"You buy used shoes?" the voice on the phone asked.
"No," Jerry said, "only new ones." He was wearing the brown suede Derby shoes he had purchased on sale at the Broadway department store the day that he left the hospital for the last time - fourteen months ago.
"I got a pair of shoes," the voice said. "Nice shoes. You give me a price, I'll drop them by around five."
"We don't buy shoes," Jerry said, "only sell them."
"How you get your shoes then?" it asked.
"From our warehouse," Jerry said. A pair of navy blue, plain closed court shoes with one-inch stacked heels shuffled toward the sock display, then stopped. The tip of the right shoe lifted up, then tapped against the floor. The ankles above the shoes were nyloned nude, and above that, the black hem of a dress. The veins atop the feet stood out like exposed tree roots. The store had been selling those same closed court model shoes last winter when "unadorned" was in. Jerry had personally recommended and sold thirty-five pairs.
"Well, someone must buy them," the voice on the phone said. "They're nice shoes. They really are. One pair. Hardly even worn."
"We don't buy shoes," Jerry repeated. The closed court shoes flicked their way around the sock display and disappeared. A pair of nude feet were resting on the footwear stool three yards from Jerry. The toes opened and closed, opened and closed, as if reaching for the carpeted material surrounding them. Beneath them and to the left of the stool sat a pair of woven moccasins made of a material that looked like bark. Bereft of their owner's feet, the shoes appeared lifeless and pathetic.
"They're nice shoes," the voice on the phone said. "You'll see. They really are. I'll drop them by around five."
I learned to tie my shoes when I was four years old. It was just before a picnic on the Fourth of July. My mother sat me down on a foot stool in front of an episode of Green Acres on the television. I had denim blue Keds tennis shoes with a white trim and laces at the time, and my mother laid those out in front of my feet, undoing the laces and spreading wide their throats beforehand. Then, on most days, I would insert my toes and punch in my heels, occasionally catching them on the heel counter of the shoe, and wait for Mom to pull the laces tight. But on this day, Mom told me to watch her fingers as she wrapped the strings around each other, then bent and twirled them, ending not with the typical final tug but with pulling them loose. "You try now," she said. And I did try, but I did not get the bow on the first or second attempts. After that, I tied and untied my shoes. Six times I did it, until my mother said it was time to stop.
It was six p.m. when the phone rang again. "You got my shoes?" the voice asked.
"What shoes?" Jerry asked.
"You know the shoes," the voice said. "The shoes I dropped off." There was a sigh. "They're on the counter."
"I don't see any shoes," Jerry said. The bark-textured moccasins were in the kids section now, kicking at half a pair of Keds that had dropped to the floor.
"They're in a bag," the voice said.
There was a large, white, plastic garbage bag to the right of the register. "We don't buy shoes," Jerry repeated.
"Just look at them," the voice said.
Jerry lifted the closed end of the bag into the air with his free hand. The shoes tumbled to the counter. They were maroon silk pantoffles, a bi-gender model popular in seventeenth-century aristocratic Europe that Jerry had only heard about. They were open backed with two-inch silver-studded heels. The wedge of each heel was an inch wide at the base, a quarter inch narrower in the center before widening at its connection to the rest of the shoe. The front of the shoes came up to just above the ankles. Bright red roses, stitched into the outer surface of the shoe, jutted out like oil colors on canvas.
Jerry laid down the phone. He rubbed his fingertips across the stitching. The shoes were silk on the outside, as fragile as a painting, but still, there was a roughness to them. He raised one of the shoes to his face and rubbed it across his cheek and chin, letting the stitching catch on his unshaved skin. He stuck his nose down the shoe's throat. He could smell Paris and Lucerne, the newsstand across from Manet's Café in Amiens, the beach in Marseille, the hot dog vendor on Fair Oaks Avenue, the mall downtown, the Atlantic Ocean and United Airlines pork ribs, horses, donkeys, cats, dogs, convalescent home women, formal ballroom dancers, Wall Street investors, New York politicians, duchesses and deposed dukes. He laid the shoes on the counter side by side and thrust his hands into them. The insides were soft as blubber. The tips of the shoes were square, the throats flexible, almost nonexistent. Jerry pulled his hands out and ran his fingers down the studs of the heels, and then he grabbed the shoes at their pointy bases. He held the shoes at his waist as if they were pistols ready for discharge. He laid down the shoes and picked up the phone. "All right," Jerry said. "All right, I'll take them."
"Thank you," the voice said. "Thank you."
As soon as Louis XIV had opened the box and peeled back the paper, he smiled. He tossed the box to the right of the throne, dropped the shoes at his feet, slipped his feet into the shoes, then stood up. The world was even smaller than before. Louis could barely see the wisps of pink in his marble floor. He walked forward, out of the throne room, and into the main gallery. The cork heels tick-tocked against the floor as he walked. He wandered around the palace like that for four hours, listening, looking, laughing.
At dinner that night, his guests - the dukes and duchesses of Loiret and Marne; his nephews Scotch and Sidney; his mother, Anne; and his prime minister, the Cardinal Jules Mazarin - looking on, Louis propped his feet onto the twelve-foot-long table. "Do you see my new shoes?" he asked. They were red in color and had three-inch-wide silk roses fastened to their vamps, silver specks protruding from their tall heels.
"Yes," the diners nodded.
"They're magnificent," said Scotch, who had presented them to him only hours before.
"Quite," agreed Louis. "You should see the world from them." His guests twisted their faces in the direction of the shoes, adjusting their heads periodically to see past the other guests and the mounds of lamb in the center of the table. Louis pulled the shoes from his feet and passed them to his mother, who sat next to him. The shoes continued slowly hand to hand around the table, each guest sticking his or her fingers inside, feeling the flower, the leather interior, the silk siding, nodding repeatedly at Louis's wise taste.
"He will make a good king, no?" said Jules.
"Indeed," said Anne.
The steward, bottle of wine in hand, snickered as he stepped toward the table. All heads turned toward him, and then toward Louis, who was not smiling, not in the least.
The steward was hanged at dawn.
Three days later, Louis decreed that only the king could wear shoes with roses fastened to their vamps and only aristocrats could wear red heels with silver studs grafted into the sides.
In the car, the shoes rode in the seat beside Jerry. At home, his pockets emptied onto the dresser, his feet freed of the brown Derbies, his bathroom duties accomplished, Jerry put on the shoes. He had never worn high heels before. He felt as if he was tilting forward, ready to spring any moment into the earth. He took a step, tottered, collapsed the outer flank of the left shoe into the floor. He righted the shoe and took another step, this time softer. He walked from his bedroom to the living room and into the kitchen. The shoes knocked against linoleum in rhythm as he stepped from stove to table to shelf to refrigerator and back to stove. He could hear his mother's footsteps in the kitchen those late nights after she returned from her secretarial job, her feet still encased in her work shoes as she gathered the pans and the flour needed to bake bread.
"Mother," he said. "Mother, I can't believe it. You're here."
"Sit down," she said. "Sit down. Have a piece of bread. It just came out of the oven."
Jerry pulled out a chair and sat down.
"Your father will be home in a moment," his mother said. "I'll put out the supper then. Do you want some butter with that?"
"Mom," Jerry said. "You're here, Mom."
"What did you expect?" his mother asked. "Do you want some butter or not?"
Jerry didn't answer.
His mother sat down in the chair on the other end of the table. She raised her knees to her chin, then one at a time pushed out a leg, each time removing a shoe. She placed the shoes on the tabletop. They were red sandals with three-inch heels, the straps of the sandals as thin as a five-year-old's shoe laces. She kept her feet on the chair, her knees on her chin. Her hands massaged along the red and bloated toes, in between them, and down the arches of her feet. "I've got to stop wearing these shoes," she said.
"Yes," Jerry said. "Yes, Mom, I know."
Right now, I am wishing I could walk to the window. I am wishing I could dangle my feet over the curb that appears in that window, bathe my shoes in a gutter full of sprinkler water, cross the street, say hello to the neighbor. When I was five years old, I wore a pair of soft-soled slippers into the front yard each morning to get my father's newspaper. The dew would wet them, and they would stick to my feet. The twigs in the grass, the loose pebbles, the bugs eaten by the Sunday lawn mowing would poke through the soles of my slippers into my flesh. I never went anywhere outside without shoes of some type, not after I had learned to tie them.
The next day, the bark-textured moccasins were back. Jerry waited for the shoes to come off, waited for the feet to reveal themselves, the tanned tops, the white sides, the pink bottoms, the dwarfed toes, the maroon-painted toenails. No hair, not even a scratch. Yesterday, the feet, stretched out on the incline of the footstool, had looked like seals come ashore off the coast of Oregon. He had seen such seals on television in the hospital, on PBS, seen them thirteen times, one and a half years ago. His mother, before she went unconscious, had watched also.
The varicose-veined feet were here too, this time in the skimmers with strands of transparent plastic crisscrossing all around them. That style had been popular in the summer and fall of 1984, though Jerry had tried to discourage its sale. The hem of the black dress swayed above the varicose feet as usual. The skimmers trudged along the wall of women's shoes, their sides folding out with each step, like a pair of lungs. At the dress shoes display, they stopped.
The woven moccasins had not stopped. They had not come to rest near a stool. They had not come off their respective feet. They floated forward across the carpet, growing larger with each step, until they were beneath him, toe to toe with his Derbies. The toes lifted expectantly, then settled.
"There was a bag here, yesterday," her voice said. "It had a pair of shoes in it. They were reddish, with roses embroidered on their sides."
"Yes?" he said.
"My mother would like to buy them," her voice said.
"They're not for sale," he said.
"But surely you have something like them," her voice said. "Anything." The tan lines on her feet followed the top line of the moccasins, a thin, white stripe between the tan and the shoes all the way around. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Her husband died last week," her voice said. Her hand took hold of his right hand. They were smooth and dainty, and they stroked themselves against the hand. "It would mean so much."
He hesitated, but finally he said that he was sorry, that there was nothing he could do.
The moccasins swiveled and pulled away. A gray spot revealed itself where the brown dye on the counter of the right shoe had worn off. The spot bobbed up and down, growing smaller with each step, like a car tail-light speeding away. "They don't have any," he heard her voice say. The moccasins turned again, treaded toward the legs of a chair, swiveled, came to a stop, and discharged the contents within themselves. And then, they were in the air again, hanging from the inside of their counters by fingertips until coming to rest at the near side of the stool. The feet kicked themselves up to the stool's summit. Once there, the big toes prodded at the air like radio beacons.
Jerry heard the toes. They told him things about himself he didn't want to know. He had been wearing heels, wearing them fifteen hours straight, from the time he got home till the time he returned to work. He had let his mom see him in heels. Unless he did something to prevent it, he would go home tonight and wear heels again. His feet itched in the Derbies.
On the dresser beside me is a pair of bronzed baby shoes. Their tongues are almost nonexistent, short as a grown man's big toe. There are only four holes for laces. It is hard for me to imagine feet this small, but I often do. Sometimes at night, the shoes dance for me on my bed. They do the Shuffle, the Charleston, the Tango, the Waltz, and the Swing. They walk the sands of Monaco, the alleys behind the local butcher, the trails around Walden Pond, the hills of the San Gabriel Mountains. They tire like normal feet.
I have a collection of old shoes. They sit in the back of my closet with the dead bugs. This is what I remember being there: a pair of tennis shoes I used in my junior and senior years of high school for gym class, a pair of brown suede Derby shoes with holes nearly worn through the heels, a pair of black leather dress shoes with the sole of the right shoe loose around the ball of the foot, and a pair of well-worn loafers. I do not wear them anymore. You are welcome to them.
This was in kindergarten: I had "cool" shoes, the only time in grade school my parents could afford anything better than J. C. Penney originals. These were Fancy Feet. I still have a box with that name on it, though the company long ago ceased to exist. I use it to store old letters and get-well cards in. The Fancy Feet I had in kindergarten were brown and leather and had pockets along the outside with a glow-in-the-dark trim.
His name was Sam something. He was ten or twenty pounds heavier than I. What happened was he pushed me in the mud - I don't know why now, and it's not important. What's important is I cried. I cried all the way through lunch and into the classroom. Sam got three swats. I still cried. My shoes were ruined.
The bark-textured moccasins and transparent skimmers came home with Jerry that night. The owner of the moccasins was named Priscilla, and her mother's name was Mortant. Jerry pulled the maroon, rose-embroidered heels from the closet and held them out to the couple. "How magnificent," their voices exclaimed as their hands fingered the extended necks, the fragilely imprinted flowers, the studded heels. He laid the shoes on the floor in front of Mortant's varicose feet, which immediately transferred themselves from the skimmers to the heels. Empty, the skimmers looked like hollow, plastic building frames.
The varicose feet took five steps forward and then walked across the living room to the front door and back. "Wonderful," Mortant's voice said. Her feet stopped. Her nyloned legs were leaning forward into the ground. The heels stumbled on the next step and then sprang up and back and came to rest safely on the floor. The varicose feet, still in the heels, leaned forward, bent at the toes.
"Honey," Mortant's voice said then, to the air. "Honey, it seems so long." The backs of Mortant's legs flexed as the heels of the shoes raised themselves from the floor. And then, the legs relaxed as the heels came down again. "I'd love to," Mortant's voice said. Her feet walked to the fireplace. The tip of the prodder swung up and out and thrust itself into the empty hearth. "It's a bit warm, though, don't you think?" her voice said, her legs backing up against the wall to the side of the fireplace. They were large legs, but not fat. "You devil," her voice said, her throat giggling afterward. Her right leg kicked out playfully and twirled around air.
In fifteen minutes, the stereo would be on, and the varicose feet would be ballroom dancing to Frank Sinatra. Priscilla's and Jerry's mouths would be drinking coffee in the kitchen.
When the mobs stormed the Bastille in 1789, it was Robespierre who found the rose shoes of Louis XIV. It would take four more years for Robespierre to gain power. But from that moment, he vowed to have every aristocratic shoe for himself. He took to dressing in the old style: powdered wigs, knee breeches, stockings, and of course, red heels with silver studs. When he met a noble in the streets, he would stab him or her and take the shoes. His collection grew rapidly and, then, exploded with the advent of the guillotine. While heads rolled down the street from one side of the contraption, on the other side, shoes were pulled off and deposited in a basket for Robespierre.
Eventually, Robespierre hired fifteen seven- to ten-year-old boys to polish and care for the shoes. They worked in shifts through the entire circle of hours. It was for this collection that Robespierre was executed, his cohorts grown jealous. They found over twenty thousand shoes. These they shared generously with each other and, somewhat less generously, with the populace. To their disappointment, however, the rose shoes of Louis XIV were not among the collection.
They were rumored to have fled south with one of Robespierre's shoe keepers. For this, the Directory ordered that all men and women south of Paris go shoeless for the month of August 1794. Despite this, inspectors, sent by the Directory, failed to discover the footwear.
Moved by his desire for these famed shoes, Napoleon invaded Italy, twice. On the second invasion, men and women were again ordered to go shoeless, this time in winter. The conquered Italians held out more than two months. Finally, a stable boy led Napoleon to a shoe salesman in the village of Sarsina. The salesman met the firing squad. The stable boy became Napoleon's personal assistant and was later killed at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was elected as consul that summer. The year was 1800. Two years later, Napoleon would wear the shoes to his inauguration as emperor.
For three months, the women's shoes came over to Jerry's every night. The varicose feet put on the rose-covered heels and fluttered across, and sometimes above, the living room rug, while Jerry's and Priscilla's feet divested themselves of their shoes to lie out with their owner's bodies on the kitchen table. Jerry kept blankets and a foam mattress in one of the cupboards, next to the antique silverware he had inherited from his mother. He pulled the bedding out and placed it over the table each day before work and folded it up again after Priscilla's and Mortant's feet left each night. Jerry liked the kitchen that way. Jerry's and Priscilla's feet were warmer there. While their shoes would toast beneath the open oven, curling up at the toes, warm, alive, ready to move, Jerry would put his mouth over Priscilla's warmed toes, run his tongue along the insteps of her feet, kiss her heels. He wasn't sure which he preferred. Her feet were pink and hard on the bottom, soft as new suede shoes atop. Later, their feet still and patient, her feet to his head, his feet to hers, Jerry's and Priscilla's eyes would watch, through the open door, the rose-covered heels flick about the living room.
Sometimes, Jerry took Priscilla's feet out of the kitchen so that he could concentrate on them alone, her feet in shoes under a table, her feet atop shoes on a clay-tiled floor, her feet in shoes next to discarded chunks of steak, a lost napkin, a slice of French bread from the top half of a sandwich, later, her feet in shoes and in darkness, sticking to buttered and soda-popped concrete, crackling like popcorn each time the toes, the heels, raised themselves from the ground. This was always before eleven p.m. At eleven p.m., it was time for the varicose feet to go home. At that time, Jerry collected his rose-covered heels, opened the front door, then the car's doors for the women's shoes, drove them back to their home, kissed Priscilla's cheek, watched as the two pairs of shoes, the woven moccasins, the skimmers or court shoes, entered the light of the porch, and then he waved good-bye. After that, he returned home, put on the heels, ate his mother's bread, and told her of the day's events.
This was when I was twenty-two: It was the winter after I graduated from college. I was wearing a pair of work boots I had gotten a deal on at K-mart. They were imitation leather and had a patch of fake fur around the top of their necks, just above the ankles. I was to go skiing at Mount Shasta. There was a woman I liked who was already up there, and I was driving a bit too quickly. The roads were slick from snow, and the car was slipping all over them, and eventually it slipped off. I banked into a pine. The driver's side door was stuck against the mountain, and the passenger door was blocked by luggage. Outside, snow piled on the windshield like an empty canvas. My feet froze, went black.
This too occurs on a Friday: Jerry's and Priscilla's bodies were on the kitchen table, the blankets wrapped around them, feet to face, face to feet. The varicose feet were in the living room, dancing to Glen Miller in Jerry's rose-covered heels, twirling every sixteenth beat. The kitchen door was open. "It's something, isn't it?" Priscilla's voice said. Her throat giggled. Her nose snuggled into the dip behind Jerry's right ankle. "All because of a pair of shoes." Her mouth began kissing Jerry on the top of the left foot and then stopped. Her legs and feet pushed farther down Jerry's face. His eyes had been at her toes, but now they were at her ankles. There was a thin, gold anklet on the right one. Both ankles were fat and smooth, almost as large as the legs themselves. "She wants to buy them," Priscilla's voice said.
Jerry turned his head. The paint on the wall was scratched off where the table rubbed against it. He sighed. "I can't sell them," Jerry said. "You know that."
"She'll pay good money," Priscilla's voice continued. "Anything. Name your price." Her left foot pulled his cheek back toward where her legs were resting.
"Let's get married," he said. He ran a finger along the top of one of her feet, and then, he cupped it in both hands, massaged it. "We'll get married, and you won't have to pay anything. She can live here and wear those shoes all day."
"But she doesn't want to live here," Priscilla's voice half-screamed. "That's the point. She wants to go to Florida. It was their dream."
"I can't sell them," Jerry repeated, his voice beginning to whine.
"Why not?" her voice asked.
"I need them," he said.
"My mother needs them," her voice said. Her legs twisted away from Jerry, then rested, their shins flat against the table. There was a sigh.
The varicose feet were doing the Swing, twirling not once, but four times. Then they were calm again, rock-stepping with the song. A laugh caressed Mortant's throat. The heels swung out, swung in.
Priscilla's legs came sideways again, one above the other. "I didn't want to do this," her voice said. Her mouth kissed the big toe on his left foot. Her legs rolled back, then off the table. Her feet were on the floor. "I'm sorry," her voice said.
"For what?" Jerry asked.
"It's me," her voice said, "me or the shoes."
I don't go anywhere in shoes these days. I stay in bed. I let the shoes in my closet sit empty, almost lifeless. I don't go to them. Mornings, they call me. I try to think of women. I try to think of women dancing or skiing or standing still. Some mornings, I think of a woman in red heels, silver studs on the sides, a rose embroidered on the top of each.
This was a decade ago: The shoes circled around the living room, across the bear rug, alive in the light of fire. They stopped in front of the sofa, then levitated near its edge. In a moment, the woman's legs pushed across the seat and my lap. She looked toward me, then to her feet. My eyes followed. "You love my mom's shoes, don't you?" she said.
"They're wonderful," I told her.
"Do you think my feet love them?" she asked.
"I think so," I said.
I pulled the shoes off her feet. I felt the studs in the heels with my fingertips, the silk rose, the smooth leather insides. I raised the shoes beside me, placed my hands on her feet, and kneaded them, my fingers in her arches and heels and balls and toes. "Do you think my feet have dreams of their own?" she asked then.
"I think so," I said.
"What do you think they dream of?" she asked.
I looked down at the shoes I had on. They were loafers. There was a hole at the left toe between the sole and the leather above it. "Shoes," I told her. I looked beside me at the red heels.
"I'll wear them next week," she said, "at Shasta."
Nights, I hear footsteps. They are of infinite variations of rhythm. Dance steps, the Swing and the Conga; marching steps, the Goose Step and the American Band Two Step; walking steps, brisk businessman runs and seductive-heeled sauntering; jogging steps, young, quick sprints, and old, tired trudging. I hear the music and the pegging of heels in the floor. Sometimes, after I've closed my eyes, I dream I see her shoes among them.
Mornings, I'm certain, there are footprints on my ceiling.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Jon Morgan Davies. All rights reserved.