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By REBECCA D. ELSWICK
Abbott PressCopyright © 2011 Rebecca D. Elswick
All right reserved.
Chapter One1940 Sylvia
I open the closet door and hang my wedding dress next to the dress I wore to my mama's funeral, and then my daddy's, not two weeks later. Its blue softness slips through my fingers. I count the tiny pearl buttons at the neckline, dyed to match the dress. There are ten. I pick up the box that holds my wedding shoes, my first high heels. I look down at my feet and wiggle my toes encased in saddle oxfords – a school girl's shoes.
I sit on my bed and place the shoebox beside me. My hand rests on the faded log cabin quilt and I remember it on Mama's bed. When she and Daddy died, I put the quilt on my bed, and sleeping under it comforts me. I open the box, lift a shoe out of the tissue paper, and hold it up to a spot of sunlight hovering over the bed. A giggle escapes my lips as I kick off my shoes and slip on my high heels. I sashay out of the room, admiring the tap, tap, tap rising off the floorboards.
"Sylvia, do you want to be a young man's slave or an old man's darling?" Gaines Richardson said when he proposed to me. I know everybody thinks he's too old for me and that I'm marrying him because I have no family left. But that's not true. I may just be sixteen, but life in these mountains has brought me up hard and fast. I could get on the bus tomorrow and head to Seattle, Washington and live with Aunt Hat, but I'm going to marry Gaines and live happily ever after—just like a fairy tale.
I am not like the women in Coal Valley, content to live in the hollers and raise a bunch of young'uns until life wears me out and I become old and wrinkled before I'm thirty. And Gaines is not like the men in Coal Valley—he has ambition.
Scratching out a living in the coalmines will not do for Gaines Richardson. Together, we are going to travel across the United States until we reach the ocean. Tonight I will sleep on Rock House Mountain for the last time. Tomorrow, I start my new life.
Besides me, Mama loved two things best, shoes and bus drivers. Her shoes had to have high heels, and her favorite color was red. The bus drivers had to be handsome, single, and without baggage, and Mama wasn't talking about suitcases. As I recall, she kept her shoes longer than she did her bus drivers.
I guess you could say Mama had a different way of looking at things. She taught me that everything I needed to know about life could be summed up by shoes. "Sassy," she said, "living is just like buying a pair of shoes: if you choose the right ones, they'll take you where you want to go while keeping you comfortable. If you pick the wrong ones, they'll still take you, but every step will hurt."
What Mama didn't take in was that I learned a lot more from the things she done than the things she told me—just like what happened yesterday. It was my last day of sixth grade, and Mama said since school let out at noon, she'd take me out to lunch.
When the last bell rang, I headed over to the beauty shop where Mama worked. I was in high spirits. Summer rolled out before me like a gilded meadow. By the time I said hey to all the ladies in the shop, Mama was ready. I could tell she was in a good mood because she said after lunch, we'd walk over to the Family Shop and get me a pair of sneakers and some shorts since nothing I had from last summer fit.
It was court day, and town was crowded. Mama said the hollers emptied out twice a month when Coal Valley had court because the whole family showed up when one of their own had to go before the judge. She said she never understood why, but I figured it was because our town was so small and there was so little to do that court-watching was free entertainment.
The courthouse was Coal Valley's largest building and would've looked more impressive if it hadn't set flush against the mountainside. It was made of gray stone and had three stories—four, if you counted the jail in the basement. It did have a tower with a clock that actually lit up at night and chimed with a loud bong to announce the hour—that is, when they could keep the pigeons from roosting in it. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was walk by that building on court day with Mama beside me.
Lunch was in full swing when we passed by. Families picnicked under the trees on the courthouse lawn, sitting on a hodgepodge of colorful quilts and blankets. Some feasted on fried chicken and potato salad, while others ate bologney sandwiches and cold biscuits stuffed with sausage or side meat. Old people ate out of mason jars filled with sweet milk and crumbled hunks of cornbread. Young mamas set cross-legged holding nursing babies, discreetly covered with a diaper or receiving blanket draped over them. Toddlers napped on the blankets. Older children chased each other or played with marbles in the dirt. Mama said it looked like a family reunion.
Other court onlookers walked over to get a sandwich at Matney's Drug Store's soda fountain, where me and Mama were headed, or on down to the Valley Diner since those were the only two eating places in town. But like always, there was a knot of men standing around the side door of the courthouse, and we had to walk right past them.
I kept my eyes on my shoes, but I could tell the minute they spotted Mama. The wolf whistles started first; then came the hollering. "Hey, darling! How 'bout a date?"
Please, Mama, please don't stop. I held my breath and crossed my fingers behind my back, but it didn't work. Mama slowed, cocked her head to the side like a bird that just spied a worm, and flashed her brightest smile. When the whistles and shouts got louder, she opened her eyes wide in mock surprise and threw up her right hand. I kept my eyes on the ground and wished I could disappear through the cracks in the sidewalk. At least this time she didn't stop to talk. She said she only spoke when she saw somebody she knew, but I suspected it was when she saw a man she thought was good-looking.
After passing the courthouse, we crossed over to Main Street, where the rest of Coal Valley spilled down the banks of the Levisa River. Main Street was nothing more than a long row of buildings stacked side by side, different colors and sizes like the shoeboxes in Mama's closet.
We were nearing the post office when Mama said, "Now, right there is a lesson about life."
I peered down the street and saw Nellie Rife and May Stacy standing in front of the post office doing some serious talking.
"Take a good look at them," Mama said, slowing her pace as we got closer. She straightened her back and threw back her shoulders like she did when she was going to say something important. "Look at how they're dressed."
I studied them. Both women wore what Mama called shirt-waisted dresses, a style that featured a button up front, belt at the waist, and full skirt. Mrs. Rife's dress was sky blue, and I could see the buttons straining to contain her generous bosom. Mrs. Stacy's was brown with a white collar and white belt.
"What do you think?" Mama asked.
"That they look nice?"
"Yes, now look at their shoes."
Mrs. Stacy wore sturdy black lace-up shoes like the old ladies wore to the beauty shop, but Mrs. Stacy was about the same age as Mama, who was just thirty. Mrs. Rife was older, and she had on pristine white heels with a little strap around the ankle. I wondered how she kept them so clean with all the coal dirt around here.
"Which one of those women has on lady's shoes?"
"Mrs. Rife's are prettier," I said.
"Yes, they are. But look closer. Both ladies have on their town dresses, but Mrs. Rife has on high heels like a lady should wear."
I stared at Mrs. Rife's shoes, then back at Mrs. Stacy's.
"What do Mrs. Rife's shoes tell me about her?" Without waiting for my answer, Mama continued. "It tells me she cares about more than how she looks; she cares about how she feels. She knows that when she puts on high heels, she'll stand and walk more graceful. And do you know why?" Mama plowed on. "Because when a woman puts on high heels, she feels like a lady. Mrs. Stacy's shoes will make her clomp like she's wearing horseshoes. You simply cannot feel like a lady in those shoes."
Mama smiled at me like she had just explained one of life's biggest mysteries. I looked down at my Mary Janes and wondered what my shoes said about me. But then, I figured the same lesson didn't apply when you were just twelve.
That evening, we carried our packages down the street to the CV Dry Goods Store, where we lived in the upstairs apartment. It was the last store building on Maple before the street gave way to residences—some of the oldest in town, like Doc Sutherland's white two-story that had his office on the first floor.
I looked up at our front room window, then back down at the old red brick building we called home. I could see the coal dust settled in between the bricks. With all the mines in Coal Valley, there was no escaping it. When the wind blew, it stung at your eyes and swirled with the dust on the street. It blackened patches of the river bank, dusted the trees and plants on the hillsides with black, and sank into every crack in the sidewalk. The only time Coal Valley was washed clean of its dullness was when it rained, and then the ditches ran black with it. But the rain always stopped and everything dried, and the coal dust returned with a vengeance. For that little bit of time when everything was clean and the air smelled fresh, Coal Valley was a right pretty place.
With the fan running, our apartment was comfortable in the evenings. I was anxious to get home so I could lie in front of it and read the McCall's magazine Mama bought me at the drug store. Inside its glossy pages were the Betsy McCall paper dolls I collected. I had a shoebox full of them under my bed.
Mama stopped on the sidewalk and turned to me. I already had my hand poised to open the door to our apartment's stairway. She looked at me and then down the street. I followed her gaze. Day was ending in Coal Valley. The sun was slipping behind the mountains that hugged our sleepy little town. People were heading home for supper and an evening of setting on the front porch. I thought today's lesson, prompted by Mrs. Rife and Mrs. Stacy's shoes, was over, but Mama said, "Remember, Sassy, people are just like shoes. They come in all colors, styles, and sizes, and some are worth what they cost and some are not."
I turned around to face her, prepared to listen to more, but she reached behind me, opened the door, and glided up the stairs in her smart high heels. I knew Mama wouldn't be caught hoeing corn in a pair of shoes like Mrs. Stacy wore. I also understood what she had been trying to explain to me: you can always tell a real lady by the shoes she wears—but then, nobody ever accused Mama of being a lady.
Mama was a beauty. Everybody said so. Even her name was beautiful—Sylvia Elizabeth Richardson. All the other girls' mamas had names like Gladys and Ethel, but my mama had a name and a face like a movie star.
I followed Mama upstairs to our apartment. She said it wasn't big enough to whip a cat in, but I liked it. We had a living room—Mama called the front room—just big enough for our old blue couch and chair, two end tables with ugly lamps, and a battered coffee table. The couch had a big red spot on the right arm from where I knocked over a bottle of nail polish when Mama was painting her toenails. She liked to remind me it happened because I was reading a book while I was walking instead of watching where I was going, and I liked to tell her it was too bad I didn't break those ugly lamps Aunt Hat gave her one Christmas.
I swear there were times when I was dusting that I was tempted to knock them over. The bases were made of dark blue glass and looked like upside down flower vases setting on blocks of wood. I could've lived with that if it hadn't been for the shades. They were a dirty gold color and had long fringes, but that wasn't the worst part. Peacocks and roses were painted all over them. I begged Mama to get rid of them, but she said it wasn't a good idea to bite the hand that feeds you.
We kept our apartment as neat as a pin. Every week, we dusted the furniture and swept the floors. I cleaned my room and Mama cleaned hers. Together, we did the bathroom and kitchen. Once a month, Mama scrubbed our old hardwood floors with a broom dipped in a bucket of ammonia and water. When the wood was good and dry, she got down on her knees with a rag and rubbed in a heavy coat of paste wax.
That summer I was twelve, I was convinced I was all grown up and didn't need a baby sitter. Mama wasn't so sure. It took me a whole lot of talking and a good bit of begging, but I finally won the sweet ticket to freedom. Mama was going to let me stay home by myself. It didn't matter that I had to check in at the beauty shop throughout the day. It didn't matter that Mama had everybody on our street watching out for me. What mattered was that the bittersweet taste of childhood was about to be washed down with a chug of responsibility. I couldn't wait.
That first morning of freedom started like all the others, with me setting on the side of the cast iron tub watching Mama get ready for work. Mama stood in front of the big mirror above the sink in her nylons and underclothes. No matter how hot it got, she always wore nylons and a full slip under her uniform. All of her slips were silky and trimmed with lace that lay up against the tops of her breasts, like apple blossoms bursting open in springtime.
Her routine never varied. She washed and moisturized her face, and then opened the cabinet under the sink and took out the shoebox. She handed it to me, and I lifted the lid to reveal her beauty concoctions shimmering like lightening bugs at dark. I handed her the MAX Factor Pan-Stik, Mama's favorite foundation. She placed a dot of it on her forehead, cheeks, and chin; smoothed it over her face and neck; and then rummaged around in the box for the right color of rouge. She turned her head to the side and rubbed a spot of color over her cheekbones, blending toward her ear. Then she leaned over and rubbed the excess on mine. She stepped back and smiled.
"There. Just a little color makes all the difference in the world."
"Mama, when can I wear makeup?"
"When you get older."
"How many years older? I'm almost thirteen!"
Mama's laugh echoed off the old cast iron tub. "We'll talk about it when you get there. Now, hand me my powder."
When Mama opened the round container and pulled out the puff with its little pink bow, the fragrance filled the bathroom. I inhaled its sweet perfume while she dusted her face. Before putting the puff back and replacing the lid, she brushed it softly over my nose. That scent was my mother and the womanhood I desired.
The last step of her makeup ritual was the lipstick. Mama had about a dozen tubes in various shades of red. After choosing one, she applied a generous coat to her lips and then held out her hand. That meant it was my turn to deliver a scrap of tissue like a nurse handing a scalpel to a surgeon. While she blotted her lipstick, I put all of the make-up back in the box. When Mama was satisfied, she stepped back, took one last critical look in the mirror, and said, "There."
With her makeup finished, it was time to do her hair. Mama brushed it first, and then twisted it up on her head. I held the box of hair pins ready. With her right hand, she fished around in the box while holding her hair in place with her left. When she found a bobby pin, she opened it with her front teeth before sliding it into her hair. When it was all securely pinned, she pulled little tufts of short hair around her face, making what she called spit curls. Mama called this hairstyle a French twist. Now she was ready to slip on her freshly pressed uniform and high heels.
A swift kiss. She was gone. I stood at the front room window and watched her until she crossed the road and disappeared from view. I admired the way she swayed her hips just enough to make her skirt swish above her ankles. Sashaying, Mama called it. She even wore her high heels and carried her work shoes in a brown paper bag. Mama was of the opinion that "a lady does not wear her work shoes to town."
Excerpted from Mama's Shoes by REBECCA D. ELSWICK Copyright © 2011 by Rebecca D. Elswick. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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