A couple weeks after I turned 21, I found myself sitting on the ledge of a button shop, sucking down a cigarette. My shift at the Starbucks next door had just finished, and I was busying myself with airing out the espresso from my insides, lazily watching the crowds stroll past.
To my right stank a mangy black guy who held a can of Kiwi spray-on shoe polish (black) in one hand and a few strips of cloth in the other. Next to him was a blue plastic milk crate with the words “PROPERTY OF RAVEN CREAMERY” emblazoned on its side. His eyes were the only polished thing about him, but his voice was smooth and made up for its lack of teeth with a constant flow of melodic jive, directed at the passers-by and whoever would give him half an ear.
Sometimes half an ear is all the audience one needs to sing that garbling song of the self. Me, I saved my song for the cuter customers and strips of register tape. I had a collection of 3 to 4 inch strips stuffed inside my locker, scrawled over with little wordplays and pieces of ideas that came to me between frappuccino’s and bagged scones.
The man was sawing:
“Shoes, shoes, shoes. You put them on your feet, you go out on the street. Shoes. They’ll save you from the glass s‘long’s you don’t fall on your ass. Shoes, shoes, shoes. I’ll polish ‘em I will for a clean five-dollar bill. Shoesies! You don’t have nothin’, my papa said a man ain’t no man without shoes. You bet. You’re just a sumbitch no matter how fine yo stitch if you can’t lacquer up a decent pair of shoes. Let me clean em for ya! How bout it, man? Mistah come aside, let me polish them walkin’ hides. Yep. I’m the Polisher, with a p, and p means business if you know what I’m sayin’…”
My own shoes were suede low-cut Vans, originally purplish in color. Now they were espresso brown, frayed on the insides from dodging through my coworkers during the lunch, afternoon, and dinner rushes. They stank to high heaven, but only when I took them off. Inside my left shoe, in the crooks between my three smallest toes, my itch was acting up. I tried to ignore it. A tingling began to creep up my leg, making its way toward my groin. I couldn’t very well deal with it here, in public, going at it with both thumbs until sweat sprouted from face and my vision clouded. The act was too masturbatory. I scrunched up my toes several times to appease it. The Polisher had turned to me and asked for a cigarette.
“So tell me, son, you still busy in there or you got the evening off?” he asked after I lit the Medium sticking from his thin, beakish lips. He had cupped both his hands around the flame, and instead of lowering them as I turned it off, he began to touch my hand with his. I didn’t know that he was doing, but decided to answer him anyway.
“I’m off,” I said, watching as he pulled back my fingers and dropped my lighter onto the cement. He wrapped his hands around mine, and began to study my palm.
He said, “People should wear gloves, you know. Things can get in through our hands just s’much’s through our busy feet.”
I told him that gloves would get in the way, or something like that. He nodded and then puckered his lips. Standing so close to him, his smell wasn’t all that bad. Like visiting a grandparent’s house, the pungence can turn to perfume before you know it.
I suddenly remembered where I was, feeling a flush of anxiety and looking around for the people who might be watching us. The street was dark, the streetlights hadn’t come on yet. The people’s faces were smudged like mishandled charcoal drawings. The Polisher told me to pay attention and when I glanced back at him, a bulb of white foam was hanging from his lips, about to fall into my open palm. I reflexed, but he held me, his grip just strong enough to keep me where he wanted.
When he spat, I coughed out a hey! and he hissed something that sounded like “patience”. He took one of the rags from his pocket, smeared the spit over my palm, withdrew a different rag, rubbed the spit into my skin, then took out another and patted my hand until it was dry.
When he let go, he said “That’s for the square. My papa told us boys never to owe nobody nothin’. Always give somethin’ for somethin’. There ain’t no burden like an uncashed check.”
I sat back down on the ledge of the button shop’s window and pulled out another cigarette. I wanted to wipe my hand on the leg of my pants, but didn’t want to get it dirty. Hand or pant leg, I wasn’t sure.
I patted my pockets for my lighter. Left, right, breast. It wasn’t there. I repeated the sign of the misplaced lighter twice before I saw it on the sidewalk. I reached out, snatched it up, and put the flame to my twill. I sucked in the first drag as deeply as I could, even though I usually gave that one to the open air. I did this because tobacco companies put microscopic shards of glass in the filters of their cigarettes. The glass makes tiny serrations in your lungs and gives you a bigger nicotine rush. Evidently, the conspiracies of Big Tobacco weren’t foremost on my mind just then.
I felt tired. I felt sunk in the sad-eyed lowlands of the post eight-hour shift. I closed my eyes and listened to my polished hand for symptoms of something. Anything. I felt washed-out and my head ached.
The lilt of the Polisher was going strong, sewing the flow of the crowd into itself, dividing and multiplying his words until a net-like entity, smoky, immaterial, seemed to exist in the spaces between one person and the next. I was fully aware that I was tripping, but didn’t have the energy to stop myself. The heat and humidity of the night laid over me like a quilt.
Lilt, quilt. I spilt milklike into a catnap and when I looked back up the streetlights were on and I felt like I had missed the interlude between two scenes.
I took several deep breaths until my head was cleared. My cigarette had fallen from my hand while I was out, and burned itself dead next to my sagging backpack. I took out my cigarette box and withdrew the last pre-fab. All I had left after this was a filterless Kretek brand clove. I returned the pack to my pocket and decided to walk over to the White Hen Pantry for more when I was done.
The Polisher was still next to me, sitting on the RAVEN CREAMERY milkcrate, elbows on his knees, chin resting on his fists. He had stopped jiving, and was now asking people for change. When they ignored him, he didn’t take offense. Rather, he clearly informed them which way they were going: You’s headed Northbound, mista… How ‘bout that Southern sky, chief? And so on.
Halfway through my smoke I was about to stand and make my way to the minimart when I spotted a gaggle of girls coming from that direction. I froze, not feeling up to the confrontation. They were wearing electric blues and dayglo pinks and yellows. Legs and bellies and torpedo-shaped breasts owning the lay of the land like constellations, like landmarks orienting all direction their ways. The Polisher picked up on this and began to name their parts like a mapmaker dictating from personal experience.
“Honey thighs beneath honey hips. The rump don’t sag and the tits don’t twitch. Soft tummy like a bag of flour, make you sneeze if you open it too fast. Yeah. My papa told us boys, our papa told us to beware the beaver ‘cause it’s got two front teeth that mean business. And I’d give a year off my life to know what he meant by them two front teeth.”
The girls were upon us. I looked away, looked back, worried about my hair, straightened my shoulders, imagined my smile wasn’t half as lame as I knew it was.
The Polisher hiccoughed and said in a tone that could gilt a lily “You sweet honey’s have anything to spare for ol' Pete?”
They passed us without a word. I had already begun to relax, to come back to myself when one of them turned and pronounced acidicly, her face a covergirl sneer: “I don’t feel sorry for you, crackhead!”
Another of the girls added, “Yeah, why don’t you go home to your crackwhore?” and they all giggled sweetly. I felt my stomach quiver and before I knew it I had my backpack slung over my shoulder and I was following them.
“You’s ruin-bound, man,” the Polisher pointed out as I passed him. “Road to ruin of yo chosin’. Give em a smack for old Pete, and I promise he’ll dance a jig on yo youthful grave…”
That’s all I caught. His words were wiped away by her’s, by the one who shouted “I don’t feel sorry for you!” I repeated them under my breath: “I don’t feel sorry, I don’t feels sorry for you!” They were tart and sweet and my mouth was watering and all I knew was that I had to see her face, watch her hands gesture, watch her personality rise defiant from her semi-developed body because who but a goddess could be that beautifully bitter? Who but a goddess, and who but a poet could look into her roots and find that concoction and maybe distill it into a something understood, a something had, a something tasted to the fullest extent of taste…?
I followed, blindly, my tongue tracing the uneven line of my own two front teeth.