The crash sounded like a garbage can being whipped with a chain. John jumped in his plush leather seat. “Goddamn, what the hell?”
He had parked right next to the shopping cart corral, yet failed to notice the rusting white sign bent nearly in half on a corroded yellow pole.
A cracking teenaged boy’s voice taunted: “Can’t you read, old man?”
The words came from somewhere behind John’s brand-spanking-new BMW. But there was not a soul in sight. John had only stopped at this drab suburban shopping plaza in the old part of town because of a Starbucks right next to the old Kroger, the coffee shop where he would occasionally run into Samantha Deutermann, the VP of Marketing. He wanted more than anything to watch her face when she saw his racy sky-blue sports car. His wife Wendy was still angry about the purchase, arguing that she could use a bigger SUV to take the kids and their kids’ friends and all their assorted gear to their endless series of soccer practices. But he decided he deserved something special for his 50th birthday. He rarely thought about the humiliation of bagging groceries at this very same place decades ago, back when he was in high school.
John craned his neck out the window and squinted against a sudden strong blast of grit-filled wind sandpapering his face.
He scanned across the parking lot. A cloud of dust and scraps of paper swirled up, rising like a mini trash tornado. He was careful not to let his Tag Heuer watch scratch the paint on the top of the door of the car. Then just as suddenly the wind died. Not a cloud in the sky. Weird.
Another crunch. This time it was more of a jangling thud, deeper and closer. From the passenger side now. Something definitely hit and scraped against the car. A steel-cage shopping cart was mashed up against the door.
“What the Hell!” John slapped the steering wheel with both hands.
A gangly teenaged boy with an uncombed mop of hair and an apron emblazoned with “Kroger” draped around his waist sauntered over and giggled. The teen bent down and pointed to the beat-up sign and read in a sing-song voice: “Not responsible for damage caused by shopping carts.” His voice hit a supernaturally high falsetto on the world “responsible.”
The kid ambled back to the cart corral, grabbed another one, and with raging teen angst strength smashed it into the car, this time with an extra-vicious glint in his eye.
At the same moment the reality of what that sound meant began to sink into John’s psyche, he heard a loud jangling bang. Another cart launched like an erector-set kamikaze rammed him again.
“Who the hell do you think you are? “ John yelled.
The kid strolled a cart over to John’s opened window and bent down. “Shit man, you need new glasses. Don’t you remember me?“
John squinted against the sun. The face was familiar, like an image out of a dream suddenly recalled with a jerk of the head while dozing off during a status meeting. But he couldn’t put a name to it.
“What did I ever do to you?” John gripped the steering wheel.
“You were born, old man.” The kid spoke quickly, his eyes totally alive. “I always hated guys like you. Thinking you’re a big shot. Pushing people around, always in a hurry. No time for the person right in front of your face.” Then the kid guffawed like a hormone-addled leprechaun and hurled his cart straight into the driver’s side door. The cart screeched as it carved a long gash. “Happy fricking Birthday!”
“You goddamn little crap. I’m going to take you apart.” John fumbled with his seat belt, flung open the door, and jumped out.
“You’d have to catch me first. Knees are not what they used to be, are they?”
Just before he was going to lunge, John stopped and looked at the kid again. With a shock he recognized the pimply face. His thirty-four years ago self. “Holy shit.”
The kid smiled, the playful mania gone, his eyes now calm and warm and thoughtful. “Yeah, I can’t believe it either. Just look at you. Big stomach. Gray hair.”
“One of us is smoking weed.”
“Maybe both of us,” the kid laughed. “I had to get through to you. Remember how you said you’d never be like your Dad, just working your ass off all the time?”
“You mean do I remember you saying something like that?” The recollection forced John to crack a smile.
John felt the wind pick up and turned around. Behind him in the center of the parking lot another whirlwind appeared, not just dust and grit, but he somehow recognized other things in there too — a swirling mass of birthday party kool-aid Dixie cups, shredded Christmas present wrapping paper, yellowed Spiderman comics pages, a dog-eared algebra textbook fluttering hopelessly like a shot sparrow, fast food burger wrappers from illicit skipping school jaunts, semen-stained socks, first cigarette butts, spring break road trip speeding tickets, maps for week long canoe trips into labyrinthine swamps, wilted prom corsages, streaming brown ribbon entrails of cassette mixtapes made with dramatic earnestness by old girlfriends, and scrap-relics of beer-smeared promises torn from senior yearbook pages. The whirlwind moved towards them with a roaring hum like a mosh-mountain of punk-rock bees, and John closed his eyes.
When he opened them, the kid was gone.
At least the kid’s body was gone.
John drove back to his three-thousand-square-foot house on its full acre of protected tree-lined cul-de-sac. His plan was now clear. Instead of getting the insurance company to fix the numerous dents and gashes in the skin of his new car, he should sell it and find something more like the AMC Gremlin held together with duct tape he used to cruise around in in high school. Then his only trouble would be what to do with the windfall.
Paul Celmer is a technical writer that lives in Garner, North Carolina.