Monday, November 28, 2005

Shoe-Shiner Story

He waits, holding the book under his arm like a bird, like an embarrassing gift—the truth is that it is his armor. He removes the dust jackets because it is better if his reading preferences are a mystery to the public. He believes that everyone is judging his character by the kinds of books he chooses to drag up onto busses, into restaurants. He believes this because he judges others this way. The yellow boards of the book are held together with ivory cloth. Gilt letters are stacked on the spine.

Behind the glass is the shoe-shiner, legs crossed at the ankle, sitting on a leather-topped bench, head tilted back, reading the Daily News folded in half, marked at the Sports section. The shoe-shiner touches the tip of his greasy finger to his tongue, brushing it along the bottom side of the paper, taking a page up with it. He looks up, into the eyes of the man outside who is clutching a book.

This is the first moment. Years later, around long wooden tables and empty bottles, with circles of friends on three-day weekends, even having told this story countless times, they will bicker over who saw who, and what it meant, and what the other felt. The fairness--to the naive, to the young--will seem like an argument.

The reader pushes the door open, leaving fingerprints on the glass, cursing himself for the blunder, the body’s constant betrayal. If he had his choice, he'd live forever a life of the mind. The shoe-shiner stands up, motions his palm out to the chair, and at the sight of this delicate gesture, the reader corrects himself: No, he thinks, never merely the fragile, sweatless life of the mind.

The reader sits and the shoe-shiner goes to work. The reader watches the tendons in his forearm rippling like the tendrils of tiny sea creatures. The other foot is placed forward. And suddenly, faster than he intended, he is spent, finished. The shoe-shiner places his hand on the top of the shoe and taps it twice, allowing his fingers to stay longer. The reader looks down at him. The shoe-shiner removes his hand, and looks at the floor, the way you turn away when a child who wants to feel older dresses himself for school.

This is the second moment. Except the shoe-shiner won't remember this detail, and the reader won't remind him of it until they are old men--leaving it out of all the wooden-table-three-day-weekend storytellings, saving it only for each other. And when the reader finally re-enacts the bashfulness, the shoe-shiner will once again feel that knotting in his stomach, that flutter.

The reader steps down. And they kiss. Lips pressed against lips, a hand pressing against the shoe-shiners chest, the smell of polish and rags in the air. His tongue tastes like satin, or warm silver.

It is not the sort of kiss that evokes waves crashing against the shore or flowers blooming in fast-forward. Instead, it is a fast kiss, over too soon, and the reader feels blindfolded, standing under a sky filled with fireworks. When he finally opens his eyes, he can only smell the fading blue smoke, which reminds him just how beautiful the world once was.

No comments: