Chapter OneI leaped onto the sliding ladder in the back room of Gladstone's Shoe Store of Chicago, gave it a shove, and glided fast toward the end of the floor to ceiling shelves of shoeboxes. My keen retailer's eye found the chocolate loafers, size 13, I slid the ladder to the Nikes, grabbed two boxes of easy walkers (white and beige) size 4 1/2 narrow, pushed again to women's saddles, found the waxhides, size 7, rode the ladder to the door one-handed. Children, do not try this at home. I am a shoe professional. I jumped off as Murray Castlebaum, my boss, rushed past me.
"It's a madhouse out there, kid." Murray grinned, rifling through shoeboxes. We love it when it gets busy.
I walked quickly back on the sales floor, made eye contact with each of my customers so they'd know I cared. Every movement counts when you're selling shoes, especially when the store fills up with customers. You look at people calmly; you let them know you'll take care of them-you're not panicked even though people are holding up shoes and barking sizes at you all at once. I just remember what Murray told me: People want to know someone's for them. I've sold lots of shoes this way.
The tired woman with the three screaming boys tried on the waxhide saddles. "Mommy, I want to go!" cried the youngest boy and the other two chimed in. This could blow my sale because she was outnumbered. I took out my stopwatch that I used for emergencies, handed it to the oldest boy.
"Breath-holding contest," I directed. "The winner gets cow laces. Best two out of three." "Cool." The boys started holding their breath, mere putty in my hands. The woman looked at me gratefully, freed to shop.
I raced to the older man, slid the loafers on his bony feet, felt the toe. His face went soft. I smiled. These shoes sell themselves. He stood up, did a little dancing movement. Moved to the woman with the dangling Siamese earrings, the pouncing cat pin. Slipped the Nikes on her fat foot, mentioned the tri-density compression plug midsole that would energize her feet on pavement, told her to give them a good test. Circled back around like a good sheepdog, keeping watch. "How are those feeling?" I asked Cat Woman, who grinned. Showed the older man the hand-stitching and richly grained texture on his loafers. Pointed out the classic, yet fresh appeal of the waxhide saddle.
The woman nodded as her boys argued over who won the contest-she'd take the shoes. The older man took out his wallet. "I'll take them, miss." A yes from Cat Woman. The woman with the toddler I'd waited on earlier bought three pairs of baby sandals in white, pink, and dress black. They can't say no. I walked my customers to the counter, thanked each one, tallied up the five percent commission in my head, keeping my eye on the man and the little girl who just walked in. Murray pushed back his three strands of hair that he tried to comb over his balding head and did his dead chicken imitation, stretching his neck long, bugging his eyes out. This meant I wait on the man and girl. I headed toward them, stepping lightly. "So what are you doing in school these days, Becky?" the man asked the little girl. "Daddy," she said, "I already told you last week." The man checked his watch. A weekend father, probably. Be thankful, Becky. At least yours comes around.
Becky tried on pink ballet slippers, white cowgirl boots, and black patent leathers.
She got them all. I walked Becky and her dad to the counter. "Listen," the father said as he flipped out his Visa card. "I'm going to have to take you back early today, Beck. I've got an appointment."
My dad used to say that to me on the rare occasion that he came around. I handed her a balloon and told her how great she's going to look in her new shoes. Becky stared at the children's shoe display I arranged. Murray said it was my best one yet. It had stuffed clown dolls and circus decals and a wind-up trapeze toy that moved across a wire. The kids always ran to it whenever they came into the store. Becky walked to the display, her little face caved in, watching as the toy man buzzed across the wire above the Keds.
I wanted to tell her I understood. I walked over to her, put my hand on her shoulder, and settled for one of those looks that passed between strangers. Her father checked his watch again, rushed her out the door. Mrs. Madeline Gladstone, the supremely aged president of Gladstone's Shoes (176 outlets in 37 states; corporate offices in Dallas, Texas), stood by the cash register under the large white five-pointed Lone Star of Texas that was the symbol of Gladstone's Shoe Stores everywhere. She came to our store every day when she was in town. Mrs. Gladstone had houses in Dallas and Chicago, but lately she'd been spending all her time here. She was very short but made up for it like one of those little yippy dogs who barks at anything. She ran her fingers through her coarse white hair, made notes on a pad inside a blue leather folder marked "personal." Some people just naturally make you nervous. She was retiring this year, handing the business over to her son, Elden. Murray said retiring was probably going to kill her because the shoe business had been her whole life. It didn't help that Elden was pond scum.
He came to the store three months ago, saying how the shoe business was changing and we were going to get new lower-priced merchandise that was going to fly off the shelves. The merchandise came, but it never made it on the shelves. It looked good on the outside, but Murray Castlebaum's got X-ray vision. He looked past the brushed leather and the fancy labels to the thinner soles and the wider stitching and the second-rate lining. Then Murray shoved everything in the closet and stood on the ladder in the back room and gave a misty-eyed speech about how you've got to live what you sell and he wasn't about to start living with garbage. Most people think selling shoes is pretty ho-hum, but if you hang with shoe people long enough you plug into the high drama. I looked around. The crowd had cleared. Customers come in swarms, like locusts.
"Break, kid." Murray motioned me to the back room. I was fifteen and a half when I started at Gladstone's last year, sophomore year, the year of the Big Slump. I gained seventeen and a half pounds. I went from center forward to second-string guard on the girls basketball team because I just can't jump. I got a C minus in History, which knocked me off the honor roll because my history teacher didn't like my essays or my end-of-the-year term paper ("Our Shoes, Ourselves-Footwear Through the Ages"). I became the brunt of Billy Mundy's mean jokes until I shoved him against the wall when he called me "Ms. Moose" for the zillionth time, told him I'd rip his left kidney out if he said that again. I just limped through sophomore year, all five feet eleven inches of me, wondering why God had invented adolescence.
But there was Gladstone's. I succeeded here. I made money here. I didn't feel big, awkward, and lost. I felt successful. I helped people. They looked to me instead of away. I couldn't wait to come here after school, couldn't wait to head out to work early on Saturday mornings. My grandmother always said that everyone needs something in life that they do pretty well. For me, it's selling shoes.
Still, I nearly collapsed during those first weeks wondering how I was going to remember everything. But you know how it is when you start something new; you mess up for a while and then gradually you find the rhythm. Murray Castlebaum's a good, patient boss except when his diverticulitis acts up and then you steer clear because the man becomes Frankenstein, or Frankenbaum, as I call him. At the end of each week, Murray asks me, "Okay, kid, what did you learn?" At first I'd just shrug and say something about handling customers better, but Murray didn't like that because he'd been selling shoes for twenty-three years and figured something big should have rubbed off.
"The number one thing you gotta know to sell shoes," Murray said, "is that every shoe has a story. You know how it's made, you know how to sell it."
So I made it my business to know what was good and bad about each shoe. You can put four pairs of sandals in front of me and I can tell you which one to wear on the beach, which one to wear for a walk, which one to buy for the long haul, and which one to avoid altogether. And when it comes to selling sneakers you better have done your homework or you'll get blown out of the water. You sell road traction and heel alignment, and don't let anyone tell you that a cross-trainer is going to give you the strength of a long-distance runner. It's a bold new shoe world out there and not everyone knows how to compete.
I sat on the folding chair by the helium tank and the boxes of Gladstone's Shoe Store balloons with the Texas star that were blown up and given to every child who walked through the door. I turned the helium gage on, took a quick gulp of funny gas, and squeaked out, "Cat Woman lives." "Watch the gas," Murray said to me, looking through boxes of loafers. I let loose a high-pitched helium giggle, opened my purse, and took out what had become my most prized possession. There it was, nestled between my Chicago Public Library card and my Red Cross CPR certificate-my own, personal driver's license-six months old today. Jenna Boiler Eyes: Brown Hair: Red Height: 5'11" Weight: None of your business
An official Illinois driver. If only the photo wasn't so awful-my flat nose looked flatter, my round face looked like a globe, my auburn hair hung frizzed and heavy on my shoulders like too much fur. My dark eyes (one of my best features) looked guilty. My sister got the beauty in the family. I got the personality. I held up my license and chirped out, "My passport to new worlds, Murray. Adventure. Romance. Freedom." "The romance dies, kid, the first time you're wedged between two Mack trucks at rush hour on the Eisenhower Expressway." Murray lumbered out as I cradled my license. I was a good driver, everyone said so. Cars never scared me. I had respect for their power, but I worked hard to learn the rules. My big plan at the end of the summer, after clocking in many full-time hours at Gladstone's, is to buy a car-a red one-with a sunroof and leather buckets. Then, I'm going to explore all of Illinois, and then Wisconsin, and then-
"Where's my Jenna girl?" I froze at the voice coming from the sales floor. It couldn't be. "Jenna girl, this is your father calling you!" I looked for a place to hide. There was no back door. "Sir ..." It was Murray's voice. "We can't have you-" "I'm here, sir," my father announced, drunk, "to see my daughter."
I couldn't move. Murray, bless him, said, "She's gone for the day."
"Now don't give me that now." My father swirled the words together. "Just want to see her for a little minute. Haven't seen her for a long time, very long." Two years and seven months, to be exact. But who's counting? Not me. Not anymore. I used to count the letters I sent him that he never answered, the presents I mailed on his birthday and Christmas. I got up from the stool like I was dragging lead weights. I could get another job after they fired me. I was a good worker, everyone said so. I could sell anything to anybody. I stood at the door and watched my father in dirty jeans and an old golf shirt and grubby sneakers scratch his head and fall into a plaid chair as Mrs. Gladstone snapped her long, bony fingers at Murray to do something.
"Jenna girl! You got tall there." His cloudy eyes tried to focus.
Please, God, let the helium have worn off. I said, "It happens," but I still sounded like a cartoon mouse. I walked up to Mrs. Gladstone, could smell her light perfume wafting up from her navy blue pin-striped suit. No customers in the store. That was something. I looked her straight in the eye, tried to aim my voice low.
"I'm sorry about this, Mrs. Gladstone. I'll take care of it." Better, but still Disney.
Her gray eyes blasted through me. She stood rigidly erect, every thick, snowy curl in place. My face sizzled hot. I walked slowly toward my father, not looking at the mirrors on the blue walls on either side of me, not looking at the white sign above the door, WE'RE NOT JUST SELLING SHOES, WE'RE SELLING QUALITY. I looked at the blue carpet with the white stars, took my father's arm to lead him out of the store, onto the street, somewhere, anywhere but here.
"Did you miss your old man?" I led him out to Wabash Street, underneath the elevated train tracks. Dad was never a mean drunk, you could put him places, lean him against things and he'd pretty much stay put. That helped when I was smaller and I had to put him places when Mom had had enough. I arranged him on the station steps, put his hands together to grip the rail. I was really glad that I was one of those people who had delayed reactions to trauma. "Well," he blubbered, "watcha been doing?" An El train barreled by overhead, shaking the street. Steel scraping steel, the train screeched around the corner. I gave him two years and seven months worth. "Stuff, you know." The gas had worn off. I'm definitely off helium for good. "Me too." He swayed down on the steps as two old women moved quickly past us. "You probably think I'm drunk, Jenna girl, but I'm not." "Really." He always called me "Jenna girl" when he was plastered. "I'm on medication that makes me ... funny." I focused in hard at the Lemmy's hot dog poster (steaming dog with everything, including grilled onions) so I wouldn't have to look at my father or see the staring people looking at me like I'm some poor, pitiful case.
Drunken Dad Disgraces Daughter. We stayed there for a while not saying anything. When I was nine, Mom had sent me to a therapist, Ms. Lynch, after she and Dad got divorced so I'd have a place to yell and scream, which I never did. Ms. Lynch had a puppet, a brown furry chipmunk named Chester, that I'd put on my hand and tell him the story of my dad's alcoholism and how I'd never known if he was going to be a good dad one day or a bad one. One time, Ms. Lynch made Chester's voice and said it was okay if I got angry. I got angry all right, but not at Chester. I told Ms. Lynch that Chester was a chipmunk and didn't talk. Then I told her I knew that storks didn't bring babies so stop trying to snow me.
Dumb as it seems, I could have used Chester now. "I'm going to have to get back to work, Dad." I said this low, mature.
Dad belched. He was wearing the Timex watch I'd sent him last Christmas. Nice to know it arrived. "Jus wanted to see you, honey. I meant to call." He always said that. "Yeah. I know." I felt the armor going over my heart and mind, the steel rod shooting through my back. I didn't ask where he was working now. The jobs never lasted long. He was always selling something-aluminum siding, screen doors, toasters, used cars-I got my gift for selling from him, that's what people said. He had a brief stint as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman; kept a ball of dirt in his pocket to throw on the carpet when the front door opened; got bit bad by an irritated pit bull who didn't appreciate the Eureka suction. Part of me wanted to walk away and leave him there, the other part couldn't. I'd worked hard at seeing his alcoholism as a disease he was stuck in. Love the person, hate the bad things they do. Sometimes loving from far off is a whole lot easier than eyeball to eyeball.
"Is there someplace you're staying, Dad? Someplace you need to get to?" He tried standing up to reach in his pocket, fumbled badly, finally pulled a matchbook out, opened the cover, handed it to me. "Sueann Turnbolt, 1260 Wells Street, 555-4286," it read. Another girlfriend probably. "Is she there now, Dad?" "S'waiting for me." Mr. Romance. I hailed a cab, got him inside, gave the driver ten dollars and the address. "We can get together when I'm not working, Dad." "Okey dokey, Jenna girl." I shut the cab door and watched it head down the street. I felt exhausted, like I hadn't slept for days.
Daddy's home. The last time he showed up was when I was a freshman. I was walking home from school with my friends and he pulled up in a broken-down Dodge, jumped out with a big toothy smile like I should have been expecting him all along. Dad always made an entrance.
He hung around town that summer, drinking, not drinking, making promises, breaking them.
Daddy's home. I leaned against the elevated train stairway, closed my eyes, threw back my head. I didn't know if I could handle it this time.