I’m really a person who keeps pretty much to myself, but you’d probably know me as the guy you see all over town pushin’ the old wooden cart. You’d call me a bum, but I’ll get to that later. I have a life, though you might not think it’s much of one—not by your standards anyhow. It hasn’t always been like this, you know. I wasn’t born forty-seven years old pushin’ an old wooden cart everywhere I go—all over this two-bit town. I had a family … wife.
Things are different now. Every day I do pretty much the same thing, except Sunday. No sir, I don’t push that cart on Sunday. Man deserves a bit of rest. Six days to make a livin’. One day for takin’ a rest! That’s the way I see it.
My life’s all that hard, but it ain’t no picnic either. I’ve always been—well, poor, even when I had a family and all. Lived in East town. You know, lots of people won’t even go into East town on account of the colored people. Not that it’s all colored, get me, but they live there. Stay to themselves mostly.
I like that. Nothin’ worse than nosey neighbors. Colored ain’t all that nosey, not to me anyhow. Most people don’t trust me a bit. Call me a bum. Some folks run when they see me—lots of kids do—but most people don’t pay me all that much attention. At least that’s what they want me to think. Some folks just don’t trust me. I can see ’em watchin’ out of the corner of their eye.
I make my living pickin’ up things. That’s why I need my cart. I pick up things. Sell ’em. Most of the time it’s things people throw away. People throw away some of the damndest stuff. I furnished my house that way. All my furniture—stuff people just throwed away.
And it’s not only furniture, I found an old saxophone once just lyin’ out in the alley with the rest of the junk. Or, maybe a kid put it there, I don’t know. It played good. I don’t play myself, never took lessons. But I sold it to an old colored man who swore it was in great shape. Sold it to him for $27. Man, was I livin’ high then! Ate at the cafeteria and ever’thing. Yep, Robert’s Cafeteria.
I was standin’ right in front of the cafeteria after I ate myself a fine meal when I heard a couple of guys talkin’. One of ’em was a cop. I don’t know what the other guy did. But they were standin’ there on the curb talkin’, and this guy says to the cop, “You know the difference between a bum and a ’bo?” Lots of ’bo’s still hang out back of the old Frisco Building on Main, especially at night. The cop said he couldn’t see much difference, but the other guy set him straight.
“A ‘bo will work for a living!” And he said it like that, too—living! They both laughed real hard. Well, I decided right then and there that it didn’t matter what folks called me. Those fellas laugh like that ’bout anyone who ain’t like them.
I work, all right. Real hard sometimes. Lots of folks don’t really know nothin’ about me and maybe not a hell of lot of other stuff either for that matter. Some folks think that they are so damn smart. I never had a whole lot of schoolin’. Education just don’t mean a whole lot to me. I work, and I have a home. Oh, it’s not much to look at, but it’s a home, all right. It’s all I need. I don’t need all that much.
Yep, I work, all right. I cover this whole town in about a week. Just about a week. Up and down every street. I don’t really know how many miles I walk in a day, pushin’ that cart. Never even tried to figure it out. Too many. But one thing for sure, I wear out shoes pretty damn quick—even good leather shoes. I get lots of shoes. People throw away real good ones sometimes.
Like I said, I don’t know how many miles I walk or even how big this two-bit town really is. Sign says: JOPLIN: POPULATION 38,711. But what does that really tell a guy?
I’m a guy who likes my privacy—maybe I said that before—but people all over this town recognize me. I’m a bit of a landmark here, if I do say so myself. Even the kids. I can hear ’em screamin’, “Ol’ Henry! Ol’ Henry!” when they see me comin’. Screamin’ and squealin’ like I was a star out of a monster movie showing at the Paramount Theatre or even the Fox.
There’s a group of ’em—two girls, two boys, always together—climb up an old mulberry tree out by the alley in the north end of town. Not way up north where the rich folks live. No, this is before you get to those curvy streets with the alphabet names. About the three hundred block of Jackson or Sergeant. Up near the DeTar Clinic. Just a couple of blocks from the Safeway.
The minute those kids see my cart turn into the alley, the girls go to squealin’—even before they even see me. Then up they go into that tree, all four of ’em. They sit there as quiet as kids can sit, which ain’t very quiet, and they eat those mulberries—bugs and all. Bet they eat a quart of bugs every summer! It’s mostly in the summer when I see those kids. I just hold my head up and keep on walkin’—walkin’ and pretendin’ I don’t even know they’re up there. And they sit up there gigglin’ and munchin’ those berries. Bugs and berries—ha!
I remember one day last summer, they were up in that tree. I remember that day real well ’cause I turned into that alley on purpose. You see, I found a bunch of bottles of beer behind Jimmy’s. I don’t know who left them there because Jimmy don’t sell no beer in his place. It was a hot day. Anyway I drank about three bottles before I put the rest in my cart. So when I got to that alley, I was wantin’ to pee real bad.
There’s a spot down there with a lot of trees—well mostly bushes—but they’re tall enough for a guy to take a quick leak. In my line of work, you learn the value of bein’ quick. Comes in handy lots of times. I just sort of rummage through the trash. Then I slip off for a bit—you know, take care of “business.” Sometimes it’s one kind of business, sometimes it’s another.
Well, usually those kids stayed in that tree until I was long gone. But wouldn’t you know it, this was the day they came down. All four of ’em right there behind me. So I had to go on pushin’ my cart two, three more blocks. I was about to bust!
In the summertime, I see those kids all over town. I bet some days they cover about as many blocks as I do, but they never go into East town. Except this one time. I saw them over the viaduct at Landreth Park. That’s in East town—well, sort of. Anyway I saw those kids at the swimming pool at Landreth Park late that evening. At first I didn’t take a whole lot of notice ’cause I was on my way home. You’d think those kids would be at Schifferdecker or one of those fancy parks over there, not in East town—not in the swimming pool in East town. But it was those same kids. I’m sure.
Helen Losse’s first book, Better With Friends, was published by Rank Stranger Press (Mt. Olive, NC) in 2009. She is the author of two chapbooks, Gathering the Broken Pieces and Paper Snowflakes. Her recent poetry publications and acceptances include The Wild Goose Poetry Review, Main Street Rag, Iodine Poetry Review, Blue Fifth Review, Heavy Bear, Referential Magazine, Hobble Creek Review and Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont. She is the Poetry Editor for The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.