The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

SC Fiction Project Story “Shoes”

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Shoes

By Cynthia Anne Boiter
Sunday, September 21, 2008

For Alvie, the pain of losing her momma wasn’t nearly so bad as the pain that her daddy still lived.

This realization came to the girl like a bird falling out of the sky. Pretty summer day, clear blue sky full of possibilities and dreams set flying. Then, out of the blue, like a jaybird that once soared and pecked and played with its friends then fell still and cold at the young girl’s feet, feathers only ruffling in the breeze. Dead. Alive. And there it was. Alvie swatted at a family of gnats that buzzed around her sweet, wide face, sniffed hard, and nodded at the grass that needed cutting. The barn door was wide open now. She might as well go get the mower.

Alvin Tomler sat in the straight-backed chair that leaned into the sill of the bedroom window and watched his daughter’s shape disappear inside the barn door. His eyes closed without will as she emerged, elbows bent, legs stretched long, pushing the leaden mower he should have replaced years ago. Good. The child’s work lifted an unwanted burden from his back. Men’s work. Alvin hated it.

Cynthia Boiter

Cynthia Boiter

Alvin Tomler hated women, too — that was news to no one. For years, people had just assumed that the man hated everybody. But after a while, the acts of kindness he showed to his neighbors — Jim Taylor, Horace Watson, Monroe Potts, others — began to add up. A hand with a broken fence here, a ride into town there and, before long, Alvin Tomler was just another dirt farmer. One of the men. But the women of the community, they knew to steer clear of him. It wasn’t just the looks he gave them that spoke not of the sexual danger their mothers had taught them to fear from men, but more to a kind of visceral disgust that seemed to bellow up from Alvin Tomler’s stomach and make the ladies feel shame just for shopping on the same aisle or passing him on the road into town. Alvin’s hatred reminded the women less of the way their husbands made them feel — weak, hungry — and more of the way the poorest girls, the overweight and ugly girls had made them feel in high school — guilty, unworthy, needing to apologize but unable to say for what.

Most had thought that once the baby was born, Alvin would soften up. And maybe that’s what Alvie’s momma had thought, too, when she held the newborn girl’s face in her hands and looked into her eyes; the same mud-brown eyes as those of the boy who had, one day without warning, knocked her roughly onto her belly on the gravel behind the Nehi sign, planted a child deep within her and never touched her again, save for a peck on the cheek when the preacher said he should. She named the girl “Alvie” and hoped for the best.

The little house where Alvie and her daddy now lived alone looked sad — like it missed her momma, too. The petunias needed dead-heading, the porch needed sweeping, the windows were muddy and streaked from spring rains. Alvie’s momma had died on a cold March day in the middle of her kitchen floor. A dribble of blood trickled from her nose where the Formica had smacked her on the way down. The fire department came to the house just as the ambulance was leaving and removed a smoking pan of charred black biscuits that nobody had smelled burning in the oven. Three days later, her momma in the ground, Alvie went back to school and Alvin moved from his recliner into the room where his wife had slept alone for 17 years, and that’s all there was to that.

Luckily, Alvie could step easily into her momma’s kitchen shoes. Nothing more than a ghost in English and math classes, Alvie was a whiz at Home Economics. Against her daddy’s approval, her momma had taken Alvie’s blue ribbons from the county fair, pinned them to a piece of red felt, and tacked them, all in a row, over the girl’s bed. Pies. Breads. Pickles and jellies. Alvie had a knack. And this day, the rows of shorn grass resembling dumplings laid straight in a deep-dish pan reminded her there was a good supper to look forward to putting on the stove after the work outside was done. Men’s work. Alvie hated it.

The growl of the mower battered Alvin’s windowpanes, dulling his ears. He watched as the girl’s hips pushed strong behind her, their roundness moving like ball bearings, efficiently, provocatively, beautifully. Alvin rose from the chair and let his hands reach backwards to his own broad hips finding hard bone there where pliable tissue might have been. He gripped his hands into fists and swept his sight from the window to the walls to the floor.

Little had changed in his dead wife’s room other than his presence there. His work shirts and overalls still hung separate from hers in a closet in the hall; his underwear, cleaned and folded, still materialized in a drawer in the back room desk. Her things, photographs in frames, tatted doilies, a milky blue vase that had never held flowers, were positioned about the room purposefully and Alvin let them be. Though he had rarely ventured into the space when his wife lived, it took him little time to find comfort there after her death. The tired walls wore the same accumulation of dull white paint they’d worn when the newlyweds moved in, but the bedspread — pink chenille, he’d heard the woman say — softened the space as the dotted Swiss curtains fluttered like wings in the wind. He cried, the first night he slept in the bed. Not for its emptiness, nor for the lack of the woman who was gone, but for the vast softness of the sheets, the sunshine fragrance they emitted and the way his body, fully clothed and frightened, felt the touch of the fabric. Felt the caress. Softness. When the sun woke him the next morning, his face flushed and his head swam. He touched nothing in the room but returned to the bed every night from then on.

* * *

Outside the window, Alvie shoved the machine over toadstools and anthills and occasional bare spots in the yard where grass never grew. The bib to her overalls weighed against her breasts and the heavy leather boots rubbed at her ankles, but her contempt of the clothes her daddy made her wear had become such a part of the girl that she barely knew it was there. It mattered little when she was younger — the denim and flannel were comfortable for play despite the teasing that came from other little girls whose mothers dressed them in lace and bows. But as her body and awareness grew, she found herself caught up in envy of the fullness and well-placed lines the other girls so proudly put on display. It was something her momma could see and, one day, in a frustrated fit of maternal rebellion, she made up her mind that undercover at least, something had to change. From then on, pretty things began to appear, literally, under the covers of Alvie’s bed. Pastel panties with lace; bras with tiny pink bows in the front; sanitary napkins; scented talc. Now, with her momma gone, Alvie wore these treasures close to her skin and her heart, quietly aware of the sweetness of her momma’s touch, even beneath the coarseness of the clothes her daddy no longer had to insist she wear.

And on days like these when the sun bore down and the jagged shards of grass scratched at her ankles and knees, she found herself reaching often into the neck of her shirt to stroke the bit of satin she had secreted there.

* * *

Having become absorbed, as he often did, in the textures and colors of the dead woman’s room, Alvin noticed neither his daughter’s discomfort nor the completion of her outdoor chores. The room felt both perfect and foreign, like a place where he could visit but never stay, as he found himself visually rummaging through the surroundings, searching for his bearings. He placed his palm against the wall and let his fingertips trail along the plaster as if feeling for a pulse — window to corner to closet door which, ajar as it had been since his daughter had chosen the clothes in which to bury her mother, seemed to beckon to him with fabrics and patterns and scents. He peered inside. The woman’s clothes still hung there. Calico housedresses, frayed sweaters, dark dresses for church. He leaned into the smell, a muted mixture of lavender, cleanness and dough and, quivering, reached in his calloused hand and, just for a moment, let it be.

In the front of the house, the screened door slammed and he jerked his hand away, as if from a flame. His own pulse raced and he retreated to the bed, the only spot in the room where he felt passably at home. He sat on the edge and inhaled the teases that sneaked in from the kitchen.

Grease and black pepper — fried chicken. Fat back, vinegar, heavy salt — greens. He hung his head as the gnawing in his stomach reached up to his mouth and brought water.

Then he saw them, on the floor under a heavy layer of dust, barely peeking out from the curtain of pom-poms that trimmed the chenille spread. Shoes. Soft black leather, a small squat heel, perfect lace rosette perched on a shiny toe. Church shoes. The motion to touch them came without intention, and he pulled a single shoe to his lap and sat it on his knee like an old man might hold a child. Tentatively, he let the fingers of one hand slide into the toe of the shoe and spread out so that his knuckles grazed the felted lining and his fingertips patted the quilted sole.

Bacon grease sizzled in a cast iron pan as tomatoes, sliced green from the vine and dredged in cornmeal and egg, hissed and spat.

Alvin let his mind drift through hunger and sensation to a different time, a different place, but still, shoes. He could smell the same supper cooking in the kitchen; could hear summer birds out the window in the trees; could feel the wonder of the fabric in the shoe, not on his hand but on his own small foot, pockmarked with blisters and bug bites and the grime from a day played hard. He felt himself moving into that place hidden in his soul where a neglected memory dwelled. He knew the place; knew the rambling path to get there; knew the thickets and briars that had concealed the opening for years and warned him when to look away lest the feeling return.

Sliced apple, Crisco, cinnamon — pie with flaky crust. It took him in and away.

The shoes engulfed his little-boy feet, allowing his tiny toes plenty of room to curl and wiggle and stretch. He stood tall but awkwardly in them and scuffed forward, a veiled black hat, prim and proper, balanced on his bobbing head; a rope of pearly beads strung round his neck. The lipstick he had fished from his mother’s purse, swaying at a crook in his arm, felt waxy on his face and barely disguised the stain of juice on his lips, but he liked the feel of it. Most importantly, as he surveyed his reflection in the mirror on his parents’ wall, he liked the look of it — the look of himself.

“I’m beautiful,” he whispered to the room he thought empty and safe.

Then, a gasp. He had never felt the kind of pain that walloped him on the side of his head, sending him sprawling across the floor, the net from the hat scraping a raw place on his cheek — not even when he fell from the top of the church steps and landed, broken armed and bloody-lipped, on the sidewalk below. Even now, grown-man Alvin could taste the salt of the blood that had filled his little-boy mouth; could see the huge white flesh of the back of his father’s hand as it rose and struck again. Grown man Alvin grabbed his side and winced, once again absorbing the impact of steel-toed boot on tender, growing ribs. He had long ago lost the words his father gave him on that day, but the message was dull-knife carved into his chest: Bad. Worse than bad — wrong. Worse than wrong — abominable.

In the kitchen, Alvie rubbed at the thin skin of a Vidalia onion, balanced it on its side and, grasping her momma’s sharpest knife, began to slice layer after layer of juicy intertwined rings. The sweet acid smell of the onion had little effect on the young girl’s eyes but, as it wafted down the hall and into the bedroom, it intensified and overtook her father’s head. He squeezed his face into a tight and wrinkled mass but the hot burn at the back of his nose and eyes met the searing pain in his gut and coalesced into a wound as raw as the day it was delivered. The tears came like a hemorrhage, washing the man’s face and body and pulling him to the floor on his knees where he found himself in a place he hadn’t been in such a long time — inside himself. Wrapping his arms across his chest, hard muscles pulsing in each palm, he curled like a baby on the soft hooked rug, a splay of cabbage roses and curly-cues and ferns, and let his tears pour into the loops of wool.

The gurgle of hot coffee perking on the stove pulled open his eyes and brought him slowly to his feet; his stomach pointing him toward the kitchen. Alvie noticed something different about her daddy’s eyes as soon as he walked in the room — a sleepy, drunken look that caught hers time and again throughout the meal. There were moments when she thought he might smile. The painful quiet that usually accompanied their meals was oddly interspersed with little sounds from her daddy that, had she not known better, seemed to indicate something like pleasure, almost delight. The man who had gulped down his breakfast never lifting his eyes from his plate, was actually tasting his supper and scanning the room, letting his gaze rest on sights he’d never seemed to see — a pile of polished red apples in a bright yellow bowl; faded dish towels, folded and ready for the drawer; a seersucker apron, blue and dusted with flour, that his daughter had removed just before sitting at the table.

Pushing her chair back, Alvie rose to clear the table, reaching for an empty chicken platter when her daddy also took it in his hand. They stood, facing one another and all the space and time and ache between them. Alvin cleared his throat and closed his eyes as he spoke, “Let me,” he said. “Let me.”
Cynthia Boiter, a resident of Chapin, is a six-time winner of the S.C. Fiction Project, a former fellow of the South Carolina Academy of Authors in both fiction and nonfiction, and the recipient of the Porter Fleming Award for fiction and the W.W. Norton 2008 Women on Writing first-prize winner. Her first Fiction Project winning story, “The Proposal,” was included in the anthology “Inheritance.” When she is not writing, she teaches in the women’s and gender studies program and the department of sociology at the University of South Carolina.
Copyright © 1997 – 2008 the Evening Post Publishing Co.

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