Saddle shoes, white and black. She thought they were leather, told herself she wore leather shoes. Leather meant hard. Cotton meant soft. Leather comes from farms. Cows chew leather, she thought. Which is what makes it rough. Cow teeth chomping. Cotton comes from plantations, which she thought meant big factories planting plants with big square machines laying out square gardens all across a field. That wouldn’t take too long. What did the big plantation machines do while they waited for the plants to grow?
Leather shoes. Black and white. Like a cow. But these were smooth and shiny, not rough like leather. She liked running her fingertips across the toe but the smoothest strip was along the heel. She pressed her thumb flat against the black heel and left her print in the shine. She could wipe it away just as easily.
Inside the shoe she wiggled her toes. Her socks were white nylon but she didn’t know the name for nylon so she called it silk. Her silk socks slid freely within the new leather shoes. Mama bought them big because Lily was due for a grow-spurt any day now, said mama. We’ll tie ‘em tight, said mama. And she did. Last Sunday mama lifted Lily into her lap and and reached her arms around her and placed Lily’s new saddle shoes on her knees and tied them one after the other. Lily was all scrunched up on mama’s lap, peering over her own knees to watch mama’s fingers yank the thin black laces. Too tight, Lily? No, mama. The shoe squeezed around the ankle but Lily’s foot swished around the inside of the shoe.
She was growing out of her jellies, which is how mama knew the she was going to have a grow-spurt. She wore purple sneakers to school, with big flat green cotton laces. The sneakers weren’t cotton, she didn’t think. They were more like couch material. More rumbable than cotton and more bendy than leather. Durable. She’d learn the word durable at the end of summer when her father took them shopping for school clothes. I’m going to buy you boy’s pant, Lil. They’re more durable, daddy said. What’s that mean, daddy?
Sneakers were for playing in the yard with Odin or climbing trees at the park. These saddle shoes were for taking pictures and going to parties and going to church and going to grandma’s.
Little Hank ran into the living room in his blue and red underpants followed by daddy waving his little shorts. Every Sunday Hank refused to get dressed until he exhausted both of his parents with a footrace. Hank laughed so hard drool coated his chin and dripped onto his polo shirt. Daddy wiped Hank’s chin with his handkerchief and then lifted Hank by one arm into the air. Hank kicked his legs like a jackrabbit as Daddy tried to guide his chubby legs into the little red shorts. Stop kicking, Henry, daddy said. Straighten your legs! When daddy shouted, Hank obeyed. As soon as Daddy lowered Hank back to the floor with the little red shorts around his ankles, daddy said, All right now, and fingered his glasses back up on his nose.
Hank darted away with the little red shorts around his fat ankles and fell face first into the arm of the sofa. Daddy said a bad word. Lily shouted, Oh no! Hank rubbed his forehead and rolled onto his back. He chortled like grandpa and kicked his fat little legs, trying to get the little red shorts off his ankles. He freed one ankle and popped up onto his feet and ran away around the corner into the kitchen.
Are you ready, Lil? Daddy asked. Yeah, daddy. Good girl, Lil. D’you do your own braid? Yeah, daddy, she said, running her fingertips along the braid and blushing. Beautiful, daddy said. Just beautiful. And so smart. Daddy always did that. Say Lily was beautiful and then add that she was smart. Daddy reached his hand out and Lil reached out her fingers. Daddy squeezed her fingernails three times, gently. Daddy didn’t kiss like mama kissed. Each night mama smothered Lily in kisses, all over the face and neck and arms, tickling and wet. When Lily said goodnight to daddy after brushing her teeth, he would extend his neck a little bit so she could kiss him on the cheek. Then he would pat her head or squeeze her hand. At church, daddy shook hands with the other parents. But mama hugged everybody and kissed the other mothers on the cheek. Daddies shake hands. Mamas kiss. It was simple. After that summer, daddy hugged the kids a lot more than he used to, but he never kissed them like mama.
Lily’s skin warmed up when daddy squeezed her fingernails. Her shoulders rose to her cheeks and she giggled. Most of the time she worried that daddy didn’t see her. He spent most of his time at home chasing after Hank or talking baseball with Nate. Daddy was warning Nate not to start bad habits because he could blow out his shoulder. This was bad. She knew that. But you were supposed to blow out candles in one go and grandma went to the salon to get her hair blown out before church. A fuse could blow out like a candle and that would put the lights out in the t.v. room and make the ice cream go bad in the freezer. A tire could blow out, too. So most blow outs were bad. Except in sports a blow out was a good game. But you didn’t want to blow out your shoulder.
Most nights daddy was in his office with the door closed because mama said he had a big project at work. Lily helped mama peel the potatoes and the carrots and the onions and the garlic but she wasn’t allowed to touch the knives or stand next to the stove when the fires were on. You’ll need to learn all this soon, but not yet, said mama. Mama took Lily shopping and to the salon and to the cleaners and when she went in for her checkups. Lily liked the checkups because they had all the new magazines and she couldn’t read the little print words but she flipped through the fashion pictures. Also it was quiet. Mama would say, Are you sure you’re all right? Are you sure you don’t need anything? And Lily would say, I’m fine, mama. And the nurses would say, Don’t you worry, we’ll take care of the little darling. And they did. They brought her water and cocoa in the winter or gave her gum and they always had candy. She liked to sit in the big soft cotton chairs with her feet kicking gently off the seat and the magazine spread out on her lap; the spine between her legs and each half laid folded over a thigh. She liked the sound of the glossy pages turning. It took some effort and you didn’t want to tear them. And then after a while mama would come back out and give Lily a big hug and sometimes cry and ask if she was all right and she was. That week they went to the checkups twice but the second time was at a different building and they had no magazines. When mama saw there were no magazines she started to panic and the nurses said they would take care of it and they brought Lily around the desk and let her watch her favorite show on the computer. They also had a bowl of chocolate and a tiny fridge full of soda pop.
Lily didn’t spend much time with daddy back then. She only talked to daddy on Sunday mornings. Sometimes after church when he spoke with the other daddies, she would move through the crowd of legs and hips and find her daddy and wrap an arm around his knee and his hand would fall to the back of her head and his thumb would run along her braid and he would keep talking but Lily would close her eyes and lean her head against him.
Mama was walking funny, tilted over, because she was putting an earring in. It was a big day for her at church. Where’s your brother? she asked. She didn’t mean Hank, everybody on the street could hear Hank’s laughter and footrace. He’s ready. He’s outside, said Lily. Nate was already outside, pitching acorns at the stop sign at the intersection. Mama leaned over Lily and peered out the window. Oh, I wish he would quit that. He’s going to hit a car.
She returned to her bedroom, leaving behind a ghost of her scent. Lily closed her eyes and sniffed slowly. Then she smelled her wrist. She liked mama’s smell, it was like canned peaches. But she liked her smell, too. Her perfume smelled like a fresh pack of bubble gum left in a car on a hot day. She didn’t know which she liked better. She wanted to smell like mama but when she asked mama to wear her perfume to church mama laughed and said, Oh no, honey.
Hank ran back into the living room laughing. The drool stain on his shirt expanded down to the nipples. He was giggling like a lawnmower, nonstop, chub chub chub. Mama would say, when he gets like this, Hank, you’re going to give yourself a stroke. Lily didn’t know what a stroke was but mama was always worried about people giving themselves one; grandma, grandpa, Hank, the pastor. Mama was worried about strokes and daddy was worried about blow outs. And some times burn outs. Don’t burn yourself out, he said to mama at the dinner table. Or rough kids who didn’t go to school might be called burn outs when daddy was driving past them. A burn out was like a candle blow out but for a light bulbs. Maybe a stroke was like a strike. If you swing too many times, it is a strike out. Don’t strike out, don’t give yourself a stroke. Lily didn’t speak much at the dinner table. She was too busy figuring what mama and daddy were talking about. It seemed like there was a lot to worry about but worrying would get you in trouble. On the days after they went to the checkups, daddy would tell mama he was worried she was going to wear herself out. Worn out, burned out, blown out, striked out. There was a lot to keep track of.
Hank’s eyes were wild while he laughed. Chub chub chub. He didn’t sound like he was laughing. More like Odin after a run. Hank looked at his older sister, sitting on the couch in her dress with her feet dangling off the cushion. Henry the Hank Engine!, he shouted, with his hands above head, exposing his fat belly. Then he ran off again. Daddy yelled from the kitchen, Hank! Where did you hide your shorts!?
Lily’s saddle shoe slipped off her foot and tumbled on the living room floor. They hadn’t been tied. She was waiting for mama to tie them. She scooted down off the cushion and sat on the carpet with her knees up. She slid her silk foot back into the shoe and wormed it around. Everything felt so soft in the shoe; her toes in the sock, the sock rubbing the leather insole. She reached down and ran her finger along the black toe. Even the laces were smooth. Not soft like her sneakers’ laces. But smooth. She pulled her foot in close to her butt and rested her chin on her knee. She took the laces like mama always did and crossed them and pulled one under. That was the easy part. She pulled the laces tight. But they were smooth laces so as soon as she let go they eased. She looped one of the laces and pinched it. She took the other lace and wound it round the loop. She held the laces like that for a while. Something else needed to be done but she didn’t know what. She had a loop and a wrap. She knew that in the end she would have two loops. She pushed the plastic tip through the hole of the loop but that wasn’t right so she slid it back out. She poked it under the loop back up towards her and when she pulled on it the laces tightened and stayed tied. She wiggled her toes. The shoe was flopped around but stayed on her foot. After her grow-spurt it wouldn’t flop around as much.
The knot was right but the loops were wrong. She took the plastic tip and pushed it through the same hole she’d just pulled it through but she was careful not to undo it all the way. She stopped when the lace was halfway backward and she stretched out the second loop. She did it! Kinda. She had a knot and two loops. But the knot was looser than before and mama had done it differently.
She studied the knot and the way the loops lay prettily. She slowly pulled out the knot, watching how the laces fell. She started again with the loop. She wrapped the other lace around it and plugged a finger into the place where the second loop needed to go. She made the loop first even though she knew mama didn’t do it that way. She took the middle of the loop—the bight; her first boyfriend in college was a fisherman from Wyoming and he taught her the word—and pushed it through the hole that her finger kept open. She was careful to pull the short part of the lace through, instead of the other half of the lace that led to the plastic tip. If she accidentally pulled the tip through, she’d ruin the loop.
She got it. Two loops!
Mama was calling out from her bedroom to Hank to be a good boy while she smoothed lipstick across her lips, leaning over her makeup counter and making kisses into the mirror. She didn’t like to shout at the children so her angry voice was like a nursery song. Daddy carried Hank upside down by the ankle into the living room and round to the kitchen. His top button was undone which is what he did when he was upset.
Lily walked to the front door which was open, another of daddy’s signs. The open front door meant it was time to go. It had been open for ten minutes while he chased Hank around the house. Ten minutes was a long amount of time. Lily didn’t know how long. One minute was short, ten minutes was really long. One of Lily’s feet stepped gently, ladylike mama called it. The other stomped clumsily. She’d only tied the one shoe and the other she had to carry along on the top of her feet with her toes curled up so she wouldn’t trip. She pushed open the screen door and called out to her brother. Nate, look!, she said.
She stepped down from the raised part at the bottom of the door—the threshold—to the porch, only a matter of two inches, but she slipped and fell forward onto her chin. She scrunched up her face and for a moment was silent. Nate started to run over as a low wail became a loud scream.
Nat scooped her up. He was only two years older but so strong. He sat on the top step and she curled into his lap bawling. Her chin bled all over his pastel button-up. The loose shoe sat on its side on the porch. Daddy burst through the door. Is she all right? He lifted her out of Nate’s arms and up into a great big hug. No, daddy. I’m bleeding, she said between sobs. She didn’t want to bleed on daddy’s shirts. Cleaning and pressing the shirts was a big chore for mama and Lily during the week. It’s just blood, baby girl, it’s just blood. He wiped the blood from her chin with his handkerchief and dropped it on his shoulder for her to rest on. Are you all right? Daddy was running his hand up and down her spine. Her legs were wrapped around his torso. She could see a big scrape across the black shiny toe of her shoe.
Mama was out next. Nate explained she tripped stepping down from the door. Mama asked if she was all right and ran a hand down her cheek. Hank came to the door pulling his shorts up and buttoning them over his belly. His mouth was downturned and his eyes were big. He was even wearing his shoes. The fun was over. He was just having a laugh anyway. Now it was time to get serious and help out if needed. Nate went into the house to fetch bandages and ruffled Hank’s light hair as he passed.
Mama picked up the loose shoe and examined it. It was scuffed, but not as badly as the other. I can get that out, said daddy. That’ll polish right out. Mama said, Honey, you shouldn’t be walking around with your shoes untied. Lily, who had been calming down, burst into a wailing cry again. She was so ashamed of herself. Tripping is what babies do. It was not ladylike. Crying wasn’t ladylike. Bleeding wasn’t ladylike. Scraping up your new shoes wasn’t ladylike. Little Lily was just a baby after all.
Mama examined the other shoe, the one that was still on Lily’s foot. Oh, this one is scraped pretty good, mama said. She squeezed Lily’s foot. Her thumb ran down the knot. I’m sorry, honey, said mama. It’s my fault. I bought you big shoes and I didn’t tie ‘em tight enough.
Lily said, No, mama. It’s not your fault.
Mama looked down, confused. In one hand she held the loose shoe. In the other she held her daughter’s foot in the other shoe. She looked into her daughter’s eyes and tilted her head. You tied your shoes! David, she tied her shoes!
Daddy was bouncing her on his shoulder and rubbing her back. Really? Today?
Just the one, mama.
Why just one, honey?
I didn’t want to spoil it.
Well, you can’t walk around all day with just one shoe tied, honey, said mama and tapped Lily on the nose.
I wanted to show somebody.
We’ve got to mark the calendar, Lil. Let’s wash you up and mark the calendar, said daddy.
Nate changed shirts and he and Hank sat in the t.v. room watching a talk show. They didn’t have good shows on Sunday mornings. Daddy sat Lily on the bathroom sink and washed her chin with greasy water out of a dark plastic bottle that burned her chin and fizzed up and smelled like hospitals. He put a square of gauze on her chin and covered it with a bandage. It’s not going to look too pretty for a while, daddy said, but you can tell people that you’re tough now. Do you feel tough? he asked. No, daddy, she said. Well, daddy said, you should. Whatever you are feeling right now, that is what tough feels like, because you are tough. You’re a strong woman just like mama.
She said, Okay, and wiped away her tears. Daddy shook his head. Don’t worry about that. You can cry, daddy said. Strong men and women cry when things hurt. You’re going to see me cry today, he said quietly.
It was the latest they ever were to church. The pastor was in the middle of his speech. He was standing down the aisle, in the middle of the church. The people up front were turned around with their arms over the backs of the benches. The younger ones. The older people couldn’t stay turned around for the whole speech so they looked at the cross or closed their eyes while the pastor spoke.
He saw mama and waved his hand, in the middle of his speech. Mama said, I’m so sorry. But not with words. Just the mouth shapes. Half of the church was turned around so they all saw the family coming in late, really late. The pastor shook his head. He took what he was saying and changed it to talk about mama. He said, God comes first, but that doesn’t mean church comes first. God is Love. But Love is hard to define, isn’t it? What’s a better word for Love? What’s a word that means Love, that means God, but that we all understand, that we can all easily define? The pastor paused. Then he said, Family.
Most of the people in the church nodded their heads. Somebody called out Amen.
When we are with family, the pastor said, we are with God. If we are with God, we can never be late for church! He laughed and the people in the church laughed and daddy rubbed his hand on mama’s back.
Lily fell in love with the pastor right then. She was so embarrassed that she made the family late to church, even when daddy was splashing her cut with burning water and she was crying, she kept thinking about how the family was already so late. Daddy had opened the front door so long ago. Now she didn’t have to feel bad about making everybody late. Nate liked the pastor because he was also the baseball coach. Hank liked him because he was the one who came up with the name Henry the Hank Engine.
After the taking of the bread and wine, the pastor called for all those who were sick to come to the front. Daddy rubbed mama’s back and handed her his handkerchief. She took it and walked up to the front. Lily started crying and Nate put his arm around her. Little Hank was confused by the whole set of events.
Everybody held hands and said a prayer and then put their arms in the air towards mama and the others. Then church was over and everybody gathered at the front. Lily held onto daddy’s pant leg as he shook hands. Every person he talked to he told that Lily learned to tie her shoes that day. Taught herself!, he would add. Nobody commented on the bandage. It kept reminding her it was there whenever she lowered her head.
Daddy and mama kissed in the church and daddy gave mama a big hug. Lily hid behind daddy’s leg. She felt like she was afraid of mama, but how could she be afraid of mama?
Mama leaned over and gave Lily a big wet kiss on the forehead. How does your chin feel, honey? Does it hurt terribly?, mama said.
Lily shrugged. What’s the matter, honey?, mama said.
Mama, are you sick?
Mama bit her lip and scrunched up her cheeks into a sad smile and her eyes filled with tears. She reached out and tapped Lily’s nose.
It was the end and the beginning, the day she learned to tie her shoes.