A row of shoes sat naked at the door, one pair after another. “All types of shoes for all types of people,” Grandfather used to say. His shoes were all the same, those black penny-loafers kept polished with that black muck that smelt entirely too strong. I had been in those shoes too many times as a younger child, and knew that it would profit nothing to dress my feet with them now. What secrets would I find in those shoes? A silly question, for I knew the answer. I had walked around in those shoes many times after his passing, those many years ago.
I had looked up to my grandfather as a kid, always wanting to be like him, to know what it would be like to walk a mile in his shoes. Now I knew… and it wasn’t all that thrilling. Dark. Damp. Sealed. Dead. That was his life now. Stepping into his shoes, I saw nothing, felt nothing, but not the absence of things. This was a real nothing, as if nothing were a thing to feel. That deep emptiness grated at my emotions, leaving my soul raw and warn from the desperation. I cherished my life now, though it wasn’t that exciting, for what excitement could the life of a shoe collector really have? It held more excitement than Grandfather’s life… or death, stuck in that grave for all eternity.
Shaking my head to clear the images, I stepped out of those shoes, not sure which was more unnerving, the smell of rotting, dead flesh or that of the rank black shoe-polish. Passing my eyes along the line, I stepped into another pair, the furthest thing from the dead emptiness of my grandfather… or that was my hope. These shoes were large, too large for my feet, too large for anyone’s feet. The mess of bright colours almost hurt my eyes as I looked at them, wondering what might lie behind such vibrance.
One small room, in one large tent. Bright colours. Joy in the air… but not in the heart. I want to hit someone! Throwing those balls up in the air, day after day after day. Smiling faces! Smiling faces! Smiling faces! I wanted to scream. Why did those faces torture me so? I had no smile of my own but the farce that I painted on my cheeks, that red stream of colour, larger than life against the pasty white background. “You’re nothing but a clown!” they would say to me, laughing at my poor excuse for a face. “Pizza, pizza, pizza!” They would gleefully taunt me as the food was passed out, but I knew they were really talking about me. Zits, spots, and blemishes the make-up could cover up… but hatred? There was no face-mask potent enough to cover up my wretched heart.
I almost beaned a kid the other day as he stood there smiling, so innocent, taunting me with his joy. Soon. I thought, calming the urge to kick a puppy… or hit a kid. Balls were where I started, those soft, meaningless play-things meant for kids… for hitting kids. Soon I’d be promoted to juggling fire. “Who’s the clown now!” I would scream as the flames engulfed my world. They rose in my mind higher and higher, consuming man, woman… and child. “No more smiling faces.” I said aloud, applying the final touches of deception to my face. “No more smiling faces…”
I jumped out of the shoes and backed away, slowly. Psycho! My search was more frantic now. A tiny pair of shoes was next, barely big enough to fit half of my foot in. How I got into them is still a mystery, but what choice did I have? These child’s tennis shoes, their lime green skin and Velcro lacing, held the most promise.
Screaming. Fighting. Hitting. “No!” I screamed.
“You’re such a brat!” My father yelled in from the other room as he came storming over. Mother looked at him with soft eyes, but he was not fazed. “I will have no more of these tantrums! Do as you’re told!” Do as you’re told. Those words I hated the most sent me into a fit, lashing out, biting and scratching. Mother released me with a whimper of pain, and I fled. Door slammed. Lock shoved into place. Face thrown at my pillow. Tears falling. They didn’t know. They didn’t understand. Do as you’re told, that woman had said as she played with the buttons of my shirt. Such authority, power, I couldn’t fight it. Where could I run? What could I do? No room. No door. No lock. No pillow… but the tears were still there, plain as day, sliding down my face, splashing against my naked skin as they fell. My shoes, sometimes she didn’t take them off, but this time she did.
“Monster!” I screamed out-loud, prying my feet out of those sneakers that now lay there torn and broken, my feet larger than the tiny ones they were made for. I stopped thinking now, jumped into another pair of shoes without even seeing what they looked like. A screech. Bright lights. A bus. Smash! Crack! My legs. The blood. Then the pain. Vision began to blacken. The world I knew was gone.
I lay there for a time, crying in the dark, afraid to open my eyes. I had been thrown from the shoes with the impact of the bus, but I didn’t want to look. The musty smell of Grandfather’s old shop no longer soothed me. I came here to run away: run from my life. Escapism they called it. At least, that’s what my psychologist said. One final pair of shoes floated in my mind’s eye, taunting me. These shoes were not pretty, not special, worn, old, almost dead. I knew I had to, but didn’t want to. Why couldn’t I just sit for a time, admiring Grandfather’s old shoes? I was no shoe collector, that was just the lie that helped me sleep at night… because nothing else did.
Grandfather would never let me in the shop with these shoes. “You can’t fix what isn’t there.” He looked at my feet in bitter distaste, those bare-feet of a cobbler’s grandson.
“I just want to try!” I would plead with him. His shoes were always the best and felt so good on my feet, but he would have none of it.
“A shoe for a shoe,” he stuck to his rules. There was enough thievery in these parts that he wouldn’t unlock those cases full of shoes unless he received payment… or a trade. With no shoes to deposit and no money, he wouldn’t even let his own grandson try on a pair. Now the shop was mine. The shoes were mine. I could try them on all day, but it wouldn’t wipe out my pain. I had walked a mile in so many of these shoes, but today the miles hurt like a stone in the sole that wouldn’t go away no matter how many times the shoe was removed and shaken.
“Be thankful for what you have,” mother always said. She was the world’s biggest optimist, but what did that do for her? She still got the same bullet from the same gun.
I had nothing then, and even less now. When that gun was held to my own head, the man telling me to give him what I had, I could not answer. I truly had nothing but my mother and wife. Grandfather had long since passed away with the rest. The man with the gun didn’t seem to care, for he took all that I had with two sharp bullets. Bang! Bang! The sound rattled through my brain, but it was not my head that suffered until I saw the heads of the others, those two beautiful woman with an extra hole in their faces where it didn’t belong.
“Be thankful for what you have,” my psychologist had said it too, but what did he know? He didn’t know what it was like to walk a mile in my shoes, or even a block!
“Escapism is a way of life,” I would argue with him, but he didn’t listen, didn’t understand… maybe he was right. If this was my way of life, it had failed me today. I ran from that old rickety shoe store, thick callouses being my shoe of choice. My shoes were free, and I desperately wanted someone to take them from me. I didn’t lock my shoes in glass cases like Grandfather, but no one ever tried to steal them.
I walked many a mile in many a shoe, but walked many more in my own. The dust of the road caked them as I shuffled along, kicking it up. Maybe I could disappear behind this cloud and never come back. No one would find me. I could die happy… or at least I could die… then maybe someone would take these shoes from my corpse. Grave robbery was a crime, but I cared not. I had no jewellery for them to claim, no expensive suit… just my shoes and the life that came with them.
I don’t know how long I walked for; was it days, weeks, months? It was long enough for me to fall, long enough for me to wish I was dead, and soon I would be. My feet were raw, clothes torn, stomach screaming, and throat parched. One final pair of shoes lay just out of my reach, taunting me. Maybe these would be the shoes. Part of me wanted to die… most of me, but those shoes spoke to that shred of hope within me. I could live a happy life, a free life, a perfect life… with a perfect pair of shoes. Those shoes didn’t look perfect, but the perfect shoes were perfect deceptions, covering up the hideous feet inside them. My grandfather, the clown, the little boy, the dead girl… I didn’t want perfect looking shoes, just perfect shoes.
Though my body screamed against it, I fought to grab the rotting leather straps that lay just out of reach, dragging myself in the dirt with every bit of strength that remained. Soon I had one, and then the other. They had been here for a long time, the leather straps almost disintegrating in response to my touch. That final pair of shoes would be my fate… or death, and I couldn’t decide which would be better.
Absentee dad, prostitute mom, abusive older brother, dead sister – a life of crime was the result. Escapism, I thought. When parents fail their duties, kids must grow up quickly. That home was no place for this boy, so I left. The streets became my home, and thievery my parents, providing for me better than my “parents” ever had. I wasn’t rich, but at least I was alive… which was more than I could say for my sister.
Now I stood, facing a man with wife and mother, gun in my hand. “Give me all you have!” I screamed at him, but he stood there like a dumb kid, caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Why did he just stare at me? I could see he didn’t have much, but at least he had his health. I hadn’t eaten in days… weeks maybe, and I was desperate. My hunger began to play tricks with my mind and I lost control. Bang! Bang! I heard the gun go off. Was it me who shot it? I saw the two women dead on the ground with holes in their heads, holes in places they didn’t belong. What had I done to them? What had I done to the man with them?
I ran away in fear and found the darkest corner I could, pitching that gun far into the distance. Images swirled in my head as the sound came back to me. Bang! Bang! Two shots, but one death. It was my sister. She had struggled for a time, but finally my brother had enough and just shot her, right in the head. Bang! Bang! This time the sound was slower as he stripped her down and forced himself on her dying body. Bang! Bang! The sound of the bed against the wall.
I had been the kid with his hand in the cookie jar, watching this horror unfold before me. That was when I ran. Now it was this man, staring like a dumb kid at what I had done to him and those two women with him. Bang! Bang! I tried to shake the images from my mind, but my ears kept ringing, the shots repeating themselves over and over again. This was no life for me. I had turned into the very thing I was running from. I didn’t know how, but my life needed to change.
That was all in the past now. I didn’t know what became of that man so long ago, but I knew what became of me: running a homeless shelter for troubled youth, youth like me. How I’d managed it, I couldn’t tell you. Only one thing I knew. That day so long ago still played in my mind like a skipping record. Those two women I’d shot were dead, but I wasn’t. I was alive, more alive than I had ever known. If I ever met that man again, I would apologize. He deserved to know my story… his story, for it all started with him. I wouldn’t be here today without that tragic accident when the trigger was pulled and two women lay dead on the ground. Somehow, I would tell him, but would he understand? Maybe if he walked a mile in my shoes…