The Shoes Had Toes
Gen Del Raye
Eva wants him to go up to Roger but he’s too busy staring at his shoes. He’s staring at them because they look like money – the sleek pointed toes, the gleaming patent leather, the soft brown lips just visible on the underside of the flaps and against the worn fabric of his grey cotton socks. Liam knows that there’s more money in those shoes than everything else he has on put together. Take his socks for example, he thinks bitterly. At the dollar store, they had them in packs of six.
Look Liam, says Eva again. He’s just sitting there.
She grabs his hand and she makes to stand up but it takes her a long time. Her spare hand gropes for purchase first on the tabletop and then the seatback. There’s a man a few seats away who notices her struggling and takes a half step toward her.
Help me up Liam, she says in a stage whisper. Her face is hot. Liam stands behind her and grabs her by the upper arms. Her dress is sleeveless and he can feel the roughness of her skin and the stringiness of her muscles like taut cords running along the bone. It’s a struggle, as it always is.
We’ll be needing a crane soon to get me around, says Eva. There’s only a few weeks left, says Liam.
They look close now, the two of them, Liam with his cheap suit
pressed tight against the green frills on the back of Eva’s dress, his hands cupping her arms, both their faces flushed. They could be newlyweds. But then someone is offering Eva a glass of cold water and it’s someone she knows. A high school classmate maybe, or a neighborhood friend. Liam takes a step back. He takes a sip of cheap champagne. It’s warm and flat. He looks like a stranger.
Who was that? he asks when the friend has gone.
You’ve met her, remember? she says. He doesn’t remember. She works in sodas, she says, and then glances over at a man in a dark blue suit and a silver tie at the head of the farthest table.
Come on, she says. We still got him.
Her steps are short but quick. Liam lets her lead the way. Excuse
me, she says hurriedly. Excuse me excuse me.
They weave between tables, skirting behind chairs first on one side
and then the other like a satellite around a series of moons. They pass by the table for the neighbors. They’re wearing sport coats and tan slacks. They’ve brought their own bottle – something stronger than wine. They pass by the table for the work friends. The women are wearing short dresses and transparent shawls, the men Italian suits and dark shirts with open collars. Then they pass the table closest to the bride and groom. Gilded pocket squares, double-breasted suits and gowns that reach to the ankles. A small man with silver hair has a deep, booming voice.
Evangeline! he says. My God, how many weeks?
Too many, she says and Roger laughs, and she laughs along. You’re as beautiful as your mother was, he says.
How’s Aunt Hester? she says.
Roger says something that Liam can’t hear and chuckles. His gaze
flickers for a moment to Liam. He seems to notice him for the first time. I’m Liam. We met once over dinner.
Yes, says Roger. Yes of course. The English teacher.
Unemployed teacher, says Liam. He’d meant to smile when he
said it but it doesn’t come off right. I’m doing translations now, he says. White papers, technical manuals and such. Actually I’ve got something at the moment you might be interested in.
Roger is staring at Eva. You can see he’s trying to decide what reaction he wants to show when he turns back to Liam. Someone approaches from behind and taps him on the shoulder. He’s holding a mic.
I’m sorry about this, says Roger. He stands up and buttons his jacket. He looks apologetic. He’s a good actor. I’ve got to give the toast, he says. He shakes Liam’s hand and gives Eva a quick hug. We’ll catch up later.
That was a disaster, says Liam when they find their seats. Eva has as much trouble sitting as she does standing up. She has to lean back as she eases herself down like someone trying to squat on a steep hill. Roger’s toast is halfway finished by the time she’s managed it. People are laughing. Liam’s not sure what they’re laughing at.
You did fine, says Eva. We’ll try again soon.
I feel like my dad, says Liam. All the hustling he used to do.
We need this, says Eva. You know we do.
Liam knows. He lets his eyes fall. He sees his cut-rate socks and his extravagant shoes. Italian leather. Hand sewn. The tips so pointed he could have fit a gold bar in the space before his toes. Or a pouch full of pieces-of-eight. He could have fit a grand in rolled up twenty-dollar bills, he thinks, easy.
He remembers he found them in a place called Thrift Land. It was
a trailer in the parking lot behind Saint Augustine’s. There’d been no price tag on the shoes but he had taken them to the register anyway. The woman behind the counter had stared out the window for a few seconds with the shoes in her hand before saying, An even hundred.
Really? Liam had said. At a thrift store?
Alright, she said. Make it eighty.
Smell them, said Liam. They smell like fungus or something. She didn’t smell them. They’re good shoes, she said.
I’ll give you forty, said Liam. That’s all I have.
On the back of the trailer someone had drawn an enormous owl. It had been painted over in places but you could still see its golden eyes. Right above its head, in flowery cursive, it said Some Things Never Change.
Liam remembers those eyes. The way they followed him as he
walked out of the parking lot.
I’ve been thinking about you two, says Roger. They are standing in the grass just outside the dance floor. The sun has set, and someone is turning on the lamps that have been hung from the branches of the redwoods and the edges of the tall white tents. Roger is leaning against a barrel that has been converted to a planter for a mass of bougainvillea. There’s a wooden bench next to it, and a woman Liam doesn’t know in a sequined dress is looking up at Roger, waiting for him to speak to her. Roger takes a sip from her drink and says something inaudible in her ear. She giggles.
I’ve been thinking of what you said, says Roger again. Especially about you, Evangeline. He glances at her stomach, although his aim is a little off and for a moment it seems like he might be indicating her legs or even the ground. He clears his throat. I suppose I’ve already rambled on enough about the importance of family to me, he says.
It was a beautiful toast, says Eva.
People keep telling me the mic was too soft.
The emotion came across all the same, says Liam.
Roger smiles at Liam for the first time. His face is dark, almost red. Yes, he says. Yes exactly. He takes a step away from the barrel and clasps his hand around Liam’s shoulder. You two, he says quietly. You’re good. You make a good team. Then he sucks in a long breath and holds it. He seems to be considering Liam’s face. His eyes are probing, darting in quick steps, left eye to right eye, ears to chin, nose to lips.
Come see me on Monday, he says finally. Call my office. Maybe we can talk about a few things.
Eva gasps. Liam sees her hand rise unconsciously to wrap around her stomach. It’s as if she’s feeling for something there, he thinks. Some warmth, or maybe softness. Thank you, she says. Thank you, thank you Roger.
Just talk, says Roger. Remember, all I’ve promised is talk.
Eva bites her lip. She nods. You won’t regret it, she says.
Why don’t we all go to the dance floor, says Roger. He wipes his hand across his forehead and turns to the sequined woman. I could use a little moving around.
Eva takes Liam’s hand and squeezes it tight. Their eyes meet. Hers are bright. His are worried. He’s not a great dancer, he’s thinking, and the toes of his shoes are big.
He’s let Eva stay upright for too long. Even as they kiss, she’s tumbling backward onto the small bed. She’s beaming though.
What a day, she says to the ceiling. My God, what a relief!
Do you think he’ll remember, says Liam, all the things he said? He will, she says with conviction. He’d better. And if he doesn’t, you’ll make him remember.
She reaches for a pillow to prop her head on, then lets her arms flop back onto the bed. I’m exhausted, she says. My feet are killing me.
I’m exhausted too, he admits. He reaches down and pulls off her low-heeled pumps. They pop away from her swollen ankles like champagne corks, and he throws them behind the bed.
Lie next to me, she says.
Hang on. He takes off his suit jacket and lays it carefully on the nightstand. He unbuttons his dress shirt. He takes out a hanger from the closet and arranges them in a way he thinks will keep them from wrinkling. Then he kicks off his shoes.
Something hard and heavy rolls onto the floor. It sounds like ball bearings or loose bolts. Liam glances down at them. For a moment, he expects to see gold coins or precious stones. Eva notices Liam’s expression and peers curiously over the edge of the bed. She seems confused.
The shoes have toes, thinks Liam. Some other man’s toes. They’re dense and black like something carved out of onyx or obsidian. They look like gleaming glass teardrops. They have that smell. That faint, sweet smell like fungus, like a summer forest drying out after a long, wet spring.
Eva shrieks and then she screams but Liam can’t hear her. He’s lost
in his head. He remembers that smell. What is it, he thinks. Where is it
He bends down to pick one up. It’s the big toe. He can see the thick nail with its jagged edge as if it had been repeatedly kicked against the curb or a brick wall. He can see the raised, rugged lumps on the knuckles. Yes, he thinks. Early mornings. His father coming home. The smell that would waft up when he collapsed onto the bed, dust rising from his shirt like steam. Liam at the door, dressed up for school, still so small his face barely reached above the bed. He saw his father’s feet bigger than anything, covering up half his body, a shoulder just visible above the fissured heels and then a stray arm hanging toward the floor, a mess of hair, half a forehead. He would have one eye open, watching his son. Then that eye would close.
Eva is still screaming, but Liam can’t see her anymore.