Radiant


ago
4 min
105
readings
17
Finalist
Jury
Image of Summer 2020

It was the kind of crimson-covered sole that coaxed me to go to the Shoeshine Man. Most of my needs were met by black cobblers around the corner from our church on Sixteenth Street but they knew Mama. I guess it's not our house of worship anymore unless they're in a fixing mood too. The green glass grass under Jesus' feet remained in the only untouched stained window, and I figured he was leading those four girls down a quiet golden road. I can't get rid of the thump in my heart or the roar in my ears. That's why the one thing that can go, the blood, must go.
Seventy-five cents sat in my pocket when I approached the pale man in the soot-colored jacket. He wore a type of hat I only saw when I adjusted my yellow stockings that one time on the steps of Temple Beth-El. Rainfall deadened the dynamite racist men put there, and new drops hit the rounded hats above the scared men's faces when they returned to pray. The Shoeshine Man smiled under his blue hat, probably knowing that was five years ago, when I was five and fearless.
My walk had changed since I stumbled upon the blood-spotted choir robe two days before. After the numbing noise of the bomb, we fled to the sidewalk and the robe flew to my ankles as if it were hugging me. The crumpled cloth sought young brown legs because it was used to shrouding them every Sunday. I pushed aside a scorched wallet in order to remove the robe. Mama got to me then, screaming as she wiped my soiled palms with her pastel skirt. There was so much red there I wasn't ready for. I faltered when she tried to pull me away and I faltered with every step I took in Birmingham for hours.
The Shoeshine Man got me walking upright again though I was expected to sit still for his services. His head was down, his brow right across from someone's knees, yet he paused his brush above the businessman's loafers.
"I'll need your mommy's permission," said the Shoeshine Man.
The quarters were heavy in my pink cardigan, as heavy as the new Easy-Bake Oven I wanted so badly. I later realized the weight was guilt gliding through my whole caramel-shaded body. Mama instructed me regularly: "Brenda, be weary of white folks." She gave my skipping rope an evil eye because her own mama was hanged with one. I like that the rope's the color of limes and I only concentrate on that when I'm lifting myself off the pavement.
"I can't ask her," I admitted.
"I'm due for dinner anyway," said the businessman, handing over a dollar. "Thanks, Joseph."
The businessman sneered when I moved closer to his former seat. Joseph squinted at the businessman's backside, his eyes the same hue as baptismal water.
"That mean man always leaves big dents in my cushion," said Joseph, smoothing out the pillow on the shoeshine seat.
We exchanged a short smile I couldn't uphold.
"There's a splatter," I explained. "On the bottom where Mama can't see. I don't want her to come across it."
I didn't want to tell him how necessary it was, to restore the last shoes Daddy had given me before he died. He certainly didn't have to know they were my only shoes suitable enough for our Baptist church. Joseph patted the amber pillow like I was a princess returning to her throne.
"Alright, but I prefer when a parent's here," remarked Joseph.
"It'll be my mother if I come back," I said. "Daddy..."
Joseph regarded me sadly as I set my soles against the wooden box. With my heels above the ground, I felt taller like I did during the thousands of piggy back rides Daddy gave me on his bare tan shoulders. He didn't have any hesitancy around white men since he served with them in France during the Second World War They enjoyed when he hummed Count Basie tunes when their provisions were running low. It helped them not remember the blasts so much.
"Stain's on the right one," I informed Joseph.
His hat was stationary though his lips turned downward. A long line of scarlet, caked on the sole, met his gaze.
"This looks serious," whispered Joseph. "Are you in trouble?"
I shifted between the seat's armrests. "I'm not sure whose it is."
With a long sigh, Joseph fetched a burgundy rag under a couple containers of Cherry Blossom polish.
"Let's use this so you won't see the blood so much after we're done," said Joseph.
I folded my shaking hands together. "Thank you, mister."
He was busy at his task until we both saw the fragment trickle down to the top of the box. My eyes grew misty at the piece of lavender glass. Mama loved that particular image, the purple cloth that was supposed to remind us of the Resurrection. I let my mouth tremble, remembering the ones that weren't coming back.
"The glass should come out fine, sweetie," said Joseph. "You've been through something. Was it two days ago?"
A woman with straw-blonde hair and a pill box hat passed me with a scowl. She stopped short of Sixteenth Street and turned the other way.
"Mama says I can't talk about black people's business with white people," I said.
I felt awful for saying this as his careful hands scrubbed away the last of the remnants. He grabbed a cleaner rag and started shining relentlessly between the shoes like he was having a fun dance with them. While he bobbed back and forth between the left and right shoe, I thought of a squirrel hopping between branches and had to smile.
"Can I tell you a little about me then?" asked Joseph.
I nodded slowly.
"I was thirteen during the Night of Broken Glass," said Joseph. "Not much older than you. I was a runner too, but I just stood there frozen in Father's destroyed bookstore, in the middle of shards."
The attractive glow of my shoes was almost hypnotizing. My mind went somewhere else though, envisioning an ebony-haired boy standing among ripped pages.
"They took a sledgehammer to my copies of Dickens and the texts crumbled in my hands," recalled Joseph.
His rag never halted when his words went faint.
"We didn't get back on our feet after that, but I decided to keep moving after I left the bookstore," continued Joseph. "I moved here as soon as I could."
"Sometimes it's hard to move when you see those things," I said.
Joseph uncapped the shoe polish, applying it gently.
"Mama sleeps a lot," I whispered. "I...lost friends."
"I understand," said Joseph. "But you can't move on if you don't move. And you have such shiny shoes you can walk in."
"I'm an expert jump roper," I said. "I like to move."
"I have no doubt," said Joseph.
I glanced down at my completely clean oxfords. They were a little wet yet wonderful. I gave the change to Joseph which he gave right back to me.
"I'm sure there will be a collection plate you can put that into someday," said Joseph.
After that day, I saw Joseph from a distance twice more. One of his regular black clients told me he moved on to a couple other neighborhoods, his wooden box a staple on several streets outside Birmingham. He wasn't frozen to one spot, even years after the hate and broken books.
Now, nine months later, I'm stretching my arm and putting the seventy-five cents into the gleaming gold collection plate. Mama beams at the restored stained glass windows while I rock my feet back and forth. There's a prism on my right knee where the various colors of the windows join together. I'm overcome the rainbow found me out of everyone but I don't stand still. I move to stand up and sing hymns from a non-silent mouth because nothing can stop me from walking, singing, and shining on Sixteenth Street.

17
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Image of Keith Simmonds
Keith Simmonds · ago
A pleasant read for a well-written story ! You have my support!
Image of Jojo W
Jojo W · ago
Motivation with determination and conversation. May we all continue to communicate while moving forward. Great story.
Image of Tony Martello
Tony Martello · ago
Powerful story. I loved the imagery and symbolism. Bravo! 5 stars-my full support! Check out my entry, "Green Springs" in the creative nonfiction category and vote if you like it! Tony