The Man in the Alligator Shoes
Salvatore Agnelli rose on creaky knees and surveyed the passing crowd. Bleary-eyed and slovenly in their T-shirts and sweatpants, they stumbled up the jet bridge from the idle Airbus and spilled out across the terminal in a manner that reminded Sal of an episode of Nova in which they'd shown a housefly feeding. A housefly, it seems, feeds by lighting on its chosen food source, extending its proboscis, and vomiting forth its digestive fluids, stomach contents and all. Then it sucks the whole mess back up again and takes flight once more. It was not the kindest of comparisons, to be sure, but it was heightened by the terrible odor that accompanied them: stale coffee, cheap perfume, and the sour sweat of people too long confined.
It didn't used to be this way, Sal thought. There was a time when air travel was civilized. Was something people dressed up for. Hell, something they'd shower for, at least. Now planes were nothing more than Greyhounds in the sky.
Not all of them were dressed like trailer trash, of course; now and then, Sal caught a glimpse of pin-striped black or brown or charcoal gray amidst the grungy massesthe first weary business travelers of the day. But these men were hardly the dapper go-getters that populated the airports of his youth; to a one, they were florid, sweaty, sad-eyed men with scarcely more regard for their appearance than the sea of unwashed masses in which they wallowed. Their wrinkled suits shone dully beneath the fluorescent lightsa shine that spoke of man-made fabric, of carelessness, of cheap economy.
And my God, their shoes! Black Pin Stripe was wearing a pair of all-black sneakers, as if no one could tell the differenceand perhaps in this crowd, none could. Brown wore a pair of clunky tasseled loafers that looked as though they hadn't been polished since last they were in style.
Charcoal Gray was harder for Sal to get a bead on, obscured as he was by an enormous woman in grimy tennis shoes and a pink terry sweatsuit nearly worn through at the knees and elbows, the word JUICY emblazoned across its seat. But as she stopped before the Departures screen to check the gate for her connecting flight, sucking her teeth to rid them of some offending scrap of airplane food, Charcoal Gray sidestepped past.
Sal's eyes weren't what they used to be, but even he could tell that at first glance he'd misjudged this man. His suit did shine, but not with the sickly gleam of a poly-cotton blend. No, that sheen was warm and softthe sheen of summer-weight silk. It draped elegantly over his frame, hiding effortlessly a slight paunch, its color echoing the salt-and-pepper of his hair.
And his shoes...His shoes.
When Sal spotted them, his mouth went dry, and his breath caught in his chest. They were alligator. Hand-stitched. Supple brown. Sleek and square-toed, those shoes meant business. The kind of business Sal wished he'd been wise enough to avoid.
Sal had seen those shoes before. Five years ago, it was. He'd spent the last three of those five years obsessing over what he'd do if he ever saw those shoes againand half-hoping he never did.
Sal Agnelli was once a decent, pious man. But that man was three years dead.
Dead just like Sal's wife.
It all started with those shoes. With a slightly paunchy man, whose quick smile, crisp suit, and salt-and-pepper hair reminded Sal of an era when men comported themselves with decorum and respect. Of an era when Sal could make his living as a cobbler, instead of eking out a meager existence one shoeshine at a time.
The man had been a broker of some sort, in town to close a deal. And as Sal shined his thousand-dollar shoes, the man confided in him a secret. Just three words, whispered with a wink, the only tip the rich man left that day: "Guillaume International," he said. "Buy."
Sal was not a man of meansfar from. He and his wife had a modest savings set asideenough to live on, so long as they were careful. But looking at his timeworn shoeshine stand, and his own gnarled, arthritic hands, he couldn't help but reflect on just where careful had gotten him thus far.
So he bought. Bought all he could. Drew his accounts all down to zero, so certain was he this wealthy gentleman, with his refined tastes and easy smile, would not steer him wrong.
When the rumors of Guillaume's impending purchase broke, Sal's stock began to climb. But he didn't sell, for the men on television claimed that this was only the beginning. And for a time, at least, they were right. The deal attracted other companies' interest, and a bidding war erupted. Sal's holdings skyrocketed. Suddenly, his once-meager savings was more money than Sal had earned in his entire lifemore than he could earn in five lifetimes.
On paper, at least.
There were no warning signs the deal was falling through. There was hardly even any media coverage, just a headline on page five of the finance section to sound the death-knell of Sal's salad days. Accounting irregularities, the story said. A mountain of Guillaume debt, hidden from investors and buyers both by a CFO whose golden parachute made his abrupt dismissal less a firing than permission to retire in opulence. And anyways, his dismissal hadn't done any good. All talk of purchase evaporated. All buyers disappeared. One day, Sal's stock was worth a fortune, and the next, it was a fraction of the meager sum with which he had begun.
It wasn't long after that his Miriam fell ill. Just a cold, she said at first. Two weeks later, it was clear from the rasping in her lungs that cold was not a cold at all, but still Sal hesitated to take her to the doctor, for they couldn't afford medical bills and heat both.
Her fever rose. Her weight plummeted. One night, shivering and slick with sweat, she dragged herself from bed to fetch herself a glass of water, but the strain of sudden movement was too much. She fainted, and broke her hip. Then, of course, there was no choice but to bring her in, but it was too late. The doctors said in her current stateundernourished, underweight, ravaged by infectionshe was too weak for surgery. Too frail. They tried for weeks to nurse her back to health, to no avail. She withered in that hospital bed until she was nothing but an empty husk of the woman he loved, her very essence bleeding away as slowly and inevitably as the shriveling of the endless procession of IV bags that they hung above her heada constant drip drip drip until one by one they bled dry.
When she died, Sal wasn't even there. He was here, in this hellhole, shining shoes in a hopeless attempt to pay her piling bills.
As the man in the alligator shoes approached, Sal stooped over his shoeshine kit and slid a stitching awl into his pocket. Needle-sharp and slightly hooked, it was a holdover from his days as a cobbler. Handy for prying all manner of detritus from between shoe-treads, he'd stored it here since long before airport security was tightened. Doubtless security had seen it a time or two over the years, but they'd done nothing, said nothing. After all, Sal was just a harmless old mana hapless relic of a bygone era; what harm was he to anyone? Now, he thought, he'd show them all how wrong they were. That awl would pierce a heart as well as any knife.
"Hey, palyou mind giving me a shine?"
Sal wheeled around to find the man in the alligator shoes behind him. His nerves jangled in anticipation, and his hands grew slick with sweat. But up close, he realized this was a different man, a different voicea different pair of alligator shoes.
"No, of course."
The man climbed onto Sal's shoeshine stand and took a seat. Sal dropped to one knee before himone hand still fingering the awl inside his pocket.
This wasn't the same man, it was true.
But maybe, just maybe, he'd do.
Copyright © 2011 by Chris F. Holm