WRITER & VISUAL ARTIST
BOX OF SHOES
By Jenn Powers
Previously Published in Hawai'i Pacific Review
Hawaii Pacific University
Note: Revised 2014
Daddy says Mom left when I was only two weeks old. He’s a pastor at Oak Baptist Church and he writes speeches at the kitchen table at night with beads of sweat crawling down his temples. His eyeglasses are perched on the tip of his purplish nose. Giant moths bat the porch lights. Daddy shoots his eyes at me. “Yes, Claire?” he says, but I slither away not wanting to disturb him. I tiptoe downstairs to the basement to play with the box of women’s shoes. They’re different sizes and styles, so I know they weren’t Mom’s. Daddy says he burned all of Mom’s things in the kiln after she left ten years ago. He yells and spits and shakes his fist in the air: “Cheating women should burn in Hell! Your mom was a hippie, a sinner, the Devil’s child.”
I pull out a pair of bejeweled leopard print stilettos from the box of shoes. I pretend they’re Mom’s. I shuffle around the basement wearing them. My feet scrape across the dirty basement floor in clunky heels that are too big for me. I pretend to be a Charlie’s Angel. I kick the air and the heel flies off my foot. It hits the wall and falls to the floor with a thud.
I slip off the other one and I notice my ruffled white socks are stained with reddish-brown spots. I remove my socks, toss them into the washer, and leave them. The basement floor is cold. I try on a pair of running shoes with mud-caked soles and gallop around in circles like I’m a race horse.
I ask Daddy about the box again and he says they’re leftovers from church tag sales. But Daddy doesn’t want to give them away. He hides the box in secret spots, but I always find it.
Daddy is still upstairs at the kitchen table working on his sermons for church. He’s not paying attention to the chicken in the oven. The smell of burning flesh goes unnoticed. It lingers down the cellar steps and I pinch my nose. Daddy yells, “Claire! You best not be playing in that box again!” I say, “Daddy—the chicken’s burning again!”
Daddy yells and pounds his fists on the pulpit when he preaches on Sundays about devotion and faith and sin. He talks about forgiveness and he baptizes grown men and women in the baptismal tub behind the podium under the life-size cross. “Do you accept Jesus into your heart?” he asks. I creep down inside the tub when it’s dry and empty. Sometimes I hide there during sermons. Daddy’s thunderous voice preaches to churchgoers as I fall asleep in the tub dreaming about Mom burning in Hell.
I beg Daddy but he won’t tell me. I ask him about Mom and the day I was born. He pauses, tightens his fists and says, “Maybe if you think real hard, you’ll remember.” I pretend to remember the day I came home from the hospital. I swear there’s a ’80s love song playing in the car. It’s a sad love song because then things will make sense now. I’m fresh out of the womb and I don’t understand the lyrics but I comprehend the sound of desperation. I already recognize pain in the human soul. We don’t need to understand a language if we can feel it.
Mom caresses my shiny cheeks with the wind blowing through the car windows. The taste of summer is fresh inside my wet mouth. This is what it’s like to be born and to be alive. Mom’s delicate words plead with Daddy’s. They spit words back and forth at each other, pulling up the driveway to my new home. I’m trapped in my car seat. Yes, dear baby girl, this is what you’re in for, Mom would say.
My favorite shoes are silver with skinny straps. One heel is missing a glittery flower on the toe. I slip them on, tighten the straps. I twist and twirl under the light bulb, model for the paparazzi, accept my award. “Thank you, thank you so much,” I say, breathlessly. “I don’t know where to begin.” The silver heels twinkle under the basement light. My audience is the washer and dryer, mismatched chairs, coat racks, and crumpled bags of clothing. I pretend I’m Miss America, even though Daddy hates beauty pageants. I pose in front of Daddy’s kiln like it’s the main judge. I think about the remnants of Mom’s life burned to ashes. I take a bow.
Colleen comes over after school. I show her the box of women’s shoes. Colleen has long black hair like Mom’s. We try them on together in the dark basement. Her eyes look sunken in from the light bulb that swings freely above us. Colleen digs through tons of shoes, picking one up by the heel from the bottom. Her mouth drops open and she throws the heel. Her surprised face reminds me of someone being choked, like I’ve seen it before but can’t place it. Her small fingers are stained brown. She wipes them on the cement floor. I tell her not to say anything. The box of shoes is a secret. It’s just a clump of black hair attached to what looks like a dried apricot. I explain it’s from an animal, Daddy hunts, that’ all. “Not uh,” she says. Her throat sounds like a clogged drain. “It’s from my doll,” I say.
Yes, dear baby girl, this is what you’re in for.
The next day at school, I find out Colleen told her parents. She told them about the clump of hair at the bottom of the box. She told them about the brown on her fingers. As soon as I step off the smelly bus, I go down to the basement to get rid of the clump of hair. I don’t know where to hide it. I decide to throw it inside the kiln. Daddy barely uses it anymore. He says a pottery maker lived here before us and now he uses it to burn animal carcasses. I struggle to open the kiln door. It sticks. I pull harder and black ash falls on my white sneakers as it opens. I peer in first and notice bits of bone and scattered jewelry. I throw the clump of hair inside the kiln and slam the door shut. I run upstairs to ask Daddy about the kiln. He says, “Stay outta there! It’s dangerous, it’ll kill you,” and then he kisses my forehead and continues writing his sermons.
I ask about Mom but his face blows up like a red balloon. “Better off,” he says, “she was evil.” He pulls me closer and sits me on his knee and says, “I’m sorry, darling. Daddy just hurts since she left us.” I don’t tell Daddy that Colleen told her parents about the box of shoes. My heartbeat thumps in the pit of my stomach like when a teacher calls on me and I don’t know the answer. I hug Daddy around his neck. He is damp with sweat. He is burning up.
On Saturday, someone bangs on the door. I jump because I’m in the basement playing with the shoes. They ring the doorbell. I wonder if Daddy locked himself out of the house and he knows I’m playing with his shoes again. I don’t slide the box back to its secret spot. I hurry upstairs, glance out the front window. Cops are here. Daddy is still at church practicing his sermon for tomorrow. I take a deep breath and open the door. “Yes?” I say.
“Hello Claire, is your daddy here?” the lady cop says.
“I don’t know where he is.”
A squad enters anyway. They say they have a warrant. The lady cop guides me out of the house. I hear the squad stampeding down the basement steps. They carry the box of shoes outside. I scream. “That’s my daddy’s! You can’t have that! Those are his shoes!” They take away my reddish-brown stained socks from the washer. They take sealed samples of ash from the kiln. I imagine Daddy yelling at me, telling me to stop playing with his box. But Daddy is nowhere around.
I’m in the back of a police cruiser. My aunt Geraldine picks me up at the station. I’m suddenly living with her and my boy cousins. I whine. I’m sick of wearing my boy cousins’ clothes. I want to go back to my house with Aunt Geraldine and pack up my stuff. I ask her what happened to Daddy but she just tilts her head and sighs. She says, “I’ll get your stuff. You’re staying back here.” But I beg and she lets me go with her. The officials make an exception and we’re escorted by a policeman. He waits outside the front door and places his hand over his gun.
I can’t believe it—my favorite heel from the box of shoes is on its side underneath the kitchen table. It’s the one with the glittery flower on the toe. It must’ve fallen out of the box. It’s tucked away behind a chair leg. My limbs become jittery. It still smells like something is burning. I crawl under the table to retrieve the silver heel when my aunt isn’t looking. “Come help me,” Aunt Geraldine says from my bedroom down the hall. I wrap the heel in one of my shirts from the bathroom hamper and stuff it quickly in my suitcase beneath some clothes. Reporters bother us when we leave the house. “How’s it feel to know your father’s a killer?” a reporter says. I swat them away. I tell them to burn in Hell.
I keep the glittery heel hidden at Aunt Geraldine’s. I never tell her about the heel. I wonder whose it was. I wonder about the woman, so I keep it hidden. I worry someone will take it away but it’s mine. Every time I look at it, I see the faceless woman, I see Mom.
I’m homeschooled instead. “School would be too darn hard right now,” they say. Daddy ends up in prison. He has a message for me: “It’s her fault,” and I wonder if he means me.
Now that Daddy is gone, I’m like my newborn self I don’t remember being. It’s like being driven up a driveway I don’t recognize. It’s like tasting the summer wind for the first time with Mom already disintegrating into ashes. Something has been lifted but I don’t know what. A new world has opened up in front of me and I don’t know how to step into it.
It’s not until now that I am born alive.