the song was about the whole time and had assumed that Deidre did too and that she had chosen it specifically to upset the administration and the parents and teachers in the crowd.
To Deidre, this was not a funny story. She understood why her parents thought it was funny and why her brother thought it was funny and why her friends thought it was funny, but to her, it was not funny at all. When she thought about it, all she remembered was the intensity of her shame and the intervening years had done little to dull that feeling. A lot of people knew the story, but those who did also knew that she wasn’t amused by it. Why would someone who cared enough about her to do this personalized trail of carts, presumably to make her feel valued, choose to reference something that was so uncomfortable for her? It was incongruously insensitive in a way that didn’t seem to suit anyone Deidre knew. Her brother, for example, loved the middle school talent show story, but he would never bother to do this whole cart trail thing. Her mom might do something like the cart trail if someone more creative gave her the idea and helped her with the actual execution, but she would never reference the talent show debacle because she, of all people, knew how it had traumatized Deidre.
As Deidre crossed in front of the dark windows of the house on her way to the final cart, she looked inside and saw rooms without people, furniture that looked dingy in the gray daylight. It was hard to imagine people living in the rooms, sitting on the furniture, illuminated by incandescent light bulbs and computer monitors and merrily chirping television screens.
The final cart meant nothing to Deidre. There was a scrap of paper in the child-seat with four numbers on it that she took to be the code to open the garage door. But down inside the cart…
At the near end, closer to the child-seat, there was a variety of toy medical equipment: a doll-sized gurney tipped on its side, a plastic stethoscope, a tiny nurse uniform, what appeared to be a picture of an x-ray on regular printer paper, and a real scalpel like the kind Deidre had used to dissect a fetal pig in her high school biology class, what, three years ago? All of the medical stuff was heaped together. Some of it it looked like it had been crumpled, bent, or broken on purpose. At the other end of the cart was a sexy doll in a bikini and sunglasses on a little deck chair, facing away from the pile of medical equipment. Deidre had no idea what it was supposed to mean. Was the doll supposed to be her? She hated the beach, but maybe it was just meant to indicate relaxation? But why all this medical junk? She’d never even broken a bone, much less had any serious diseases. Neither had anyone in her family. Well, one of her grandpas had had a couple heart attacks, but he was pretty much recovered now. Although he was back to eating stuff he wasn’t supposed to eat, which infuriated Deidre’s mom even though he was Deidre’s dad’s dad, not her mom’s dad.
A sickening thought occurred to Deidre. Was this cart a prediction? Was it trying to tell her that a serious medical issue was in her future but that she would get through it all right? The thought scared her even if the ultimate outcome was positive. Not only the thought of enduring a debilitating illness, whether she survived it or not, but the thought that someone knew about it beforehand, or thought they knew about it beforehand, and that whoever it was felt that this was the best way to tell her. In her initial confusion when she had encountered the last cart, Deidre had been tempted to turn and walk back to the store, to leave the mystery of the cart trail unsolved and try to ignore it. Whoever had arranged it would surely come forward eventually to ask her what she thought about it, why she didn’t finish, and then she would tell them that what they had done was creepy and that if they wanted to make her feel special, they should have just called her and told her how they felt or sent her a card in the mail or brought her a plate of cookies at work or something like that. Something normal. Deidre didn’t get why some people felt like they always had to do something elaborate and strange to get your attention, why every expression of care had to be a huge ordeal. And she wasn’t even sure that’s what this was intended to be anymore. She didn’t know what this person was trying to tell her. She couldn’t just walk away now. If nothing else, she needed to know whoever had done this was an actual person, a human being. She knew it was a silly thing to worry about, but she didn’t want to try to sleep tonight without resolving that concern for the benefit of the dumb part of her brain. She turned and opened the garage door keypad, punching in the code from the paper in the cart.
The garage door rumbled open. Deidre wasn’t scared, but she also didn’t feel quite right. She couldn’t identify how she felt and she wondered if she knew but just wasn’t letting herself think the word because it would be bad to acknowledge it. She hoped that wasn’t the case.
It took a moment for Deidre’s eyes to adjust to the light in the garage, which came from a yellow light affixed to the ceiling and whatever light managed to push its way in from outside. There was a figure standing at the back of the otherwise empty garage, but before Deidre could make out any more than that, a voice said, “You’re not Leslie. Who are you?”
Deidre stepped into the garage and squinted her eyes at the figure. He was a man. He had a bouquet of roses in his left hand and something else in his right hand. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. There was something tattooed across his bare chest. What did it say? Will you marry me?
“I’m Deidre,” said Deidre. The man looked as confused as she felt. She guessed that he was 34 or 35.
“Where’s Leslie?” asked the man, letting his arms fall to his side, the rose blossoms hanging a few inches from the dirty cement floor. He looked very cold without a coat or shirt. He was trembling.
“I don’t know,” said Deidre. “She’s probably at home. She quit today.”
“She quit?” asked the man. “Today?”
“That’s what Mr. Forton said.” Deidre couldn’t make sense of any of this. Nothing seemed to fit. The man looked crestfallen. It looked as if the flowers were about to fall out of his hand. “Why did you leave all those carts for me?”
The man snorted. “Those weren’t for you. Those were for Leslie. She’s the one who always does the cart runs. They were supposed to lead her here so that I could propose to her.” He indicated the tattoo on his chest and showed Deidre what he was holding in his right hand, which was a ring box.
“But,” said Deidre. “But the carts were all about me. Aquamarine is my favorite color. Chew-O and Scrumpy bars are my favorites. I held my cake over my head at my seventh birthday party. I…I played an orange guitar.”
“No,” said the man. “Those were all about Leslie. Things I’ve learned about her life, stories she’s told me from her childhood. Her favorite color, her favorite candy bars, her seventh birthday party, the time she played an inappropriate song at a school talent show and the administration couldn’t stop her and the kids started rioting. And, of course, how she heroically beat cancer.”
“But all those things happened to me,” said Deidre. “Leslie stole those stories from me. Well, I never beat cancer.”
“This is impossible,” said the man. “She…Leslie told me those stories about herself.”
“She lied to you,” said Deidre.
“But I loved her stories,” said the man.
“Well,” said Deidre, “they’re mine. Except for beating cancer. And she probably didn’t do that either. And just so you know, I worked with her for months and she never mentioned you. Not once. Not to me, anyway.”
“How do I know you’re not the liar?” asked the man.
“I have to go back to work,” said Deidre.
“Wait,” said the man. “Will you marry me? I mean, if I fell in love with Leslie, but Leslie was pretending to be you, then really I fell in love with you, right?”
“I didn’t know the song I was playing at the talent show was inappropriate,” said Deidre. “And the administration did stop me and none of the kids rioted, everyone just sat there awkwardly and I started crying and ran off the stage. And before that, my brother had to come on stage and change a broken guitar string for me because it was his guitar and I didn’t know anything. I was just a kid and it was terrible.”
The man chuckled. “It’s kind of funny now, though.”
“No,” said Deidre. “It isn’t. Put your shirt on.”
“Leslie said I looked good with my shirt off,” said the man.
“You don’t,” said Deidre.
The man looked down at his soft, pale torso. “It’s not even a real tattoo,” he said, his voice morose. “It’s just one of those henna ones. If she said ‘yes,’ I was gonna have them go over it and, like, make it real. But I was just gonna let her think it was real the whole time.”
Deidre didn’t want to talk to the man anymore. He was a depressing person.
Back at the store, Mr. Forton was unimpressed. “I looked out at the parking lot, and what did I see? Carts everywhere, but no you.”
“I know,” said Deidre. “Some of them were really far away. Down the street.” She’d managed to retrieve all of them except for the one with the mic stand attached to it, which the man had said he’d undo, but Deidre had told him to just keep it.
“You know who else was bad at cart runs?” asked Mr. Forton. “Leslie.”
“Then how come you kept making her do them?” asked Deidre. “That seems like bad delegation.”
Mr. Forton considered Deidre with cold eyes. “Maybe your cart run speed will improve with more practice.”
“So I’m your new least favorite,” said Deidre. “Because of one long cart run that wasn’t my fault.”
“I didn’t say that,” said Mr. Forton.
“But you’re not denying it,” said Deidre. “I bet it wasn’t even the length of the cart run. I bet the very fact that I did a cart run, even though you told me to, made you lose respect for me. You can’t stand anyone who does any cart runs. You’d still like me if I had openly refused to do the cart run.”
Mr. Forton turned and walked away to ask a customer if she was finding everything she could ever possibly want all right, and if not, if he could in any way assist her in finding it so that she could leave the store feeling satisfied and fulfilled. He didn’t say all that, but it was there in the subtext.