The Pushcart Man
By Lydia Clack
You’ve all seen him. He is one of those elderly men that you see pushing carts piled high with cardboard. The government doesn’t give him enough to live on so he can either collect cardboard or sit on the steps that lead down to the subway, asking for handouts. He did try that once, but discovered that the box of coins he collected didn’t keep his belly full of rice. He would prefer noodles, but rice is cheaper.
He isn’t a handsome man, and he was never a pretty boy. He is fast though. He was always fast, even as a baby. His birth was fast. His abandonment was fast. His adoption was fast.
He hoped his cardboard boxes would be fast too.
He arrived at the idea from watching a foreign movie on t.v., through the window of an electronics store. He didn’t own his own t.v. so he had to catch glimpses on free ones, as he pushed his cart down the sidewalks.
The movie was absurd, in the way that aliens are absurd. He knew that aliens didn’t exist, but he wondered if that was only because they hadn’t been invented yet. Cars didn’t exist until someone invented them. Even his daily kimchi was an invention at some point in time. So why not aliens? Or time travel?
He worked on his plans as he pushed his cart across the street, weaving left to right on the crosswalk. People would move for him because he was older and his cart was larger. Sometimes he weaved just to toy with the foreigners. Foreigners always walked in straight, determined lines. They never understood the dance of his weaving cart.
At night he parked his cart below his crumbling concrete room and climbed the stairs. His knees hurt and his legs bowed out like crescent moons, but he was still fast.
He sat at his little table, on his cold floor and sketched his design. He wondered how much cardboard he would need to collect to protect his body from the heat, and then the cold. He picked at the overly ripe kimchi that should have been thrown out a week ago. Every night, he ate the kimchi. Every other night, the rice. The room reeked of the kimchi and the old man wondered if his little refrigerator was keeping it properly. He didn’t wonder for long, though. His sketch occupied his thoughts.
In an hour, he would roll out his bed and lay on his cold floor, dreaming of his departure. He had already picked the hill that he would use, and the cliff that would give him the right speed for take- off. He had hiked the same hill three times a week for the last 20 years, passing the same elderly men and women every time. He had watched them shrink and become bow legged. He had watched the women’s hair become shorter and adopt noodle like curls. He had watched their clothing turn from tight and dark to loose and bright. They would go without rice one month to buy those brightly colored clothes.
In the morning, the old man put his bed away and dressed in the clothes that he had worn every day that week. He locked his room with his bed roll and low table inside. His pushcart waited for him under the parking shelter below his room. He unloaded yesterday’s boxes and set out with his empty cart.
He weaved across intersections and plowed through busy sidewalks, stopping at garbage heaps to pick up boxes. He knew to go to the large apartment buildings first. Every day someone new would move in and every night they would leave their flattened boxes by the recycling bins. He had to get there early to beat the other cart pushers.
The ajummas were early risers. They were quick and calculated. They devoured the apartment buildings like locusts on a tree. But he was fast. He had watched them, made account of their comings and goings. He knew when they set out each morning, and he made certain that he set out earlier. He hit each building before them and picked through each trash pile before they came with their tiny, withered hands.
At noon, he would stop and buy a sweet potato from the ajumma in front of the train station. Her sweet potatoes were the largest but not the sweetest. He would slip into the convenience store and use the microwave to cook it, and then he would sit at the table outside the store and eat his potato, keeping a careful eye on his cart.
He watched the young people with their impossibly white faces. They wandered down the sidewalk with their eyes glued to their cellphones, playing new games or texting friends they had just left. They were like robots, all programmed with the same daily routine. He made a note, in his mind, that he wouldn’t allow cellphones. Things would stay as they were in his youth. People would talk and share information as it was meant to be shared.
He observed a young couple. The boy had his arm draped over the young girl’s shoulders and carried her bag in his opposite hand. The girl gripped her phone with both hands and walked head down, with her eyes glued to the screen. The boy did the steering, and the girl lazily plodded along, oblivious of her surroundings.
He saw a group of foreigners, tall and pink. They were hunched from the weight of the backpacks they carried and he wondered what was in them. Drugs or chocolate? Maybe souvenirs from their travels. He never understood the need for travel, or drugs. As a child he had visited Jejudo with his parents. That was the farthest from home he had ever journeyed. The dialect was strange and difficult and he knew, even as a boy, he would never go farther.
Once, during the war, he almost left Korea. He was 18 and his parents had talked of leaving. They never did, though. They lived and died in the small room that he grew up in. His parents and his grandparents before them. Each generation repeating the life of the one before. He would break the cycle.
He had never married. An adopted child, with a wide face, from a poor family was undesirable to the girls of his youth. Perhaps if he had made more of an effort, he might have found a bride. He didn’t care, though. He was content to never hear the nagging of a woman’s voice or the incessant pounding of her little fists on his shoulder when she was unhappy. He also hated the flowery pants the ajummas insisted on wearing. Every day he watched the flowery pants steal his boxes and snatch up his fat sweet potatoes. He wouldn’t allow flowery pants.
When the sky grew dark he returned home and unloaded the boxes from his pushcart. He climbed the stairs to his room and sat on the floor, eating the rotten kimchi. He stared at his sketch and made calculations in his mind. Tomorrow night he would leave. He only needed to collect boxes for one more day.
He unrolled his bed and lay on his side, looking around his tiny home. He would leave his small table and broken refrigerator. He would leave the advertisements for the Chinese restaurant next door. He would only take the boxes, and the old watch that had belonged to his father. The watch was the most important part. He knew from the movie that he needed a time piece and, the older the piece, the farther back he could go. The watch was at least 100 years old. He wouldn’t go back 100 years. That was too far. He would only go back to his childhood, before his legs were bent and his joints burned. Every night he would wind the watch back until his fingers hurt. Tomorrow night, he would wind it back for the last time.
His dreams were filled with adventures from his childhood, and rotten kimchi. He slept fitfully and woke early. He didn’t mind. It was his last day here and the early start would allow him to collect more boxes. He also had to go to the hardware store and buy the rope. He has measured carefully, and knew exactly how much he would need.
He set out with his cart before the sun was up. This made things easier for him. He wouldn’t have to dodge any hordes of pale, vampire-like students in their matching uniforms. They always clogged the sidewalks and chirped into their giant cellphones as they made their way to school. The girls were all the same with their shoulder length hair and bright orange lips. They were paper dolls, cut from the same catalog. The boys were all lanky and pimply.
He collected boxes all day, not even pausing for his daily sweet potato. The ajumma at the outdoor market eyed him suspiciously when he rolled past her without stopping. But he didn’t have time to stop. He had to make use of his last day.
At 9:00 p.m. he stopped by the hardware store to buy his rope. The middle aged man at the counter measured it carefully for him. He would need 50 feet exactly. When he handed his money over to the man, he knew that it was his last. There would be no more money to buy rice, or kimchi. If he didn’t succeed, he would starve. The man at the counter didn’t know this though. The old man told him he was using the rope to lower his food scrap bucket down from his apartment, because the arthritis in his fingers made it too hard to carry. He had seen an elderly neighbor doing this once, and made a note to use it as his excuse.
The salesman coiled his rope and carried it out to his cart for him. The old man would miss the way the middle aged men treated him. They offered him their seats on the bus. They helped him push his cart over the steep curbs of the city. They never complained when he jumped on front of them at the convenience store checkout. They respected his age and wisdom, unlike the young generation with their video games and self-entitlement. He wouldn’t allow video games.
The old man pushed his cart home. It was stacked high and he struggled to make it up the little hill, to his building. He thought about his younger self, with his strong legs and thick hair. He thought about his adoptive mother kissing his face when he cried, and beating him when he stole a sweet potato from the bowl. His life had been full of hardships. Hunger and poverty. Abuse and tears. But he welcomed it all back. He had no use for machines and the constant sense of urgency. He missed sitting and breathing.
He unloaded the boxes from his cart and climbed his stairs for the last time. Once inside, he scanned the room. He would not miss it. The walls were crumbling, and the stench of rotten kimchi filled his nose. He opened his little refrigerator and pulled out the remaining kimchi. After a quick sniff, he snatched a handful and shoved it into his withered mouth. There was no crunch left and the flavor was ripe and sour. It was long past its expiration date.
He finished the kimchi off and made his way back down the stairs, to his piles of collapsed boxes. He started with the inside, carefully lining his pushcart with the thickest of the boxes. He wanted the cabin to be sturdy and well insulated. He added layer after layer, squeezing the boxes tight, until there was only enough room for a small, bow legged man to fit in the center. He then began covering the outside of the cart with boxes, securing the first layer with his rope. He added two more layers, wrapping each one with rope, then he used the remaining rope to made one final coil around the cart, pulling the end tight and knotting it.
The three remaining boxes would be the door to his vehicle. He tore open the seam of each box and tucked a flap into the layers lining the inside of the cart, creating a series of hinged doors that covered the top, enclosing the small space inside. He was trusting they would hold throughout his journey. He wondered if he should have thought of something better for this particular element, but he knew he couldn’t wait another day.
He looked over his completed cart and carefully made any last minute adjustments that he thought it may need. After he had finished, he reached into his pocket and brushed his thumb across his father’s watch. He would wait to set it. It only needed one final turn.
His neighbor had left a bike helmet hanging from the handlebars of her rusty, orange ten-speed. He quietly snatched it and tossed it into his cart. He wasn’t a thief. He would look up her family when he arrived and return the helmet to them. Maybe they would save it for her. He would worry about that later.
The old man pushed his cart out of the covered area and onto the sidewalk in front of his home. He looked up at his tiny, grimy window and gave it the one fingered salute he had seen young foreigners give, when they disliked someone. Then, he set off for his hill.
The sun had set and the streets were starting to fill up with young people walking arm in arm. They disgusted him with their chubby legs and carefree attitudes. He plowed through the scantily dressed youth and made his way to the outskirts of town. He could see his hill in the distance and knew that the daily hikers would be gone when he arrived at his destination. He hoped that no one would be there. He couldn’t risk the other cart pushers knowing his plan.
The hill was empty. He leaned forward, using all his strength to push his cart up the steady incline, to the top. It took him almost an hour to reach the peak. He stretched his aching muscles and surveyed the scene before him. He could see his small city, laid out before him like a smog filled snow globe. The lights gave a hazy glow like something from a dream, and the cars moved along like slowly crawling insects. It was silent on his hill, save for the soft steady hum of the city below. He remembered a time when the city was just a cluster of homes, and the air was clean and bright. That was the time that he longed for.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the watch. He began to wind it for the last time, as he sucked in a kimchi filled breath. His fingers shook as he wound it back to the time that he had calculated so carefully, many months ago. When he was finished, he carefully placed it back into his pocket and turned to his cart.
He pushed the metal and cardboard machine a few more feet, to the very top of his hill. He used a large rock as a step stool and carefully climbed inside, strapping the helmet to his head. He reached up and pulled the door flaps over, completely cocooning him inside. He reached into his pocket and ran a withered hand over the watch one last time. Then he used the last bit of strength in his defeated body and lunged forward. And the cart began to move.
Lydia Clack is a freelance writer, living in North Carolina. In addition to writing, she works in literacy advancement for young adults. She enjoys her two dogs and watching Sherlock Homes (the Cumberbatch one).