“Shoemaker,” Coach Breman came up behind Adam in the school hallway the next day and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Fritzy said I might be able to snare you for the team.”
“I don’t know Coach. I don’t―”
“She also said you could use Jim’s basketball shoes.”
“Coach, I can’t pay―”
“Who said anything about payment? Besides, Jim has grown two inches taller since he has been in college. He now wears a shoe two sizes bigger than the ones sitting in his closet at home. You would be doing his mother a favor by helping her clean out some of the things Jim doesn’t need any more. Today is Friday and he will be home tonight for Christmas break. Maybe you could stop by the house on your way home and pick them up. Sure would help Mrs. Breman.”
What could the boy say? He had no more sharp excuses left in his quiver.
“Then there is still the team. Adam, George Barnard already left town with his parents for the holidays. Eric Fox is sick at home with mumps and Gary Jefferson is down with a head cold so bad he can’t breathe through his nose. We have one game left tonight before Christmas break. I want you to play or we may have to forfeit the game.”
“Coach, no. I haven’t even practiced with the team.”
“Yes you have, Adam. You play with the guys every day after school for a half hour or so before the team practices. I have seen your free throws and lay-up shots. You’re a natural.”
“I shot baskets every day all summer out at the farm. Pops had put up a hoop for me before . . . I’ll think about it, Coach.” The bell rang to announce the start of classes. The halls began to empty like water as it drained from a tub.
“I’ll talk to you more at the house. Now you stop by for those shoes, Adam.” Coach Breman hurried into the Biology Lab and starting lecturing before he pulled the door closed.
After school, Adam darted out the north door and started down the freshly shoveled sidewalk when Fritzy caught up to him. She had to move fast. The legs that went with her five-feet four-inch body could not cover nearly as much ground as those that matched his six-foot two frame.
“Adam, why are you running?”
“I’m not running, Fritzy, just out stretching you.” He laughed and waited for Fritzy to catch up.
“Daddy said you were going to stop by the house and get those shoes, Adam. Right?”
“Right,” he added with apprehension. His father had taught him to work hard and not accept charity. He had wrestled in his mind all day about whether to accept the shoes, about the team, about being beholding to people. Now, he was on his way to the Breman home and the decision seemed settled. Was he helping Mrs. Breman or was Fritzy’s family just helping the needy, abandoned kid? He couldn’t tolerate the thought that the Bremans might think of him as poor. He was temporarily out of money, that was true, but he was not poor. Pops always said that poorness is a state of mind not a state of the wallet.
Images of Grandma O’Hara flashed in his mind. He had visited her twice in upstate New York with his mother, before the war started. “Money isn’t necessary,” Granny had said. “The wee one’s pot of gold can be found if you look for the treasure.”
Adam often wondered what the precious woman was talking about but Moms wouldn’t hear any questions about the old Irish ways or the tiny clan of Travelers with whom Granny lived. But, to Adam, there was magic in her words. He shook off the thought like a cold chill. Shaddi never talked about magic.
When they arrived at the Breman home, Fritzy’s mother met them at the door. “Would you like some milk and cookies, Adam?”
Adam laughed to himself. Milk and cookies sounded like a kid’s snack but a hungry man couldn’t be choosey.
Without waiting for an answer, Fritzy led him into the kitchen and pointed to the table and chairs. The wooden table was green with white stenciled flowers on all four corners and they were repeated on the backs of the chairs.
Adam slowly studied the room. There was a four-burner electric stove against the east wall, a sink built right into the kitchen cabinets beneath the window that looked out over the back yard, and an electric refrigerator in the corner, not an ice box like his family had on the farm.
No ice man stops here.
“Here we go, Adam,” Mrs. Breman offered as she brought over a small plate of cookies and glasses of cold milk.
“Tell me Adam, what’s your mother’s name? I think I may know her,” she began. “I believe we belonged to the Child Welfare Club together when she first came to town. She was a good friend. I heard she is sick.”
A good friend? I didn’t know Moms has friends. All she does is work all day long, every day. He snapped his mind back to attention. “Yes Ma’am. She has tuberculosis.”
“Where do you―?”
“I’d better hurry along. My uncle will be wondering where I am.”
“Oh, I didn’t remember that your mother had a brother.”
“No, not my mother’s brother, my father’s brother. Moms is from the East” He looked up at the clock above the sink. The Bakelite time piece hung from a special hook in front of a recessed electrical outlet that powered it.
Adam sat down at the table as directed, drank the full glass of milk and took a few bites from one of the cookies. “Wow, the cookies are good, but I have to go.”
“Please, let’s look at those shoes first,” Mrs. Breman protested and led the way to her son’s room and the overloaded closet.
Jim’s room was coordinated in shades of blue and brown with matching bedspread and curtains. Trophies were displayed everywhere, across the top of the dresser and on special shelves designed just for them. Adam could tell cabinets were strong and designed to hold many statues that testified to Jim’s ability, since the shelves were reinforced with sturdy screws. There were basketball, baseball and track trophies of various heights and designs. He didn’t want to stare, so he only glanced quickly about the room.
“Well, Adam, these are the shoes.” Mrs. Breman stretched and pulled the pair from the back of Jim’s closet. “Oh,” her face distorted as if in pain.
“You okay, Mrs. Breman?” Adam was observant. He was always aware when Moms was hurting. There was a time, when the world was sane, that he thought he might like to become a doctor. In the last few months, he just hoped to survive another day.
“I was cleaning the closet this afternoon and I pulled a muscle in my back crawling around. I was trying to drag the stuff out of the back.”
“Here, let me help you.” Adam squatted down like a weight lifter before the big pull. With his long arms, he scrambled everything out from the floor of the closet with one swoop.
“Oh Adam, thank you,” she bubbled as she started to bend over.
“No Ma’am. You sit there on the bed and I’ll lift all this stuff up to you.” Adam gathered up the now infamous basketball shoes, a tennis racket, a pair of black dress shoes, two baseball caps–one white, one dark blue–both with appropriate team logos prominently sewed on the front, all mixed in with half-used notebooks, an older pair of sneakers and single socks with an occasional pair, mostly in plain colors and one argyle.
Mrs. Breman quickly sorted all the items into categories, with subdivisions of clean and soiled. “There, My Boy, the task took us a matter of minutes when we did job together.” She reached over to pick up the shoes that were on the floor and then smiled and stopped. “You had better get them Adam. They’re yours now anyway.” Then she put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, they are size 11. I hope they fit.”
“Yes Ma’am,” and his eyes twinkled. “I’m sure they will.” He turned his back as if he were going to sit on the edge of the bed. “Shaddi,” he whispered low, “increase their size by a half.”
“Blow in them My Son,” Adam heard Shaddi whisper in his head.
Adam tipped up the shoes as if he were looking inside for stray laces.
“There may be dust inside them, Adam. I am so sorry,” Mrs. Breman apologized.
Perfect, Adam smiled. He turned his back to the two, “Don’t want to get any dust on you two. He took a deep breath and blew into the shoes and felt the leather give and expand between his fingers. He pulled the laces on his clodhoppers, kicked them off and slid his feet into the basketball shoes. They fit perfectly.
Thank you Shaddi. Neither Fritzy nor her mother seemed to notice the power of Adam’s breath. The size 11s had become 11½ with a puff from Shaddi.
“They seem to fit you, Mrs. Breman bubbled. “And, for helping me, a bonus,” she added as she carefully rose, straightened her back, and went to the dresser. “Jim has grown so much his shoes are two sizes too small, so his socks would be too.” She reached in the drawer and pulled out half-a-dozen pair, most of them athletic white. “Here you are.” Quickly she added, “Thank you so much for helping me get rid of this stuff. That will leave room for Jimmy’s stuff . . . things that fit him.”
“Ma’am . . .”
“Adam, you don’t know how much you have helped me. This is at least something I can do in return. I . . . can’t afford to pay you anything. It helps me a lot to be able to give you something of value in return, even if the shoes and socks are used . . . junk.”
“Oh no, Ma’am. They’re not junk. I appreciate your generosity.” Adam picked up each item as if it were a precious gift. He remembered what his grandfather had said, “When people are generous, the recipient is generous in return by valuing their gift, no matter how small.”
“Are you ready?” Fritzy beamed as she came into the room.
“Ready?” Her mother asked.
“I’m going to take Adam over to the church. Mr. Gunderman needs some help with his work and I thought Adam would be a good job candidate.” Fritzy latched onto Adam’s coat sleeve and tried to ease him out of room.
“I thought you were kidding about a job.” Adam had no idea there were any jobs available anywhere around town. Since so many returning veterans found no work when they got home, Adam did not even apply anywhere. The message was always the same. “No openings.”
Adam suddenly became excited. He had a strong sense of responsibility and now he might actually be able to put it to use. A real job.
“Maybe you shouldn’t leave. Your mom seems to need more help,” Adam protested gently. He used to be a helpful, thoughtful person, before the entire world learned what hate was.
“I’ll help you when I get back, Mom. Adam is going to talk with Mr. Gunderman about helping out at the church over the holidays.”
“That’s very nice, Adam. You two run along.”
“Thanks Mom,” Fritzy sang as she pulled Adam out of the room.
Adam turned back and looked one last time at Jim’s warm room with walls and a ceiling. There was a bed with a brown quilt, probably made by a grandmother. A tall chest of drawers that housed the socks stood against the wall. Adam’s bare attic room in the bell tower flooded his mind by comparison. The only warm spot in the belfry was inside Mrs. Brumble’s purse, that small hummingbird that slept in the basket. And the only one to talk to was the Wizard. He was always there.
The front door of the Cranberry Street Church! Wow! Not the back. I can enter through the door that respectable people go through.
Adam’s experience with the church was vastly different on most other days. He never went through the front door. He wondered if the kings of old ever went through the back door of the cathedral or crawled in through the coal room window. Today, as he entered with Fritzy, he felt like a king as he walked through the double doors. He thought for a moment about when he stopped feeling noble, respectable, but he could not remember when it all stopped.
Again he thought of his grandfather’s admonition. “Always keep your name clean. Nothing is more precious than your reputation.”Adam felt stronger than he had in months, stronger and cleaner.
“Mr. Gunderman,” Fritzy called out from the narthex without proceeding into the church. “You here?”
“Fritzy Breman?” a voice called out from the room below.
“Yes Sir,” she echoed back.
Alfred Gunderman huffed and puffed up the stairs. “It’s you, Child,” he chuckled like the squire of Christmas Eve, right down to the rosy cheeks.
“This is Adam Shoemaker, Mr. Gunderman, and he would like to apply for that assistant janitorial job. I came along to tell you that my parents and I recommend him very highly for the position.”
“Oh you do, do you?” Alfred smiled mischievously. He looked down at Adam’s black leather, high-top shoes, then met him eye to eye. “You an honest boy?” he quizzed.
“Yes Sir, I am.” Adam straightened his back and tried his best to meet the old man’s gaze, blink for blink.
“You been arrested for anything?” Gunderman continued. “Vandalism . . . trespassing . . . pilfering?”
Adam felt a discomfort in his skin, like someone had dumped a can of flea powder down his collar. He had already said he was honest but he definitely had been trespassing in the church. The question included the word arrested, however. “No Sir. I have never been arrested for anything.”
He felt his eyes lose contact with the man’s and he snapped them to attention again. He knew he was playing with words.
A man’s word is the most important thing he has, he remembered his father saying in a distant time when he still had a family.
“Never been arrested, never stole anything.” Alfred repeated. “Now that is a blessing! And, accepting a gift of charity is not stealing.”
Adam thought of the basketball and basket-purse. He could feel a bead of sweat on his forehead. How could Alfred Gunderman possibly know about the ball or the purse? His mind raced as he tried to stay ahead of his story.
Shaddi, he begged silently, help me get through these questions. Soon I won’t remember which story I told. Keep my face honest, even if my words aren’t.
“Quit teasing, Mr. Gunderman,” Fritzy coaxed, completely unaware of the agreement that had just been etched between the old man and the boy.
“The one additional thing I require is about those clodhopper shoes.” Mr. G. said.
Adam held his breath. They were the only shoes he had.
“I know everyone of you boys wear them. You had too. The metal heal and toe plates kept them from wearing out, and since you only got two pair of shoes a year during the war, they had to last. But, Adam, they scratch up the hardwood floors somethin’ awful. When you’re here in the church, you’ll have to wear something else.”
Adam felt his heart drop to the floor. “I don’t have any other shoes, Sir.
“Of course you do, Adam. The good basketball shoes are for the gym floor, but that older pair would be perfect to work in,” Fritzy reminded him without a moment’s hesitation.
Alfred Gunderman stuck out his hand and Adam responded meekly in kind. “We have an understanding then, Adam,” the man said as he continued to pump the boy’s hand with a viselike grip.
Rather than feeling pain in his hand and discomfort in his conscience, a new feeling of manly pride welled up in the boy. This was Adam’s first contractual agreement with another. No lawyer was require to draw up the details. Adam knew what was expected of him and his hand shake was his bond. Shaddi, give me a grip of steel. As Adam felt his handshake firm to a confident clasp, Alfred smiled.
“You savin’ up for a nice Christmas present?” Gunderman winked and nodded in Fritzy’s direction.
“We’re going to the New Years Party,” Fritzy bubbled. “Right, Adam?”
“Right,” Adam agreed but his mind bounced around like the ball he had gotten the evening before. Money for party tickets . . . coal for the farm.
Winston’s Coal Company said they would accept a deposit on a load of coal and the balance could be paid over several months. He had a real reason for getting the job. He wasn’t a kid anymore. He felt responsible for his mother with Pops gone. “All in all, I guess I need about twenty dollars.”
Alfred eyed the boy with a squint and a sparkle to his eye. “I tell you what, if you can work during the holidays, help set up, clean up, and tear down, maybe you’d like to keep the job. I could use you several hours after school even after the Holidays. Naturally, you would have to keep your grades up. What kinda grades do you get, Son?”
“Mostly A’s and a few B’s.” Adam hadn’t thought to lie about grades. He was a good student. It came naturally to him, especially science and math.
“Adam, that’s wonderful!” Fritzy laughed. “Are you going to college after high school?”
“Don’t think so. A high school degree, especially from Middletown High School, is a great education. I can get a job anywhere I want to when I graduate.”
“No hopes of becoming a teacher or doctor or anything?” Alfred pushed.
“Medicine . . . I had thought about becoming a physician . . . but . . .”
“You can do anything you put your mind to, My Boy.” Mr. Gunderman spoke with determination and authority.
“That’s what my Grandpa Shoemaker used to say.” Adam could hear the words of his Gramps in his head where his wisdom was buried for future reference. Recently, he thought only about school work and how to stay alive. He didn’t believe in the future any more. He only felt empty inside.
“I’m not getting any younger, ya know,’ Alfred admitted. “The ol’ ticker flutters, my back and knees hurt. Well, never mind about that. I leave the complaining’ to the young folks.”
“What?” Adam’s attention snapped back to the immediate. “Yeah, right. Leave the complaining to the young folks.”
“Are you all right, Adam?” Fritzy pulled on his sleeve.
“Yes, sure,” Adam smiled sheepishly.
“Well, Young Man, are you interested in the job or not?” Alfred paid no attention to Adam’s daydreams. He was a practical man. “Job or no job?”
Adam could not believe what he was hearing. He could have a job for now and maybe for the next few months. “Yes Sir,” he smiled, “that would be great, now and later.”
“You know they’ll find out about the lies,” the shadows tormented as they rose up from the stair well and glared at Adam. Thankfully, no one else heard them.
“Don’t ya want to know how much you’ll be makin’?” Gunderman teased.
“They’ll just cheat you,” again the shadow people hurled dark emotional bombs meant only for the boy.
Shaddi, I don’t want to hear them, Adam stated. Immediately, he experienced a selective deafness. He saw the shadows’ mouths move but heard no sound, except Alfred’s words.
“Of course you do, Adam. Everybody wants to know that they’ll make,” Fritzy forced herself into the discussion.
“Yes Sir, I do,” Adam smiled sheepishly. It was hard, but he tried to keep Mr. G’s words separate from the shadows as they passed by with moving lips. “I didn’t think it was polite to ask.”
“I like that Adam,” Alfred smiled. “You’re more interested in the work than the pay. But, in business, you have to know if you’re getting a good deal or not.”
“Yes, Sir,” Adam stuck out his chest and stood as tall as he could, which was several inches taller than the stooped little man who held his future in his hands. I wouldn’t know if I was getting a good deal or not. But, he asked, “Tell, me, Mr. Gunderman, how much will I make?”
Fritzy giggled and grabbed Adam’s arm. “That was very manly Adam. Good for you.”
Adam blushed and stared at his shoes again.
“Well, the minimum wage for most folks is forty cents an hour. That seems fair. You should earn a man’s wage. I’ll expect a man’s effort in your work, so forty cents it is.”
“That should be enough.” Adam spoke out loud but his head was full of marching numbers, all lined up in columns to help him see when Moms could come home.
“For the party?” Fritzy grinned with the innocence of one who had no worries or cares.
“That,” Adam agreed, “and for some stuff at the house.” To himself he mumbled, “Twenty dollars,” but in his mind he was thinking of all his needs. Twenty dollars might be enough for Moms to be able to come home sooner than I had even thought.
“Twenty dollars, huh?” Gunderman smiled.
Adam was startled. He hadn’t realized he had been heard. He wanted to keep his family life private. “Yes, Sir.”
“Well, with all that has to be done, you can make that amount during the holidays. You’ll not have the full amount before Christmas, that’s in four days, but you’ll have fifty hours in by New Years Day. I am sure of it.”
To Adam, Christmas was just another holiday without Pops, but Moms had always been there. Pops had inherited Grandpa Schumacher’s farm and they lived a comfortable life before the world went crazy. Adam had wished his mother could have been home by Christmas Day, but he would have to be patient. This year, he would visit her at the Sanatarium on Christmas Day and that would have to be enough. “That will be fine, Sir.”
“Okay then, we have a deal, but Son, I expect you to do a man’s job. Don’t wait to be told. If you see something that needs to be done, do it. If I have to tell you everything, I might as well do the work myself.”
“I understand but how will I know―”
“I’ll give you a list of chores for each day of the week plus an anytime list. Picking up paper off the floor and keeping snow away from the entry are anytime tasks, not something you wait ‘til Thursday to do. You do a good job here and you will have learned how to work for a lifetime.” He slowed then asked, “Your folks know you’re gettin’ a job? Is it okay with them?”
“He just found out today, Mr. Gunderman,” Fritzy protested.
“Moms has been sick so she’ll have to write a note.” Adam had to control the contact his boss would have with a family that had blown up with the bombs of war. He would work out the details somehow. For months, he had been making do. If he had to, he would write the letter himself and have Moms sign it. He would do a good job for Mr. Gunderman and prove himself to be the best worker in town. Goodness knows he lived close enough to the job to never be late.
“Well, I am very pleased to have such a conscientious young man work for me, well . . . for the church. If you are helping to take care of your mother, you have my vote.”
What an unexpected turn! Adam hadn’t even applied for the job but the job had found him.
“Here ya go,” Alfred smiled, handed him the broom handle and walked away. “Work in your sock feet or change your shoes first,” Mr. G. shouted back.
“You are a working man, Adam. I’d better let you get your work done,” Fritzy smiled. “Change into the older shoes Mother gave you and push that broom around. Then, you’ll have just enough time to get ready. Daddy said you might play in the game this evening. I hope so. I’ll be there.” She started to leave than added, “Say you’ll come, Adam.”
“I’ll see,” Adam waved to Fritzy, then pushed the broom around the entry. A small dusting of green powder fluttered to the floor and Adam stopped. “Is this just one of Mr. O’Shaughnessy jokes, Shaddi? If it is, it is definitely not funny,” he whispered.
“What you need when you need it is not a child’s game. Trust, My Son, trust,” Shaddi breathed on the swish, swish of the broom.