BY DAVID WATTS
Copyright is held by the author.
A SHADOWED path led downhill from the campus to the city, and from there along the weedy riverbank. The girl was happy to be alone on her walk, glad to be free, if only for a morning, from the pressure of school.
It was too early for mothers and strollers, too soon for noon-hour teenagers. Most people were still home with their melon and toast. The thought of food brought an upheaval to her stomach. She hadn’t gone far when a park bench beckoned her to sit and rest.
A variety of birds sat singing early morning songs in tall trees along the water. Listening, she closed her eyes and drew down into herself sitting in the sun. The lapping of the river rippling in the reeds lulled her into a mid-spring trance. The bench felt good against her shoulders. Its heat warmed her back, washed over her, and swept away the cool air from her hands and face. Her cares dissolved for the moment. With her eyes closed and her face to the sky, she let the drowsiness carry her into a dreamy distant land.
“Top of the mornin’ to ya lass. And how’s the form today now?”
A cheerful voice spoke, as though right beside her. She rubbed her eyes to see who it was but saw no one. On the edge of the grass was something shrivelled and out of place. An old brown leather shoe lay in the dust up against the edge of the grass. Funny, she didn’t notice it when she sat down.
“You’re lookin’ washed out, me darlin’. And on such a sunny mornin’ to boot. Great day for cuttin’, I’ll grant you.”
The voice again, but surely she was alone. It appeared to be coming from the side of the bench but when she looked no one could be seen.
“Who’s there?” she ventured to ask. She felt foolish doing so; clearly there was not another soul around.
“Down here, me young lady,” the voice came back. “On the ground, by your feet. I’m just takin’ the sun, much like yerself.”
The only thing on the pathway, besides the crushed rock, was the shoe. She stared at it for a moment, trying to determine if it had something to do with the voice. The tongue of the shoe was pulled out and lay across the leather. As she looked, it began to vibrate.
Great. Not enough I’m hung-over, not enough I’m afraid of my own shadow. Now I have to explain why I’m going crazy too.
“Now don’t you fret, my darlin’. Hae ya never seen an old shoe before?” As the voice carried on, the tongue of the old wing-tip flapped in the breeze, and the laces twisted themselves into and out of strange configurations. “I’m only a wee Irish Brogue; I mean ya no harm. But you now, you’ve got a problem, don’t you? What’s the matter, dearie?”
She pulled back in fright, suspicion choking her. The shoe was speaking. How could that be? Should she answer? Would that be sensible? There was no one around to hear her if she did.
“I have no problem,” she told it, “except I’m talking to an old shoe.” She felt ridiculous. “A shoe which spoke to me first. Some people might say that was a problem.”
“Now, now, me wee colleen. Sure ya had too much o’ the barley at the pub last night, got a bit stocious, did ya? And now yer payin’ the price. But methinks there’s more. You’re carryin’ such an awful weight. I saw ya teeterin’ down the path, don’t forget. I’m a dandy judge of character.”
“You’re only a broken-down, worn-out old shoe, is all. Don’t try to come across all intelligent or witty. You’re nothing but a weakness of my over-stressed mind.”
“Ah, me dearie. The sun is driving right in yer eyes. Here, let me move.” The shoe shuffled itself into a shadow, more advantageous for the girl.
Her eyes softened and she offered a slight smile. “Thank you.”
“It’s true, me dear. I’m hearin’ ya and I’m talkin’ to ya. And I can see it, as plain as day. Ya got sometin’ to get off yer chest.”
“I told you, there’s nothing the matter with me. And leave my chest out of this.”
“The dark bags under yer eyes tell a different story.”
“Great. You can see too?”
“I can indeed. Once I got the laces out of me eyes, my sight improved greatly. And what I see in front of me is a young girl —”
“Woman in the prime of life. So tell me now. What’s getting you down? Maybe I can help.”
“What do you care? What makes you think you can help me? Oh, for God sakes, look at me. I’m talking to a shoe.”
“Ah now, maid, I do know things. I been around people all me life, been quite attached to some.”
“Life? What do you know?”
“Don’t be too sure, missy. I been around the block once or twice. Truth be told, I been stepped on, then stood up. In the end, I was tossed aside and left to rot.”
At this, the old shoe sagged under the weight of its own downfall. For a split second the girl thought it was going to shuffle off down the path, nothing more to say. Neither of them moved, sat silent, warm in the sun. Then she found her voice and with it, her rekindled worry.
“That’s what I have to look forward to as well. Everyone else set for life, and I get left to rot. A life ahead of me? I can’t do it.”
“Now, now, me darlin’. ‘Tis not all that bad.”
“All this education, and what am I? Scared, that’s what. A problem will come along and I’ll have no answer, nowhere to look for help. Oh God, what’s happening to me? What’s going to happen?”
“Now missy, let me tell ya’. Endin’ up like me won’t be so bad. Lying around in the sun all day, putting yer feet up, nobody walkin’ all over ya. Still, who’s to say there’s no use in me yet? That’s the answer, me dearest. Ya got to have faith in yerself. That’s where the confidence comes. Confidence, so you don’t stop believin’ in yerself even if you’re made to feel that way.”
The shoe rambled on, its tongue wagging. She was thankful no one was around, that she might have to explain she’d been talking to a shoe. Finally, the shoe tucked its tongue back inside its upper, settled into the dust and said no more. The girl leaned back against the bench and the sun seeped into her, wrapping her in warm contentment.
A shadow from the sidewalk fell across her face. An old vagrant bent over from street fatigue stumbling toward her. His beard of many months was tangled and dirty. A tattered winter coat hung from his drooping shoulders, its threadbare hems brushing the back of his knees. Although the sun was warm the old man pulled the old coat around his thin frame. As if she weren’t even there, he reached down and picked up the shoe. A feeble kick dislodged a frayed slipper from his foot. When he tried to put on the shoe, he was too stiff and couldn’t bend down far enough to set it right.
“Here. Let me help you.”
The old man recoiled at her voice and turned away, but regained his composure when she said, “Sit down here and I’ll put it on for you.”
His coat was filthy with dirt and grime, and God knew what else. With a tentative touch on his shoulder she guided him to the bench. He recoiled at first, but at her touch he allowed himself to be led. His eyes stayed on her face as he slumped onto the seat. With one knee on the crushed rock, she slipped the shoe onto his naked stinking foot. It was disgusting, in more ways than she could say, but the concern she felt, rather than revulsion, surprised her.
He looked at the shoe, back to her face, and to his foot again. Once the shoe was in place, he stood and carried on with his shuffle, both feet now covered, shoes unmatched but each with life left to give.
The girl lost herself staring at the old man as he moved farther down the sidewalk. A gust of wind brushed her face and drew her back. The streets and sidewalks started to get busy, people going about their day’s business.
She stretched her back upright and took the path back to campus.