He wore his black cotton socks, they said, but his shoes just couldn’t fit in anymore. In fact they said that if we wanted they could put his shoes in but it would have to be laid on top of his legs. I took them home instead, those shoes.
They were relatively new. Soft black leather with smooth soles, you could tell they were not used very often. Daddy referred to them as his “dress shoes.”
I remember him buying them in a posh men’s boutique in Makati. Something to do with quality merchandise all the way from Italy. Daddy’s ankles were narrow and elegant. He told me once how thick ankles looked so “common.” When he took his shoes off to try on the soft black leather shoes, it was obviously more ceremonial than necessary. He knew what he wanted, the soft black leather shoes were obviously made for him. The narrow angularity of his ankles showed off the perfectly fitted contours of the pair from Italy. I looked down and silently gave a sigh of relief. The long skirt I wore safely covered both of my “common” ankles.
He wore them, the Italian pair, only when he had to go to some party where you had to mill around and pretend you were having a good time, holding some watery drink. Daddy was not really a party type of person. He had to go to a lot of them, though. The family wanted him to go. He knew he had to go. He never actually said he didn’t like the parties, but I knew. I could tell by the way his eyes would often assume some distant look. Concentrating on some point only he could see, while the chatter around him slowly degenerated into a soft drone.
I tried to hold his hand once, imagining the large and warm hand over mine. He didn’t even look at me, but he held my proferred hand, automatically covering mine with his.
He held a tea-colored drink in one hand, mine in the other, both of us not knowing if he even knew we were there. All of these while his business associates, or so-called friends rattled on about the worsening political situation, or the burgeoning national debt. Through it all, I would hold on to Daddy’s hand. He held on to mine with absentminded solemnity, but I never really knew if he even noticed I was there. Twenty years since Daddy died. More since his warmth touched the pair of soft black Italian leather shoes. I can no longer recall the last “dress” affair he wore them to. I can only remember his not being able to wear them. I sometimes bring them out of the box, polish them, as Daddy would have wanted them. He was very particular about the way his shoes looked. He always said that the way you wore your shoes was very close to the way you actually were. He said that people always thought no one looked at other people’s feet or shoes. But that was what was important, you had to look where others didn’t. They revealed more secrets than all the words in a dictionary.
Sometimes, I try to remember how Daddy smelled while he stood with the tea-colored drink in one hand and mine in the other. It fascinated me, how such a mixture of odors could make me feel the lonely vacuum we both stood in. He in his leather shoes and hair cream, and I in mine. Talcum powder dissolving in the air-conditioned room. We both would stand there, without words, without looking at anyone or anything. No one really noticing. My hand in his, warm and safe, and undemanding. I would imagine us traveling out of the room in some vague adventure where only he and I could go. Then, come back to find them, still in the room, no one the wiser. It would have been our world. Our safe and secret world. He never knew it even existed.
But then my hand would start to feel moist and wet and uncomfortable. Daddy would then look down at me and start to smile a reassurance. He gives my hand a quick squeeze and lets go. And then, I would watch his receding back going farther and farther away from me. His dark Italian leather shoes punctuating the thick carpet as he took one step after another towards the bar.
The room’s soft party sounds would then start to eat away at the invisible void that surrounded me. I would start to notice a collection of mouths. Each, to some degree, an open aperture emitting a cacophony of strange clicking sounds.
But that was some time ago now. We grow older. Marry and have children. Live our lives in a cycle of one moment to the next. We draw on the treasure chest of fading memories. Sometimes going through them with more imagination than usual. But knowing, nevertheless, that whatever we choose to see could never be as it was, again. Even our fantasies do not stay with us. They somehow get lost somewhere in the passage of time.
Now, I only have Daddy’s shoes.
Facing the clerk behind the second-hand shop, I try to estimate the value of my father’s shoes, not with familiar or lost memories, but with the numbness of the struggle to evade, for a while, the overpowering smell of stale, raw fish paste and boiled camote tops. The tears should have been gone a long time ago.
Outside, along the store’s concrete wall, curious eyes try to put a story behind the leather shoes, exposed, waiting for judgment, on the glass counter. Their lips dry, pursing in a stiff rigid line as they inhaled a shared Marlboro. I could almost smell their rancid unwashed emanation, hidden underneath what looked like leather jackets. It was not cold enough yet, but their greasy lengths of hair seemed to need a security blanket. Petty power boys.
Trying to avoid looking straight into the shop clerk’s eyes, I focused instead on a mole he had beside a thick eyebrow. I opened my mouth. A faint uncertain murmur begged the mole for some sign of understanding, or kindness. There was nothing in his demeanor that I could relate to. I waited for him to say something instead.
“Yes?” His voice sounded angry, as if I’d disturbed him in the middle of watching his favorite beauty contest. I tried to smile. The large mole moved only a fraction. His eyes finally noticed the pair of dark leather on the glass counter. Both eyebrows now rose with undisguised pleasure. An image of him, trying the shoes on, his face shiny, slightly sweaty, the mole throbbing with covetous expectation, almost made me taste the bile in my mouth. My hand involuntarily tried to pick the shoes off from the counter.
“Three hundred.” He spat the amount with the money. His eyes never left the shoes. I tried to touch them one more time, a pocket of air met my fingertips. The box lay empty, the lid almost falling off the counter.
Outside the air was only slightly cold. The sun was still high. I heard their voices behind me. The cigarette smoke clouding the space around the entrance of the shop. I wanted to hide somewhere.
I felt a whiff of courage pass through me, like a soft and soundless wind, slight, almost gentle, but quickly gone. Like waking from a dream forgotten. I thought I’d set myself free from Daddy and the past, yet I felt no freedom in what I held in my hand.
I arrived in the large, silent house burdened with a bag of the evening’s meal. There was no light. We hadn’t paid the electric bill in the last six months. The cooking had to be done before the light faded from the horizon. The early evening mist was already starting to creep into the cold pine-scented air. I wished I had bought batteries for the radio. The silence was disturbing.
As soon as the fire started to burn a steady flame, I washed the rice with a can of water. While waiting for the rice to cook, I fried the few slices of meat I was able to haggle from a market vendor waiting for someone to buy the few unrecognizable pieces of meat he perfunctorily had to swing his arms over, preventing the flies from landing on the prize. The salt made the oil sizzle and sputter with odors I hadn’t smelled for so long. The table was going to serve more than just the usual watery bowl of instant noodles and rice. The children would be happy for the surprise. As the sky was getting darker, I covered the cooked food and lighted the small kerosene lamp.
I went into the bedroom to change the greasy sweater. The light from the small flame could barely illuminate the dark space behind the door. But I could still make out the bottle of Ginebra San Miguel, empty, on its side beside my husband. He was unclothed. The blanket I’d washed that morning for the children’s bed covered a leg and half an abdomen. He lay on the floorboards, his arms in apparent abandon. On the bed, another pair of legs drew the shadows. White and smooth and slender hands hung over the side. Sleep was so deep that I could hear the slight snore and whistle of their alcoholic breaths. The smell of naked flesh assaulted me. I closed the door.
When the children came home, I sat with them while they ate the feast I’d prepared. Their cheerful voices sounded small and distant. But their innocent chatter was happy.
“I got an A on my spelling, Ma!”
“Ma, we have to see the teacher about my costume.”
“My classmate told me her secret, Ma.”
“This is delicious.”
“I wish we could have this more often.”
I smiled and laughed and touched each one on the cheek. Their skins remained soft and smooth, baby skins. We put the dishes in the sink, washed them and dried them. We all sat outside, on the red cement steps, looking at the night sky and tried to count the stars. The cold night air curdled the grease on my sweater. I could smell the frying meat on the polyester weave. But, I couldn’t go in and change.
We decided to take a jeep down to the plaza. It was a Friday. The tourists hadn’t come yet. We could sit by the lake and watch the boats slip by. Sweet young lovers held hands under the weeping willows. The children ran to the swings and tried to touch the dark sky. They slid down the steep slides and screamed their delight. The playground was almost empty when we left. The circular globes lighting the park stretched a long lonely shadow. We took the last trip to our hill. My hands held on to each child’s warmth. The ride was short.
The singular lamp we’d left was starting to flicker. The orange glow from the window remained desolate. The children were tired. I too, felt the tiredness flushing my face. I wanted to sleep. I put the children to bed and washed the remaining dishes. It was getting late. Too late, I presumed.
I left his gin money on the table, and went to sleep with the children. I dreamed of Daddy’s soft, black, Italian leather shoes, and tried to remember the way it smelled, the way it felt when I touched the inner lining. I tried to forget the curdled grease on my sweater, and remembered to wash the children’s blanket in the morning.
Margot Marfori’s first book of stories, “Fractional Lives”, has just been published by the NCCA and the DWG.