by Deborah Batterman
"Don't impressions count for anything?" she asked.
"He's cute," I said in his defense. "And I like the way he dances."
"Cute-schmute." She sounded like she was tossing words into a wastepaper basket. "A fellow who comes to pick up a date in sloppy shoes doesn't care about himself. How's he gonna take care of a girl?"
Our upstairs neighbor Jack Becker, on the other hand, wore shoes that could reflect the moonlight. A sure sign, according to my mother, that he would one day amount to something.
On the floor of my mother's closet, neatly stacked, were boxes and boxes of shoes. Hanging shoe bags were not her style, and besides, she said, a pair of shoes felt new if you took it right from the box. I had my favorites, the black suede mules with the tapered gold heels, but any pair would do when I wanted to become my mother. The black silk pumps or the leather ones. The blue-beaded pair she wore to my cousin Glenn's wedding. The red silk pompom slippers that I never saw her wear, the ones made of real silk, from China, that were a gift from Jack Becker's father Mike. I loved to rummage through the boxes, slip on the pair that matched my mood, pose in front of the full-length mirror on the oak veneer armoire (proud of having gotten across the room without turning my ankle). Twist my body from side to side, examining all the angles of the future woman in me. One minute I would imagine myself spinning on tippytoes, my heels three inches off the ground, head nestled in my father's neck as he sang "The Anniversary Waltz." And in an instant I could wind down to a shuffle simply by slipping my Cinderella foot into the grey suede with the textured black tips that my mother wore the first time we saw the Rockettes.
My father's belly sags in his navy polyester sweatsuit. He likes his Nikes, he tells me, looking down at his feet. They're comfortable. This is what we talk about today. Comfort.
I glance at the scar on the side of his head. Wisps of hair too thin for a comb fall across the pink, shiny impression left after they opened his skull to stop the hemorrhaging. There should be no significant brain damage, said the doctor who specializes in cutting open brains. A little memory loss, very minimal loss of motion. He's a very lucky man.
"It's just like the advertisements say," my father tells me, looking down at his Nikes. "You feel like you're walking on air."
But you can't shine sneakers, I want to say, wishing for a gypsy and a crystal ball that might place me in a scene from another time, an earlier time. Inside the smoky glass of the crystal ball are a girl and her father. They are in a car, driving. The father is humming along with Tony Bennett on the radio, and the girl looks at him, says nothing, thinks only of how glad she is that today is Sunday, the day she loves for the ride across the Brooklyn Bridge and the visit with her grandmother and the dresses her father buys her from shops crowded with bargains. And for the walking she does, arm in arm with her father, down narrow streets jammed with cars; but mostly, she loves it for the stop at the shoeshine bar, where she is hoisted on a throne that smells of leather and shoe cream. She watches intently as a gray-haired black man buffs and brushes her father's shoes and smiles shyly when he dabs some polish on hers. How is it, she wonders, that his brush can tickle her right through her shoes?
"Every man is a shoe fetishist," says my friend Sasha. We are sitting in her loft, on the Navajo rug in front of her couch. On her coffee table are a bowl of grapes and a magazine open to a spread showing fashion designers in expensive suits and high heels. The fashion designers are men and they look silly in high heels and Sasha and I laugh. She passes me a joint, pulls out a pair of red suede slingbacks from the box on the floor next to us, slips them on. They are my shoes, and I'm showing them off to Sasha.
"These are definitely hot," she says, gliding across the floor like a model. Sasha has auburn hair that falls on her shoulders like satin and legs that my husband Mark fantasizes about.
"That's just what Mark saidafter he stopped choking about the cost. 'Two hundred and seventy five dollars for a pair of shoes?' he said. 'What are they made ofgold?' 'Things could be worse,' I reminded him. 'You could be married to Imelda Marcos.'"
Sasha sits down again, removes the shoes, tells me it's the shape of the heel that makes them. "Mark must have been panting when you put them on."
I smile, lean my head back against the couch, close my eyes. See Mark lifting my skirt, slipping his hands under it. Feel his strong hands, his hungry lips, make their way down my legs. "You shouldn't have given him up so easily," I tease Sasha. Mark and Sasha had one great weekend of sex, as she tells it, in a house we shared with five other people on Fire Island. Then he fell in love with me.
"You won't see me crying over spilled whatever." No other woman I know takes love so lightly. I envy her for this.
Sasha lights the joint again, turns on the TV, searches for something to fix on. She stops at a scene in a desert.
"I love this movie," she says. It is Raiders of the Lost Ark and we have seen it many times, together, stoned. Right now Karen Allen is maneuvering her way through a tomb. She is dressed in a virginal white lace dress ordered by her French anthropologist captor, and she is wearing white high heels. In a pit of snakes in a tomb in the middle of the desert. One shoe falls off, seems to jump from the screen. A snake slithers through the open toe.
I let out a laugh. Sasha rolls her eyes, pops a grape into her mouth.
"Very sensible shoes," she says.
"If your father gave all his money to the horses and we ended up the losers, I can't hide how I feel," says my mother. She takes a long drag of her cigarette, inhaling the bitterness which is no secret to me. It is Saturday, a bright autumn Saturday, and we are sitting in a small coffee shop on West 48th Street, talking. Woman to woman, I think, though to her it will always be mother to daughter.
"Divorce him," I hear myself say, woman to woman. She sips her coffee, looks past me, makes a passing reference to the big Christmas bonus she expects this year. It was a good year for Frank, Rosenblatt and Rosenblatt, she says, lips pursed for the defining phrase, attorneys-at-law, a phrase she dismisses as an affectation of the youngest Rosenblatt, who joined the firm five years ago. Her hair is beginning to show streaks of silver and her eyes are shadowed with disappointment, and she tells me between sips of coffee, mother to daughter, "I have to I will do something with my life." I have heard her say this many times before, over many cups of coffee, and always, always, I believe she has the will.
To do something.
Then autumn passes, and winter, and at the first sweet birdsong of spring she reflects with longing on a time when this really was the season of love and fresh flowers and slingback shoes. And cleaning drapes and windows that were free of burglar alarms so they could be open wide to let in that first rush of soft air. Again I hear my words of encouragement: You can take care of yourself. You know you can. I know you can. This is no mean betrayal of my father. This is, simply, one woman talking to another. A daughter who has rolled with the motion of love, who has sunk into the stillness of solitude, and finds herself, on a golden autumn afternoon or a crystal spring morning, saddened by her mother's inertia.
"When did you stop loving him?" I ask, thinking about the arguments over his Saturdays with All My Luck and Smart Girl and the horse his bookie said was Ruffian incarnate. Recalling the icy silence that turned my breakfast cold when he walked through the door after an all-night card game with his cronies.
"Did you ever love him?" I prod, not sure I really want the answer.
My mother looks away from me. Her hair shines with streaks of silver, and disillusionment shades her warm brown eyes, but slowly, like a ray of sunlight sneaking through the slats of a venetian blind, a radiance takes hold, a radiance that seems to contradict all thoughts of love gone or never had. She takes one last drag of her cigarette, one last sip of her coffee.
"We've been walking through stores all morning and I haven't gotten a thing," she says. This is something we love. Meeting on Saturday morning, walking up Fifth Avenue and down Madison, arm in arm. Gazing in windows. Stopping in stores. She looks down at her worn shoes as we wriggle our way through a maze of tables that are too close together. "If nothing else," she insists, "I must get a new pair of shoes."
My father's life is simple. He wakes at six a.m., has a cup of tea. Does a crossword puzzle. At eight-thirty he goes out for a walk, in his Nikes, comes back with a cup of coffee, a buttered bagel, a newspaper. After eating his bagel and reading the paper, he starts another puzzle. Or examines the racing form, still looking for a winner or at least some clue to an existence he once claimed as his. The kitchen table, it seems, has become his domain. The mail, his puzzles, his bagel and coffee are spread across it. There is no room for anyone else. When he is tired of acrostics, he gets up from the table, goes to the living room and settles himself in his recliner. Watching TV.
I am here, in the apartment of my childhood, watching him watch TV. There is there must be some laughter hiding in the walls or under the couch or stuck in the window frame along with the paint that keeps the window from opening. There is there must be something other than this claustrophobic sadness that permeates every room, threatens to obliterate the memories of laughter hiding in some crack in the wall or stuck, like a missing earring, between the pillows of the old couch in the living room where my mother sleeps.
I am here, in the home of my childhood, watching my mother sleep. She cannot, will not, sleep in the same bed as my father. Instead she takes the couch, makes it her bed, as she has for years. I stare at the pillows encasing her body like a mold, watch her sleep a sleep of sickness. Of poisons, measured in half-lives, that are supposed to keep her from dying too quickly. Her lips are dry and her hair is all but gone, the radiance in her dimmed by a trick of etymology. And sickness. It is Saturday, and there is no strength in her for a walk down Madison or up Fifth. She coughs, lifts her head from the pillow, leans against the arm of the couch, holds back the tears forming in her eyes. She looks at me, says nothing, says everything with the tears she holds back. Every movement, the shift of every muscle required for the simple, the achingly simple, task of moving from sleep to sitting, is slow. And painful.
"Let me help you," I say, giving her my arm. There are slippers at the foot of the couch, beige leather mules. I glance down at her swollen feet, offer to put her slippers on for her. She says nothing, kicks the slippers aside as we walk, very slowly, past my father in his recliner, down a short foyer, my arm holding hers.
I am here, in a place that feels nothing like the home of my childhood, in a time compressed by love and sickness. My mother makes a right turn into the bathroom and I go left, to the bedroom that was once mine. The trundle bed is in the same place it always was (opposite the window), and I can still look at myself in the large mirror on the armoire door. But the treasured possessions that gave me the right to hang my name on the door the oversized yellow monkey and the desk filled with books and the musical jewelry box made in Japan are gone. Taking up the space left by my trinkets of childhood are perfumes in a tray on a glass-top dresser and a blue housedress hanging over the back of a chair and three pairs of shoes, weary-looking, neatly lined up under the armoire. I slip into the black low-heeled pumps. The leather is cracking near the seam and bunions have distorted the shape, making the shoes feel stretched, bigger. Making me feel smaller. I glance into the mirror. Looking back at me is a child, shoulders sunk with pain, eyes dark, no longer prancing about in her mother's shoes.
Light bounces from the TV in a series of disconnected images.
"Stop it, already!" shouts my mother, impatient with my father's remote search for something to fix on. She coughs, and my father stares at her, blankly, then asks me, with just a look from his water-blue eyes, to do something.
There is a glass of water on the side table next to the couch and I hand it to my mother, who manages a sip. Something on the TV news catches my eye. A man, strangely familiar, in a full-length leather coat is being led to a police car. His hair is slicked back and his lopsided smile is cocky.
Words bounce from the newscaster's mouth. Federal agents. Marijuana. Dawn raid. Key Biscayne home of Jack Becker. I take a closer look at the slicked back hair and cocky smile and full-length leather coat.
"Holy smoke," says my father, shaking his head.
My mother closes her eyes.
A voice from the TV nudges her awake, like a cat rubbing its nose against her neck. It is late night. My father has gone to bed, and I, like a mother with a newborn, sit nearby listening for the easy breath. The room, dark except for the blue of TV and the soft yellow of a table lamp, radiates with a voice that transports my mother to another time, another place. Over the rainbow, somewhere.
"Remember how we used to sit together on the couch with bowls of potato chips and peanuts watching her show?" whispers my mother, mistaking Liza for Judy. "How you sometimes jumped up from the couch, ran and got a pair of my high heels, and started imitating the way she kicked her legs and moved her arms?"
I force a smile. She would never have confused them before.
Liza ends her show with "New York, New York" and I click to the eleven o'clock news, once again seeing Jack Becker in his full-length leather coat, thinking back to Jack Becker and his cordovan loafers, spit-shined (so he said) by his mother. Jack Becker and the home-baked cookies he doled out like diamonds. These are not your run-of-the-mill chocolate chip cookies, he explained when handing them out to his notorious inner circle of fifth graders. They're made from a secret recipe that only my mother knows. And who could argue? His mother Estelle had become something of a local celebrity after winning a Pillsbury bakeoff, and Jack, who had acquired early on his father's suaveness and sense of commerce, soon began capitalizing on his mother's fame by selling the cookies (to those outside his notorious circle) for twenty-five cents apiece.
Living in the same building as Jack, and being a girl for whom his mother had a particular fondness, gave me personal access to all the cookies I wanted. Estelle harbored a fantasy that I would be the one to straighten Jack out. He spends too much time with troublemakers, she confided in me one day over cookies and milk in here rose-stenciled dinette. And he hates doing homework. None of which was news to me. But he likes you, she went on. I know he does.
When I told my mother about my conversation with Estelle, she smiled. "Jack is cut from the same cloth as his father," she said. "A regular ladies' man." Mike never traveled anyplace further than Niagara Falls but he was, as my mother put it, well-connected with the customs people at the airport. He sold anything he could get his hands on sweatshirts with studs and fringes, polyester pants, imitation silk shirts with the labels cut out. The top-of-the-line items designer coats and suits (never mind who the designer was) were priced so well, according to Mike, that anyone trying to bargain him down was rebuffed with a brusk "don't waste my time." That's not to say he didn't have a generous side. I got a little girls' makeup kit from him and I saw him give my friend Anita's mother a green leather wallet after she paid him ten dollars for a pair of black leather gloves. Then, of course, there were the red silk slippers he gave my mother.
My mother sleeps, wheezes, and the TV plays softly. She does not let me turn it off. The sound soothes her, she reminds me, helps her sleep. "Your father turns it off," she says, "in the middle of the night."
I go into the room of my childhood to lay down. Jack Becker's face surfaces in the dark. Jack Becker, whose green eyes and fleshy lips exuded sex appeal even at the age of ten. Jack Becker who kissed me in this very room, tried to feel me up one night when our parents were out together.
The last time I laid eyes on Jack was from the window of a taxicab on West Broadway a year before I got involved with Mark. We had met, to our mutual surprise, the night before at a party in Sasha's loft.
"You look good." Jack squeezed my arm.
"You look good, too." He was wearing tight jeans and a black tee-shirt under a white linen sport jacket and was smoking a joint, which he shared with me.
"I see you hit the jackpot," said Sasha, who, tequila bottle in hand, glided by for a hit. "No pun intended."
Jack and I danced, tried to talk but the music was too loud and the air between us charged with kisses unfinished from another time, another place. Jack put his lips against my ear, started to sing. I know a place. I smiled, said nothing, took his hand.
"This is where I live part of the time," he said, leading me up the stairs of a Chelsea brownstone, the entire third story of which was his. He lit another joint, popped open a bottle of Dom Perignon, played Johnny Mathis.
"You're too prepared," I teased him.
"You never know when you're going to meet up with an old friend," he said, asking me to dance, transporting me in an instant to the dimly lit basements of my high school days, when we danced, eyes closed, cheek against cheek, groins fastened together like two vanes of a pinwheel.
Johnny Mathis segued to Miles Davis. "You're too prepared," I whispered, kissing his neck to the strains of "Round Midnight."
You never know, Jack kissed my cheek, when, he led me to the couch, you'll find yourself with . . . I kissed his mouth, stopped the words, fed him champagne. Miles Davis segued to Marvin Gaye.
I like your taste, I kissed his mouth, in music.
We made love on his black leather couch. In his bed. In his bed again. And I asked for Johnny Mathis, again. Timing, my mother used to say, is everything. A moment not possible before, unlikely to happen again. To explain, to try to comprehend what makes the moment right, the timing possible, is to miss the point.
"Where do you live when you don't live here?" I asked the next morning, as Jack made coffee.
"Key Biscayne. Want to visit me some time? I'll pay for your ticket. And I'll take you to meet my mother in Miami. And my father."
I told him he was being too glib, asked about his parents. His mother was still winning baking contests, he said, and his father was still selling anything he could get his hands on.
I told him what his mother said about me straightening him out, what my mother said about his shoes.
"I always thought your mother had style," said Jack, "something my mother can't seem to get the knack of. She was hot, too, I remember no offense intended. I used to think my father had a thing for her. They danced very close at my bar mitzvah, I remember. She was wearing this oriental-type dress that ended just about there." He kissed my knee. I could picture the dress as if she wore it yesterday. A silvery white knit with a mandarin collar. The one she bought the silver slingbacks to match.
Jack tore a piece of paper from a pad. "Here's my phone number," he said. I studied the ten digits, folded the paper, put it in my wallet.
Don't expect, my mother used to say, and you won't be disappointed. To expect is to misinterpret hope, take the hush from desire. Jack I started to talk, stopped myself, looked into his effervescent green eyes, filled with the reminder of a moment not possible before, unlikely to happen again. I don't think I started to talk, stopped myself, reached over to touch his hand. This is the way people say thank you, I thought. With a touch.
"Maybe I'll surprise you," I said, thinking how good I had become with
We left the apartment together and just before I got into a taxi, Jack slipped a small brown paper bag into my satchel. In it was one Ziploc bag filled with Thai stick and another filled with chocolate chip cookies. "A little something to remember me by," said Jack.
"Did you ever really love someone?" I ask my mother. We are driving, me behind the wheel of her car, to the radiology center where we will sit in a waiting room alongside other women hiding their baldness with scarves and turbans, men covering their burnt scalps with caps. Waiting.
"There are things you never tell you children," she answers, without a smile. Then, opening up a little, she tells me he wanted her to leave my father.
"Did I know him?" I ask.
She casts a sidelong smile, and refuses to say another word.
"It rains a lot in Seattle," Sasha tells me. She is tired of New York and is thinking about Seattle as a place to live. An old boyfriend-turned-friend of hers says it's the best city on earth. The air is clean and there are mountains within reach and the Pacific (says her old boyfriend-turned-friend) is more magnificent than the Atlantic. Sasha holds up her child-size cup of espresso, crosses her legs, glances down at her suede ankle boots, which, I can tell by the lines of doubt carved in her otherwise perfect lips, she does not think are compatible with a rainy climate. Her boyfriend-turned-friend is sure that if she just comes out for a visit she'll never want to leave, and, says Sasha, he's usually right about those things. She reaches down to remove a piece of lint from her boot. This is no small vanity. Suede is rich, we agree. It's sexy. And, Sasha says with authority, it is not meant to be worn in the rain.
One month has passed since my mother died. My father sits in the living room, watching TV, while I sort through her jackets and shirts, skirts and sweaters, pile them on the bed in the room of my childhood. My husband will come by soon, help me put them into large bags. For charity.
I hold up a favorite white cotton sweater of hers against me, look at myself in the mirror, see only her. Jewish tradition permits me, if I choose, to wear her sweaters and dresses, jackets and blouses. But it is forbidden to walk in a dead person's shoes.
I am here, in the apartment of my childhood, carrying boxes of shoes through the foyer to the incinerator outside the door where, one by one, without emotion it seems, I push them down the chute. The black pumps worn day in and day out. The open-toed mustard leather high heels, also bought in white. The brown pumps, never worn. The black suede dress shoes edged in gold, barely worn. The red silk pompom slippers.
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