I had my corner. Right across the street, beside the subway stairs. Where the office men come up early with their crisp hats and their stiff collars, with their shoes dusty and scraped from the crowds. That’s where I met them every morning with my rags and brushes. Pesterton Polish, el el see. Second generation enterprise, family shingle—the brush kit was my dad’s and he bought it from an older Clovis for three dollars fifty the day after my grandfather fell. My dad shined for ten years, taught me to do the same, then died on his way home one night with the kit in his hand. His heart, Doctor Fessenden said.
Shining’s good work. Not like what Pestertons did before, what my grandfather did and what my dad did before he bought the kit. That was Pesterton & Son, window-washing with a flourish, no ladders, aerialist stuff. Real show-offy. But people don’t like a show-off. They’ll throw stones when you’re not looking, they’ll put a hot plate on the window ledge. They’ll leave a heavy sash propped halfway open and wait to hear you fumble with it, then run in yelling so it drops and clips your tips, and down you go. My dad’s dad went that way. My dad was below with the pails and sponges. He watched his dad go through a newsstand and break open on the pavement.
Shining, you can’t fall off of anything.
I’m not a show-off. I wear my dad’s big loose coat, extra loose in the back and shoulders where we both need it. Needed, in his case. That coat my mother made by hand, stitching every seam with double-strength thread and going over it in wire in the really important spots, where her men needed the most reinforcement. The younger Clovis calls me Hunchy.
Windows pay better but shining’s a proper trade. You wipe off the muck, polish up the leather, buff it, then give it a crack with the rag, that solid confidence-building crack that tells a man he’s done, he’s ready to go—like the smack a valet gives the back of a cab after a rich man’s inside. I have a dozen kinds of polish in my kit, half a dozen brushes, three different rags. Maybe he’s stepped in mud or gum, or horse manure—for that, I’ve got a little pocket knife plus the dirtiest towel dipped in spirits. I’ve got chamois for leather, soft as a flower petal. I can make a man’s old pair of gum boots look like new off the shelf, like something he wouldn’t mind wearing to meet his in-laws. Even a dirty old towel, nothing special about it, even that’s good for plenty of things.
Dr. Fessenden takes an interest, both medical and fatherlike. He wears black leather brogues at least twenty years old, the kind they don’t make anymore. He prods my back with his doctorly fingers and makes considering sounds. Other times he swats me with his paper and says, Look now, Peerless. Peerless, look at that young lady on the far corner. Lovely young lady, selling peanuts. You should find yourself a nice young lady like that, Peerless. The Pesterton line must go on.
Yes sir, I say, and back to his brogues. Maisie, he means. The cross-eyed peanut girl.
Every once in a while the Clovis boy spins past on his vegetable-seller’s cycle and hollers at me. Hey Hunchy! Hunchy Pesterton! How you like the shoe trade, Hunchy? Once he did it while I was shining Reverend Thistle’s brown leather boots, and the Reverend looked at me with so much compassion I felt an urge to spit. I smiled, and cracked his boots hard with the chamois, and bowed when he handed me an extra dime.
I shine only men. Women don’t want shining. They wear little flower-bud shoes, bright and pretty, all colors—or else scuffed, flat-heeled loafers with worn tassels, bent down from years of hard work in classrooms and nurseries and laundries. Women won’t pay for a shine. It’s only men that will put fifty cents to a shine, when they could put it to ten pounds of potatoes or a slate and chalk for their son to take to school. So shining’s not a trade for a man to meet a wife. Which is why Dr. Fessenden prods me toward Maisie the nut girl, whose eyes are crossed because her mother tatted so much lace she went blind, making peanuts the family trade.
Thursday morning was the same as any other. I was up before dawn, standing at the mirror in the bathroom, fumbling the bandages around my chest while my mother made coffee in the kitchen. I got everything tied down nice and tight, so I was just Hunchy Pesterton again, the bootblack with the funny shoulders. Then on with the shirt and the wire-seamed coat, and my old polish-stained work trousers, and my boots. A cup of coffee and a piece of bread and the locks off the door, and out we both went. Me with my kit and Mother with her bag. It’s three miles to the corner for me, and about half that for her, to the hospital where she cleans.
I set up my stand, Pesterton el el see, at my corner by the subway stop where I catch the office men. Maisie was already on the other side of the street, setting up her striped umbrella. She waved, and I waved back. After a while the paperboys appeared and some of the old flower women came and sat talking on their trunks.
I had a couple of customers—a few quick touch ups, a brisk two-handed shimmy over the toe, that crack of the chamois. I took my coins, bowed, and sat on my chair to wait for the real business to start. That’s when she appeared.
Probably she came up from the train tracks, but if you ask me she came from nowhere at all. I smelled sweet cigar smoke and felt a hand on my shoulder. When I turned, I looked up into a square, weathered face with deep-set eyes and skin as rough as orange peel.
“You open?” she asked. She wore a man’s fawn top hat, and her hair was coarse, thick, reddish-yellow, cut even with her chin. Her suit was fawn too, with a white starched collar and a black tie tucked flat against her big bosom. In one hand was a silver-headed walking cane. In the other was a cherry cigarillo. She was about fifty years of age, I’d say now. At the time I was so startled I couldn’t have said at all.
“You deaf?” she asked, cocking her head.
“All right then,” she said, and gave me a push to get me out of the chair. As she sat down, I noticed her boots—and it tells you how distracted I was, that I didn’t see them right away. I see a man’s—or a woman’s—feet before I see anything else. I can be looking straight in your face and still know what kind of shoes you wear.
This lady’s shoes were tremendous. I’ve shined the shoes of men six and a half feet tall, and they weren’t as big as hers. And not just long, either—wide, broad, almost circular. Round as pots. They were made of the finest otter-colored leather I’d ever seen. Smooth, velvety, not a scratch on them. Someone had stitched those shoes by hand, with skill and care. The thread across the toes was cranberry red, and the thread on the instep was black, and all the way around, every stitch was tight and even, not one out of place.
She leaned back in the chair and blew a smoke ring. “Nice morning.”
That woke me up enough to say, “Yes ma’am,” and to pull the dirty terry towel and knife from my belt. But I couldn’t find anything to do with them—her shoes were so clean I had to satisfy myself with prying a pebble from the treads. The rubber felt soft as kid, but strong.
“You got a brown polish?” she asked. I nodded. “Good. Go easy on the seams. I don’t want them junked up.” She lifted one leg and scrutinized the shoe on the end of it. It was like a pie plate, only pointed a bit at the end where her toes must be. What kind of feet took shoes like that? A bird’s feet, or a lizard’s. Something with the toes spread out in all directions, like a splayed hand, instead of pointing forward like a man’s.
She settled back in the chair and tapped ash over my brush kit. “Care to guess what these shoes cost me?”
It had already occurred to me that they must be custom-made, that no merchant could carry such things in quantity—how many feet existed in the world for them?—and that they must, therefore, be very expensive.
“I’d say, maybe, fifty dollars?”
She laughed, with a sound like a dog puking. “Each! And then some.”
“You don’t say.” I bent again, pulling the dark brown polish from my kit.
“Worth every penny. Who’s that girl?”
I looked up. Maisie was watching us from across the street. Her eyes were wide and more than usually crossed, it looked to me. I frowned to tell her she was interfering with my business, and she looked away.
“Nobody,” I asked, returning to the tin of polish. It was stuck closed, and I had to get my knife out to open it. “Just a peanut girl.”
“Pretty,” said the lady, and crossed her legs. “Who made your coat?”
I paused, the rag dipped in the polish. “My mother,” I said.
“Nice work,” said the lady. She leaned forward in the chair and studied my back. My face went hot. My coat was no subject for conversation. Only a few people ever took notice of it, or of what was belted down beneath it. Doctor Fessenden, who liked to poke and prod. Who once picked up a stray feather from the ground beneath my feet, studied it, then tucked it in his pocket with a grave look at me. The bucktoothed, hollering Clovis boy, pedaling by with rotten marrows spilling out of his wooden bike-basket. And the Reverend, who never said anything specific, but laid two fingers on me and said God loved even the lowest of the low—by which I assumed he meant me.
I worked the chamois faster, trying to get through so she’d go. She smelled like a man, like tweed and tobacco, and a man’s kind of perfume. I wondered if maybe she was a man, one of the effeminate strollers who came out at dusk and put their slender purple boots on the block for a swipe. But she was too manly for that—there was nothing else she could be but a woman.
I expected her to say something else about my coat, or my back, but instead she said, “Where do you get good oysters in this town? Little bitty ones—I don’t want to choke on my breakfast.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You aren’t from around here, I guess.”
“Visiting. For a special engagement.”
“I am, you fool.” She laughed. “At the Museum of Natural History. I’m delivering a lecture on the jungles of the equatorial region. Do you know who I am?” She saw I didn’t. “Professor Freida Sykes-fforth. I study orangutans. Do you know what those are?”
“Like a monkey.”
“An ape, but that’s more than most people know. You’re an educated bootblack. What’s your name?”
“Peerless,” I said. “I’ve seen pictures.”
“And you’ve seen street fairs too, I’ll bet. Evil displays. When I catch a man displaying an ape I rip his hat in two and stamp on it. Then I kick him in the crutch.”
“An ape’s not a god, but I’ll give him one thing—he’s not a man. Your ordinary, everyday man is about the most useless thing around. I’m happiest in my hammock in the banana trees. I’m happier with fire ants in my drawers than in the city.”
I burnished her toes, blushing.
“I only come,” she went on, “to take their money so I can fund another expedition. You can’t go alone, and you’ve got to pay people to go with you. You’ve got to pay porters and guides and pilots and photographers and boys to carry the tripods. You’ve got to pay the customs agents and the rifle men and when you get home you’ve got to pay the staff for keeping up the house. The only ones that don’t get paid are the orangutans, and they’re the only ones worth paying.”
I ran the chamois behind her heel, yanked it tight, and gave it a hard shimmy.
“How long have you been blacking boots?” she asked.
I smiled and said, “All my life,” ready to spin her a few words that would increase my tip—my father’s trade passed down to me, his wisdom and advice, the many illustrious feet I’d seen. But she cut me off.
“If I were you, I’d be in another line of work. Windows, maybe. Sign hanging. Tree pruning. Something like that.”
I froze, but she wasn’t looking at me. She’d tipped her head back to blow another smoke ring into the air. Her hand hung over the side of the chair.
“What are those?” she asked, pointing up. I glanced. A cloud of grackles was passing overhead, nattering away.
“Just city birds,” I muttered. “They’re like rats around here.”
“No, Mr. Peerless. Rats are bound to the earth. They travel on sidewalks and in sewers. Those birds—” She raised the cheroot. “They have the power of flight. That’s a most miraculous thing, don’t you think?”
I was putting my brushes away, and didn’t reply.
“Oh well,” she said, and lifted her trouser legs to inspect the tops of her shoes. “What’s the cost?”
She fished in her pocket and dropped a dollar into my kit.
“If I could fly,” she said, “I’d never come back here. I’d let those fine gentlemen at the Museum sit around their table without me, and I’d be in the treetops eating bananas. With the orangutans.”
I tried to smile.
“I like to step on their toes,” she added, in a confidential tone. “Under their big boardroom table. And I like to have good shoes to do it in.”
She tipped her hat and went off along the sidewalk, walking as easily as any man, if with slightly larger steps.
I worked my day and packed up my kit. As tight as I bind them, the bandages cut me by the end of the day, and I always stand up feeling as sore as if I’d gone ten rounds in the ring. I stretched as well as I could, then turned to go. But all of a sudden I smelled warm nuts and oil, and felt a hand on my arm.
“Mr. Pesterton,” said Maisie, in her clear shy voice. “These are left over. Will you take them?” She stood holding a grease-stained paper sack, dusted with grains of salt.
I hesitated, and she said, “For your mother.” So I reached out, and for a moment we were both holding the bag, my hand big and buckled and streaked with black polish, and hers small and smooth from the all-day oil of the roaster.
“Thanks,” I said. There was nothing I could give her in return, so after a moment I added, “Funny lady this morning.”
“Oh,” said Maisie, glancing aside—or I think she glanced aside. It was always hard to say where she was looking. “I wasn’t sure.”
“A professor,” I said, not sure why I was saying so much. “Of orangutans. And—” I stopped short. “Well, she was a professor.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Her shoes,” Maisie ventured, “seemed . . . unusual.”
I was about to report just how unusual they’d been—how big and ungainly, like the elephant leg umbrella stand in the foyer of the Brazen Arms. But something stopped me.
“They were all right,” I said. “Just custom.”
Maisie nodded, and this time I was sure she was looking at me, working up her courage for something. Her eyes were a particular clear plain shade of grey, a rare pearly color that I’ve always admired. When she was nervous they crossed more than ever.
“Mr. Pesterton,” she said, before I could turn away. “I was wondering—”
I waited, fingering the warm greasy paper.
“My church,” she said. “We have our picnic this Saturday. I wondered if you’d care to come.”
“Your church,” I said, feeling trapped. “I go to church on Sundays.”
“Yes. This is on Saturday, though.”
I couldn’t think of a single thing to say, except, “I’ll have to ask my mother. She may have to work.”
Maisie seemed to deflate a little. She eased back onto her heels, and I noticed, in the dusky light, that there were oil stains on the lacey bosom of her dress.
“Oh,” she said. “All right. Please give your mother my best.”
“I will.” I stood there a moment longer, shifting my shoulders to ease the ache of my back. Maisie glanced at her umbrella, its red and white stripes fading into the darkness. A flock of grackles had flown down, and were pecking up the bits of broken nut from her sidewalk. “And your mother,” I added. “How is she?”
Maisie gave me a sliver of a smile. “Very well, Mr. Pesterton. She still makes the most beautiful lace. By touch, you know.”
“Of course.” Then we stood there in silence, looking not at each other but at the sidewalk between us, at the polish kit and the bag of nuts in my hands, until at last she said, “I have to close up,” and I said, “My mother will be waiting,” and with nervous smiles, we took our leave.
My mother was already waiting for me at our appointed corner.
“You’re late,” she said, shifting her big grip from one hand to the other, pressing her fist to the small of her back. She’s not like my father and me, but her back hurts anyway most days.
“I was talking,” I said. We took up our walk. My mother’s shoes clopped beside mine, and I saw that I’d have to polish them for her again that night.
“Talking,” she said.
“There’s a picnic,” I said. “If you care to go.”
“Who’s asking me to a picnic?”
“I am,” I said. “Well, it’s a church affair.”
I couldn’t think what to say. “A friend,” I said at last. “She sells nuts.”
“She,” said my mother. We walked a little longer. She let her grip swing freer in her hand, so it bumped against my kit.
“If you care to go,” I said again.
“I do not care to go,” said my mother. “But if you don’t go, then you’re a bigger fool than your father. And I don’t want to think I raised a fool as well as married one.”
That night I took off the bandages in front of the bathroom mirror, the way I always do. But instead of shutting off the light and going to bed, I stood and looked at myself. If I stretched I could touch both walls at the same time. I could touch the ceiling. If I folded everything up tight I almost looked, from the front, like any laboring man might look. Big in the shoulders, strong in the neck. If I stayed head-on to myself, I could almost pretend I was nobody special at all.
The next evening I was shining an office man’s small black shoes when I heard the Clovis’s bicycle come clacking down the cobbles behind me.
“Hey Hunchy!” he yelled. “Hey Hunchy Pesterton! I got some birdseed in my pocket for you, Hunchy!”
Before I knew it I’d turned on my heel and, still crouched down, cracked the chamois as far and hard as I could. It snapped the Clovis boy’s knuckles with a sound like a branch breaking. He yipped. The bicycle veered. For a moment it looked like he’d go down in a mess of broken squash and cabbages. But he caught his balance and hauled the cycle upright, and after a quick startled look back over his shoulder at me, put all his weight on the pedals and shot on like the devil was at his dirty, broken-down heels.
I finished up the office man’s shoes. When he stood he said, “That boy’s needed that for some time now,” and pressed a dollar into my hand.
I packed my kit and left with my heart beating double-time and my eyes on the sidewalk. I didn’t dare look to see if Maisie, or anyone else, had seen what I’d done.
I woke the next morning, Saturday morning, with a stone in my belly. I’d dreamed I was on the sidewalk watching my father tumble down with his tips clipped. The air not an easy staircase but a deadly void, his body dropping to split on the pavement like a broken marrow.
Whenever I dreamed like that I made myself get up and do the bindings right away. As the bandages went on I’d feel safer and safer, more hidden and protected. But this morning for some reason I stood holding them in my hand, staring at them and feeling not safe, but sick. The weight in my stomach seemed to increase as I held them to my chest in the mirror and considered putting them on.
I could hear my mother in the kitchen, getting out the coffee cups. Outside the window, the sky was pearl grey with a fine lacework of clouds on the horizon. It would clear up later, I knew, and we’d have a day of cool autumn sunshine. A good day for a picnic in the park.
I looked back at the bandages in my hand. For some reason I thought of the professor’s fine shoes, the neat even stitches joining the upper to the sole. And of her leaning over my back, inspecting the stitches my mother had made in thread and wire. I wondered if she’d finished her engagement, and if she’d managed to tread on the board men’s toes with her great round shoes. Or maybe she was on her way back to the jungle already, to the world of the orangutans.
I heard my mother rattle the coffee can, and smelled toast beginning to burn. At some point I’d put the bandages aside, and now I stood in front of the window looking out, wearing nothing but my pajama pants. On the ledge outside the window was a crust of bird droppings. Down in the alley below were lines of trash cans and old broken pallets and crates.
I opened the window. It stuck halfway, and screeched when I forced it.
“Peerless?” my mother called. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” I answered. I thought I might be too big to fit through the frame, but with some careful angling, I managed it. I hunkered down the same way I did when I shined, and stared down into the alley with my heart thumping. Again, I saw my father’s body fall. Then I thought of my mother, and turned my head to call, “I’m just going out for a bit. I’ll be back soon.”
She said, “What?” in a tone of confusion, and I knew if I stayed to answer I wouldn’t be able to go at all. So I leaned forward into the open air and let myself fall.
Just for a second. Then some old reflex took over and I was surging upward, forcing my body through the stories of air to the sky above the buildings. A bunch of grackles took off with me when I passed, and we all flew together in a cackling comet stream, over the city to the park. It felt both strange and completely familiar, like something I’d put aside for years but had always been meant to do.
When we arrived they were already laying out the blankets on the grass, and before I even saw Maisie’s red and white umbrella, I smelled the nuts she was roasting for the church folk. I circled the lawn once, twice, then a third time, with my heart beating a tattoo in my ears. Down below, I saw them all standing up to watch. My shoulders burned, the good burn you get from working hard. I was Peerless Pesterton, of Pesterton & Son, and I was flying.
Maybe they were calling me show-off and Hunchy down there. Maybe someone was going to throw a rock. But I looked down and saw Maisie waving, holding her blind mother’s hand and speaking aloud what I was doing, so she could see as well. I waved back. And then a warm, nutty updraft caught me and raised me up beyond the reach of anything they could throw.
Photo by James Newman