Iron Shoes

( 3 )

Overview

Kay Sorenson is stuck. She is forty years old and still trying — and failing — to please her glamorous, willful, and indifferent parents. She abandoned a promising music career, settled into a loveless marriage, became a careless mother, and began to drink, smoke, and daydream too much. But when her mother dies, Kay is left without her lifelong crutch and is finally forced to take her first tentative steps toward becoming the woman she wants to be.

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Iron Shoes: A Novel

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Overview

Kay Sorenson is stuck. She is forty years old and still trying — and failing — to please her glamorous, willful, and indifferent parents. She abandoned a promising music career, settled into a loveless marriage, became a careless mother, and began to drink, smoke, and daydream too much. But when her mother dies, Kay is left without her lifelong crutch and is finally forced to take her first tentative steps toward becoming the woman she wants to be.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Giles may be known to a few from her acclaimed short-story collections, Creek Walk and Rough Translations, but her first novel is a masterpiece. In Iron Shoes, Giles introduces forty-year-old Kay Sorensen, one of the more compellingly drawn characters we've met-and one of many in this extraordinary debut. Beaten down by life and barely limping along, Kay does the best she can to care for her ailing, yet domineering mother, Ida, her disinterested health-freak husband, and her son, Nicky. Trying to wean herself off the comfortable haze induced by alcohol, Kay turns to her eccentric and troubled friend, Zabeth, for advice and comfort; and obsesses over the mysterious Charles Lichtman, who frequents the library where Kay works.

But Kay is stuck. Not who she wants to be, certainly not who her mother, father, or her husband want her to be, Kay is the black to her family's white. Her mother is (or rather was) a glamour-puss. Kay, by comparison, is heavy-set and ungainly. Her father dreams of Kay's illustrious, and now lost, career as a concert pianist, while Kay sweats over a local concert at a nearby church. Her husband, Neal, obsessed with taking the correct vitamins and ingesting only the proper foods, watches in horror and disgust as Kay lustily consumes quantities of dairy and meat, and more than her fair share of alcohol. But when her mother truly begins to die, Kay must face the music of her life-and either do something about it or continue to wallow in the mire, no hand in sight to pull her out.

A deeply honest look at a woman weighed down with the concerns of others, Iron Shoes is a dramatic and deeply moving first novel.

From the Publisher
Barbara Sutton The New York Times Book Review Giles...is a gifted writer — witty, with keen, comic timing and a graceful sense of economy.

Karen Karbo San Jose Mercury News Giles is a darkly funny writer — one is reminded of Carson McCullers — and her dialogue is sharp enough to give you whiplash...[a] tough, brilliant little novel.

Kate Flatley The Wall Street Journal Molly Giles is a cut above....With tart humor and sharp wit, she makes her characters boldly three dimensional.

Jean Thompson author of Who Do You Love Iron Shoes is fierce, funny, always exhilarating. This is comedy with an edge to it, and grief that sees with clear eyes.

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "intense," "well-written, humorous, and touching" debut novel by an award-winning short-story writer tells the "depressing" story of one woman's painful search for identity and meaning in the wake of her family's disintegration.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Though they are monstrously selfish, Ida and Francis McLeod, the aging parents of the middle-aged protagonist of Giles's haunting first novel (after her short story collection, Rough Translations), are drawn with such nuanced understanding that one ends up as sorry for their shallow lives as for their daughter's crushed and battered psyche. The glamorous, alcoholic, self-indulgent Sorensens are too immature to be parents. They have cowed their daughter, Kay, once a promising pianist, into a frantically abject servant to their many whims and demands, to the detriment of both her own marriage and her abilities to nurture her young son. Over the years, Ida has suffered many "accidents" that have resulted in injuries and crisis surgery (her second leg has just been amputated), a perverse form of punishment of irresponsible Francis and of servitude for Kay. An assistant at a small local library in Northern California, Kay endures her mother's vicious asides and blatant manipulation, as well as her father's sarcastic wit. Unwittingly, Kay has married another cool, distant man; Victor, her husband, stays away from her in bed and refuses to engage in conversation. It's no wonder that she conceives a crush on a hunk, a painter whom she meets at the library. After her mother's medical condition goes downhill and her husband becomes even more remote, Kay smothers her feelings in alcohol, sweet foods and cigarettes, only dimly aware that she has willingly assumed the "iron shoes" she describes in a fairy tale she tells her son. Giles's psychological portrait of Kay is completely credible; it's easy to see Kay's lack of self-esteem as a reflexive response from her to chronic emotional abuse. None of this is as lugubrious as it sounds, because Giles's narrative is animated with zesty prose, whip-smart observations and a refreshing roster of minor characters. In spite of the dark terrain this novel navigates, it is a sparkling and witty account of one woman's belated coming-of-age. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Kay, 40, drinks too much and works in the smallest branch of her California county's library system. Her husband celebrates Valentine's Day by buying her one, count 'em, one ticket to the ballet. Her architect father scorns and mocks every aspect of her life, disappointed that her potential as a concert pianist amounted to nothing. Her mother, Ida, is disappearing into her illness. Losing first one leg, then the other, Ida, who is bitterly helpless as the cancer decimates her interior, is fueled by her inventive, relentless attacks on her daughter's sense of self. In piercing, fresh language, Giles draws the reader compulsively into this tale of familial cruelty that knows no limits. Desperate to please and be loved, seemingly unsuccessful on both counts with all who are supposed to matter to her, Kay finally has as epiphany, a do-or-die proposition. Giles, whose first collection of short stories, Rough Translations, garnered her a Pulitzer nomination and whose second, Creek Walk and Other Stories, is a first-time novelist who must do it a was a New York Times Book Review 1996 Notable Book, is a first-time novelist who must do it again. And soon. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/15/00.]--Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor District Lib., MI Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Sutton
[A] funny, well-constructed first novel...Giles, the author of two previous short-story collections, is a gifted writer -- she's witty, with keen comic timing and a graceful sense of economy.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Award-winning storywriter Giles (Creek Walk, 1997, etc.) shows that she can extend her gift to the longer form, in an edgy debut novel. We first meet 40-something part-time librarian Kay Sorenson when she's visiting her mother Ida in the hospital following a second leg amputation. Sounds dismal, but Ida, glamorous and larger-than-life even without her legs, is as brave and funny as she is difficult. Kay is dutiful yet wary, and with good reason: Ida's illnesses have been the defining ritual of Kay's life. Ida has been falling and breaking bones since Kay was born, a pregnancy, Ida later reveals to Kay, she tried to abort. Nevertheless, Kay has stuck close to home, so eclipsed by her mother's histrionics and her father's inscrutability, and so uncertain she and her brother, Victor, were ever truly loved, that she can barely acknowledge her own arrested development. Kay's romance with the mythology of her parents' cracked devotion to each other makes her life with her son Nicky and health-obsessed husband Neal, whose best shot at comfort is a stingy, "Oh, babe," seem as warm and safe as an empty bank vault. So, to stave off the encroaching chill, and to delay her inevitable reckoning with the truth, Kay, like her mother and father, cracks jokes and drinks. Paradoxically, as the story unfolds, alcohol will serve everyone as both the potion of illusion and, after Ida dies from cancer, of clarity. The magic of this tale lies in Giles's exquisite prose (a scent, a sound on every page without strain), her willingness to lay bare her characters' warts with equal parts of mordant humor and affection, and in dialogue that sounds overheard insteadofcreated. While Kay's midlife dilemma is not uncommon, Giles's handling of this endearing heroine's shucking off her "iron shoes" to navigate the terrain of a new life is an uncommon beauty.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684859927
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • Publication date: 7/31/2001
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 0.55 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 8.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Molly Giles teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas. She has won several short fiction awards, including the Flannery O'Connor Award, the Boston Globe Award, and the Small Press Best Fiction Award.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Kay hurried down the hospital corridor, trying to balance the bag of gifts in one arm and the bouquet of flowers in the other. Her shoulder purse banged against her hip as she half-walked, half-jogged toward her mother's room, and her hair spilled out of its pins, wispy against her flushed face. Hastily she rehearsed the rules she had set for this visit: she would be light and charming; she would not complain about her husband nor brag about her son; she would not cry — as she had after the last operation when she saw what was left of her mother's leg — and she would not tell a single lie unless she had to. She checked the number inked on her wrist to make sure she had the right room, tucked her bunched blouse back into her skirt, and raised a hand to knock. The bag immediately slipped, tore, and spilled out of her arms. Not fair! Kay thought. The hangover she had been fighting all day kicked in and her throat watered with savage longing for a cigarette. She gathered the things, straightened, took a deep breath, and knocked again.

Ida, propped on pillows in a gold satin bed jacket, did not turn. She was staring out the window. "You took your sweet time," she said.

"Sorry." Kay tried to think of an excuse that would work. There was none. "I left work late. There was a lot of traffic. I got lost."

Ida turned and looked at her over the tops of her glasses. "You got lost coming to the hospital?"

"No. I got lost in the hospital. Don't look at me like that. It's a big hospital."

"You've been lost all your life."

"Sorry," Kay repeated, adding, "How are you?" which was the wrong thing to say. She braced herself, expecting to hear, "How do you think I am? I just had my last leg cut off. How would you be if you just had your last leg cut off?" But Ida only said mildly, "Fine. Except it seems I've caught bronchitis."

"Can you 'catch' bronchitis?"

"I don't know. One of the surgeons was sneezing all over me. Oh what are we talking about? Come give me a kiss. Christ! Don't sit on the bed."

"I wasn't going to."

"You most certainly were. You were going to knock me off balance."

"No, I was..."

"I have no balance at all. I roll around like a papoose. How would you like to be me?" Ida stared at her, glittering. How beautiful she was, Kay thought. Even now. Those huge eyes, dark as the sapphire on her clenched hand. The creamy skin. Cleft chin. Valentine mouth. The heavy diamond earrings were in place, only three days after surgery, and the surgical cotton dabbed with L'Heure Bleue was secreted somewhere inside the silk bed jacket; the whole room reeked of it.

"I would not like to be you," Kay said.

"Right. Do you know what Francis calls me now? Humpty Dumpty. Can you believe it?" Ida's eyes were full of tears and something else, some lit and sparkling secret life. Laughter, Kay thought, shocked. "I better not fall off any walls," Ida said gaily.

"A wall ought to fall on Dad."

"Oh he can't help it. I wish he'd call though. I haven't heard from him all day. What did you bring me?"

"Just these." Kay unfolded the sheath of flowers. They looked battered; not the brave flags she had seen in the florist's window, nothing but a bunch of bent and broken stalks. She tried to smooth them straight. "Gladiolas," she apologized. "They reminded me of you."

"They're lovely, darling. What color would you call that?"

"Orange?"

"Let me see. No. Bring them closer. I can't come to you. You may not have noticed, but I don't have any legs. And not in my face! I'll get pollen up my nose! Can you believe this? Bronchitis? Did you bring a vase?"

"I'll ask a nurse."

"I wouldn't if I were you. The nurses here are all dykes."

"Maybe there's one in the bathroom."

"Oh they're all over."

"I meant a vase."

"There might well be a vase in the bathroom. I wouldn't know. I can't go to the bathroom, Kay. I can't walk. Remember?"

"Yes, well, I'll go down the hall and find one. Here, Nicky made you a card. And I made macaroons. And here's a new novel from work I thought you might like."

Ida picked up each item and studied it closely. "There's been a mouse in the pantry," she said, shaking the cookie bag. Kay licked a crumb from the inside of a tooth and shrugged. I'm forty, she thought. I need to eat. She watched Ida examine Nicky's card. It was one of his nicer ones. Or was it? She leaned forward. Oh-oh. It showed a little boy with no hands running from a house on fire. "Don't Be Scarred" was crayoned on top. "I wonder why you let him use gilt," Ida said. "It makes such a mess."

Kay looked at the festive salting of gold and silver that had fallen from Nicky's card onto her mother's hospital sheet and let her eyes finally move past the lap to the two short lengths of thigh and then to the flat empty place where the rest of Ida's legs ought to be. There. She had looked. A roar of pity thundered in her ears. She had loved her mother's legs, their angles and curves, the saucy way they kicked out when Ida danced, the way they dovetailed together when she arced off the diving board. She had loved the sheen of the ivory-colored skin after shaving, the hard knees with their freckles, the strong square toes with their bright red polish. It had been hard to accept the loss of the first leg, a year ago, but this second loss was worse. Oh, what was the matter with Ida? Why couldn't she follow the diets, quit the cigarettes, do the exercises, forgo the martinis? Why did she have to lurch out of the wheelchair, slip in the bath, fall off the commode? Every time she hurt herself she got gangrene and every time she got gangrene she had another amputation. It was endless. "Mom," she said, "oh Mom."

Ida, ignoring her, picked up the novel and studied the author's photo on the back. "She's about my age, isn't she? Maybe even older. And this is her first book? Well! There's hope yet!"

"There's always hope."

"Easy for you to say." Ida set the book down. "Do one thing for me? Bring the phone a little closer? Just in case Francis calls while you're out finding that vase?"

Kay moved the phone as far as the cord would stretch and escaped.

Ida watched her leave. Then she rubbed her sapphire ring against the sheet to make it shine and rested her head back against the pillows. This morphine was stronger than the last time. She felt about six years old and it had been hard not to let Kay know that she was hallucinating. She turned her head — it felt as light and breakable as the bowl of a wine goblet — and looked out the window again. The horse was still there. Mr. Know-It-All. Bright blue. He had spent the morning advising her on flight. How it would feel, how she would do it. She would want wings, nothing fancy, the horse had said, but serviceable, strongly feathered wings; her own arms were too puny. She would have to strap the wings on, wheel herself to the window, and hoist herself out. Once out, she would fall — not far — a floor or two, and then she would rise. She would ride a wind current home. It would be hard sweaty work but she had never minded hard work and she would soon see her own house, tucked like a glass castle in the green folds of the mountain. She'd knock on the skylight and Francis would look up from his crossword puzzle and smile at her the way he used to, as if she were the most delightful creature in the universe. And then she'd settle down with Coco barking welcome and she'd float through the front door. And once I'm home, she hissed to the horse, you'll be gone. And once you're gone, I'll be all right.

Francis heard a knocking at the skylight and looked up from his crossword. Bird suicide number 241. You'd think they'd learn, but no. Birdbrains. He tapped out one cigarette, lit another, penned in a two-letter word for a three-toed sloth, and rattled the ice in his drink the way Ida did when she wanted a refill; it made a forlorn racket in the empty house. That was how Ida's ghost would sound, when she came back to haunt him.

Not that he needed to think of her ghost just yet. Jim Deeds said she was making record recovery this time around. Her only problem was her cough, and everyone coughed. Francis coughed a little himself, finished his drink, remembered they were low on Scotch, and rose to put it on the list. He paused for a minute in his stocking feet to feel the late afternoon sun slanting through the windows. He'd designed this house for light, forgetting that light, like everything else, is full of grit and scurf and flecks of filth. He put his hand out and watched dust motes touch and drift off his wedding ring. This must be how Greta, their so-called housekeeper, spent her day. In some Teutonic dream, batting at sunbeams. She didn't vacuum, clean, or cook. He should have let her go the first time she served sauerkraut with cocktail weenies. Kay could come up once or twice a week and do the same work for free.

He wrote "booze" on the notepad, then "fire Greta," then went to check the freezer for Coco's ground sirloin. Coco skittered to her feet as he approached but even though the door to her kitchen cage was open, it was clear she wasn't coming out; she was having one of her "in" days; the vet called it stress and Kay called it "the vapors" and Victor probably thought it was Possession by the Devil, but poodle psychosis was what it was, plain and simple, and a sad thing to observe. "Nut case," he said as he passed. Coco's black eyes trembled and teared beneath her tangled curls; she whimpered and thumped her expensive stick of a tail, then howled as the telephone rang.

And rang. Six calls in two hours. Two from Sunny-at-the-Office, one from poor Nealy Mouth, and the rest from Ida. Ida felt better today, no doubt about it. Problem was, he did not. His back ached and he was tired, tired the way he always was when he took an afternoon off work, as if there weren't enough time in the entire world to catch up on his rest.

"Francis?" Ida's voice, sounding dangerously close, recorded itself on the answering machine. "Francis, are you on your way over here, I hope? I need that round silver mirror. And could you bring some Vaseline? My lips are dry as a monkey's. Oh I hope you'll get here soon. What are you doing, anyway? Tell me" — she paused to cough — "are you just standing by the phone listening to me?"

"Why would I do that?" Francis mouthed. He poked through the packages in the freezer; there was plenty of sirloin; Coco would be fine through the weekend, unless her anorexia kicked in.

"To make me mad." Ida coughed again. "I have enough to make me mad. I've been seeing that blue horse again. And Kay brought me the kind of flowers you send to an enemy's funeral."

Good-o, Francis thought, padding back to his chair with the last of the Scotch in his glass, Kay's there. Maybe she'll make herself useful. Do something right for a change. Last week she'd shown up in baggy jeans, hair all over the place, two hours late to take Coco to the vet's. If anyone saw her like that they'd want to know what had happened to the prodigy girl, the first prize winner at the Music Conservatory. And Francis would have to say he didn't know. And he didn't. One minute you had a daughter who was going places and twenty years later you looked up and there she was, still standing in front of you with that same expectant look on her face. What happened to girls? Was it sex? Did sex make them stupid? Victor had never been bright, but Victor was doing all right, still married to Stacy, holding his own at the Ford dealership. Victor was slow but he got there. Kay — smart as a whip — could read music before she was five, and look at her. Dropped out of college to run off with a Gypsy, who in turn ran off with a waitress, went on to have her heart broken by a string of other jerks too numerous to name, worked one menial job after another, never saved a cent, never learned a thing, and now here she was, stuck in a hut in the woods, working at the smallest branch of the county library for peanuts, married to a dreamer as foolish as she. All those lessons. All that talent. Thrown away.

He settled back into his chair and picked up his crossword. His gold pen caught the late afternoon sun and flashed a swift wand of light around the room as he filled in word after word. He could feel night coming on — the great weight of the dark massing up from the mountain — but for a second, pen snapping and sparkling, he felt as though he could still keep it back.

The nurse at the desk was a young Filipina with an engagement ring who gave Kay a plastic container for the gladiolas at once. "You're Mrs. McLeod's daughter?" she asked.

Kay nodded, prepared for a curious look. People either liked Ida or they didn't — there were no in-betweens — and they often studied her brother Victor and her as if looking for clues to their mother. Victor was easy, as long as he didn't start witnessing about Jesus; he had Ida's dark blue eyes and cleft chin. Kay was harder to pinpoint. Grocery clerks sometimes asked for her ID when she filled her cart with jug wine, but that, she thought, was probably because her face still broke out. No one but Nicky thought she was beautiful, though Neal used to say she "looked fresh" and her glamorous friend Zabeth said she had "an old-fashioned face," whatever that meant.

"Your mother is an amazing woman," the nurse said now.

"Yes," Kay agreed.

"And your father!"

"Yes."

"Devoted."

"Thank you."

She dawdled down the polished hall, reluctant, after her great rush to get there, to return to Ida's room. She had always secretly liked hospitals, their jangle of bells and intercoms and footfalls, the underrush of Muzak and the occasional startling moan of human need. She liked the cool chemical smells and the bland wafts of hot food. Like home, she thought, like all those drafty glass houses Victor and I grew up in. "The Famous Francis," she remembered another architect telling her years ago, at one of her parents' drunken parties, "can design prisons and palaces but he sure can't design a place for people to live in, can he." She wondered now what had happened to that man; she had slept with him later, partly out of pity for his jealousy of Francis and partly out of gratitude for his contempt, and he'd been an eager, tender lover — a surprise — who wanted to keep seeing her, but she'd met Neal by then, and had broken it off. She had not had a lover since. Unless she counted Charles Lichtman. And how could she count Charles Lichtman?

Still, at the thought of his name, she shivered, rose on tiptoe, and hugged herself in the hospital corridor. Charles Lichtman always arrived with both names in tow, the way they looked on his library card, and though he was sometimes in the library, in her fantasies, reaching to pull her down to the fake bearskin rug in the Nature Nook, he was more often up on the ridge above West Valley. He appeared in walking shorts, no shirt, a rose-colored bandanna around his curly black hair. He drank from a canteen and rested on his bike, waiting for her to catch up with him. And the one time she had — what a disaster. Why had she just glared at the ground and pretended not to know who he was? How could she have pretended not to know who he was when she had been obsessing about him for months? And when he called to her, "Hey, Library Lady," why had she just waved as if batting a deerfly and trudged on? She didn't deserve to have a lover. She wasn't good enough to be an adulteress. They'd have to sew a big red D for Dud to the front of her dress. And anyway — "Library Lady" — he wasn't interested in her. He must have a hundred girlfriends. And she had Neal. And Nicky. And Ida, waiting for this vase.

Ida studied the horse. Say he was right. Say she could somehow get to the window. Say she could somehow open it — say she could even strap the damn wings on by herself. Then what? It was ten floors to the ground. Did he want her to die? Did everyone want her to just give up and die? Well they had a second think coming if that's what they wanted. "Nice try," she said to the horse. "But no deal." She was not as good at jokes as Kay and Francis but she tried one. "I'm not falling for it," she said to the horse. She heard a soft, uncertain footstep and followed the horse's bulging eyes to the door but there was no one there but Kay, unsteady as a twelve-year-old in high heels and cheap hose twisted at the ankles. "If God would give me my legs back, I'd even settle for ones as shapeless as yours," Ida said.

She winced at the hurt look that flattened Kay's eager face, closed her eyes, said, "Just kidding," and held out the novel. "Read to me?" she asked.

An hour later, Kay closed the book. A best-selling love story set during the Civil War, it had seemed a good choice for Ida, but already, by page 50, the hero had lost an arm in battle and his young wife had died in childbirth in a hospital with the same name as this one. "Sorry," she said.

Ida, still frowning out the window, said, "That's all right. Get my purse and find my lipstick, will you?"

"Where is your purse?"

"How should I know? Honestly. Use your eyes."

I am, Kay thought, and crossed them. Ignored, she searched the room until she found the navy blue pocketbook under a pile of magazines. She opened it with distaste. The stained silk lining stank of L'Heure Bleue and tobacco and the zippered compartments were crammed with loose pills and grimy candies. She stopped to look through a photo folder containing pictures of Nicky as a baby and Coco as a puppy, four of each. Ida's driver's license, expired three years ago, showed her in a turban and cat glasses, looking mean. Three $100 bills fell out of a dog-eared copy of The Prophet and a fortune cookie fortune ("Never apologize, never explain") was tucked inside the cellophane of a package of Merit 100s. "Hey," Kay scolded, "you're not supposed to smoke anymore."

"Oh good!" Ida brightened. "Hide them, will you? Here, by the bed so I can reach them later? Dr. Deeds will give me hell if he sees me."

"If I can quit, you can," Kay said as she put the cigarettes in a drawer in the nightstand.

"You're a better person than I am."

Kay looked up, surprised, but Ida was staring out the window again. She handed her the lipstick. The same red Revlon shade Ida had always worn, "Fire and Ice," worn to a beaky point. Ida took it without looking. She had thrown off the sheet and was flexing her thigh. It rose and fell, thickly bandaged in bright white strips.

"Is that a cast?" Kay asked.

"Of course not."

"It's bigger than your other one."

"That's because it's swollen, dum-dum." Ida lifted it up and down, up and down; she might have been working out at a gym. "Have you ever felt as if you've gotten half a BM out and not the rest? Because that's how I feel now."

"Probably a reaction to the anesthesia."

Ida nodded. "Like the horse."

"What horse?"

"Oh this horse who's out there talking to me. You don't have to look so understanding. I know he's not real. He's blue."

"Sounds pretty."

"He is not pretty." Ida took the lipstick, uncapped it, and without a mirror applied two swift red strokes to her lips. Kay watched, her own lips parted.

"I can never do that."

"Of course not. You don't even wear lipstick. Anyway, it's just a question of knowing where your mouth is. You do know where your mouth is, don't you?"

"Sure. I just look for my foot." Kay held her breath, waiting for Ida to say, "Look for mine too, why don't you," but Ida was rubbing more color on her cheeks and frowning. Kay pulled a small stiff brush out of Ida's purse and walked to the side of the bed, careful not to bump it. "Here, let me brush you out." She tugged as gently as she could through Ida's curls, shaping and fluffing. The tips were soft and blond but the roots were grey and damp with sweat. "You're so hot. You feel like you have a fever. Have you been taking..." Kay started, then stopped. Aspirin, she had been about to say. Have you been taking aspirin? You've just endured a major amputation, you're sick on anesthesia, you have bronchitis, you're hallucinating horses, and I want to know if you've been taking aspirin. She bent and lightly kissed the top of Ida's head. "There. You look gorgeous."

It was true. Ida's light hair haloed out around her heart-shaped face and the bright red lipstick which should not have looked good looked very good indeed. Ida flashed a thanks and continued to flex. Kay studied the new stump. She was used to the old one. Shaped like a slim beige sausage, tied at the tip in a neat knot, it often poked from beneath the hems of Ida's silk dresses. This new stump, though, was rawer. Ruder. More butchered-looking. Meat, Kay thought. That's what we're made of. No wonder Neal won't touch me. She licked her own dry lips. "Did the therapist tell you to exercise so soon?"

"Oh the therapist," Ida said. "The therapist is a Nazi."

Kay waited. Sometimes Ida liked Nazis.

"She picked me up this morning and threw me into that chair in the corner. As if I were some old pillow. And then she went to a staff meeting and left me there alone. I screamed," Ida said. "I screamed and screamed and screamed. Finally an orderly came in and I told him what had happened and he said, 'Here I think you and I can do better than that,' and he wheeled me over to the side of the bed and I clawed and scratched and pulled myself in. I did not stop crying for two and a half hours."

Her eyes on Kay were fierce and satisfied, and Kay could not look away. She could see it vividly: Ida like a maimed cat clawing her way back into the bed. I'll have to find the administrator in charge, Kay thought, her heart sinking. I'll have to make a complaint. She bit at her cuticle, stalled with dread. Then quietly it occurred to her that her mother might not be telling the truth. Things like this had happened to Ida before. She insisted she'd been blackballed from college sororities years ago, snubbed during her modeling career, dropped from dance troupes, and excluded from country club committees by jealous women who hated her. Just two weeks ago, she had locked herself in the bathroom to storm because a neighbor's wife had not smiled when they'd passed on the street.

"Did you talk to Dad about it?" Kay asked, her voice careful.

"Francis is useless in situations like this."

"Did you talk to your doctor?"

"You bet I did. Jim Deeds was absolutely shocked. No one should touch you, he told me. And when Morey Schoenfeld came in and I told him, tears came to his eyes."

"What happened to the therapist?"

"Oh she's biding her time. She'll probably try to get me tonight, when she thinks I'm sedated."

Kay nodded, silent, and stared glumly at the table where she'd set the flowers. There weren't as many bouquets as usual. Ida's friends must be getting used to her hospitalizations. There were some yellow asters from Victor and Stacy, with a plastic crucifix stuck in the middle, a basket of ferns from Peg and Pete Forrest, and two dozen long-stemmed red roses so dark they were almost black. "Who sent these?" Kay asked, smelling them. Beautiful things, but no odor at all.

"Aren't those spectacular? Glo Sinclair sent them. Duffy's widow."

"Remind me: is Duffy Sinclair the one who got electrocuted in the hot tub?"

"No, that was Darcy Lavin. Duffy Sinclair is the one who committed hara-kiri in his bathroom during 60 Minutes. Glo was devastated. He used her best knife. Don't laugh, Kay. It's not funny."

"It's not unfunny," Kay said. She reached behind the roses and pulled out a small handsome house plant. It had a name she couldn't quite remember, though she'd seen one like it at the nursery last week when she'd gone in to buy tulip bulbs. She read the card, looked more closely at the plant, and frowned.

"The mystery plant," Ida said. "It came yesterday and neither your father nor I could figure it out."

"It's from my friend Zabeth. You met her last summer. I had her to dinner right before you were supposed to leave for Greece."

"Oh. Right. The night I fell."

"One of the nights you fell."

"What?"

"Nothing."

"I hate it when you mutter. We never did make it to Greece, as you know. Now Francis is talking about going to India."

"With you? How?"

"I don't know. He thinks he can hire a bearer or some fool thing. Maybe he wants to stick me on a corner with a cup to beg."

"Mom."

"I don't know what he thinks. I just know it's late and he hasn't shown up yet. I remember Zabeth. Thin and tan and very flirty. Not your type."

"You've never liked my friends," Kay reminded her.

"Well you haven't had that many and most of them have been whores. Oh where is he? This is ridiculous. Yesterday he hardly stayed at all. What time is it now?"

"It's almost four. Most of my whore friends are just waking up."

"He gets so restless here, well, who can blame him. Yesterday he paced and paced, I thought I'd go crazy. I asked him to bring the sheepskin pad from the bed at home and do you know what he brought instead? The bathroom rug! He didn't even wash it! Oh look at you. You're still mad about that Zabeth person?"

"I like her," Kay said. "And she liked you. She thought you were beautiful and brave."

"Honestly," Ida said. "She doesn't even know me." Still she smiled, pleased, and started flexing again. A wiry swatch of grey pubic hair poked out from beneath the sheets as she lifted one stump after another. The old flasher, Kay thought. Ida had always been an exhibitionist, a breast barer, a skinny-dipper. The less you wanted to see, the more she wanted to show you. Just last week Kay had caught Nicky in the bathroom with her, dutifully peeling her nylon panties down so she could go to the toilet. "I'd do it myself," Ida had snapped, one hand holding a highball glass, the other waving a lit cigarette, "if I could, but I can't. Besides, Nicky's six; children in France help their grandparents pee all the time."

"No they don't."

"How do you know. You've never been to France."

Nicky, who was, Kay knew, fascinated, had started to say, "I'm seven, not..." but Kay shooed him out. "Poor Gramma," he had said, as he left.

"Grandmère," Ida had corrected. "And there's nothing poor about me."

"Do one thing for me?" Ida asked now. "See if the phone is off the hook? Sometimes I don't put it back correctly."

"It's on."

"Are you sure?"

Kay picked it up, listened, put it back. "Yes."

"He must be on his way. So. How's Neal?"

"The same." Kay wondered if there was anything amusing or interesting she could say about Neal. Nothing came to mind. "He's been working hard." What had he said last night just before he had fallen asleep? Oh yes. Another wasted day. "Today's our anniversary," she added, "and he forgot."

"That slug. I always said he was too old for you. Well at least you have your music. I wish I had something. How are the rehearsals going for your concert?"

"It's not my concert, Mom. It's Walt Fredericks's concert."

"But you have an important solo."

"One piece. Yes. I wish..." She stopped. I wish I could play better, she thought. The first notes of the piece she was to play began to sing in her head and she tapped her fingers on her lap, too fast.

"And the concert hall has wheelchair access?"

"It's not a concert hall. It's the West Valley Community Church. And, yes. It does."

"Good. Because I am going to be there." Ida drew the sheet up, smoothed it down, and fixed her eyes firmly on Kay. "I am going to be there if they have to carry me in on a stretcher. Tell me again what day it is."

"November something. Still a few weeks to get ready. By then maybe we'll be worth hearing. But right now..." Kay thought of Walt Fredericks and shook her head. Walt was a large, tremulous, excitable man with tiny hands and feet who liked to say that he had "discovered" Kay after he heard her playing on the old upright at the library last summer. He insisted he "knew talent," yet in rehearsals he never noticed when Kay's playing was all passion and slop or when it went tick-tick-tick like a mechanical pulse. He looked at her with his hot eyes brimming no matter how well or how poorly she played and that scared her to death. Someone else to let down. "I need to practice," she said. She rose. "I ought to go."

"Do one last thing for me? Phone Francis? I have this feeling he's home. Just a feeling. He won't answer for me. But he might answer for you."

Kay dialed her parents' number, a number she knew better than her own, and waited. Nervous, she twisted a strand of hair between her fingers and tugged; when she looked down she was not surprised to see the frizzy strand in her fingers was grey. She heard Ida break into a trill of dainty laughter and glanced over her shoulder. Tall, good-looking Dr. Deeds stood in the doorway and Ida leaned toward him, dimpling.

"Who is it now?" Francis started out of his nap, blinked back a bad dream, and picked up the phone as Coco howled.

"Just me, Dad. Your daughter. Kay? Sorry to bother you. Mom asked me to call but now it looks as if the doctor's here so she can't talk after all."

"Too bad," Francis said. "Goodbye."

"Dad? Don't hang up! Just wait a second. How have you been?"

"I'm fine. It's your mother, you know. She's the sick one." Francis hugged his elbows and yawned. The golden light had left the house and the air had cooled. Winter coming, he thought. Time to order firewood soon. What was the name of that fellow he'd used last year? Hippie fellow, lived out near Kay, in the boonies.

"Now you're supposed to ask me how I've been," Kay prompted, her voice faint on the other end.

"You're fine," he said. "Aren't you? Still have your part-time temp job at the smallest library branch in the county?"

"Yes."

"Still making four cents an hour?"

"Something like that."

"And when exactly are they pruning your particular twig?"

"That's up to the voters. It's a good little library. There's a bond to save it."

"Right. And the car? Running all right?"

"Fine. The radio doesn't — "

"That radio was always lousy. How are the brakes?"

"The brakes are good."

"I had those brakes relined, you know, before I sold you the Lincoln. Gus down at Sergio Brothers said they'd be good for another three years."

"Yes, I know, I remember, and thanks, they're — "

"And Nicky? Doing brilliant work in third grade?"

"Second. His poster was chosen for the Halloween contest and — "

"Good, and Neal? Old Neal still framing frames at the frame shop?"

"I don't really know what Neal does at the frame shop..."

"Good. Good. Nothing like mystery in marriage. He still taking all those vitamins?"

"Vitamins, minerals, acidophilus, antioxidants, algae. Yes."

"Well. I owe him a phone call. Tell him I've been busy. I'll get to it tomorrow. There was something else I wanted to ask you, Kay...but can't think of it now. Ta."

"Ta. But Dad? Hold on. I think I solved the mystery of who sent Mom that house plant. It was my friend Zabeth. You met her last spring."

"Oh yes," Francis said. "The sex fiend."

"She's not a sex fiend. She's a licensed masseuse."

"A rose by any other name, Kay."

"Dad! She's putting herself through law school."

"As well she should. Anyway, it's not much of a 'mystery' is it. It wasn't who sent that plant that puzzled me. It was what kind of plant it was in the first place."

"It's a bleeding heart."

"Can't hear you."

"I'm whispering because I don't want Mom to hear. It's called a bleeding heart."

"Catchy," Francis said. "Takes me right back to me carefree Catholic childhood."

"Kay," Ida called, "is that Francis?"

"It's odd, you know, but I can hear your mother's voice more clearly than I can hear yours," Francis said.

"Well I've been whisperi — "

"Francis!"

"The voice of my master. Better put her on."

"Okay. Nice talking to you, Dad."

"Not at all."

Kay was sweating as she handed Ida the phone. Talking to Francis was hard work. "How can you stand it?" she wanted to ask, but Ida was flushed and sparkling, her red lips pressed into a firm pretty line as she said "You rat" into the receiver. Kay bent to kiss her goodbye. "I'll call you tomorrow," she promised as she headed toward the door. Behind her she could hear Ida saying, "What do you mean you don't think you'll be coming tonight? I need you and I need my round silver mirror and I need" — here she gave Kay, in the doorway, a mischievous look and dropped her voice — "my G-I-N." She blew Kay a kiss and Kay waved back, dismissed. She was halfway out the door when she heard her name and turned back. Ida, the phone cupped with one hand over the receiver, leaned toward her. "He's checking the liquor cabinet," Ida said. "But before he comes back — I've been wanting to ask you all day — where did you get that smashing outfit you're wearing?"

Kay looked down at the wrinkled white blouse and pleated plaid skirt with its terrible fringe held in place with a tarnished brass safety pin. "You gave it to me."

"I did?"

"You bought it in Scotland."

"I thought it looked familiar. It was extremely expensive. But itchy."

"How do you know? Did you wear it?"

"Oh, you know how it is when you're traveling, you get so sick of your own clothes. But Kay? Thank you. I'm glad you wore it today and I'm glad you came to see me."

"I'm glad too," Kay said, helpless with the truth of it, stuck in the doorway.

"I love you darling, now...What? Francis? Well if you can't find any G-I-N, look for some V-O-D..."

That wasn't so bad, Kay thought as she backed out to the hall. Not fun exactly. But survivable. I had an actual three-and-a-half-minute conversation with my father. And Mother said "Thank you." She tried to work up a small glow of accomplishment as she stepped into the elevator, but the glow faded as she realized she had entered a service elevator by mistake. Two doctors moved aside to give her room; both were dressed in paper caps and smeared smocks and Kay saw too late that the wet stuff dripping to the floor was human blood. She stared at the door until the elevator stopped and they filed out. Their blue plastic booties left dark footprints and she decisively turned in the opposite direction down an ill-lit hallway lined with pipes. Her steps boomed on the concrete floor and she heard the sounds of machinery somewhere in the distance. She came at last to a heavy corrugated door marked EXIT and pushed it open with relief only to find herself standing outdoors in the cool autumn twilight, completely enclosed in a cement courtyard ringed with loading docks. The door clicked shut behind her. She was alone and — she tried the handle — locked out. She looked up. The hospital rose in tall walls of windows above her. Ida was behind one of those windows and could probably look down and see her. "Francis!" Ida would cry on the telephone, "Kay is trapped and turning in circles."

"Nothing new there," Francis would point out.

Kay shook the Merit 100 she had stolen from Ida out of her cuff and put it to her lips. Too bad she didn't have a match. Then everything would be perfect.

Copyright © 2000 by Molly Giles

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First Chapter

Kay hurried down the hospital corridor, trying to balance the bag of gifts in one arm and the bouquet of flowers in the other. Her shoulder purse banged against her hip as she half-walked, half-jogged toward her mother's room, and her hair spilled out of its pins, wispy against her flushed face. Hastily she rehearsed the rules she had set for this visit: she would be light and charming; she would not complain about her husband nor brag about her son; she would not cry -- as she had after the last operation when she saw what was left of her mother's leg -- and she would not tell a single lie unless she had to. She checked the number inked on her wrist to make sure she had the right room, tucked her bunched blouse back into her skirt, and raised a hand to knock. The bag immediately slipped, tore, and spilled out of her arms. Not fair! Kay thought. The hangover she had been fighting all day kicked in and her throat watered with savage longing for a cigarette. She gathered the things, straightened, took a deep breath, and knocked again.

Ida, propped on pillows in a gold satin bed jacket, did not turn. She was staring out the window. "You took your sweet time," she said.

"Sorry." Kay tried to think of an excuse that would work. There was none. "I left work late. There was a lot of traffic. I got lost."

Ida turned and looked at her over the tops of her glasses. "You got lost coming to the hospital?"

"No. I got lost in the hospital. Don't look at me like that. It's a big hospital."

"You've been lost all your life."

"Sorry," Kay repeated, adding, "How are you?" which was the wrong thing to say. She braced herself, expecting to hear, "How do you think I am? I just had my last leg cut off. How would you be if you just had your last leg cut off?" But Ida only said mildly, "Fine. Except it seems I've caught bronchitis."

"Can you 'catch' bronchitis?"

"I don't know. One of the surgeons was sneezing all over me. Oh what are we talking about? Come give me a kiss. Christ! Don't sit on the bed."

"I wasn't going to."

"You most certainly were. You were going to knock me off balance."

"No, I was..."

"I have no balance at all. I roll around like a papoose. How would you like to be me?" Ida stared at her, glittering. How beautiful she was, Kay thought. Even now. Those huge eyes, dark as the sapphire on her clenched hand. The creamy skin. Cleft chin. Valentine mouth. The heavy diamond earrings were in place, only three days after surgery, and the surgical cotton dabbed with L'Heure Bleue was secreted somewhere inside the silk bed jacket; the whole room reeked of it.

"I would not like to be you," Kay said.

"Right. Do you know what Francis calls me now? Humpty Dumpty. Can you believe it?" Ida's eyes were full of tears and something else, some lit and sparkling secret life. Laughter, Kay thought, shocked. "I better not fall off any walls," Ida said gaily.

"A wall ought to fall on Dad."

"Oh he can't help it. I wish he'd call though. I haven't heard from him all day. What did you bring me?"

"Just these." Kay unfolded the sheath of flowers. They looked battered; not the brave flags she had seen in the florist's window, nothing but a bunch of bent and broken stalks. She tried to smooth them straight. "Gladiolas," she apologized. "They reminded me of you."

"They're lovely, darling. What color would you call that?"

"Orange?"

"Let me see. No. Bring them closer. I can't come to you. You may not have noticed, but I don't have any legs. And not in my face! I'll get pollen up my nose! Can you believe this? Bronchitis? Did you bring a vase?"

"I'll ask a nurse."

"I wouldn't if I were you. The nurses here are all dykes."

"Maybe there's one in the bathroom."

"Oh they're all over."

"I meant a vase."

"There might well be a vase in the bathroom. I wouldn't know. I can't go to the bathroom, Kay. I can't walk. Remember?"

"Yes, well, I'll go down the hall and find one. Here, Nicky made you a card. And I made macaroons. And here's a new novel from work I thought you might like."

Ida picked up each item and studied it closely. "There's been a mouse in the pantry," she said, shaking the cookie bag. Kay licked a crumb from the inside of a tooth and shrugged. I'm forty, she thought. I need to eat. She watched Ida examine Nicky's card. It was one of his nicer ones. Or was it? She leaned forward. Oh-oh. It showed a little boy with no hands running from a house on fire. "Don't Be Scarred" was crayoned on top. "I wonder why you let him use gilt," Ida said. "It makes such a mess."

Kay looked at the festive salting of gold and silver that had fallen from Nicky's card onto her mother's hospital sheet and let her eyes finally move past the lap to the two short lengths of thigh and then to the flat empty place where the rest of Ida's legs ought to be. There. She had looked. A roar of pity thundered in her ears. She had loved her mother's legs, their angles and curves, the saucy way they kicked out when Ida danced, the way they dovetailed together when she arced off the diving board. She had loved the sheen of the ivory-colored skin after shaving, the hard knees with their freckles, the strong square toes with their bright red polish. It had been hard to accept the loss of the first leg, a year ago, but this second loss was worse. Oh, what was the matter with Ida? Why couldn't she follow the diets, quit the cigarettes, do the exercises, forgo the martinis? Why did she have to lurch out of the wheelchair, slip in the bath, fall off the commode? Every time she hurt herself she got gangrene and every time she got gangrene she had another amputation. It was endless. "Mom," she said, "oh Mom."

Ida, ignoring her, picked up the novel and studied the author's photo on the back. "She's about my age, isn't she? Maybe even older. And this is her first book? Well! There's hope yet!"

"There's always hope."

"Easy for you to say." Ida set the book down. "Do one thing for me? Bring the phone a little closer? Just in case Francis calls while you're out finding that vase?"

Kay moved the phone as far as the cord would stretch and escaped.

Ida watched her leave. Then she rubbed her sapphire ring against the sheet to make it shine and rested her head back against the pillows. This morphine was stronger than the last time. She felt about six years old and it had been hard not to let Kay know that she was hallucinating. She turned her head -- it felt as light and breakable as the bowl of a wine goblet -- and looked out the window again. The horse was still there. Mr. Know-It-All. Bright blue. He had spent the morning advising her on flight. How it would feel, how she would do it. She would want wings, nothing fancy, the horse had said, but serviceable, strongly feathered wings; her own arms were too puny. She would have to strap the wings on, wheel herself to the window, and hoist herself out. Once out, she would fall -- not far -- a floor or two, and then she would rise. She would ride a wind current home. It would be hard sweaty work but she had never minded hard work and she would soon see her own house, tucked like a glass castle in the green folds of the mountain. She'd knock on the skylight and Francis would look up from his crossword puzzle and smile at her the way he used to, as if she were the most delightful creature in the universe. And then she'd settle down with Coco barking welcome and she'd float through the front door. And once I'm home, she hissed to the horse, you'll be gone. And once you're gone, I'll be all right.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 23, 2004

    slow moving

    This book was just plain slow! It seems all she did was complain and take a lot of verbal abuse from a lot of people. It was very frustrating for me to see her just stand for all of this and not do anything about it except complain all the more.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 12, 2002

    Good story-teller.

    A good read and interesting tale of a woman feeling the pressures of feeling stuck in a rut. A lot of us may feel like life handed us the short end of the stick, but if we don't look in the mirror and figure a way out of that feeling, we stay there forever. Kay's journey to find her own life is one we can all relate to at one time or another. I recommend this book to anyone that doesn't mind if things don't turn out exactly perfect in the end, but come out real. Would like to see a sequel to this.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2011

    a departure from the stories

    I discovered Molly Giles through her stories--first Rough Translations, then Creek Walk--and Iron Shoes was a departure: an old-fashioned, immersive "family novel." That is, the sort of novel that examines the most intimate (which often means the ugliest) workings of a family. The hatred, resentment, and also the blinding love. It's not a long novel but it has heft. It's an experience. Sometimes the characters will tire you out. That's not a weakness, it's just the way people are, and Molly Giles writes people. (The stories are more after the manner of, say, Joy Williams--perfect distillations of moments and feelings that can only be described in one particular way.)

    I like to read at least a few novels like Iron Shoes in a year. Other examples that come to mind are Halfway House, by Katharine Noel, and Long for This World, by Michael Byers.

    Look, I hate writing reviews, but Iron Shoes deserved a higher "average star rating" than 2 1/2. Come on.

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