The soles of Derek’s shoes had several holes, remnants of miles and miles walked. He slept on his side with them cradled in his arms and held close to his bare chest. They were shoes with laces, the kind an office worker might wear. They were dark brown, but the leather was worn and discolored. One of the laces had broken in half at some point and the remaining piece was laced only through the bottom two eyelets. Derek had large feet that were never clean. His shoes were, of course, equally large.
He slept on the floor in a corner of the room curled in a fetal position and facing the wall. The muscles in his back stood out like a topographic map. There were mountains and valleys of muscle. His spine was a highway that led to his exposed ass. He slept naked, using his clothes for padding beneath him.
The third night after I moved into Derek’s room, as he slept, the other man in the room unzipped his pants and sidled up behind him. The man said nothing as the scraping of his thrusting body on the floor reverberated in the darkness. He grunted as he finished, then went back to his place in another corner of the room.
Derek hadn’t moved or made a sound.
That following morning I stood on the veranda and watched the palm leaves of the tall trees that lined the driveway flutter in the ocean breeze. I was leaning against a column, my shoulder against the peeling white paint, my foot up on the rotting railing. Almost everyone had left to go panhandle or scrounge in the trash bins for food or see what they could get to eat at the food kitchen.
“It’s going to rain today,” Derek said as he came to the railing. He had his shoes in his hands.
I looked up at the cloudless blue sky. “What makes you think so?”
“I have a second sense about the weather,” he said. He drummed his fingers nervously on the railing. “Do you want to go with me to get some breakfast?”
He was staring down at his bare feet. His blonde hair hung down over his face. His t-shirt had a hole over his left nipple. While I was trying to decide, he looked up at me. I tried to remember if I had ever seen such deep green eyes. It was like looking into a lush forest.
“No thanks,” I said. “I was thinking about going for a swim. I need to clean up.”
He put his shoes down and slipped his feet into them and bent down and tied them. “It’s hard to panhandle if you’re too clean,” he said as he stood up.
“I was thinking about getting a temporary job, possibly as a day laborer,” I said.
“I’ve done that,” he said. “I picked oranges, but it just wasn’t my thing.”
I climbed over the railing and landed flat-footed on the cracked concrete of the driveway. I looked up at him. “Maybe you should get clean just for the sake of being clean.”
“No one cares how dirty I am when I’m here,” he said.
From the top of a low sand dune I stood looking at the old hotel and tried to imagine it before it had been left to go to ruin. Only two stories tall, its long verandas on both floors that extended out from a round tower-like structure made it appear larger and more grand. The circular driveway that curved in front of the wide steps leading to the large front doors had become as ravaged by time and neglect, like the rest of the hotel and its grounds. On the fence that surrounded the abandoned property, the words on the no trespassing signs made of plywood had mostly faded. While the main gate of the fence remained chained, the holes cut in the fence allowed easy entry and exit. No one seemed to know the name of the hotel. Most of us just called it the hotel. Some called it home.
“It’s quite a sight,” a voice behind me said.
I turned. An elderly man with a small white goatee and wearing a straw hat with a wide brim and a blue and white floral Hawaiian style shirt and white shorts was looking up at me from below the dune. He held a pair of sandals dangling from their straps by his fingertips of one hand.
“It is at that,” I said. “I’m surprised its been abandoned.”
“Time marches on,” he said. “It won’t be there for much longer.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The city is having it demolished. God knows what will go up in its place.”
“When is it going to happen?” I asked.
“Soon, I imagine.” He looked up and down the stretch of beach mostly empty of people, then back at me. “Are you a surfer?”
“You look like a surfer.”
“I don’t have a board.”
“True, but I’m a doctor but I don’t always walk around with a stethoscope. Well, I used to be a doctor. I still am one, but I’m retired. I still do an occasional abortion.” He flicked a flying insect away from his face. “If you know of a young woman in need of one I live in the small red bungalow up the beach and I do them there.”
“I don’t know anyone.”
“Too bad,” he said. “I can always use the money, but don’t get me wrong, I don’t charge much.”
“I still don’t know anyone.”
“C’est la vie,” he said, turning and walking away.
Derek brought me a ham sandwich wrapped in cellophane and two oranges that he got at the food kitchen during lunch. I was sitting on a broken wicker chair on the veranda outside the room I shared with Derek and the other man. The other man showed no interest in getting to know me. I didn’t know his name and neither did Derek. Between us he quickly became known only as The Man.
The Man was gone most of the day and returned each night and lay down on a ragged blanket along the wall under the window. He said nothing to either of us and didn’t respond when spoken to. His only reason for being in the room we were in was because of the sexual favors Derek offered.
“Thanks for the grub,” I said as I unwrapped the sandwich.
“You’re welcome,” Derek said as he sat on the railing. He had taken off his shoes and had them hanging from a belt loop, tied to it by the shoe laces. He swung one big dirty foot between the posts of the railing. “What did you do today?”
“I took a swim and then walked around town,” I said, biting into the sandwich.
“Did you find a job?”
“No, but there is an office for day laborers on Daytona Street.” I took several more bites of the sandwich. “Is that where you found the job picking oranges?”
“I’ve never picked oranges.” He turned his head and looked out toward the ocean.
Looking at his profile, the perfect structure of his cheeks, lips, chin and nose I wondered if he had any idea how good looking he was.
“When you leave here, where are you going to go?” I asked. I crumbled up the cellophane and tossed it over the railing.
“I’m okay with being here.”
That night I laid on my sleeping bag and watched Derek undress in the shadows of the corner where he slept. After he curled up facing the wall and by his breathing it sounded as if he was asleep, The Man crawled across the floor and unzipped his pants and took Derek from behind, as always. It was a type of ritual. When finished he crawled back to his blanket and was soon snoring.
That night it rained hard. It leaked through the ceiling forming a small puddle in the middle of the room.
“I grew up on a farm in Idaho,” Derek said. “When I was a kid I thought potatoes were a fruit.”
“Why did you think that?” I asked, shoving my fingers into the soft sand of the dune.
He dug his toes into the sand. “I had an uncle who used to sleep in my bed sometimes when my parents were away. He called potatoes pomme de terre, which means earth apple. In the mornings after he slept with me there would be a potato under my pillow. I thought it was kinda magical. He never said he left them there and I never asked. It was more fun to think that a magical fairy had put it under my pillow.”
“How old were you when all this was going on?”
“I stopped giving me potatoes when I turned sixteen. That was when I ran away from home.”
In the evening I heard a commotion coming from a room a few down from mine. I had stayed away from most of the other approximately twenty squatters who used those rooms capable of being slept in, but Derek’s was one of the voices I heard. I poked my head in the room. A young guy about my age, named Russell, had Derek in a headlock on the floor. Derek was struggling to get out of the position he was pinned in.
“I didn’t take your goddam shoes,” Russell said, pressing Derek’s face into the floor.
“Yes you did asshole,” Derek said. “Everyone else was out. You’re a fucking thief.”
Against my own better judgment I stepped in and pulled Russell off of Derek. “What the hell is going on?”
Russell had retreated to a side of the room. “That crazy fucker thinks I stole his shoes. Look at his disgusting feet. Who in their right mind would put their feet in his shoes?”
Derek was standing in a corner. He had his shirt off and was wearing one of the two pairs of nylon running shorts he owned. His upper body was glistening with sweat. In the dusky light coming through the cracked window he looked like a prize fighter in a black and white film. “I went down to the hole to take a piss and came back and my shoes were gone,” he said. “Russell was the only one around who could have taken them.”
“They probably ran off on their own to get away from your feet,” Russell said.
Derek held his middle finger of his left hand up, aimed at Russell.
“Do you mind if we search your stuff?” I asked him.
“No, go ahead, but you’re not going to find his shoes in it.”
There wasn’t much stuff to search. He had a threadbare rucksack and a bed roll, and that was it. As I led Derek out of the room, I put my hand on his shoulder. “They were just an old pair of shoes about to fall apart anyway,” I said.
“They were my only possession from home,” he said, choking back a sob.
That night after The Man was finished with him and had gone back to his blanket and fell asleep, Derek got up and slipped on his shorts and left the room.
I found him the next morning, lying on the sand dune. His face and his right side near his ribs were bruised. His lower lip was swollen and there was dried blood around his nostrils.
“Jesus, Derek, you’re a mess,” I said. “Who did this to you?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Just something one man does to another.”
I slipped my arm behind his back and helped him stand. “Let’s get you some help.”
The bright red bungalow sat back back from the beach surrounded by shrubs and a small concrete block wall. A variety of metal wind chimes hung from a tree-like iron sculpture in the middle of the sandy back yard. They tinkled discordantly in the slight ocean breeze. The trim around the windows and the doors was painted white. The bungalow had the appearance of something Santa Claus would live in that had been dropped from a team of flying reindeer by mistake.
I knocked on the back door. When the doctor opened the smell of rubbing alcohol wafted out.
“Can you help my friend?” I asked.
Hey eyed me for a minute then said, “Oh, you’re that surfer fellow I met down by the hotel.”
“My friend has been beat up pretty badly. I thought maybe you could look him over and make sure nothing is broken.”
“I have my hands full at the moment,” he said showing me the rubber gloves he was wearing. “Can’t you take him to an E.R.?”
“They might ask too many questions,” I said.
“I guess they might at that,” he said. “Stay here and I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He shut the door.
“I didn’t know you were a surfer,” Derek mumbled.
“You told me you once picked oranges.”
As we waited, Derek sat on the stoop with his head resting in his hands.
“Do you want to tell me what happened?” I asked.
“I thought I saw a guy on the beach carrying my shoes and I stopped him,” he said. “He thought I was coming on to him. As you can see he didn’t like it.”
The door flung open. Blood was dripping from the doctor’s gloves. “You have to get out of here right now.”
Wailing police car and ambulance sirens could be heard getting nearer. I hooked my arm under Derek’s arm and rushed him through the back yard and onto the beach. Almost to the hotel we collapsed on the wet sand and let the waves roll over us as we laughed. It was the first time I saw Derek’s feet cleaned of dirt.
I sat in a corner of the bed of the pickup truck holding onto my knees as it bounced along the dirt road between rows and rows of orange trees thick with fruit. I was the only non-Hispanic male among the group and I knew too little Spanish to understand what they were chattering and laughing about. It was barely 6:30 in the morning and already it was hot and humid. The dust kicked up by the tires of the truck clung to my skin and filled my mouth and nostrils. As soon as the truck stopped I was handed a basket by a foreman and told where to begin plucking oranges. I talked to no one the entire day, filling basket after basket, and at the end of the day I was dropped off in front of the day labor office and given my day’s wages in cash.
I bought Derek a new pair of shoes.
I was the first one out of the room at the sounds of the bulldozers knocking down the fence. I stood at the railing gawking at the line of six of them idling in the driveway, their blades raised.
“What are they doing?” Derek said coming up beside me, still pulling up his shorts.
“They’re going to demolish the hotel.”
“Can’t we stop them?”
The other squatters had already begun fleeing their rooms carrying their belongings and running down the stairs or jumping over the railings.
“No, we’ll have to move on,” I said.
We rushed into the room and gathered up our stuff. The Man rolled up his blanket and was tying it with a piece of rope. I stopped what I was doing long enough to watch Derek put on his new shoes and tie them.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked him.
The Man walked over to Derek and put his arm around Derek’s shoulders. “He’s going with me.”
They gathered their things and as they left the room Derek looked back at me. “It’s about the potatoes,” he said.
Sitting on the sand dune I looked out at the ocean while listening to the bulldozers smashing into the rotting wood of the hotel. I dug into the sand with both hands and pulled out Derek’s old shoes. Replacing mine with his, I laced them up, then stood on the dune feeling the difference in our shoe sizes. I shoved my old shoes into the hole where Derek’s shoes had been and pushed sand over them.
Walking down the beach I didn’t look back. I knew the hotel would soon be destroyed.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 550 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. He has had seven collections of his short stories published. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice.