a short story by David C. Fickett
About the Author
David C. Fickett is a father, husband, and gardener, as well as a writer. His short stories have appeared in Puckerbrush Review, The Peninsula Review, and Wilmington Blues. His first novel, Nectar, was published by Forge in 2002. He lives in Maine.
“Is she dead?” I asked Horace Peal, as we knelt over Marie Boleyn. She looked like she’d just gotten out of her car and laid down for a nap on the soft shoulder of the road. I’d seen her car fishtail on the black ice. She’d been in front of me, since I left Deep Cove, heading north. I’d seen her body, in one quick flash, fly out of the opened door and land only feet from where the car crumpled against a tree. I was trying to beat the crazy rush of crowds at Wal-Mart. She may have been going there too, to catch the last minute Christmas sales on wrapping paper, Percale sheets and counter-top appliances. It seemed foolish now.
“I think she’s a goner,” Horace said, putting his coat over Marie’s legs and pulling her coat tighter around her. “I don’t feel no pulse. I don’t dare move her, just in case there’s somethin’ they can do.” I was glad Horace had come right along behind me. I wouldn’t have wanted to leave Marie all alone to go and call the police.
I snapped up my coat, knelt down on the hem of my skirt and closed Marie’s eyes. She’d been in my class at school, so I knew she wasn’t any more than forty-five or forty-six years old. But unlike me, she’d married, had children, was colorful enough to incite ridiculous rumors. It was a damn shame. I tried to straighten out her dark hair, made an effort to wipe the mud off her cheek and some blood out of the corners of her mouth. I wasn’t like most women who screeched and hollered at the sight of blood. I guess it was watching my grandfather slaughter all of those pigs when I was a girl.
Horace crossed the road to make the phone call and I noticed Marie’s feet. She was wearing only one of the low, black, patent leather flats I’d sold her in the fall. Why she didn’t have on her rubber boots, I could only guess. She always wanted to look pretty. I stood up to find the shoe, looked into the smashed car but couldn’t see it there. I walked along the side of the road, climbed over the old spruce that Marie had knocked over, and then I saw it, nearly fifty feet from the car. I crunched over the thin layer of frozen snow and slush, picked up the shoe and brought it back to Marie. I slipped it on her foot and wet my thumb with spit to clean off the spots of mud caked to the top of it. I sat there in the thirty-degree temperature trying to make Marie look peaceful, but no matter what I did the bloody creases around her mouth, and her white lips, would be the last images her family would remember.
Sticking out of her coat pocket was a pale yellow envelope. I could see the Delta Airlines logo on it. I couldn’t believe that Marie and Junior were going on a trip. I don’t think Junior Boolean would have ever spent a dime on traveling. I slipped it out of her pocket and put it in mine. Then I went to look in the back seat of her car. As I’d suspected there was a suitcase. Blue, new looking. She had probably never owned a suitcase before. Now I wondered if the rumors were true about her and another man. I took the case out of the car and tossed it over the bank, watched it settle in a tangle of bushes and snow.
Horace came out of the service station across the road and we waited in my car, keeping warm, as others stopped to see what had happened, and then the red and blue lights appeared over the hill. Horace left me alone and went to talk to the state trouper. When the police talked to me I told them all I could about Marie’s accident. After they took her away, and everyone else had left, I went back to the bank and looked down to make sure that suitcase wouldn’t be seen.
Needless to say I didn’t go to Wal-Mart that day. I turned my Chevy around and headed back to town. I figured I’d be of some use over at the Boleyn’s, do what I could to keep them pulled together. I was never close to Marie, but she had what my mother would call ‘presence.’ I liked her and sometimes stuck up for her when people wanted to say the worst about her. She was always a favorite with the boys in school, always the one whom men gravitated toward at a party or a town picnic, and the one who was at the heart of most of the juiciest gossip. I don’t think the stories that were spread were true, but my mother would also say ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’. I didn’t spread stories. I felt the town was too small to talk about other folks and it was just plain tacky to get involved in that sort of thing, but still I couldn’t help hear the gossip, especially at work. I’d taken over the shoe store that my parents started over almost fifty years ago, when Mama got so lame, and most everyone in town still bought their shoes from us. It wasn’t too big an operation, we didn’t keep a lot of stock on hand, but we’d order anything for our customers, and they appreciated it. If they weren’t buying they were visiting and gossiping. I had plenty of chances to listen to everything they said.
I didn’t see all the bad things in Marie that others did. And she was always friendly to me. I think they were jealous of her good looks, her handsome husband, their pretty little split-level and two adorable teenage boys. Marie worked at the sardine factory and that place was a hot bed of gossip. I’d heard she was sleeping with Red Young, and then it was Newel Potter, right on down to the young ones there, like Scott Dunbar and Russell Crowley. People had even said once that Marie and Donna Shaw were an item. I doubted that any of it was true.
I couldn’t go to the Boleyn’s house when I first got back to town; the police might not have contacted them yet, so I went to the store. I’d left Ray, my cousin, in charge while I went Christmas shopping, but he hated filling in for me and I knew he’d welcome the chance to get out of there.
“What are you doin’ back so soon?” Ray asked as I came through the door.
“I got stopped up in Sullivan. An accident. It shook me up a little. Didn’t feel like shopping.” I pulled off my coat and sat down on a chair, undid my laces and hauled my boots off. I went into the back room, slipped on my low canvas shoes and hung up my coat. I couldn’t stay in boots all day. Ray had tried to convince me to wear orthopedic shoes while I was at work, and on my feet so much, but I hated the way they looked, even though I told every old woman who was interested in them, how pretty they were.
“Anyone we know in the accident?” Ray asked as I walked behind the counter. I was about to open my mouth and tell him when I saw Ida Hooper’s gaunt face peer around the corner of the shoe stacks. I smiled and held a finger up to Ray.
“Ida, you still thinking about those high heels? I told you I’m not selling you heels. I know what your doctor has said.” I walked over to Ida and started straightening the sale cards on the lips of the shelves.
“Margaret, who was it?” Ida asked, stretching out one long thin arm and taking hold of my hand.
“Well, I’m not at liberty to say.”
“So someone died?” Ray asked, from behind the counter.
“I won’t say another thing. You’ll all know soon enough.”
Ida’s hand, knotted with blue veins, went to her mouth and her eyes watered.
“Now, don’t fret Ida. It’s no one you’re close to,” I said and quickly went down the aisle to the back room. I took a slow breath, thought of how I’d tell people. I kept seeing Marie’s blank face against the bright snow, her dark hair spread out like black oil on the whiteness, and the deep shade of red at the corners of her mouth. How could I say a word about it? I felt as though something personal had happened between Marie and myself. As though our years of only polite ‘hellos’ and ‘good afternoons’ had bloomed into the closest possible friendship I’d known.
I reached up to where I’d hung my coat and put my hand in the pocket. I’d assumed that Marie was running away with some man, but when I peaked into the yellow envelope there was only one ticket. Was she running away from Junior? Maybe he knew she was going. I looked at the destination. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Why? I wondered. I’d wait to say anything until I’d spoken with Junior. If he knew nothing of her plans then I’d keep my mouth shut. If he did, then I could say that I’d seen the suitcase fly out the window, but had forgotten about it. I could bury the ticket under the snow at the sight of the accident, and it wouldn’t be found for months. But until I knew, I’d sell shoes, and do what I could for Marie. I slipped it back into my coat pocket.
Around three o’clock I closed the shop and drove over to the Boleyn’s house. I knew they would have been notified by that time. Junior’s red pick up was parked in the drive and so were a few other vehicles. I parked and went up the slippery walk. Junior opened the door before I climbed the steps.
“Margaret” was all he said. His face was red and his hands were shaking. I knew he’d loved his wife. I’d seen them together at local suppers, and once or twice they’d come into the store together. I think Marie loved him too, although his miserly ways and jealous fits, which were notorious in town, must have been a trial to her.
“I’m just so sorry Junior.” I went up the steps and hugged him. He let go, wept like a child. I couldn’t take the cold air much longer and suggested we go inside.
“You were with her?” he asked as we opened the door.
“I don’t think she felt a thing. It happened so quickly. One of the paramedics thought she’d struck the windshield before she was thrown. She was probably gone before the worst.” I patted his forearm and we went inside.
Junior’s parents, some of the neighbors, and Marie’s mother were standing in the living room, all zombie-eyed. I smiled and they nodded. I knew everyone’s shoe size better than I knew their names. Marie’s mother wore a six and a half; she had such flat feet that any kind of arch hurt her, but I couldn’t remember if her name was Alice or Anna. Junior’s father, whom I never ran into, was a size 13. I remembered how big his feet were because I’d measured them once, way back when I was in high school. I was impressed by their size and mentioned it to a friend, not realizing how many jokes would circulate about a man’s shoe size. His name had never stayed with me. Knowing these peoples’ shoe size said more about my life than I wanted to admit.
We all spoke of how sad Marie’s passing was, and then I got to work in the kitchen fixing something for everyone to eat. It wasn’t unusual for the people in Deep Cove to help each other out when there was a death. Within a couple of hours the kitchen was filled with others who had come to do what they could. I wasn’t married, had no one to go home to, but for Mother, so I stayed with Junior after the others left and helped him with the arrangements. He never once mentioned that Marie was leaving him. He assumed, like I had before I found the plane ticket, she had been on her way to Ellsworth to Christmas shop. He said he’d bought her a new diamond for Christmas and he regretted his foolish anger. He said he didn’t think he was ever good enough for her and it made him jealous. I held his hands and let him cry. His sons moved from room to room in slow silence. They avoided their family and neighbors and went to bed early. They looked so much like their mother. I couldn’t help but wonder how she could have been planning to leave them behind.
Junior talked as the colored Christmas lights blinked on and off. Packages, that Marie must have wrapped, were under the tree. Junior told me how he met Marie at a Shriner’s dance in Bangor. He moved from Herman to Deep Cove after Marie agreed to marry him, and his parents soon followed. He had secured a good job trucking for the sardine company and had been supporting all of them for years.
I realized as I washed up the supper dishes that I’d never even cooked a meal for a man before, and certainly not for a whole family. I knew Marie had suffered in that house, but for me, that night, I was a part of them. I’d stepped into her shoes, and the fit was comfortable.
On the drive home I thought about all he’d told me, all he’d shared, and I started thinking about what I’d missed out on by feeling responsible for my mother after Dad left, by sticking by her side and letting her particular brand of brainwashing influence me.
I went to open the store the next morning and had to retell the story of the accident over and over to the folks that stopped by. My mother scolded me for touching Marie’s blood. She went so far as to tell me that I had no business on the road that morning. I didn’t need to shop in Ellsworth, she said, I had responsibilities right here, in Deep Cove.
But I was used to her criticism. It was so much a part of me that I’d forgotten it could hurt. I’d dated a little when I was younger and each time my mother talked down the man I was going out with. She made sarcastic comments about his seedy clothes, his bad grammar, and his scuffed shoes. Any man who had the nerve to ask a girl out for an evening and then to show up in worn shoes and frayed cuffs was not a man worth getting to know. The worse part of it all was, at the time, I believed her.
After work I went back to Junior’s. He hugged me like he would his best friend. He was younger than me, by a few years, and looked even younger than that. He was handsome and uneducated. He was not for me, but I liked feeling I was a part of the Boleyn’s household, if only for a few hours. I warmed up a chicken casserole that someone had dropped by and then I made up the boys’ beds. When I slipped my hand under the mattress of the oldest one’s bed, I touched the edge of a magazine and knew what it would be. I felt a thrill at the idea of this young boy becoming a man. Tommy still looked like a child to me. Did boys and girls have these feelings at such a young age? I couldn’t remember. Would his mother have felt an odd sort of pride, or sadness about his passing childhood, or would she feel outrage? If my mother had found something like that she would have felt the rage. Marie, I think, would have laughed.
Junior stood in the doorway as I finished making the bed.
“You’re doin’ too much for us. I can get my mother to do these things,” he said.
I stood up, feeling out of place for a moment; then he asked if I might help him pick out something for Marie to be buried in. I let my hands trail over her skirts and dresses that hung in the closet. I took out a navy blue dress that looked nothing like her and held it up.
“I hate that,” Junior said as he smiled. He sat on the edge of the bed twiddling his thumbs.
“Me too.” I put it back and found a dress that was too colorful for a burial, yet it wasn’t horrible. Orange poppies on a dark background. I’d helped Marie select a pair of shoes to match the dress over a year ago. “She would have liked this, I think,” I said holding it up for Junior.
He looked up, nodded and glanced back down at the floor. I found the shoes, gathered together some other things for her, and laid them out on the bed.
I went down the hall planning to check on the food but felt hot and light headed. I went to the bathroom and splashed some cold water on my face. I looked at myself in the mirror, thinking it odd how something like this woman’s death had forced me to examine myself, something I hadn’t done in years. My brown hair was streaked with gray, more than I’d realized. I had the same plain, angular features of my mother; my clothes were colorless like hers. I longed to dress, for just an instant, in one of Marie’s red dresses and shiny high heels.
“I should be going,” I told Junior when I came back to the livingroom.
“Not having dinner with us?” he asked.
“No, it’s all ready though.” He thanked me and I said I’d stop by another time. I’d done her family a favor by hiding the ticket and the suitcase, but I wasn’t doing anyone a favor, least of all me, by taking over her kitchen or comforting her husband.
In the morning, at work, I busied myself with pricing some new hip rubber boots and arranging them in the window. They were probably my best sellers. We lived in a fishing town and most men went lobstering, worming, or worked in the mud, oil and bait juice down at the wharf. You didn’t get one bit involved in the fishing business without a pair of hip rubbers. And fortunately for me, each man needed a new pair every year, if not more frequently.
My mother and I lived in the apartment above the shop and every morning she’d come down for coffee with me. I had the coffee brewing but I wasn’t looking forward to seeing her or answering more questions about the accident. Before I could finish pricing the boots, I heard her coming down the back stairs. She hesitated in the stockroom for an instant and then came out holding Marie Boleyn’s plane ticket.
“What’s this? Where are you going?” she asked.
I didn’t know what to say. First I was angry with her for finding it and then angry with myself for not taking from my coat and hiding it.
“What?” I asked, getting the pricing labels stuck to my fingers.
“Isn’t this a plane ticket?” she asked, starting to open the envelope. I quickly grabbed it way from her.
“Do you have to go through my things?” I jammed the ticket into my apron pocket.
“I wasn’t. I saw it sticking out of your coat. When was the last time you flew anywhere?” She fluffed up her hair and went to the coffee maker behind the counter and poured herself a cup. I just looked at her.
“Are you going to answer me?” she asked.
My mother was an intimidating woman. Even more so now that she was completely gray. Any softness she had had disappeared when her blonde hair changed color. Her face was thin and square with a sharp chin and narrow gray eyes that challenged a person for everything they said or did. I, like her, had angular features, but I was larger, plump where she was anemic looking. She’d never forgiven my wayward father for having the genes that made me less than perfect to her. She had divorced him when I was still a girl and we’d never heard from him again. I always regretted that he never knew I didn’t intentionally take her side against him. I simply had no choice.
“Margaret, answer me.”
“Yes, I’m going on a trip. I was going to talk to you about it after Christmas.” I had rarely lied to her but it felt good, delicious, like all the Ho-Hos and Ding-Dongs I smuggled into my bedroom as a teenager.
“I can’t believe you’d waste money on something so extravagant. Where will you go? You don’t know anyone outside of town, do you?”
“I just thought it was time.”
I turned when I heard the bell on the door jingle. It was Horace Peal.
“Mornin’ ladies.” He smiled and came over to the counter.
“Horace, how’s your mother?” my mother asked.
“Just fine, thanks for askin’, Vera.” He took off his cap and looked at me. “Margaret, how you doin’ today?”
“I keep seeing it over and over,” I said.
“Terrible, just terrible,” Mama said as she sat down and started rubbing her legs. She couldn’t stand for too long without her arthritis bothering her.
“I’ve been helping out with the family,” I said to Horace. “The funeral is the day after tomorrow.” I went behind the counter and filled my coffee cup. I waited for what Horace had to say.
“The rumors are already flyin’,” he said. “Joanie said to me this mornin’ that Marie was running off. She’d heard that Junior had threatened to kill her again. Over some man he saw her talkin’ to at the post office. He’s just plain crazy.”
“He’s quite upset. I think he really loved her,” I said.
“I was wonderin’ if you had my coat. You know, the one I put on Marie?”
“No, I guess the ambulance drivers must have it.”
“I don’t need to get gossip goin’ about me,” he said. “All it would take is for someone to say my clothes was on her.” He laughed sheepishly and shrugged his big shoulders. I hated to admit he was right.
“She did get people’s tongues-a-wagging, didn’t she?” Mama said and then smiled just enough so that I wanted to scream.
I set down my coffee cup a little too hard on the counter and they both looked at me. “I get so mad at these people. Marie was going Christmas shopping that’s all. Why can’t they keep their mouths quiet?” I walked away from them and went into the back room. I hoped my quick temper would be excused as a result of the shock they’d expect me to still be feeling, but it wasn’t that at all. I was jealous of Marie. If I’d been killed in a car accident on Thursday, by Monday no one would be thinking about me at all, unless they needed a pair of boots or a free shoehorn.
The store, as on most days, was quiet. I watched the light snow falling and the slow stream of traffic lazily drifting by on the road. The diner across the street ushered in its little lunch crowd. People swapped gossip and ‘hellos’ in front of the post office, and then by three o’clock, the small flurry of passers- had diminished. The gray sky hung over the town like a flat sheet of galvanized aluminum.
I’d finished the daily crossword puzzle, gone next door to pick up Mama’s prescription and had called in an order for Earl Trumble’s loafers, before I decided to phone Ray. He was unemployed and I paid him under the table, yet he was never grateful for the chance to make a few extra bucks. Still he came when I called, slouching behind the counter waiting for the phone to ring or for a handful of daily gossip. When he got to the shop I drove over to the Boleyn’s. I sat in my car in the drive for a few minutes, thinking I should go help fix a meal or tidy up the house, but as much as I wanted to feel needed, I really wasn’t, not by them. They had family and close friends to help out. I was a stranger, really, not part of any family. I’d lost my chances to have one of my own. I backed out and headed to Ellsworth. I passed by the accident sight thinking about that blue suitcase that crouched under snow covered branches like a cat ready to pounce.
I went to all the better stores, steering clear of Wal-Mart and Ames. I wanted something nice. I went into Sheryl’s Fashions and searched for the perfect summer skirt and blouse. The outfit I chose was mostly bright pink, with blue and yellow flowers on the skirt.
Then, like a woman having an illicit affair, I went to the Joan&David Outlet, looking over my shoulder the entire time I was browsing, wondering if my car would be recognized in the parking lot. I held a pair of leather sandals in my hands for a long time, trying to envision the outfit with them. They were regularly sixty dollars, marked down to forty. Then I noticed another pair. Fifty-eight dollars, marked down from ninety. I tried to be practical. I set the more expensive pair down, headed toward the register, then thought again. My mother would have died to know what I’d spent on them.
I knew I couldn’t use Marie’s plane ticket without showing proper identification, so I tore it up and threw it away. I’d need one in my own name, but Fort Lauderdale seemed as good a place as any should I decide to travel.
As I drove toward home I stopped by the accident sight, turned off my headlights and got out of the car. I slipped and struggled down the snowy bank, thrashed through the dark bushes until I found the suitcase. I wouldn’t be able to fit into any of Marie’s things but the suitcase was still nice and new. I popped the trunk and threw the piece of luggage into the dark well.
That evening after Mother had gone to bed, I went downstairs to the car and got out the suitcase. Back in my room, I looked through Marie’s clothes. They were what I’d imagined them to be. Cheaply made with loud colors that only she could wear. I threw them in a garbage bag and stuffed them in the trash barrel. I washed off the mud and ice on the outside of the case and then I tried on my new outfit. The skirt was a little too tight for me, and much more colorful than the sort I usually wore, but I liked it.
I turned the sandals over and over in my hands, impressed with the workmanship. I put them on and walked around, stood long enough in front of the mirror to recognize my foolishness. I got undressed, folded up the new clothes, and slipped out of the sandals. I’d never owned expensive shoes before. Mostly I’d settled for overstocks or practical soles, proper arches, waterproofed leather. My new sandals were beautiful. After a while, I put them alongside the skirt and blouse, in the suitcase, and slid it under my bed.
Still kneeling next to my bed, I wondered, with all of Junior Boleyn’s faults if I would have left him, or stuck it out because of who I was. Wouldn’t I have devoured that sort of devotion, those jealous rages, even those heavy fists, if he’d spoken to me once in awhile as he must have to Marie?
As I lay bed that night, I thought about what I’d done for Marie. I doubted that we’d ever have been close friends, as I now thought of us, but just the same it was a comfort to sleep above the locked suitcase with its expensive, absurd sandals within, and hold close all Marie had given me.
“Sensible Shoes” Copyright ©2000 by David Fickett.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles.