Of Gossip and Shoe Polish
Haley gave Aaron a scare by accelerating the truck almost over the curb, then backing up suddenly to within inches of a stout tree. Only then did she stop and gasp, “Oh! Seatbelts!”
“Are you licensed to drive this thing?” Aaron asked as he buckled in.
“Of course! I got my license last week, and Dad says I already drive better than Mom does.”
“I’d hate to think about that.”
“What about you? Don’t you have a license?”
When Aaron said nothing but only shook his head, Haley quickly changed the subject. Getting her son licensed to drive was certainly one of his mother’s last priorities. He was afraid to even bring it up with her. Deep inside, he felt exhilarated at the prospect of going for a drive with a friend, though he still didn’t know where she planned to take him.
Aaron relished the thrill of riding in Mr. Brooks’ blue Chevy pickup while Haley drove like the carefree teenager she was. The windows wouldn’t close, so the cool fresh air filled his face and lungs with freedom. The radio volume soared, and he found himself shouting over “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog” to tell Haley when a red light was coming. They laughed together and smiled about nothing, just happy to be on the moving road to the outskirts of town, far from their troubles.
Haley finally pulled up beside a quaint-looking general store with peeling advertisements for beer and hardware in the windows. Worn-looking tires and wooden barrels lay in stacks around the store, and thin pillars supported a roof that jutted out over the building’s front. A sign with faded paint dangled from hooks at the end of the roof: “BROOKS’ HARDWARE AND LIQUOR.”
Aaron looked at Haley, and she grinned. “It’s my dad’s store.”
“Wait, you want your dad to meet me?”
“C’mon, he won’t mind.”
He’s going to take one look at me and forbid me from ever seeing Haley again, Aaron thought as he timidly followed Haley inside.
The store had an old-fashioned charm about it. Any piece of hardware you could think of, especially farming and yardwork equipment, lined the walls and short shelves that cut across the middle of the wood-paneled floor. Old paintings and posters from the 1860’s hung on the walls, including Civil War propaganda from both sides. The far wall was choked with shelf upon shelf laden with medicine, postage material, small tools, and countless bottles in every size and color. Bar stools lined the counter edge, and a couple round tables seated small groups of card players or checker players. A low hum of conversation and country radio set the mood.
Roy Brooks, an overweight but seemingly energetic man in a bartender’s apron, vigorously wiped down the counter while talking with two customers. Haley beckoned Aaron over.
“Hey, honey,” said Mr. Brooks. “Grab up your apron, and let’s start cleaning tables!”
“Actually, Dad,” she said, “I came with a friend from school. I want you to meet Aaron Hotchner.”
Aaron stood back hesitantly until Mr. Brooks waved him over. “Come here and let me get a good look at you, boy.”
He squinted at Aaron with a cross between a scowl and an inquiry. Aaron extended his hand. “Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Brooks.” Was his voice shaking?
Mr. Brooks gave his thin hand a firm shake. “And what’s your interest in my daughter?”
“We’re, uh, we’re just friends.”
“Yeah,” Haley put in. “Just friends.”
“Well, Hotchner,” Mr. Brooks pressed, “you aren’t one of those slackers up at the school who smokes weed during class period, are you?”
“And you’ve never touched a bottle? Never mouthed off a teacher? Never stolen something from the classroom?”
When Aaron’s denials turned to stutters, he shook his head intently. He felt terribly uneasy by the interrogation. Would Mr. Brooks refuse to trust him as Haley’s friend?
Haley came to his rescue, as usual. “He’s a great guy, Dad. He never does any of the things on your list. He was in the play last week, remember? Pirate Number Four.”
“Oh yes, I remember.” Then to Aaron: “You don’t really practice piracy, do you?”
Mr. Brooks gave Aaron a friendly slap on the shoulder, unaware of the flash of pain he triggered. As Aaron stifled a reaction, Mr. Brooks smiled warmly. “I’m only messing with you now, Hotchner. I’ll give you my trust, unless you break it.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Mr. Brooks took two glasses from under the counter. “Sit down, you two. I’ll get you a drink, and you can tell me more about yourself.”
Haley nudged him gently in the ribs. “Soda.”
As they sipped lemony sodas, Aaron told Mr. Brooks about his favorite classes, the books he liked to read, and his interest in coin collecting. Other than mentioning his baby brother, he avoided any details about his home life. Mr. Brooks took an interest when Aaron mentioned Treasure Island, and he heartily recommended other classics such as The Red Badge of Courage.
"Your friend has good taste,” he told Haley with a wink. He turned his attention back to Aaron, who finally felt at ease. “Would you be in need of a job, young man?”
Aaron hadn’t thought of that before, but now he realized what a great solution that would be to minimizing his time at home. “Do you have a job for me?”
“Eager fellow. I could use a bootblack by that window. It doesn’t pay great, but you’ll get wages in the best gossip in town.”
Interesting. Aaron glanced around the room. A dozen small conversations went on at once. Two checker players grumbled about a mutual cleaning lady who apparently swiped apples when she cleaned their kitchens. A couple men at the bar muttered about outwitting an insurance agent. Most interestingly, the four card players at a nearby table discussed a recent breakout from the county jail.
Aaron nodded at Mr. Brooks. “I would like to take the job.”
“You ever shined shoes before?”
“I used to shine my father’s each day before he went to the law firm.”
“Your daddy is a lawyer?”
“Was.” No more explanation.
“Well, that’s a good enough resume for me. Weekdays, after school. It’ll do you some good, learning to have a job. Haley knows. She’s always helping out around here.”
Aaron looked at Haley and smiled. This may be the best thing she’d done for him yet.