Because he’s sixty-five years old, weighs five hundred pounds, and is mostly retired, my father is learning how to levitate. He claims he’s managed to float a few inches off the couch when he concentrates hard, but that only happens when I’m at work in the shoe store. I’ve seen him make our salt and pepper shakers rise two inches off the kitchen table, a pretty neat trick, but they only weigh a few ounces, not five hundred pounds. Still, Dad is not one to be daunted when he wants something.
“Walking is annoying,â€ Dad says as he takes another waffle out of the iron and slathers it with two tablespoons of butter. Dad waddles to the table and sits across from me, douses the waffle with syrup, and cuts it into neat pieces with the side of his fork. For such a big guy, Dad eats very delicately. He spends most of his time on our couch, doesn’t sleep on his bed because if he laid down he’d suffocate under his weight.
“Would you leave the apartment if you could float?â€ I say. Before Dad became an invalid he got stares huffing down the street. A floating fat guy would be even more of an attraction.
“I don’t know if I could get out the door,â€ says Dad. “It’s gotten smaller since we moved in. We need someone to widen it.â€
But Dad doesn’t want a bigger door, he wants newspaper headlines when people try to extract him from our living room. It’s his contingency plan if floating doesn’t work.
“All I need before I die is the fifteen minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised to everyone,â€ he says.
I kiss my dad on the top of his gray head and head to work on foot. I don’t mind walking though I’m not tiny-five foot eight and one hundred eighty pounds. Dad says it makes me look substantial. Mom says it’s genetic. She’s the same size as me and lives in Georgia, works for a modeling agency that specializes in plus-sized women. She says I should quit the shoe business and work for her, but I love the store too much to abandon it.
Besides, who’d look after my fretting floating father?
I unlock the front door at nine-thirty and run a sweeper over the carpet before Scott, my one employee, arrives at nine-forty-five. He’s forty-one, has a middle-aged-guy paunch, glasses, dark hair, and what Dad likes to call “a believable smile.” Scott makes sure the windows and counter are clean, there are full bowls of lavender potpourri in every corner, and a Hayden CD on the speakers. I try to set the mood for buying shoes.
Ten years ago when Dad was still managing the shop, he decided to specialize in orthopedics for people with foot problems. Our foot-friendly sandals and pumps are hot items with ladies, but elderly gentlemen come in wanting dressy shoes that don’t pinch. I love seeing customers smile when they realize how much better their entire body feels once they have the right shoes.
Many of my older customers say their feet are changing-getting arthritic, growing callouses and corns and bunions. Some of them have gout so their toe joints swell to the size of golf balls. Others develop plantar facciitis so it feels like their heels are on fire. Some say their feet have turned into bricks. I’ve learned that aging is all about negotiating with your body, making allowances to deal with its shifting form and abilities.
My customers are glad I understand that.
I have sweet ones like Mrs. Tiller who loves sequined pumps and brings oatmeal cookies, cranky ones like Mr. Dubler who gets dragged in by his wife for penny loafers, and needy ones like Mrs. Germaine who expects me to follow at her elbow the whole time she’s in the store.
At six in the evening, an hour before we close, an elderly lady waddles into the store and demands I take back a pair of athletic shoes and give her a full refund. She wears jeans, a purple blouse, silver heart earrings, and a sour expression.
“You said the shoes would feel good, but my feet still hurt,â€ the lady says.
I examine her sales receipt and the shoes. They have scuff marks on the soles and sides.
“Ma’am,â€ I say, “you’ve had these shoes for a month.â€
“Yes,â€ says the lady, “and my feet still hurt.â€
She takes off her socks and shoes to show me neat rows of silver tacks piercing her feet. I wince because I often have customers with tiny glass beads on their toes, bumps you can’t scrape off, though I haven’t seen anything like these tacks in a couple years. That was when the lady came in with an awful case of chilblains. She had screws stuck in her feet, at least eight rows of them, but that was a matter finding shoes to keep her feet warm and dry in cool weather.
“The doctors can’t do anything about tacks,â€ says the lady, sliding her socks back on.
This is when my job gets tricky. Even the best shoes can’t alleviate all pain, and I won’t take her purchase back if she’s worn them for weeks.
“You need different support insoles,â€ I say. “I’ll give you some for free.â€
“You said my feet wouldn’t hurt if I bought these shoes,â€ says the lady.
“They didn’t hurt for a month,â€ I say. “We need to renegotiate, see what kind of support they need.â€
“If I knew you were going to be impolite,â€ she says, “I wouldn’t have come to this store.â€
“I’ll get your insoles,â€ I say, turning around so she can’t see me grimace.
Sometimes the customer is not always right. Sometimes the customer is a bit of a pain, though if I had tacks in my feet I’d be ill-tempered. It’s hard to explain the constraints of medicine and footwear, how doctors and shoe salespeople can only work certain kinds of magic though we wish we could do more. When I give the lady her insoles, she glares at me like I handed her a fungus and stomps out of the store. I glance at Scott. He shrugs.
It’s one of those nights when I’m too happy to change the Open sign to Closed.
Dad makes chicken parmesan for dinner. I keep quiet while he eats enough for four people. I’m his daughter, not his mother, and lectures make his eyes and ears turn to steel. When Dad says he floated six inches off the floor today, I congratulate him and don’t mention the irked lady. I took over his store eight years ago, when I was twenty-seven, and I want to solve problems on my own, even when the customers or their feet are unruly.
After dinner Dad tries to demonstrate his levitation skills while sitting on the couch. He grits his teeth like he’s constipated, but mutters it takes that kind of resolve to escape gravity and the constraints of his body.
“There we go,â€ he grunts. ”I’m floating about a inch above the cushions.â€
But he’s so heavy and the couch is so squishy that I can’t tell if he’s lifting up or if his feet pressed against the floor are doing the work.
“Nice,â€ I say, trying not to sound like a mother praising her four-year-old’s drawings.
“You don’t believe me,â€ mutters Dad.
“It’s subtle,â€ I say.
“I made chocolate cake for dessert,â€ he says. “Be a sweetie and cut us both a piece.â€
After cake, Dad practices floating condiment jars across the kitchen table. He moves the mustard and the dill pickles and even the economy size ketchup bottle, but that makes him break a sweat. I hope working magic burns a few calories in mental effort.
Melvin has been coming to the store for years, gets awful gout and his toe joints swell to the size of marshmallows. He used to visit with his wife Henriette, but she had a stroke last year and passed away. Today Melvin says his toes are made of lead and he can’t bend them. He takes off one sock and shoe to show me the gray metal of his foot. I wonder if it’s more of a circulation than a support problem, but I say I’ll see what I can do.
“You’re a sweetheart,â€ says Melvin, who’s as kind and considerate a customer as I could want. But sweet must be countered with sour, so I’m not surprised when the whiny lady from yesterday walks in the store, plops down on a chair, and crosses her arms. She wears a long denim skirt, dark pink blouse, and the same sour expression.
“I want my money back,â€ she says.
“The insoles are the best we can do,â€ I say. “Did you try them?â€
“I want my money back,â€ she repeats.
I say, “I’d like to work with your feet. We can figure this out together.â€
She shakes her head and crosses her arms more tightly, still has those tacks piercing her toes and only a refund will do.
I let her sit. And sit. And sit. I can be sympathetic, but I’m also as stubborn as anyone else, and there are some store policies I can’t break. The lady pouts in silence for ten minutes, then starts talking to Melvin.
“The shoes here are bad quality,â€ she says, following him around the store. “She won’t take them back.â€
Melvin examines boots while my face turns a slow red. I want to do more than I can, but my powers of negotiation with feet are limited. Most customers appreciate that fact, but when they can’t understand it, I get mad. I don’t want to give her a lecture on helplessness, how I’ve seen feet with steel nails through them, feet that were in so much pain it made me want to cry, so I march over and say I’ve done what I can.
“I’m willing to work with you,â€ I say, “but if you bother patrons, I’ll call the police.â€
“Go ahead,â€ she says. “They need to hear about this injustice.â€
The lady sits down and smirks. I walk to the front register and the phone, but hear her say, “Lord, not again.â€
She holds out her legs straight out. Her feet have disappeared, and her face crinkles like she might cry. Melvin wrinkles his nose, pads over, and pats the footless woman on the shoulder.
“My feet disappeared last week,â€ he says. “I couldn’t leave the house for a day.â€
“It happened to me around this time last year.” The lady shakes her head. “I went to the doctor but she couldn’t do much but prescribe another drug to alleviate the symptoms so I could hobble around with a walker. I don’t want a walker or more drugs.â€
“Too many medications,â€ sighs Melvin.
The old lady nods and looks at her feet.
“Should I call a cab?â€ I ask from the register, but neither of the old people hear me. I wait on another customer who wants a pair of patent leather Mary Janes. When I glance back to the old lady, her feet have reappeared and she’s testing her balance on the arm of the chair. I watch her hesitant hobble, feel bad but hope she won’t return.
In the break room I take a few tacks out of the bulletin board, remove my socks and my shoes, and test them on the bottoms of my feet. I wince at the piercing pressure, can’t make myself push in the point enough to draw blood. When I think about that lady, my feet ache. I want to grab her shoulders and scream my frustration. I am not a miracle worker, but medicine and footwear have gotten so advanced that people expect their pains to melt away, like every doctor is Merlin with a stethoscope and I’m a shoe store fairy who turns bunions into blossoms.
Dad makes spaghetti and meatballs for dinner and looks depressed. He says he couldn’t levitate anything today, not even the toothpick holder. It feels like he’s regressing.
“I thought I’d found the key to escaping the ground,â€ he says, “but it keeps slipping away. All I want is to be a balloon.â€
I imagine Dad floating out the window. We could tether him to the roof of the apartment, so he could shout down the wind speed and temperature and air pressure. I twirl pasta around my fork and resist the urge to tell Dad he shouldn’t have a fifth helping.
Quarter after two in the morning and I sit up in bed, gasping. I think I had a bad dream, but then I hear Dad wheeze in the living room. I scurry into the hall and find he’s rolled off the couch and is squatting on the floor. His body is bigger and wider and flatter, plush and navy blue. His arms have rounded, and he holds them parallel to the floor. His feet shrunk to the size of pool balls, and his knees morphed into two cushions.
My father has become a loveseat. One we wouldn’t be able to get out the door.
I imagine the headline: “Man launches second career as living room furniture.â€
Dad gasps once more, then stops breathing.
I scurry for the phone, but hear his whisper: “No, don’t.â€
In a few moments he’s back to being Dad, sitting on the couch and breathing heavily.
I ease next to him. “How do you feel?â€
“Fine,â€ he says.
“You should go to the doctor to see if anything is wrong,â€ I say. “Your breathing–â€
“No,â€ says Dad. ”When it’s my time, it’s my time. Be a dear and get your dad a piece of that chocolate cake.â€
Usually I’d obey, but now I shake my head and go back to my bedroom.
“Float there yourself,â€ I mutter.
When the old lady marches into the store just after two in the afternoon, I’m with Melvin looking at penny loafers. He gets a new pair every year, and is very serious about choosing the right style. I note the lady’s feet are back to normal, chat with Melvin as she strides to the display of athletic shoes. She picks up a box, turns around, and walks to the exit. When she’s ten feet away, I sprint for the door, grab the old lady’s arm, and shove her in a chair next to the register. I’m not gentle with shoplifters.
“Ow,â€ she yelps.
I say, “What the hell were you doing?â€
“Getting a replacement pair of shoes,â€ she says. “This process has taken too long.â€
“You were stealing,â€ I say.
“The first shoes weren’t any good,â€ she says.
“We’ll explain that to the police,â€ I say.
Her wail is so loud it shakes the entire store. Scott and Melvin and I stare. The lady starts crying, releasing so many tears she soaks her jeans and dampens the carpet. I want to cry, too. I’m supposed to solve problems for my customers, not want to shoot them. It’s desperation and sympathy and annoyance that makes me sit next to her and bawl. I’m tired. Of her. Of my father. Of all the feet I want to save. If you don’t get that emotion out of your system you’ll explode, and that’s messier than damp carpets.
When we’re both dry-eyed and sitting in puddles, Scott walks to the bathroom for paper towels to mop everything up. Melvin says, “After my wife died I had to sit in the bathtub for four days after the funeral so I wouldn’t flood the house.â€
Scott hands me a wad of tissues. All my makeup washed off but I feel better, go to the bathroom to finish drying off. When I come out Melvin and the woman are gone. I hope they went to get pizza and talk about ways to negotiate with their bodies, find truces and other spots of temporary agreement.
Maybe when I get back to the apartment my dad will have had a similar conference with his body. But on my walk home I know I have to steel myself for the day when he’ll free himself of the constraints of logic and gravity, move out and up like the balloon he wants to be.