Thursday, February 14, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Sneakers by Aaron Gudmunson

Aaron Gudmunson
PHOTO: Angelo Gonzales

Originally Published in the August 2012 Issue of Empirical

Terrible Teddy walked off his last sneaker just after five o’clock. It happened on the corner of Melrose and Damen outside an all-night pharmacy. He felt the sole stretch against the arch of his foot before it sheared away. Teddy looked at it the way someone might a dead fish on a riverbank before removing the remains of the shoe. His other foot was wrapped in two-day-old newspapers and cinched with a length of twine. He retrieved the busted sole, tucking it into his waistband, and entered the pharmacy.

The clerk gave him a side-eyed once-over. Maybe it was the smears of soot on his face. Maybe it was the disheveled, patchy hair. Maybe it was his bedraggled trousers or filthy flannel shirt. Perhaps it was all things about Terrible Teddy that made people sneer. But how could he help it? The magic carpet that had been his foundry job for fourteen years had been yanked from beneath his feet. Soon after, Melinda had taken the boys and flown off to who knows where. For three years, Terrible Teddy had lived Out Here, in the streets of this jagged city. For three years he had begged his meals and shelters. For three interminable years, Terrible Teddy had been a creature reviled and rejected.

PHOTO: James Emergy
This clerk was no different.

“Scuse me, ma’am? How much is shoe laces?” The clerk stocked cigarettes on the shelf behind the counter and hummed to herself. Terrible Teddy cleared his throat. “Ma’am, don’t mean to be a bother, but could you tell me how much is shoe laces?”

She turned, slump-shouldered, and pointed to a display beside the counter.

“Sorry, ma’am, didn’t see them,” Teddy said, fishing in his torn pants for the required forty-nine cents. He thought maybe there was a way he could rig the laces to reattach the sole for a bit longer. He wished he could afford some Cra-Z-Glue, but the tag on the three-ounce dispensers read $2.69: no small change. He pushed two moist quarters across the counter and said, “I’ll take the laces please.”

She regarded the coins as if they might have been steeped in anthrax. “It’s fifty-four cents with tax.”

Teddy dug out four pennies. The clerk grimaced.“You know what? Just take them.”

“I owe,” Teddy said, not understanding, understanding all too well.

“No, really. It’s all right.”

Teddy watched for some hint of a joke, for her to suddenly laugh and point the way the kids in the park sometimes did. Maybe she would wait until he had taken the laces and his money and then call the police. Maybe they would charge him with retail theft and throw him back in the cooler. It was possible, right? Maybe she would be more than happy to see one less bum on the street.

But the time for maybes was done. Teddy snatched up his laces and coins and fled. He jogged through two alleys and ducked through a broken fence between tenements. A cat with a torn ear perched atop a barrel hissed at his passing. Only when he’d made it to the breezeway behind Hegeland’s Restaurant did he stop. This was his place, after all—his alley. He slept beneath cardboard and paper in the unused doorway of an abandoned art supplier across the way. The restaurant threw away more food in one day than Teddy had seen in his whole life. Most of it was edible, but when it was not the waitresses would slip him some bread butts or cold soup. It was also one of the only restaurants on the north side that had not taken to pouring ammonia over their trash and rendering it useless to those Out Here.

Heart stabbing his ribs, Teddy tried to correct the ruined shoe. The laces kept slipping and would not hold the pieces together. Heaving a sigh, Teddy hurled the whole caboodle into the Dumpster behind the restaurant. He kicked Tuesday’s sports section off and sat barefoot against the wall with his fists against his eyes.

PHOTO: Tina Li

The city wheezed around him. A horn blipped over on Belmont. Above him on the windowsills and ledges, gray pigeons clucked and cooed. The Temptations crooned from an open window and an ancient air conditioner churned in another. Terrible Teddy, dubbed thus by the kids in the park, sat alone. His shoes were gone. He needed them back. In a place like this, a place of pestilence, it took shoes to survive.

He walked the length of the alley, skirting a smattering of broken glass. Traffic buzzed and blurred. How easy it would to end everything, here and now. How swiftly blackness would come with cobalt blue speed.

Teddy gathered himself, breathed smog and exhaust, and closed his eyes. He whispered some invocation or other, but the roar of traffic wrenched it from his lips unheard. He inclined his head to heaven, finished his peace, and stuck one filthy bare foot over the lip of the curb. Then opened his eyes.

And so it was that Terrible Teddy, feeling more lost than he had in years, looked up at the darkening sky and quite literally saw the answers to his prayers. They dangled by their laces from the lamppost overhead.

“Lord have mercy,” he whispered. A smile split his grimy face, and any observer who would have bothered to spare him more than a passing glance would have seen that he was handsome. A pair of high-top sneakers dangled from the crooked arm of the post. Some wit, probably drunk, had tied the laces together and tossed with all his might until they hooked. How long had they been there, at the mouth of his alley? Two days? Three? Certainly no longer than a week; he would have noticed them. It was no matter. They were there. And since no one else had claimed them, they were his.   Finders, keepers.

PHOTO: Toby Alter
“I get em,” he whispered, scouting a pathway to his quarry. “I get em, if it kills me.” He placed a hand into a crook of the broken brick of the building–a fine start, but where do we go from here? Teddy licked his lips and spit, unaware he was salivating.

Five feet up hung the remains of a rusted- out fire escape. A faded fly-specked sign advised the potentially blind or fatally stupid: Do Not Use. Teddy was neither blind nor stupid (only desperate), so he would try. He had to. It was a matter of survival.

He dragged the industrial trashcan from its place beside Hegeland’s back door and climbed. For one taut second Teddy was certain he would topple as the can careened first north, then south. His searching, flailing hands found wrought iron and steadied himself. Now, face to face with the warning sign, Teddy turned and eyed his treasure. A pink triangle of tongue poked between cracked lips.

“I getcha,” he assured the shoes, which from this height he could see were Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. They could have been Dorothy’s ruby slippers. The way the shoes swayed mildly in the crossbreeze that whispered down the alley, the laces creaking against the arm of the post made him want to laugh aloud. No place like home, he thought wildly.

Teddy pulled on the forlorn fire escape to test its salt, eyeing the remaining suspicious three bolts that secured it to the primordial brick. They appeared rusted but intact. Teddy hauled himself up. His movement upset the trashcan and sent it rolling down the alley, spilling coffee grounds and cabbage cores. The fire escape groaned once and fell silent.

He rested to allow the steel a moment to adjust to new weight. Teddy shouldered grime from his cheeks. The sneakers swayed six feet above. He could see the signature star logo on the ankle, could make out the pattern of the almost-new treads. Just a bit higher.

Below, a busboy brought a bag of trash out of Hegeland’s and, ignoring the displaced can, tossed it indifferently to the side of the door. There would be food in there. Perfectly good food. There always was. Teddy thought that maybe he’d get a bite after he’d obtained the prize. Shoe shopping was hard work.

The fire escape on the next story felt sturdier. It held firm without protest when he pulled himself up. As he did, though, two of the remaining bolts below snapped, and the contraption scraped and dangled against the wall with a horrific screech. Teddy lay low, heart thundering, waiting for someone to come investigate the source of such racket and in seeing him, call the police. But no one came. Not even the busboy.

When his fear subsided, Teddy stood and threw a leg over the rail. The shoes hung dead ahead. They nodded in the wind, beckoning. All he had to do, he saw, was scramble onto the ledge of the nearest windowsill, and a three-foot stretch would claim his trophies. He climbed off the iron mesh. Traffic zipped below. The chirping of birds and the laughter of children wafted up and away. Before him hung the Holy Grail. Teddy extended a trembling, tentative hand. His fingers brushed the stiff canvas of the left shoe and it spun lazily away, taunting him closer. He leaned, dangerously angled, and it happened then.

Something arrowed over his shoulder from behind and landed on the left shoe. Teddy withdrew in shock, knocking his elbow hard enough against the corner to numb his fingertips. But the shout of pain and surprise that boiled from his lungs died in his throat when he saw.

PHOTO: Scot Campbell

A dove perched on the tongue of the shoe. Her black eyes regarded Teddy. A crooked worm hung in her beak, writhing. And then, from within that left shoe, arose a chorus of untrained voices. Four tiny pink heads raised up, their beaks aimed skyward, at their mother. Teddy and the dove watched one another for the snap of an instant before she stuffed breakfast into one waiting mouth and winged off again. A matter of survival.

Teddy paused, thinking. He knew what he could do and he knew what he could not. He descended the building much the same as he had gone up, opting to drop the final eight feet to the ground to avoid the busted landing. He sat for a while watching the shoes that with one shake could be shed of their tenants and strapped onto his aching feet.

When the streetlight winked on, Teddy sat up, pulled his knees against his chest, and watched Mama Dove fly back and forth. An indescribable joy seeped through him. He had witnessed something secret, something sacred. Something no one else in this world or the next would ever know. Terrible Teddy wept and grinned, and held his feet in his hands.

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  1. Replies
    1. Thank you! please feel free to read more of our short fiction and poetry in our archive.