Frank and Bill sat sharing a cigarette in an alcove under their interstate overpass. Frank took the last drag and held up the butt for inspection by Bill.
Bill nodded dejectedly and watched the burnt butt fly up and away from them and out into the windy swath cut by the traffic that flew by day and night. It bounced and bobbed along the pavement, somehow never completely coming to rest. He wondered just how far it could make it on the interstate. It was theoretically possible that it would go all the way to California via I-10, but it was just as probable that it would follow an alternate wind current and be carried up I-55. It all depended on the rate of biodegradation and the drenching rains that could carry it to the shoulders and wash it down the storm drains...although, rain might also cause it to stick to the surface of a passing vehicle... He thought on...
Bill turned to ask Frank's opinion on the butt's longevity and destination, but found him putting on the shoes. They owned one pair between them. Living in the back-country for eight or nine months, they had either destroyed or eaten their old shoes. Upon returning to the city, they'd acquired a new pair from a tourist's bag while the dupe got a sketch done of himself by a street artist. Both of them felt bad about having to steal, consequently they owned just the one pair of size eleven hiking boots.
Bill asked Frank where he was going, all the time watching carefully the ritual attentiveness that Frank put into donning the shoes. They were both dirty bums, but they had agreed to try to prevent fungal infections of the feet. Each watched intently whenever the other put on the shoes.
"You're coming with me. We're gonna get some shoes for you."
"But I like those."
"We'll get some like them. C'mon," Frank said, hopping up and crunching across the broken bottles and nail-driven slats of rotten wood that were strewn about under their cement cavern.
Bill followed, picking his steps carefully, looking like some sort of tic-tac-toe playing chicken in his nervous, jerky progression.
Hoofing it down Canal Street in silence, Frank went over his plan. First they would set up on two corners -- Frank on Decatur, Bill on St. Anne. Frank would run the shoes scam on a tourist while walking up the street. He figured it'd take about one long block to get to the kicker and start demanding the shoes, where, if the sucker gave him any shit, Bill would hop out and start agreeing with Frank as if he were a total stranger. They could both stand there and righteously demand the shoes off a mans feet if he played it right.
Frank explained the plan to Bill whose main concern was Frank's competence in picking out a man with a size eleven foot. Frank pointed out that his own feet were also size eleven and they tossed the idea back and forth, doubts and assurances flying like feathers around a cock-fight.
At length they arrived at St. Anne and Canal. Bill sat down at the granite foot of a forty story edifice and waited. Frank walked comfortably to Decatur St. while Bill picked at the dirty bottoms of his feet, unruffled by the looks of passing strangers.
After a spell, Bill spotted Frank walking toward him with a barrel chested man who was dressed like a cowboy. Blue boots with pointed toes and a big heel. Some kind of snake pattern on them.
They were engrossed in a spirited conversation as Bill watched them walk by. Frank kept shooting him looks and waving wildly behind the big man's back. Bill didn't move, instead chewing on his yellowed thumbnail and looking around dumbly.
Frank and the tourist walked together for another block before big Mickey Gilley finally pushed Frank roughly away and took a stance like a bull, giving Frank the eye. Frank cowered away and stalked back to Bill.
"What the fuck, man!? I had him! Why didn't you back me up?"
"I don't like cowboy boots", replied Bill, deeply interested in the sidewalk.
"Well, shit, you never said you were so particular about shoes before, your highness."
"No cowboy boots or sandals."
Frank took up his position on Decatur again.
People of all shapes and sizes went by. He stared down at their feet and waited for the right combination. The dupe had to be a tourist, wearing size eleven, and now, apparently, not wearing sandals or cowboy boots.
Twenty minutes went by during which time four perfect ones went by wearing sandals or cowboy boots. He thought about just going for one and letting Bill have the hiking boots. He dismissed the thought, however, as he had no intention of parting with the fine hiking boots. They were arguably the most comfortable footwear that he had ever owned.
He kept watching the crowd.
Inevitably, a sucker arrived. This time it was a nervous looking kid of about sixteen walking fast and smoking a cigarette. Frank sidled up, walking in step with the kid.
"How ya doin' fella? Can I get a cigarette?" Frank asked in one breath.
The kid looked at him like a hunted animal and quickly produced a pack from his breast pocket.
Frank took the pack from him and took two cigarettes, placed one behind his ear, one in his mouth and handed the pack back. "Light," he commanded.
The kid produced a pack of matches and stopped to wait while Frank lit his cigarette.
Before discarding the match and while still looking down his cigarette, Frank said, "I bet you I know where you got those shoes."
The kid raised an eyebrow and reached for his matches.
Frank snatched the matches back and looked the kid in the eye expectantly.
"Ok, what would ya like to bet?" the kid asked.
"I'll bet your shoes for my shoes."
The kid looked down appraisingly at Frank's fine boots and nodded. "Ok, it's a bet." he said. "Where?"
Frank tilted his head back and inhaled deeply from the cigarette with his eyes closed, savoring the moment. He mumbled, "where you got those shoes, let's see..."
"Well where? Ya not getting out of this bet now," the kid threatened.
Frank smiled to himself. "Size eleven, right?"
"Uh, yeah...", the kid said, taken aback a bit.
"You got them on your feet, that's where you got them."
The kid stared at him, mouth agape, for a full ten seconds. Frowning, he turned and started up the street.
Frank tossed the cigarette after one last hit and jogged after the kid, marveling to himself at how well things were working out.
Bill watched the kid moving quickly up the block in his expensive tennis-shoes. "Now that's more like it, Frank" he thought. He rose and stepped right into the kid's path.
"Stop that kid!", yelled Frank.
The kid looked back nervously and ran into Bill with a full head of steam.
Bill fell to the cement crying "Ohhh, hell. Oh damn, that hurts." He made a show of it, rolling around on his back and grabbing at his tailbone. The kid just stood and stared stupidly down at him, stealing a couple of furtive glances at the more curious of the working-class folks who mostly hurried by clenching their teeth and fixing their gaze straight ahead, ignoring the debacle.
Frank's arm appeared around the kid's shoulders.
"Hey, hey Kid! Slow down buddy. You're gonna kill someone!"
Bill, lying flat and still, let out a low, agonized moan.
"Aw, hell. I know this guy. He hurt his back in Vietnam. Remember Vietnam, kid? No, I guess you wouldn't."
The kid mumbled something about school, but Frank didn't hear him because Bill had really started pouring it on, screaming as if he were being eaten alive by wolves. It was all either of them could do to keep from laughing. They had to avoid eye-contact with each other.
The kid was horrified. Frank could feel words pouring from his mouth while Bill wailed on the sidewalk. He could see the kid getting closer and closer to his boiling point. It reminded him of sex in a strange way. Finally, the kid looked like he might just bolt and Frank heard his mouth close the deal...
"...and if you give up the shoes I'll see to it that the authorities don't have to be called in and that the old general here gets the medical attention he needs."
The kid was shaking and looked at Frank.
Bill kept sobbing and groaning, but looked up at the kid expectantly.
Frank looked from the kid to Bill and back at the kid.
The shoes came off in a flash, not even untied, and the kid disappeared across the street and into the crowd wearing only white tube socks.
"Well, that was easy." Bill said, hopping up and dusting off his backside.
"Yep." said Frank, bending to light his last cigarette from a businessman's zippo. He nodded his thanks and followed Bill who was babbling excitedly about washing his feet in the fountain up the street and trying on his new shoes.