Honorable Mention- Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction judged by Khanh Ha. Read his comments here.
The Shoe Shine Boys
The bus was full. Vito had already let two go by. If he didn’t get on this one, he’d miss the early shift. It was the best part of the day. Boots and shoes from all walks of life needing a shine. He squeezed himself through the backdoor, his face nestling into an unwashed armpit. He tried to hold his breath for twenty seconds, thirty seconds, but his lungs couldn’t last. Too many smokes. He exhaled and breathed in, and held his breath once more. Ten seconds, twenty seconds. The bus stopped. The armpit got off. Vito pursed his lips and let out a long sigh of relief.
It was short lived.
A wide-hipped woman boarded, twice as pungent as the armpit. She wore an off-white, sleeveless T-shirt, a denim mini-skirt two sizes too small, and yellow flip-flops. Vito hated flip-flops. No money in them. He could never understand why his fellow shoe shiners wore them too. How about leading by example? The woman’s toenails were manicured and painted bright pink, her hair stuck out at strange angles and there was sleep in her eyes. Her loose breasts squashed against Vito’s chest. He felt a lurch in his groin and shifted to the side. There was no danger of getting slapped on this bus. The woman couldn’t even raise her flabby arms to hold on. She just used the tight packing of passengers and her hips to hold her upright. When the bus shuddered off, Vito and the woman swayed forward with the crowd, curved like trees in the wind, and fell back into position as the bus found its rhythm. She began to hum to herself. A Bahian tune, thought Vito. Heads bobbed from side to side. To his left, a young man with headphones was nodding to a popular carnival beat. Over the PA, the radio crackled with romantic love songs.
Vito closed his eyes and thought of the bed he’d just left. The blankets still skewed out of shape, like a twisted armadillo. Months into the job, getting up early was a habit he was still not used to. As a child his mother would have to call him several times before he was able to rouse himself. It usually took a final pinch of the ear to force him out of bed. There was no one to wake him now. Just the radio alarm flicking into life at five-thirty. Sometimes he would let it ring until the family in the barraco next door banged on the walls. It would often cause a shower of plaster to sprinkle the floor. The walls were, at best, a thin film between him and his next door neighbours. He’d trained himself to only turn it off when he was sitting upright. There were too many occasions when he’d turned off the alarm, rolled over and gone right back to sleep, dreaming of diving or fishing or crab-catching.
No one at the Shack cared if he was late. It meant more business for his fellow workers. When he first started there, they would tease him. Geraldo, the longest standing shoe shiner, would shout across the Shack, “Hey, Screecher, why the yellow eyes?” Screecher, short for Screech Owl, due to Vito’s whine at the early starts. “Caught any mice today?” “Time those claws got clipped.” Yeah, yeah, very funny, Vito would think, and buff up a boot with even more energy. They didn’t have the same long journey each day and were not disturbed by the night sounds of gunshots, baile and dogs. They lived in quieter bairros, closer to the centre with their families.
The sun still wasn’t up by the time the bus stopped at Sé. Vito crossed himself at the statue of St. Paul, skipped over the sleeping bodies of drunks and homeless, dodged the pack of dogs scavenging around the bins, turned the corner and entered the Shack.
A collective cheer of “Screecher” rang out. Only Josafa “Big Conk” Koller said nothing. Vito grinned and reached for his apron. He considered the empty row of seats, their wooden backs and shiny leather padding worn down by the years. He pictured the people he might meet today: Paulito, the cafe owner opposite, usually his first customer, the businessmen, the tourists. The cafe lights were still off, but it wouldn’t be long before they threw open their doors to the early birds.
A shout could be heard down the street. Benedito the Mad was rounding the corner, howling at his imaginary enemy. Vito had been terrified of him at first. He always seemed to appear unexpectedly and shout “Monkey!” in his left ear. Vito would jump out of his skin and shout back, but Benedito never reacted. He was already halfway down the street waving his arms in the air, cursing the robot who’d removed his liver without the correct permission form. Once, Vito had tried to ask him why the robot had taken it. Benedito stopped shouting for a second and looked straight at him. His gaze made Vito so uncomfortable but he forced himself to hold it. Benedito closed his eyes and said, “What?” Vito repeated the question. Benedito, still with his eyes closed, walked off, shouting out “Monkey” to the walls. It was the closest Vito ever got to having a conversation with him.
No one knew where Benedito lived. He was relatively well dressed and always seemed to have money in his pocket. He was often spotted on buses, terrorizing the passengers with his ranting. No matter how packed it was, there were always spaces around Benedito. As far as the shoe shiners knew, he had never attacked anyone, but none of them would ever stretch to calling him “harmless”. This morning, Benedito was in a particularly voluble mood. He shouted “Monkey” twice at Vito, shook his fist at Geraldo and punched the air at the Paulito cafe.
“How’s the liver?” said Vito, just low enough not to be heard.
Benedito disappeared out of sight. Vito relaxed and took a cigarette out of a new pack. He handed them round. Geraldo, Dominique and Lucas all took one. Josafa was busy with his brushes, but Vito knew he was not a smoker. Josafa was not an anything. He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t take drugs, and he never stayed out late. As far as Vito knew he was loyal to his wife and had no girlfriends. They’d all fight for customers, Vito, Geraldo, Dominique and Lucas, each trying to outdo the other by knocking down a centavo here and there, but more often than not people opted for “Big Conk” Koller at no discount. What was it about that guy? Why did people trust him? Vito asked this question like a daily prayer.
When Josafa was with a customer he kept his head down and rubbed hard. He worked so close to his subject that Vito could often see the reflection of his nose on the boot tip. It was a hooter, thick black hair sprouting out of both nostrils. Vito fantasised about setting fire to this jungle. He’d once offered to singe them away in safety. Josafa smiled at him and shook his head, “I like them.” It was the most Josafa said in a day. He would nod from time to time, quietly soaking in Vito’s words like a sponge, never offering a drop of conversation in return. In all his days at the Shack Vito had never heard Benedito insult Josafa.
A crowd of office workers came into view and Vito straightened his apron. If he could get in a couple of shines before Paulito turned up, he’d be covered for breakfast.
“Shoe shine! Shoe shine!” they all cried at once. Geraldo had the loudest voice. A deep baritone born of years with the local choir. He was at least a head taller than the others too and usually managed to catch the first one through the Shack. Today was different. A businessman made straight for Vito, removed his sunglasses and the jacket that was perched on his shoulders. It made him look like a gangster. He asked, “How much?”
“6 reais,” said Vito. It was the standard price.
“How much?” the businessman repeated. Vito looked at the others. Geraldo shrugged and bellowed out “Shoe shine!” Vito turned to the customer and said, “For you, five.”
The businessman nodded once, sat in the chair, wriggled his bottom a couple of times and looked expectantly at Vito. Vito jumped into action. He laid out his brushes and cloths in a row, inspected the first shoe and pulled a dark tan polish from the box in front of him. Expensive leather, he thought, but the heels were well worn. The man looked about fifty to fifty-five years old, slightly balding with mouth lines beginning to droop down. His hands were placed squarely on his lap, a wedding ring on his finger, well-trimmed nails. The very tip of his middle finger was missing. Vito stared at it. The businessman caught him looking and said, “God Bless America.”
“Huh?” said Vito.
“Sawed off both tips when I was working over there. Insurance only covered one operation, so I had to choose which one to keep.”
Vito looked closer at this hand. The wedding finger had scars around the tip, barely noticeable in the early morning light.
“Don’t ever get old or sick in the States,” he said.
“Amen,” said Vito. He worked on the shoes, adding a thick layer of polish, buffing it hard, before adding a second layer. “Where you work?” Vito guessed it was a bank.
The businessman looked down at Vito. It seemed to him as though he were assessing whether Vito could be trusted with such a sensitive fact. “Here and there,” he said, vaguely waving in the direction of the financial district.
The shoes were done. Vito grinned at the shiny leather, enough to see his teeth gleaming back at him. More people were seated now and his friends were working away like a chain gang. “That’ll be five reais, Sir,” he said reaching out his hand. The man handed him a ten-note bill and waited. Vito reached in his pocket for change and realised he only had a twenty and four ones. “One moment, Sir,” he said, not wanting the man to think him dishonest.
“Josafa,” he said, “lend me a real until I get change.” Josafa pulled five coins out of his back pocket and gave them to Vito without a second glance. “My man,” said Vito and patted him on the back. No haggling, no questions. If he’d asked Lucas there would have been a five minute interrogation about when he would get the loan back, a further five minutes searching for the coins, by which time his customer would have lost patience and never returned.
Vito handed the real to the businessman, who looked it at curiously for a second and handed it back. “Keep it. A tip, for you,” he said. “So long, Vito!”
“Ciao,” said Vito and waved him off. He’d called him “Vito”. Had he met him before? He didn’t think so. He was good with faces and would have remembered the missing fingertip. Maybe he’d caught the others calling his name? Unlikely. The only person who called him Vito was Josafa and he never opened his mouth. The rest stuck to Screecher or in Benedito’s case “Monkey”. Vito recalled the man’s face, hair, hands, jacket. There was something familiar about him, something that he couldn’t quite place.
“Vito, Vito…?” It was Paulito calling. “Thought we’d lost you for a second. Whenever you’re ready.” Paulito was already settled into his favourite chair on the right with full view of his cafe. Vito smiled at him. Paulito was as regular and reliable as the huge clock hanging over his bar counter. Every morning before he started his shift, he would come and get his shoes cleaned. They had a nice little arrangement going. Paulito paid a fifth of the price for his shoes, Vito paid a fifth of the price for his coffee. In fairness, Vito came out the winner as he had at least three or four coffees to Paulito’s one shoe shine.
“How’s business?” asked Vito. It was a routine question to kick-start their morning.
“Business is booming, Vito-lito,” said Paulito. “We’re in the best corner of the world, in the wealthiest part of Sao Paulito. Workers get hungry and thirsty. And when they get hungry and thirsty, who do they come to? Paulito, that’s who. My customers love me, my wife loves me, why even my shoes love me. They’ve not left my feet in over five years.”
It was true. They’d been repaired so many times they looked like they were held together by prayer alone. Paulito did occasionally buy new shoes, or rather his wife did, but he kept going back to his old faithfuls. “I’m on my feet all day. I need comfort, not style,” he would say to the shoe shine boys.
As Vito rubbed away the grease and splashes of yesterday’s meals, he noticed a tear close to the little toe. All the stitching and glue in the world couldn’t patch up this hole.
“You might have to prepare a funeral procession for these guys,” said Vito, poking his finger through the gap.
“Vito-lito, how many times do I need to tell you my tale? I used to drive an old banger, a rustheap of a car-lito. From the outside, it looked terrible. My wife, she was too ashamed to sit in it. But the mechanic said it was the best engine he’d ever seen. Said it would go forever, long after the shell had rusted to nothing. I feel the same about my shoes. A few holes here and there don’t make the shoes useless. It makes them…unique. Now, here you are, my man.” Paulito handed Vito the money, smoothed his hair down to the side and strode into the cafe.
Today was pay day. One reais from Paulito, six from the stranger with the familiar face. Seven reais in total and it wasn’t even seven o’clock. It was a good start. The flow of workers was building into a torrent. Vito stepped into the crowd and called out, “Shoe shine! Shoe shine!”
Four customers at once walked into the Shack.
Vito looked across the street at the Paulito cafe clock. He had to duck his head low as the chandelier in the dining area blocked his view. Three thirty in the afternoon, the graveyard shift. He’d be lucky if he could get one customer in this dry hour. He pulled his last cigarette from a crumpled pack in his apron pocket and tossed the carton away. A street cleaner caught it in his path and swept it along the river of debris. Vito struck a match, turned it upwards to watch the flame flare, held it for a second and drew in a breath.
Josafa was hunched over the only customer in the Shoe Shine Shack, a woman wearing brown boots. She had straight hair tied back in a ponytail and a clip pinning her fringe into place. Her face was round, with little make-up. European, thought Vito. It looked like she’d been paddling in Sao Paolo’s dust for a fortnight. Josafa’s head was down and he was rubbing hard.
Out of the corner of his eye Vito spotted his uncle Silvio heading towards the Shack in a dark green suit, a leggy woman draped over his arm. Not his aunt Lidia, thought Vito. Vito still owed Silvio the money he’d borrowed for his latest unsuccessful business venture, selling cachaça at the central market.
“Out of smokes. I’ll be back,” he shouted to Josafa as he leapt out of the open window, sidled along the wall and down the street to the tobacco kiosk. Most of the shop fronts were decorated for Halloween. He thought for a second about buying a mask. No, he couldn’t keep avoiding Silvio forever. The man was his mother’s brother after all, but he just couldn’t face another dressing down in front of Josafa and the others. They’d teased him mercilessly when he came back after less than a week of “striking out alone”. All except Josafa. He’d said nothing, just smiled at Vito, and handed over a brush and cloth as though saying, “Welcome back”.
Vito thought back to his four days as a liquor vendor. He’d enjoyed the camaraderie of the market traders, the early morning buzz setting up the stalls, the smell of fruit and vegetables as they were being hauled through the corridors in boxes. His only trouble, he wasn’t much of a salesman. There was something about his face that people just didn’t like. He would look at himself in the mirror, trying to spot which wrinkle, which laugh line it was that brought the shutters down. Everything was in proportion. There was no outsized snout, no eyebrows meeting in the middle, even his eyes were evenly spaced out, something his mother cared deeply about. She treated anyone with close set eyes with suspicion. And yet…people took one look at him and walked away. Maybe it wasn’t the face. Maybe it was the polish-stained fingers or the chew-bitten nails that put people off. His father always said he had the hands of a “murderer”. It was meant to stop him chewing his nails as a child, but had only caused him anxiety and further nibbling.
By the time he’d paid the weekly fee for the stall, bought the stock of cachaça, the small taster cups, a dustbin, the advertising flyers and the snacks, the money had all gone. His friends came to toast his new venture and stayed, each taking a complimentary swig of the throat-burning liquor. By day three most of the drink was gone, very little actually sold, and he had a filthy hangover. By day four, with no booze left, his friends melted away. He’d had to pack up and go back to the Shack, putting it down to experience.
“A packet of Marlboro and a box of matches, please,” said Vito. Elder, the kiosk man, reached behind him without needing to look at the spot, pulled a packet from the shelf and tossed it towards Vito.
“Business good?” asked Vito.
Elder shrugged, “So, so.”
Another talker, thought Vito. What does it take to get a conversation going round here? “Office workers will be spilling out soon. Should pick up then.”
Elder shrugged his assent.
“How long you been in the business, my man,” asked Vito.
Elder raised his eyes to the ceiling and counted on his fingers, “Thirty three years, seven months, four days.”
“Keeping count?” said Vito with a laugh.
Elder did not smile. He looked like he’d heard it all before. Nothing could shake him.
Vito unwrapped the cigarette packet and tapped out the first one with his forefinger. It was a trick he’d learnt as a kid. His older brother would do it, then flip the cigarette into the air and catch it in his mouth. Vito had practised this many times but, more often than not, it landed on the floor. He sauntered back to the Shack, checking that Silvio had gone. “Smoke, anyone?” Geraldo and Dominique took one and sat down in the wooden seats. Vito bent down and looked again at the clock. It was five past four. He jangled the coins in his pocket. They were a bit light. Breakfast, lunch and smokes were taken care of, but he still needed money for food and his journey home. Anything left would go in the Silvio pot. He’d promised to put seventy aside each day. That meant at least ten more customers.
Josafa handed him a coffee, patted him on the back and went to sit on the empty seats. It was a pat of sympathy, as though he knew how much change lay in Vito’s pockets. There were only five years between them but Vito felt it was more like a father/son relationship. He took a seat next to Josafa, blew onto the coffee, took a slug, swallowed and whistled a slow tune under this breath. Josafa tapped his foot to the beat.
The sun was sinking, giving the evening a bruised look. Street lights came on. Music from Paulito’s cafe drifted across the street. A classic Bossa Nova tune – one of Paulito’s favourites that he usually played around this time as he geared up to the office rush hour. Vito watched him drying glasses and placing them carefully on the shelf above him. He’d seen his wife earlier with a shopping bag in her hand. Someone else bothered by the hole in the shoe. Time would tell if Paulito could be persuaded to part with his beloved footwear. Vito looked down at his own shoes. He’d been wearing the same pair now for over two years. They were taking on a weary look. But he needed every centavo for his next project, and to pay Silvio back.
He thought back to the man with the missing fingertip: the tailored jacket over his shoulders, the expensive shoes, the confidence with which he negotiated the price down, the sense of entitlement to a discount, before tossing the real back to Vito, just because he could. Vito dreamt of the day when he would stop chasing tips like litter down the street, when he could flick a few coins to the kids hanging around his own stall. To play the big shot, the generous guy, the man with plenty. This stranger with the missing fingertip had travelled to the States – Vito had never gone beyond the city limits. He’d suffered injury and loss. He’d returned to tell the tale as though the missing fingertip were a mere nothing, a troublesome bit of unnecessary flesh, something to shrug at. “Don’t get old or sick in the States,” he’d said. Don’t get old or sick at all, thought Vito. Who would look after him when he got old or sick? Geraldo? Lucas? Dominique? He was on his own.
Vito crossed the street to Paulito’s cafe.
“Vito-lito!” shouted the bar owner, “come and take the weight of the world off those polished feet.”
One of the regulars moved to the side to make room for him. They nodded to each other the way barflies do.
Vito slapped down several reais on the counter. “A beer, please, and a shot.”
Paulito arched his eyebrows. “Tough day at the office?”
“The usual,” said Vito. “You?”
“My life is just beginning.”
Vito took another coin and slotted it into the jukebox. He punched in the number 364 and returned to his seat. He closed his eyes to listen more intensely. He pictured the record as it juddered out of its slot, and scratched out the first few bars. It started with the whistle, then the drum. His feet started tapping on the bar stool. It travelled up his legs and into his belly. The music turned up a notch. The beat was faster, more frantic. Something in his mind clicked. It was evening and he was drawn in. Each instrument from the shaker bells of the chocalho to the tamborim, from the large bass drums of surdos to the band leader’s smaller repinique filled his body with sound. He couldn’t go home. Not yet. Not when the music was playing and there were coins in his pocket.
Vito’s head bobbed as he counted out his earnings. Along the bar there were seven piles all lined up in neat stacks. About one hundred reais in total. Not a bad day. Not good either. He’d battled over a couple of customers with Lucas, winning one, losing the other.
Sweeping four piles back into his pocket he pushed the remaining three towards Paulito. “Keep me fuelled until this runs out.”
Paulito cocked his head to one side and said, “You’re the boss.”
Night fell. At the back of the bus, Vito slumped in his seat. He turned to look behind him, lids heavy with liquor. The lights of the city were fading as the driver chugged up the hill slowly. He felt inside his trouser pocket. Only chicken feed left. Silvio would have to wait. His next project would have to wait. What was his next project? He thought again of the man with the missing fingertip. Vito imagined sitting next to him, their arms around each other, confidentially, like old buddies. Maybe they’d swap business tips or travel adventures. Maybe the businessman would invite him home for dinner.
Vito’s stop drew close. He pressed the bell. The bus stopped and the doors opened. Vito took one step down and turned to the driver. He dug in his pocket and found a real. He flipped it at the man and said, “A tip, for you.”
As the coin sailed through the air, he looked at his forefinger. A thin line of polish ran across the tip. It ran like a black river.
It ran like a scar.
Kerry Barner has lived in London, UK for over 20 years. She is an editor for an international academic publisher. Her work has appeared in Brand literary magazine, Notes From The Underground, Anthropology and Humanism, Spilling Ink Review, The Bicycle Review, the Momaya Annual Review (2012), To Hull and Back Short Story Anthology (2014) and now happily Red Savina Review. In 2011 she co-founded The Short Story competition and now runs it solo: www.theshortstory.net.