High school senior Ashley St. Helens
has suddenly found herself living a fairy tale life....
Which is not as much fun as it sounds.
Until... the other shoe drops.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

No Such Thing As A Shoe

“There is no such thing as a shoe! Don’t believe me? Let me prove it to you. When I say ‘shoes,’ what do you think of? Maybe you think of your dad’s tennies, or of high-heeled boots that could minimize your feet. Me, I think of my favorites, my fabulous 1940s Carmen Miranda dancing shoes with the painted wooden cherries dangling from the ankle straps—cha cha cha—they’re in here somewhere. So what is a shoe? Shoes are an idea. An ideal. An ethereal concept that we attach to any variety of...of thing we attach to our feet. Shoes don’t have to cover your feet, or even protect your feet, necessarily, and you don’t even have to be able to walk in them. The one thing shoes all have, though, is a sole.

“Think about it. Say the word with me.”


“Now say it again,” he said, zipping up the back of my dress, “What does it sound like?”


“That’s right. Coincidence? I don’t think so! We all walk our own paths in life, and our shoes give us direction! They give us definition! We wake up in the morning and say, Who am I? Who will I be today? A soldier? I’ll wear army boots. A sailor? I’ll wear deck shoes. A spy? James Bond dress shoes with daggers in the toe, as shiny as mirrors so you can see up the skirt of that beautiful woman you’ll seduce in the midst of danger. Darling, there’s a purpose to every variety of shoe, don’t you see? Fuzzy slippers keep you warm. Movie star mules with a pouf of marabou on the toe, they don’t keep your heels warm, but they do say, aren’t I just the girl?

“Shoes both reveal and work with your identity, too. For example, indians wore moccasins to sneak around in the woods, to be part of nature, to ride their horses bareback. Cowboys wore high heels to hold them in the stirrups so they wouldn’t fall out, with tough leather soles so they could step on cactus, attach spurs, walk through a cow pie without it getting stuck in the tread. Indians do their sensitive campfire animal dances in the mystic smoke, communing with their ancestors. Cowboys stand up tall and strut, all ego; they square-dance and get drunk!” He did a little doe-si-do around me. Then he took my hands and pulled me down beside him on the bed.

“Ashley, do you know what it means to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes? Empathy. How can you understand someone unless you start with their feet? Wear their soles and you know their souls. Is any of this sinking in?” It was sinking in. It was blowing my mind! I wasn’t missing Rosencranz and Guildenstern so much anymore.

“So think of your own soul, think of how it makes you feel when you’re really feeling it, when you’re really knowing who you are. Footwear is important—but you’re never fully dressed without a smile, so if you love your shoes, and they fit both your feet and your feelings, you’re going to be a brighter light in this world.” He finished, took a deep breath, and checked his cherry-laquered nails. I sat there, soaking it all in. I could have applauded. I shook my head, instead.

“But Harry….” I had a serious problem. Two of them. “Look.” I held my feet out in front of me. My pontoons. My giant sleds. My cricket bats with bangers on the ends. Harry looked at me blankly—at my feet, at my face, my feet, my face. Finally, he leaned down and unbuckled his own shoes—metallic blue, high-heeled pumps with tiny ankle straps. His feet were encased in panty hose, but I could clearly see the nails were neatly manicured and painted the same girly red as his fingernails—but with pink swirls on top. I had to smile.

“No, you look,” he said gently. “Look closely.” I peered again. There was something odd about his left foot. What was it? It wasn’t ugly, it was...it was larger than life. He had an extra toe, right in the middle! “Honey,” he said, “sometimes what’s weird about us makes us special.” He crossed his ‘special’ left foot over his right knee, and then picked up my right foot and crossed it over my left knee, holding it to his, so our soles touched. I felt a tingle run through my leg, and thought of Kurt Vonnegut. Our toes and heels lined up. Our feet were the same size. “Don’t you get anything I’m saying? Look.” He waved his hand at the bed behind him, where shoes of every shape and style and color spilled out of his largest suitcase. “My shoes are your shoes, and I’m going to help you find the perfect one.” All of a sudden, I understood.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Familiar Embrace

A loud HONK from outside nearly startled me out of my chair. I looked out the window and couldn’t believe my eyes.

A shiny gold Cadillac convertible with white-walled tires, gleaming orange in the sunset, was pulling into the driveway. A large woman with gigantic hair waved at me from the front seat, reminding me of these commercials for the Konvertible King that we all used to see as kids. The lady parked, checked her lipstick in the mirror, got out and adjusted her skirt, pulled a few suitcases out of the back seat, and turned again to wave at me. She was wearing a colorful dress with chunky gold jewelry, almost like something Sylvia would wear, but on her it was the opposite of frumpy. Her hips were thin, her shoulders strong, her legs long and lean. She wore heels as high as Debra and Donna’s, but on her they didn’t look sleazy, they looked fun. I opened the window and remembered to close my mouth, not wanting to be rude.

“Hi,” I called down. “Can I help you?”

“Ashleeeeeeeeeey! Look at youuuuuuu!” She threw her arms wide open. “Get down here and give me a hug!”

I recognized the voice: it was Harry.

As I tore down the stairs, I understood why he had said I could call him my Godmother as well as my Godfather. Harry was not a small man to begin with. In high heels, and wearing a two-story wig, he absolutely filled up the foyer. His eyes darted around to take in every detail of Sylvia’s decorating style before they rested on me.

“Darling. How WONderful to see you again! My you’ve grown up nice — mmm, MMM, just the image of your dear mom. I think I may cry.” He held an embroidered hanky up to the corner of his eye and sniffed. I had to laugh. “There. Now give your old Godpop a hand with these suitcases. Where’s your room?” What, was he moving in? He talked and moaned the whole way up the stairs about how pretentious Sylvia’s decor was. And how awful that she had gotten rid of the Art Deco light fixtures in the upstairs hallway and replaced them with those tacky faux candle-sconces with flickering bulbs. I opened the door to the attic stairs and he gave me a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding look. “This is where your room is?” He had to stoop to get through the doorway at the top. “Good Lord child, I was in the closet so long, I think you must be a woman after my own heart!”

Harry threw his suitcases on the bed and flopped himself down between them, poking the mattress, peering underneath. “I see you’ve adopted a literary solitude, how wonderful and romantic! But a gal as lovely as you really ought to have some semblance of a social life.”

I could barely get a word in edgewise. “Harry, what exactly are you doing here?” I knew the answer, in my heart, which was dancing in my chest.

He ignored me, stomping over to the wardrobe in his clunky shoes. “I’m here to help you transform, of course,” he said, spinning around and giving me the full sunshine of his beaming face. “You’re growing up tonight, right? Well. I know the art of becoming a woman. I do it myself, several times a week. And let’s see what you’ve got in here...” He made a face at the sweater and the jacket, pulled the dress out, and practically danced across the floor with it. “Oh! It’s like seeing an old friend! I wonder if it will fit?

“Did I tell you the story? Your mom wore it to her senior prom. We went together.” He turned and winked at me as he lowered his voice and said, “Let’s just say I ended up wearing it later that night.” Harry hung the dress over the door and measured the waist with his large, manicured hands. “And I think it will fit you, just... so.” He put his hands around my waist, squeezing through layers of sweatshirt. I couldn’t help it. I threw my arms around him. I felt like myself, like I had felt when I last saw him at seven… although he felt very different, smelled different…. He picked me all the way up off the floor and crushed me in a familiar embrace (well, familiar except for the fake bosom).  It was like the other me with the terrible attitude that I was fifteen minutes ago had been someone else.

“Oh my dear, I’ve so missed watching you grow up.…” He put me down and kissed me gently on the forehead. “You’ve been locked up in a tower and I’m here to set you free. Are you going to put your gown on? Or just sit here like a bump on a log all night?”

I couldn’t believe it was happening. I jumped up and down like a kid, then reached for the dress. Harry excused himself to the hallway while I wiggled out of my sweats and pulled the sweet-smelling silk over my head. I shook out my hair, then stepped into my dad’s clean white tennis shoes—I’d thought about it all day; it wasn’t the eighties anymore; Sharon Stone had even worn tennies to the Oscars. I brushed out my hair, and opened the door.

“I’m ready!”

He stared through me for a moment, like I was a bump on a log. Then he shook his head and laughed a great big laugh. “Nikes with an evening gown? Girl, just DON’T!” I had to laugh, too. Those Just Do It ads always made me feel guilty that I couldn’t get out to exercise enough. “Now take your daddy’s shoes off, darling, and listen to what I have to tell you.”

He turned toward the bed and started opening up his suitcases. The latches snapped open, and Harry lit into a lecture I’ll never forget.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Vines of Doom


Another beloved feature of my room was an antique sewing machine, which had been a present to my mom from Dad before I was born. It ran on foot-power with a treadle, which I pumped quickly now to finish stitching up a burst seam on Sylvia’s dress. She showed up, next, in her girdle and pointy bra.

“Is my dress ready?”

“Yes, here it is.”

“Help me on with it, will you darling?” It was no easy task. I had to stifle a laugh when I noticed the iron-shaped burn-mark on her bottom. Oops! My bad.

“There.” I said. “Looks nice. Have a nice time.”

Sylvia’s tone was unctuous, just dripping with charm. “You too, dear. Have a lovely evening. Try and get the kitchen finished, will you? It looks clean, but I found dust on the top of the refrigerator.” Oh, for the love of pie. That really was a low blow. I’d worked hours on that kitchen this afternoon, digging the grunge out of the joints on the sink with a toothpick, even, making sure there was nothing, nothing at all that could be judged. But she won. She always won.

I sighed. “Yes, Sylvia.”

“Be a good girl, now.” She left, and a second later I heard the heavy front door slam. I settled in my bed, which was basically a mattress stacked on top of boxes of books, and started to read. But I had only read a sentence or two when the words in front of my eyes started to swim. Big drops of water plopped from my eyes onto the page.

I stormed down to the kitchen, the anger from my bitch session with Harry returning. One night. Why couldn’t they be nice to me for just one night? I wet a rag and swiped the cursed dust off the top of the refrigerator. Took thirty seconds. Big deal. On the way back up to my room, though, I wandered slowly through the empty house with the rag. I felt so alone. In my efforts to stem the comments and potential sabotage that would doubtless have come my way if I had showed any sign of initiative, my personal pendulum had swung from hope back to helplessness, and I had resigned myself to not going to prom. I would have to take the city bus or ride my bike in that amazing dress.

I found myself in Sylvia’s bathroom, staring at my limp hair, my baggy gray sweats in the toothpaste-spattered wall mirror. I smeared it around with my rag, thinking about getting the vinegar and water sprayer and some newspaper, and cleaning it properly, but… what was the use? Depression crept up from the soles of my feet, like evil, magic vines twining up to pull me down. I struggled with, and succumbed, to the terrible self-talk, automatically bending down to wipe up the water on the floor from her shower, adding my tears to it. I picked up the towels. I folded them neatly (in thirds; they really do look nicer that way), and hung them up again.

But, as I mentioned before, there were sparkles inside my head, and as I cleaned hair from the trap of the Jacuzzi Sylvia’d had installed, they shifted me to a new headspace....Instead of just wiping fingerprints off the brass knobs, I could open the spigot, fill the bath with bubbles, and give myself a treat.

Why not?

I pushed down the plug and opened the hot water tap, feeling possessed by the power of those two little words. I wiped around all of Sylvia’s bottles and potions, opening up each one until I found a smell I liked, coming from a cut glass bottle of green bubbles. But why stop there? As the bath filled, I washed my face with some sweet smelling almond foam, pulled open her makeup drawer, opened a lipstick, and drew on a bright coral mouth.

Then I caught my image in the mirror.

Oh my God. What was I thinking? I looked garish and horrible. I wiped the color off, buried the tissue deep in the trash so she would never suspect I was “intruding,” spat orange-red into the toilet two or three times, and flushed it. I stopped the running water, opened up the plug, and got myself the heck out of there.

As I lugged myself back up the stairs, the vines of doom came winding their way around my ankles again. I thought, maybe Debra was right. I don’t have a date. There was only one boy I liked, anyway, and everyone liked Jeff Prince. After fourth grade, girls and boys don’t talk to each other anymore unless they have to, and by the time we got to high school, well, I guess we’d both changed. I’d voted for him for Homecoming King. Everyone had, as far as I knew.

It would still be fun to go, if only to see him in his moment of glory. I closed the door behind me, glad to be back in my cozy room, and looked out the window at a sunset that was probably making him and all my other classmates feel pretty special and spectacular as they piled into limos with their dressed-up friends. I pulled out my journal and made some notes. My mom always encouraged me to write a little every day.

I wrote about Jeff. I was always proud of him, happy for him. He was a really good guy. In second grade, the music teacher had taught us this song: Ice cream soda, lemonade punch. Tell me, who is your honeybunch? We all had to clap along, on the quarter notes and eighth notes. Jeff had leaned over and whispered in my ear. “I’ll tell you who my honeybunch is: Ashley Stain Helens.” He had read my name!

I wondered, with my pen, if he still remembered this. If he remembered that I was sweet, and kind, really, in my heart, without all this drama that had taken hold of my life, sweet and kind and peaceful, and kind of fun, just like him.

I shook my head and started slashing at the page. Who was I trying to kid? If I went to prom, I’d probably get to stand in the back and watch him dance with one of The Girls. Yes, they had somehow been nominated, and Sylvia was confident one of them would win. I shuddered at the idea, feeling sorry for him. And then I sighed. I didn’t know what to do with this feeling, the feeling I wanted him. He was so adorable, but if I tried, maybe I could give him up… like I gave up everything else. There was no arguing with the fact that we were separated by pretty insurmountable obstacles. I closed my notebook, slipped it back between two stacks of books, and tried to start reading again.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wannabe Prom Queens

The next day, while Sylvia bustled The Girls around, I tried to keep a low profile, since every time I walked by one of them they’d ask me to do something. I was moody; I kept feeling flashes of anger, but I noticed how good I was at not saying anything. The injustice of it all kept bothering me, in a way it never had before my “bitch session” with Harry. My head was full of questions. Where had things gone so wrong? Why couldn’t I just stand up for myself? Why did I care so much about those coffee cup rings on the furniture? But mostly: Do I or don’t I want to go to the prom? It didn’t really feel like a possibility, but then again, I had that beautiful dress, and it was mine, mine, mine alone. It meant the world to me, and just thinking about it made my head sparkle with hope and excitement.

I really loved my attic room—the slant of the walls, the window that popped out under its own little roof, the musty, cozy smell. The corners of the door were even carved off to fit the opening into the angle of the ceiling. There were books stacked up all around the edges, where the walls were too low to put any furniture. Almost every book in the house was in my room. I had rescued box after box of them from the Goodwill box when Sylvia redecorated, and they made the place feel very cozy. Old books. Great Books. Piles of paperbacks. So I was never at a loss for entertainment. I read every night after my chores and homework were done. Before I talked to Harry, I had been planning to make some headway through Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead as soon as I had the house to myself.

The dress was hanging on the inside door of the antique wardrobe (the room had no closet), hidden behind the acid-yellow sweater and the vinyl coat, which was the color of a spray-tan. Every time I got back up there, between tasks and errands, I’d stop and peek at the dress, smell it, explore the cheerful pattern with my eyes, feel the pretty rhinestones with my thumbs.

I loved having a secret, too. When The Girls came in to lord it over me that they were going and I wasn’t, I didn’t really care. To me, Debra and Donna looked ridiculous. Between them, there was enough makeup to paint all of my exposed walls. Their bangs were hairsprayed straight up, as if they were competing to appear taller than one another. Their gowns looked like they had come from the lingerie department.

“How do we look,” they asked, jutting their hips out and flexing their legs, as if I was someone to impress.

I tried to give a compliment, really I did. “You look like wannabe prom queens,” I said. Not that I would know. I’d never seen a prom queen before. But the fake boobs Debra had gotten for her eighteenth birthday did look spectacular in the silky dress she sort of had on. My compliment did not come off well. Both of their eyes narrowed.

”Too bad you’re not going,” said Donna. She sort of sounded nice at first.

“Too bad no one asked you,” said Debra.

“Too bad you have no friends,” said Donna. The sarcasm was escalating.

“Too bad you have nothing to wear,” said Debra, fingering my jeans, which I kept folded over a chair back. Then she spotted an old dress of hers that I’d pulled out of the Goodwill box, and laughed. “Oh, are you going to fix that up?” Like I could fit into it.

Donna grinned and said, “You’ll need some birds and mice.” Debra high-fived her, clumsily knocking over a stack of books.

“What are you going to do with all your free time tonight,” she asked, her wide-open eyes made up to look as ginormous as the spots on a peacock feather.

“Maybe clean this dump up,” Donna suggested. I focused on my breathing, thought of my dress—being careful not to point to it with my eyes, and started counting the seconds until they left. “Bye darling!” When Donna tossed her natural-looking curls, they moved like plastic.

“Have a nice time,” said Debra, noticing that Donna was out-prom-queening her. She blew a beauty-queen kiss, so Donna had to, as well, as they stomped down the wooden stairs in their dangerously sleazy high heels.

I called after them. “Break a leg!” But what I really meant was “Break your artificial noses.”