Casual White Slip-Ons – Jennifer Ferderer
Bill waited for his brother, Richard, on the curb outside the Summer Sky Recovery Center in North Pole, a thirty minute drive from Bill’s house in Fairbanks. His coat collar covered his cheeks and the bottom half of his frostbitten ears. He smoked a Viceroy. He was done with drying out. He hadn’t had a drink in fourteen days and Richard was late.
When the Oldsmobile pulled up in front of Bill, he opened the backdoor and threw his duffel bag on the seat. He opened the passenger door, sat down next to his brother in the front, and pulled his face out of his coat collar. His enormous ears were as brown as turkey skin.
“Looks like someone stuck two ripe bananas to the sides of your head.” Richard laughed hard and then sneezed.
“Assholes locked the goddamn door when I went out for a smoke.” Bill rubbed his ears but his gloves were so cold he stopped and took the gloves off and warmed his hands over the heater. “They make you smoke outside at forty below, then they lock the fuckin’ door. I had to walk all the way around the building. Stop at the Speedway. I need a beer.”
Richard laughed again, but not as hard. “No.”
“Jesus Christ, Richard, I haven’t had a drink in two weeks,” he said. “Just one and we’re outta there.”
“Sounds like that mandatory drying out worked wonders this time. You know that judge isn’t going to let you get away with this. You’re gonna have to go back there, Bill.” Richard didn’t look at Bill and Bill didn’t respond to Richard. “If you still want a drink when we get back to Fairbanks, you can make that damn donkey pull you in your cart down to the Boatel.”
Bill watched him wipe dust off the dashboard with one hand. “Watch the road, Richard. You can dust when you get home.”
“Learn anything in there?” Richard asked. He scratched his beard.
“Got anything to drink in here?” Bill searched under the passenger seat where Richard used to keep a flask of R and R before he stopped drinking.
“Why would I have anything to drink in here?” Richard asked.
“Don’t get high and mighty, Fancy Pants. I’m talking about a goddamn cup of coffee.” Bill stopped looking for a drink and fidgeted with the radio, in and out of Country and Christian. He turned it off when they passed the Speed Way.
“There’s a thermos behind my seat,” Richard said. “What was wrong with that last one?” He turned the radio back to Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.”
“Complete shit, that’s what.” Bill was turned around in the front seat reaching for the thermos that had fallen on the floorboards behind his seat. He farted. Richard tapped the brakes a little and Bill fell backwards into the dashboard.
“Asshole,” Bill said. He sat back in his seat and opened the thermos. “I can’t control this. The food was horrible at that dump. They take one thing away, the only thing I really like, you’d think they’d have the courtesy to replace it with some decent grub. My turkey sandwich had mold on it yesterday. Mold and mustard.”
Richard kept quiet and lit a Marlboro.
After pouring himself a thermos lid full of black coffee and refilling Richard’s mug, Bill also lit a cigarette. The cold air slipped through the two cracked windows. Bill shivered.
“You really going down to the Boatel when you get home?” Richard asked. The center line was covered in snow. The car swerved again when he took one hand off the steering wheel to sip his coffee.
“You betcha. Those assholes didn’t change this old fart. I can’t be fixed. I’m like Popeye.”
“Popeye? How the hell are you like Popeye? Popeye didn’t have five DUIs. Popeye didn’t drive a donkey.”
“You’re right, Richard, Popeye didn’t drive a donkey. But he did get spinach shoved down his throat.” Bill flicked his butt and rolled up the window.
Richard did the same. “Spinach was good for him.”
“He was just fine without it.” Bill cleaned dirt out of his finger nails with his thumb nail and wiped it on his Levi’s. Richard turned up the radio and sang with Willie Nelson. Bill stared out the windshield at the cars passing on the other side of the meridian. He felt a strange empathy for those cars having to function and push through the thick, white fog. As they drove further away from North Pole, the ice fog lifted a little along with his empathy.
“They told me I had to apologize.” Bill said.
“Who?” Richard turned the radio off.
“Those knuckle heads at the treatment center.” Bill sipped his coffee. It was still hot. “Can you believe that?”
“Are you going to?”
“Am I going to what?” Bill’s voice got louder. He set his coffee in the cup holder and flicked his cigarette out the window.
“Apologize?” Richard switched lanes to pass a Sourdough Fuel truck.
“What the hell for?” Bill slumped down in his seat and looked out the passenger window at the driver of the fuel truck. He nodded his head when the man recognized him and waved. Bill couldn’t place the guy. “Do you remember Lily when we first got married?”
“She was a real pretty gal,” Richard said. He turned and smiled at Bill. “Funny too.”
“How do you mean, funny?”
“I mean she was funny. You know. She had a good sense of humor,” Richard scratched his neck.
“I don’t think that’s the kind of funny you mean,” he raised his voice.
“Bill, calm down. I really meant it that way. Remember? She used to tell all those jokes.”
“You know, all those jokes she used to tell when we played Pinochle. Those North Dakotan jokes.” Richard pulled in front of the fuel truck. Fairbanks was five miles away. The ice fog thickened the closer they got to town.
“I don’t remember Lily telling any jokes. You’re full of shit.” Bill turned the radio back on. He didn’t say anything until Richard turned off the Richardson Highway onto the Steese Highway.
“You’re right,” Richard said. “She’s never really been much of a jokester or much for conversation of any kind.”
“How long has she been like this?” Bill asked.
Richard lit a cigarette before he answered, “A long time. She’s sick, Bill.”
Bill lit a cigarette too. “Did I do it to her?”
Richard exited off the Steese onto Airport Road towards Bill’s house. “I ain’t no expert but I’m pretty sure she came that way. And the vodka didn’t help.”
“You don’t need to come inside,” Bill said. He drank the rest of his coffee and put the lid back on back on the thermos. When they drove past the Boatel Bill looked at the parking lot to see if he recognized any of the vehicles. The ice fog was too thick to be able to tell who was at the bar. The bank sign next door to the bar read negative fifty-two.
Richard drove slowly through the neighborhood to the dead end where Bill lived. He parked the Oldsmobile in front of Bill’s house. Bill stared out the passenger window, not eager to leave the warm, clean car. He looked at his yard. It was littered with stacks of snow tires he’d planned to turn into flowerbeds years before. The metal porch swing was rusted and filled with snow. More siding had fallen off the front of the house, under the bedroom window. He thought about asking Richard to keep driving, to take him to the grocery store, church, anywhere else, but then he spotted Jack walking out of the shed. He walked very slowly to the edge of the fence. His facial fur was frosted over.
“Better go take care of that poor jackass,” Richard said, looking at the donkey.
“Maybe I should apologize to him,” Bill said. He reached over the seat to grab his old army duffel bag. “I’ll be seeing you.”
“If you want a sponsor…well, you know. There’s plenty more of that at my house.” Richard pointed to the floor at the coffee thermos.
“I got it at mine, too.” Bill pulled the handle and pushed the door open. Cold air filled the car.
“Fuck it,” Bill said. Then he got out of the Oldsmobile and slammed the car door shut. With his back to his brother, he stood holding his bag, staring at his tilted house. It had been built forty years before on permafrost and had needed to be leveled and shimmed for over a decade. He forced his way through the cold and unhooked the gate, walking toward the donkey.
He patted Jack’s nose and rubbed his ribs.
“How you doin’ Jacky-boy? Looks like you lost some weight.” Bill held the donkey’s face in his hands. The donkey didn’t look at him. His eyelids were covered in snow.
“You ain’t gonna be pullin’ that cart any time soon, are you pal? What do we have here?” Bill reached down and wiped snow off a pile of frozen carrots lying on top of the snow next to the gate. He kicked the carrots with his boot—mad that his sons didn’t follow his donkey feeding instructions while he was in treatment.
“Carrots? Those assholes didn’t listen to their old man, did they Jack?” The donkey lived on bar food, not carrots.
“I bet Lily has some Cheetos in there somewhere,” Bill said to the donkey. He stared into the house, with his duffel bag clenched in his fist. He heard the TV blaring out the picture window. He knew Lily was watching The Golden Girls. He pulled his sleeping bag out of his bag and covered the donkey with it. The donkey grunted a little when he pulled him back into the shed. Bill kicked the hay and blankets around with his boot and walked back into the house.
The screen door hadn’t latched in years. Its red paint was chipped. He turned the front door knob, holding the back of the screen door with his Bunny Boot. It was locked. “Good girl,” he said out loud to Lily, who couldn’t hear him. Richard had not yet pulled away.
Bill’s key was in the pocket of his winter coat. It was a single key connected to a Budweiser bottle opener he’d won at last year’s Boatel Super Bowl party. He hoped there was beer in the fridge. He shoved the door open and heard Richard honk and drive away.
“Lily, it’s Bill. I’m home.” He didn’t expect a response and he didn’t get one.
The house reeked of well water. There was an adult diaper, heavy and yellow, under the kitchen table. Bill didn’t pick it up.
“Hey, Hon. You hungry?” Bill asked Lily. She was sitting on the couch, eating microwave popcorn in her flannel nightgown and apron. She glanced at him and nodded, not smiling. She had not said a word, other than to the TV, in years. Bill wasn’t sure why, but he knew exactly why and when she stopped smiling.
The memory of her last smile was clear. It was on their youngest son, Martin’s, sixteenth birthday. She’d hired him a clown who showed up on their porch early in the morning before Martin drove himself to school. Bill was hung over and trying to get ready for work. The clown sang, “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” in German. Lily smiled and laughed. Martin didn’t smile or laugh. When Bill saw Martin’s face, he remembered that he’d asked for a rifle for his birthday. His other sons had gotten rifles on their sixteenth birthdays. Lily always reminded Bill days in advance. But on Martin’s year, she’d decided he would prefer a clown. Without a reminder, Bill didn’t know when his kids’ birthdays were. So Martin didn’t get a rifle on the morning of his sixteenth birthday. Bill planned to buy him one after work, but it was a Friday so he stopped by the Boatel for a beer and didn’t come home until Sunday night. He had no rifle with him when he returned. Martin died the following summer in a car accident. That was the first year Lily spent a month in the psych ward of Fairbanks Memorial. Before that she had only ever stayed a week at the most.
“How about some pasta?” Bill took the bag of popcorn out of Lily’s hands. He patted the top of her head. Her hair was gray and flat. It needed a perm. Bill fluffed it up best he could. The living room was filled with dolls. Not just porcelain. Cloth. Plastic. Rubber. Bill hated the dolls. They were the only thing left that Lily cared for. She petted them, kissed their foreheads, and swaddled them in her children’s old receiving blankets.
Bill walked the bowl of popcorn back into the kitchen and heated water for pasta. The fridge was surprisingly full. He had asked his daughters to check on Lily while he was gone, but he knew none of them would buy groceries. When he couldn’t find the beer, he remembered Richard had a key. He looked at the top of the fridge, where he kept his whiskey. Gone. He slammed the door shut and pulled out his pack of Viceroys from his coat pocket, which reminded him to take off his coat. There were no coat racks or hangers in the entryway. He dropped his coat on the floor and sat down in his kitchen chair to smoke. His ashtray had been emptied and the mail stacked into a neat pile. “Dammit, Richard,” he said to himself. He wished he had remembered to ask Richard to give the spare key back. He was just about to call him when the phone rang.
Bill answered, “Mmmm, Hello?”
It was one of Bill’s daughters. He wasn’t sure which one. They all sounded the same.
“You’re back? Thought you had two more weeks?” she said.
“Which one is this?” He stared at Lily from his chair. She crocheted a long piece of yellow yarn, never connecting it to anything, never turning it into an afghan. The one chain could have wrapped around the house a couple of times. She mimicked The Golden Girls, sometimes saying their rerun lines before they did, but she didn’t laugh.
“Jesus, Bill. It’s Susie.”
“I thought it might be you.” He was hoping it wasn’t that one. He owed her money.
The phone cord was long. The house was drafty. He brought Lily her cardigan, the one lying in the chair closest to him, coffee stained, thin.
“Listen, I need that money I lent you,” Susie said. “I have bills that need to be paid. Did you feed Mom yet? I left soup in the fridge.”
Bill wrapped the sweater around Lily. He tried to stuff her arms into the sleeves, but she wouldn’t put the crochet hook down, so he left the sweater sitting on her shoulders.
He walked back to his kitchen chair. The chair he sat in to read the newspaper and spray his feet with Tough Actin’ Tinactin’ after his showers. It was the same chair he sat in yelling at kids who whirled around him in diapers and prom dresses, then wedding gowns and maternity shirts while Lily cooked and did the dishes. It was the only thing in the house, besides the Lucky Lager and Crown Royal, that everyone recognized as his.
“I just walked in the door. Was thinking pasta sounded good,” Bill said.
“Mom hates pasta,” Susie said. “Do you have the money?”
Susie was Bill’s least favorite kid. She was always talking about money. Money she needed. Money she had. Money she lent out. And she called Bill by his name.
“I thought that husband of yours had a good job. Why don’t you ask him for the money?” Bill leafed through the mail. It was all bills. No letters. No checks.
“Braces cost thousands, Bill.”
“Dad,” Bill said. He opened the phone bill, one he thought he could afford.
“Dad,” Bill said. “Just call me, Dad.” The phone bill was forty-five dollars. He threw it into the garbage pail.
“Oh, I’m sorry, dad. Braces are thousands of dollars, DAD. So could you give me back the money you owe me, dad?” Susie screamed.
“Braces, huh? Braces? Why the hell does that boy need braces? Goddammit, Susie, I don’t even have teeth,” Bill said. Then he hung up the phone.
He suddenly felt hot. He took off his plaid Pendleton shirt and hung it on the back of his chair. He picked the lint off the collar. Then he pulled it all the way around the chair and buttoned it up, bringing the sleeves around to the front, as if he were still sitting there, legless and headless. He gave it a long look and then started boiling water for pasta. He left the stove when he suddenly remembered he had a stash of whiskey on the back porch. He passed Lily on his way to the back porch.
It wasn’t really a porch because it was inside the house, framed in with windows. But it contained a door leading to the backyard and as more and more of his kids moved out it had become storage rather than a bedroom. Bill looked for the shoebox full of Crown Royal one hitters he kept hidden for emergencies. He was pretty sure Richard didn’t know about it. He had trouble finding the box amongst the bags of baby clothes and kids’ school memorabilia. A mouse scurried out of a box of stuffed animals. It didn’t startle Bill. He was used to the mice. They were the only thing really still alive in the house. He almost liked them.
He found a shoebox that looked familiar. When he opened it he found that it wasn’t the one he was searching for. It wasn’t the one filled with whiskey. It was the one containing the casual white slip-ons. They looked just the same as they did a lifetime ago.
The summer after serving in Korea, Bill was living in Montana working as a shoe salesman at More for Less. Lily came in as a customer. It was July, the heat was too much, the department store was packed, people needed air conditioning and there were weddings happening all over Great Falls that weekend. Lily was shopping for a pair of shoes for her sister’s wedding. She tried on a pair of red, size seven, open-toed high heels. She talked to Bill about red being a terrible wedding color. She said she was glad she was not the bride, but at the same time she was tired of going to all of her sisters’ weddings dateless. She told him that she had just graduated from high school and that she was going to go to Seattle to study art. He didn’t know women went to college for anything other than nursing or teaching.
He put her veiny, slender feet into red heel after red heel. She walked around the little store, back and forth past Bill, who sat on the floor amongst piles of shoeboxes, watching her, wondering about her.
She told him it was the first time she’d ever worn high heels. She said she wanted to get used to wearing them because she was going to become a city girl.
He didn’t think she looked like a city girl. Her hair was messy and she didn’t wear jewelry. Her ankles wobbled. Her awkwardness was endearing to Bill. It seemed to him like everything to her was so new, like she looked at the world through a child’s eyes. He laughed out loud and told her she should consider flats, but she was determined. Finally she chose the tallest pair More for Less had to offer, the pair she had originally tried on.
When she went to pay Bill for the shoes, she discovered she’d, again that day, left her purse somewhere in the department store. She left the new shoes on the counter, asking Bill to hold them for her while she went to retrace her steps. He laughed at her again.
She didn’t laugh back. She said, “Why do I always do this? Why does this always happen to me?”
“Don’t worry, Miss. I’m sure you’ll find your purse,” Bill said to her.
When she came back an hour later with her purse and a new dress, Bill had the shoes already bagged behind the counter, and when she pulled out her little orange change purse to pay for her new shoes, Bill waved a hand at her, “It’s been taken care of, Miss,” he’d said.
She didn’t seem to understand at first, but then when she did, she didn’t argue.
“Need a date for this wedding?” he asked.
She hesitated for only a second and then said, “Yes, lovely, yes.”
The shoes cost Bill a full day’s wage.
Bill got drunk at Lily’s sister’s wedding and puked on Lily’s new open-toed high heels during the first dance. Her family was sophisticated, well-mannered, well-off. She was embarrassed and mad, but forgave him the next day when he called to tell her he wasn’t used to drinking so heavily.
On the phone, he told Lily that he’d just gotten back from Korea and that the last time he’d gotten drunk he’d almost frozen to death on a listening post. He knew he’d be alone, in the cold, for a long night. He snuck his whiskey rations into his coat pockets before they dropped him off. It got cold—thirty below. Nobody came for him. When his body started to ache, he drank the whiskey. The alcohol warmed his innards and distracted him from the cold and the war. “Now, that’s the way to go,” he’d said to her.
She said she’d never heard anyone talk about the war, not anyone that had been in it anyway.
At the end of the summer, Lily went to Seattle, but at Christmas came home heavy around the middle and depressed. Bill greeted her at the train station with the box of flat casual white slip-ons. The following Saturday she wore them beneath her wedding dress. Richard had just gotten Bill a truckdriving job in Fairbanks. Lily and Bill’s honeymoon was spent on the Alaskan Highway. They arrived in Fairbanks the second week of January and never went back. William Jr., the first of eight, was born in May. They called him Willy.
Bill took Lily’s wedding shoes out of the box and rubbed them. Then he cried. The tears confused him. He hadn’t felt tears on his face since Martin had died. They tried to make him cry at the treatment center, but he couldn’t think of anything sad enough.
He stood for a while longer, thinking about his young wife and his young self. He looked out the window. Part of the shed roof was missing. He wondered whether it happened while he was in treatment or years ago.
He put the shoes back in the box and placed them onto the bed in the connecting bedroom. He continued searching for the Crown Royal miniatures. It took him a while. He cursed Richard again. He was about to give up when he remembered he put the whiskey in a big, black garbage bag containing his old army gear. He found the bag in the corner, near the door. He took the box of whiskey out of the bag, not lingering on his old uniform. He opened the back door, and threw the army gear onto the snow in the backyard. He wiped his tears off his face and slammed a shot of whiskey down his throat. It burned like hell. He threw the empty bottle of Crown into the storage pile and opened another one, slammed it, and tossed it in the same direction as the last one. The more he drank the less it burned. Then he stuffed the remaining Crown shooters into the pockets of his Levi’s and the pocket of his white undershirt.
He left the back porch, taking the box of wedding shoes from the adjoining bedroom with him.
“Sorry, Hon,” he said when he walked back into the living room. It was the first time Bill had ever apologized to her. Lily didn’t look away from The Golden Girls. Bill kissed her on the cheek. He leaned down on one knee to pull her feet out of her slippers. Her feet were still thin, still veiny. But her toenails were now hard, long, and yellow, the ones on her little toes were missing. He pulled the casual white slip-ons out of their original box and slid Lily’s feet into them. They didn’t fit. Lily’s toenails were too long. Her heels squished down the backs. Bill left them that way. He stood up. The alcohol had reached his head. He stopped and steadied himself for a minute.
“I’m going out, Lily. Be sure to lock the door.” Bill squeezed her wrinkly hand, still crocheting. Then he kissed her on the lips. She was in the middle of mimicking the oldest Golden Girl, “Sicily, 1942…” Bill’s lips touched the inside of her mouth. Her breath was rotten.
Bill took a couple of the Crown shooters out of his front pants pocket. He reached in and found his house key. He set it on the kitchen table, next to the neat pile of mail and the ashtray containing a lone cigarette butt, in front of his Pendelton wool shirt covered chair. He called Richard.
“Richard, Bill here. Listen, I’m thinking that coffee sounds good. How about you picking me up tomorrow morning?” Bill opened two shooters and swallowed them one after the other, covering the receiver with his hand so Richard couldn’t hear him swallow. The whiskey warmed his stomach and his skin.
“Nine O’Clock sound good?” Richard asked.
“Nine’s good,” he said. He thought about telling him sorry. “I’ll be seeing you, Richard.” He hung up the phone and stuffed his pants pockets with the rest of the Crown Royal miniatures.
He found his checkbook next to the stack of mail and wrote Susie a hot check for three hundred dollars, setting it next to the empty bottles on the table, next to the key, in front of the chair surrounded in the shirt. He turned the pasta water off and stepped over his coat that was still lying on the entryway floor, across from the diaper. The front door was difficult to open because of the tilt in the doorframe. Lily suddenly, quietly appeared behind him. He wanted to hug her. She stared at the floor. Her feet were back in the slippers. Bill gave the front door one last tug and stepped into the ice fog. Fifty below hit his frost bitten brown ears, but he didn’t go back in for a hat. Lily wasn’t strong enough to push the door shut, so Bill had to pull it closed with both hands. He waited for the click of the lock then he stepped further into the cold, turning at the gate, in the opposite direction of the Boatel. He looked one last time for the donkey but the fog was too thick to see the shed where he’d left him covered in his sleeping bag. Bill had forgotten his Viceroys in the breast pocket of his Pendleton.
Jennifer Ferderer is a single mother of three living in Fairbanks, Alaska where it is half the time–seems like–fifty below and ten P.M. She bartends. People there wear pajamas in Fred Meyer’s way past noon. She wrote a collection of short stories about these things. One story from the collection was published in the South Dakota Review. Another will come out in the spring issue of the Jabberwock Review. Her collection won the Jason Wenger Award for Excellence in Creative Writing.