The Shoe Shine Man

She can have the house, Kevin Jamison thought to himself as he walked down Main Street in downtown Dallas on his way to his office. Briefcase in hand, he was determined to get to work early. As a corporate attorney trying to make partner in the prestigious firm of Lambini & Sons, there were never enough hours in the day. But work wasn't his only motivation for arriving early. He liked to be out of the house before Jonetta, his wife of seven years, woke up. Kevin didn't like to have conflicts so early in the morning, unless they were legal conflicts. He also didn't like to be detained once he set upon a destination, which is why he was determined to avoid the shoddily dressed part-time bum, part-time shoe shine man hollering to every passerby, "Shine! Shine! Get yo' shoes shined fo' three dollar an' a dime!" Kevin walked doggedly ahead, determined to ignore the shoe shine man, but his efforts were in vain, for once the man spotted Kevin, he zeroed in on him, and with amazing speed, he placed himself directly in front of Kevin so that it was impossible to avoid him.

"Shine, suh?" he propositioned Kevin.

"No. My shoes are just fine, thank you. So if you'll please excuse me," Kevin responded curtly, trying to maneuver around the old man without deigning to touch him. "I'll 'scuze ya all right, but dey ain't no 'scuse fo' da way dem shoes look. No suh! I'll let ya go on yo' way," the man said moving slightly to the left, "but it don' hardly make no sense to be wearin' dat 'spensive suit wid dem scuff busters on."

In exasperation, Kevin looked down past his tailored black Hart Schaffner and Marx suit to his shoes, confident he'd find them in mint condition. To his dismay, he realized that his $300 burgundy Cole Hahns were scratched and faded, looking like they hadn't been buffed in months. They hadn't.

Kevin glanced at his watch, knowing he had time, but since he felt compelled to hurry this man as much as possible, he wanted to give the appearance of haste. "All right, mister, you can shine my shoes, but please make it snappy; I'm in a hurry," Kevin said as he climbed onto the rickety shoe shine stand and placed his right foot on the mount.

"Yas, suh! Don' ya worry none, suh. I'll have dem shoes of yo'lls lookin' like new in no time flat!"

While the man took his dirty, oily rag out of his torn back pocket and commenced to buffing Kevin's shoes, Kevin's mind began to focus on the topic that was never far from his consciousness--his troubled marriage and his seemingly inevitable divorce. He didn't want to divorce Jonetta, but he just didn't know what to do about the pain they kept causing each other.

"Funny, ain't it?" the old man said to Kevin as his rag went slap slap across Kevin's shoes.

Kevin realized the old man had spoken to him. "I beg your pardon?" he responded.

"Ain't no need to beg; jus' ast. I say, funny, ain't it?" he repeated.

"What's funny?"

"Funny how a man's shoes can get scuffed up real bad widout him hardly even noticin'. Seem like, if'n a person be puttin' on dey shoes reg'lar like, he ought ta notice when dey needs some workin'. But dat ain't da way it happen.

slap slap

"People be walkin' down dis here street eb'ry day in need of a real good buffin', an if'n it weren't fo' me stoppin' 'em--like I done you--why, dey liable to go on embarrassin' deyselves with some messed up lookin' shoes. Yas suh!" the man exclaimed, full of himself for having performed what he considered to be his civic duty in stopping Kevin. "Seem like trouble got a way of doing dat, too. Just creep inta our lives widout us hardly noticin' 'til we finds ourselves in a fix it gonna take more den a few minutes of buffin' to get outta."

Kevin knew that what the old man was saying was true, especially as it related to his marriage. He wished that he could figure out the exact point in time when things began to fall apart, but it just seemed that trouble slipped in so gradually as to almost be imperceptible. They had gradually stopped communicating, stopped spending as much time together as he spent more time at the office and she spent more time with her teaching job and the kids.

Initially, he and Jonetta had both been excited when he'd been offered the position at Lambini and Sons. But then, it soon became apparent that Jonetta didn't appreciate the sacrifices he'd had to make in order to climb that corporate ladder. It seemed that suddenly they were always arguing about the time his job consumed.

You're never home.

Jonetta, I'm doing the best I can.

Well, that's just not good enough.

You know I'm trying to make partner in this firm.

What about trying to be my partner, huh? What about that? Lawyers are a dime a dozen, but I only have one husband. Our children only have one father and we need you! That firm doesn't need you. And besides, do you really think Lambini and Sons is going to make you, a black man, a "son"? Get real, Kevin, get real.

Her words cut him deeply. He tried to understand her anger--to put it in its proper context--but despite his efforts, he was left feeling that the one he needed to pull him up was constantly trying to tear him down. So he withdrew from her emotionally, and the disharmony between them intensified.

"I recommen' dat mens dat don' like to get dey shoes shined on a reg'lar type basis pay more 'tention to where dey step. Why just las' week dis man came ploppin' his big, nasty shoes up on my stand 'spectin' me to clean off da mess he done walked hisself inta. Yeah, buddy. He'd stepped inta some stinky stuff all right, an' it were not pleasant. 'Course dey got another name fo' it, but seeing dat I's a new man in Christ, I don' talk dat way no mo'."

I wish you wouldn't talk at all anymore, Kevin thought to himself, growing tired of the man's constant chatter.

"Yeah, dat stinky stuff will get ya all right," the man continued, oblivious to Kevin's annoyance. "Ya ever step inta some stinky stuff?"

"No," replied Kevin shortly.

But hadn't he? The day he stepped into his paralegal's bed was the day he stepped across the line of no return. He hadn't wanted to cheat on Jonetta, but in so many ways, he felt cheated--cheated out of her understanding, cheated out of her compassion, cheated out of her support, cheated out of her love. And Karen was so different. She was more the way Jonetta used to be before the kids, before the pressure, before the distance that stood like a sentry between them. She didn't think he was foolish for trying to make partner in a lily white firm. Karen seemed to understand what drove him--that incessant need to prove himself. Instead of trying to block his way, she did everything she could to smooth out the path before him. She worked without complaint the longer hours and dutifully met his greatest demands. In time, she became more than his paralegal. She became his confidante, and then, to his shame, she became his lover.

But when Jonetta found out, the "stinky stuff" really hit the fan.

Jonetta, I said I'm sorry.

But you also said "I do" and didn't.

I hurt, too.

You just feel guilt but I feel pain.

I was mistaken.

That we know, but why not sooner?

Let's try again.

I tried before. Why should I now?

Later, after she'd calmed down, she came to him and suggested that they go seek help. She wanted to go see a counselor, a Christian counselor who had supposedly helped a friend of hers who was having marriage problems. But Kevin was tired, he had no faith in counselors, and so he couldn't truly see the point. He didn't even honestly mean it when he had suggested that they try again. What he really felt was that it would be better if they simply stopped prolonging the agony and just threw it all away.

"...so he throwed 'em away and I says to myself, 'Dat dere is one big fool.' Yeah, he were a fool all right," continued the old man, unaware that Kevin hadn't been listening.

"Do ya think ya'd ever be as foolish as he were?" the man inquired.

"Who was foolish?" Kevin asked, immediately sorry he did.

"Man, ain't ya been listening? I just done told ya 'bout dat man what throwed his mightily high price shoes away when all dey needed was a little buffin', a little cleanin', a little 'tention paid to 'em on a reg'lar type basis.

"See, shoes is like peoples," the old man went on to explain. "Ya cain't just keep wearin' 'em day in an' day out an' den stick 'em in da closet spectin' dem ta shine deyselves. Shoes take work. Peoples do, too. An' eb'ry now 'n den dey bof gotta make contact wid a shoe shine man.

"Now, I specializes in shinin' shoes, but if'n ya needs yo' heart shined, or yo' relationship shined, da best shine man I knows is Jesus Christ. When he get through buffin' ya, an' cleanin' ya, an' riddin' ya of all da 'stinky stuff', ya can shiiine like da bright an' mo'nin' star. Yas suh!

"Well, I's done," the old man said with a final slap slap. "Dat'll be $3.10, please, suh."

Kevin gave the man five dollars, thanked him, picked up his briefcase, and continued walking to his office thinking that perhaps seeing that Christian counselor his wife suggested wasn't such a bad idea after all. While his mind pondered the positive alternatives that lay before him, he could hear, in the background, the man's singsong voice shouting, "Shine! Shine! Get yo' shoes shined fo' three dollar an' a dime!"

'The Shoe Shine Man' was Michelle's first attempt at writing a short story. It won first place in a writing contest and was published in 1997 in Our Texas Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

© 1997 Michelle Stewart

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