He began to worry that one of these gentlemen might get a mind to court her and Sammy knew he couldn't let this happen. He decided he would have to throw caution to the wind, but was at a loss as to how exactly this was done. So, one evening after the train pulled into Ivy Nook Village Station, Sammy invited her to not only have tea, but a whole supper. She seemed amused as she followed him off the train, but dutifully exclaimed when he unearthed the coffee can of money to impress her. “You see what a fortune I can make with this place?” he crowed. “I get a share of this each and every week,” he bragged. “That's enough to settle down, you know,” he muttered hopefully, watching her face. The quiet girl's eyes were glittering and this encouraged him greatly. He whipped off his cap and got down on one knee. “Would you marry me?” he asked, leaving off her name because he had only just realized that he did not know it.
She nodded and they were wed before the Justice of the Peace. The railroad sold him an old caboose that rested on a rusted sidetrack and they set up housekeeping. Each day Sammy boarded the train as she waved him off, smiling and retreating inside the caboose to maintain her wifely duties. She made many friends and this made Sammy proud. His gentleman customers were always asking after her and offering to pay her a visit. Sammy was only too glad to give their shoes an extra buff or two, just to honor his wife.
One hot summer night when Sammy arrived home, he found his wife bent over the old spittoon they used as a chamber pot. “What's wrong, darlin'?” he hurried toward her.
“I'm spectin',” she said in a flat voice.
“Spectin' who?” he asked, puzzled.
“A baby, you runty fool!” she snapped and bent again over the spittoon. Her hair was damp with perspiration and he gently lifted it off her neck, his eyes wide in wonderment at her words.
Sammy knew all about life; his mother had told him. “Don't never kiss a girl or you'll make her pregnant!” his mother's chins had wobbled as she shook two fingers in his face. “The world don't need no more fools!” she proclaimed.
Sammy blushed now, knowing that he had, indeed, kissed the quiet girl; twice. Once when the Justice of the Peace had told him to, and once again when he'd found her lying in bed beside one of his shoe shine customers. Sammy had been startled at first, but it was quickly explained that she hadn't felt well and the gentleman had personally carried her into the caboose and put her to bed. Sammy thanked the gentleman effusively and then spontaneously kissed her forehead in concern. That must of done it, he thought to himself now. He was gonna be a daddy.
Sammy, Jr. was born five months later, just as winter was beginning to set in. Not knowing anything about babies, Sammy tried to keep out of the way, choosing instead to work longer hours into the late night. His business grew, as did his profit, but still the old man did not come. Each week Sammy added to the coffee can and stowed it inside the bed roll, even though he didn't sleep there some nights. His wife complained that he smelled of shoe paste, so he often fell asleep in the corner of a train car to spare her the odor.
His son flourished and Sammy was proud at his wife's dedication to the child. She often met him at the door of the caboose with her blouse open and a rounded breast peeking over the buttons. Her face would be flushed and Sammy marveled at how exhausting feeding a baby must be.
One day his wife stopped by his shine car to tell Sammy that she was leaving him. She could no longer abide the smell of shoe shining and wanted to move to the city. Sammy thought they were already living in the city, but didn't argue. He was sad to see her go, but was cheered considerably when she handed him Sammy, Jr. “He's your responsibility now,” she charged him and turned to leave. That was the last time he saw her, but he knew she would be safe. She had wisely thought to take the contents of the coffee can with her. In those days, that was enough. People didn’t get divorced. That was for rich folks.
Sammy brought his son to work with him. When he was old enough, Sammy Jr. ran errands for the customers, bringing them coffee, a newspaper or maybe a burger to go from the café inside the rail station.
Sammy Jr. adored his father and spent every minute by his side. One day a policeman climbed aboard the train, his hand bound to a prisoner with a handcuff. They were headed for the state penitentiary down the line.
Policemen made Sammy nervous; after all there was still the matter of that clothesline and garbage lid he'd stolen. The officer watched father and son for a while and then spoke up. “Why isn't that boy in school?” he barked at Sammy.
Sammy stopped cold, first in fear of the policeman and then at the man's words. “I just never thought of it, I guess,” he ventured. He quickly turned back to his buffing.
“How old is he?” the man spat.
“About ten, I guess,” Sammy answered thoughtfully, a curious knot forming in his stomach.
“Where's his mother?” came the next question. The prisoner was grinning at the unexpected entertainment of watching someone else get fried.
“She moved on,” Sammy explained. There didn't seem to be any reason to say more.
Indeed, no one said more and Sammy never gave the matter another thought until one day when a woman in a stiff black suit and very shiny shoes boarded his car. “I'm taking the boy,” she said in a gruff voice, her hand clamping down on Sammy Jr.'s collar.
“Taking him where?” Sammy exclaimed, his face going white.
“To school where he belongs!” she said, holding out a white piece of paper with a signature trailing the edge. “Here's the court order. This is no fit life for a child and the law says he needs to be in school,” she pronounced, black eyes daring Sammy to challenge her.
Sammy's eyes filled with tears as he squatted there helplessly, unable to stop the woman as she tucked the paper into her purse and led Sammy Jr. by the collar down the car steps.
Sammy thought he would die. His wife was gone and now his son. Even the old man had never come back. Shining shoes was no longer his life; in fact there seemed to be no reason to live at all.
That's when Sammy discovered whiskey. It started one day when a customer left behind a small flask, sprinting from the train and forgetting to pay. Sammy had shrugged and accepted the abandoned bottle as payment. It burned as he took a sip, so he had to practice. Soon it became easier and eventually Sammy had no problem gulping a half bottle at a time. The train always seemed to ride a little more smoothly when he had whiskey with him.
The only problem was that the whiskey didn't agree with the shoe shine business. It became harder to see his reflection on shoes and Sammy squinted and swayed to get a better look. To add to his woes, he was starting to have trouble with his stomach, especially first thing in the mornings. Only a few more swigs of the whiskey seemed to settle it.
Sammy grew more and more tired as the days, and soon years went by. It was harder to sleep at night and many mornings he missed the train entirely. Business suffered and there was very little money going into the new can Sammy kept in the caboose. He noticed that the gentlemen no longer looked kindly at him; they walked wide of him when they boarded the train and blocked his eyes with their newspapers.
The man from the train company said Sammy was going to have to move along; they'd had complaints. They told Sammy they would give him the caboose and push it into the rear of the train yard where it would be out of the way. Sammy asked if they would push it home, to Ivy Nook Village, and they agreed.
One of the regulars showed up that day with a sign lettered “Boxcar Shoe Shine” which he hung from the caboose rail. That's where Sammy Soul, as he is known by everyone around, still lives. Teenage boys think it great fun to knock upon his caboose door and then run, lobbing stones at already broken windows. Sammy smiles and waves from his bed roll on the floor, his whiskey always by his side. He is waiting, hoping that one day one of those boys will be his own Sammy Jr.
Boxcar Shoe Shine
Years ago, Sammy caught a moving train on the fly, and left Ivy Nook Village, searching for his dreams which he believed lay in the big city. His hop was complicated by the fact that once Sammy managed to leap aboard, the train promptly slowed to a stop as it pulled into the Ivy Nook Village Station. Chagrined, Sammy was fortunate that no one spied him leaping off of the car, whistling as though he'd been simply inspecting its contents. This time he disappeared into the stand of trees beyond the station and waited until, with a steamy sigh, the engine crept forward once again. Sammy watched as the brakeman and his nightstick climbed aboard before bounding from the brush to run for all he was worth to regain his ride to dreams.
As a young man with little education and obviously, even less common sense, he had to find a way to keep his lanky self fed. He tried anything that was offered him, including walking dogs. It quickly became an issue of accommodation as it would take a dozen dog clients to buy a hot meal, but his bony waist could anchor no more than six.
An idea came to him one night as he lay shivering in a sleet storm against someone's old rickety garden shed. He awakened early and broke into the warm, dry shed, scouting for pieces of rope. He found a stack of seed bags, but no rope.
By mid-morning he had ashamedly cut down an old lady's clothesline. Using various lengths to make a harness, he fashioned a sort of sled with a pilfered garbage can lid. By squatting on the lid and keeping to paved surfaces, his weight was just enough to counter a dozen medium-sized dogs. Tongues clucked as he passed by; a bedraggled man in a red coat, dragged through the city streets by a pack of well-bred dogs with sparks flying from beneath his chariot. Sammy never got rich, nor did he find his dreams, but he did manage to eat almost regularly.
One snowing Saturday he'd finally had enough. While waiting for a train back to Ivy Nook Village, he struck up conversation with an old man in a smudged apron behind a shoe shine stand. Upon hearing his story, and noting Sammy's pitiful, dejected stance, the man invited him to stay a few more days and learn the shoe shine business. With no plans for his future, Sammy agreed. The old man smiled to himself; his search was over.
Sammy never wanted any more from life than to just survive. It hadn't occurred to him that there could be more; that people might actually save a few cents or know where they would sleep each and every night. His aching brown eyes were perpetually pointed at the ground, hoping for an overlooked penny or a piece of salvage brass. It happened that this downward carriage came in quite useful when you were shining shoes.
The old man took him under his wing, showing him all he knew about the shoe shine business. He showed Sammy how to apply cleaning solution and how thick to smear on the saddle soap. The old man wouldn't let a customer go until Sammy could see his reflection in the customer's shoes.
According to the old shoe shiner, Sammy did so well that the old man put an arm over his bony shoulders and pronounced he would like to retire. “I think you've got what it takes to run this business,” he muttered in a contrived reluctant voice.
“Really? You think I do?” Sammy couldn't believe his luck. “But, I'm broke,” Sammy moaned. “I can't buy it from you,” he sighed, pulling out his empty pockets.
“No matter, no matter,” said the old man. “You can work it off.” He dipped his head and said in a confidential tone, “Tell you what I'm gonna do.” Sammy bent lower to hear. “Beginnin' tomorrow, I'm gonna let you train here, without charge,” he began and Sammy straightened a bit in self-importance. “Only because I know you got what it takes, kid,” the old shoe shiner went on. Sammy nodded, delighted. “Well, I'm gonna let you run it, all by your lonesome, without any interference. Then, just to make sure you've got the hang, on Fridays I'll come by and collect the revenues for the week, minus 10% for you.”
Sammy grinned at his good fortune. His mother, recognizing Sammy was the runt of her litter, always preached that he should find a good trade. Now here he was, falling into one, without even looking!
“Yep, that's what I'm willin' to do. Then...after a year or so...we'll see about you buyin' the place from me. How's that?” The old man barely dared to look sidelong at Sammy's expression. Just as he thought, Sammy was grinning like the fool he was.
“Kin I trust you, boy?” the old man queried.
Sammy nodded enthusiastically, “Oh, yes, sir. You sure can! I'll work hard and long hours, just to make you proud o' me,” he promised.
“I know you will, boy, I know you will,” the codger returned, patting the bony shoulders as though passing along a heavy mantle of responsibility. “See you on Friday,” he said, tipping the cap up from his gray, balded head. “I'll be back to check on you.”
So it went. Every morning Sammy was on hand at first light, his rag slung over his shoulder and a welcoming, stumpy grin radiating from his face. Customers took pity upon the sorry fellow and it was quite by endurance that Sammy's new business grew. Each Friday, like taxes, the old man showed up to collect the profits, patting Sammy on the back and leaving only a few mild criticisms to keep Sammy on the straight and narrow.
A year came and went and still the old man showed up. Sammy dutifully and proudly handed over the receipts and each time waited for his pat on the head. One Friday, the old shiner didn't show up. Sammy waited until long after dark before crawling into the sleeping roll he kept beneath the shoe shine bench. The next Friday, and two more...and still no old man.
Sammy felt lost and missed the old man's visits. He didn't know what to do with the old man's money, so each Friday he carefully stowed it into a coffee can he kept hidden in his bed roll.
Still, his business grew. Eventually, the railroad let him ride aboard the train at half fare, offering his service to busy passengers en route to important meetings. The old man had taught him to always leave a mark on his customer’s shoes so they would be sure to return. So Sammy began to write “Soul” on the bottoms of each customer’s shoes. Businessmen would sit in meetings and cross their legs and others in the room would see the word “Soul.” They assumed the shoe shine man, who was never very bright, had written it there to avoid shining the wrong parts of the shoe but that he simply couldn’t spell. Sammy became famous as “Soul” began popping up under shoes all over town. Without even understanding what it meant, Sammy had created his own brand.
One day Sammy watched a young woman enter the car where he was shining shoes. She had a quiet way about her, but she smiled and winked at him every time he stole a glance. Emboldened by his business success, when his customer was finished, Sammy stumbled toward her, clutching the seats against the rocking of the train. Just as he reached her, the train lurched violently and he was thrown forward, his head landing face first in her lap. Being the quiet girl she was, she didn't make any fuss, but calmly petted the back of his head and pushed his face more deeply into her lap to hold him secure.
One thing led to another and two weeks later Sammy was beginning to entertain thoughts about his future, and the quiet girl was the center of that world. She said she was from Iowa and appeared to have many, many friends who regularly rode the same train. She was forever greeting his gentlemen customers and generally the men would invite her to share a cup of tea in the next car down. Sammy was puzzled by this as he knew it was a sleeper car for long distance riders, but assumed someone had a hot plate and tea kettle secreted in a bunk there.
Column Two >>
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