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The Shoe Woman


ISSUE:  Autumn 1996

Dear Faye,

You know how I love finding bits of local eastern Kentucky color for your enjoyment. As I was making my daily climb up the post office steps this morning, I saw something quite bizarre.

Do you remember my blue and white spectator pumps, the ones I ruined at President Gray’s lawn party? I know I wrote you about the tragedy: I stepped back against a low stone wall and scratched the left heel rather noticeably. They cost a small fortune and I was so sorry to have to part with them, but they went to the Women’s Club White Elephant Sale, along with an armload of dresses that suddenly bored me. You know how that is—the crushing dissatisfaction with one’s wardrobe that comes on quite by surprise.

Anyway, today at the post office a woman was going up the steps just ahead of me, wearing my shoes. You should have seen her: a real country type, with hard, stringy legs and the dirty tan of someone who works outside in all weathers—lank, brown hair scraped back from her face and held behind her ears with two white plastic barrettes—a butt-sprung dress of pink polyester with a hideous cluster of purple plastic grapes pinned to the shoulder—a beige plastic purse that looked like a loaf of light bread with a handle attached. Do you get the picture!?! My first thought was somehow to rescue my poor shoes, as if they were puppies I had accidentally given to a cruel master. I suppose she walks to town in them. But here is the odd part. As I was crossing the lobby on my way out, she was buying stamps from Charlie Nickell, the postmaster. And she turned and watched me all the way to the door. I am sure there is no way she could know that the shoes were mine, so why was she looking at me? Tis true I was wearing my new pink and blue voile, which is very flattering, if I do say so. Anyway, I must get busy grading papers. How’s the weather in Alabama? Greetings to Mandy and Cody.

Dear Julia,

Your description of the shoe woman was priceless. When I read it to Potter at supper he said, “She sounds like a Buttermilk.” Cody—sharp as a tack—asked, “What’s a Buttermilk, Grandma?” I explained that it was a name Aunt Tansie’s generation had for the children who went to the county school, because they were too poor to take sweet milk in their lunches. Cody said, “Can I be a Pepsi?” He is just too cute! Which reminds me to tell you that Mary Alice Weatherby and Bunny Chastain are starting a drive to buy our dear old Williford and turn it into a children’s museum. Isn’t that wonderful? The Williford School spirit lives! There’s to be a meeting at Bunny’s next week which of course I will attend and give your salutations to all.

Dear Faye,

Is the children’s museum to be about art or science? If science, I should think that Mandy could help set it up, if not run it. After all, how many people in Pringle have a master’s degree in biology? Did she apply for the job at the high school? I know the divorce was hard, but it’s time she straightens up. As nice as it is for you to spend all this time with Cody, they surely can’t live with you forever.

Oh—the mystery is solved about the shoe woman, as you called her. This morning when I went in the p.o., I passed her on the way out. She was still wearing my shoes and that awful pink dress. Of course I didn’t speak to her. But when I was in the alcove where the mailboxes are, I smelled this sweet-sour, tomato-soup smell of sweat and I turned around and there she was. She is younger than I thought, maybe in her late thirties. She asked if I could do her a favor. When I asked her what it was, she said, “Would you back my letter?” Now, you must remember those family letters that Cousin Fred has, which predate the common use of envelopes. In those days, one folded a letter, sealed it with sealing wax, and wrote the address on the back of the written pages. So what she wanted was for me to address a letter for her. It turns out that she has a son stationed overseas and had bought a birthday card in town for him. Ordinarily her younger son writes and addresses the letters for her, but she wanted to get the birthday card in the mail that day. This didn’t solve the question of why she had been staring at me, but eventually that came out, too. It seems that Charlie Nickell had for some reason commented to her that I taught at Blue Valley College. That set her thinking that I must therefore “write a pretty hand.” Hence she decided that I was the one to ask, if she ever needed a letter “backed.”

Dear Julia,

No sooner had we organized the Williford Museum Initiative, with yours truly as secretary, than that witch Betty Sams wanted to know why she wasn’t on the board. Now a bunch of the other Outsiders are stirred up, too. I wanted to tell her, “You didn’t belong then and you don’t belong now.” Stay tuned.

As for Mandy, I don’t know what happened about the job at the high school; she won’t talk to us about her prospects. To tell you the truth, it’s been a little tense lately. The other night at supper, Cody came out with a bad word—really bad—and Potter jerked him in the bathroom and washed his mouth out with soap. Mandy was furious, said all Cody’s friends talk like that, it’s MTV. “Not as long as he puts his feet under my table!” shouted Potter. Thank goodness I still have that bottle of terpin hydrate. I had to have a little nip to calm myself down as soon as I was alone. But as Mother used to say, this too will pass.

Oh—yesterday at church, Reverend Sharp asked about you. Precisely what he said was, “How’s Julia doing among the Appalachian mountaineers? Is she smoking a corn cob pipe yet?” I thought it was quite mean for a minister to say, but Potter thinks it’s because James has never gotten over your leaving Pringle all those years ago to teach in the Kentucky hills (remember the eighth grade hay ride!!) As for that wife he’s got—imagine a minister’s wife who can’t play the piano! And half the time she has a sick headache to get out of leading youth group. At least that’s my suspicion. Coincidentally, Cousin Martha and I were just laughing the other day about Aunt Tansie saying that you might as well be going to an African mission when you moved to eastern Ky. Or didn’t I ever tell you that before?

Dear Faye,

Letter before last, you asked about Maisie Stone. Yes, she is still working for me, and very glad I am to have her. I don’t know whether I ever mentioned that there are only three black people in Blue Valley: Maisie, her son Crozier, and an elderly handyman. Of course, why would there be blacks here? There is hardly work for white people on these poor little farms. And so many of the women prefer to do their own housecleaning—the Scotch-Irish peasant mentality, I suppose, passed down in the genes. You know, when I first came here I tried to hire some of these little country girls to clean, but they ate me out of house and home. They did not know how to be servants and could not be trained. But Maisie knows. Yesterday I left a bowl of pickled peaches in the refrigerator to chill for my supper. They were a gift from my neighbor Mrs. Hudgens. Just as a test, I counted them, because it was Maisie’s day to clean. When I got home that night, every single peach was still there. Must mark quizzes before bedtime.

Dear Julia,

Just a hurried card from Mobile. Potter has a chainsaw convention here. On the spur of the moment, I decided to come along. Am having a grand time in the hotel spa, getting massages, mud wraps and so forth. Tonight we’re going to a dinner dance.

Dear Faye,

Here is another chapter in the continuing saga of the shoe woman. Today she was waiting for me under the WPA mural in the p.o. lobby. It seems that her son is involved in that police action we’ve been seeing on TV. Usually she picks up his letters at the p.o. and takes them home for son Benny, 11, to read aloud. By the way, the father’s name is Pharaoh! Not only can he not read either, but he “has gristles in his grind,” whatever that means. Probably it means he’s on disability and our taxes are supporting him. Anyway, our shoe woman, Mrs. Dye, has become afraid that the letters might upset son Benny, if, for instance, son Curtis were to write about getting wounded. I guess you saw where the three American boys were killed over there—so senseless. The upshot is, that I am to read the letters aloud to her before she takes them home. She gets mail at General Delivery because the Army son sometimes sends money and she’s afraid it will get stolen out of their rural mailbox. I really don’t mind, since I go to the p.o. everyday anyway.

Tell the Reverend James Sharp that I said hello (but don’t you dare try to make more out of it than that!) Somehow I still can’t think of him as a minister.

Dear Julia,

The most horrible thing has happened. I don’t expect I will ever get over it. When we got home from Mobile, I sensed at once that the house was too quiet. Lydia came out of the kitchen and said Miss Mandy (she still calls her Miss Mandy) and Cody were gone. Mandy told Lydia that she would be in touch. In touch. And it’s too true. She left most of the things that are stored in the garage, but all their clothes are gone, as well as Cody’s big tricycle. Potter is down talking to Sheriff Foley now. Of course Mandy is of age and hasn’t committed a crime, but surely something can be done. What have we done to deserve this?

Dear Faye,

Have you heard anything from Mandy yet? I know she is fine. She’s a smart girl and a good mother. But what about the no-neck redneck? She can’t run out on his visitation rights. Does he know she’s gone? Do not blame yourself.

As for me, everything is going along the same—classes, bridge club, investment club, book club. The students don’t seem to be as respectful and dedicated as they once were and that’s a trial. You know what Dr. Oldfield used to say: A student is like a pencil. Nothing comes out of it unless it’s pushed. But I weary of the pushing.

I see the shoe woman about once a week. Did I mention the place on her cheek? The first time I saw her, it was an angry little sore, maybe the size of a mosquito bite, on her left cheek. But it is getting progressively larger. Today she had a folded square of sheeting taped over it. My guess is that as a country person, she has a prejudice against doctors.

Dear Julia,

They are in Atlanta. That is all we know, and all we need to know, apparently. Mandy’s friend Gretchen called to tell us. She doesn’t know any more, either. Oh, why did Mandy go outside the family with this? Today at the Museum Initiative meeting, Betty Sams gave me the most sickening smile and asked how Mandy was, so I’ll bet it’s all over town. Potter and I have wracked our brains to think how we could have headed this off. He has gone to see Sheriff Foley again.

About your shoe woman—I wonder if she has any good furniture you could buy. People like that often have antiques around that they don’t recognize as such. Cousin Martha was driving along one day and saw an oak ice chest sitting on the porch of this little tumbledown shack. She paid the man on the porch three dollars for it, had it refinished, and now it’s in their den—beautiful. Anyway, you might ask.

Dear Faye,

I doubt the shoe woman has much furniture of any kind. The weather has turned bitter, yet she only wears a nylon windbreaker over a cotton dress. I had to get out my blue wool coat with the silver fox collar for the walk to school. She need not worry about son Curtis’s letters upsetting anyone, by the way. The boy is in a foreign country, living through an historical situation, and all he notes are the crops, types of trees, livestock, and food. He is surprised that they grow corn there, he saw a nice stand of birches, he “hasn’t had a good full” in three days because Army food is strange to him. Then there is his diarrhea to be discussed. It reminds me of something Rev. Danforth said about the boys going to World War II and not appreciating Europe: you can’t gather eggs without a basket. This boy doesn’t see anything except what reminds him of home. Besides, a sixth grader knows more spelling and grammar. Well! I certainly have gone on, I don’t know why. I’m too busy to worry about people like that.

Dear Julia,

At this late date, Lydia has suddenly remembered that right before Mandy left, she received a long distance phonecall—collect—from a man. Of course we had to tell Rusty, since he would be picking Cody up on the weekend. He accused us of being in on it, to keep Cody away from him! I don’t care if he is a DuBois, we should have gotten a restraining order on him from the beginning. You are right, he is a redneck.

I don’t know what Thanksgiving will be like this year without immediate family. You are always welcome, it goes without saying. But I know you are busy. I just hope I can get decent chestnuts.

Dear Faye,

Thanksgiving is alas out of the question, as I have already accepted an invitation from Mrs. Hudgens. She would be so disappointed if I were to cancel, bless her heart. I feel she depends on me. Her brother, who is in direct sales cookware, will be here, and I am providing the mincemeat pie. I also had another offer, from Miss Palmer at the library. It is surprising what an active social life I do have in a place like this. But thank you.

I have had such a trauma this week with one of my students, who insisted he did not plagiarize a paper he wrote for me. My position is that it would be impossible for anyone from Letcher County to write that well. Letcher County is very poor and in the heart of the coal country. A lot of people there do not even have indoor plumbing. Of course I will prevail—Dean Barkley always stands behind the faculty—but the young man has been quite disrespectful.

Has it occurred to you that Rusty himself might be behind Mandy’s disappearance?

Dear Faye,

No letter from you yesterday. Are there new developments regarding Mandy and Cody? I’m sure all will end well. But when one sees how much trouble children are, one wonders why there are so many of them in the world. I’m sorry if that sounds hard-hearted; I’m only thinking of you.

My arrangement with the shoe woman is becoming something of a burden. For one thing, the son’s letters are so dull that I can’t imagine why he bothers. Some kind of blind, rudimentary need to connect, I suppose, like worms groping toward each other underground. Such people have no eye for the telling detail. For another thing, I have to look at that awful place on her cheek. Despite the bandage, I can see that the edges are now puckered and sunken in, like the rim of a sinkhole. Yesterday, able to take no more, I demanded to know if she’d seen a doctor. She replied, “They’s a woman up home’s going to make me a poultice to draw out the poison. I’ll get shed of it, don’t you worry.” Such language—and anybody can see it’s cancer. Yet the poor thing possesses a certain native courtesy, which I have previously noted among the locals. A while back, she brought me a bouquet of Queen Anne’s Lace and chicory to thank me for my help. Granted, they’re only weeds, but I appreciated the gesture.

Dear Julia,

Sorry to have skipped a couple of days. Doctor Rumsey gave me some pills and I seem to sleep a lot. We received a note from Mandy with an Atlanta postmark, but no return address. She says she was suffocating in Pringle. I don’t know what she wants. Pringle is the cultural capital of northern Alabama, not counting Huntsville and Fayetteville, and everybody she knows is here. Cody is in school—she says he’s enjoying this “great adventure”—and she’s working at a copy shop. So much for all that money spent on her education. Potter is with Sheriff Foley now.

I must correct your view of chicory and Queen Anne’s Lace. They are not weeds, but garden escapees. Isn’t it funny how the value and beauty of a plant goes down when it’s labelled a weed; whereas if those two were still cultivated in flower gardens, we would be paying florists for bouquets of them. I’m so glad Mother can’t see the way Mandy is behaving. Must have a nap.

Dear Faye,

Hope your Thanksgiving went well, under the circumstances. Did Uncle Ferdie tell about Little Grandma stealing her pony back from the Yankees again? It wouldn’t be a family dinner without that. I had a very nice time at Mrs. Hudgens’s. She is quite broadminded for this town and didn’t mind the brandy in the mincemeat in the least. Her brother Austin is very funny, though I wouldn’t call him our kind of people.

Curtis Dye expects to be home soon, so the end of my p. o. ordeal is in sight. When I asked his mother what he would do after the Army, she said, “I’m hoping he’ll make a teacher. Hit’s a dream of our’n, him a-setting up in front of a classroom. Don’t you think he could? He writes so good.” I replied that I should be happy to see him follow his preference in the matter. This is what the subjunctive is for—to evade the truth in delicate situations. What do people do who don’t know how to use it?!?

Dear Julia,

My hand is shaking as I write. Sheriff Foley pulled some strings and got Mandy’s address. Yesterday he and Potter drove up there. She is living in this horrible apartment complex with a masseur named Lars. You can smell cat urine and foreign cooking in the stairwells. She met the masseur at that fitness center she went to while Rusty was at the banking institute. She says she’s happy, and Sheriff Foley says it’s clear she isn’t being held against her will. Rusty is taking her to court. I can’t go on.

Dear Faye,

Mandy is acting like a spoiled brat. I would like to smack her windless. Has she forgotten she’s a Bone? Take care of yourself.

I am busy busy busy with papers and exams at this time of year, plus this is my month to host both the bridge club and the book club. As a result I’ve mailed a couple of your letters at the college rather than swing through town on my way to school. This morning when I did go to check my box, poor old Mrs. Dye was waiting for me like a lost dog. She said she’d missed me and was worried I was sick. Here she is, looking like Death eating a cracker, and she’s worried about me. I was almost touched. She pulled out a jar of dill pickles and presented them to me with this comment: “These is good and crispy because I made ‘em at the right time of the month. If a woman makes pickles during her monthlies, they’ll go soft. But I got a good scaldon ‘em.”

It was a huge treat to have three of your letters to read all at once.

Dear Julia,

This afternoon, I heard a commotion at the door. When Lydia opened it, Cody came bursting in and threw his arms around my legs. Mandy let Rusty have him for a long weekend. You can say what you want to about Rusty, but he’s one of us. Yes, he’s rough around the edges, but Bear Bryant was like a father to him, and that can’t be discounted as an influence. He promises that Christmas will be happy—just let him handle things. With Potter’s angina acting up, I’m inclined to let him take over.

Dear Faye,

Well, as of today we won’t have Mrs. Pharoah Dye to kick around anymore, so to speak. She informed me that the “finance” (sic) of the Army son (Curtis) is going to take over the letter-writing and letter-reading. I must say I was a little piqued, after all the time I’ve spent on her, to be cast aside like an old shoe—to coin a phrase. I doubt that this fiancee, who works at Hardee’s, will be able to furnish the extra information I did—geographical and political commentary which set Curtis’s benighted missives in a context. Not that I actually care. In fact, I’m well rid of her. People who saw us together so regularly probably thought we were friends.

Dear Julia,

Are you sulking? It’s been days since I’ve gotten a letter. I’ve been very busy w/Christmas shopping. Here are a few articles from the society page. I thought I was more photogenic than that! In my humble opinion, it’s a blessing that this shoe woman is out of your life. Judging from your letters, you had gotten far too involved with her—tho’ just in a sociological sense, I’m sure. After all, she’s a nullity; yet you wrote about her all the time. Aunt Tansie never even spoke to Buttermilks when she met them in the street. That’s not being snobbish, it’s just recognizing the way the world is. They had their own friends.

Dear Julia,

Have I said something to offend you? Are you not feeling well? Never have you been silent for so long. Mandy got fired from the copy shop. So things are not so rosy out in the real world. She’s working as a temp. Rusty says we must hold on and not rush to her aid. Potter has told Rusty to tell her that she and Cody are expected for Christmas, but without the Swede, Somehow I feel we are in control again. Oh—Margaret and I have forced Betty Sams out of the Museum Initiative. I won’t write again until I hear from you. Even a housewife has to make time to maintain a daily correspondence.

Dear Faye,

I suppose I have been ill. In a way. Or—I don’t know. First I should explain that when the rainy weather started this fall, Mrs. Dye stopped wearing my shoes and instead would appear in gray plastic ankle boots. Naturally, after the fiancee took over the mail, I didn’t see her anymore. Then one day last week, as I was walking up Main Street to school, I saw my shoes again. They were in the window of the shoe repair shop with a price tag of $3.00 clipped to them. Mr. Lewis, the proprietor, told me that Sylvania Dye brought them in to be re-soled but she died before she could pick them up. Sylvania— it’s pretty, isn’t it? Faye, I didn’t even know her first name. I never cared enough to ask. I saw her decline and I did nothing because she wasn’t our sort. The fiancee had to take over because Sylvania—how strange to say it—could no longer walk to the p.o. And now Curtis will come home too late to see her and little Benny will be without a mother. I would like to send money but I don’t even know where they live. I wonder if Benny has a dog, I wonder if he would like one. They’re not in the phonebook. I feel like—I don’t know what. She trusted me with her son’s letters, which were precious to her.

Dear Julia,

Pull yourself together. You sound as bad as I do when I forget my pills. This woman’s life is not your fault. Rusty said it best the other day when he came to dinner: People like us simply cannot be faulted in personal relations. We always do our best, we have good manners, and we’re honest. That’s all that can be asked. No more time today.

Dear Faye,

Sylvania Dye is still on my mind. I know you will think I’m crazy, but in atonement for my behavior with her, I gave Maisie Stone my blue winter coat with the silver fox collar. I’m sure she never had anything one-tenth that expensive in her life. I wanted to give something that I really didn’t want to part with and it worked. I feel so much better now, even though she hardly thanked me. What does Cousin Martha say about Mandy’s situation?

Dear Julia,

May I just say what a scare you gave Lydia by telephoning after all these years? I’m sorry I wasn’t home, particularly because she always makes such a mess of relaying messages to me. She said something about Maisie quitting? Well, of course—I could have predicted that. Giving her that coat no doubt ruined her as help. Lydia also said you were looking into a void. I told her she must have misunderstood. Did you say that you were looking to avoid something? Did that Dye woman try to blackmail you? I wouldn’t put it past her. Then Lydia said, “Is Miz Julia going through the change? She sound strange.” Well, are you? I felt quite weepy last year until Dr. Rumsey gave me those pills. Not the tranquilizers, the hormone pills. Maybe you should get some, too, if you can find a competent physician there.

Here is something that should cheer you up: Potter has gotten Buck Walters to look into the Swede’s immigration status. If we can get him deported, I am sure Mandy will come to her senses and realize that when all’s said and done, it’s really one’s own people who matter, and who stand behind you. I know you will be too busy to come for Christmas, but we will be thinking of you.

Dear Faye,

Thank you for the lovely card. Between Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and now my birthday, I am quite worn out from celebrating. The crowning touch was that Eleanor Palmer (library) and I drove down to the Boone Tavern for a birthday lunch on Saturday—their roast lamb and dressing is out of this world and the spoonbread is on a par with Grandma Lewis’s—and then we stopped at this authentic, regional pottery place where I bought myself a decorative bowl that matches my living room drapes. Wish you could see the effect. How is the weather there? Here spring has arrived and a rime of green softens the hills and valleys.

Dear Julia,

I have had roundabout news of you. A couple of weeks ago at DAR, Margaret told me that her new niece by marriage (little B.J.’s wife—they met at Auburn) has an uncle who is dean at Blue Valley College. Small world, etc. His name is Horace Barkley. Margaret told the niece, Bootsie, to ask him if he knew you. Yesterday Bootsie (eligible for DAR, happily) reported that she had talked with her uncle and of course he knows you well from all those plagiarism and cheating cases you’ve brought before him. But then he mentioned something that I don’t understand, as apparently you’ve not kept me informed. He said that you’ve been battling with him about the mentor program, which is supposed to link excellent students with professors in their field. But, against the rules, you’ve demanded to be the mentor of a young man, a freshman who is flunking out, and he’s not even majoring in your area of expertise. I believe she also said he’s on the G.I. Bill. Is this someone I would know, that is, someone you’ve previously mentioned in letters? For the time being, I told Margaret that the niece must have garbled your name or something, for this can’t be you. I know you would not go against a merit system in favor of the land of hillbilly that you want to keep out of higher education. I’ve heard you often enough on the subject! Do explain so I can straighten this out for all of us.

Dear Faye,

Just a quick note to stay in touch. Bootsie sounds dumb as grits—which would make her a good match for B.J. As for the student in question, I am simply helping out a young man who badly wants to be a high school teacher but who himself received very poor training at the primary and secondary levels. Moreover he’s been out of school for several years, in the Army as you say, and is supporting an invalid father and a younger brother and, it turns out, a little sister as well. It’s all in a day’s work and I don’t know why Dean Barkley even brought it up. It’s not as if I’m asking for a salary increment or time off for it. This is just something I’m doing with my left hand, as Father used to say, and frankly, I didn’t think it important enough to mention to you. Why in the world would you imagine you have heard of him? And why, for that matter, are you so interested? I certainly don’t like being accused of hiding something! I will say that the young man is making excellent progress, which just goes to show.

Nothing else happening here. I won at bridge last night and received the most hideous little prize—a pink china cow with gold horns. We have a new member, a young faculty wife with absolutely no taste, and it was her turn to furnish the trophy. The raspberry swirl brownies sound scrumptious. Could you please send the recipe? I’m always needing something new to take to my club meetings. Hi to Mandy and Cody and a Happy Easter (busy time of year for me) to all.

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