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Going Away Shoes

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Going Away Shoes

  Going Away Shoes


  Jill McCorkle

  A Shannon Ravenel Book


  For Tom, with love

  and as always, for Claudia and Rob

  If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?














  Preview of Jill McCorkle's Latest Novel, Life After Life

  About the Author


  Debby Tyler is a mythical stereotype, the oldest child who stays home to tend the sick and dying mother while her sisters marry and have prosperous lives elsewhere. They pity her, she can tell. They tell her stories of late-blooming love and how they want to send her on a cruise, something batted around every year before the holidays but has yet to materialize. “It could happen, Debby,” they say. “Remember The Love Boat?”

  Does she remember The Love Boat? Shit. She still watches The Love Boat on those afternoons when she needs sounds and distractions but is too tired to read. What do they think she can possibly do all day while emptying a bedpan and answering to nonsensical screams and requests and more recently just monitoring vital signs and preventing bedsores. She knows all the reruns, nature shows, game shows, and soaps. Though when all is said and done, the soaps are the best place to be —vapid and dramatic people and situations and thus familiar to what she has witnessed her whole life in this very house.

  The Tyler family myth is old, overused, and unoriginal and yet very much alive, as family myths are in so many households, feeding and thriving on the pretense that everyone is happy and A-OK, that in fact they are a unique family to be so happy and A-OK. And of course there are a few characters in the family. The lineage includes an Icarus type, brilliant but doomed Uncle Ted, who crashed his Cessna, killing himself and two women he’d met at a convention called BoyToysRUs while en route to another convention called Beat Me in St. Louis. And a Persephone, rescued by her mother from the underworld, in the form of Wanda, Debby’s sister, who was shacked up with Paulie Long in a drug den, and their mother got all dressed up and drove down to Smyrna to get her. Wanda then had to go to rehab, which was referred to as “Wanda’s much needed vacation from the stresses of young womanhood.” The experience returned her rigid and righteous and ready to save any and all who were on a different path, a choice in Debby’s opinion that was just as bad and should be illegal.

  Debby’s other sister, Carly, would be Narcissus. She always has an eye in a mirror or window while watching herself conduct The Carly Show, which is all about Carly’s face and body, what’s new and changing. In fact, Carly, Wanda, and their mother all fit the Narcissus profile, whole lives jockeying for the hall mirror or those on the car visors. Even on Debby’s graduation day, when she needed somebody to button that shitty white eyelet empire-waist dress she was made to wear, she could not get help because they were all involved in doing their own hair and hose and zippers as if they were the ones about to stand up as salutatorian and say the prayer. God, don’t let me turn into them, she prayed in that moment, before really offering a more general prayer about healthy strong minds and those people who nurture them. She saw them there in the front row —her father dozing, mother turning to nod to those who wanted to tell her what a good job she had done with Debby, sisters looking around to see who might be looking at them and interested in asking them out.

  “I still don’t see why you left out the Lord,” her mother said afterwards. “I had written it on your paper —‘In Jesus name I pray.’ Didn’t you see where I wrote that?” Her mother went on to say how her dress was buttoned crooked, how on earth did that happen. She bet the people there on the stage —the principal and vice principal and that girl she should have beaten out for the better spot —noticed it, too.

  Sometimes Debby felt like Prometheus. Just when she got her liver healthy and plump again, the eagle descended to peck on it. The eagle with piercingly dramatic mascaraed eyes and talons done perfectly in Revlon’s Rich Girl Red.

  Dear God, next time I have a whole liver, please break the chains and let me catch a Greyhound the fuck out of here.

  It’s hard to watch a soap opera and not feel somewhat better about your own life —they have such huge problems and such stupid ways of expressing them. They say “I don’t understand” every other line, which is a stall tactic used to carry things over to a commercial. It’s like back before they had the shot clock in basketball and a team could just stand there dribbling and passing the time away. That’s what she’s doing there at her mother’s bedside, dribbling and passing the time away.

  The caretaker. She is the caretaker. They call her this with praise in their voices, usually after mentioning the phantom cruise, other times after reciting all the wonderful things they have recently accomplished, a recital that never allows them to look her in the eye. They look so little they didn’t even notice she has recently highlighted her hair, that she is in great condition —better abs than either of them —thanks to Sunrise Pilates on the local channel.

  And there’s the real answer: they can’t look and see her as a person with needs and desires the same as theirs. That would be way too difficult. There is clearly some shame, just not enough. They can rationalize that she gets to live for free because she is the one stationed in their mother’s house. That’s what the slave owners said, too. Good room and board. They have convinced themselves that were she not tending their mother, Debby would be all alone in some piece of crap house barely making ends meet. (She never came close to marriage, they often say.) They all know that the will provides for equal distribution of everything, including this house, and no one has ever suggested it should be otherwise. “If I have a dollar when I die,” their mother has said since they were children, “then each of my girls will get thirty-three cents and we will give that final cent to the Lord.”

  “Wow,” Debby said once, laughing, “the Lord won’t know what to do with all that.” She was still working full-time at the local paper then, covering social events and activities in town: engagement and retirement and silver wedding anniversary celebrations, ceremonies for Eagle Scouts and 4-H and the DAR. She was thorough without being boring; in fact people often told her they felt that they had been present at an event, she described it so well. She tried to make the most modest attempts (a church fellowship hall strewn with confetti, plates of pimento cheese – stuffed celery) seem elegantly simple, and those that were ostentatious (goody bags that equaled a week’s salary for anyone earning minimum wage and floral displays trucked in from out of town) she let speak for themselves. It was a matter of selecting which facts to tell and which to leave out, obviously a tactic she had long observed and studied.

  “I’ll give the Lord 10 percent then, and maybe even more,” her mother had said. Sometimes Debby’s mother promised the Lord more when she didn’t like the way Debby wrote something up. “Keep laughing at me, Debby Lynn Tyler, and the Lord will get every last goddamned cent.”

  Who knows where Debby would be or what she’d be doing had she not stepped in to help her mother. At the time it was no big deal; it would be a temporary bridge to a retirement village, where her mother might play cards and go on little group trips here and there, have her own little kitchenette. But almost as soon as Debby moved in, things went from bad to worse, and the place they had in mind was no longer an option. Their mother was in between a place wh
ere people are still living and thriving and one that is a kind of death row. So Debby is still here and she doesn’t even know herself where she might be otherwise, and in recent years, she has stopped trying to imagine. Now she just freelances on occasion, sharing her expertise with younger reporters about how to describe a wedding without it sounding as awful as it was. “When the bride and groom read their own vows,” she tells them, “don’t even try to quote. And just tell the color of the bridesmaid dresses and that the bride wore white or ivory satin or silk or whatever. Simple is always best.” It takes a while for them to learn, and some of them never do.

  Our sister, the caretaker, bless her heart. Of course, if not for mother, she’d be all alone herself.

  Caretaker sounds like Debby might be wandering some lovely rose garden, snipping away thorns and breathing in a heavy heavenly perfume. Instead she is changing Depends while trying not to humiliate this woman who gave her life just in case there is a moment of consciousness and clarity, the desire to make amends or to offer something that might resemble love. Those moments of consciousness do not come very often now and haven’t for the last several weeks; the sound of the oxygen tank has taken over the house as if the very walls are expanding and contracting. If it were Debby lying there, she’d want to be unplugged. Nothing has been more horrible to watch than that woman on the news day in and day out, with her people arguing over her fate. If they’d cared at all, they’d have gotten those goddamned cameras out of the room and handled their business in a more dignified way. “Please Release Me, Let Me Go.” —that was her mother’s favorite song years ago, and whenever Debby thinks of it she pictures her mother at the kitchen sink, hair sprayed into a perfect little flip, apron cinched neatly around her wasp waist like all the mothers on the reruns —June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, Margaret Anderson —only not like them at all.

  Please release me, let me go.

  Debby has contemplated writing a little note in what looks like her mother’s handwriting saying as much: I never want to be kept alive by unnatural means. Debby could find the note in the bottom of one of her mother’s purses and present it to her siblings the next time they pop in.

  The purses —there are at least a hundred. Just two years ago when her mother was still mobile and before Debby moved in full-time, she would arrive to find her mother standing in the doorway waiting. If she came by from work at five in the afternoon, or if she ran outside to check the mail during a visit, when she reached the front door, her mother would be waiting there, purse clutched and ready to go. It reminded Debby of all those stories you hear about dogs, like Roosevelt’s Fala, who never stopped waiting for his master’s return. Or her mother’s ancient chihuahua, Peppy, who never took his cloudy eyes off of his mistress even when he couldn’t move from the tiny heating pad where he spent his last days. The vets would have you believe that dogs have no sense of time, that they don’t sit for a week worried and wondering what you’re doing on vacation. And isn’t it easier to believe that? Debby had hoped that the same was true of her mother, her tiny bird shoulders sloping down, gnarled knuckles clasping tight to a purse. Her world had gotten so small by then, reduced to a closet of shoes and purses that she changed often through the days, transferring a stick of gum and Kleenex, pen and lipstick —from leather to silk to straw and back, as she relived a lifetime of various social events.

  Debby remembered the times that she rummaged her mother’s purses, sometimes finding things she didn’t want to see. She had often reached in during church looking for a pen to draw on the bulletin. She liked to do beards and earrings on the pictured preacher and all the deacons. Sometimes she did little speech balloons and made up secret letter/number codes in which she let them say things like, Give it to me, baby. Oh yeah, the kinds of things she had heard on occasion from her parents’ room during their big parties when she and her sisters got all dressed up and served canapés and then did a version of “So Long, Farewell” so their mother could feel like some kind of Maria von Trapp mother of the year.

  In church she found hotel keys and toothpicks from a martini —faint fruity liquor traces held tight inside the lining. Lighter and cigarettes —Virginia Slims and then those long thin brown ones —Mores. “I want More,” her mother said often, her comic and dramatic effect demanding the spotlight, not knowing that her desire might arrive years later in the form of lung cancer and dysfunctional children. Inside the depths of those purses was a whole warehouse of information: theater stubs, grocery bills, drugstore receipts. Even now, Debby can stand in front of her mother’s closet and glimpse her own life there. The soft red calfskin purse that brushed her cheek when she grabbed her mom around the waist and begged not to be left at Bible camp. The teetering patent stiletto that she focused on when her mother bent to kiss her goodnight and that she heard clicking down the hall, as she struggled to stay awake and listen to the voices of the adults gathered in the living room to play charades long into the night.

  She stands before her mother’s closet, this sealed treasure like Tut’s tomb of shoes and purses, and all she can think of is the miles traveled. The best article she ever wrote was experimental, a travel piece all about D.C. She was hoping to pitch it as a regular thing so she could explore new places several times a year. She did all the standard tourist stops but the focus of that piece was the Holocaust Museum because she could not stop thinking about that mountain of shoes. The orphaned objects held the memory of the person, arch to instep, leather molded to contours of flesh and bone. The click of all those heels lost to time, coming home, going to work, meeting a lover on the outskirts of town.

  Sad times —lost souls, everyone looking for a good one. Everyone seeking a cobbler of the heart. She put that in the article. She also wrote that one way to determine a good soul is to imagine that there is another holocaust and that you are crippled or freckled or someone who loves monster truck pulls or has a body mass index slightly higher than average, an SAT score slightly lower, whatever the undesirable trait of the day might be, and you ask, Will you hide me? Will you save me? Will you sacrifice your life to do so?

  The editor told her that several readers had complained that people don’t want to hear sad things or take depressing trips. “Our readers do not want questions that make them think,” he said. “They just want to be entertained.” He would like for her to write a piece about Disney or Six Flags or Myrtle Beach, something people can use.

  Debby used to blame her own sadness on her childhood and a lifestyle in which the kids were secondary, like pets, a lifestyle in which someone else, usually an elderly sitter, helped out with homework, tucked them in. Debby often fantasized that she was a child growing up in what her mother called “the cracker box houses,” a row of tiny mill houses out near the interstate. She knew the children who lived over there and knew people felt sorry for them. They wore hand-me-downs and got free school lunches. But she envied the freedom they seemed to have. Their parents were either not there or working too hard to monitor and comment on everything they did.

  Her sisters had bought the happy picture that had been painted of their lives and even now pretend that it had been wonderful right up to the day their dad died and they discovered (and never mentioned again) that his coworker at the bank, a large coarse woman they had all referred to as Big-Butt Betty, was more than just a friend. He died young and with plenty of life insurance; Betty was not a gossip nor someone with a social life. These two facts allowed the family happiness myth to survive and even grow, becoming easier and brighter with each passing day.

  After her purses, Debby’s mother loved her mink stole. She wore it to church and to cocktail parties from November to February regardless of the temperature. Then there were her shoes, of course. There was box after box of the special dyed-to-match shoes (Debby’s mother made them say “peau de soie”) labeled like artifacts: Engagement Shoes 1947, Wedding Shoes 1948, Cotillion 1951, Valentine Ball 1955, and so on. She loved her little Joan & Davids with the silver heels and that
cute little storage bag that came with them. She once told Debby and her sisters that she wanted to be buried in the spectator pumps she wore with her Going Away Suit after the wedding. “There’s still a little rice in one,” she said. “Take that out when it’s time.” She was young when she said that, their father still alive, and even younger those afternoons when she took out all the shoes and let the girls try them on and practice walking in heels. The one childhood game they could all agree on was Cinderella as they looked for the perfect fit.

  One sister, Carly, became just as obsessed with shoes as their mother and now has a closet filled herself. She owns Manolos because she wants to be Sarah Jessica Parker. Some of her shoes cost as much as a used car.

  Debby has been wearing the same pair of clogs for over five years. Once sturdy and solid, they are now wearing thin, and it is that part of her —the worn-thin part —that sometimes in the midst of the oxygen sounds and murmurs from the soaps (I don’t love you anymore. But I don’t understand. Bounty, the quicker picker-upper) wants to get up and walk away from it all. It is that part of her that breathes, Pull it, pull the plug.

  Memories of her father are dim because he didn’t say much. Still, he drove them to school every morning, and there was comfort in the way he smelled of Aqua Velva and listened to the news. He was a man who knew what was happening in the world, and though their mother never listened to a word he said, Debby had felt sure that if a disaster should strike, he would know what to do. But maybe the comfort came simply from going to school. School was a haven; she loved the warm yeasty smell of those big rolls they served every single day in the cafeteria and the broad smiles and loud voices of the women back in the kitchen talking and cooking, their foreheads and underarms sweating as they talked and stirred big steaming pots of beef stew or macaroni and tomatoes.

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