PHOTO SOURCE: Creative Commons photo “shoes” by joe jukes on Flickr.
NOTE: Four weeks from now, Friday, May 10, will be one of the biggest nights of my life. It’s the culmination of four years of graduate study and a lifetime of loving stories. On that night, I will join twenty-six fellow students in a reading of our original creative writing, aloud, in public, at the University of Baltimore. But it doesn’t stop there; this is no ordinary reading. This night is a book launch party, a reading, and a capstone requirement for the MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts at the university. In this program, students are required to write, edit, design, publish, and market their thesis as a book—and then read in public and sell the book. It’s a full education in writing and publishing in one of our three genres: fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. I’m posting one of my eleven stories here so you can get a taste for what will be in my book, but please note that my stories are all quite different. Nonetheless, there are elements, phrases, characters, and themes that traverse the entire book. You’ll see for yourself when you get the book, which is a collection of short fiction entitled Life on Other Moons. (200 copies, 30 of them handmade, will be available on May 10, though many are already spoken for; I also have plans for an e-book, though, and I’ll be selling all available editions at the reading and then on my website.)
UPDATE: Life on Other Moons is still available as a limited edition paperback, which will come to you signed, exclusively from RogerMarket.com, but it is now also available as an e-book from Smashwords, Amazon, B&N, and other major retailers.
Love the Shoes
Harvey Brogan sat on the best stretch of pale yellow grass The Gate had to offer, knees bent, feet flat on the ground. His eyes were transfixed on the prison-issued tennis shoes he’d worn for several years now, taking them in one last time. He admired their comfortable insoles but cursed the thinness of their throats and the shoddy stitching of their welts. Today, he would be released with the shoes he’d had on when he was brought to The Gate, that old model whose soles were a mustard yellow and whose uppers were all black with a hint of red, and then he would be off to see his fourteen-year-old son, Kendrick, for the first time in many years. For that occasion, he was going to need a newer model.
He’d had three pairs of cheap tennis shoes during his nine years at The Gate. All were originally white nylon low-tops with beige shoelaces and a cream tongue that carried his last name in permanent black marker. In the outside world, he’d always avoided white shoes. Over the years, they tended to take on the color of everything the wearer touched, even the grass on which he walked. By now, his no-brand shoes had lost some of their initial luster, though he’d done all he could to keep them pristine. For nine years, with every pair of shoes he wore, he walked slowly. He took careful steps to avoid scuffing. Some days, just for an hour or so, he pulled off the shoes and went around his cell with naked toes to give his no-brand walking shoes a break. On Sundays, he didn’t even wear shoes.
But today was a Friday, and he was being released from prison. As he watched the guard come to retrieve him from atop the hill, he tried to imagine what his son might look like now and what he might wear. Harvey pictured a younger version of himself: blond hair, gray eyes with specks of brown, maybe tall for his age, wearing dark-colored low-tops with dark welts and dark toe caps to conceal dirt from walking. When Harvey last saw Kendrick, the boy was naked from the ankle down, so this would be a step up. If nothing else, Harvey could soon check to see that Kendrick’s arch had developed properly; otherwise Kendrick might need something with a custom waist for better support. In any good relationship with shoes, support was key. Running or walking; Velcroed or laced; black, white, or brightly colored—none of this mattered if the waist had no support. But Harvey hoped for the best. He wanted Kendrick to have options. Kendrick would be a young man now, after all, with preferences all his own.
The guard reached the top of the hill. He tried to smile, but it looked more like he was baring his teeth to show authority. Harvey wondered if the guard was ever afraid of The Gate. If so, he didn’t blame him. The Gate was a scary place if one didn’t have his wits about him. Something, or someone, might come at him out of the blue. He stood up, and they started down the hill.
“I bet your wife is thrilled you’re coming home,” the guard said as they walked.
And there it was, right out of nowhere. This guard was friendly but new, and he clearly hadn’t heard: Harvey’s wife had recently passed away. Having already lost her nine years prior, Harvey hadn’t needed much time to adjust. He’d made peace with it. Still, he considered what Kendrick might be going through—losing one parent and gaining another he barely knew. What would Harvey say to the boy when they met? He decided he would not bring up the boy’s mother.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’m going to see my son today. Have to get some new shoes first, though.”
“Oh yeah? How old?”
“He’s fourteen. The shoes are ten, if that’s what you meant.”
“It wasn’t. You nervous?”
“You just need to get him talking about something, that’s all. Ask him about girls.” He winked. “See you later. Or maybe I won’t, eh? Have a great life. Or have a life, anyway.”
The guard touched Harvey’s shoulder and then walked away. Harvey stood at the counter and waited for the checkout proceedings to begin.
Kendrick had just arrived from his uncle’s house, where he had been staying since his mom died, and gone straight to his bedroom. Harvey stood in the doorway and looked in. He noticed that Kendrick wore black Converse high-tops with what appeared to be nail polish graffiti all over the canvas material constituting the uppers. His clothes were all black. His hair was dyed black as well, and it was spiked so high that it seemed to stand a good six inches taller than Harvey.
Kendrick himself was a mountain. Harvey remembered the growth chart they’d started on the kitchen wall. He wondered if it was still there and how high it had reached. Just under six feet, he guessed. He would look at it later to confirm.
“It’s great to meet you, son,” Harvey said, his voice unexpectedly soft. He imagined himself as a small butterfly struggling to make himself heard. He cleared his throat.
Kendrick’s voice was deep, which would have surprised Harvey if the boy hadn’t already been so tall. Harvey motioned toward the bed. They sat down.
“Love the shoes,” Harvey said. “What size?”
“Already? You’ll be bigger than me before long.”
Kendrick took off one of his shoes and started picking at the brown rubber outsole where a large chunk was missing. It appeared to have been dug out with a knife, and Kendrick was peeling pieces away, making the hole wider and deeper.
“It’s in our genes,” Harvey said.
“Shoes. We come from a long line of shoemakers. It’s what our name means. Brogan.”
“Lucky me. Another embarrassing family fact the school doesn’t need to know.”
Harvey shrugged. “How is school? Get any decent grades? I know I didn’t.”
Kendrick threw a particularly large chunk of rubber on the floor.
“What about friends?” Harvey said. “Any good ones I should know about?”
“Good ones? What exactly are you asking me, Harvey?” Kendrick looked up and stared accusingly into Harvey’s eyes. He didn’t wait for a response, though, before looking back down and digging more rubber out of his shoe.
“I’m sorry. I just want to know you. I want to know who you hang out with, where you like to go, what kinds of shoes you like to wear.” Harvey’s hand felt heavy as he reached out to touch Kendrick’s shoulder. “If there’s someone you love, maybe.”
Kendrick stopped digging at the shoe to shrug Harvey’s hand away.
“No, no one,” he said without looking up.
Harvey watched Kendrick continue to dig pieces out of his shoe’s outsole and throw them on the floor as they came free. There wasn’t much there to begin with, though. He’d forgotten this about Converse shoes. The sole consisted mostly of one flat piece of rubber that provided little or no comfort.
“I bet these things are hell on your gait cycle,” he said.
Was he allowed to say hell to a fourteen-year-old? He couldn’t remember.
“I don’t know what that means,” Kendrick said. He looked at Harvey.
“Your gait is the way you move. As long as you have legs that aren’t damaged in any way and you’ve been taught how to use them, you have both a walking gait and a running gait. Everyone walks and runs differently, of course. The gait cycle is all about the progression from one gait to another. You can move through them as easily as putting your foot in a shoe. And some shoes are best for running. Because of the way your foot lands. When you run, you’re all the way up in the air for a second, so you need more support for when you come back down. When you walk, you just put one foot in front of the other. There’s less pressure when you walk, so those soles are made differently. You shouldn’t really use walking shoes to run, but I guess you could do the opposite and it wouldn’t hurt much.”
“So what you’re saying is, my shoes are good for nothing?”
“I guess so. Especially now.” They both looked at the deformed shoe and laughed. Harvey felt better than he had in years. Perhaps he had found his way in. “There’s this pair of shoes your mom had—I wonder if they’re still in her closet. Anyway, they were made for her, just perfect for her walking gait. They had this beautiful curved breast, which is the front part of the heel—”
“Why do you know so much about shoes?” Kendrick said. He leaned over and took a pocketknife from his bedside table.
“I just do,” Harvey said, watching him, curious.
“You know nothing about me but everything about shoes. Even her shoes. It’s weird.”
Harvey’s heart fell. Only hours out of The Gate, and he’d already broken his promise not to talk about the boy’s mother. He watched Kendrick stab the shoe’s outsole and start cutting off a new piece to throw on the floor.
“I know that when I was taken away, she had twenty-seven pairs of high heels, six pairs of tennis shoes, ten pairs of sandals, and two pairs of boots, and I loved her. I know that when you were little, you liked to walk around without shoes like an Amish kid with feet as tough as steel. And I loved you, too.”
“All you know is shoes.”
“Maybe. But there’s a lot of good stuff to know about shoes. I can fix that one, for example. Go ahead. Cut the hole damn sole off, and I can fix it. Sorry, I said damn.”
Kendrick put down the knife and smiled.
“I’m fourteen,” he said. “I’ve heard it. I’ve said it.”
“Good. Well, not good, obviously—you shouldn’t say that.” He started to give Kendrick a stern finger in the face but thought better of it. “Anyway, just put some rubber and a skiver and some glue in front of me, maybe a needle and thread with some material to create a new welt, and I can fix any sole. I can make it better than ever, in fact. Your gait will thank me.”
Kendrick put down the shoe.
“It’s just a shoe, though,” he said. “What about the other stuff? You were gone…”
Harvey nodded, frowning. “Nine years. I thought about you every day I was in The Gate.”
“That’s really what it was called?”
“That’s what they called it.”
Kendrick clicked his tongue a couple of times.
“I bet you didn’t think about me every day,” he said. “You couldn’t have. That’s a lot of days.”
“Every day. In my head, you even had a pair of shoes for every day and every gait in your cycle. I could list them.”
Kendrick thought for a moment. He put his hands on his knees and rubbed them up and down. Then he stopped moving, his hands resting on his lap. “What were you in for?”
“Theft,” Harvey said. “Of shoes.”
Kendrick laughed for several seconds, probably longer than he meant to. But he didn’t ask for the truth.
Harvey reached out and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. This time, Kendrick let him. Harvey smiled. Life on the outside was far from perfect, but he was home again, and he was a father again. It was a gait he could get used to.