Shoe Polish Saints

written in high school, 1997

They would never get him to set foot in a church again — not him. He had decided that long ago, and he didn’t intend to change his mind. But then again, he hadn’t expected the news he had received in March.

Pappy stared down at his shoes, and noticed how the warm August sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows was reflected on them. If he turned his foot just so, he could almost make out the image of the apostle Thomas shining just above his laces.

Not only had they gotten him there, but they’d gotten him in front, and they’d forced him to put in his teeth so he’d look respectable. What he wouldn’t have given for a Twinkie. To his right was his eldest daughter, his wife’s namesake. She clutched a wad of Kleenex in her hand, but she had given up on using it about ten minutes before, and now her make-up ran down her face and fell from her chin to her white collar in small peach-colored droplets. To his left was his daughter Yvonne, her chief activity being an occasional lift of her lacy handkerchief to dab at the corners of her eyes.

Only a year before, Olive had talked him into coming to church. They were having a special ceremony for couples who had been married for fifty years. Even then, he reflected, her skin had begun taking on the sick yellow hue. She had worn a lavender dress with a floral pattern, and her corsage had been the prettiest there, though now he couldn’t remember the flowers he’d picked out for it. They were purple and white, though. They were purple and white. He had worn a blue suit and his teeth. Everyone congratulated them after the ceremony, but he thought the whole thing was pointless. Bicker and quarrel for fifty years, and get a church service dedicated to you.

“Me, I’ll never set foot in a church again till the day I die!” he had once said. What a temper he had then — and now. He had hammered six telephones, smashed in two television screens with beer bottles, broken countless things. And Olive had said nothing; had just accompanied him to the store to buy replacements. Once he had bought a pool table for his grand-daughter for her birthday and placed it right in the middle of Olive’s kitchen. That didn’t last very long. She took one look at it, and ten minutes later it was back on its way to Houma.

He was here, but they couldn’t make him cry. They would never make him cry. As far as he was concerned, they could all go to hell, except for the little girl, his great-granddaughter; he loved her. She sat about fifteen rows back with her mother, father, brother, and baby sister. They had moved away two years ago, but for this they had to make the trip back down to the bayou. He remembered how during her nap time, she used to sneak from her house to their back door, and he and Olive would let her in and give her frozen yogurt and potato chips. She’d then follow Olive into the den and alternate between watching Olive embroider and trying to understand what was going on in The Young and the Restless. The day they moved away, Olive shut the van door, and after the face of the little girl disappeared from view, she had crumpled to the cement in the driveway and stayed there for twenty minutes. He just went into the house and drank a beer. As long as he didn’t look at the empty playhouse, he could handle it. As long as he threw away the surplus supply of yogurt and canned pears, the storybooks she had forgotten to pack, and the crayons in a glass on the kitchen table, he could handle it. He could always handle it. He clacked his dentures together and nodded. Yep. He could always handle it.

He picked at the seams in the pew’s purple cushion, looked around at the windows, noticed how the pieces of glass fit together to compose the stern-faced saints. Outside a fishing boat sent out its loud signal to raise the bridge, and it startled him. At night they used to sit on the lawn swing that hung from the magnolia tree in their front yard and watch the lights play on the ripples in the bayou. The little girl ate from a can of peaches or pears and chattered about how she found a four-leaf clover during recess, or Micah Dardar had made the teacher mad again, or Shelly had made her talk and that’s why she had to put her nose on the chalkboard.

The voices from the choir loft filled the sanctuary with a slow, haunting version of “Amazing Grace,” and Pappy noticed — or imagined he noticed — the absence of one voice in particular. Miss Josephine and Mrs. Arceneaux stood beside each other now. There had been someone between them. Olive had sung in that choir for at least thirty years, and now they sang without her. She joined the choir because she didn’t want to teach catechism anymore, and she had to do something for the church. Well, that was one of her reasons. Pappy had scoffed when she told him the idea, saying that her singing wouldn’t be doing something for the church because she’d scare everybody away. She joined the choir that same week, practiced her music while he was trying to watch his boxing and wrestling on television, and refused to strain his gumbo for three weeks straight. And now they sang without her. He had never actually heard her sing. And they were singing without her.

The old man lifted his head to see the mass of flowers in front of the towering pulpit. The choir sang a few more songs, and then six men walked up to the front of the church, closed the lid of the coffin without a sound, and heaved it up. They all looked alike: black tuxedos, shiny shoes, black hair, red noses. “She’s not really dead; she’s just sleeping.” He remembered how the little girl used to turn around in her chair in the theater during Snow White and comfort the children behind her with this same phrase. Olive would hiss “Shhh!” and hand her a box of snowcaps to keep her busy.

He realized who was in that coffin, and his stomach turned to lead, his mouth and throat dry. Already he missed her — her scent, a powdery clean smell that filled a room with every move she made; her cooking… everything about her, everything that was now gone. As soon as this service was over, the little girl would be leaving him too. Everyone would be going away, leaving him with a dish of cold food that could never compare to Olive’s; food that wouldn’t be strained or cooled under the ceiling fan. He would be in that house by himself, alone with his Little Debbie cakes and his beer, listening to the sounds of the bayou.

He grimaced as his two daughters blew their runny noses at the same time. “Damn it. Damn ’em to hell,” he muttered to himself. They both heard him, and both slammed their elbows into his side. He wanted a telephone to smash.

A heaviness seeped into him like the barbecue sauce that dripped into the holes he drilled in crabs. They all used to love his barbecued crab. Olive once sat at the picnic table for three straight hours eating his crab, then spent another ten minutes licking her fingers. The sun had moved to another window, to illuminate the face of another saint, and he looked down at his shoe, now dull and lifeless like his heart.