I was only 9 years old when I met him for the first time, behind the loading dock of the Walmart.
“Jeremy,” he said, and I thought he was calling my name, but really he was just introducing himself. We all assumed he worked for the mall as a buggy collector. I can’t be sure if he was actually employed, though.
Sitting on a high curb near a dumpster, he was clad in dirty, baggy clothes, and he was smoking a broken cigarette.
“Hey kid,” he grunted, “What’s your name?”
“Jeremy.” It’s not like I was scared or anything, but I didn’t want him to touch me. He looked like a caveman.
I stood in place, watching him breathe clouds of tobacco into the autumn air.
“That’s my name, too.” He stood up, and grinned a jack-o-lantern grin with missing teeth.
For some reason, I froze, doomed to recall the rumours overheard at school about the crazy buggy man. (“He’s building a fortress made out of buggies in the bog besides the highway;” or “He ate my cousin’s dog;” or even “On Monday, I saw him looking through your window!”)
He was the prototypical village idiot, a bargaining chip used by parents to scare children into eating all their vegetables.
Yet, there I was, merely a child myself, confronted by this dog-eating caveman.
As he approached me, I could see the fabric of fine, black hair covering his face. His beard was patchy and it looked like long whiskers. But most disturbing of all, was the fact that his hairline started in a fuzz about half-an-inch above this eyebrows.
“Ya wanna go for a ride?” He reached out to put his hand on my shoulder. The dark cracks in his fingertips and the grime under his yellow nails frightened me, and before he touched me, I ran away.
It was one of those moments in life that scares you into being a productive member of society. I never wanted to see a loading dock ever again, never went behind the mall, and never ever mentioned to anyone that he and I shared the same name.
Years passed. I moved away for college. I graduated, and got a job as an electrician. I got married, moved even farther away to start a family, paid my taxes, got a puppy, spent money on renovations in the summer, and I bought Xmas gifts in winter. In essence, I became a productive member of society, consistently upgrading my life in places far away from loading docks.
Then, one Xmas, my wife convinced me that we should return to Marsdale a week early to do our shopping at the quieter Marsdale Mall, around which the cornfields have only recently been converted to subdivisions.
It was snowing lightly, but not really cold. I pulled into the Mall late, just before it closed, and I saw the Buggy Man ride a tango-line of shopping carts down the steady incline of the parking lot. He leaned a hard left to make the 10-foot, metal dragon of trolleys turn the curve at top speed towards the front entrance of Walmart.
He looked much older, still dirty, but he navigated the mousetrap of curbs, potholes, and sewage grates with the utmost finesse.
He rode like a professional, corralling a dozen or more(!) carts as I parked my car. This was his steel street-cart derby.
I waved at him as I entered the store, but he didn’t see me (or care).
The Xmas music made me sick to my stomach, and the heat was way too high.
At the cash, I spoke to a young Indian girl.
“Happy Holidays,” I smiled forcedly.
“You too,” she said, and started scanning my votives to consumerism.
Beep (a container o’ wine gums)
Beep (a pack of DVDs)
“So, Buggy Man still works here, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said, then added: “No…I mean, he doesn’t really work here.”
Beep (some dog biscuits)
“What do you mean?”
Beep. (a transformers toy for my cousin)
“Well, he doesn’t get paid. Beep. I was running out of items to keep the conversation going. “Will this be on your Walmart Master Card?”
“No.” I said. “Why does he collect the buggies then?”
“I dunno.” She made a funny face. “Maybe he just likes it?”
I told her about when I ran into him behind the store when I was nine. She said she’d never talked to him. I wanted to keep talking, but I had run out of items and things to say. So I took my bags and loaded them into the car.
The store was closing. They turned off the giant, florescent, box letters that illuminated the slightest of flurries on the way in—and ever so briefly on the way out!
I sat in my car thinking about what it means to be a productive member of society. “What are the criteria?” I thought.
I started the car, but the engine stalled. A voice on the radio was talking about coyotes breeding with wolves, or something. “At least it’s not Xmas music,” I thought. I restarted the car and drove over the snow-dusted parking lot, towards the traffic light.
I wondered where Buggy Man slept. “Under the moon,” I told myself. “Probably in a shack made of shopping carts.” Then, I looked up through the clouds to an open patch of sky where the full moon beamed its nocturnal light over the suburban landscape.
And for a moment, I saw Buggy Man’s face in the moon. He looked unhappy, expressing himself in the caricatured sadness of the 19th century melancholic. He was bothered by the clouds in his eyes. I saw him armless and invalid, pleading: “Someone! Anyone! Please wipe the clouds out of my eyes.”
“Poor guy,” I thought. “Maybe that’s why you like riding the carts so much! When you go fast downhill and lean into a mean curve, the wind blows all the problems out of your eyes.”
Graeme Lottering was born in South Africa at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Currently, he lives in Toronto, Canada. His work has been published in Lost in Thought, Nap Magazine, The Montreal Review, and is upcoming in The New Quarterly. In January of 2011 his first novel, ’98% Grey’ was published by Infinity Press on Amazon.com