Friday, July 23, 2010

Fence Busters

"who journeyed to Denver, who died in Denver, who came back
to Denver & waited in vain, who watched over Denver &
brooded & loned in Denver and finally went away to find
out the Time, & now Denver is lonesome for her heroes"

Allen Ginsberg, Howl

Kiko tugged on the short brim of his cap, a cachucha to his mother, and adjusted the strap of his shoeshine box. Thick black hair clumped around the edges of the cap. An October gust streaked up Larimer Street. He squinted to block dust stirred from the curb.

Kiko heard the announcer before he saw the radio. He felt the speaker's excitement, but the boy didn't care much about the game. The Dodgers weren't in it, again.

Covington's sac fly to Mantle scores Mathews and ties the score at three in the eighth inning. These pesky Milwaukee Braves won't give up.

He slipped the card out of his shirt pocket and looked at it for the hundredth time that day. Rival Fence Busters. Willie Mays wore a magnificent smile as he admired Duke Snider's muscular right arm. His father said it wasn't much of a tip. Kiko disagreed. It might have been his best tip ever.

Kiko nodded at the man sprawled in the entrance to El Charrito. A torn and stained overcoat partially covered the wino's dusty pants and shirt. Kiko's mother called the bums desgraciados, but his father said that word was mighty fancy for men who lived on skid row.

Hank won't be there long, Kiko thought. He peered into the cafe and breathed the familiar smells of roasted chile, fried beans and warm tortillas, but it was a mistake to allow the smells to linger. He had at least three hours before he returned to his home, and supper.

"Hey, Shiner," Hank murmured. "Spare a dime? I could use a cup a coffee."

"No hablo ingles," Kiko lied.

"Come on. You know me. I helped your old man move all that junk into your house. Don't give me that no in-gless stuff. You speak English good as me. For a Mex."

"I need lunch money. Why do you think I'm out here on Wednesday? You better move. Here comes Wanda."

The waitress gripped a broom as she marched to the doorway. The men listening to the game cheered her on.

"Get 'em, Wanda! ¡Ándale! Throw 'em out!"

"Avay from 'yer! Ya' stinkin' up da place!" Her jowls jiggled and sweat dotted the white skin above her bright red lips.

Kiko smiled. Her words sounded funnier than a regular gabacha, another word from his mother. When Kiko mentioned her, his sister Elena said that the waitress was Polish and Kiko had to ask his teacher what that meant.

He tipped his cap, as his father had taught him. Wanda winked. She slammed the broom across Hank's legs and a cloud of dried mud and stale wine exploded.

Kiko headed for the new restaurant, just opened by the Silvas fresh from Chihuahua. The place might have men who needed clean shoes for the weekend, who had 25 cents for the brightest shine in Denver and who wouldn't joke about Mexicans.

He waited for traffic to thin out and then crossed 21st, in the direction of the downtown skyscrapers and construction projects. Mariachi music seeped through the walls of the American Inn. Kiko recognized the tune, something his mother listened to. He thought about going inside, but reconsidered. Too early for dance hall men.

He sauntered past the glass panes of Johnnie's Market and avoided the wide-eyed stare of the hairless goat head perched next to jars of pickled pigs' feet, bags of ojas for tamales, ristras of dark chiles, sacks of beans.

Kiko stopped at the Monterey House. He smelled fresh paint. A sign in the window said Open but something was wrong. A few adults and several children gathered in the middle of the large room, but there was no food and no one looked like a customer.

He inched into the doorway. The oldest man shook his head as he rocked on his boot heels and his chair's back legs. "No lights," he said. "Maybe next week." The man turned to a woman standing behind him. "I didn't know about no deposit for Public Service. How was I to know?" he asked in Spanish.

Kiko trekked on. He hadn't made any money all afternoon. His father often teased him about the lack of income from his shoe-shining job. "You spend hours en las calles, and you come back with maybe cincuenta centavos? Less than a dollar? ¿Como? How does that happen? There are hundreds of men in this city who need clean shoes. Businessmen, bankers, abogados. All you got to do is ask, mi'jo. Just ask. That's how it is in this country. Do something for them, and they have the money to pay. A eso le dicen la oportunidad."

Opportunity. Kiko had his doubts. He switched the strap again and rubbed his shoulder. His mother would want to massage him with osha. His arms were tired, his feet hot and grimy, and his cap too tight. He walked for several minutes without realizing where he was going. He ambled to a stop, like a car out of gas. The sign over his head announced Cantina.

Bar. Cafe. El Chapultepec. He walked in.

Baseball played in the background.

What a finish! Adcock scores on Bruton's single in the 10th and the Braves win Game One of the 1958 World Series. Another outstanding performance by Spahn - he went the distance."

Stools rested against the bar and booths hugged the wall. Kiko only glanced at the large mirror behind the bar but he had an impression of decorated boats, flowers floating on water and men in large straw hats.

Two men sat in a booth, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. They stared at the boy. Kiko thought he saw one of the men spit on the floor under their table. Another man leaned on the bar, half-on and half-off a stool.

"The Braves? Give me a break," the man on the stool said.

The bartender poured whisky into the man's glass. "Where's your Red Sox, Jack? When's the last time they were in the Series?"

Jack groaned.

Kiko took a deep breath.

"Shoeshine? Only a quarter for the best shine in Denver."

Jack looked down at Kiko. The bartender said, "Leave my customers alone . . . ," but Jack raised his hand and the bartender shrugged. Jack wore a wrinkled blue shirt, a cap that looked like Kiko's, except more ragged, and cracked brown loafers. Not the signs of a man who cared about the luster of his shoes. Kiko turned to leave.

"Why not?"

"You sure, Jack?" the bartender asked.

"Yeah, Jimmy. It's all right. The last time I got a shine was in Denver. Seems like a karmic thing to do." He sat on the edge of a booth.

Kiko knelt on the floor and opened his box, exposing rags, brushes and a foot rest carved by his father. He took out a tin of shoe wax. Jack lifted his right shoe to the foot rest.

Kiko concentrated on his work. "What's your name, kid?" Jack asked.

"Francisco, but everyone calls me Kiko. Some are calling me Shiner."

"Shiner? I like that. It could mean different things. Words are like that. Different meanings depending on the talker so in the end they don't mean anything at all."

Jack took off his cap and his hair lay smashed against his forehead. His eyes were ringed with dark, puffy skin.

"If you say so, mister."

"Yeah. If I say so. You from here, Shiner?"

"Curtis Street. Over a few blocks."

"I know where Curtis is. We watched baseball near there, on Welton. Years ago. Good crowds back then. Those kids were serious about their ball playing. Whites and Negroes; Mexicans, Indians. All kinds. In team uniforms. That was cool."

Kiko wasn't sure if he should respond. "I guess," he said.

"I used to live here. My best friend is from here. We had good and bad times in this town, but they were all good when you think of it." He paused. "What I meant was, you born here? In the States?"

Kiko flinched. He had heard this kind of talk before. His parents spoke to him about being a citizen of the United States, no matter what anyone said. He had every damn right to be here. That's how his father put it.


"That's good. Something to be proud of. Born into the mystery of this country, and the dream. Just don't let them get you down."

Kiko's customers had said many strange things while he popped his rags over their shoes. His father had told him to ignore the strangeness: "I don't understand these people. That's up to you to figure out, mi'jo. Until then, do the job and get paid."

Kiko bent closer to the shoe to rub extra hard on the thin leather. The baseball card slid out of his pocket.

"What's that?" Jack asked.

Kiko picked up the card by the tip of a corner and handed it to Jack. He hoped he hadn't smudged it.

"This is great. I saw these two play when they were in New York."

"You did? In person? Playing baseball?"

Jack laughed. "Sure, kid. I watched Mays and Snider go head-to-head, a couple of times. Mays was like an antelope in the outfield, maybe a jaguar, but I never saw a jaguar, so I can't say for sure. And Snider? Flatbush royalty. But I was at Yankee Stadium when the Red Sox were in town."

Kiko finished the shoe. He stretched. Jack returned the card.

"You ever talk with them?" Kiko asked.

"Shiner, you wouldn't believe. I've been at parties with guys like this. I signed a book for the Duke. And he autographed a ball for me."

"The kid don't know what you're talkin' about," Jimmy said. "Jack's a writer. Kind of famous these days because of his book from last year. There's no livin' with him now. I remember when he was just another barfly, him and his crazy pals. Bunch of goofs and drunks and so-called poets. Jack put them in his stories and now he's the toast of the upper crust. Goes to show."

"Come on, Jimmy. Don't you give me a hard time, too."

Jimmy turned off the small television set. He walked around the bar to the jukebox. He pressed a switch and the box came to life with running streams of light and a soft hum. A tube of blue light surrounded the gold and red machine like a halo. Jimmy punched a few buttons and music played.

"Blakey and Monk," Jack mumbled. "Johnnie Griffin. Nice." His head bounced to saxophone and piano riffs.

Kiko decided he liked the music. He was almost done with Jack's shoes.

"Whatever happened to that friend of yours?" Jimmy asked. "That car-thievin' wild kid? I ain't seen him for years."

Jack lit a cigarette. "Let me get my drink, Shiner." He stood up, walked over to the bar and lifted his glass. He finished what was left of the whisky and coughed.

"Neal's in California."

"That right?" Jimmy responded. "What's he gonna do there he can't do here? Too many people on the Coast already. Denver's just right for me."

"He wants to leave. Always on the move, running from something. But he's stuck now."

"Why's that?"

"He checked into the Hotel San Quentin. Got a lease for something like 10 years."

"Who'd he kill? The pope?"

"Just tried to be free in the land of the free, but now he knows that freedom is a crime, and it's sure not free. Or something like that." His words cracked with a half-laugh, half-sigh. He sat back down.

"He should'a never left Denver," Jimmy said.

"We all leave some day. Neal can't stop leaving. I worry that he's anchored for years. It could kill him." He inhaled smoke and then tapped his cigarette in an ash tray that looked like a Mexican sombrero. "I made the book people pay for a trip to Denver. They got me everywhere else selling books that haven't been written. I thought I owed it to Neal, but now I don't know why I'm here. It's not the same."

Kiko replaced the cap on the tin and tossed it into the box. He folded his buffing rag, placed it in the box, wiped his hands on another rag and shut his box.

Jack admired his shoes. The cracks were still visible and the worn heels would never be replaced but the leather gleamed like clean rain on a new highway.

"That should impress the Hollywood wolves waiting to tear me apart." He pulled a crunched dollar bill from his pants pocket. "Keep the change."

Kiko touched his cap with his fingertips. "Thanks, mister. Much appreciated."

"Send that greaser over here. I could use a shine, but I ain't payin' no buck. Maybe a dime, if he's any good."

One of the men sitting at the booth pointed at his shoes. His drinking partner grunted a laugh.

"Sorry, mister. It's a quarter for a shine," Kiko said.

"Just get your brown ass over here."

"It's a quarter, mister."

"Shine my shoes and you'll get what you get, which might be a whippin' if I don't like the job you do."

The friend grunted again. A toothy grin creased his face and his eyes lit up in expectation. "You tell him, Leonard."

"Hey, knock it off," Jimmy said. "No call for that."

"Mind your business. I don't like dirty Mexicans hanging around when I drink my beer. And I really don't like the ones who talk back." Leonard chugged his drink. "I had my doubts about this place, just from the spic name. I told you that, didn't I, Tom?" Tom nodded eagerly. "You don't run a respectable joint," Leonard continued. "You let in those kind."

"Get out!" Jimmy shouted.

The two men stood up. Leonard grabbed Kiko's shoulder and squeezed. The boy tripped over his box and fell. His cap rolled down his back.

Jack jumped to his feet. "You're tough with a kid. Try someone your own size." Leonard threw a punch that missed. Jack grabbed Leonard's shirt collar with his left hand and swung his right fist into Leonard's jaw. Kiko heard a loud crack. Leonard dropped to his knees. Tom moved to jump on Jack but Jimmy had rushed from behind the bar. He held a baseball bat.

"Scram! Take this piece of crap with you," Jimmy said.

Tom picked up Leonard by the armpits and pushed him through the door. Leonard cupped his jaw. Tom hollered ugly curses but the two men did not look back.

A man in a suit walked in. "What's going on here? That man looked hurt. Another fight? You drunk again?"

Jack's laugh drowned the jukebox. "Not yet, Perry. But very soon, that's a promise."

Perry grabbed Jack by the elbow and started to guide him out. "We're almost late for the college. I can't leave you for a half-hour without some disaster happening. Come on, let's go."

Jack twisted free. He stacked dollar bills on the bar. "Thanks, Jimmy. Next time."

Jimmy shook Jack's hand. "Any time."

"Take care of yourself, Shiner. Like I said, don't let the sons of bitches get you down."

Jack and Perry left. They climbed into the back of a black automobile and drove away.

Kiko waited on the sidewalk. The skyline stretched against the powder blue sky. He thought he could touch the buildings from where he stood. Cars and buses roared through the streets. Construction crews climbed steel skeletons; cement mixers, trucks and cranes shrieked into the pure air. Hobos stood in line for hours, dancing to sirens and cop whistles. Stray dogs barked at baseball players in the park on Welton; a color television set turned on for the first time in a large house on the edge of the city; the newsman talked about the upcoming Sputnik first anniversary. Irish songs and Italian mandolins mixed with the smells of fresh tamales and boiled chitlins. Church bells, synagogue chants and Arapaho drums echoed along the Valley Highway.

Sometimes words don't mean anything at all.

Kiko hung the strap on his shoulder, lifted his box and walked into Denver's heart.

"I'll have to read Jack's book," he said to Duke and Willie.


Fence Busters, © 2008 Manuel Ramos, first appeared in the Rocky Mountain News as part of the A Dozen on Denver short story series published in 2008. The twelve stories in the series have been collected in A Dozen on Denver: Stories (Fulcrum, 2009), the winner of the 2010 Colorado Book Award in the Anthology/Collection category. Fence Busters also was a finalist for the 2009 Top Hand Award (Colorado Authors' League).


1 comment:

msedano said...

a grand-slam way to start a weekend.