What a Wonderful World
The X train started for its next stop with a sudden jolt. The high school boy near the door attempted to cover up his loss of balance with a series of twists and turns, after which he continued to bob his head back and forth to the beat of his music. The tousle-haired man in the dark green parka walked up and down the aisle snapping his fingers and singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” a top hit in the New York City trains. The droopy-mouthed old lady in the corner gave him a scornful look through her half moon spectacles before passing her finger over her tongue to turn to a new page in her 2011 best seller.
Even under the soporific effects of the rhythm of the slow-moving train, the peaceful melody from the parka-man, and the full-blast air conditioner, K could not bring himself to relax. He sat stiffly in his seat, staring straight ahead but seeing nothing, refusing to fall for the temptation, though he knew that he didn’t stand a chance. Sweat beads dripped from his dark brown curls onto his black Hugo Boss dress pants, and his right Ferragamo loafer tapped the train floor erratically. The source of K’s sudden anxiety was the black leather rucksack sitting on the lap of the big bulky man to his left, whose thick, scruffy beard emphasized the sleepy look on his face. It roused in K a long forgotten—yet wholly unforgotten—feeling.
The last time that his hand had illegally entered someone’s bag was more than five years ago, after which he lost all interests in the practice due to boredom and a sudden moral awakening. Since then, on the train, on the bus, or on the street, no shapes, colors, or sounds of bags had been able to draw more than a second’s glance from him.
Entering the station, the X train jerked to a sudden stop. As K swayed to the momentum of the train, the old tweed jacket that he kept slung over his left shoulder slipped off. As it was parachuting to a stop on top of the black leather rucksack, K leaned over to make an act of clumsily grabbing it, catching the collar with one hand, reaching under the jacket with the other, and meeting the dark eyes of the thick-bearded man for a brief instant as a jacket button hit the seat with a momentous “ding.” K’s expression froze in shock. The short zipping sound that followed was muffled by the opening of the train doors, and a half-second later the rucksack, unzipped but all contents intact, fell on the floor with a low thud, catching the jacket under it. K was gone.
The thick-bearded man leaned down unconcernedly to pick up the rucksack, but a sudden look of recognition crossed his face as his eyes fell on the jacket. He picked it up along with the rucksack and jumped up just in time to squeeze through the doors as they closed, a beer bottle slipping out of his pocket and exploding into a million pieces as it hit the floor.
It was the winter of 1981, an unusually cold one. A man with a thick beard, a sleepy look, a half-empty beer bottle, and a baby in his arms stopped outside the doors of a sorry-looking shoe repair shop. Squinting, he looked up at the store sign, then looked down at the big toe poking out of his left shoe. He put the baby down on the doorstep and the beer bottle beside it, the man took a moment to count the few coins in his wallet. After a long, confusing minute of incorrect counting, he picked up the baby, took a step, stopped, set the baby down, picked up the beer bottle, and walked into the shop whistling “What a Wonderful World.”
Half an hour later, the man came out, staring contently at the filled-in spot on his shoe where his toe used to be. A look of minor annoyance crossed his eyes as he saw the baby lying obnoxiously on the steps, covered in snow and a dry brown leaf. He thought about the emptiness of his wallet and the greater emptiness of his stomach. He dropped his worn tweed jacket on the baby before stumbling away, still whistling.
The next person who passed the shoe repair shop was a man named Gem. He picked up the tweed jacket on the steps and saw the leaf and snow underneath. He wiped off the leaf and snow and saw the baby, half frozen but still alive.
The baby’s name became K, and he grew up in Gem’s two-room apartment on the Upper East Side, one of the rooms being the big green dumpster behind a flourishing Italian restaurant, their primary source of food, and the other being the bigger blue one beside it.
Gem was an unhappy guy, displeased with his state of life and disdainful of everything else. He hated keys, because he never had a door to use them on. He hated philanthropists, because they donated to children, animals, trees, but just not to him. He hated baseball, because the kids in the neighborhood used the dumpsters as practice walls on weekends. He hated women, because they hated him. K’s memories of him consisted mostly of him complaining about the injustices in the world while burping the smell of leftover pasta. Even though Gem was always in a bad mood and didn’t treat K much better than their fellow tenants, the rats, he did teach him how to survive. He taught K the art of food selection, which helped him avoid stomach discomforts, the art of reusing cigarette butts, something K never took an interest in, and, most importantly, the art of taking.
Gem’s life philosophy was that if someone was better off than you, you had the God-given right to take from them. He passed on to K his skills in the field, including the snatch-and-run, the kick-and-apologize-while-reaching-into-bag, and, K’s favorite, the cover-with-jacket. In fact, K turned out to be such a natural that by adolescence he had accumulated enough wealth to legally obtain a slice of warm, thin-crusted sausage pizza from the Italian restaurant and buy Gem an I♥NY shirt. Gem passed away the next year, reasons unknown, and in the same year a lonely and wandering K came across a loving couple, the bald half in an expensive suit and the blond half wearing a diamond necklace.
Two days later, K started a shoe repair company with the money he acquired from selling the necklace.
Due to his incredible business talents and ruthless competition tactics, his company, Shoe Repair Unlimited, monopolized the shoe repair business in no more than a year’s time, and K rose to the status of a respectable business owner.
In the largest office of Shoe Repair Unlimited, the afternoon sun sliced in through the blinds as K sat in his office, staring blankly at the old and crumpled black-and-white photo in his hands. He first came across it when he was eight. One day Gem tossed him the tweed jacket and told him that it had belonged to his father. He found the picture in the empty wallet in the left pocket. He liked looking into the dark, sleepy eyes, though they were nothing like his deep green ones, and imagining that they were filled with tenderness and joy at seeing him, and he often imagined a warm smile behind the thick beard. At the same time, he couldn’t ignore the constant jabbing at his heart reminding that the man in the picture had abandoned him outside a shoe repair shop, which was the reason why he, whether he was aware of it or not, the reason why he decided to go into the shoe repair business after he realized that he had enough money to do so. There was a deep, screaming hate in his heart that craved to destroy and put out of business all shoe repair shops.
Leaning back in his leather arm chair, K recalled his train ride in the morning. The black leather rucksack danced in front of his eyes. This was the first time that his jacket had failed him; not only did he not extract anything from the rucksack, but he even left the jacket in his scurry to get off the train. However, it was not his hand that failed him, nor the fact that he was long out of practice, but his heart. When he saw—
The thick beard and sleepy look from K’s black-and-white picture stood in front of him, in person, as the door to his office slammed open, almost knocking him off his chair.
The big man threw a cold shadow over K as he walked in front of the window. He held out the jacket in his hand.
“Yours?” he asked.
“Yours,” K answered.
The man nodded and slung it over his shoulder. He set the rucksack down and introduced himself as Muck with slurred words and a loud burp that smelled of alcohol and cigarettes.
“Thought ya’d be a Goddamn icicle b’now.” Muck said, and when K didn’t respond, “T’was a damn cold winter.”
“Well I’m a little better off.”
“You left me outside a shoe repair shop.” K stared at the floor as he spoke, his shoulders muscles tense and his hands balled up into white-knuckled fists.
“You left your—I don’t know—days old son outside a fricking shoe repair shop!”
“I ain’t yo daddy.”
“I could have died! It was terribly—what d’you say?”
Burp. “I ain’t yo—” Burp. “—daddy.”
“Whose are you then?”
“Skinned a dim guy in poker. Ya wer all he had.”
“Guy was frickin’ wasted.”
“Would’ve had ya for dinner anyways.”
“Was he my father?”
A couple of years after this conversation, Shoe Repair Unlimited opened up a new wing called Doorstep Drop-off Unlimited that accepted unwanted babies at the doorsteps of branch stores all over the world. The children grew up in K’s old home. The old Italian restaurant had long closed down, but the dumpsters were still there. K bought the surrounding hundred thousand square feet and built The Dump, the largest orphanage in the world, where the children were taught, instead of the Gemian way, to love one another and give back to the community.
The sound of shuffling cards and rolling dice filled the dark room. Muck and an old man with deep green eyes sat facing each other at a faded round table with too many corners. Their table seemed to be isolated from the others, all tables of loud, lost gamblers. Muck took occasional gulps from an empty beer bottle, while his opponent sat glumly and hugged tightly unto the black leather rucksack in his lap, tiredly staring into space.
“Last one, Pal.” Muck muttered.
His opponent nodded absent-mindedly and picked up his hand of cards.
“What’ve ya got?” Muck asked impatiently.
The old man shook his head and looked down at his worthless hand of cards.
Muck gave a hoarse laugh, throwing his empty bottle on the table. “What’ve ya got t’lose then?”
The old man looked down at himself and shook his head again.
“I gotta get som’in’.” Muck leaned forward, almost crushing the table with his weight.
“Well, other’an this—” He pointed to his empty bottle. “—an’ this—” He raised his left hand and rubbed his forefinger and middle finger against his thumb with a greedy grin. “It don’t matter.” While the man hesitated, Muck seemed to remember something. A hazy look crossed his eyes. “It real dun’ matter. Years back a guy’ad only him son, an’ I din’ mind.”
“The guy I lost my son to was also real nice.” The old man seemed to also have wandered away into far memories.
“Ya look familiar.”
“You do too.”
Muck gave his head a violent shake, wincing in the agony of not being able to remember. “So what’ve ya got?” He asked finally.
The old man threw his rucksack on the table. “Now I have nothing.” He sighed.
“Nothin’s wonderful.” Muck grabbed the rucksack nonchalantly, slung it over his shoulder, tucked his empty beer bottle in his pocket, and started for the door, unaware of the deep green eyes following him, tear-filled and empty.
It was still early morning when Muck stumbled into the X train station.
Nearing the end of his life, K had for the most part come to terms with himself and his life. He no longer wore the tweed jacket every day; instead, it rested in the deepest and darkest corner of his closet. He had also, a couple of years back, sold the company to a charity foundation and had a lot of free time on his hands, which he filled with golf clubs, symphony concerts, and museum visits. During those absolutely unavoidable moments of emptiness, K often thought back to the end of his conversation with Muck…
“Why are you here then?” K asked.
Muck jerked his head towards the jacket slung over his shoulder.
“I don’t want it.” K said bitterly.
“Ya daddy, er maybe, owe me a bunch.”
“Well I din’ get nothin’ outta ya, did I?”
“What do you want?”
“N’much.” Muck smiled crookedly. “Jus a lil som’in for drinkin’ n—” He looked down at his big toe, once more sticking out of his left shoe. Burp.
K absent-mindedly took out his wallet and handed Muck whatever bills were in there.
With a yawn, Muck took the money and walked out of the office whistling “What a Wonderful World.”
He had left the rucksack.
K didn’t really know what he was expecting as he opened the rucksack—to discover that it was empty. There was a big hole on the bottom. Perhaps all the contents had fallen out.
K repaired the hole, but he put nothing in there.
To borrow Muck’s words—
Zhengqing Nie, Age 18 Grade 12, Stuyvesant High School,Silver Key