Shoes

Shoes

A piece of flash fiction published by Drunk Monkeys – written a long time ago but seems quite relevant during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You can read it here, or visit Drunk Monkeys and check out their other content.

https://www.drunkmonkeys.us/2017-posts/2022/3/14/fiction-shoes-ronald-mcguire

WordPress doesn’t like the Drunk Monkeys URL so I can’t embed it. A simple link will have to do.

Shoes

If I ask about your shoes, there’s a reason.

I was sitting in the waiting room – I’d driven a long way to see this one particular doctor – and I knew I had a long wait.

There was an elderly gentleman sitting alone when I got there. I checked in, then sat down near him.

I was filling out a stack of forms – I was a new patient and I had to tell them my life story. Do they think I remember the date when I had my tonsils out? Let’s skip that line.

I sit down, start filling in lines that are too small for my handwriting, and this elderly gentleman compliments my shoes.

I’m deliberate about my shoes. I have shoes for every occasion. As a bonus, my shoes last a long time. I have some I’ve never worn. I’m convinced one day I’ll be in a forest with an axe and those steel-toed shin-high American-made Red Wing boots will say “I told you so.”

“Those are nice shoes you have. One must have good shoes, and those you have are very nice.”

He says this with a German accent. I know this because I’d just spent the summer in Germany, and, yes, I speak German.

Everybody in Germany wanted to speak English. Everybody except the people protesting against the US military. What did they expect? We send plane-loads of 18 and 19 year-old kids over there and you think they’re all gonna behave? No way.

That didn’t have anything to do with me. I was there with my backpack kicking around while the Berlin wall was being broken down into a billion little pieces. I got bored after a while, so I hopped a train to Greece while I waited for the guy I met in Italy to meet me in Belgium to go to a concert. I thanked God, and my parents, every day I was there for the Unlimited Eurail Pass.

I speak enough German that I knew his accent was German.

I thanked him in German, which is easy, and you woulda thought I handed this man a bucket of gold coins. He was really happy. Which, to be honest, made me happy.

Since we didn’t have anything else to do, we talked about shoes. In German. Well, not entirely in German. My vokabular was pretty good, but it wasn’t that good.

He believed shoes were important, that you could learn a lot about someone from there shoes, and even more from how they felt about their shoes.

Maybe it sounds weird or crazy, but the alternative was to sit there in silence and wait to get called back to see the Doc. Why not have a conversation in German about shoes instead?

I don’t remember every word, but we kept at it until his grandson sat down next to him.

This is when things got interesting.

His grandson, a handsome dark-haired thirty-something with a lovely smile and a beautiful soft baritone voice, sat down after finishing up at the check-out counter. Is that what it’s called? I don’t know, the place in the office where you pay and set your next appointment, if you need one.

The handsome grandson sits down and listens to us talk in German then gives me this big perfect-white-toothy smile before he introduces himself. For the barest of seconds I thought about hitting on him, then I checked myself. Grandson wore a ring.

I asked grandson if he spoke German too, and he laughed and said “No way, my grandmother forbid it. My dad doesn’t speak German either.”

Oh. That’s curious. What’s up with that?

Grandad sees the look on my face and starts to explain.

He told me how he fled Germany as a young boy, when the Nazis took over. He escaped, his future wife escaped, and both of them lost their entire families to the concentration camps.

They each, separately, made it to England, with lots of help along the way, especially in France. Their paths didn’t cross until they were placed with two different families on the same street in London. Then they had to get out of London because the verdammt Nazis where bombing the hell out of the place.

They met, they fell in love, they survived the war, and they had not a penny to their names and no relatives left alive. They did what anyone back then would do – they went to America.

“Wir haben das Memo über Israel nicht erhalten,” grandad said, with a smile that looked a lot like grandson’s.

Once again they found themselves living with two families in the same neighborhood, this time in New York. They found jobs, saved up their money, and when the time was right, he proposed.

She said yes, on one condition.

He said “You name it” and she said “We will never speak German in our home, only English, and our children and their children and all the children that ever come after will never speak German.”

Grandson confirmed this, so I know it’s true.

Grandad agreed, they got married, and grandson was the son of their first child. They had five children and twelve grandchildren, so far.

Not one of them speaks a lick of Deutsch.

We went on like that until they finally called me back.

There was something peaceful and sweet in his manner, and about our talk, that caused time to stop for a while. I think other people were listening. In fact, the receptionist sent somebody back before me that should have gone after me. I was fine with it.

In the short time we had together we conversed about shame, hatred, family, love, country, forgiveness, a few other things you wouldn’t expect, and shoes. Sometimes indirectly, when to be direct wasn’t possible.

From this conversation I learned an entire philosophy of shoes, which I believe to be solid to this day.

So, like I said, if I ask about your shoes, there’s a reason.

Timing the Turn

An early piece of flash fiction. I like the longer version of this story better than the flash version, but this is the one that got published. The editor said she “loved the tenderness of this piece” and I’m grateful for those words – that is the tone I was going for after a couple of darker stories were published over the previous few weeks. This is another of my stories related to identity. You can read it here, after the embed, or check out the other great work at Screen Door Review.

Timing the Turn

The locker room was a place I never understood. But I never sought out organized sports until I started high school.

I joined the swim team because I liked the water. I was good at swimming, even better at attracting the attention of the older boys after practice. I was tall for my age.

I didn’t understand their attention until later, until I’d learned the truth about the world. But I knew who I was, even then. One finally broke the silent barrier of looks and moves and eyes wandering. The space came so naturally to him, but not me.

He asked me, standing there naked, all seventeen years of him, if I’d swum on a team before.

“No,” I said, and used my towel to hide.

“You’re good,” he said, hiding nothing, “but your turn is sloppy, your timing sucks.”

“How do I…”

“Coach doesn’t give a shit about freshman. If you wanna learn, I can teach you.”

“I don’t…”

“Do you wanna fix that flop or not?”

I had to look at something. The locker felt like cowardice, the floor felt like shame, the ceiling never occurred to me, so I settled on his eyes.

“Yeah, I’m new…”

“No shit Sherlock,” he said. “Can you stick around?”

“No…my mom is waiting…”

“Too bad, maybe next time.” 

He turned, twisting the world around him, tossing me away and behind.

There was never a next time. I wondered for years about his motives. The time came when I imagined his intentions, dreamt of them, and wished I’d stayed there and learned to time the turn. 

Sophomore year I played football.

I lost track of him that year and tried to purge his presence from my thoughts, even as his memory lingered against my will.  

I was a freshman in college when I saw him again, in another locker room. I was approaching nineteen. A lot had changed. 

He recognized me as I did him. There was more of him to see, a statuesque structure of muscle built on the foundation of his youthful swimmer’s build, beautiful cliché in bronze.

“Well, look at you, all grown up.” 

I reveled in his recognition. 

“You too,” I said, looking down from the height attained in a spectacular burst of growth my junior year. For sport I looked him over, returning the favor of years ago. I wasn’t shy anymore. 

“You been workin’ out here all year?” he asked.

“No, since the season ended, when it rains. Closer to my dorm.” I didn’t care what he was about to ask me.

“So, you wanna…”

“Yes.” 

“OK,” he laughed, “meet me out front.” He started back toward his clothes, then stopped.

“You drink beer?”

“No, how about some coffee,” I said. 

“Sure, ok, coffee it is,” he tossed back and continued walking.

He took his time taking his leave and I took full advantage.

I showered and dressed in a hurry, part of me expecting not to see him again.

He was there, waiting beneath the portico, leaning against a concrete column in jeans and a crimson jacket, a modern-day James Dean. 

“Okay to walk?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, “the rain’s not too bad.”

Somewhere between there and the coffee shop, halfway between heaven and earth, as our conversation built a bridge across time, he slipped his hand into mine as easy as letter into a box, enough pressure for me to know he meant it. 

“Have you been waiting for me?” I asked. 

He laughed and gave a squeeze that found its way up my arm, swirled around my chest, then landed in my brain, reassuring me the laughter wasn’t cruel. 

“No,” he said, “well, maybe. I’ve been waiting for someone. Now here you are.”

“How did you know, back then?”

“High school? Are you kidding? I didn’t know shit. I knew I liked you, but I couldn’t say why. Mostly I was scared. Part of me thought you didn’t like me because I’m black.”

“You’re more brown than black,” I said, quoting a movie. 

“And you’re more pink than white,” he said, catching the reference like an outfielder catches a pop fly.

I thought about what might have been, had I been a little older. I never saw him as scared, but in retrospect it made sense. 

“What about you?” he asked.

“I think I’m what they call a late bloomer,” I said.

Our laughter echoed across the brick wall and pathway, collected by the falling rain shushing through the branches watching over us. 

“Well, you’ve definitely bloomed, if that’s the analogy you want to use,” he said. 

We reached a turn that would take us from the secluded pathway through a colonnade, then into the open quad. I pulled him to a stop. 

“I think you have been waiting for me,” I said.

“What makes you…?”

“Because I’ve been waiting for me too,” I said, “it makes sense.”

“You have to explain that one.”

“Even if we didn’t understand then, we both knew what we wanted. I just had to catch up, and maybe you had to slow down. Like you said, here we are.”

He leaned in to kiss me, our first kiss, my first kiss. It shook my core and left me gasping for air.

“I caught you,” I said, my words forming clouds above us.

We stepped into the open and his hand fell from mine as a stone falls from a ledge. The windows of the quad stared down, innumerable eyes behind their darkness. Our separation a silent acknowledgement that we weren’t as fearless as we thought, disquiet measurable in the space between us.

We covered a lifetime in a hundred paces, then left the monoliths of higher education behind, his hand again finding mine. 

We would not live that way forever. 

We learned to live our lives at our own deliberate pace, giving the world time to catch up to where we’d arrived, hand in hand no matter who was watching.

What Are They Eating on Mars These Days?

Another flash fiction story on Flash Fiction Magazine. I made some revisions and gave it a new title, ,check it out at Flash Fiction Magazine or read it below the embed. This one is going to grow up to be a book one day.

Farewell, Hollywood

A body on the sidewalk was a common sight by the time I moved into the Roosevelt. Some weren’t quite dead and would reach out at you, it was best to walk in the street to keep your suit a little cleaner. The street was safe; the traffic had died with the people.

The dead littered the sidewalk like leaves in a New England fall, waiting to be collected. If nobody came, the thriving rat population got to work, a force multiplier for the plague. 

The stench of excrement and pot smoke that hung over Hollywood Boulevard had been replaced by something far worse. I could always tell when it was time to replace my filters.

Before the plague, the Roosevelt Hotel had been converted into luxury flats. They were nice, but the Roosevelt had become inexpensive, in line with demand. 

The glory of her restoration faded, along with the tenants and the rents. The papered walls and polished brass once again tattered and dull, dirty carpets removed. There was no one left to clean them and scant few left to care.  

The Roosevelt had a decon chamber where its grand entrance once stood. You didn’t take your suit off, just stepped in, got hosed, and you were all set. It was the last new thing in the building, notable for its regular maintenance.

I spent a lot of nights on the roof watching ships launch from Vandenberg. Once the rockets got going you could watch them burn their way to space, bound for Mars. 

The colony went silent a year into the plague. People, myself included, thought for sure they’d abandon the place and bring everyone back home. Then one day Mars sent a message. Something like “Come to Mars, everything’s hunky-dory.”

The wealthy went first, pretty much emptied out L.A., then the price dropped. By the fifth year people were lining up to buy tickets. 

When Davy got his chance, he bought a ticket of his own and left me the house, the furniture, the near-empty bank accounts, the cars, all of it. Signed it all over, said he didn’t give a damn. 

“If you change your mind, sell everything and come find me. The colony’s not so big, you’ll be able to track me down.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” was all I said. He walked through the airlock, climbed aboard the shuttle, and that was it. I tried to cry, but couldn’t manage it. 

That night I drove up the coast and into the mountains to watch. Four hundred feet of spacecraft, accelerating into the heavens, it blasted away with so much force it shook the earth beneath me and warmed the vibrating air around me.

Hadn’t heard a peep out of Davy since.

A few months later they stopped flying out of Vandenberg altogether and only launched out of Florida. There was a time they talked about launching from Texas, but that never happened. Even in a dying world, not too many people wanted to drive to Boca Chica, and everybody knows location is everything. 

Davy always had a nose for trouble. He sold his investments early on, hoarded cash, then bought gold. Not paper gold. He went for coins, ingots, and bars. He kept everything in a safe he installed in the basement.

I used to say you never lost money on an investment until you sold it. I guess I learned my lesson. By the time I realized the whole damn game was over, well, it was over.

I was broke long before Davy left. We fought about it all the time. “I told you to unload that shit,” Davy would scream at me. 

“I didn’t have a fucking crystal ball,” I’d scream back. 

“But I told you,” is where he usually left it. He was right, but that didn’t make it easier. He left me a stack of his coins to “tide me over,” but I figured gold would be worthless like everything else before long. Wrong again.

When I did sell everything, it didn’t fetch much. But when I moved into the Roosevelt, I felt a degree of security for the first time in years. That’s when I decided to buy more gold. 

I bought jewelry mostly, and I got pretty good at it. I didn’t so much buy it as take it off dead bodies and leave a few greenbacks stuffed in a pocket. Nobody gave a damn anymore, so why not? It was easy enough to clean.

Then the price of gold went through the stratosphere and like that, I was flush again. 

It helped I didn’t have to buy food. The military would drop crates of MREs from a helicopter every so often. It had to be a mistake. What didn’t go to the rats came mostly to me.  I thought I’d won the lottery when one of those crates contained a case of filters for my breather. I could go out in comfort again.

Things were looking up for me at that point.

I stayed at the Roosevelt even after they shut down Vandy. I was one of the few paying tenants left, which made it easy to knock the price down when the time came. 

For the next year I crawled the streets in my hazmat, haunted the gold exchange, ate freeze-dried food, and spent nights on the roof drinking gin and staring at the stars. 

Then my time was up. I dropped a few coins on a dying man for an electric truck with bulletproof glass, armor plating, high-density solar panels on the roof, and the best air scrubbers money could buy.

When I was loading up for my cross-country drive to Florida, piling cases of MREs into the truck bed, I wondered what they were eating up on Mars. 

All those new arrivals, they must have figured something out.

Early Summer

[My second flash fiction piece, published by The Dillydoun Review.]

I looked once, then again after a pause, and like each time before, he was just then approaching down the sidewalk.

I spin my head back to my book as if hiding my shame from some unknown witness. Yes, I was ashamed to want him, to see him even, walking by our little stoop.

Not ashamed to see him I suppose, but to be seen looking. My eyes couldn’t possibly hide my heart. 

His schedule had become irregular and tortuous, his timing twisting me into knots as I tried to time my reading to his arrival. I could never know, and often spent extra hours on the hard stone steps rising up to my family’s brownstone, trying to focus and not focus on whatever book I had that day. 

It was strange to be so alone and feel so encumbered by those around me all at once, so public felt my presence.

Yet there I sat, day after day, well-worn pages of my paperback in hand, like a bumblebee waiting for the first sign of spring, as if that happened every day.

He was not entirely handsome, yet somehow appealed to my most entrenched desires. Not terribly tall, but tall enough. Not slender or slight, but built just so, somewhere between beautiful and frightening. Athletic to be sure, but a bit grotesque with his wrestler’s ears. 

I didn’t mind that extra flesh aside his skull. It matched all the other thick and meaty parts and pieces I could see as he sauntered down the sidewalk towards me. 

That’s how I imagined it, him walking to me, not by me. In my mind he saw me as I saw him. Not in the same way, as a thing of beauty and majesty to witness and behold. Not that, given my condition. No, as I saw him in the moment – I witnessed his movement and, in that experience, he witnessed my stillness.

One day he did see me. 

His eyes were darker than I expected when they landed on mine for the first time. I meant to take note of this when it happened, not after, but he shattered my inner life with his smile.

He stopped, there on the walk, right at my feet, where I sat atop the rampart of my family fortress.

Perhaps I only imagined the rays of sunlight splashing around his shoulders, reflecting black sheen off his glossy cropped hair. If I did, it was a sweet dream of a moment. If I did not, then it was a glorious thing to know. 

He looked up and smiled, his slight olive skin flowing effortlessly into his close-cropped cut, all that tussle left atop his head, like brambles along the edge of a freshly topped road. 

Then he spoke, his voice flowing into me like the air I’d stopped breathing when he stopped walking.

“Hi,” he said, as if he planned it, “you’re Randy, Tommy’s little brother, right?”

I’d spent innumerable hours imagining our first conversation, playing out in my mind how it might happen, how I would impress and enthrall him with my genius, my erudite wit. 

When the time came, all I could say was “Yeah, he’s my brother. He’s a jerk.”

I cringed at my utter failure, knew all my dreams had just been ruined, felt my soul caving into nothing, blood rushed to my face and I was about to bolt into the refuge of our castle and was stopped cold when he said, “Yep, that’s Tommy alright,” a smile filled with knowing writ large across his face.

“So,” he went on, “watch ya doin’?”

I held up my book, Moby Dick, for him to see, incapable of speech. 

“Oh, yeah, guess I shoulda known, book in ya hand an all,” and now he was blushing.

In that moment, everything changed, a little. The universe shifted to one direction just a fraction of an inch and I knew he was just like me. Nervous and hopeful and wanting, all alone.

“Where ya goin’,” I asked, as if I didn’t know.

“I’m goin’ for a swim, down at L Street, wanna come with?”

“What,” I say to give my heart a chance to slow, “you got a membership down there?”

“Well yeah, my pops does, I wouldn’t be goin if I didn’t,” he tells me and I feel my face burn again.

“Cm’on,” he says, “I get to bring a pal anytime, whatdya say?”

Faced with the realization of a dream come true, I’m frozen into inaction born of one simple truth.

“I don’t have no suit,” I say, and it’s the truth.

“You don’t need one down L Street, it’s all fellas, everybody goes skinny,” he says with a smile that could win lotteries.

I set free my desire so it could crush my fear and say, projecting a casual air with as much success as someone caught stealing, “Okay, sure.”

“Let’s go then buddy, the free sodas ain’t gonna last long so we gotta get a move on.”

He sweeps one arm out southward toward the water and I stand, leaving my book to flutter its lost pages in the breeze on the stoop. I step down and rejoice when I find we’re almost the same height, me just a tad shorter. 

He throws his arm across my shoulders bringing heaven down upon me and we walk south together as he tells me all about the L Street Swimming club and how we’ll have so much fun and the sodas are free and I am already there before we reach the next block.

It’s early summer, and my life has just begun.

https://thedillydounreview.com/2021/05/03/early-summer/