Between Irum’s Beauty Spot and Primetime Bakery, below a tall palm, a makeshift stall has appeared. It’s constructed from coarsely woven white plastic sheeting with “Save the Children” and a jumping jack printed on it in red. A boy, perhaps in his late teens, is sitting on an upturned crate in front of it, with a shoe, heel up, in his lap.
“It’s a dying art,” Amer says to him, slamming and then reslamming the door of his battered Civic behind him.
“It’s the glue,” the boy says. He wipes the excess from the welt of the shoe with a grubby, balled-up cloth. “With the right one, you’re set. None of this UHU superglue. The one like paste. Like flour and water.” The midday sun catches his eyelashes and the thick edge of his nose. He presses his fingers against the sole of the shoe and his nails flush white.
The electricity cables overhead are slack and swaying. An electrician is perched in the crook of the tree, where the branches meet the trunk, holding a cable with one hand and balancing himself with the other.
A rickshaw throttles past Amer. A man parks his sugarcane cart in the shade of a flowering jacaranda tree. He switches on the rattling motor of his juicer and sharpens a giant blade against a stone.
Amer’s mother’s voice cuts through the clamor. Above him, he sees her wheelchair reverse from their balcony into the apartment. The sea air has filigreed the railings with rust.
Upstairs, Amer finds her sitting in the dark, the ayah fanning her with a folded newspaper.
“Small mercies,” she says. “What happened today?”
“They are making offices,” Amer says. “Where our house is.”
She gives a little shriek, like air squeaking from a balloon.
“At the end of the month,” Amer says. “Let’s not talk about it again. There’s a shoe boy downstairs. Do you have anything for him?”
“I saw you talking from the balcony,” his mother says. “Dirty-looking.” She smooths the fabric of her housecoat against her lap.
The ayah follows him out of the room and taps him on the elbow. “There was a trunk of your father’s shoes,” she says. “That boy could have sold them.”
Amer takes an old pair of shoes to be repaired. One has a hole in the sole. “The foot is the noblest part of the body,” the boy says. He slips a hand inside the shoe. “It is the body’s beast of burden. It is the foot soldier for the body’s army. Two hundred rupees at Maghrib.”
An electricity cable swishes alongside a pole, fuzzy at the end like an elephant’s tail.
Amer returns to the apartment. What was in the plot opposite their block has been demolished. A pit has been dug and girders and pillars stacked. A mosque has appeared on the far corner of the plot with a minaret so tall and narrow it should topple. The shadows of tree branches lengthen across the ceiling of his bedroom. He hears the azaan as though the muezzin were at the foot of his bed.
He goes down to collect the shoes. The boy asks him to sit. He rolls a steel cannister along its fine edge to Amer. Amer tries the shoes on.
The boy watches him wedge his heel in with a finger. “You have wide, flat feet,” he says. “Not graceful but dependable.” He directs Amer to walk, and Amer strides to a Suzuki pickup parked a short distance away and back.
“I have some shoes of my father’s,” Amer says. “Maybe you can sell them.”
“I don’t sell shoes,” the boy says. “But bring them.”
Upstairs, his mother and the ayah are arguing over his mother’s handbag. Each holds one side and it gapes between them. “There was,” his mother says. “I know there was.” A bulb in a lamp on a side table flickers and fizzes.
“There wasn’t,” the ayah says. “I bought butter and flour and dal. What did I buy that with?”
“And you’ve broken every cup,” his mother says, letting go of the bag. She grabs a cup from the table and shakes it at the ayah. “Bring me the set. There are fifty-two pieces. I want to see every one.”
“We should put something up,” Amer says. There are dark squares on the wall where pictures used to hang. “It doesn’t look nice.”
“They’re tearing down the old house,” his mother tells the ayah. “Have you heard? That bastard his brother. They allowed us nothing of his. To come and take the pictures. As though we were thieves. And now the house.” She covers her eyes with crooked fingers. Amer thinks of his father, delighted but never happy. He thinks of the chowkidar’s son bursting through the back door of the house, shouting, “He’s fallen! He’s fallen like a bird in the street.”
From the balcony, Amer can see the boy packing up his stall. He unpins the sheeting from four metal rods, which are splayed against uneven paving stones, and folds it into a suitcase, along with several plastic bags of shoes. He ducks into the doorway of their building with the crate he sits on and then again with the steel cannister he offered to Amer. With the case balanced on his shoulder, the boy walks down the darkening street in the direction of Clifton. Amer imagines him tending goats on a green hillside.
“We offered to send him to the best schools,” his mother tells the ayah, nodding toward Amer. “Oxford, Cambridge. People were begging their parents to go, but he wouldn’t. He wanted to stay. We were happy, of course. But now he could be making millions.” She fishes a dirty hundred-rupee note out of a pocket of her handbag and gives it triumphantly to the ayah.
Amer finds a pair of alligator Gucci loafers that were his father’s at the back of his mother’s cupboard, with an empty bottle of Monsieur de Givenchy slotted inside one and a razor with a bone handle in the other. He takes the shoes to the boy in the morning. Someone has tied the loose electricity cable to the pole with a thick red cloth.
“Good quality,” the boy says. He turns one shoe in his hands, sniffs inside it. “Foreign. Maybe China.” He brings the steel cannister for Amer to sit on. “I can’t sell them,” the boy says. They order tea from the seller up the road.
A family on a motorbike swerves to avoid an S.U.V. coming the wrong way. Two beggar children kick an empty plastic bottle back and forth. The sugarcane seller sings, “Her body is like a perfumed song,” as he hacks long stalks of sugarcane in half and then in quarters. “Her body is a marble statue.”
The boy strokes the length of the shoe. “Narrow,” he says. “A precise man.” He turns it over. The sole has worn a little in the center. “Even,” he says. “Show me.” He points at Amer’s shoe, and Amer takes it off. The boy runs his finger along the edge of the sole. “Worn on the sides. Because you’re uncertain.” He shows Amer the wear on his father’s shoe again. “He knows what he wants. His foot is like this.” He arches his hand. “Yours.” He flattens the hand.
“He stood very straight,” Amer agrees, and stands up to demonstrate. “Very”—he pushes his shoulders back—“impressive.” He sits down again.
The boy turns to the sheeting of the stall behind him, where he has pinned up a page torn out of a magazine. It shows a marble foot on a plinth, jagged where the leg should continue. “The most beautiful,” he says to Amer, and traces the foot’s arch.
Amer leans in and their knees touch. His head dips toward the boy’s. He smells hay and frying oil and dark corners. “How funny,” the boy says. “I don’t like shoes. In the village, I was barefoot. The foot should be free.”
Their tea arrives clattering on a tray. Amer asks him about his village. “There was fighting,” the boy says, blowing hard across the cup, wrinkling the tan skin that has formed on the surface of the tea. “And they moved us to a camp. An uncle called me here and gave me this.” He waves at the stall behind him. “First in Gizri, then Phase 5, now here.”
Amer leaves his father’s shoes with the boy. The boy shrugs. “I’ll polish them up,” he says.