by Jim Bates
Les Nichols crawled on his hands and knees to the front door of Demetri’s Shoe Repair, pounded feebly on the door and collapsed. “Help,” he called weakly. “Help, me.”
Demetri head the sound, ran to the door and opened it. Seeing his former employee, someone he often referred to as the ‘Son I never had,’ he yelled over his shoulder, “Marika, he’s back. Les is here.” Then he lifted the poor soul, wasted away to skin and bones, and brought him inside to the rear of the shop where the old couple kept a small apartment.
Taking one look, Marika exclaimed, “Dear Mother of God,” and took charge. “Lay him on the bed, then go and draw a bath. I’ll get some soup for him. Let’s get this poor man fed and cleaned up. He needs our help.”
Dimly aware of the voices of the two people he loved more than anyone in his life, Les smiled. Home, he thought to himself. I’m home.
And he was. Demetri had hired Les, a skinny, sixteen-year-old kid, for a summer job ten years earlier. Les had been a hard worker but had a bit of a chip-on-his-shoulder, one Demetri tried to tame with his kind and gentle nature. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but he never gave up.
Even though he was a sullen teenager, Les liked the shoe repair shop. He liked the smell of the leather and dye and waxes that were used to repair shoes. He liked the responsibility of taking something old and worn and making it like new again. And he liked Demetri.
Demetri found something good in the withdrawn young man and was happy to employ him during the next few years, having Les work after school, over the summer, and even on holiday breaks. But it was the sixties and when Les graduated from high school he was drafted into the Army. He served his tour of duty in Vietnam and came back with plans to work for Demetri, but the memories of the war plagued him. He was restless and had trouble settling until one day he simply vanished. The knock on the door was the first time Demetri and Marika had seen him in three years.
That day they had fed and bathed and clothed him, and the next day, when he was a little stronger, Les asked, “Can I have my old job back?”
The old couple almost wept with joy. “Of course, you can,” Demetri said. “For as long as you want.”
Les was finally settled. He never left.
Years later, long after Demetri and Marika had passed on leaving Les the business, and not long after Les had sold the business to a young couple who were going to turn the space in to a craft brewery, he was talking to the son of a neighbor.
They sat at the kitchen table, Les with a cup of coffee and young Adam with a glass of ginger ale. The fifth grader had a notebook in front of him. “Uncle Les, my assignment is to interview the most interesting person I know,” he smiled shyly. “And that person is you.”
Les knew he was being buttered up but didn’t care. He liked the young kid who called him ‘Uncle’ and who, along with his mother and younger brother and sister, lived across the hall in the small apartment building not far from his old shoe repair shop. He took a sip of coffee and said, “Fire away.”
Adam looked at the questions he’d already composed in his notebook. “Tell me about your life.”
Les laughed, “That’s a pretty broad question, young man.”
“How about this, then,” Adam said, checking his list of questions. “Who was the most influential person in your life?”
“Well, that’s easy. It was Dimitri, the man I used to work for at the shoe repair shop. You never knew him, but he helped me when I was having troubles after I came home from Vietnam. He gave me my old job back, and got me pointed in the right direction. We worked together for twenty-one years until he sold the business to me. I’ll never forget him.”
Adam sat forward, interested. “Where’d he come from?”
“He came from a town called Zhovit Vody. It’s in south Central Ukraine.” Adam looked puzzled so Les took out his smart phone and together they looked up the town and found where it was located.
“Wow,” Adam said. “That’s wicked.”
Les had no idea what that meant but assumed it was something good. He nodded and said, “His was quite the life. Demetri’s father worked in the scandium mine there. It’s one of only three mines like that in the world. I guess they use scandium as an alloy in aluminum or something. Makes it stronger.” He could see Adam start to lose interest, and continued, “Anyway, long story short, Demetri’s father wanted something better for his son than working in the cold and dangerous mine, so he sent him to apprentice as a cobbler with his cousin in the next town over. Demetri worked for him for five years to learn the trade. During that time, he met his darling Marika and they got married.
“Around that time, in the mid-thirties, the Jews were being persecuted ruthlessly so Demetri and Marika emigrated to America and set up their business over on Lake Street near downtown Minneapolis. That’s where I met him. He gave me my first job. My mom and dad were having problems. They eventually divorced and my mom remarried. I didn’t like the guy because he was a jerk to me. It was not a good time.”
“Then you went into the Army, right?”
“Yeah, I did. Served my time as I like to call it. Came home with plans to work with Demetri in the shop but had too many bad memories of the war. Lots of issues. I had trouble adjusting.”
Les nodded, thinking for a minute before deciding that Adam was old enough to know the truth, “Yeah, kiddo. Drugs mainly, and booze. I was sliding downhill fast. If not for Demetri and Marika I wouldn’t be talking to you now.”
“You mean you’d be dead?”
“Yeah, my little friend. Dead.” No way to sugar coat the truth.
“Wow.” Adam was writing away furiously in his notebook.
Les glanced at the clock. It was nearly dinner time. “What time does your mom want you home?”
Adam looked at the clock. “She said to come home when I’m done interviewing you.”
“You want to stay for dinner?”
“What are you having?”
“I was thinking of having a bowl of ice cream and some popcorn.”
A big smile broke out on the young boy’s face, “Yeah!”
Les gave him his phone, “Call your mom, then.” Then he added, grinning, “Better not mention what we’re having.” The two friends smiled at each other.
While Adam was on the phone, Les went about get their meal ready. He smiled, whistled a little. He loved having Adam around. He sometimes had the feeling that what was between the two of them was like what had been between he and Demetri. Like a mentor and a friend.
Maybe, maybe not. But, whatever the case, the truth was exactly like he’d told Adam. If it hadn’t been for Dimitri and Marika he wouldn’t have lived much longer on the streets. Of that he was sure. They gave him his life back. Now he could give some of that to his neighbor’s son.
“Mom said I can stay as long as I want. Is that okay with you?”
Les opened the freezer and took out the ice cream. “Yep, that’s great,” he said. Then he put a bag of popcorn in the microwave.
Adam smiled, said goodbye to his mom and hung up the phone. “I’ll get the table set.”
“Thanks,” Les said. “That perfect. After we eat, we’ll go back to your interview. How’s that sound?
Les smiled. It sounded good to him, too.