“Shoes have tongues, but cannot talk.”
When I was twenty-three, I bought my first pair of black leather shoes. Sleek with skinny black laces, they sat in the window of a shop that catered to dancers, rows of leotards—black, navy blue, bright red—lining its walls. Work boots and Wallabees had dominated my snowy, soggy college years: these shoes were trim and lithe. New shoes. New me.
The tap-tap of their tan leather soles leant an air of purpose and import to my day, announcing my presence as I walked the eight blocks to my job at the art supply store, as I ambled down Boulder’s bricked mall, off to watch foreign films.
Months passed. When the shoes became scuffed, I polished them. When I wore through the soles, I re-soled them. When I wore out the heels, I re-heeled them. After six years, though, as my feet pushed against the leather (and the shoes in turn pinched back), I decided it was time to buy a new pair.
This was not an easy feat. The dance shop had closed and the few shoe stores remaining in town didn’t carry anything like them. This was, to clarify, twenty-five years ago, before Boulder boasted a Famous Footwear, before the expansive Flatirons Mall was built two towns away. This was, suffice to say, before Zappos.com.
So I made do with black sneakers. Comfy, yes, but they didn’t offer the authority of a well-heeled shoe. I continued looking, to no avail.
A few years later, my friend Lori pulled a box out of the back of her car. “Are you still looking for black shoes?” she asked. “I found these in Westminster. They seemed okay when I tried them on, but they’re really too tight on me.”
They fit me perfectly. Black Shoes #2.
Once again, I walked around distinguishably-shod. True, shoes #2 didn’t have a leather sole (thick rubber instead) and their toes were more rounded, less tapered than my former pair. Still I admired their clean slope, how simple and handsome they were against the hem of my cords and blue jeans. I smiled as I walked. I left messages on Lori’s voice mail: “Have I told you how thrilled I am with these shoes?”
I wore Black Shoes #2 for years. When their soles split, I drizzled rubber cement in the gaps, pressed them tight, let them dry over night, then laced them up once more. A few months later, the soles cracked again, but I kept them anyway. Except for when it rained or snowed, they worked just fine.
Meanwhile, the shoe industry was evolving. Keens appeared on the scene, specifically at our local Pedestrian Shop, where a black pair with chic asymmetrical white stitching was tagged 40% off in the “Last Pair” bin.
Size six, but running small, they were tight. As I ran my finger over the soft leather, traced the track of the stitching, style stomped sensibility and I found myself at the cash register, handing over my debit card.
Black Shoes #3 weren’t good commuter shoes but were excellent after-work, night-on-the-town shoes, especially when visiting homes at which shoes remained in the foyer anyway.
Such was the case, one night in early 2007, when I was lacing up my tight yet classy Keens after dinner at a friend’s house.
“Hmm,” Elizabeth said, peering down at my feet. “What size shoe do you wear?”
“Six, six-and-a-half. These are too small but I fell in love with them anyway.”
She walked upstairs and returned with another pair of Keens. Slightly worn, they were black, glossy, and had extremely cool laces— black stippled with white. Her eldest son had outgrown them in a matter of months.
“Try them on.”
They fit like a glove. Black Shoes #4, tied on, and out the door.
Years ago, in one of his children’s poems, my grandfather wrote, “Shoes have tongues, but cannot talk. ” Maybe shoes can’t, but I sure could, happily embellishing the tale of my #4’s. “Boosted them from a 12-year-old,” I’d say when friends asked, before dutifully conveying the unembroidered version of the story.
Number four Keens became my go-to shoes. Go to work, go to the grocery store, go to readings, go to the airport. An airport—that’s where I had my first professional shine, though the woman who attended to my shoes was perplexed by the their white stitching. She massaged carefully around it, black polish on her blue rubber gloves. Ten minutes and one buffing later, their leather glowed. Third life for these black cats.
I was spending a lot of time in airports in the fall of 2008, as my mother’s health was failing and I was flying back and forth to New Jersey every month to visit her. In late December, I flew home once more, this time for her funeral. I planned to wear my go-to Keens for traveling, but it was my simple, sole-cracked, Black Shoe #2 that I wanted for the funeral. No stylin’ stitching. No fun laces. No attitude. I unearthed them from the back of my closet and gently packed them in my bag.
A wet week in New Jersey, it was drizzling when we lowered my mother’s coffin in the ground. As we Jews do, I took my turn shoveling dirt, wet dirt, into my mother’s grave. The smack of wet dirt hitting a casket is somewhat like a car backfiring, is somewhat like gun shot, is somewhat like being punched in the stomach, which is to say, it is an awful sound during an awful day, and so who even cares if you sink your cracked-sole shoes into an inch of mud?
The next day, at my father’s request, my brothers and sister and I sorted the clothes in my mother’s dresser and closet, separating it into bags to be taken, tossed, or given away.
“Do you want these?” my sister asked. A pair of black shoes.
Soft leather, low heel. Sides rising slightly above the ankle. Fine round laces. I realized I owned an identical pair in tan.
Easy Spirit, they said on the sole. Mom’s spirit? Mom’s soul?
I stepped into her shoes.
Back in Colorado the next week, the cemetery mud on my funeral shoes had dried red-brown. I put them back in the closet, just as they were.
My neighbors were good to me after my mother died. They brought me meals, they shared their stories. In our community house one Saturday morning, my friend Karen asked, “What size shoe do you wear?”
Before I could answer, she lifted a bag from the floor. “I bought these for my aunt, but she didn’t like them. I thought you might.”
She pulled a pair of shoes from the bag. Dappled leather with ivory stitching, they sported thick, cream-colored laces outlined in onyx.
Their elegant design was only outdone by their patterned soles, brown and taupe diamonds. Black Shoes #6? Oh, yeah.
“Børn,” the shoes said on their soles, a not-so-subtle sign from a blatant universe. Life ends. Life begins.
Shoes don’t talk or maybe they do. Telling us life continues, one step at a time.
This is a beautiful piece, Ellen. I got completely caught up in the story and let my tea steep too long. It was worth it. Thank you for posting this. I hope to read more of your work.
Here is to well-steeped tea. What a compliment. I am evolving along with this blog. I’m trying to bring more of myself into it, attempting to bridge the many styles of writing I’ve learned over the years. New territory, for sure.
Sweet, Sweet, Sweet!