Here are the things in my shopping cart:
Honey Nut Cheerios
Boxed mac & cheese
A wedge of ricotta salata
Toilet paper, the soft kind
Two loose crowns of broccoli
A gallon of sour memories, similar to buttermilk
A bag of organic carrots
A pint of conventional raspberries
Half pound of honey roasted turkey from the deli counter
A bag of shredded mozzarella cheese
The thing about shopping carts is that they belong in one place: a store. If you see one anywhere else, it’s lost, wrong, out of place. So let’s talk about one particular out-of-place or perhaps in just-the-right-place shopping cart. It was mine. Ours. His. The thing in the corner of our living room throughout my childhood. A shopping cart amongst the debris of neglect and familyhood. Along with the dusty, stale smell of central heating and the perpetual sweet smell of candy—my mother’s favorite vice, eating Mentos and Werthers by the gallon-bag-full—this hunk of alien metal reeked of wet rot and galvanized steel. I licked it once—maybe more than once, a taste not unlike blood.
We lived in, what I like to call, middle-class squalor—my mother, father, and I (and later a sister). Sure, we lived in Westchester, one of the wealthiest counties in New York State, and the country. Sure, we were safe, ate out often, and my parents drove middle-of-the-road Hondas and Toyotas. But one step into our apartment and you knew something was rather un-Westchester-like. Cockroaches skittered when a light switch was flipped. Food caked on plates remained in the kitchen and elsewhere for days, if not longer. Unpaid bills and clothing and blankets and bric-a-brac were strewn across the stained carpets. The house was littered with toys and empty vodka bottles, books on conspiracy theories, and any number of weapons: guns, nunchucks, a samurai sword that, I supposed, served as ornamental intimidation.
So the grocery cart wasn’t the weirdest thing in the house. But it was the first thing you noticed. It sat higher than the other household things heaped messily beside it, a visual cue of its importance in our lives. The cart was parked haphazardly, cocked at an angle, as if a wheel was missing, yet all four wheels were accounted for. Much of the wire mesh had grown rusty, and what remained of the red plastic covering the handle bore the faded, illegible name of its onetime store. I imagined the A&P or the C-Town down the road. And before that, a factory in Iowa or China. But how the cart came to be in our house is a mystery. Kind of. I knew my father brought it in at some point, and I could not remember a time the shopping cart was not in our living room; a piece of the furniture, one of the family.
“Why do you have a grocery cart in your house?” my cousin asked me. Two years my senior, her twelve to my ten felt like light-years.
She was visiting from Los Angeles—her first foray into the wilds of a neglectful home. Her own house, I knew, was cleaned weekly; their family ate dinners together, bantering over salad and meats seared on the grill by her father. There was not much judgment in her voice, but I knew she was experiencing a disconnect between home and not-home and things that didn’t belong.
I told her I didn’t know, which was true enough. To me, the embarrassment of the shopping cart was minor compared to the rest of the apartment. I attempted to usher her down the hall and into my bedroom, a sanctum I kept obsessively clean.
“You like my cart?” my father asked when he caught her looking at it.
My cousin did not answer my father. “She does not like your shopping cart,” I could have told him but didn’t. Instead she turned to me and said, “Have you heard of R.E.M.?” She pulled a CD from her suitcase that was otherwise filled with clothing that smelled of dryer sheets.
I nodded, but I hadn’t. I had not yet been given the gift of music to cover the din of anger in our house.
The cart was our family secret, one of many. My cousin never visited again. I spent most of my time in my room and rarely had anyone over. The police who frequently arrived late at night—in response to neighbors’ calls—never said anything about the shopping cart. I had heard somewhere it was illegal to remove shopping carts from store parking lots.
The grocery cart was invented in 1937 by Sylvan Goldman, a Jewish grocery chain owner living in Oklahoma. The design didn’t quite resemble what was parked in our family’s living room in the 1990s. Goldman’s design was a metal frame that held two wire baskets, a design that, for some women, was too similar to a baby buggy. Men of that era thought themselves above all that womanly-work. By the time a shopping cart became a childhood fixation for me, it seems women were no longer so angry about it.
The American grocery store is a repository of expectation and privilege, a tangential symbol of the American dream—ten choices for round oat cereal, twenty-seven types of chocolate ice cream, twelve kinds of whipped cream topping, and thirty-four kinds of milk. All waiting to be collected, brought home, and provided for a hungry family.
When I think of motherhood, I immediately think of children in a grocery cart—in the seat, hanging on the back, toddling beside. I envision mothers scouring grocery lists, arguing with fussy kids, giving into children’s demands, and to their own whims—because they’ve gone to the store hungry. Again.
After you load your groceries into your car and return your shopping cart (if you’re a good human and don’t leave them all willy-nilly in the parking lot for people to bash into), you roll the cart into the backside of another cart, where the flap lifts so the carts nest into each other (technically “telescoping”). A man named Orla Watson developed the design in 1946. He filed for a patent, but before it could go through, Goldman contested the application and then filed his own. Goldman received the patent rights in 1948. But after much to-do, Telescope Carts, Inc. and Watson filed a lawsuit and, Goldman agreed to pay a dollar for the infringement —though the rights to exclusively produce the nesting carts went to Goldman and Telescope Carts, Inc. who received royalties. That same design is used today, nearly seventy years later.
All this is to say, every single thing we use has a story behind it. Someone thought it up, went through prototypes and legalese to be able to claim it was their own. But I knew nothing about Goldman and Watson, or their innovations when I stared for hours at the sometimes empty, sometimes mysteriously junk-filled shopping cart in our house. As a kid, I sometimes imagined our cart filled with Apple Jacks and Wonder Bread and a whole chicken for Sunday dinner. Maybe oranges and bananas and potatoes, too. In our home, our groceries consisted of boxed mac and cheese and canned soups.
The shopping cart wound up in our home before electronic locking systems were in place to keep carts within the vicinity of their host stores. I imagined the cart alone behind our apartment building, in the glow of a street lamp. Cold in the freezing rain. The chemical transition to rust well underway. Leaves falling from nearby trees collecting in the child’s seat.
One afternoon, I invited a friend over. The night before, after some forgotten infraction, my father told me I was grounded. My father rarely bothered with traditional punishments and so I didn’t take the grounding seriously. He arrived home early that day to find R— and I pouring over our sticker books. My father’s heavy footfalls approached and he grabbed my forearm, wrenching and turning the skin while he seethed. She needed to go home, he spit, his breath not yet astringent with vodka; that would come later. After a nervous phone call, R—’s hands twisting the phone’s corkscrew cord like a rosary, she asked her mother to come get her.
Alone with my father, I did and did not know what to expect. My mother cowered in their bedroom, her frequent angle of repose. I knew the outcome would be bad, but exactly what flavor of bad was unclear. Yet. The sun had gone down; it must have been winter. Lights like eyes lit up in the apartments across the street. He did not pull the shades and did not say a word. I slowly backed up, tripping over our household debris.
I scrambled over the mire of books and trash. My father’s thick footsteps made little work of the things he crushed beneath his three hundred pound heft. At my back, I felt the coolness of metal through my shirt. My hands reached, gripped the grocery cart to steady myself. I bent, turned my body away, held tight to the cart. Pushed my cheek against it. It was like a jail cell, but I was on the wrong side.
I felt the cart topple, pinching my fingers in the telescoping flap, crushing them in its frame. He raised his hand to strike me, something he’d never done before. He laughed. Said next time, it would be different. He reached for his samurai sword, something I thought was intended to just be decorative. Unsheathed it. Ran his finger along the edge. He then left me and headed toward my mother’s sobbing sounds.
Indistinct yelling from my parents’ bedroom continued until I fell asleep beside the upended cart. In the morning, I woke to find my fingertips were gray with dirt. I’d been pushing the cart’s wheel around and around in my sleep.
My father had already left for work. My mother poured cereal, and I ate it standing, the kitchen linoleum cool beneath my smooth, young feet.
Now, nearly thirty years later, I am a mother of a toddler and find myself at the grocery store multiple times a week. I take a cart and seat her in the front. She asks to be buckled. She’s not going to fall out, but I dutifully I oblige. She’s safe.
“She’s cute,” an elderly woman says as I reach for the manager’s special. Beef.
“Thanks,” I say. “Sirloin or flank?” I am weighing this decision as if my family’s livelihood depends on it, though I know I could afford both. This is not a hard decision to make. Both are fifty percent off. My daughter, age two, sulks because the special cart with the truck front had already been taken.
“What do you think, darling?” the woman asks my daughter, who whines something unintelligible. I’m about to put back the beef, grab a chicken instead when the woman says, “Flank. Underrated. Always good. Easy prep, especially when you have little ones to watch after.” I swear she winks at me and I want to hug her.
I never knew when the cart arrived in my childhood home, and I don’t know when it left. It was gone by the time my father died—of obesity and alcoholism contributing to respiratory failure—the year I turned twenty-two. By then I’d been long out of the house, living in Los Angeles after graduating college. When I see rogue carts on street corners, pushed against phone poles, too far from a grocery store, I wonder. Was someone making a getaway? Did they think this image of domesticity and American success would make them successful and domestic? Did they carry their everything in it?
Most American dreams are rusty but functional, and—like shopping carts—the dirtiest thing in the store. Now, I fill my cart with avocados and yogurt, and, when I’m feeling strangely nostalgic, boxed mac and cheese. I fill the cart with things I will feed my family. Things that say I love you. I check out. With shopping bags filled with food, I roll the cart to my car, unload, and lift my daughter out, her arms and legs clutch my body tightly, in gratitude. In love.
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Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, The Rumpus, Necessary Fiction, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com