The Shoeshine (Part 2)

[A Haitian shoeshines story, continued from the previous post.]


His first stop after roaming along his own street was the orphanage, not because it was a likely spot to find customers, but simply because it was the nearest large building. Occasionally, the people who owned the orphanage would be there. Clean shoes lent them an air of credibility, or so they felt.

The shoeshine had come to know many of the children in the orphanage over the years. He’d even met some of their parents, whose inability to feed and house them had forced them to turn their little ones over to the care of this institution. The children were fed and housed, but whether they were truly cared for was another question, the answer to which saddened him.

He wondered how he would have handled the situation if his son had survived the quake but the boy’s mother had still perished. Could he have given up the only child he would ever have? Against his will, he had anyway. The memory of the little boy was so vivid, he swore he felt the child’s breath whenever a stealth breeze caught him by surprise. The man had never shed a tear for the boy since he died, although he remembered crying over him constantly while he was still with him. He cried as the boy slept, when he played, and when he sat on the roof of their home staring over the city, never knowing what thoughts passed through the child’s mind. Were they the same as his own? Where were those thoughts now?

No customers emerged from the orphanage so the shoeshine moved on.

His hopes for a good return from the mission house were high. He’d seen evidence of a team of young people from the US staying there. The Americans always carried plenty of cash. While he only charged his fellow Haitians a few gourdes, he could easily ask an American dollar for each pair of shoes from the blans. It was rare that their shoes actually needed cleaning, packed away as they had been in luggage few Haitians could afford. It was an unspoken agreement of a metaphysical transaction. They would give up what to them was worthless to clean not their footwear but their consciences.

His English was limited to the few expressions required to accomplish the deal. “One dollar.” “Two shoes.” “Thank you.” Few of the team members made an effort to expand communications, so he appreciated all that much more the ones who did. They would approach him with smiles and ask in their American accents, “Konben?” A few would actually try to bargain with him. While he went along with the game and didn’t begrudge them their amusement, it annoyed him all the same.

The teens had come to help build a school. He appreciated the Americans’ misguided attempts at assistance, but he’d known more than one construction worker who had lost their jobs to visiting American kids. Despite the fact that one Haitian worker could accomplish as much in an hour as a team of American youths could do in a day, they kept coming like some invading force, taking opportunity captive.

The house was alive with activity. Through the screened windows, the shoeshine saw the teens scurrying back and forth, exhibiting the same degree of purpose as that shown by the ants that crisscrossed the walls of the building with no apparent goal.

One white face glanced out from a hole in a wall and saw him. A young girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen approached him. She held out a bag in her hand. With a shining smile, she told him, “Kado.” A conflict of fear and gratitude contorted his face as he took the gift. Looking inside, he saw a brand new tin of black polish. His smile of more gaps than teeth was sincere, but he couldn’t help thinking of the man he usually bought his polish from. This was one less bit of income his friend would receive. He felt bad, but wasn’t about to turn down this meager windfall.

Most of the kids just left their shoes on the steps with a dollar in one of them. A couple had bits of food, strange, colorfully wrapped bars of nuts and grains flecked with bits of chocolate. He would make the most of those scraps. One bar could be made to last for two meals if money or food were scarce, as they often were. There was no telling when the next team might arrive carrying more free goods.

To be continued…

The Shoeshine (Part 1)

[Two events brought about the timing and content of this week’s post. First, I missed last week’s deadline for this blog. This is a Limping in the Light week but the next LITL post will have to slip out a week. Second, someone (a fan?!?) was expressing an opinion about my book, A Slippery Land. She said she wanted to hear the stories behind some of the minor characters in the book. Luckily, I’ve already started one such story, so I present it here. I hope you enjoy this first part of the shoeshine’s story.]


The Shoeshine

Dawn announced its arrival on the concrete walls long before the shoeshine ever saw the sun. The light bounded between the decrepit structures that surrounded his decrepit house, crept up the alleys, and drew long vectors of light that gradually linked the tumbledown buildings as if his neighborhood were a giant connect-the-dots puzzle.

His eyes opened as slowly as the sun rose. Not even the slightest breeze had infiltrated the room all night. The air he woke up in was the same air in which he’d fallen asleep. The heavy, dust-filled air enveloped him like a vaporous cocoon. His face was drenched with sweat, as it always was, his eyes were bloodshot, and his nose runny. He reached over and picked up a shirt balled up on the floor at the side of his mattress and wiped his face clean. He had another shirt he could wear.

Instinctively, he swung his eyes around the room. It was unchanged from the day before and in fact unchanged from the day he moved in the week after the 2010 earthquake. The day after his home was destroyed by one of the many tremors following the initial shock, he’d found this abandoned tiny concrete box. He’d slept outside it for several days before he felt it was safe from collapse. He found a mattress, dragged it in, and his new house was furnished. After a year, he correctly assumed no one would return to it to claim ownership.

As quickly as his arthritic knees would allow—not quickly by any means—he gathered the tools of his trade along with his will. If he didn’t catch people before church, there would be few customers. Sunday was no day of rest for him. Most everything he needed was still in the mildewed wooden box sitting by the door where he’d left it the day before. He took stock of its contents: A brush, most of its bristles worn down to the wooden base. He’d need a new one soon, but had no idea where it would come from. Two rags, vestiges of shirts he’d picked up here and there, one still stained with the blood of the man he’d ripped it off after the quake. Black polish, a new can he’d bought with last Sunday’s earnings. White polish. He didn’t often use the white polish. White shoes, the style little girls only wore to weddings, became so scuffed up in the rugged streets of Port-au-Prince, shining them was a futile exercise. A couple of badly tarnished gourde coins rattled around at the bottom of the box.

An enormous dump truck, one that towered over most of the dwellings on the street, rumbled by carrying a load of charcoal, carcasses of felled trees that would never be replaced. As the truck shook the ground, his heart raced. He was immediately transported to the moment his life changed forever. The resilience that had carried him this far calmed him by the time the truck passed.

The outlook for breakfast was not good. Perhaps, he thought, a customer would offer him a piece of toast or a sample of Sunday’s squash soup. Hunger had long since ceased to be an impediment to his schedule. It was as much a part of his routine as breathing.

He picked up his little bell, the one that announced his presence with its feeble, tinny sound. He glanced around his home as if there were more to see. All that remained was a trip around the back to relieve himself before he began his rounds. The stain he made on the cement wall didn’t last long in the sun and heat, but the streaks of red drawn by the blood in his urine worried him. He had no idea what it portended but, having never seen it before last month, he assumed it was a bad sign.

To be continued…