Photo by George Sheldon / Shutterstock.com
Mothers should smell of homemade chicken noodle soup or Chanel No 5 or windowsill pies. I remember you in the wet dog scent of inexpensive saddle shoe leather or plasticy, slick jelly shoes or porridge served in the front yard horse trough with the same wooden spoon you used for punishments. My friends at school speak of sleeping at the grandmothers’ houses with the sound of rain on tin roofs and pancakes sizzling on summer weekends; I only hear rain splotches dropping.
Do you want to know why I left? I got tired of siblings in my face and at my belly stacked up like firewood cords in our home that might go up like tinder. And yet, you insisted on smoking in your house coat each night in a house that fit you like a coat and was pockmarked with smoke rings.
You were always tired and had an old face when you were maybe thirty but worn from tanning leather and tanning childrens’ hides. I remember when I asked you to not come to school with your leather face and your leather apron. I saw you cry but couldn’t help myself. I wanted to be a normal kid for one day. Instead, you painted our shoes and our ankles white and put silver shoe bells on us like we were latchkey cows wandering the cul-de-sac.
We did know we were safe unlike the actual latchkey children because our mother fed us, warmed our bellies with spoonfuls of porridge and pottage. You laced up our house at night before shimmying in the side door and curling next to the always-new-baby that the doctor marveled at for a woman your age who had a husband who was always gone and who drove a truck full of giant shoes for basketball players and tiny shoes for people who lived in tiny houses and couldn’t afford suburban McMansions or Big Macs. Daddy never wanted us to leave when he left; we were nearly prisoners in the oft wet leather prison he made for you, and us.
I remember our one childhood vacation. It was all about the big things on the big interstate. Our enormous station wagon. Balls of string. Bowling balls. Roosters and dinosaurs and superheroes at gas stations. An upright fork at a fork in the road. Abandoned roller coasters and zoos and Howard Johnsons and Stuckey’s. Civil War tunnels to nowhere because no one was really still fighting, except us over beef jerky. Giant fairs full of giant produce with giant blue ribbons displayed in tiny rural counties.
When we got to the Largest Shoe in the World, we had doubts. Would it be as big as the flyer said? Would we be able to touch it? Was the hotel next door also shaped like a shoe but with fancy toiletries and indoor toilets and free socks and shoelaces? You told us it would be amazing but we weren’t convinced; that happens when you sleep in bunk beds lined with arch supports and swing on hammocks woven from shoelaces.
I saw longing in your eyes like that time you found white Easter shoe polish on sale at Wal-Mart and we bought it all and painted the living room for less than $20. More than that, I saw you measuring the space in your mind. Another baby on the first floor. A library of leatherbound books on the history of shoes and old women that did great things against all odds and all traveling husbands nestled on the sunporch. We stayed as long as the curator would allow and then began the long drive home.
You haven’t met my kids yet. There are only two because I stopped before I became a cliche like you. That feels harsh and I almost take it back and I know there’s that same sadness in your eyes, but I can’t. There are a hundred cousins or so my kids haven’t met yet but I can’t bring myself to come back home, because there’s really no space for me there now. I often wondered why you kept having children well into your middle years, but now I know. My children are moving out of my house soon. I feel a passing urge to backfill and fill my life with more but I made sure my children smelled roses and sourdough bread and perfume and went on vacations to wax-scented crayon factories and that I didn’t smell of more sweaty, stinky, poopy, sticky children than I knew what to do with.
My sisters have all returned to try on your shoes because they consider them to be lucky or fertile, but I don’t need that. I don’t want them. I don’t need to have more children. I go to sleep each night with the smell of fresh linens, sleeping next to a man that doesn’t make shoe prisons or truck them cross country or lace me tightly into one when he leaves for the day until I’m too scared and too old to leave home alone ever again.
Amy Barnes is the author of three short fiction collections: AMBROTYPES published by word west, “Mother Figures” published by ELJ, Editions and CHILD CRAFT, forthcoming from Belle Point Press. Her words have appeared in a wide range of publications including The Citron Review, The Citron Review, JMWW Journal, Janus Lit, Flash Frog, No Contact Mag, Leon Review, Complete Sentence, Gone Lawn, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong Quarterly, Apartment Therapy, Southern Living, Allrecipes and many others. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, long-listed for Wigleaf50 in 2021 and 2022, and included in Best Small Fictions 2022. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor and reads/judges for NFFD, CRAFT, Taco Bell Quarterly, Retreat West, The MacGuffin, and Narratively. You can find her on Twitter at @amygcb.