from Shoemaker Forever

By Ellen Weis

I. Poor Circulation

She was not traveling; she was not in school; she was not, as they say in the books, working hard. Since he had left, every morning she awoke her first action before leaving her bed was to pummel herself in accordance with Gayelord Hauser's plan for her “Passport to Vibrant, Adventurous Living.” She had been following Gayelord's truths religiously, so wanting to “relax in spite of everything.”

“You know how it is?” she said in the twilight of that last evening, “to have that terrible awful ache in the arch of your foot and it's so bad it's barely detectable. And you know too that no doctor, chiropractor or psychic can cure it; well, that's how I feel about you. You're the ache in my arches. And that's how I feel.”

1952 was before she was born, but she understood the Cold War and why, therefore, on page 138 Gayelord wrote: If the Russians would only laugh. “Laughter is a physical manifestation of an intellectual reaction.” And intellectually, she identified with the Russian blood in her. And secretly felt proud. And so jumped ahead to page 172, where the advanced stage of pummeling was recommended.

In two weeks she had lost four pounds and gained a dull blue-grey orange eraser-sized stamp on her left thigh. She turned to page 64 and discovered that she was lacking in Vitamin B, then quickly flipped to page 202 to copy the liver dinner suggested in the recipes of “The Esquire Diet.”

She was really changing. Although this was 1978 and she was fully aware of the early, now pitied Fifties, she typed in red, with black punctuation this message of Gayelord's. It was headed under “Don't Let the Light Go Out” and read: “Every once in a while I meet a woman who proudly, almost boastfully, announces that she has never in all of her life used any makeup of any kind whatsoever. And usually, as I look at her, I think to myself, ‘Sister, you look it!'”

She liked the cadence of the Hollywood tough-guy “Sister,” and taped one copy of the message onto her mirror and a second copy on her refrigerator. She read it often. She took it to heart and began shadowing her eyes in green, rolling her lips on a small cylinder marked “mauve.”

When six months had elapsed and she had had no acute pains of the “arch villain” (page 89) and when she finally felt the health-giving powers of the Universe had seeped in her blood forever, and that her circulation was no longer poor, but was traveling through her now mulberry-stained body like a swift evening prayer, she called him up and invited him over on this late Fall day.

She was certainly happier, certainly healthier, as the title of Gayelord's book attests to. And she offered this news to him. And he received it willingly. And he kissed her.

And when they began to make love she used the excuse of the unheated apartment to insist on remaining clothed; or almost. Bu it was not dark, night hadn't fallen, even dusk had not come. And he saw her and said Jesus what have you done to yourself and she whimpered an almost indecipherable – Pummel me – . He looked at her, incredulous, and louder, Pummel Oh pummel me she repeated she cried.

II. People Like Me, Questions Like Mine

I ran away to Texas when I was sixteen. Got a job in a Donutland working the hot, cross burn shift.

I said, “Don't you mean bun? Hot cross bun shift?”

“Girl," Fleetie answered, “it'll be your bun if you don't shut it.”

“Fleetie, then why do they call it the graveyard shift?”

“Cause you die on the job; you die at every job, but in the graveyard the ghosts come out to help you along. Even the whities know that, why don't you?”

Fleetie wore those tight, ribbed-knit shirts with the zipper down the front. The gold hoop hanging on the Talon zipper end rested on the beginnings of her breasts. One lump sum, she used to call her breasts. They went below the pockets of her apron, even while she was standing up. She put her hand in her pockets and let her thick neck fall backward whenever she answered one of my questions.

She'd say, “Girl, don' you know anything,” and yet she'd put her index finger through the gold hoop and clutch the swell of her bosom with her long, black fingers and her long, red fingernails.

“You know when I first started here they told me I couldn't have no fingernails; said they'd surely get left in someone's breakfast. Then they tried to tell me I couldn't have no polish. I could have the nails, but not the polish. I told them ain't no one gonna know under that sequin-frosting just what they're getting in their cakes. On one day for fun I scraped some of it off, just to see how it would look. It mixed perfect.”

Weeks later I'd found a little shack to live in south of Donutland. I was on the town's new Strip; that was the plan they had posted on every telephone pole, every bus. The Kmart was already there, and the houses right around, like mine, were going to be torn down within the year to make way for Warehouse Row.

I told Fleetie, “It's just as well. I'm not going to be here long anyway.”

She said, “Girl, you got to have furniture; everyone got to have furniture. Makes you know you're home where you are.”

“But Fleetie,” I said as we balanced the clean coffee mugs onto the trays, “why would I want furniture if I'm only going to be there a few months?”

“Girl, you ask the wrong questions, you know that? I told you, you got to have furniture. That way when they condemn you and your little place, they'll think they're doin' away with a home, not just a runaway like yourself. I know: my cousin's been through this. The more furniture you got, the more likely you'll get something out of them.”

Fleetie walked me home every day for the next week. We walked a different route every time, longer and longer ways around the sandpits and the parched neighborhoods where they'd already begun to lay cinder block foundations. Fleetie had to sit down. “I'm doing all right for you,” she said. I was carrying a two-burner hot plate Fleetie had instructed me to pick up from an abandoned house. Yes, the poor leave everything behind. They're not afraid of starting over.

“How do we know it works?” I asked.

“Child, we'll just wait and see, won't we.”

I was tired. Fleetie had me going to the St. John's Catholic School with her four nights a week. Not that Fleetie was a Catholic. It got to be a community center after the construction started. They opened it up to any religion that needed room, since all the church converted-houses had been torn down. We went from the Church straight to Donutland, then back to the Church in the dawn for silent time.

Once I was tired and burned my palms in hot grease. “What religion is this?” I snapped.

Fleetie said, “Mind you, I don't expect you to pray or join in if you don't want.” And she bandaged my hands and told me I could leave early. People like me, questions like mine; they don't mean anything to Fleetie.

That last morning I walked home I saw the long Catholic Cross on the squat roof glow pink from the reflection of the chalky dawn. I was sorry I hadn't found out more about her religion. I hurt; I needed to put my hands in cold water. I turned and took the shortcut by the new frontage road. Walking home alone, without Fleetie, I listened to the cornfields behind Kmart whistle their derisive song to me: America! the beautiful. No more Fleetie. I couldn't carry half the stuff we'd found together, anyway.

III. Dependencies

The question was money. Three of us were living together. We rented a two-and-a-half bedroom place. The half was his: he paid less rent. Though what it did was give him special license to be in either of the larger rooms. Spatial rights, he called them. Sleeping privileges, I said.

The question arose on the third of the month. I didn't mind it because it brought on a sense of urgency. She didn't mind it because it brought closer ties with him. He hated it because he was always short. He decided we should go out for pizza and discuss it.

"Who'll pay for the pizza?" she asked, looking directly at me.

The simple question provoked a very complex discussion which he led. Each of had our own means of support, he reminded us. She by insurance from her father's cancer; myself, from my parents; and he, through a weekly unemployment check. Did we realize all of the severe social and moral implications?

The question, still unanswered, drove home with us in the crowded front seat of the truck. Once inside, we wrote notes. I made out a check for the rent. She wrote a check to me. He wrote IOU notes to both of us.

"Both of us?" I asked. I thought she'd pay your share this month.

She said, "I thought we were splitting it," and looked longingly at him.

"I'm sick of this shit," he screamed.

He shoved the rocker he'd been sitting in against the wall. The arm cracked and all but one of the back slats came out. The left leg rocked over the neck of her guitar, which had fallen from the vibrations of the wall. The guitar tilted and the chair kept rocking over and over the six strings, producing an eerie, begging tone.