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Shoe Polish

ISSUE:  Summer 2000

Men looking down. Men sitting in chairs and looking down with appreciation, suspended pleasure. Some wryly study the industry at their feet; the meticulous polishing of leather as the bootblack’s cloth snaps like a pennant in the wind. Something like a chain of command too, Anne thought; the men sitting high in the elevated chairs with their feet fitted on the brass supports as the shoeshine bends low over the shoes, smoothing wax into the leather and buffing it to a supple glow. Best of all, was the toothbrush dipped in dark stain to limn the crevice where the shoe’s sole joins the last. As a child, she always imagined she heard this final flourish accompanied by the ting of a triangle, like the last note of a sprightly Christmas medley played by the Pittsburgh Pops.

So, once again in Pittsburgh, but only passing through this time and momentarily stalled between planes, Anne had idly browsed the glossy strips of stores and food counters laid down on either side of the corridors like tapes of packaged luxuries. At the top of one of these avenues, she had come upon the recessed cubicle, perhaps intended as the foyer to a doorway the architect had forgot to include in his final drawings. Within it were the two high chairs with two men in them looking down at the two men at their feet whose arms and hands moved in unison, a duet in a sort of scherzo, a dashing 4/4 rhythm. She paused, waiting for the final touch, and just then one of the shoe blacks did run a toothbrush around each shoe before him; then tossed the brush into an old coffee can beneath the chair. Ever so slightly, he tapped the sole of his customer’s right shoe with one finger, a slight touch but enough to start the man from the chair who stepped quickly down to the floor. He peeled off some currency, handed it over, picked up his briefcase and walked away, never looking back. Anne was caught unaware, for the bootblack had been looking at her. Even as he carefully folded up the bills and slipped them into his vest pocket, his eyes had taken her in, a flick of amusement at their corners as his left hand opened and held out. Next? She hugged her violin case and turned away.

The old air terminal, the one she still walked through in her dreams, stood empty across the vast concrete prairie of landing strips, but it could not be seen from any of the new terminal’s enormous glass walls which looked out on views only worth watching for a few seconds. But Anne knew it was there. Someone had sent her a newspaper clipping which reported the opening of the hew facility and which said the old one might be turned into a museum. “I thought of you,” the person had written.

Nothing in this glossy center resembled the cozy improvisation of the old place, other than the airplanes parked just outside its glass walls. The distance between the check-in counters and the departure gates was even so great that a train had been installed to cover the space, though this was a feature she had encountered in other airports, apparently something of a joke passed around by the world’s architects; a gratuitous insult to the memory of that relaxed, comfortable mode of travel that has been replaced by the crabbed efficiency of the jet airliner.

Going from window to window, Anne has vainly looked for the old terminal, always returning to the enormous reception area and there to stand under the same huge Calder mobile that had mesmerized her as a child. The ponderous delicacy of the sculpture barely moved above her head as travelers passed around her to make their flights. Here, in the new terminal, the construction hung not in the center of the reception area, but to one side and so close to a wall that she wondered if its gay limbs might scrape during a heedless turn. Insurance considerations, she speculated, had discouraged its installation in the center, above the information desk where it could turn freely and unchecked. She walked toward another corridor.

Though that word suggested a passageway snugly fitted to the human figure and perhaps dimly lit, but in this new terminal there seemed to be no walls and scarcely a ceiling to these thoroughfares, and with only the endlessly moving parallel of an automatic walkway to keep the aimless pedestrian on the correct line between two points. How different from the dim warren of hallways in the old terminal, passages that sloped and cornered unevenly, darted upstairs and down, but which somehow got passengers to the right check-in counter that seemed to have been hammered together just as the ticket holder appeared. She had known every turn of that building and had returned to it in her dreams with her book bag over her shoulder and her violin case under the other arm, dodging and ferreting the maze with a bold expertise, a certainty of movement that surely must have been noticed by others. She never got lost but coming on Mae’s Shoe Service always surprised her, as if her mother had magically moved the small shop just at the right moment, to put it in her errant way.

Of course, it never moved from its cubbyhole in one far wing of the terminal—next to a men’s room that gave off strong odors of disinfectant and the continuous flush of water. At her own expense, her mother had installed special lighting for the benefit of her customers, most of whom always seemed to be reading thick briefs in small print. This extra illumination flooded the hallway, and its intensity startled people, causing some to pause, pull up their progress as if they had just come on the pool of an emergency. Two chairs rose like thrones in the center of the space. Beneath them the boxy drawers with brushes, cleaners and different waxes. The small glass-fronted counter stood to the right holding samples of shoe laces, waxes and an assortment of toiletries her mother stocked for customers who may have forgot razors, soaps, deodorants and lotions in their important, impetuous departures.

Setting on top of this counter was the most fascinating object—the cash register. The embossed brass casing caught the light and returned its glare with the eminence of a holy object, and there was a rectangular window at its top that, at her mother’s command, would pop up the amount to be charged. For years, Anne had imagined that her mother had taken an old sewing machine and turned it upside down, figuring out some way to have it tabulate the price of a shoe shine. A drawer would pop out from the bottom to receive the money with a merry chime.

Often, she would stand across the hallway, beyond the curtain of light thrown upon the area, and watch her mother at work. Bent over, the broad beam of her posterior presented to every passerby, her arms moved like pistons, her hands brisk and efficient. She was a professional. Usually another customer waited his turn patiently in the second chair, reading a newspaper or reviewing business documents—confident and at ease. Her mother wore a long apron of denim with deep pockets that carried a brush or cloths. A small whiskbroom. Her hair was pulled back tight into a knot to resemble the pictures of her mother and her mother’s mother on the mantle of their living room. Indeed, it was how Anne still wore her hair but with some variations.

From this angle, from across the corridor, she could never see her mother’s head or her face but only the sturdy legs, always in slacks, and the solid behind. The constant motion of the arms and shoulders absorbed Anne in a way she could never put into words.

Mae’s Shoe Service had many regular customers, men who would chat with her mother as she put their money into the drawer of the ornate cash register. They talked like relatives or even neighbors because they seemed to know a lot about her and her mother. They would ask about their small garden behind their house, how were the tomatoes doing, or snow tires—what kind would be suitable for their old Dodge. A couple, Anne especially remembered them, would repeat their service records, identify their particular units and campaigns in the war into which her father had disappeared. “There’s Annie.” One might eventually spot her as her mother helped him on with his coat, whisking the shoulders of it with the small hand broom. “When you going to give us a little concert on that fiddle?”

“She’s doing very well,” her mother would say, meaning doing too well for a hallway sonata. “She never even plays for me anymore.” And everyone would laugh and would look at Anne, pleased with her.

Of course, her mother was boasting, not really complaining, and Anne basked in the warmth of her mother’s pride, in the near reverence her mother had for her gift though she had no understanding of that gift nor how it was being disciplined and nurtured by the special classes at the symphony school. Her mastery of the instrument had gone beyond her mother’s hearing, and this separation had been accepted as if it were a natural mystery like the distant, oncoming light from the stars.

Her mother never put this feeling into words. Certainly not with her customers, but their content was clearly visible on her face, Anne thought. As she talked to these men about her, in the bleak brilliance of the alcove’s illumination, her expression became serious and knowing, politely prepared to deflect flippant remarks. She stood by the register and before the rack of different colored tins of shoe polish that were like an exhibit in an art gallery. Indeed, Anne had just seen such an installation in a museum in Copenhagen. It was called “Shoe Polish.”

More than once, a customer would give them a pass to the executive dining room on the mezzanine of the terminal and they would have their supper—the bill always discretely taken care of in advance—on pressed white linen and with heavy silverware of so many denominations to make a person wonder how long the meal would take. The white, white tablecloth looked new every time and its whiteness made Anne cringe a little because her mother was never been able to scrub out the stains of the shoe wax from her hands, and she wished once that her mother could somehow eat without using her hands, without lifting them from her lap and to the table level. The idea caught her and shamed her so she fiddled with the several spoons beside her plate until her mother told her to stop.

“Living it up, Mae,” the waiter always said. He wore a short maroon jacket and a bow tie of the same color.

“Oh, you know how it is, Carl,” she would say and they both laughed like old friends. Early on, Anne had figured that all the people who worked in the terminal, no matter the job, enjoyed a particular franchise that was different from their citizenry in Pittsburgh but was just as viable; easier but no less important.

“The veal chop is especially good tonight,” Carl had continued— insider’s information. “It comes with roasted red potatoes and creamed spinach. And what about a glass of wine? Red or white?”

Her mother always chose red and then smoothed the heavy linen napkin across her lap, beaming across the table. Anne recognized the joy in her face, knew the reasoning behind the happiness that puffed her up. This supper in this exclusive dining room was a reward for a day’s work done faithfully and well. Her hands, ceaselessly moving, had provided this treat, this sparkling magical interlude for the two of them, and she lifted the glass of wine to her lips with her small finger elegantly extended.

Today, Anne was pleasantly surprised to see that the bar of the First Class Lounge in the new terminal had that Tocai wine from Friuli that she had learned to like in Milan last year. Rafaello had introduced her to its crisp chalkiness along with the Tartini sonata that she has made one of her encore selections. Well, yes, he had shown her a few other things; she admitted and checked herself in the mirror behind the bar. She wasn’t looking too pleased with herself. But it was some how right to sip this complex, lovely wine as she called Eric to say that her plane was a little delayed and that she hoped this wouldn’t cramp the rehearsal time with the orchestra.

“It will not be a problem,” his cultured voice sounded in her ear. The consonants of his Nordic accent seemed to have been embellished by his tenure in Denver. “It is only the andante of the Nielsen that we need go over, and it only takes 14 minutes or even less if you employ that Stern afterburner,” he paused to let her relish his cleverness, “you have so wonderfully acquired. As I think I told you, your articulation in London was absolutely brilliant.”

“Yes, thank you again.”

“Of course, no problem. But one thing, Anne, might I suggest you do one thing?”

“Yes?” The wine is like a dry perfume on her tongue.

“I wonder if you would consider wearing your hair down?”

“Wear my hair down.”

“Yes.” He sounded as he was holding his breath.

“You mean do the bad girl over the Dane.”

“Well, yes,” he caught himself, “ha-ha, I mean, well—you are, I mean. It’s just a thought.”

“I fear you want to package me, Eric,” Anne said, holding back a giggle.

“Well,” and he did his ha-ha again,” it’s just an idea. Whatever you wish, of course.”

“I’ll think about it,” she told him.

But most times, she and her mother would have their supper in the public cafeteria and restaurant in the old terminal after Anne had been dropped off by the school bus or by her violin teacher, Mr. Thatcher. One of the waitresses, a friend of her mother’s, would always have kept a booth empty and ready for them, and to walk to this booth at the rear of the restaurant and across from the counter was even better than entering the luxurious setting of the private dining room above. It was a special place that had been reserved for them. Though the plastic place mats on the table and the knife, fork and spoon rolled into the cacoon of a paper napkin were no different from the other settings, the fact that this booth had been waiting for them, and only them to slip into its hard, darkly stained wooden seats gave Anne her first taste of celebrity. At the same time, she perceived that the menu of the fancy restaurant on the mezzanine was no different, with the exception of hamburgers, from the food served in the cafeteria so she had also learned how to enjoy celebrity reasonably.

“How’r you’ns?” the waitress always greeted them, plunking down two glasses of water.

“We’re just fine. And how are you, Betty?” Her mother leaned forward against the table and looked up, eager for good news. The strong, blunt hands were clasped together before her, in a gesture of prayer.

“Well, Geraldine’s water broke at four this morning. I just talked with Billy and he said the doctor said not to worry, that he would be at the hospital and if her tractions started to call him there. Whatta you looking at? We just ran out of the creamed spinach.”

After they had ordered, Anne knew her mother was quietly taking her in, wondering what to say. The girl had not wanted to be a part of the women’s conversation, and had looked away, retreating into her ignorance. After a moment, and after taking a sip of water and clearing her throat, her mother told her everything there was to know, so by the time they were served their pie a la mode, Anne had learned everything she needed to know.

“You have your father’s hands,” her mother said, reaching across the table. “Long, strong fingers.” She had taken one of Anne’s hands into her own and gently caressed the flesh and then turned it over as if she were going to read the palm. Her mother’s hands were supple but strangely firm; not masculine but worn smooth in places creases should have been. Holding hands in public embarrassed Anne and she had wanted to pull away.

“Yes, I know, darling. Sorry. But I just heard about a new hand cleaner that’s supposed to be pretty good. I promise to get some.”

No, that wasn’t it, Anne had wanted to say, as her mother’s hands quickly disappeared from the tabletop into her lap. “No, that wasn’t it,” Anne said half aloud as she looked for a seat near a window of the new terminal. She had only been a child, and such public display of affection made her feel even more awkward, though she craved the affection, and the same duality was part of her yet. It even charged her music to ignite her playing with a distinctive passion that was at once cool and full bodied. That’s what Eric had been trying to say in his stiff gallantry.

She was trying to review the concert’s program in the vast, homogenous waiting area near the boarding gate. Children played in frenzies of fatigue as their families talked urgently, to get everything said in time, before parting. Yet, privacy was not always possible in the more privileged area either where it was more likely someone would recognize her, come forward to say they had seen her play in St. Louis or Paris. Or, just as often, a man would come on to her in one of those ridiculous pastimes some men seem to enjoy pursuing while waiting for their next flight, when only talk was possible. Some form of safe sex, she suspected, and pretty damn boring.

By the position of the sun, she realizes she has taken a seat before a window facing north. Beyond the enormous flatland of the airfield—the tiny toy of a jet liner has just touched down at the farthest boundary—and over the hills rolling into the distance, outside the city limits, her mother lay buried. And next to her was Claude.

One afternoon, she had rushed through the old terminal, her book satchel and violin hugged to her chest, still thrilling with Mr. Thatcher’s news. She had been chosen to solo with the Pittsburgh Pops. The rondo from a Grieg concerto. She must have covered the route through the puzzle of passageways in record time, to round the last corner and come upon the flood lit parentheses of Mae’s Shoe Service within the gloomy hallway. She had pulled up short for something was very different, and she did not immediately know why.

“This is Claude,” her mother said simply.

“Hello, Sugar,” the man said and held out his hand. The flesh was the color of the dark brown polish used on expensive cordovans, and the palm was large and had a satiny feel when it enclosed her hand. “I’m mighty pleased to make your acquaintance. Your mama does nothing but talk about you.”

Anne had tried to say something back, for she had immediately liked his broad, dark face, but her mind was asking the question, how long had this been going on? For she instinctively knew, and this instinct refined during that one supper with her mother a few years back, that her mother and this short, burly man had been a couple for some little time. Right under her eyes, they had become a pair, and the idea of it quickly appealed to her.

Claude had half owned a shoe shop in one of the hotels downtown, but his partner had died and because of some legality in the lease, he had lost the concession. Meantime, they had already met—Anne wondered sometimes, if there was a sort of clubhouse where shoeshine people hung out, talked of different kinds of wax and brushes for instance—and it seemed perfectly natural for her mother to take Claude into the business. So, it became the two of them, working side by side, both bent over as if they might be passing secrets to each other as their arms and hands worked in tandem over two customers at a time. The cash register chimed with a quickened rhythm and customers still chatted with her mother about tomatoes and kidded Anne about not playing for them, but they also talked to Claude now, in raised voices, about the Pirates or the Steelers, depending on the season. In fact, Claude wore a Steelers cap at work, set backward on his head with the bill hanging over his thick neck.

“He’s a good man,” her mother said one evening as if Anne had asked her a question.

“Yes, I think so.”

“He helps me a lot.” They had both ordered the Swiss steak with Lyonnaise potatoes.

“Yes,” Anne said.

“He makes me happy.” Her mother looked directly into her eyes.

“And that makes me happy,” Anne replied. Claude had not joined them for this evening meal; he always brought a sandwich to eat at the stand, saying he could do a dozen shines while they ate. Putting more cash into the till. In fact, he never ate with them in the cafeteria, and the invitations to the private dining room had ceased.

What would she say to the one or two friends she could still remember if she called them from the airport, even if she could find their numbers in the phonebook? How puzzled, even suspicious they might become to hear her announcing herself after she had left them years ago, after she had taken up her violin and gone beyond the city limits and onto stages far from their girlhoods. The change had been so rapid—the special classes and the scholarships—the abrupt transformation must have mystified them, made them feel she had deceived them; somehow had passed herself off as one of them until her difference could no longer be hidden. And Claude had been important to this transition from schoolgirl to virtuoso, though it would have happened without him, but he had been present. He had been its gentle witness.

He had deftly moved into their life, a casual entry into their intimacy, as he would smile and say. “That’s right; that’s good.” He expanded their small garden to include peppery tasting greens that he cooked with ham hocks and which she learned to like immensely. When he moved through the rooms of their small house, he gave their space a dimension she and her mother had not been aware they had lacked. And his voice, Anne could still hear his voice, even above the airport’s piped music (the Bolero, sounded like Previn) covered them like caramel. At night, she would drift happily into sleep, hearing that soothing tone from the bedroom down the hall.

One night his voice had raised, heavier syrup that poured over the shy sounds her mother made. “It’s not right for you now to get yourself soiled. That’s what I’m to do. You look the place and take the money. That’s what you’re supposed to do. You look the place.” Her mother said something, a longish declaration, and he repeated the same lines, not angrily, but with an exasperated tenderness.

On her first week-end from Julliard Anne became aware of the difference, that had been foreshadowed by that midnight conversation, and only then, for in the meantime she had lost her own seeing and hearing of anything beyond the score on the music stand before her. She had been caught up in the heat of her own music; a kind of horniness and the simile amused her because by then she had come into this other knowledge. She couldn’t quite recall the boy’s name, but he played the classical guitar fairly well and the pads of his fingers had become callused and were rather exciting to feel upon her. Previn has just brought the Ravel to its smashing climax.

Then, only Claude bent low over the shoes on the brass footrests, and her mother stood behind the small counter, next to the opulent register. A selection of magazines was neatly arrayed on the glass top. When she raised one hand to fix an errant curl of hair, it was almost an occupation in itself, and her nails were perfectly enameled in pink. She wore dresses now, some with a scooped neckline, and always a necklace of large white ceramic beads. A gift from Claude. Oddly, their daily take did not lessen, for Claude’s hands and arms became a blur, and his routines and patter became famous. The Pittsburgh paper did a feature piece on him. Once, home during a break in a concert tour, Anne had come out to the airport to take them to dinner, and she stood in the obscurity of the hallway to admire Claude’s act. Nor was she his only audience, because others on their way to their departure gates had also paused to admire the way he tossed the brush from hand to hand without losing a stroke, the few steps of the soft shoe routine he performed as he finished, snapping the cloth like a magician summoning the final miracle. One or two even applauded, and her mother seemed to accept their applause, as due her as well, for she smiled graciously, one hand going to her bare throat.

“That’s right; that’s good,” Claude said, and the two of them looked at each other as if they shared much more than this cubed box of light smelling of shoe polish.

But Anne had been spotted. “So there’s that little girl with her violin who never would play for us,” the customer said. He was an old customer and had been looking at her, finally making the identification.

“That is the very lady,” Claude said. “She’s the toast of the Big Apple. She’s playing for royalty these days. No way to hear her in this shoe shop.” Claude has circumspectly turned and guided the man toward the cash register while whisking the material of his suit. “Yes, that’s right. That’s good.”

Her mother rang up the register and took the man’s money. She folded and refolded the edge of her dress collar as she stood before the neat array of shoe polishes and looked out into the darkness to where Anne leaned against the wall. Their eyes seemed to meet, but her mother looked away still smiling and carefully lined up the magazines on the counter top.

“Don’t you miss it?” she had asked her mother. They were in the backyard—Anne sitting on the back steps watching her mother cut greens for supper from luxuriant growths of the vegetable. Staked tomato plants bore plump red fruit. It was a Sunday in August.

The older woman had been nodding as she bent low with kitchen shears to snip some leaves. “Yes, I do. Sometimes, just sitting, there’s vibrations in my hands. A land of stinging. I guess it’s just my nerves getting old.” She laughed and looked up suddenly at Anne. “He’s looking out for me.” Her voice had become decisive. The question had been settled. “It’s all right. And I guess, I’m not too far gone to stand there and look good.”

Anne’s agent was always happy to hear from her though breathlessly attentive as if her office was being radically redecorated around her even as she talked. “I’m in Melbourne next February?” Anne asked.

“Yes, that’s right. February. Why?”

Anne watched a woman with two children hanging on her stop, look around, then pick up a duffel bag and continue. “What’s the matter?” the agent said quietly.

“I think I want to take a year off. I’m tired.”

“Oh, really.”

“I think I want to look at something else. Maybe the Tchaikovsky book.”

“Tchaikovsky? You playing Tchaikovsky? What’s all this about?”

“And I think I’ll start wearing my hair differently, so we’ll need new pictures.”

“Look,” her agent said after a moment. She probably had lit one of those small cigars she favored. “Look, call me after Denver, and we’ll talk about this. Okay? That’s what we’ll do. But don’t think about this until after Denver. Promise me? Anne, promise me?”

“Yes, I promise,” she said feeling like a schoolgirl, pleasantly guilty,

Her flight had been announced; boarding would commence in 15 minutes. Time to get to a loo; she hated the facilities on planes. And she had the place to herself; all of its spotless impersonality made a kind of clearing in her head. On one wall, a fold down convenience had been mounted on which a baby’s diapers could be changed. She pulled it down and rested her violin case upon it; unfastened the clasps. This was her baby, and—she understood right then—the only baby she would have. Beautifully formed, responsive to her slightest caress and fitting so sweetly, so perfectly under her chin. She cradled the instrument in her left arm and took out the bow. There was no window in the bathroom, but one wall of glass brick, which gave a garbled view of the outside. She took up her stance and considered the possibilities. Something from Brahms—maybe a lullaby.


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