All Stories, General Fiction

Meeting Max Cargo by Tom Sheehan


It all began perhaps eight or nine years earlier, in a peaceful sleep, when a thin, shoelace-like string of pressure went around his chest for the third time in a week. Sixty-two year old Max Cargo paid attention to that string. It was three o’clock in the morning and his wife Pamela stirred casually at his touch. In less than an hour they were in the Emergency Room of the local hospital.

Max Cargo had his heart attack in the best place of all.

Twenty-two days later, after tenuous blood complications, he came home, the last doctor out of his room that morning, a young intern with kind eyes, patting him on the leg and saying, “Marvelous recovery, Max. Marvelous recovery.” That was when he first realized how serious his illness had been; the dry, wiry knot was corded in his throat, gave pause to his breathing, animated a harsh run of thoughts. For a moment he felt metered.

Two days after that, at the behest and request of his cardiologist, he began his initial walking around the quiet little bedroom town of Saxon, about twenty miles northwest of Boston. Out on his first half-mile walk, he picked up his first coin right out in front of Widow Minn’s house, a house with no lack of traffic at odd hours. The coin was a thin and worn 1939 dime, prewar silver in content, catching the early sun at a slant out in front of him.

The roundness of its reflection came at his eyes like a shot out of a gun bore, and he remembered that initial sensation like he did his first peek into the girls’ changing room down at the pond all those years ago. Max, not a numismatist but certainly tactile, liked the thin feel of the coin in his fingertips; the knurled edge gone into its own smooth silence, the Liberty face faded and ghost-like. Strange, he thought, that it was thinner than it had been and was now certainly worth less than when it was coined. The thought of age and uselessness came to him, the trappings of a man getting on in his years, a man, perhaps, like the coin, worth less than he had been in the beginning. More than once he tried to think of the places the thin dime might have been; the vast array of pockets couched with lint, deep recesses of bulky pocketbooks and purses of all sizes, shapes and descriptions, now and then a chest secreted away under cellar stairs rising from a long darkness. Perversity and salvation hit him solid punches that it could have been overseas and back on a troopship, or airborne over the English Channel for twenty-five perilous missions, or even B-29 high over Tokyo before all that hell out there went quiet.

The thin dime mesmerized him.

In his first year of walking Max Cargo filled two cider jugs with found coin. Most of them were pennies, of course, dropped carelessly or thrown away by teenagers who wanted no truck with such incidental coinage. Silver roundness or copper roundness, of course, was the attraction that drew his eyes. And his walks, after a fashion, became a two-way crusade, a matter of health and a matter of wealth.

By the time he was seventy, Max Cargo had filled nine cider jugs with coin found during his walks about town, and every so often added a folded or damp or torn piece of currency. Once he spotted a tattered dollar bill caught high on a bramble bush near the end of winter; it was ragged, three corners gone, but the seal was intact. Max thought of the last rose on the vine when hot August came with the deathblow, the one last bloom holding on for the final onslaught. Then, later, at the edge of a mall’s parking lot, as snow remnants melted from the pavement, the little folded packet of currency that caught his eye, like Lucky Strike green had come back from war, turned out to be ten, ten dollar bills folded tightly together. They appeared as if they had been thrust away into a secret place and somehow found their way out. An unknown person’s unpaid debt came to Max as stiff as a dunning letter from a collector. As if bidden, he began to see stories, tales, and sagas of every sort linked with the elements of his collection.

Pamela had often said, “Max, you should turn them into the bank and get that additional interest,” but Max liked to see the innards of the jugs swelling with coin, fattening up on themselves. And he was feeling like a million bucks for all the walking. “It’s a two-pronged exercise, Pam. I’m better for it.”

Another advantage for Max was the opportunity of seeing old friends as they drove by, waving to them, or chatting easily at a curbside if they stopped. Eventually, all kinds of people tooted horns at him as he became an addicted regular on his route, which had lengthened, with stamina improvements, to about six miles of Saxon’s streets and byways.

One of those people who waved was a stranger to Max, an attractive blonde woman, perhaps in her late forties, in a light blue Ford sedan. Max soon knew her plate number but not her name. For the matter, her name was Mabel-Mary Harris and she lived on one side of Max’s town and worked on the other side. In time she came to see him each day, sometimes twice on one day if Max had a second loop left in him at evening time.

Max Cargo never knew that Mabel-Mary Harris, a superstitious and doubt-ridden woman, began keeping a chart on him, posting a mark and date every time she saw Max walking. The first two times that Mabel-Mary Harris saw Max Cargo, she had found a small roll of bills in the crease of her car seat and next in a jacket pocket. The third time she saw him, a lost ring, one she had hunted over a year for, came to the touch of her fingers in the hemline of a jacket. Max Cargo was walking across the street at that exact moment, right in front of her, his hat white, his T-shirt gray, his pants chino, his arms and legs pumping, when her fingers, idly groping, felt the shape of the lost ring. A kind of ecstasy leaped through her body, as if a lost lover had come back, a touch remembered.

Mabel-Mary’s chart somehow, in her belief and superstition, had expanded, so that each day in which she saw the fortunate walker she would measure totally her luck, her income, her assets building through the length of that day.  In one instance the sudden and fortunate leap of one minor stock had frightened her, and early retirement loomed entirely possible. The pull at her attention was so great that she spent the good part of a week finding out where Max lived. Carefully and unobtrusively she had turned that task. She rationalized that it would be easier knowing where he came from and where he was going. That way, she was convinced, she would save time, and find better fortune. It was in her cards, the stars right and proper.

And she too began to toot her horn at Max Cargo, impulsively so. Max told Pamela about the insistent tooter, a female, so that nothing would appear erroneous, as he used the word.  It would appear that it was well he had. Mabel-Mary’s husband had walked out on her one day and she had never seen him again. It had been twelve years. Now her son David was eighteen, just out of high school, and looking for work.

Mabel-Mary told her son about the good luck walker, white hat, gray T-shirt, old Army chino pants. David laughed even when his mother began to relate her coincidental good fortune. An uncle died, a lonely man, and left her a good sum of money and a small house on a nice street a few towns away. Another once-insignificant stock, left by her long-departed husband, made a dramatic leap in value. A single dollar lottery ticket got her a thousand dollars; and the little persistent pain in her stomach, bugging her for more than a year, disappeared completely without so much as a single pill prescribed or administered.

It got so that Mabel-Mary could chart Max Cargo on his constitutionals. And she noted how often he picked things off the street and, after holding them up to the sun, examining them, placing them in his pocket. She believed, of course, they were found coin, and it further cemented her belief in the white hat, the gray T-shirt, the chino pants. Good luck, for her, was casually dressed, easily seen, quickly found.

And Max kept seeing the blue Ford with the attractive lady driver who tooted at him at least twice a day. Sometimes it was more than two toots a day. It made him slightly nervous, a bit embarrassed, and faintly inquisitive.

“I tell you, Pamela,” he said, “it’s like being stalked, but she never approaches me, never says a word, just toots, waves and drives on.” Pamela countered, “It’s probably as much imagination as anything, Max. Yet, if she’s got a crush on a seventy-year old man, let her have her day. She could be a lonely old lady in her own right. Perhaps widowed.” Tittering as pronunciation, she meant what she said.  One day, with not a car in sight, Max changed his route. Moments later, at the far turn in the road, he saw the blue Ford making the turn, heard the horn toot.

Mabel-Mary really got on her son’s case when she won a weekend trip for two to Atlantic City and $500 spending money. David and his mother came home with $9,321 in their pockets. “It’s my fortune cookie, that guy who walks all over

Saxon. My very own fortune cookie. He was out there Friday evening just as I went through the center of town. He got us this weekend. Now we can get you a car of your own.”

David, though he had never seen the fortunate walker, began to think something was cooking with his mother and the lucky rabbit. And he felt really good about the whole scenario when they had purchased a used Honda Accord. “It’s a beauty, Mom,” David said, as he came back from a trial run, his eyes full of sparkle and newness.

David promised himself that one of his first rides would be to see the fortune cookie on one of his walks. He’d go that evening, at his mother’s suggestion.

Pamela waved from the porch as Max started down the street on his evening walk. Not two houses away he stooped, picked up a nickel and looked back at Pamela, waving the coin in the air. Pamela smiled, earlier having seen a neighbor, Jed Ramsey, purposely drop a coin at the curbing. Jed, Max’s best friend, was making an investment in his good buddy. It made Pamela warm all over.

Max felt extra good, extra hale, his legs bouncy and alive. Long ago his wind had developed a grand stamina and he lit out at a good pace. At the corner there was a toot from Al Bumbrey at the variety store, and then Sis Predman going to pick up her husband from work. The sun angled like a sheet into the center of Saxon, the rotary there green and flowered, the monument solidly upright at the heart of the town, the traffic just beginning to cut itself in half. Up Central Street he started, intending to cut over to the pond and then come home by the back road. He looked about for the blue Ford and did not see it.

David’s Honda purred under his seat bottom. It was kitten-quiet and he felt extremely good about the whole affair. This would be the chance to get a look at the fortune cookie; white hat, gray T-shirt, old Army chinos. The Honda turned onto Central Street, about a mile from the center of Saxon. Traffic was light, the sun came in slanting rays between houses and old elm trees that were the only ones left in town. Half a dozen hurricanes, and a frenzy of insects, had claimed most of the elm trees around town.

Every now and then, as the car passed through the shade of an elm, David swore it was a few degrees cooler, and the elm leaves darker.

Coming up on the big intersection with Madison Road, Max saw the gleam in the center of Central Street. It was as if a tracer had hit at his eyes, the way it leaped at him a quick brilliancy. It was solid mirror, but was not silver. In a moment’s assessment, Max knew it was gold in nature. Whether it was a coin, he was not sure. At the same moment the realization came to him that he had never once ventured into the middle of the street to pick up a coin. That voice came to him again, then it went away as the sun slammed him again with a stab of sunlight directly into his eyes.

Like a child, Max Cargo looked both ways as the voice lost its bellwether tone. In a few steps he was in the center of the street and reaching for the coin.

David was looking for the white hat and the gray T-shirt and the old chinos. Up and down the sidewalk on each side of the street he looked and up and down each side street as he passed them, frowning at parked cars and trees that blocked his vision, made tunnels of those smaller byways. The first look he had at the white hat and gray T-shirt and chinos was Max Cargo straightening up in the road directly in front of him. As he slammed on the brakes, he said, “There goes my mother’s good luck.”

He never heard a yell or felt the bump of bodies.

Tom Sheehan

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5 thoughts on “Meeting Max Cargo by Tom Sheehan”

  1. Fondly relate to the photo accompanying the story as I have in this house built in 1742 at least ten bottles of found coins picked up in my 20 post-retirement years when I walked 10-12 miles a day around town before my knees went south on me..


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