Liberty, South Carolina

The Nightmare of Sunday Shoes

By Chris Carbaugh

The clerks at J.C. Penney were getting a workout. The next day was Easter and shoppers were busy buying all types of suits, pants, shirts, ties, dresses, underwear – just about every type of clothing imaginable. MamaLu, our mother, was at the store with me and my brothers Curt and Paul, buying each of us a new pair of shoes. For some unknown reason, our shoes originated only from J.C. Penney’s or Sears; and Sears was not on the downtown bus line, so it wasn’t under consideration for today’s shopping. Our current shoes did look fairly ragged, compounded by the fact that the elastic in our mismatched socks was long gone, and they just drooped over the shoes. Even our shoelaces were pitiful looking. They had knots in them where they were tied together in three or more places, and their ends were unraveling. Thankfully, brothers Johnny and BB had inherited cousin Mac’s shoes, which were always in great shape, so they were not on MamaLu’s shopping list.     

MamaLu wanted us to wear saddle oxfords, those white and brown shoes that always needed coats and coats of white shoe polish to look good. We were not happy with the choice, but acquiesced as good children are supposed to do. We would have gladly accepted Mac’s leftovers, or for that matter, anyone else’s, if only they had fit us.   

The setup for shoes was such that only one example of all the styles was placed in view. The available sizes were kept in a back storeroom behind a blue velvet curtain framed by a proscenium-like presentation. The clerks made dramatic entrances and exits as they parted the heavy curtain. I halfheartedly expected Elvis to emerge at any minute with my shoes, a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich and a guitar. Of course, he would be wearing blue suede shoes. He never appeared.

Inevitably, the store lacked the right sizes of all the shoes. The three of us had decided, however, that we would refuse to wear a smaller size than our feet and that we definitely weren’t going to flop around with a larger size. I volunteered to be the first to try on the shoes in question, mustering all my resolve for a potential dispute. The clerk, who did not perform at a level worthy of his elegant setting, and who had the same demeanor as the most bland and monotonic mortician, measured my right foot, then disappeared into the vast unknown. He emerged a few minutes later without a puff of smoke nor any other dramatic flourish, but with an air of certainty that the shoes he was presenting were just the perfect size.

“You know that the sizes run small in this particular make of shoes.”

No, I did not know that, and how would I know? I was 6 years old, not 46. His emphatic statement rivaled any verse from the four Gospels or, at least, one of Paul’s letters – maybe the one to the Galatians, since we were told every other Sunday it was one of the most important letters. He slid the shoe onto my foot, laced it, and then mashed around to find my big toe.

“Oh, you’ll have lot of room to grow, and maybe you (referring to Paul, my younger brother) will get to wear them next year,” he said with a smile, more like a satisfied grin, as if he had made a sale.

“Now, walk around this area for us.” It was generally accepted that shoe salespeople must be obeyed, second only to the police, and third only to barbers and hairdressers. But I always felt uncomfortable parading about the shoe department wearing just one shoe. Usually, my socks didn’t match, or I had a big hole in at least one of them. Today, I managed to possess both conditions. As I attempted to walk, I heard the totally expected “flop, flop, flop”; not the “flip-flop,” but the “flop, flop, flop.” The two sounds had distinct origins.

Flopping occurred when the new shoes just would not bend, and hence gave the wearer and any observers the appearance that the shoes were anthropomorphic and in charge of the walking. The wearer was merely following the directions of the shoes, even while attempting to exercise some modicum of control over the flop, flop, flop sound when the soles hit the floor. It was not a pretty sight, and even less a pretty sound. Flip-flopping, on the other hand, occurred with worn-out shoes, when the soles were coming loose, making a distinct “flip-flop” sound when the two parts of the shoe met. It was similar to the sound that could be produced when riding a bicycle after putting playing cards on the spokes of the wheels with clothespins. The remedy of choice for flip-flopping was wrapping rubber bands around the affected area until new shoes could be obtained or the old ones repaired. It was a fairly common occurrence, and even teachers were known to provide the wider rubber bands needed for this condition. Jonathan, a friend, always had an ample supply for his shoes in his jeans pockets. He was always willing to lend. Our current shoes, unlike numerous ones in the past, had not yet reached the rubber-banding stage, thank goodness.

The new two-toned shoes under consideration were too big, too uncomfortable and too ugly. On my feet, they looked like I was participating in some high-brow wedding, and that I also needed some white pants and a pink-striped shirt, maybe even a red bow tie. They were not school shoes, nor Sunday school shoes, and they were not appropriate for the sacred occasion of Easter. I purposely emphasized the “flop, flop, flop” noise as much as I could, walking on the linoleum in the store rather than on the carpet ─ “flop, flop, flop.” I neither looked nor felt remotely human. Even other salespeople in the store noticed my dilemma. I felt some of them gave me their silent condolences, as if they too had experienced the same predicament at one time in their lives. My only angle for a hopefully instant rejection was that the shoe in question was already rubbing blisters on my heel, so much that I would hardly be able to survive Sunday school, church, public school, funerals or any function of importance.

MamaLu seemed to recognize that my heel plight was real and that it would probably be the same for Curt and Paul. She asked the disappointed clerk to bring out a pair of some nondescript black oxfords. The clerk, desperately wanting not one, but three sales, exited the stage and quickly re-entered with three boxes that looked exactly alike – one for each of us. He was beginning to look rather fragile, like these sales were a matter of life or death. He assumed that Curt, my twin, would wear the same size as me, and he just guessed at Paul’s size. He meticulously put both shoes on our feet using a shoehorn. He tied them, mashed our toes with an approving nod, and told us to walk around the store while he assisted another customer.

We took a long walk, stopping first at the candy counter and looking at the mysterious round pieces of chocolate with little white beads on them. We had never eaten them and wondered how they must taste. Someone had told us that they were bitter, so we never wasted our money on them. Also, the glass on the counter where they were located was always smudged, leading me to believe that the candy site, in general, was unsanitary. From the candy counter, we moved over to ceramics, looking at possibilities for our grandmother’s birthday. Everything was too expensive. We knew we would probably find affordable and beautiful selections in the F.W. Woolworth collection.

We eventually made our way back to the shoe department and were pleased that the current model of shoes actually bent a little when we walked, had not rubbed blisters on our heels and had not squeaked. But, most importantly, they had not flopped, flopped, flopped. MamaLu was there waiting on us, looking intently at one of the shoeboxes, but also with her pocketbook in her hand. The clerk, now more animated (I could see the dollar signs in his eyes), examined our feet and pronounced success in all three cases in regards to heels, toes and everything else imaginable regarding the fit of a shoe. MamaLu, however, seemed uncomfortable. She had a puzzled look on her face.

“How were the shoes,” the clerk asked almost rhetorically, then quickly answered his own question: “They were perfect, weren’t they?” Oh, what a fake smile he had! I wondered if his teeth were fake, too.

“They were a lot better than the wedding shoes,” the three of us responded. The clerk looked at MamaLu approvingly and asked, “Don’t they look handsome?” — as if that statement would complete the sale.

He was ready to box up the shoes, take the money to the cash register, and then pat himself on the back. I knew he was silently calculating his commission. MamaLu, seemingly conflicted, said: “Take them off, boys, and put them in the box.” We assumed that the transaction was settled until she made one more request of the clerk:

“You know what, I have changed my mind. I want the same exact shoe; however, in brown. It will match their suits and their other clothes better than the black. Would you mind going back one more time and getting the same shoes in that pretty brownish maroon color that is so prevalent with loafers?” The clerk, with head held low, picked up the boxes methodically and with some sense of resignation, and diligently headed towards the curtain, beyond which we now imagined there were at least a thousand or more styles of shoes.

“Come on,” said MamaLu. “Put on your old shoes quickly. We’re out of here – we’re leaving.” She grabbed Paul’s hand and hurried us out of the store’s back door, with our old shoes barely tied.

“What’s the matter?” We asked.

“Come on, and I will tell you later.” We hustled around the block, and MamaLu led us to F.W. Woolworth. She said that we were going to buy several items there. First, however, we went to the lunch counter and sat down. MamaLu ordered a Dr. Pepper. She seemed relieved to be out of the frenzy of J.C. Penney and to be sipping on her favorite soda as well as eating a Hershey bar. Curt, Paul and I chose cherry Cokes with lots of crushed ice, and we drank them as we whirled around on the red and silver stools.  

After the snack, MamaLu told us to look for brown shoe polish, both liquid and wax, and brown or black shoe laces. We knew the store so well that we went immediately to the right location for such items. I liked the liquid polish that left a bright shine when it dried. Our shoes would look like mirrors. Then, we would put some wax polish on top of that to add even more shine. When the wax was hardened, we would buff the shoes with the kit that the Fuller Brush salesman had given us. It would take a while – it was a Saturday afternoon project. We also selected some new argyle socks that had elastic in them; we all chose the same design — black, blue, and white triangles. I liked F.W. Woolworth better that J.C. Penney – it was friendlier. The clerk who checked us out said, “It looks like someone is getting ready for Easter. Don’t you want to buy one of our colorful chicks?” We smiled, and declined. The idea of owning and taking care of a green, blue, pink or orange baby chicken was not very appealing, and it just didn’t seem right the tiny creatures had been subjected to man-made dye.

It wasn’t until later that evening that I understood why we had taken the mad dash from J.C. Penney without any shoes. MamaLu could not bring herself to tell the less-than-animated, but needing-a-sale clerk that she didn’t have enough money for them, so she just made a quick exit. Now, she didn’t know if she would ever be able to enter J.C. Penney’s again, although she did remind herself that they always had good sales on curtains. She was thinking about a new look for the kitchen, perhaps more yellow; so she would probably return, but would carefully steer clear of the shoe department.

On Easter morning our array of hand-me-down outfits were spiffed up as much as possible and were accented by our old, but now rejuvenated shoes, which were as sparkling as our faces – all for the cost of some shoe polish, some elbow grease and some new laces. The old shoes fit us, and they were nicely worn in and very comfortable. We wore a red Paul Scarlett rosebud on our lapels and went to Sunday school and church proudly — and thankfully, without flop, flop, flopping.