Little Pink Dancing Shoes
by Snowden Wright
Do you remember the shoe lady? Every Saturday morning when you were still a girl, we would go for walks around the neighborhood, your footsteps making a beat at half step to mine. We’d pass teenage boys going shirtless on the courts. We’d split roasted peanuts and a lemonade from the local pushcart. We’d guess at dog names while sitting on a park bench. Towards the end of our walks we would come to the shoe lady.
I never asked her name. Some things are better left a mystery. She must have been somewhere in her seventies, most likely Dominican by the area, and probably a mother at some point. On the corner of 177th and St. Nick, we’d find her sitting on a peg stool, dozens of shoes placed on a frayed rug at her feet. All sizes and types were for sale. Keds and Nikes sat next to Reeboks and Converse sat next to Puma and Vans. None of them cost more than twenty dollars. I bought you a new pair each week despite what my own mother had taught me as a child.
“The only thing that’s disgusting to buy used is footwear,” she would say to me. Another of her pieces of wisdom was that the two biggest lies perpetuated by society to its youth are that “money can’t buy love and your vote makes a difference.”
We made a game out of the shoes. Remember? There on the sidewalk you said to me, “Momma, can I have some shoes?” with a look that made it not a question. I told you to decide on a pair. The first ones you chose on our first weekend of the ritual had no significance beyond their complete insignificance. They were running shoes, if I recall, with the treads worn down. I knelt towards those second-hand laces, not yet knowing how soon our time together was to come to an end, until I had sent the rabbit around the tree. I asked you, “What part comes next for the wabbit?”
“He climbs up through the hole!”
“Exactly right, munchkin-shmunkskin. You do the other.”
I don’t care what people think of what I did. All I care about is that you understand. Was living with your father so bad? I know he brought cupcakes to class for your eighth birthday even though the icing accidentally turned out puke green. He called them “Shrek Cakes” for the save. I know he gave you five dollars for every A on your report card even though he worked nights wheat-pasting band posters. He called it his retirement plan.
Ever since I left, his letters have been forwarded to me, bundled in twine. They became a sort of jigsaw puzzle of your life, each sheet of ivory bond a piece of you, fitting together to show who you would become. I never needed to see the completed puzzle, though, because of those days with the shoe lady.
All the mornings of our ritual let me see you in variations of being a grown up. Each pair of shoes inspired you to become a different person. In the Doc Martens, you were a punk chick from the Pacific Northwest, a monroe piercing at your lip and a heavy stud in your ear, sneering at the bougie Establishment boys staring at your ink. In the house slippers, you became an old man, doddering down the street. In the flip-flops, you became a surfer, hanging ten from the sidewalk. The Ugg pull-ons made you a socialite and the Chuck Taylors made you a hipster and the Sperry top-siders made you both. In the Easy Spirits, you were a sensible mother with a baby, wheeling an invisible Maclaren down the block and explaining Pilates to spectral neighbors, the sight of which cleaved my heart in two.
I honestly had no way of foreseeing, back then, you would one day become an orphan. Please know I wanted to be at his funeral. Your father was not the whole of the why of what I did. The only thing I can offer as a form of solace, to him up there in some kind of heaven and to you down here in your college dorm, is that I am not going to the same place he has gone.
On a wall in my apartment, above the desk where I’m writing this letter, hangs a picture of you from the last day we had together. That day you chose these little pink dancing shoes. In them you became a ballerina. The camera I used to take the picture was so old, a relic from my mother’s hope chest, it could only handle black and white film stock. Doesn’t matter. My memory colors the shoes pink when I look at the picture. On that last Sunday morning, I had to help you into the flats, even though you hated to feel helpless, by tickling your arch until your toes wiggled themselves snug. The gummy sidewalk became a wooden stage. The car horns became a symphony. The yapping crowds became a silent audience. At first, you remained still in the morning sunlight, your legs in demi-plie and your arms in the fifth, but then, you started in on the pointe work, tip-toeing a lovely pas de deux with the shoe lady. You pirouetted in front of a parking meter. You grand-jetted around a fire hydrant. In conclusion to the set, you placed your legs in a beautiful turn-out, lowering your arms towards the first. The clerk from our bodega, watching through his window, gave you a standing ovation. Afterwards I sleeved sweat from your brow.
That day you were a girl who still had her mother. You were the outline of my shadow cast on the wall. Now that you are grown, sitting somewhere reading this letter from a woman you do not remember, I’m sure you’re wondering that one word that has no answer. Why? Over the past few years I’ve been asked similar questions by my son. Why do pools turn blond hair green? Why is there a p in raspberry? Why are tears salty but not spit?
The answer to your next question is yes. You have a brother. He is now as gorgeous as you were then.
Despite my wish for the two of you to meet, I understand you would find that impossible until, hopefully, I answer your question. My answer, though, will not help. Why? There is no why. Terrible things contradict all reason. The only thing I can tell you is the one thing I have learned from staring at your picture. Whenever I look at it hanging on the wall—you next to the worn stoop of our building, you in your little pink dancing shoes, you with the smile of a child who is loved—I’m reminded of the greatest tragedy in this world. What is that tragedy? Everything is beautiful in black and white.
Snowden Wright is a writer based in New York City. Recently he has contributed to Salon, The Good Men Project, Nerve, and The Atlantic. More of his work can be found here.