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By M. E. Kerr
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Mary James
All rights reserved.
LIKE ALL COCKROACHES, SHOEBAG was named after his place of birth. He was snoozing there now, in the open toe of a white summer sandal. He was haying his old dream of growing big enough to squash the seven-legged, black jumping spider and of moving somewhere warm and dark and filled with meats, cheeses, sweets, and starches.
All of Shoebag's family dreamed about living in a safer neighborhood, even though this building in Boston was home sweet home. Already they had lost two aunts and a cousin to the jumping spider, and one grandfather, plus several uncles to water bugs and beetles, wasps, centipedes, and the dread fumes of Zap.
Their apartment was fumigated on the first Monday of every month, when they had to scamper through underground passages to the building next door. There they waited until the dread fumes were gone. Then they went back.
Boston, Massachusetts, was known for its cold, cold winters. But even if the family was lucky enough one day to get a ride in a box going somewhere else, there was no assurance that they would be settled in a warmer climate. Neighbors they knew had escaped in a packing crate some time ago, only to find themselves in Bangor, Maine, where it was even colder.
"Wake up, Shoebag!" his mother shouted. "The jumping spider in the kitchen has let down his dragline! He'll be here soon!"
Of all their enemies, the black jumping spider was the fiercest, and almost as violent as his fat and hairy brown brother from next door.
Quick and tricky, he had no web. He let himself down from high levels on the dragline of silk he spun in his spinnerets.
"Death to all insects!" he called out, for like all spiders, he was not an insect but an arachnid. He had no jaws. He had many eyes. He would have had eight legs, as all arachnids do, except that a Persian cat from the third floor had pulled one off.
"Shoebag!" his mother's voice again, this time from the top of a Reebok next to the sandal, "Hurry up! Get your cerci moving!"
A cerci is what cockroaches call their tails.
Shoebag was anxious to get his cerci moving.
His mother's antennae made a light puff of air. A cerci is a remarkably sensitive structure, and even a light puff of air directed at a cerci sends a cockroach scurrying. But Shoebag did not move.
The trouble was, Shoebag couldn't get his cerci to go.
The reason was, Shoebag's cerci was missing.
So were his two back legs.
So were his two middle legs.
So were his two front legs.
And so were his antennae.
Something terrible had happened to Shoebag.
Shoebag's mother was named Drainboard. His father's name was Under The Toaster.
When Drainboard took a good look at Shoebag her wings fluttered down, her shell quivered, and she called out, "Under The Toaster, come here immediately! Something's happened to Shoebag!"
"Something terrible happened to me!" Shoebag said. "I am changed!"
"You certainly are changed!" said Drainboard.
Under The Toaster hopped out of a black loafer and stared with horror at his son. "You really are changed! Ugh! Are you!"
"I have tiny hands," Shoebag said. "I have tiny feet! I have a tiny nose and tiny ears! I have a tiny head!"
"With hair!" Under The Toaster exclaimed.
"You have eyebrows and eyelashes!" Drainboard groaned.
"You have a neck and a chest and a stomach," Under The Toaster complained.
"I have become a tiny person," said Shoebag.
"You have become quite repulsive!" Under The Toaster told the truth, and the truth made Shoebag's father shiver with disgust.
"I cannot stand myself! Yeck!" said Shoebag looking at his new body.
"Now you will get dirty the way people do." His mother was backing away from him.
"This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me." Shoebag was waving his new tiny hands, staring with awe at his new tiny fingers, then stamping his new tiny feet.
It was right at that moment that the black, seven-legged jumping spider swung down on his dragline from a wooden coat hanger above them.
"Whoops!" he said, when he saw Shoebag, for he had not counted on meeting up with a person. "My mistake!" and he tried getting back up to the closet shelf.
Shoebag picked the spider up and tossed him through the crack of the closet door.
"Go after him and pull off his other legs!" Drainboard said.
"I am not that much of a person," Shoebag protested. "I can't pull legs off."
"Then step on him!" Under The Toaster yelled.
"I have no shoes on," Shoebag said, "I cannot step on something that will squish in my bare feet!"
Shoebag could not believe that he had actually touched an arachnid, and the black jumping spider at that!
"You cannot run around naked, either, now that you are a tiny person," said Drainboard, philosophically.
"I'll need tiny clothes," Shoebag said.
"You'll need light," Under The Toaster said.
"I'll need money," Shoebag said. "I'll need toys. I'll need candy. I'm a tiny person."
"You'll need three meals a day," Drainboard said. "Our picnics won't be enough for you."
"You won't be satisfied with other people's crumbs," said Under The Toaster.
"You'll need soap and a washcloth," said Drainboard. "You'll need a bed and sheets and blankets and a pillow."
"I'll need television," said Shoebag. "I'm a tiny person!"
"We can't give you any of those things," said Drainboard.
"We will probably have to disown you now," said Under The Toaster.
"You are my family, though," said Shoebag. "You are the only family I have."
"You will have to go someplace and forget all about us," said Under The Toaster.
"Go where? Where will I go?"
"Someplace you can't step on us," said Drainboard. "You are a person now, and you will want to step on us."
"I will never be that big a person," Shoebag said. "I will never want to step on my own mother and father."
"You are too big already!" Drainboard said. "If you wanted to get back inside your shoebag, you couldn't do it anymore. You can't crawl through the cracks, or hide behind doorknobs, or skitter up lamp cords, or anything!"
This was true. Shoebag had grown larger than he'd ever dreamed he could be, even though he was just a little boy.
"I am getting scared of you," said Under The Toaster. "You may be my own son, but you no longer resemble me."
"I am getting scared of myself," said Shoebag. "This is no time to abandon me. Now more than ever I need you."
"Before you grow another inch," Drainboard said, "promise you'll never step on your own mother."
"He can't keep promises," said Under The Toaster. "He's a person."
"I'm only a little person, so I can keep little promises," said Shoebag.
"A promise not to step on us is not such a little promise," said Drainboard. "It's a big promise."
"I can handle it," Shoebag told her.
"You don't know that," said Under The Toaster. "You don't know the things people are capable of doing."
"I know that now I'm one of them, and I know that I will never step on my own parents."
"People do things and say the things they did were accidents," said Under The Toaster.
"I will be very, very careful!" Shoebag vowed. "Do you think I want to be an orphan?"
"Whisper!" said Under The Toaster. "Your voice hurts my ears."
Shoebag whispered, "I will never harm you, and I will be very, very careful." Then Shoebag had the first happy thought since he had become this little person. He began to whisper harder. "When I get shoes I will crush the seven-legged, black jumping spider," he said, "and his fat, hairy brown brother from next door! And when I get clothes with pockets I will collect little picnics and bring them to you."
"The air from your whisper hurts my antennae," said Drainboard.
"And it is too hot," said Under The Toaster. "You are talking hot air!"
Shoebag covered his mouth with his new hand. "Is that better?"
"A little, but don't move your foot until I get up on the wall. You almost broke your promise to us."
"I can't see in here, that's why," said Shoebag. "Let me reach up and turn on the light."
"No, not that bright light!" said Drainboard. "Please!"
"But how can I see you?"
"We'll tell you when we're safely out of sight," said Under The Toaster.
Shoebag waited in the dark. He had always liked the dark, always run to dark places, but now he found that he was afraid of the dark.
Anything could happen in the dark to a person. He had seen that with his own eyes. He had seen people stumble and fall in the dark. He had seen people get mugged in the dark. He had always known that the first thing a person did when they entered a dark place was to turn on a light.
I don't think this is right, he told himself, that I should be standing here without any clothes on in a dark closet. I am just a little boy.
"Did you hear what I said?" Shoebag called out.
There was no answer.
Perhaps he had not said it aloud, for he was not yet used to being a person with this little voice.
"Where are you?" he called out. "Can you hear me?"
"I'm in the pocket of the ..." and the rest of what Drainboard said was muffled.
"Where?" Shoebag said.
"Shhhhh!" from far away, from under wool or behind zippers, or inside coat linings, "Our ears! Hush!"
"WHERE ARE YOU?" Shoebag began to panic. "WHAT POCKET?"
He stood in the dark listening.
When there was no answer, he felt so alone and desperate that he began to holler louder. "I'LL GO THROUGH ALL THESE POCKETS!"
"Oh, no, you won't!" a new voice, very much like his own, said. "Thief! Thief! Closet thief! Call the police!"CHAPTER 2
OF COURSE SHE HEARD all the racket going on downstairs in the hall, but Pretty Soft Biddle did not get involved in trouble.
She did not get involved in anything that might cause her to worry and frown, for that could make wrinkles someday on her face, and then where would she be?
"Thief! Thief! Closet thief!"
Pretty Soft reached for the television remote control and pushed Volume Up.
It was almost time for her commercial, too, and even though she had played it over and over on the VCR, she liked to see it afternoons when it came on in the middle of soaps. She liked to hear it at full volume.
Her real name was Eunice Biddle, but everyone called her Pretty Soft. Her father did. Her mother did. The Postman did. Her relatives did. Her tutor and manager, Madam Grande de la Grande did, and her fans certainly did.
She was seven years old, but she still looked about four. It was her dearest wish that she would look four forever, though she knew it was probably not a wish that could come true.
Pretty Soft could still hear some noise from downstairs, and she was afraid that if it did not stop, she would wonder about it. If she wondered too hard about it, next thing she knew she might wrinkle her brow, a thing she would never do if she could help it.
So she put down the television remote and picked up one of her mirrors. The white one which went with the white furniture, the white rug, and the white drapes in the living room where she was sitting.
She stared into this mirror which was always in the living room, and she said what she always said to her reflection when she could feel herself about to get tense.
Pretty Soft said, "I see my own beauty, may it last forever."
"WHAT KIND OF A NAME IS THAT, YOUNG MAN?" her father was downstairs shouting. "TELL ME YOUR REAL NAME IMMEDIATELY!"
Then, as though The Fates were sparing her anymore unnecessary intrusion, Pretty Soft's music began playing from the television.
She put down the mirror.
She fluffed out her long blonde hair, leaned back against the soft white couch cushions, crossed her legs, and folded her arms, hugging herself. Her light blue eyes twinkled, and her dimples showed, and even though it was a sign of vanity to feel such joy when she saw herself on television, Pretty Soft could not stop the little smile of pleasure that always came to her mouth.
Now the chorus of toilet paper rolls was dancing merrily down the green hill, unfurling amid buttercups and brown-eyed Susans, as they sang:
Six hundred sheets a roll, and soft as any kitty,
We're double-layered, too, and people say we're pretty,
We come in shades of blue and beige, green, yellow, and pure white,
We think you'll like our talcumed scent and say we're bathroom right.
A close-up as Pretty Soft spoke, holding a Persian cat to her face, "If you have Pretty Soft in your bathroom, your guests will purrrrrr!"
(Mildred, the cat, never purred, though. She hated being on television, where they did not even call her by her own name.)
Fade out as Pretty Soft said, "Won't they, Whiskers?"
And the announcer's voice cooed, "You bet they will, Pretty Soft!"
Pretty Soft never played with other boys and girls.
Her manager and tutor, Madam Grande de la Grande, called them civilians, which was her name for all ordinary people who were not stars.
"Civilians," said Madam G. de la G., "will always be jealous of you, and they will be the first to turn against you. Stay out of their way, child."
"But what about my own parents? Aren't they civilians?"
"They are, but they are your parents, so it is all right."
"And what about you, Madam Grande de la Grande?"
"Ah, but I was a star once myself! Gloria Grande de la Grande, known far and wide as Glorious Gloria. My name was on every lip!"
Pretty Soft had asked her, "Then what happened?"
"I had no one to tell me how to prevent wrinkles and lines, so one day my poor face was full of them! I was forced to switch from performing to managing and tutoring."
"And you found me," Pretty Soft had said happily.
"Exactly, Precious, but don't smile so widely. A wide smile leaves marks, child. Keep your joy inside or you'll ruin the outside."
Madam Grande de la Grande always wore a long black cape, a velvet one in winter and a silk one in summer, for she was in mourning for her dead career. But around her neck there was a fire-colored scarf, to match her hair, and to represent the flame of talent, so she said, the new, hot promise of someone like Pretty Soft.
It was she who had taught Pretty Soft what to say to her mirror. It was she who had instructed Pretty Soft to always have one nearby.
"A mirror will tell you what you are and who you are and how you are and why you are."
"And where I am?" Pretty Soft had asked.
"Yes, that, too, if you stand back far enough."
Pretty Soft turned down the volume of the television and listened.
Everything was so quiet suddenly.
Probably her father had taken the closet thief to the police ... and probably her mother was in the kitchen preparing dinner.
Every night at this time, an hour before the family sat down in the dining room, Pretty Soft read something beautiful and inspiring, so that when she ate her food, it would be properly digested, because her mind was free of all but lovely thoughts.
"'Beauty is like the surf that never ceases,'" Pretty Soft read from the writings of Struthers Burt. "'Beauty is like the night that never dies. Beauty is like a forest pool where...'"
"Hello? Hello?" a voice called from the hall. "Pretty Soft? Are you up here?"
"Who is calling me?" said Pretty Soft, who knew every voice that ever said her name in this house, but did not know this one.
"Your father sent me up to be with you," the voice answered. "My name is Shoebag. Don't laugh."
Pretty Soft couldn't help it. She laughed that lilting way the television people always said she should as she looked down at Whiskers at the end of the commercial. This time it was not forced, and she had not had to do a dozen retakes: It just flowed forth from her insides. For what kind of a name was Shoebag? What kind of a person had a name like that?
She soon discovered that the kind of person who had a name like Shoebag was a small, red-headed boy with blue eyes and freckles, barefoot, and wrapped in a blanket.
He was standing in the doorway.
"I knew you'd laugh. I told your father you would and you did."
"I didn't want to laugh," Pretty Soft told him. "I'll get laugh lines, if I laugh that way very often, so I save such a laugh for when I work. But Shoebag is a funny name!"
"So I'm told," the little boy said.
"What happened to your clothes, Shoebag? Did the closet thief steal them?"
"May I come in and sit down before I answer any more questions?" he asked her. "Your father has gone to get me something to wear."
"Come in, then," Pretty Soft said.
And so it was, that on the third of March, in Boston, Massachusetts, Shoebag entered the life of Eunice Biddle, also known as Pretty Soft, and neither of them would ever be the same again.
Excerpted from Shoebag by M. E. Kerr. Copyright © 1990 Mary James. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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