Willowbrook

At a quarter past eight on a steamy July morning that already had him sweating in his suit, Joseph Mandel, weekday manager of Florsheim’s, raised his bald head and listened. The noise came from the stock room. Boxes shifting, tissue paper crinkling. Nothing to be alarmed about, though he was aware of a mild queasiness rising from abdomen to chest as he left the register, which he’d nearly finished refilling with fives and ones. A rat, he thought, though more likely it was only a mouse. With the bars still pulled down over the windows, a rat let loose from the adjacent pet store might mistake the shop for its cage. That’s how he’d describe the place to old friends, those few who still spoke to him, who weren’t swayed by popular opinion—crotchety, disgruntled old men like himself, whose company he didn’t much care for. A cage, and he the rat behind the bars.

Mandel was a few years past retirement age, a small stooped man with big ears and hairless arms and legs, who always sported tartan golf hats outside, to protect his head from sun and rain. In the shop he broke company policy by wearing the old oxfords he’d bought on a trip to Chicago in the spring of 1961, polishing them himself every evening before going to bed. They’d lasted twenty-five years without a scuff, the soles replaced twice, the leather as soft as a young girl’s skin. He joked with himself, far too often, that if he ever lost this job, too, if he sank any lower in the world, he could always open a shoe-shine stand to supplement his Social Security check. As a boy he’d shined weekends in the Morristown train station, and even then he’d had affection for quality leather, the way it gleamed when you rubbed it right, the supple wrinkles where it creased at the toe.

He’d opened his own store in Denville just after he was married—late in life for that time, at thirty-one—specializing in children’s shoes because there was no other competition. He dealt with plenty of criers and pushy parents, but mostly he’d enjoyed saddling up little feet, the smile he’d get when he let a pretty girl in pigtails wear her new penny loafers out to the street. Though he didn’t have any children of his own, he knew how to keep them entertained, with a shelf of old wooden toys he collected at garage sales and an antique Mutoscope he’d picked up at a junk shop and had refurbished, loading it on alternate weeks with scenes of a ballroom dance and a barroom shootout. When they saw him walking around town, kids would run up and hug him, and parents trusted him enough that they’d occasionally leave their eight- or nine-year-olds with him while they did their shopping at the Grand Union. For thirty years he cornered the market and made himself a living his father, a house framer, couldn’t have imagined.

Then there was the business with the photographs, the accusations, the talk of criminal charges, the newspaper articles. His marriage, a mistake from the beginning, lingering at the edge of a cliff for a decade, finally plunged. His store sat empty three months, nothing but a customer or two from out of town. All the locals gave him a wide berth, pulling their kids away when they saw him on the sidewalk. He waited until his savings were drained before shutting down and retreating behind these bars on the second floor of the Willowbrook Mall, where he peddled shoes he wouldn’t put near his own feet to the tacky, overweight middle managers of North Jersey.

So why should he care if a mouse chewed holes in such inferior products? Or a rat, for that matter. Again he heard the noise in the stock room but was determined to ignore it. Instead he arranged sale signs on display tables, and then stood at the window, looking out through the bars at the empty hallway that would soon be clamoring with customers clutching buckets of soda, ready to buy whatever junk they could lay hands on. There were worse cages he could have been stuck in—the Thom McAn’s around the corner, or the Athlete’s Foot down on the first floor. The thought of selling nothing but basketball shoes—red and black ones, no less, with swollen, flapping tongues—made him almost grateful for the wingtips he’d straightened on the display table, shoes that would begin to fall apart with less than a year of ordinary use.

But this time he couldn’t ignore the noise, just short of a crash. A whole shelf of boxes, by the sound of it, tumbling to the ground. He wanted to leave it for the afternoon sales clerk but knew he couldn’t spend the whole morning climbing over boxes whenever a customer wanted to try the wingtips in a ten and a half when he was clearly no more than a ten. He felt the need for a sip of water before going in—or a sip of something stronger—but he didn’t have time to go all the way to the water fountain near the Fortunoff. He was set to open in half an hour, and he still had to raise the security gates and open a new box of credit card slips. He wiped his forehead, and to his surprise came away with a dry hand. For almost six years now he’d approached each moment with the thought that nothing could get any worse. And yet that didn’t stop him from experiencing dread—a feeling he knew well—as he made his way to the stock room.

Shoes littered the floor. Loafers, moccasins, a pair of ankle boots with a zipper up the side, some still nestled in their boxes, with tissue tucked around them, others toppled onto their sides or faces. And higher up, dangling from a shelf to his left, just above his head, a pair of feet, shoeless, toes curled. Size two, at most. The feet kicked gently in his direction, and he ducked his head to keep from getting grazed. Attached to the feet were skinny legs and then scabby knees, partially covered by the hem of a light blue dress. When he looked up at them, the legs stopped kicking, and the knees pulled up to a sharp chin. The remainder of the face he couldn’t see, curtained by light brown hair, long and wavy, resting on bony shoulders.

Not a mouse, then, nor a rat. He’d known it wasn’t a rodent all along, or at least he felt he’d known, though the thought came clearly only now. “We don’t sell girls’ shoes,” he said. “You can try the Bamberger’s, but I wouldn’t recommend it. What they carry, it’s worse than garbage.”

The girl said nothing, curling and uncurling her toes.

“You’re welcome to try something, of course,” he said. “We might have a pair in your size. But we don’t open for another half hour.”

More boxes fell, and then the girl was on the next shelf up, her little feet kicking again, too high now to threaten his head. Her hair slipped behind her ears, and now he saw a face he recognized, big somber eyes and a serious mouth, a curved nose that would cause her grief in high school if her parents didn’t pay to have it fixed. Those inquisitive eyebrows, arched over long lashes. That perfect, perfect skin.

“It’s you,” he said. “You haven’t changed.”

She pulled her knees to her chin again, and he could see now that the bottoms of her feet were filthy, nearly black on the heel. How could her parents have let her leave the house that way? What was wrong with people? She ogled him, eyebrows asking questions, mouth silent.

“The pictures,” he said. “I meant no harm.”

A box struck his shoulder, another his leg. And now she was on a shelf to his right, though he hadn’t seen her leap. She was crawling on hands and knees, shoe boxes falling away as she scurried deeper into the stock room, those filthy soles pointed at his chest.

“I did you no harm” he said, louder now, in case she was having trouble hearing him. “It was perfectly innocent.”

Even six years later he remembered what shoes she wore, white Mary Janes and blue ballerina flats for special occasions. He’d often tried to talk her into saddle shoes, but she had her own mind. Once she asked him for a pair of those flimsy canvas things—Keds, a clever-enough name, he supposed, for kids’ shoes—that would shred to ribbons a week after you put them on. But that time he’d put his foot down: she was far too pretty, he told her, to cover her feet with something so cheap and ugly.

“Did I ever lay a hand on you?” he called. “Tell me that. Did I?”

He’d raised his voice even louder, because the girl had made her way to the shelves at the back of the room, and with all the shoes on the ground, he couldn’t follow. He had no idea how he was going to clean this up before the mall opened its doors. No one was likely to come in for another hour or two, in any case. This early, people were here only to walk laps around the air conditioned hallways. Mothers with strollers and geezers like him. Like him, that is, except that they hadn’t had everything they’d built taken from them, didn’t find themselves, at sixty-eight, working fifty hours a week for a pittance.

“Not a finger,” he said, quieter now, kicking a box that had fallen almost on his foot. “The newspapers got it all wrong.”

He had trouble seeing the girl now. She was back there, hidden behind boxes, maybe, but when he thought he glimpsed one thing—a foot, an ear, a bare shoulder fringed with hair—it turned out to be something else, or nothing. The air in the stock room was stale but he was no longer sweating, not even under the arms. His scalp prickled. Someone had turned the air conditioning higher than usual. With such a draft he might have to put on his hat, though that, too, was against company policy.

“And another thing,” he called, cupping hands around his mouth, after rubbing them together to warm them. “Did the newspapers talk about the parents at all? That they’d leave their little girl for an entire hour, hour and a half, with a near-stranger? What did they know about me? Did they ever talk to me about anything but shoes? They were lucky I wasn’t some crazy sicko who liked to cut up little girls. Why didn’t they print that in the paper?”

He felt the fury of those early months return to him, a time before he’d felt so beaten, before he’d given up fighting, or wanting to fight. Now all he could see of the girl were her eyes—at least that’s what he thought he saw, in the dimness of the most distant shelves, cardboard and leather obscuring everything but a vague reflection of the overhead light.

“Did they even let me explain myself or apologize? Is that what you’re here for? An apology?” He was shouting now, but even worked up, he felt himself growing colder. He’d have to call the facilities office and tell them to turn down the air. Did they think he was storing meat back here? “I apologize. Are you happy now? So get lost, and let me get back to work.”

Then silence. He bent down, picked up a box, replaced its lid, returned it to the shelf.

“I didn’t mean to yell. But I don’t know what you want from me. Six years. There’s a lot of water under the bridge.”

A flash of hair and skin and fabric, a rattle of shelves, more boxes. There couldn’t have been many left to topple. No chance he’d open on time. Now he was shivering, and he thought maybe he was coming down with something. He should have called in sick. He should have skipped this day altogether. He should have stopped walking out his door as soon as it became clear that life held nothing for him but misery and humiliation.

“I did wrong,” he said. “I admit that. I never denied it. But haven’t I suffered enough? Haven’t I paid what I owe? If you want something from me you can have it. If I had anything left, that is.”

Feet reappeared, closer than he expected, sticking out from a shelf just to the right. And they were also bigger than he expected, not a size two but maybe a six or seven.

“Can’t you leave an old man in peace? I can’t do any more harm. I just mind my own business. Go to work, go home, watch TV. I haven’t talked to a kid in years. If one comes in the store with her mother, I don’t even look at her.”

He squinted and peered into the shelf, past the dirty feet and up the legs. There was the same blue dress, the same wavy brown hair, but the face was different than the one he knew: more sharply angled, the curved nose too prominent, the cheeks and forehead pimpled, the lips pushed out by braces, the eyelids smeared with make-up. A teenager’s pinched, bitter face. If he recognized it at all, it was only coincidental. He might have seen it coming out of the video arcade downstairs, or else standing outside the mall’s front entrance, smoking and menacing ordinary shoppers, one of a hundred ruffians in denim jackets and leather boots, wearing silver skulls around their necks or steel spikes on their wrists. Here he’d been, for five minutes at least, raving at a complete stranger. The dress didn’t fit her at all, ending far short of her knees, bulging at hips and chest.

“Get out of here!” he cried. “This is trespassing. I’m calling security.”

He managed to turn away, but when he did the shivers came on so strongly he hugged himself and took only a step before falling to his knees. When he glanced back over his shoulder, she—the girl, not the teenager—was sitting on the floor, legs crossed Indian-style on a pile of shoes and cardboard boxes, each hand gripping dusty toes.

“I’m not well,” he said, and then laughed a laugh that sounded strange in his ears. As if it were someone else’s laugh, or maybe someone else’s ears. “I haven’t been well for a long time.”

The girl. His girl. Late at night, in the dark of his basement office, in the house his wife now occupied with the owner of a company that rented out portable latrines, he used to study the photos and sing to himself, My girl, my girl, talkin’ bout my girl. He turned to face her now, still on his knees. She took the hem of her dress in both hands and started pulling it up over her legs. “You don’t have to do that,” he said. “Not here.”

When the dress reached her hips, he covered his eyes. In the other stock room, in his old store on Broadway, he’d said, “It’ll make the pictures nicer.” And when she’d hesitated, looking at him doubtfully, he’d gotten stern. “Do you want me to tell your mother you haven’t behaved?”

“I know I did wrong,” he said, and his voice now was hardly more than a whisper. “Don’t you think I know what kind of person I am? I’ve had to live with it. My whole life I’ve had to live with it.”

He heard her moving among the boxes, and he guessed her dress was all the way off now. But he wouldn’t open his eyes. For the rest of his life, he decided, he wouldn’t open them. The cold blistered his skin. It had gotten inside him, too, each breath searing his throat, slowing the expansion of his lungs.

“No one should have to live this way. Trapped like a rat in your own skin. Your mind with a mind of its own. You get married, you try to live an ordinary life. But you don’t get to choose who you are.”

Even with his eyes closed he could picture her without the dress, in that other stock room, on the sofa where he’d arranged her in one pose and then another, framing her first with his fingers, then with the camera. He could picture her in the shop itself, taking off an old pair of shoes and trying on a new one, the disappointment in her face when he told her he’d never let her wear those Keds. He could feel the skin of her ankle beneath his fingers, smoother than the smoothest leather. He could see himself in the dark of his office, flipping through photographs every night for months before his wife found them and threatened to call the police, before he burned them in the fireplace while she shrieked at him, before reporters started calling at all hours—staring at them with a reverence he’d felt for nothing else in his life. In nearly seven decades on this earth, these were the only moments of pure pleasure he’d ever known. And that the world would begrudge him so little only proved how cruel it was. He’d be happy to leave it.

“Enough,” he said. “I’ve been ready for years.”

There were other things he could picture: the bars staying down over the shop’s windows all morning, shoppers passing by with nothing more than a curious glance. The afternoon clerk arriving, finding the place locked up, going home. The evening manager discovering him here, lying face-down among the scattered shoes. His ex-wife’s look of relief when she received the phone call. The graveside service where a handful of old men listened to a rabbi gloss over his life, saying not a word about him that was true.

“Let’s go,” he said. “I’m ready.”

He felt movement by his feet. The sound of his laces being untied, a tug on one heel, then the other. And then clopping footsteps coming around him. He pulled his jacket tighter, though there was no chance now of getting any warmer. An unexpected sob escaped him. Why did what he want always have to terrify him? Why couldn’t he, for once in his life, accept the way things were?

“I’m sorry already,” he said.

His hands dropped away from his eyes, and he found himself staring down on his old oxfords, comically large around little girl feet. His teeth were chattering. His veins had nearly turned to ice. But until he looked up, it wouldn’t be over. This, too, he’d somehow known all along. So he hadn’t been ready after all. How could he be, when he didn’t know what was coming, when he didn’t know what he’d see. Beauty? Horror? Blinding light or infinite darkness? Love or punishment, understanding or excoriation? The simple bliss of oblivion?

“Forgive me,” he said. And then, unable to decide whether submission was called for, or defiance, he added, “Damn you.”

Two warm spots formed on his temples. Little hands. His maker’s? His destroyer’s? He took one last look at the shoes he loved, covering the feet he wanted to press against his lips—soft leather, softer skin—and, with effort, raised his eyes.

 

By Scott Nadelson

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