Red Shoes by Jackie Bischof

Charlie knocked the scuffed, mean-looking heel of her right Dr. Marten boot against the toe of the left. She knocked the shoes together in time with the swaying of the subway train, stopping only when the cars came to a slow, screeching halt.

Knock, knock knock… The train – and her feet – picked up speed as they left the station. A few minutes later, she switched her podiatry tick to match the beat of a Latino disco hit leaking out of a fellow commuter’s headphones. The knocks became steadily sharper, louder, and wider, attracting glares from her neighbors, many already riled by the day. Charlie didn’t notice. She was mesmerized by the blurred patterns that the scuffs on her shoes made as she swayed her feet.

The Doc Martens were a gift from her brother a few months before he died. Or rather, she claimed them before her brother had a chance to throw them away, and he graciously didn’t object. His feet were to be housed in a shiny pair of Kenneth Cole loafers, at their mother’s insistence. This was growing up apparently; a parade of shoes that marched you through life. Charlie, the third owner of the boots after her two brothers, liked the oldness of the worn leather, enjoyed wrecking it further. Her oldest brother had worn them in a series of entrances and exits in their childhoods, in the years when grunge had a hold on him and he was flitting to shows. Now in his late 30s, he had his own pair of Kenneth Cole loafers.

Doc Martens were making a comeback. If Charlie wasn’t stuck in her head half the time, she would have noticed. They weren’t a uniform like they were in the 90s, but they didn’t stick out on Charlie’s feet as she marched along the pavement in Astoria, increasingly surrounded by another uniform, this one a jumble of old, moth eaten sweaters and torn jeans, a hipster mishmash. There Charlie stomped, stomped, stompedher way through the neighborhood, lifting her feet to accommodate the shoes, two sizes too big, slapping them on the concrete in a rhythm that spelt out “Leave me alone.”

Charlie stuffed the shoes with cotton wool or rolled up tights into the toes to make them fit, cushioning her feet so they felt less lost in their leather cave. She knew, in a way, how clichéd it was to have worn Jake’s boots every day since he died. An ordinary salute to an ordinary death. Jake had died horribly and quickly one sunny day while swimming in the sea at the Rockaways, a tiny Queens peninsula that swelled with visitors in the summer and settled into quiet stillness in the winter months.

The trip to the beach that day was like any other Charlie and Jake had taken dozens of times before. The snacks packed for what felt like a ridiculously long ride on the A train. The books for Charlie to read and the beer for Jake already decanted into a metallic water bottle. He had nestled the bottle into the cooler they brought, lugged up and down stairs on the subway along with towels, food, books, sunglasses and sunscreen. They made this trip at least twice every summer, usually just the two of them or sometimes one of their brother’s kids if they were feeling generous.

Jake headed for the water the minute they put their stuff down on the sand. He nodded at Charlie, already setting up her towel and getting ready to bury her nose in a book. Charlie struggled to remember what happened after that. Her parents later told her that Jake, caught on a riptide, swallowed too much water and drowned within 15 minutes of their arrival.  The day started with a ride on the subway and ended with a ride on the ambulance. Charlie wasn’t wearing their Doc Martens that day.

“Will you cut that out?” a woman hissed at Charlie, who stopped her knocking suddenly as she snapped back to the present. With an icy glare, she crossed her legs, paused for a sharp breath and slowly started her knocking again, now in time with a game of Candy Crush being played opposite her. Quieter, though.

It was the second time Charlie had been reprimanded that day. She frowned as she recalled that morning’s conversation in the office of Elize Marshall at the Young Women’s LeadershipSchool. Charlie had arrived that day with pressed shirt, hair neatly pinned back, the hem on her plaid skirt recently resewn, and her Doc Martens, the black leather recently spray painted red, fumes still wafting after her as she walked into the office.

The thing was, Charlie was a fan of rules. She had been for as long as she could remember. Her joy in order, more than her brainpower really, is what had led her towards a scholarship interview that day, one that required a pressed shirt, neat hem and combed hair. An interview that didn’t require Doc Martens. Rather, whatever the female version of Kenneth Cole loafers were.

“You have to take them off Charlie,” Ms. Marshall had said gently. “They look so out of place, they’re too big and they’re not really – well, you. Not who you want to show to them, anyway.” Charlie nodded, avoiding Ms. Marshall’s gaze, staring intently at the penholder on her desk but flitting her eyes up every few seconds, just often enough to be polite.

“You’ve worked so hard to get to this place. I know those shoes are important to you. I know they’re Jake’s and I’ve let you wear them to school because of everything that happened,” - here, Ms. Marshall waved her thin fingers in a circle, as if to envelop the drowning, the shock, the funeral, the grief, in a circle of air. “But now it’s time to take them off.”

Charlie agreed to head back home to switch her shoes. Home was around the corner, the interview in half an hour’s time. But as she came to her street, she was hit with a smell of saltwater, a whiff of sea, a memory of the breeze on that summer day. Jake was gone, and he was never coming back. She reminded herself of that fact every day, and every day, she forgot.

She kept on walking, past her street. Past her corner bodega, past the Trade Fair supermarket and the Tibetan ladies spa, one of three on her street. She traipsed up the stairs of the subway, shifting her book bag on her shoulders. She waited for the N train and hopped on, focusing her gaze on the dotted floor until it turned into a blurred constellation.

Charlie transferred at 42nd Street, clop clop clopping her way through the underground passageway Jake had fondly called “The Tunnel of Doom” for its solicitors and the feeling of claustrophobia it caused the siblings. She settled onto the A train, knocking her boots together loudly, then softly, until the train’s final stop.

Charlie walked up to the stairs of Beach 67th Street and headed towards the waterfront. Blinking in the sun, she paused before the beach to lean down and unlace her shoes, a tear landing on the tongue of the shoe. She tied her laces together and swung them over her back. Then she stepped forward, sinking her toes into the sand.   


© Jackie Bischof, 2015

Jackie Bischof is a Queens resident, by way of Johannesburg, who has written and produced for a wire, magazine, websites and newspapers. She is currently a digital editor at Newsweek. She last worked as a producer and reporter for The Wall Street Journal’s Greater New York and Africa bureau. She has also had stints at Reuters, the BBC and Time Out New York. When not wrapped up in news, you'll either find her reading, eating, breathlessly jogging half-marathons or wishing the 18-hour-long flight to South Africa was shorter. 

Red Shoes was read by Kate Chadwick on 4th February 2015 for Entrances & Exits