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There was a breeze in the air that day; a steady, elusive chill the type that weaves through every stitch in your puffy coat and penetrates straight through the cotton weaves of your under-armor, freezing your joints and icing your breath. It was that hopeless kind of wind typical of Chicago famous for enwrapping you in a below- zero frigidity.
Ania turned off the roaring ignition, bracing herself for what was sure to be a record- timed dash across the barren parking lot into the little shop across the street. The sun was just beginning to set, casting black shadows of ice that caressed the frozen, pale faces of a numbed generation. Night was looming on the horizon, proud and fierce, painting a line of indigo tranquility teeming with the promise of frozen car doors to come. Perfect.
She wrapped a red scarf around her small, round face once, twice, three times, and proceeded to fasten the buttons of her insulated trench coat. Outside, car horns blasted and wheels screeched at the busy intersection since, like her, everyone was determined to beat the oncoming blackness in the rush hour traffic. With her gloves pulled on and her purse at the ready, she mustered the remains of her fleeting determination and opened the frostbitten door of the silver grey Mitsubishi. A hollow sigh shook her fragile frame. What was the use of trying anyway?
The air smelled of cold and fast food. She skidded across the muddy lot, detained briefly by a mound of grey, deadening snow before reaching the yellow glow of the shoemaker’s shop. The neon sign was cracked and crooked, barely hanging on to the peeling wall, and it was off. If she hadn’t known where to go, she would never have even found the place. A dirty little rusted bell hung from a red ribbon over the steamed up glass of the dingy entrance door. It choked out a dispirited ring as she pushed her way in against the barricading draft.
Almost immediately, an overpowering mixed scent of black shoe polish and warm kosher bread sent her flying back against the grimy glass wall. The place was a disaster. Piles of vintage suitcases lined the makeshift excuse for a wall, which separated the reception area from the workshop of the 40x30 establishment. They were old and tattered and box shaped, reminding her instinctively of the types she ahs seen people carrying in World War 3 films shown in her history classes. The stitching on some was falling apart. She didn’t dare touch them for fear of tainting the disastrous perfection of their nature.
A wall of shoes lined the back- shoes of every kind old and new, heels and snow boots, each in their own fabric bag with a bright red note stapled to it. She had only time to notice the single yellow light bulb swinging from the ceiling before a grunt drove her back into a state of consciousness, overpowering the fuzzy blaring of a Russian movie in the background. The shoemaker had emerged from his den.
“How can I help you?” He asked politely in broken English, his accent tying the atmosphere of the little shop together.
She looked at him in a momentary struggle for words, fighting to put her thoughts in order instead of just standing there in gaping astonishment.
He had a big, round belly wrapped neatly in a filthy apron, which undoubtedly used to be white. Now it was streaked with black and grey, creased and grimy. His hair was once black and now gray, shadowing two similar eyebrows and a pair of beady brown eyes. His cheeks were red and proud, contrasting sharply with an unshaven chin and crooked, yellow teeth. He looked at her confusedly and moved towards the counter, wiping his hands in a tattered black rag as he did so.
“Well?” he asked, as Ania snapped back into her life. She regrouped quickly, briskly stepping towards the makeshift countertop and pulling out a pair of trendy black boots from her oversized bag.
“Sorry… Uh, well I need these fixed. The sole…”
“Yeah, the sole will have to be replaced,” he muttered under his breath, examining the shoe from every angle carefully before placing it down and reaching for a stack of the bright red note cards. His fingernails were deteriorated, stained and neatly outlined by a rim of black shoe polish. His hands were large. They were rough. They told a story of their own one of a life a culture, a different type of existence. She couldn’t help but stare.
“I’ll have them ready by next Wednesday is that okay?” he asked, briefly looking up from his writing, with a surprisingly warm gaze. A trace of whiskey and cigarettes lingered on his breath, but he was sober.
“Yes, that’s fine.”
“You know… Broken things can be fixed,” His eyes met hers. Their curious twinkle hypnotized her inexplicably.
“Okay,” she replied, unsure of herself.
“Here,” he said, ripping off a stump from the red card, handing it to her, and mechanically dropping the shoes into one of the material bags. Glancing back towards her bony figure, now fumbling with the zippers on her purse, looking for car keys, he sighed and muttered a resigned goodbye.
“Thanks…” she said, as he turned around and left, entering back into his own warm world of Russian television, kosher bread, shoe making tools, and black shoe polish. The rough hands resumed their work, pulling a stitch out of a black men’s dress shoe as if that was all they have ever known.
Dazed, she walked back to her car slowly, allowing the darkness to envelop her, too preoccupied with thought to notice the stinging cold. She thought of many things that night. She thought of the piles of suitcases, of the single yellow light bulb, of his dirty fingernails. And eventually, she forgot. She continued with her own rushed life, her own set of continual changes and adjustments, her own existence within a wild, gray world and numbed society.
Yet there was one thing that never left her, even years form that day, when her hair grew longer, when patches of gray began to streak her once youthful countenance. There were nights when she would lie awake at night thinking of nothing and everything, of things to do and goals to accomplish. And just as she would begin to drift off to an uneasy sleep, those eyes would once again appear within the depths of her conscience, beady and brown staring at her sternly. The soft voice drifted back to her sleepy ears, whispering softly, caught in between reality and fantasy: “Broken things can be fixed.” They would bring back to life the rough, worn old man in his dirty apron, with his filthy rag, with his abundance of mysteries and a story she would never know.