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Story listed as: True Life For Children | Theme: Family / Friends | Subject: Relationships | Published here : 09/01/2010
Angel Shoes 
By Ida Rowlands
Born 1953, F, from Ontario, Canada
Angel Shoes
I absolutely HATED them. They looked like elephant feet - wide, putrid, wrinkly elephant feet. Constructed of a virtually indestructible thick brown leather with broad, round toes, two ample straps and gaudy brass buckles, they were, without a doubt, the ugliest looking shoes I had ever set eyes on. My mother, who prided herself on being as sensible as stone, felt differently.

I had my heart set on the dainty, black, patent leather ones displayed daintily on the revolving Plexiglas shelf in the front window at the town’s only shoe store. They were THE ultimate in style. Petite and fragile looking with a black velvet bow just above the narrow toe they were identical to the shoes Annette wore on the Mickey Mouse Club.

Every day on our way home from school, me and my girlfriends would pause outside the plate glass display watching the shiny shoes as they spun round and round; each of us coveted them - all of us sure we would never have them. All of us, that is, except Janet McChesney. Her father, unlike ours, was not a coal miner. He was one of the whoremonger owners of the town’s coalmine and he wore a custom made suit to work every day. Our fathers’ were the poor saps who toiled from dust to dawn in the dank and wretched holes in the ground and their one and only suit came by mail order from Sears. The only time they wore it was to attend a wedding or a funeral. Janet was an only child (which, in itself, was almost unheard of in our predominately Irish Catholic community). She bore a striking resemblance to the muppet, Miss Piggy, and had the squat, pudgy, body to match. She was also a mean-spirited spoiled brat whose parents gave her everything and anything she asked for. She was always quick to gloat and was expert at making the rest of us feel like the little matchstick girl. My one wish was to have just one thing that fat-Janet wanted but didn’t have. And she didn’t have black, patent leather shoes. Not yet, anyway.

“Aren’t they gorgeous”, I breathed that Friday evening, “Ma is taking me shopping for new shoes tomorrow and I’m going to get them”. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I wanted to grab them from the air and stuff them far back into my fanciful imagination. The other girls looked at me like I had just announced that I was going to leap over the Eiffel Tower in a single bound. Although it was obvious I was long overdue for a pair of shoes as mine were tattered and torn, my baby toes straining to pierce the thin canvas, they all knew that there was no way my mother would ever put out $19.95 for something as frivolous as a pair of plastic shoes, no matter how shiny or “groovy” they were. The silence was deafening - until Janet started to laugh – a high, mocking sound that made me grit my teeth while swallowing hard to hold back tears of frustration. I tried to pretend I didn’t hear her, but to my utter dismay, the others joined in – all of them giggling foolishly like morons. All, that is, except my best friend Molly. To her credit, she didn’t laugh, but she didn’t come with me either as I stomped off in a huff. As I fled the taunting jeers, I heard Fat-Janet say, “Ya right! In your dreams Ariell. That’s the last pair and you can bet it will be me wearing them to church on Sunday.”

When I got home, Ma, sensitive but pragmatic as always, listened patiently while I railed on about how mean fat-Janet was and how someday I would show her! My mother was well aware of how it felt to never have enough money for extras. However, Da’s paltry wages barely kept a roof over our heads. With a hungry family of eight to feed and clothe she could ill afford the luxury of choosing style over versatility. Saying nothing, she just patted my head, handed me a cookie and went on with her chores. Relative to eking out a meagre living my misplaced vanity mattered not a wit.

So, there I stood that Saturday morning, silently watching Ma’s face as she hefted the heavy leather of the ugly brown shoes in her work-worn hands. “These are good, sturdy shoes”, she said, “They look like they will take a lot of wear – and then when they don’t fit her any more, Sherry can wear them”. As far as I was concerned my younger sister, Sherry, could have them right now, thank you very much. I quickly looked to the salesclerk for help. In Cape Breton in the late 50’s everyone abided by the old adage that ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ and normally I would never have considered that any adult would pay the least bit of attention to my opinion on anything. But this adult was different. This was my big sister, Mercedes. Since a part of her pay cheque from the shoe store went to help with household expenses, Mercedes’ input was always considered in any purchases made for the rest of us kids. Inevitably, Ma always conceded to her opinion. She was also my idol and, although she would never have admitted it, I knew I was the favourite of her five siblings. She almost always took my side, and most times I could get my way when she was around. This time, however, she appeared oblivious to both my disarming smile and the beseeching look in my eye.

“Maybe I’ll get them one size bigger, that way she can wear heavy socks for a while and get more wear out of them”. At my mother’s words, my sister nodded her head sensibly and I knew right then and there that my goose was cooked. My feet would be encased in the brown box-like ugliness for the next few seasons and ugly, fat-Janet would skip along merrily in the pretty black patents. I felt a longing that bent my heart so low no sigh could expel it. I didn’t yet understand why it was that, fair or not, some people were born with a silver spoon in their mouth and then they just coasted through life having someone else polish it. Fat-Janet was one of those people. Hatred and envy waged a serious battle with my Christian conscience; envy won.

Overcome with an uncontrollable panic I started to beg and whine; I was willing to grovel or cry and I even briefly considered making a scene right there in the middle of the store. But I quickly gave it all up when I saw the familiar, determined look in Ma’s eye. Her mind was made up. Any further argument would be little more than an exercise in futility. Despite my obvious disappointment, I trudged home from the store with my tattered old runners in a box and the ugly, brown elephant shoes on my feet.

For the rest of the morning I moped around the house. My 10-year-old heart was heavy and my shoulders drooped with the burden of enforced poverty. Ma, an expert at ignoring the obvious, pretended she didn’t see my woebegone looks.

For the first time, Mercedes had let me down and by mid afternoon I was hopping mad. Somehow, I vowed, I would pay her back. After all, we shared a bedroom and I knew where she kept her secret stash. Lord knows, I had spent countless hours poring over the entries in her diary and boy, would the folks ever love to know what their golden haired girl was really up to. I would just bide my time, I thought, and then I would drop my bomb at just the right minute. Maybe when Da was about to sit down to supper. Boy, would that ever shake up their little “angel’s” world! Then I remembered - Da was totally devoid of a sense of humour when he was tired, hungry, or just plain awake. If I was the one to press his button, the only world that got shook up could very well be mine.

In the end, I knew it was all filibuster anyway. No matter how mad or disappointed I was I realized that I would never reveal my sister’s secrets. I loved her too much and I knew that such a breach of trust would be unforgivable; of course, the fact that she would swat me silly played a big part in helping me to keep my mouth shut. Besides, if I got Da all riled up, I’d get a cuff in the ear from him and a long-suffering look from my mother. Oh, the injustice of being poor and catholic. Guilt and fear, guilt and fear - the dogma of my life.

The bigger problem I had at the moment was just how I was going to get out of going to church the following morning. I knew fat-Janet would be there; and I knew she would make me the laughing stock of our crowd when I showed up in my Sunday dress and the wrong-side-of-the-track version of Birkenstocks while she sashayed down the aisle in “my” black patents.

I lay awake for hours scheming, frantically trying to figure out any way to postpone the inevitable. I was willing to make any kind of deal with God and very briefly I even considered bargaining with the devil. However, my fear that Satan’s ear was always too close to my mouth for comfort scared me and I quickly discarded that idea. Desperate, I was willing to go to any lengths to make my mother somehow believe I was too sick to attend Sunday Mass. I held my breath until I felt dizzy, I pinched my cheeks, I jammed my fingers in my throat – all to no avail; As I fell into a fitful sleep I dreamed Fat-Janet was a fly and I watched in glee as my brother pulled the wings off her body…

Inevitably, Sunday morning arrived and with it the dreaded panic. My treacherous body had joined the conspiracy of betrayal and I awoke without even a toothache. Mercedes, my newfound adversary, was warning me to hurry and get moving before Da came upstairs. I directed my most murderous glare in her direction, but she seemed not to notice. With no last minute reprieve in sight, I realized there was no way out. Silly me! I should have known nothing short of polio or leprosy would render me exempt from going to church on a Sunday. There was no getting around it, I would have to come face to face with my friends; would just have to try and ignore fat-Janet and her snickering sneers when she caught sight of my feet in those horribly hideous shoes.

My fingers itched with the desire to choke someone. Either fat-Janet or the idiot who designed those crude brown boxes cleverly disguised as shoes would do.

Sleepily I rolled out of bed, quickly getting into my Sunday dress. Mercedes was hovering over me and I wanted to lag behind just to spite her, but Da’s temper was legendary; none of us kids were brave or stupid enough to deliberately incite his ire, especially when it came to being late for church. Grudgingly, I reached under the bed for the dreaded brown monstrosities. My eyes widened in shock and fear. My fingers brushed up against the toes of the shiny, black patent shoes and I yanked my hand back as if it had come in contact with hot embers. Rubbing my eyes, I got down on all fours and looked again. Although my brain was still sluggish, my heart rapidly went cold with dread. Afraid to touch them, I was convinced that if those shoes were really there, under my bed, then despite my reluctance to do so, I had succeeded in forming a pact with the devil. Now I knew for sure I was going to hell on a roller coaster.

I glanced up quickly and saw Mercedes’ pretty face wreathed in smiles. She beamed, “Well, aren’t you going to try them on?” Dumbfounded, I looked from my sister to the pretty shoes and then back again. For one of the first times in my young life, I was at a loss for words – “b-b-but how???” My voice cracked as I caressed the pointy toes, amazed that my fingers did not sizzle and burn.

“I bought them for you, silly”, Mercedes said. “They were from the display rack and had a few little scratches on the heel so my boss let me have them at cost. See, I rubbed them with Vaseline and got most of the marks out. They still make a fine pair of Sunday shoes, don’t you think?” Then she leaned in close to my ear and whispered conspiratorially, “That was the last pair. Fat-Janet was livid!!!”

Suddenly, every ounce of air whooshed out of my lungs. Now I felt like I really was going to faint - the lump in my throat was cutting off all the oxygen to my lungs. I jumped up, hugged my sister and danced her around the room. Disentangling herself from my wild embrace she ruffled my hair, still smiling. “Go on now, hurry and get ready or you’ll be late.” I didn’t need to be told twice.

That Sunday morning I floated to church; my feet barely touched the ground as I pirouetted before the envious eyes of my friends. I took special satisfaction in the not-so-smug-now look on Fat-Janet’s face as she tried to hide her feet and I was even more gratified when Molly left her side and took her customary place beside me.

That Sunday morning I didn’t have to listen to the sermon. Sitting beside Molly I swung my legs so everyone would notice my feet. I imagined I was surrounded by angels whose leader looked a lot like my sister. Their heads were bathed in a halo of white but their feet were adorned with perfect, black, patten leather shoes.

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