Shoes and Dreams
By Eugenia Viteri. Translated by L.S. Thomas
Luis Arturo, tall, green eyed, restless and energetic, is the leader of a group of kids who study at the neighborhood school by jumping from a bush.
His home consists of two rooms: a kitchen and a communal bathroom—a decadent throne, shared with the neighbors, which is located at the far end of a patio from ancient history. Children, women and elders alike frequent the small cave.
Children, women and elders are permanently lighting to get inside. When Luis Arturo, the tenant’s spoiled boy, the senior citizen’s counselor, and the kid’s advisor, decides to end the conflict, he arranges for the formation of lines and imposes time limits of three minutes per person and five minutes in the event of entering in pairs for those residents who needed to leave for work. Surely this cooperative operation is an enigma that can only be understood by the protagonists.
A similar thing happens concerning the washing stones, which are fought over after Sam. For these, the young man insists on two categories of turn: the first for the professional washers, the second for those who are only washing for themselves.
Luis Arturo is the first of five children who live with a short-tempered, domineering aunt, whom he adores and whose responsibility it is for the control and distribution of the turns for the stones. His father is a cobbler and his mother is an ass of burden in the miserable home.
People must live at home, but the rest of the world cannot be this cramped and dirty, overflowing with ugly crockery and unnecessary rags, stools, washcloths and plates scattered on four benches; which at night are transformed into uncomfortable beds like a gift from a bad fairy. In the detestable workshop those old, mud-stained, dusty, ruined, trashed, rejected shoes lie on top of everything.
Among the clientele, there is no lack of elegant adolescents who approach with a gentle breeze of the finest things; others resemble an ill-fated king on the way to the scaffold. They come for him to repair some slight rip, or to adjust a broken toe cap. Cocktail and reception shoes do not enter his father’s clumsy hands, perhaps because they consider them to be without quality.
They come to reassure our greedy stomachs, though they have little need for quality, that the customers will not stop filling the stew pot with food for Luis Arturo’s family. If that were the case, they would have died of hunger, like Miss Engracia Guano, that svelte woman who vegetated in a very faraway place when she sat on the ‘throne’, and died at dawn on a rainy day. The medics said she was in pain, but most of the patio’s residents affirmed that she died from hunger, since the spinster’s pride did not allow her to accept alms from other poor people.
Her friend, Luis Arturo, does not forgive himself for neglecting to visit her. With nostalgic eyes, he evokes her image: her vibrant figure resists the harshness of the years; her fine mouth smiles enigmatically; her expressive eyes illuminate the gestures of a broken woman.
A very valuable locket, a symbol of the ardent nights, is timidly exposed at her languid neck. On Saturdays at twilight, she covered herself with a fringed shawl from Manila. She was able to survive from the sale of her sparse furniture and knick-knacks. They found her three days after she died in an advanced state of putrefaction.
She used to be so clean, and used more perfumes and cosmetics than her meager funds allowed. Her face’s incredible freshness would capture the looks of the curious. The proceeds from the sale of the locket prevented the public collection that would have shamed and destroyed Engracia Guano. According to the expressed will of the deceased, which site had loyally written on a worthless piece of paper when she felt death was near, her bed—a rickety hammock—passed into Luis Arturo’s hands.
When he departs for school, Luis Arturo lives in a jubilant world. He leaves the bad smells and the clotheslines full of laundry behind him. During vacations the women finish with the bathroom around ten o’clock. He expands his lungs to breathe in the clean, fresh, invigorating air. Far away from his tiny room, the pure blue transparent sky presents itself to him, and the idea of being an astronaut possesses him until he makes it his dream night and day.
He aspires to walk through the sky and laugh at the moon that used to be distant and a vain dream. He amuses himself by imagining how it would be to see the Earth from that height. Would it be a minuscule dark body? No! Somewhere he had read about a dazzling spectacle: the Earth splendidly outlined by its unshakeable snow-capped mountains and silver- plated seas, with the scorching sun possessing it! And if this plan does not work, he would go off to sea, navigating all of the oceans, searching for the origin of life.
He does not exclude the possibility that his dreams might fade away and that in time the skies and the seas would also fade away; he would resign himself to making things solely with his hands a tailor, a mechanic, a chauffeur, anything; but never a shoe cobbler! Poor old man reduced to a three. He evokes his father’s silhouette, with his hands and his nostrils submerged in those dreadful shoes. Shoes, shoes, shoes! He approaches a mountain of dusty footwear, shoes of every color, every size, every odor. He selects a pair and examines them at length as if he were preparing himself for a dissection.
The owner of these must he a large good-natured person, who moves like a huge barge on the high seas. I’m sure he’s lame. Well, not properly lame, just pigeon-toed. Part of his humanity rests on his right foot, on its outer edge. The opposite happens on his left.
He moves them a little further from his gaze and reads them like a book. He has calluses, doesn’t wear socks and has never been in a bathtub.
With impassive eyes, he surveys the shoes which fill a good part of the two rooms. The workshop is partitioned by a brightly colored flowered canvas curtain, whose paint has disappeared in places from contact with his children’s dirty hands as a result of their habit of spying on the customers. His eyes settle on a few sensational shoes.
Yes, these have the mark of personality. He fixes them with a contented happy look, sensing their smoothness is as soft as a glove without venturing to touch them. Their perfect finish dazzles him. Who could they belong to? A minister! So! The President! No! I have observed it many times: chubby people can’t be the owners of these feet, of that I am certain: these belong to a man who is tall and thin. He delves further into the essence of the man’s character; he glimpses a new aspect of their owner: a tidy distinguished man without calluses.
These feet receive a pedicure every fifteen days. They have a vehicle that drives them everywhere. They don’t have to trot all over the city. They lay out in a bath for men only.
Farther away are some red sandals, a Bordeaux red, like the color of his friend Armando Lecaros’ blood when he cut his little finger with a brand new American pocket knife, while boasting about being a great proprietor of a rare instrument.
These are a teenager’s sandals: sandals without tiredness, sandals without sorrows.
He contracts his mouth into a bitter expression as he notices his clients are making a little progress. In twelve years, I have never encountered shoes like these in the shop. Now there are two pairs! Two pairs! And they are small ones, very small. He regretfully prepares to leave for his break. It does not bother him when he is stopped by a young man who holds out a bundle and advises him that he needs his footwear fixed that night.
He thinks I’m a mender as well: that’s all I need. I could throw that bundle in his face. I check myself and nod as I maintain an aggressive expression on my face.
The customer leaves and Luis Arturo examines the shoes. His expert eyes capture the details in a quick glance.
Good leather, intact toes, ruined heels. This coward takes all of his difficulties out on his heels. He walks a lot, and has acidic urine: naturally he lacks a proper bathroom.
I think about father again… Papa, Pa-pa… You never wash your hands before going to lunch. And those shoes. How can you lie down with them? Carrion, filth No. I have to be … Absurd! Who is going to pay for my education? And if my father stopped this, I would have to forget my dreams. I look at the shoes as if for the last time. This is not a workshop, but a garbage can, a cemetery, a sewer. And I slept next to him for seventeen years. I breathed that stench many years before I was born. Here they love my father. They love themselves; the misery unites them, and they bind him more each day. Here everything happens. Is that a home? No!
It’s a pigsty!
It moves away, leaving him perplexed by his father, who is just entering his workshop. If I am not content, at least I’ve been a soldier with him through the years of his battle with his tools, his stools, his grease. At least I am grateful for this kingdom that provided for the upkeep of his wife, his children and his sister condemned to celibacy by her ugly loudness. He only anxiously desires that his clientele will not deteriorate: more ruined, tattered, older shoes. All of them would slowly march, with privation, but also with hope.
One of his children will learn the trade: Shoe crafter! Manufacturer of handmade footwear! Creator of perfect models! It would be a shop that delivers luxury to everyone! A cobbler’s shop for ladies and gentlemen! My God, what a store! It would have illuminated glass display cases, rock crystal mirrors, first class curtains. He would he content with keeping a vigilant watch over the workers. He would test them and demand a superior performance and a perfect finish. There is a great difference between handmade footwear and that which is mass produced without grace, beauty and style.
This is for his son, Miguel.
For Luis, the first born, the future is proving difficult due to his excessive love for books. Who the devil did he inherit that from ? If I had the money, I would make him a lawyer, because the kid is intelligent, the first in his class, in sports. He knows how to give orders with a piercing look from his green eyes. The line and the list for the throne were his work – ‘Three minutes for each person, and five minutes if you go in pairs.’ If they spent longer, they would pay a fine. And when he believed the patio’s residents would reject it, they all consented because they love him. ‘Luis Arturo, there’s a light cord that’s not working.’, ‘The washer in the water faucet is damaged.’, ‘The drain is clogged.’ Luis Arturo here, Luis Arturo there… The boy never complains or ignores a request: ‘I am one of you; you can always count on me.’
The third son will be a mechanic because he has the devil in his hands. Irma will be the magistrate. I do not need to worry about the last born; that one is still walking on all fours. He sits down on his stool, his companion throughout the years, and, as bent as the number three, pounds the leather sole harder and happier than ever. With his favorite song on his lips, he breaks through the annoying noise from the hammer.
The shoes move. He searches for his pulse, feels his forehead and finds no sign of a fever. Doubting his eyes, he rubs them energetically and when interrupted by an unusual noise, resumes staring at the shoes. Now they rise up in a whirligig, whirling over Panchito and under Manongo, whirling like the one in the park, like in …Without an explanation, the shoes suddenly stop as if they are following an order.
Immediately they start to march, slowly at first. Squadrons of orphaned shoes without feet, without socks, shoes without legs, without owners! Luis Arturo does not miss a detail. He observes the way the older ones walk with short quick steps, trampling the younger ones which lag behind and are unable to avoid it. The shoes advance, surrounded by a violent dust. Black shoes walk, brown shoes take the lead, white shoes stumble, and shoes darkened by loose dirt surrender, blue shoes shake ferociously with clenched teeth! Sad undefeated heroes, they fight by continuing!
No one sees them. The young ones grow weary and they cause a scandal. They rebel! Surprised, the elders counterattack. Suddenly, some gigantic dark boots with an impeccable white cord rush in hitting with rage. The adolescents, the children and the elders unite in their defense, and the boots run. They run and run; they are not so strong. They go away terrified with their “giganticness”, their shininess, their darkness and their impeccable cords.
Frantically united in their defense and triumph, they sing, jostling agreeably and, suddenly irascible, launch themselves against the elegant ones. The only two pairs in twelve years! The unique ones! Luis Arturo tries to help them and he cannot because something stops him; when he tries to scream, he discovers that desperation has destroyed his voice. He sees the magnificent shoes and the sandals without sorrow fall in horror.
To the ugly, dirty, old and torn comes the calm triumph over the solitary and beautiful, now defeated and destroyed. Now united with the injured, the journey resumes. With difficulty they move away, listening to a distant tenuous music, which gradually succeeds in reviving them. Led by their compasses, they advance smiling and dancing in his direction, for they love music without borders. The boy recognizes the owners by their shoes.
How well our basketball team captain dances! He immediately discovers that Herman, the best student in the entire school, does not have an ear for music. He dances without rhythm or passion, yet he dances.
The scene and the grey mood are illuminated by the unmistakable sparkle from each one of them. Now no one suffers, no one fights; the dance inundates them with love. Luis Arturo shakes and is transported. The music, his friends…He wants to follow them, but his legs do not obey him, because they are buried up to his waist, rooted like a young tree with new sap. It is not mud or Earth! It is…they are…shoes. Shoes full of evil holes, shoes with fierce glaring eyes. They are rising, they are smothering him. And how the damned things stink, how they stink! I hate you, carrion! You won’t conquer me!
“Papa. Papaaa. Papaaaa!”
His smiling father caresses him. His clumsy tanned hands, so familiar with the carrion, are now warm, gentle and clean. No breeze could have caressed him more softly. Moved to tears, the boy kisses his father once, twice, ten times.