Kathleen Wheaton

What was I doing in a women’s shoe store in the first place?

This morning, my wife, Grace, called me at the office to ask if I’d pick up a pair of shoes she’d ordered. She’d be working late, she said. “I need them for my meeting in California tomorrow, and my flight’s at six a.m.”

“You’re going to Palo Alto again?”

“Is that a problem?” Grace said.

“Of course not, sweetheart,” I said. “Congratulations.” Grace’s little start-up is really taking off.

“It’s that shop on Elm Street,” Grace continued. “The salesgirl’s name is Lily. She’s expecting you. Should you should write yourself a note, Roger?”

“No,” I said, scribbling Elm Street shoes on a scrap of paper.

“Don’t wait up,” Grace said.

Grace is thirty-six like her shoe size, well-organized. In our closet, her footwear is housed in stacking boxes, labeled in her neat penmanship: tan booties, navy pumps, red ballerinas. I am sixty-one, and my shoes live like drunken bums, sometimes lying face-down on the rug until morning.

At four-thirty, I gathered my coat and briefcase. “I’m leaving early,” I said to Donna, my assistant. “If you don’t mind.” Not that Donna could say if she did mind—it’s my firm. “I’m fetching shoes for the missus.”

“Aren’t you a doll,” Donna said. She knew my first wife, Ann, of course, but unlike Emma, my daughter, Donna approves when I’m attentive to Grace.

I looked down at Donna’s shoes. “Are those called—mules?” I don’t know where I got that word, though she has a rather braying laugh.

“These are called spectator pumps,” she said, turning her large foot this way and that. “They’re practical because they go with everything.”

“I see,” I said, which was so obviously untrue that she smiled.

“You’re doing great, Roger. Ignore the haters.”

I wouldn’t say Emma hates me for marrying Grace; she just misses her mother. As do I. But I’d been given an opportunity to get everything right this time, and I was determined not to blow it.

And yet: enjoying the soft air of an early spring evening, I walked all the way home before remembering the shoes. Might not have remembered, if Louise Bettelheim next door hadn’t come out on her porch with the remains of a loaf of Pepperidge Farm. She’d cleaned her house for Passover and, as God annually commands, was donating her leavened food to the nearest Gentiles.

Louise is a widow, and she’d had me over to dinner a few times after Ann’s death. But just as leave-taking was beginning to get awkward (I couldn’t plead a long drive home as an excuse to leave after dessert), Grace had walked into my office with her business plan.

Now Louise and I were back to simple, neighborly rituals. She presented the plastic bag to me ceremoniously, as if I were a needy urchin in Bible times.

“If you cut the heels into squares and toss them in the oven with a little olive oil, you’ll have croutons,” she said. “I’d send the recipe to Grace, but she never seems to get my emails.”

Heels. The shoes!

“Send the recipe to me,” I said. “I’m the family chef now.”

“I’m not surprised,” Louise said. She watched me cram the bread into my briefcase. “You’re coming to my seder, aren’t you, Roger?”

“We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” I said, though Grace hadn’t sounded enthused when I’d told her about Louise’s annual invitation.

The shadows were lengthening as I hurried back downtown. There was a women’s shoe store—luckily, still open!—next to the bakery. Maybe it had been there all the years I’ve lived in this town, but it was new to me. Typical Dad, Emma would say—if she were still speaking to me.

When I announced my engagement to Grace, Emma asked me to lunch, and proceeded to tell me that getting remarried six months into widowerhood was a big mistake. We had words, as they say, and I hadn’t seen her since.

As I reached for the door handle of the shop, a blast of pain hit my upper colon. A book Grace gave me for Christmas about irritable bowel syndrome recommends visualizing this ache, giving it a shape and color and transferring it outside the body. I pictured knocking a liver-colored blob senseless against a parking meter, then mentally dusted off my hands and went in.

A tall young woman with long blond hair appeared from behind a red velvet curtain. She was handsome—that old-fashioned word came to mind—in a low-cut black dress and high-heeled shoes upon which she teetered. It was a style that recalled Emma’s teenage years, and I wondered how many fathers of daughters learn to associate revealing clothes not with sex but with arguments, slammed doors, meals eaten in stony silence.

“Lily?” I said.

The girl flushed slightly and held out a manicured hand jingling with bracelets. “Hello, Mr. Bradley.”

“How’d you know I was Grace’s husband?” I said.

Her color deepened. “Oh—”

Suddenly, I knew. “She must’ve said I was an older gentleman. A bit portly, maybe.”

“It’s so cute the way you’re picking up her shoes.”

“It’s only fair,” I said. “She often picks up my socks.”

“You’re hilarious, Mr. Bradley. I remember—“ she paused. “I remember Grace told me that.”

In the early days of our courtship, it was easy to make Grace laugh. “You have such an original way of putting things, Roger,” she’d say. Recently, watching her dabbing bleaching cream on her upper lip, I observed that it was interesting how women darken the hair around their eyes and lighten it around their mouths.

“What if the style were suddenly to reverse?” I’d said, and Grace had groaned and shut the door of the bathroom.

“If you want to look around, I’ll get the shoes,” Lily said. She vanished behind the red curtain.

The only sound in the shop was my soles brushing the carpet. The place contained very few shoes, but they were, even to the untrained eye, quite special. I paused to look at a black pair atop a pedestal under a tiny spotlight. I picked one up, and the velvety suede, warmed by the light, felt almost alive. When I heard the jingle of bracelets, I replaced it hastily, as if caught touching in a museum.

Lily emerged and set a large shoebox tied with a ribbon on the counter. “Usually, I have the customer untie the ribbon,” she said. “It’s part of the excitement of acquiring this designer’s shoes.”

“Go ahead,” I said. “I probably shouldn’t have that much excitement at my age.”

She nodded and bent over the shoebox, her bosom shimmering like the catch of the day. Whatever was in the box caused her to cry out in dismay. “I can’t believe this.”

She picked up a cell phone and began talking in Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish, but I recognized zapatos. It’s a dashing, revolutionary-sounding word—you imagine that a person wearing zapatos might also wear a cape.

“O.K.,” Lily said into the phone—somehow, with a Spanish accent. She turned to me. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Bradley.”

“Please, call me Roger.”

“I’m so sorry—Roger. The warehouse sent up the wrong shoes. They’re sending the right ones now, if you don’t mind waiting.”

“No problem.” I sat down on a gold-legged bench, which trembled under my weight. We smiled at each other, then looked away. “Your Spanish sounds fluent,” I said.

“I try to practice with the warehouse guys. Habla usted español?”

“No,” I said. “But I noticed you said tha-patos. Isn’t how they say it in Spain?”

“That’s right! I spent my junior year in Madrid.”

“Ah.” The gut pain flared, a rat poking its nose out of a hole.

“Mr. Bradley,” Lily said. “Sorry—Roger. You probably don’t remember me, but we’ve met before. I was friends with Emma in high school. Her mom encouraged me to go to Spain. And Madrid changed my life. So I was always grateful, and so sorry that Mrs. Bradley—the first Mrs. Bradley, that is—passed away.”

“Thank you for your sympathy,” I said, though I could not recall having met Lily before. Perhaps that’s one reason fathers become oblivious—it’s nature’s way of preventing them from ogling their daughters’ stunning friends.

“Ann did enjoy her junior year in Spain,” I said. “I’ve kept all the letters she wrote me in a shoebox.”

“Paper letters,” Lily said. “That’s so romantic.”

“We had no alternative,” I said. “I remember Ann wrote that the trains went so slowly that butterflies flew in and out of the windows. We talked about going as a family, but then we got busy with our lives and never did.”

There was always a reason to put off the trip: Emma was too little; her orthodontia was expensive; we had college tuition to save for. But the truth is that I’ve never been much of a traveler. I don’t like unfamiliar beds and mysterious food and people saying things to me that I don’t understand.

“Madrid is very cool now,” Lily said. “You and Grace should really go.”

“There’s an idea,” I said. We still hadn’t had a honeymoon because of the start-up. “At the moment, she’s pretty busy with her trips to Palo Alto.”

“She told me about the last one,” Lily said. “And then Hawaii after! I’m so jealous. She said the sandals she bought here were perfect.”

“I imagine they were,” I said. I began taking slow, even breaths, as the irritable bowel book instructed me to do in stressful moments.

Of course, I hadn’t known that Grace had gone to Hawaii as part of her last trip west. On the other hand, I’d never told her about my trip to Hawaii, on my honeymoon with Ann.

Ann’s parents had paid for it, at an all-inclusive resort where we’d stayed in bamboo-framed huts Gilligan’s Island style, and swum in balmy water and viewed glorious sunsets and strolled on snowy-white beaches. It was nice, but what I’d enjoyed most was being in bed all day with Ann, which we could have done even more comfortably at home. Then we caught one of those cruise ship intestinal diseases you get from handling buffet utensils that have been touched by people who don’t wash their hands properly after going to the bathroom.

Which is another reason I don’t like travel.

Ann, in contrast, even enjoyed getting sick—well, not the diarrhea and vomiting part—but she was so impressed by the nurses at the island hospital where we were taken for rehydration that she decided to enroll in nursing school.

She was a nurse for thirty-five years. Black hair, pale Irish skin, gray eyes that could see right through you. Despite all her medical knowledge and connections, she was dead three weeks after her diagnosis. It was a blessing she didn’t linger, some people said to me, a comment I’ll never understand.

Grace, I now realized, would not be lingering in our marriage much longer. Her shoes were all packed, labeled and ready to go. Why had I not seen this?

The pain came roaring back, not as a rat now but as a great white shark, taking jagged mouthfuls of my insides. Sweat was pouring down my face. My armpits were swimming.

Lily stepped from behind the counter. “Roger, are you all right?” she asked. “Are you having a heart attack?”

I shook my head, turning it so that she wouldn’t see the tears that pain was forcing from my eyes. The other word for irritable bowel syndrome, as you may know, is grief.

The shop bell rang, and a young man in a Nationals cap dashed in. “Los zapatos correctos,” he panted. He set the shoebox down. “You OK, mister?”

“Never better.” I wiped my face with my handkerchief and got to my feet. Lily lifted the lid of the shoebox and the three of us gazed at the beautiful shoes, high-heeled, open-toed, and covered with silky, flowery cloth of bright orange and pink. “Los zapatos correctos,” Lily said reverently.

They were the correct shoes for California and Hawaii. Less correct, perhaps, for the stodgy Washington suburbs.

“Gracias for los zapatos,” I said to the delivery boy. I held out a twenty. “Wow,” he said. “De nada, dude.”

I could learn Spanish, I thought. I could sign up for one of those home-stay programs where you live with a Spanish family. I’d sleep in the same bed every night and eat the same breakfast every morning. I’d become like their statin-taking, balding child, saying the darndest things.

Gently, as if the shoes were sleeping, Lily replaced the lid. I handed over my credit card, trying not to look at the numbers as I signed the receipt. But they jumped out at me anyway. Four figures. About what I paid for my first car, a third-hand Datsun with the pickup of a roller skate. I could picture Ann’s bare feet on the dusty dashboard, keeping time to “Lay Down, Sally.”

“Please say hi to Emma,” Lily said. “I haven’t seen her in ages.”

“I hardly see her myself.” Three months and a week it had been, since that lunch which had ended in silence.

“Well, give her my love.”

That last word did me in. I had to get out of the store, fast.

“Roger?” Lily had followed me to the door. “There’s something else I want to tell you.”

Oh-oh. Some long-suppressed crush on her friend’s dad? “Really—it’s fine,” I said.

“I want to.” She took a long breath. “It’s not my habit to tell customers, but I feel like you guys—well, Mrs. Bradley—were key in guiding me to becoming the person I am today.”

“Glad we could help,” I said.

“And the reason you don’t remember me from high school is that I wasn’t Lily then. I was Augustus. Gus. Emma and I dated briefly. Not very happily.”

“Gus! Sure, I remember you.”

Gloomy Gus, Ann and I called him, privately. A skinny boy with glasses and brown hair. Silent as the tomb. Never smiled. Now here she was, this radiant, golden-haired girl.

There were a million questions I could have asked, but I decided to go with a safe one: “Does Emma know?”

Lily nodded. “She was so supportive. We were constantly Facetiming when I was in Spain. That’s when I figured it out. It was being in a foreign country that enabled me to see myself clearly.”

“That’s wonderful, Lily. And I don’t know if it’s sexist or politically incorrect or whatever, but in my opinion you are a charming and attractive young lady.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “Could I give you a hug?”

How could I say no? She smelled—well, girlish: of inexpensive cologne, hair conditioner, deodorant and sweat. Like Emma.

“Give my regards to Grace,” she said.

“Will do.” Grace. For a few minutes, I’d forgotten her. I figured I’d have more practice at that in the days and years ahead.

I hadn’t noticed that the trees along Elm were in bloom, but now, white petals were shaking down everywhere, like confetti.

I stopped in at the wine shop and bought a bottle of Italian kosher wine for Louise’s seder. Emma had loved the seders as a little girl: hunting for the hidden matzoh, the part of the service where she got to ask questions, the door left ajar for invisible Elijah. The Bettelheims didn’t have kids of their own, and they treated Emma like a princess.

I’d explained all that to Grace. I’d told her that plump, bread-heel-saving Louise Bettelheim was once considered a hot little number, back when we were all young couples new to the neighborhood. “That’s hard to picture,” she’d giggled.

I could picture it, as I walked home in the deepening twilight. I remembered seeing Louise out jogging, her bright curls flying behind her. She was one of the first in the neighborhood to take up the fad, and attracted plenty of male gaze (as Emma would put it) with her muscular, brown legs in those nylon shorts. She talked Ann into joining her, so Ann went out and bought running shoes—the price of which, at the time, seemed like a scam.

I could picture Ann sitting on the steps of our porch, lacing up, looking damn good herself in her tank top, her calves long and slender. I remember plotting to lure her into bed when she got home, all flushed and sweaty, bribing Emma and Gloomy Gus with movie tickets.

Now all three were gone, and the house was dark.

I climbed the steps of the porch. From there I could see into Louise’s living room, where she was watching one of those shows about the British monarchy. Emma’s a fan—I happen to know this from peeking at her Facebook.

Maybe if I watched it, I thought, I’d have something intelligent to say about all the alliances and betrayals and abdications and whatnot. Get the conversational ball rolling when we gathered for Passover. Surely, I thought, Emma would come.

I took the wine bottle out of my briefcase (I could buy another for the meal, if it turned out to be decent) and set out across the lawn to Louise’s. That’s when I felt it. A presence, though I know it sounds hokey. Like a memory come to life: Ann laughing, calling out to Louise to wait up, as she worked her toes into those huge, clownish shoes. Then a rush of something passing me, down the driveway—light and warm as a breath.

Ann was right about the running shoes, by the way: they were worth the money. You should have seen her go.

Kathleen Wheaton grew up in California and worked for 12 years as a journalist and travel writer in Spain, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. She has published fiction in many journals and three anthologies, and she is a 5-time recipient of Maryland State Arts Council grants. Her collection, Aliens and Other Stories, won the 2013 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize. Since 2014, she has served as president and managing editor of WWPH, a nonprofit cooperative press.