How I hated those shoes. They were long, narrow, black, ugly and a size too big so that I could grow into them. My feet slid around, making running difficult. And when you’re an eight-year old boy you’re running all the time. It was my father’s idea that I wear those shoes—even though they were just supposed to be my church shoes—to school. Shoes were expensive, my father said. He wanted for once to get his money’s worth. “But what about gym?” my mother said. “He has gym most days.” My mother was on my side. But this was my father she was dealing with. He gave my mother the look that said there was no argument. In fact, there was never an argument about anything, not with my father. He looked down at me. “You’re wearing those shoes to school,” he said.
We were in my room. On my bed our dog Molly lay, watching us. She was a seventy-five pound Doberman Pinscher my father bought from a breeder the year before. She waited for his command. He gave it. “Come,” he said. Molly jumped off the bed and followed my father down the hall. My mother left too, without so much as a sympathetic look in my direction. I was all alone.
I dejectedly sat down on my chair, put my folded arms on top of my desk and my face on the back of my hands. My mind swam in the injustice of my father’s order. I couldn’t quite put it all together how wrong it was. I just knew that his command was over the top unfair. I could see nothing but suffering ahead for me as I would be the only boy in the whole school not wearing sneakers. I could already see the faces the kids were going to make at me. Their laughter entered my ears louder than I could bear.
Tears welled in my eyes and snot was streaming out of my nose by the time I heard the barking coming from down the hall. I didn’t get up though until I heard my father’s yelling. I wiped my face on my sleeve and cautiously made my way down the hall, through the kitchen, to the breezeway. There my father stood, dressed in several old jackets. He yelled at Molly. “Attack!” he said. “Attack, you lousy mutt! Come on.” He held out his arm inches from her bared teeth.
My father saw me in the doorway. “I’m testing her killer instinct,” he said. “That’s why I wanted a Doberman. You never know when we might need her to go after someone. Watch this,” he said, stepping towards Molly. He clubbed her on the snout with his forearm. I flinched and stepped back as Molly jumped at my father, grabbed onto his arm and wouldn’t let go. “That’s it, that’s it, dumb dog,” my father said, swinging her, on his arm, to the side. With his other hand he reached for Molly’s leash on the end table. With it he whipped Molly’s back. “Let go, let go,” he said. I flinched again and turned my body to the side, trying somehow to protect myself from what I saw. Only once before had I seen my father whip Molly. That was the time she ran away and didn’t come back until night. Molly shook in the corner of the garage as my father whipped her with the leash, my father saying over and over, “Damn dog, damn dog!”
Molly finally let go of my father’s arm. She now tried to bite at the leash as my father brought it down on her. “Let’s see how tough you are,” he said. “Come at me, dumb dog. Come on.” Molly growled through her big, sharp teeth as if she wanted to kill my father. I’d never seen her like that. I got scared and started backing up into the kitchen. My father whipped Molly again, and again he thrust his arm in front of her face. She grabbed it and hung on. She looked like she wanted to rip his arm off.
I kept backing up. I backed right into the kitchen table. I jumped, turned around, and took off down the hall. At the end of the hall, my mother stuck her head out of her bedroom door. She had the same look on her face as those nights she came out of the bathroom after groaning and groaning for hours on end and after my father banged on the door and told her to stop it, get out of there, he had to take a piss. When she came out I always met her in the hall and asked if she was sick. She always said, no, she wasn’t sick. She was fine. But she never looked it.
This time she asked me, “Is it over?” I shook my head. She went back inside her room. She closed her door and I closed mine.
Monday morning my father glanced down at my feet as I trudged into the kitchen with my head hung low, my book bag in my hand. He sipped his coffee. I sat down across from him and ate my Frosted Flakes. My mother washed dishes at the sink. Molly lay on the floor at my father’s feet. No one said anything. We rarely did.
I finished, drank the left over milk in my bowl, got up and gave my bowl and spoon to my mother. She kissed me on the cheek and told me to have a good day. I turned with my book bag towards the breezeway.
“Come here,” my father said.
I looked at him. What did I do wrong now, I thought to myself.
“Let me see in your bag,” he said.
I opened it up. He looked in. “Your sneakers in your bedroom?” he said.
“They better be,” he said.
Halfway to the bus stop I could see Johnny, Curtis and Patricia already up there. They were staring at my feet as I walked to them. Since they were younger than me and wanted me to like them they didn’t say anything about my shoes. In fact, they didn’t speak at all. They could see I wasn’t in the mood to talk. We all just stood there waiting for the bus to come, looking up the road, up at the sky. I just knew they knew what I was going through. They knew how I felt.
It wasn’t that way with Brian Macy though. He was the oldest of us. He was in the fifth grade. He lived at the other end of the street with his mother, who always seemed to be out, leaving Brian alone in his house. At some point we’d all been to Brian’s but never went back. The time I went over he soaked a tennis ball with gasoline in his garage, lit it with a match, then kicked it at me. I ran out of there with my shoelace on fire.
Brian was always the last one to the bus stop, which usually didn’t give him time to say much to us. When he did talk, he bragged about his beer can collection or how good he was at jumping ramps on his bike. We gave him space, let him go on and never challenged him. He scared us.
The day I first wore my shoes, though, Brian came at me before I knew what was happening. He walked right up to me, stepped on my feet and said, “Look at this idiot.” Then he stomped on them. “You look stupid,” he said.
I winced and moved away from him. His sudden and furious assault on me made me want to cry. I did my best to hold it in. I didn’t want to cry in front of my friends.
But Brian didn’t stop. “Those are the stupidest things I’ve ever seen,” he said. He stomped on my feet even harder. He turned to Johnny and Curtis. “Did you guys see these things?” They tried to smile as they looked away. No one was going to stick up for me. I was on my own.
I couldn’t hold it in any longer. My tears burst out. The shoes, Brian, my friends looking away—it was all too much. The tears poured, my chest heaved. “Poor little baby,” Brian said. “Is poor baby crying? What a shame.”
I turned and ran. I ran as fast as my shoes would let me, which wasn’t fast enough to outrun Brian’s laughing. I ran right into the house, through the breezeway, past my mother and father in the kitchen, down the hall, to my room, where I dove onto my bed and cried into my pillow.
Soon my mother came in, rubbing my back and asking me what was wrong. I wasn’t easy to understand but I got it out.
“What’s his problem?” my father said, coming into my room.
“Brian Macy picked on him because of the shoes,” my mother said.
“Macy,” my father said to himself. “That kid’s a punk.”
To my mother, my father said, “You drive him to school. I got to get going. Make sure he keeps his shoes on.”
To me, he said, “Stop that crying.”
I did stop crying but that didn’t mean I lost my sad face. I wore it to school, where my friends gathered around and asked what was wrong. I told them about my father making me wear these disgusting church shoes. They looked down at them and nodded. Getting my unhappiness out of the way seemed to blunt any criticism from the kids in my class. They didn’t mention anything about the shoes, and, as the day wore on, I almost forgot I was wearing them. Almost.
On the walk home from the bus stop I waited for more from Brian. Nothing happened. He didn’t seem to care anymore. He was going on and on to Johnny and Curtis about how he’d trained his pet rat to turn on the TV.
When I got home, however, it was a relief to finally take those shoes off, throw them under the bed, and put my sneakers on.
* The next morning I crawled on the floor, sticking my arm under my bed to get my shoes. I looked at them and sighed before putting them on. I knew that nothing could ever happen that could make me not hate those shoes.
In the kitchen my father wasn’t at the table sipping his coffee as usual. Molly wasn’t there either. I looked around. I didn’t see or hear them anywhere. As always my mother was at the sink as I sat down to eat my Frosted Flakes. When I finished I gave her my bowl and spoon. She kissed me on the cheek, told me to have a good day, and, with my book bag in hand, I headed to the breezeway. There stood my father looking out the window. Molly was on the leash, sitting beside him. I stopped and stared at my father’s back. Without turning around to look at me, he said, “Get going.”
I slowly opened the door, stepped out and walked to the bus stop. At the bus stop Patricia shook her head as Johnny and Curtis made fart noises with their armpits. I joined in, ripping off some really good ones. As usual Brian was last to the stop. We could see him coming up the road. He was passing my house when all of a sudden my father and Molly came out the front door. We stopped with the fart noises and watched my father and Molly walk ten feet or so behind Brian. Molly pulled as she always did when my father took her for a walk. Usually my father put the choker collar on her so that its pointed steel tips dug into her neck to discourage her from pulling. It never worked. Molly would still pull, making loud choking noises. At some point my father would yank hard on the leash and say, “Dumb dog, you deserve to choke to death.”
On this morning, my father let Molly pull him along. Behind Brian, she made her loud choking noises. She gasped for breath, sounding as if she wanted to get at Brian bad. He peeked behind him and then started to walk faster. When Brian got to the bus stop he stood several feet behind us, using the four of us as a buffer.
My father and Molly reached the bus stop and stood in front of us. Molly started barking and lunging in Brian’s direction. We scurried out of the way—Johnny, Curtis and Patricia to the right, and me to the left—opening an unobstructed path to Brian. My father held Molly back as she continued to jump towards Brian. Brian quickly ducked behind the telephone pole and hid there. He seemed to know why my father was there.
And if he didn’t, my father was about to tell him. “Brian,” he said, “what’s this I hear you’re picking on my kid? You think you’re tough, huh? You think cause you’re the biggest you can pick on anyone you want, huh? Well, come on, tough boy. You’re not the biggest one today. Let’s see how tough you really are. Come on. Come out from behind that pole. What’s wrong? Are you afraid of a little dog?”
I looked over at Johnny, Curtis and Patricia. They were backing away from my father, their eyes fixed on him. They looked scared. A queasy feeling began to form in my stomach.
My father inched closer to the telephone pole, Molly pulling him forward as she strained to get at Brian, her heavy breathing sounding more threatening. “Come on, Brian, admit it,” my father said. “You’re nothing but a little, rotten punk. You know it and I know it. Your old man left you because he couldn’t stand you. And your mother never comes home because she can’t look at you. You’re just a no good piece of shit.”
Molly yanked my father forward, almost causing him to lose his balance. Only a foot away from the pole, Molly started with her deep, low growl. On the other side of the pole Brian loudly sobbed, which seemed to antagonize Molly. She jumped up on her hind legs in an all-out attempt to get at Brian.
Just then Brian spun around the other side of the pole, taking off down the street. Molly barked as Brian burned sneaker rubber.
I watched Brian all the way to his house. I wanted to be inside with him, hiding from my father. I would have gladly let Brian take it out on me. “Punch me anywhere you need to,” I would have said. “I know how you feel.”
What happened next would never be mentioned by us children who were there that day. My father let out a laugh so loud and so full of pride that it instantly caused the four of us—Johnny, Curtis, Patricia and me—to spontaneously bawl at the top of our lungs. We really let it out. Every person within a half mile must have heard us.
My father either didn’t care about our crying or he misunderstood it. He said, “He’ll never bother any of you again. You’re all safe now from the big, bad bully.” With that he turned away and started walking down the street.
I struggled through my tears to watch my father stride onto our driveway, up our front step and into our house. How alone I felt at that moment even with my friends close by. Were they still my friends? Could they still be my friends?
Behind me I heard the bus approaching. But at that moment I wasn’t able to turn around to look at it. A giant glob of snot formed on the tip of my nose and proved too heavy to hold there. Its heft pulled it down past my throat, my chest, my legs, onto the tip of my left shoe, where it splattered, so green and so messy.
-- Kelly DeLong’s work has appeared in The Sun, Macguffin, Evansville Review, Roanoke Review, among others. His novel The Poor Sucker was published last year. His non-fiction book The Freshman Year at an HBCU will be published early next year. He teaches at Clark Atlanta University.