(this was written as a Weekly Writing Challenge (Week #44) on hitrecord.org. The story had to contain the following three elements: Tinder profile; barbershop; jug of milk.)
You never forget the first thing you did to make money. Gordon applied the polish to his boot with a rag, and worked it into the leather. Forty nine years, he thought. I've been shining shoes for forty nine years.
He was in the eighth grade when he took the job in the barber shop. 10 minutes of instruction from Buddy, the lead barber, and then he was on his own. He took home four dollars and fifty cents that first day: nine shines and no tips. That was good money for a 13 year old kid in 1966. The most important thing he learned wasn't about shoe polish; it was “never tell a customer this is your first day on the job.”
Buddy told him, “If I was to tell a customer this was my first day cutting hair, he'd get up out of the chair and walk away.” Gordon hadn't thought of it like that then; he was just making conversation. Later, much later, he learned the harder lesson, that the customer doesn't want to hear your conversation. If they want any conversation at all, they want it to be theirs, but mostly, they don't want to talk to the shoe-shine boy.
Putting the rag away, he got out his brush, and began the slow, soft process of buffing up a shine. The spot on his left boot where he engaged the shift lever with his toe resisted as always, and as always, he gave it a few extra stroke to heat the polish and let it soak into the leather.
Forty nine years of shining shoes. He'd only gotten paid for doing it for a few months, until his report card showed two Fs and his mother made him quit. It didn't help his grades at all; he'd made three Fs the next time, passing only science. If he had been talking to anybody, and if anybody had been asking the right questions or even listening, they would have found out that shining shoes was about the only thing he looked forward to. He was getting his ass beaten, or at least threatened damn near every day, on the bus, and in the halls, and on the field where the students went after lunch. There was no place safe at school, except in the classrooms, and the dive in his grades even took that sense of security away. He was just tired of being lectured. He'd found out that if he turned in his work, the teacher would lecture him about how messy it was, but if he just didn't hand it in, she didn't notice. He knew it was going to cost him later on, but that was later. He just wanted to be left alone; he'd given up on things being pleasant.
Both of his boots gleamed softly, and the heels and soles were in good shape. He tugged them on, and pulled up on his socks so he didn't have a blister-forming crease develop. Riding a motorcycle was rough on footwear. It was rougher on feet and ankles, which was why he always wore boots to ride. Boots were also a good place to carry small items you didn't want in your pockets, like his wallet, which he slid into his left boot, and his Airweight S&W .38 into his right. It wasn't the perfect location if he needed to bring it into play, but it was the best solution he had until the cold weather came and he could wear his leathers.
The weather was forecast to be clear, so the extra attention he'd paid to get polish into the seams of his boots probably wasn't going to be needed for water resistance. There had been plenty of times he'd had that need, though, and he always tried to do those things that gave him that little extra edge. He didn't always need it; cream rose to the top, and Gordon knew that in the scheme of things, his particular skill set made him the cream of the crop. You had to have luck, too, and it was amazing how often the people who worked hard to get the extra edge also got the extra luck.
Keys, handkerchief, helmet, gloves, glasses, knife. He slipped the Spyderco folder into his right back pants pocket, where another man would carry a wallet, and where its' clip kept it flat and unobtrusive. If he were accosted, he could act as if he were reaching back to get his wallet, and have the blade out in the blink of an eye; he knew he could, because he had practiced the move until there was no wasted motion, and nothing to tip off a mugger. Standing in front of the mirror, with his helmet in his left hand, he mimed reaching slowly back, slowly so as not to alarm an attacker, slowly until he had his hand on the case of his blade. Seeming to fumble, he dropped the helmet, and faster than his own eye could follow, he had the Spyderco out, positioned to slice a piece of skin and muscle off an attacker's forearm. It was a good tactic; he knew, because his trainer had beaten him with it every time they practiced together. Hank had been in his eighties when he died, but he was still the best man with a blade Gordon knew, or had even heard about. Yeah, if the cream rises to the top, and it did, Hank had been at the top for sixty-odd years. He'd never have Hank's speed when he was in his prime, but the element of surprise was his friend. And so was luck. Anything to get the edge.
Hank had a story – Hank always had a story – about a woman who applied for medical school. At that level of competition, with something like twenty applicants for every opening, it was ALL cream. The people without the brains and the drive never made it to the interview, and it was a matter for the committee to send home most of the candidates, even though they were qualified. Hank knew this one woman who was applying for admission to medical school, had the grades, background, and test scores that she needed, but she knew her interview had just been okay, nothing to put her at the top. So, for her, it all came down to the last question they asked her, which was “Have you got any hobbies or special interests?”
And she did. She could balance pencils on her nose; not horizontally, but vertically. And she showed them: she wiped the end of her nose, to remove any slippery cosmetics or oil, put the pencil eraser on her nose, held it upright for a moment with her hand, and then let go. She put on a two minute demonstration, sitting, standing, walking around the room, and not once did she drop the pencil, and by the time she was finished, the committee applauded her. She had showed them, using a pencil, that she had the concentration and poise, even in a high consequence environment, to carry out a difficult task, and the committee agreed that those were qualities that were desirable in a physician.
Cream rises to the top. Gordon knew that to be a literal truth. When he'd been in his thirties, he'd lived in the country, and befriended a Mennonite dairy farmer. Every couple of weeks, he'd bring the farmer a gallon jar, and he'd fill it with the REAL stuff, fresh from the processor that killed the bacteria. At first, the cream was mixed in with the milk, but after he left the jar in the refrigerator for a while, it would start to float to the top and separate. Gordon would ladle out about a half-pint of the pure cream, and put it in a smaller jar with a lid that sealed tightly. And then: he'd shake it. Not fast, or even particularly forcefully, but back and forth, back and forth. And then there would form a little white lump of pure, sweet butter, and what was left was skim milk. Gordon could almost taste it, spread on a piece of home-made bread, hot from the oven.
He fastened his helmet, patted down his pockets again to make sure he had everything; took a final look around the apartment. Lights out, out the door, lock it. Down the stairs, out into the parking lot. Climb on the bike. Settle into the seat, tap his sunglasses to settle them firmly on his nose. Pull on the riding gloves, key in, switch on, crank the bike.
He allowed his thoughts to drain out of him, like used oil from a crankcase. Nothing exists, except for this ride. No thoughts about what waits at the end; it's not the time for that. He gradually took inventory of his body: a pleasant tightness in his neck, the air whipping around the windscreen and providing all the cooling he would need. Vibrations in his fingers and seat and feet. The tightness around his right ankle, where his snub-nose revolver rested, five rounds of Winchester PDX1, 130 grains each of jacketed hollow points. Each one would expand upon entering the human body, and produce a hole bigger than a half-inch across.
You can do this, he thought. You are prepared. You are powerful. You are lucky. He took deep, calming breaths, determined to see this through.
He was at his destination, a single family dwelling on a cul-de-sac. The two car garage was empty. He had a few moments, then. A quick glance at his mirrors told him there were no other cars on the street. He quickly pulled his motorcycle into the garage, parking it so it would not be visible from the street, backing it in so he could ride straight out.
A car was coming. This was it. His heart was racing, and he felt sweat form in the palms of his still-gloved hands. He took a deep, calming breath, and then another. Calm, Gordon, he thought. You can do this.
The car pulled into the driveway, and climbed the slight incline to make the turn into the garage. The driver, a young woman, stopped short as she saw him standing there. She opened the door, and exited the car, a questioning look on her face.
Gordon spoke for the first time.
“Can you help me? I need to put my profile on Tinder, and I don't know how to do it.”
She laughed. “Sure, big brother, I'll be glad to. Help me get these groceries inside and put away and we'll have you fixed up in a flash.”
“Thanks, Karen. I'm sorry to bother you.”
“No problemo! That's what families are for!”