“The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.”
Last Wednesday was another perfectly predictable day in the life of working retail– another day that I could expect a bitch to walk in and demand the unmanagable, another day that I could expect a yuppie businessman to complain about a price and ask for a further discount on top of our already-generous independent company sale price. Another day that I could expect a mom to bring her kid in with beat-up shoes after school and soccer practice, only to realize, after measuring, that his feet have grown three sizes since that last shopping trip just a couple of moons ago. Another day of confirming the universal three-tier lesson that one learns over and over again when revolving around the fascinating people-watching planet of retail: 1) People are lazy, 2) People are weird, and 3) People are stupid.
The door opened and let in a brisk gust of Ann Arbor afternoon air. “With my luck, I wouldn’t be surprised if I couldn’t even find socks that fit,” she was mumbling to her husband in her nasal Midwestern accent. She was my height and had a slight unevenness to her walk. Her eyes were the type of big and round brown eyes that you would look to for the wise and honest truth, not just some sugarcoated lie. She had miskempt tufts of gray hair falling in her face and bangs that needed trimming. A face of freckles and fine-line wrinkles, age spots and a couple of small moles. Her outfit consisted of gray cotton lounge pants and a long black blazer over them with a yellow wrinkled t-shirt underneath. Her husband sported the quintessential ‘midwestern gentleman’ attire: plaid flannel tucked into jeans with a clean brown belt. Tall and skinny with with short gray hair and thin-lensed glasses. They held hands on their Monday afternoon date.
“Good afternoon,” I greeted them with a smile. “Can I help you find anything?”
“Yes,” she sighed. “I need boots. Black dressy boots that I can wear with my new leggings that are on their way from J. Jill catalogue, and a dress or a shirt, and this blazer, (she pointed to her long blazer.) She raised her eyebrows and pointed her pudgy finger at me. “Now, this is really important: I can’t walk in any sort of heel. So I just want somethin’ plain and simple. I’m really pretty boring.”
I pointed out some brands and racks of shoes that I thought may lead her in the right direction, but she was extremely selective. She walked around every circular rack, across every display. The sale tables outside the front of the store. Walking, eyeing, shaking her head. She picked up a couple of pairs here and there for closer examination. “The zipper is too obnoxious on these,” she said about one pair. “My calves are too fat for those,” she chuckled about another.
She was on a mission. So many customers come in and know exactly what they want, and when they don’t see it after five minutes, they head casually towards the door as if shrugging their shopping shoulders, thinking, “oh well,” and calling a tired “thank you,” over their shoulder as the door shuts behind them. This woman was different. I had been working retail long enough to know that she was the type of customer who would not leave without a bag in her hand.
“What’s the special occasion?” I asked her. “The dress, the leggings, the boots…are you going somewhere fancy?”
“There is no special occasion, no fancy place, hon. Unless you count cancer as the special occasion and heaven as the somewhere fancy.”
I felt the veins in my neck relax and my heart drop.
She lifted up the long blazer, pulled out two tubes and a clear bag, sighed exasperatedly, and looked me directly in the eye. I was kneeling on the floor, holding a shoe box in my hands, and she was standing a few feet away, from above. But her eyes felt intimately close, her overgrown bangs framing them with fringe and making them appear bigger, more honest, more wise. “This bag catches my urine because this kidney, (she jabbed her finger into her side), stopped working.”
I had struck a nerve. I felt instantly guilty for assuming that there had to be a special occasion to buy dressy black boots, and she was paying me back by waving her clear bag with urine in it in the air. She sounded angry, frustrated, as if the mission to find these boots was her very last fuse.
“I can’t remember how long it’s been since I felt like I got dressed,” she continued, her voice rising and slightly quivering. For real. Real clothes, nothing hiding half of my sick body to cover up these tubes. But I do remember that the last time I dressed up, someone told me I looked as good as my thirty-year-old daughter who was standing right next to me. I want to feel like that again. That’s why I have to know what I want– because I know I didn’t want cancer, and now all I want is to feel like I don’t have cancer. She turned around and pace slowly in the opposite direction, but I could hear her tears rolling down out the corner of my ear.
“I’m so sorry,” I looked back patiently and said, feeling like every last pixel of my pupils and facial expression was walking on eggshells. I was afraid of looking too chipper but afraid of looking too sad.
After a moment had passed, I stood up, (absentmindedly with an empty shoebox in my hands), and turned around to continue scanning the shelves. We had no option but to find these boots.
They’re on sale. It hit me as hard and fast as the angry morning sleet: the Merrel boots. They had a little bit of a heel though. But it was a glided heel, a gradual slope, and organic curvature of the rubber sole. Not a “heel.” Not a chunky artificial height-amplifying-illusion-inducing-invented-by-King-Louis-XIV-to-make-his-calves-look-buffer-and-therefore-his-kingdom-look-more-powerful heel. I turned to her. “How about these?” I asked. “They have a little bit of height, but I wouldn’t qualify it as a ‘heel’ per-se.”
Her brown eyes settled on the boot I was holding up, and she tilted her head slightly to the side. “Yeah…” she started. “Oh, heck. Why not?”
She sat on the bench and began pulling off the shoes she was wearing. “My kidney specialist told me I needed lotion on my legs this morning,” she blurted, and pointed to her bare legs after pulling up her gray lounge pants. “I shaved ‘em yesterday, but it stings if you put lotion on right afterwards, right?”
“Oh yeah, that’s the worst!” I related.
“Well, anyways, I meant to put it on this morning, but I forgot. And then the doctor at my appointment this morning, she tells me my skin is all ‘ashy’…and all I can think is, ‘Well I shaved ‘em for you, bitch!”
Her husband chuckled. “Not even for me, huh?”
“Nope, not for you, Harry. Never anything for you,” she kidded, wiping her moistened face with a tissue. They shared one of those “years grow love, not fade it” smiles.
She pulled on the first Merrel and zipped it up over over her lounge pants, and I could tell it fit like a glove before even feeling her toes and helping her get the other one on.
“Wow,” she gasped. I haven’t even stood up, and I know these are the ones. I just know. It’s instinctive!” She hurriedly finger-swept her bangs out of her eyes, pushed herself up off the bench with one hand, and took a few steps. “Wow,” she muttered. “Just…wow.”
The smiles that spread across her husband’s face and my own were completely involuntary. Natural reactions. Just like her pee couldn’t help but fall into that bag because it has nowhere else to go, our smiles couldn’t help stretching all they way across our faces. Like a hound dog can’t help stretching all the way across a cold tile bathroom floor in the middle of an August afternoon. The beauty of relief, of things made right. Raw and unbridled happiness.
“It has a little ‘heel,’ but I kinda like it,” she giggled. “These are the ones, Harry. Do you like them?” she turned to him and batted her eyelashes.
“You look beautiful, Sweetie,” he said. “Even more beautiful than always.”
“Aww, Harry,” she sighed and rolled her eyes, annoyed and affectionate.
“You got Husband Approval!” I said. “Husband Approval is always very important around here. Congratlations.”
“Thank you, hon. I’ll take ‘em.”
She was right across the counter, the sun coming through the front door and illuminating the crevaces of her wrinkles. Except none of them were wrinkles, and all of them were laugh lines. Before slipping her credit card out of her wallet, she smiled and sighed. She leaned in slightly and put her hand on my shoulder.
“I haven’t felt this pretty in months, hon. I think our paths were meant to cross today, and you were the sweetie who was supposed to help me in this place at this time. You have no idea how grateful I am for your patience and help.”
“You really deserve to wear these boots and feel beautiful. I’m so glad we found you something,” I said.
In all of my retail experience, I had never hugged a customer. And I am never the initiating hugger in any hugging situation. But this was simply an exception. Sometimes a customer leaves and I second-guess myself. Did I really give them correct change? Did I give them their receipt? Oh God, I hope I didn’t double-charge him since his card didn’t go through the first time. And I knew that if this woman left without a hug from me, I would have a similar anxiety-ridden question running through my head. I went around to the other side of the counter with open arms, and all of the sudden it was like my three deceased grandparents were smothering me in a group hug, channeling love to me through this surrogate grandmother that came to save me, even if just for one hour. “God Bless you,” she said with a wink and a smile as she headed out the door with her beaming husband.
She was gone just like that. The store was completely empty and quiet, and it was time to put a new CD into the player. The tissue in the few empty shoe boxes on the floor waved slighlty from heated air currents coming from the vents above. It was like that moment after a child’s birthday party, when all the helium balloons are still attached to the chairs in the living room, but the lights are off and everyone has gone home. The cake is half-eaten, sitting on the table, a relic of past joy.
What if those were the shoes she wore on her very last day to live? What if that was the outfit she wore to her very last dinner out on the town with her husband? On her last day to the park with her grandchildren? I wondered how long she had, how many steps she could take in those boots, how long she had to enjoy them. Whether she had gotten to enjoy shopping for them more than she would get to enjoy living in them.
I guess when you only have so much time left, it’s perfectly acceptable to blabber about shaving your legs in an open public store. It’s perfectly okay to wave a clear bag of urine in the air and have your husband try to save the embarrassment by turning to the salesperson and saying with a nervous laugh, “Yeah, this is the kind of stuff you only have to worry about when you get old. You won’t be there for a while, don’t worry.”
But I do worry. Every day. I worry about things that don’t matter. Whether I’m making enough money, whether I’ll get everywhere on time, whether I practiced enough for my lesson, whether I’m going to have a good performance in studio class. I never have to worry about finding a blazer long enough to cover my tubes. I don’t have to worry about shaving my legs in the winter time, even if I’m wearing shorts to the gym with my boyfriend. I very often try to worry my moments into place, but they can’t get there without wearing the right shoes. And they can’t wear the right shoes without trying everything, examining everything, and finally deciding what they want. What their vision for the entire outfit is, and what they wish to become. How they choose to spend their steps in getting there, even if they only have a little time to reach the destination. And how they look sitting next to the many other pairs of shoes sitting in my closet.
Families come into the store together. Couples come into the store together. And more often than not, the decision to buy a pair of shoes is almost never the decision of a single person. It’s a community effort, a congregation of comments from the peanut gallery, a “whadaya think” forum, a long discussion between two people. A plead from child to parent, or a negotiation from wife to husband. A decision between two different pairs, or a compromise between two different styles. A departing and coming back later on the same day with a change of mind in between.
Shoes are much more than fashion statements and feet protectors. They are deeply rooted keepers of identity, pressure-bearing surges of power pumping along the pavement, determined and adventurous souls, (soles…) of journey from beginning to end. Confirmed foundation that your foot is equipped to take the next step, to move in the next direction, and to leave the next impression.
Feet are intimate, and so are the various ways that people choose to cover them, or to call attention to them, or to make them more comfortable along the treacherous way of their life journey. Putting a shoe on a stranger’s foot is perhaps the most intimate thing I do almost every day. It’s an act of logistics and an act of experiment rolled into a greater act of duty, and, on ‘special occasion,’ an act of love.
“Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.”