Cindi and JoAnna disappear, giggling,–two sprightly, well-intentioned girls, one all corners and angles, the other all dimples and curves. They are hard workers; they’ll bend their mousse-ed and gel-ed heads over the inventory; they’ll stack and fill empty spaces; they’ll tick off the re-order lists. They’ll clean the break room table and empty the trash bins.
They just don’t want to work with whatever troublesome customer lurks behind me. I turn with a smile, and then I understand. This is a truly obese man; he fills the bulk of the bench, and his hands rest on the tiny spaces left on either side; he leans forward. His huge belly, netted in a rust-colored t-shirt, spills from a shiny blue windbreaker. His legs jiggle in baggy khaki clown pants. Worn, enormous sneakers sit by his feet on the floor.
He has patchy hair that might have once been red, and jowls, and there are deep circles under his eyes. He looks, I think, like a forlorn, unhappy, overweight basset hound.
I make sure my smile doesn’t falter, and he relaxes.
“Hel-LOOO,” he says, and I welcome him, ask him what he’d like to look at tonight.
He explains that he really needs new sneakers, and I examine the old ones, ask if the size was good, and then disappear for a moment into the back room, where two busy young ladies avoid meeting my eyes. We have a few customers with feet this size and width, and I keep their options together on a corner shelf. These are folks who’ve been in store after store where they’re told, by aghast clerks, “No, we don’t carry THAT size.” Their backs prickle with embarrassment and they try to leave the stores unseen, knowing their girth makes that impossible. They are always on view.
I take three styles out with me, a standard white, a grey and white mesh-type style, and a shiny neon orange pair.
“Well, the orange is OUT,” he says; “too bold for me! But I don’t know; what do you think about the others?”
“Well,” I say, “I think you should try them.” I pull my little stool over, and I take one big shoe out of the box, dig the tissue out of the toe, open the laces wide and pull up the tongue. Gently, I lift his enormous foot; the white athletic sock is soaked with sweat, and the foot is rank. He probably, I think, can’t reach down to wash them well.
I slide the shoe–this is the white one–onto his foot, and I lace it up with a flourish, tie it snugly, and invite him to stand. He does, and wiggles his toes. I look at him questioningly; he nods, pleased.
“Let’s try the left shoe,” I say, and he sticks out his big left foot and starts to talk. He tells me that he’s new to town; his wife’s a CPA, and they moved for her job, and the kids like their new school, but he’s not so sure of this place. He’s never made friends easily. “Well–LOOK at me!” he snorts. He’s been subbing at the high school; the kids there are brutal, though, he says.
We talk about teaching–biology is his field,–as I tie up the other shoe and send him down the aisle for a test drive. He comes back, grinning.
“They feel good.”
“Well, don’t be hasty,” I admonish. “Let’s try the grey pair.”
He nods, delighted, and I remove the white shoes, repeat the lace-up ritual with the grey.
And all the while he talks, telling me about his kids (his son’s at the age where his dad’s size embarrasses him; his daughter still thinks Pop is the greatest), his wife, who works too hard; he’s always felt bad that she’s the bread-winner. Somehow he just never could land the real job, education be damned.
I tell him about a GED program I know of that is always looking for science tutors. I take his boxes to the counter; delighted with the concept of having a choice, he can’t decide, and so takes both. Surreptitiously, I use my hand sanitizer. I ring up his shoes, swipe his credit card and note his name–Elvin Weill–, and write down my friend Ellery’s number at the GED center. He grabs his bag and stops and opens his mouth, but can’t think of what to say. He quivers a little.
“Good night, Mr. Weill,” I say.
His mouth works.
“The kids at the high school,” he says, “call me ‘Mr. Whale.'”
He pulls his bag higher, toward his chest, grimacing. “Well. Good night!”
And he is out the door with a huffing swoosh.
My mother took me to the shoe store once a year, and we bought sturdy oxfords. She had always been told that oxfords shaped the feet of a child better than anything else. Mr. Pakliter, who owned the store, and always insisted on waiting on us himself–“I’LL get THESE ladies,” he’d say to the clerk who would smile at us and bow away,– told me to call him Mr. P. And he agreed with my mom, but he said we could take practicality too far.
She would have me in black lace ups that looked orthopedic, that looked, my brothers always used to mock, like they came from the store where the holy sisters bought their shoes. Mr. P. would measure my foot carefully, length and width. Then he’d bring those black shoes out, along with two or three other pairs, softer shoes with firm support but a little bit more panache, and we’d solemnly try each pair on. He would ask me how they felt, Mr. P. would, and make me walk up and down the aisle.
He’d press my toes inside the shoes and have my mother do the same. Now these, he’d say of a soft brown shoe with a silky lace–almost a ribbon–, have a little bit more give, maybe better for a child who’s growing all the time.
Of the black ones, he’d say, I’m not sure I like where her toes land here, and he’d wink at me. It was years later that I realized he switched boxes, bringing the ugly pair a half size smaller so we could frown at their awkward fit.
After the solemn chore of choosing the exact right pair of shoes that would last me a whole school year and become my scuffy play shoes the following summer, Mr. Pakliter would send me to the Treasure Box while Mom settled up at the counter. I always chose a book–Bobbsey Twins or Cherry Ames or Nancy Drew. I went home and put my new shoes on and sat on my bed and read my new book, every once in a while peeking at my lovely new shoes, squeaky clean, the only time they’d ever be allowed on my crisp, clean bedspread.
The shoe store was a magic place.
JoAnna snorts. “Honey Boo-Boo reborn!” she warns, as she and Cindi once again beat a retreat. A round, worn mother with a round, bouncing girl are circling the children’s shoes. The child is picking shoes off the counter and giggling; she slaps one back down in the wrong place and hops three times, then moves on to another victim. The mother follows, remonstrating, low-voiced. I smile and swoop down.
“Hmmm, who’s looking for shoes today?” I ask, and the child, chirrups, “Me!” and she picks up a sneaker which flashes when it moves and slaps it on the counter, and giggles as the lights zip and extinguish. She is maybe eight years old, too old, really, for such antics to be cute, and the mother flushes. She sighs and murmurs. I make my arms into mama bird wings; I usher them to seats.
As I remove the child’s shoe, I talk to her, ask her about her favorite things. She tells me that she likes to dance, and I picture her, an awkward, sturdy block, earthbound among airy, limber floaters. I grab the measurement panel, and have her step down, make her do both feet–“Did you know,” I ask her, “that sometimes our feet don’t match? Sometimes Rightie is one size and Leftie is another?”
She ponders this and giggles, gentling down, and I turn to the mom. “What will the new shoes be for?” I ask, and she tells me for school, maybe a little for dress up. So we want something sturdy but girlie. I go back for the mary janes, nice support, but pretty.
The child looks at them worriedly; she wants, I know, splash and flash, cheap slip on shoes that match her friends’. But she needs a sturdy shoe.
I pull a package of glittery raised decals from my pocket. “Now these shoes,” I say, “come with these. They’re removable, so you can change the color, put them in different places, or, if you want serious shoes one day, you can leave them off altogether.”
She can’t resist; she leans in to see the pretty, sticky baubles, and I feel Mom relax. “What do you think, Evie?” she asks, and the child crows, “Yes! I want these!”
I send her off to the Treasure Box, to pick a little treasure chest of her own to keep her decals in. She skips away, and I turn to the mom, with her worn down air and her worn down shoes, and I gently tell her about the buy one, get one half off sale I’ve just made up. They leave hand-in-hand. Mom is wearing a sassy new pair of Saucony sneaks, bouncing a little as she walks. The child carries her new shoes in a special bag with handles.
I started working at 14, and saved my babysitting money to buy shoes. To think of having a wardrobe of shoes, not just one sturdy pair to last year-round: that was riches to me. For what I’d pay for one pair at Mr. Pakliter’s, I could get five pairs at the big box store, and so I bought sandals and platforms and shiny heels with toes that pointed.
They hurt my feet. The first time I walked home from school in the heels, I got four blisters and broke the cheap strap; I took to rescuing my gym shoes from their locker so I could wear them home after a long school day of suffering for fashion. I graduated from babysitting to a supermarket job, and started saving for college. I set aside all my extra cash for my impractical shoe collection, which grew and grew.
In college, I fell off my four inch platforms more than once at beer blasts, once hurting my ankle to the point of needing crutches for a month. My friends and I laughed: what we endure to allure, we moaned. I walked across the stage to accept my diploma in three inch stilettos, praying I wouldn’t, like a girl 100 or so graduates ahead of me, skitter on the four steps leading down.
I got my first teaching job in a town five miles from my parents’ home, and the capable, care-worn principal advised me, when she invited me in to talk about the year ahead, to get some sturdy comfortable shoes. She was not impressed by the strappy black sandals that elevated my height by three inches. She said wryly that she didn’t think I’d have to worry–I’m 5’11”–about any of my fifth graders being taller than I am.
I went back to Mr. Pakliter’s.
A smiling clerk came to help me, but,–“I’ll take care of THIS lady, Gayle!” he said, and Mr. Pakliter ushered me to a seat. I left with two pairs of shoes, low heels, comfortable toes, sturdy but feminine, too. I did not go to the Treasure Box, but at the check out, Mr. P. threw a couple packs of stickers into my bag. “For grading papers,” he said. “I know the kids love stickers, and I know you’ll be spending your own money on things like that.”
My last customer of the day is Mrs. Drew, who is 89; I know this, because each time she comes in she tells me. She drives her huge white Caddie to the handicapped space–she sits tilted forward so she can peer over the wheel. I think to myself that her kids are going to have to deal with the driving situation sometime soon. She opens the door and waits, carefully assessing traffic before she totters over to the store.
And, again, Cindi and JoAnna disappear. Mrs. Drew will fire her opening gambit: “I’ve just been to the hairdresser,” she might say (and sure enough, her fine white hair is beautifully styled). “They couldn’t believe I’m 89 years old!”
“Well, you have a vibrant spirit,” I always respond, and then she tells me about her children–her daughter in town, her son on the coast–before we slip the ballet dancer’s flat off her right foot and talk about what she needs.
Her feet are tiny, bent and painful, toes twisted and overlapping and pointing to the side. I ease her into gentle shoes, soft white walking shoes, comfy cushioned slip-ons, steering far clear of those black lace-ups that would make her think, “Old age. Old people’s shoes.”
Her size doesn’t change, and with her feather-weight, she barely puts any wear on her shoes, but she comes in every six months, and she buys two pairs for the changing seasons, following the rules of ‘Wear white after Memorial Day weekend, never after Labor Day.’ The purchase of shoes is, I know, a connection to younger, more vital days, a warding off of the limits of age that, when she is home and struggling to heat her luncheon soup, she can’t deny.
I slide a pair of funny, fuzzy bright socks into her bag and tell her to wear them with her walking shoes–“That’ll show those kids!” I say, and she cackles a little, waving a hand briskly, heading out to her armored tank for the short ride home.
Cindi and JoAnna emerge, giggling, swiping dust from their smocks–they’ve been cleaning in the store room,–and they tell me they don’t know how I do it.
“How can you hold those feet in your hands and smile,” asks Cindi, “when they’re so stinky and…oh, just ick???”
I smile and say something frothy. They can’t understand that this is my dream job, my retirement vocation. Mr. Pakliter has long since retired, of course, and his daughter Wendy owns the store. She likes my volume of sales; I like the light evening hours.
And I like paying it forward. I hold those smelly feet in my hands without flinching; I measure and nod; I listen, and I bring out a pair of shoes that says to someone, “I heard you.”
There are so many people who feel invisible. There are so many ways to bring them into focus. A shoe store, a supermarket, a doctor’s waiting room: a nod, a shoulder pat, a question about the weather. The remembered name of a precious pup. Disbelief at an age revealed. Many ways.
My teaching days are done. For now, I sell shoes.