The Dude Who Stole Her New Shoes
By Jo-Anne Rosen
Martha removes her robe and slips into the river. She loves this night swim best of all, when she’s naked as a fish and her bones feel supple again. The water, biting cold at first, laps her skin. Redwoods towering along the opposite shore shield her from the rising moon.
She swims around a fisherman in a kayak. He is shirtless and muttering to himself, and she notes in passing well-defined pectorals and a square jaw. He doesn’t seem to see her gliding by. Not that she cares who looks at her sun-weathered, crooked body. She swims vigorously all the way to the bridge and drifts back with the current to the beach where she left her robe, a towel and sandals near the row of locked-together rental canoes. Per the clock on the shuttered refreshment stand, she’s been swimming half an hour.
The sandals are gone.
Martha dries off quickly and puts on the robe. Up near the refreshment stand, old Whitman is poking through a trash can. He prefers to scavenge in the dark. She picks her way gingerly over the stony beach toward him.
“Walt, someone took my sandals.”
“I know it wasn’t you. Did you see anyone down at the shore besides me?”
He strokes the flowing beard. “A fisherman pulled up for a few minutes.”
“That guy without a shirt?”
“I can’t see that far in the dark.”
“The son of a bitch stole my new shoes.”
“A river rat, my lady,” he declaims in his gravelly baritone. “If I see him again, I’ll give him what for.”
There is nothing she can do but hobble over the stones to her car. She has a pair of cheap flip-flops at home, but they aren’t as comfortable as the sandals, top-of-the-line Tevas, not knock-offs. They put a sizable dent in her budget.
Martha doesn’t sleep well that night, her dreams interrupted by thumps and scratchings outside the cabin that normally she doesn’t hear. Resigned to insomnia, she gets out of bed and wanders into her sculpting studio. She works on a small clay demon until dawn, hollows it out and puts it in the kiln on the back porch, then falls back into bed exhausted.
Later that morning, she returns to the beach wearing the flip-flops and a sundress over her swim suit. It’s already a blazing hot Sunday and the river is dotted with swimmers and boaters. She rents an umbrella at the stand. Whitman is helping with setups today, in addition to his regular beach scouring chores. She gives him a dollar tip, last week’s New Yorker and an orange.
“I feel terrible about those sandals,” he murmurs.
“Kind of creepy, isn’t it? I’ve been swimming here every summer for fifteen years and no one’s ever touched my stuff.”
“I should’ve kept a closer watch.”
“It’s not your job, Walt.”
He droops. He’s the philosopher-king of the beach. When not reciting poetry (his own or the original Walt’s) or reusing the leavings of vacationers and townsfolk, of course it’s his job to patrol his turf.
Martha likes him because he’s a little crazy, older than god and still surviving.
After she eats a sandwich, snoozes a little, reads a little, she’s ready for a swim. She leaves the flip-flops on the shore. Any shoe fetishist rat is welcome to those, she thinks. She’s picking her way around the children and waders, most of whom only get into the river to piss in it, when she hears Whitman booming, “Halt, thief!”
Everyone looks around, bewildered. Whitman runs up to the water’s edge and points up river. “That’s the dude who stole your sandals, Martha. In the yellow kayak.”
She shades her eyes with one hand and squints at a shirtless, deeply tanned man weaving his kayak around the other boaters. It could be him. Yes, she thinks, it must be. She remembers the prominent jaw and lean, muscular frame, she has a good eye for that sort of detail, even quickly seen, even in the dark. She watches him steer toward the bridge.
“I’m going after him,” she shouts.
“What? You can’t catch up with a boat.”
“He’ll stop to fish.”
“You be careful, now.” He takes a step into the water, stops, retreats. No one has ever seen Whitman in the river.
Martha swims upstream. Every so often she pauses to track the kayaker’s progress. He veers off to the other shore and slows down. The boat drifts into an alcove a few hundred yards beyond the bridge where a canoe is moored. She swims up under the bridge and watches for awhile. It looks like a fishing camp. Two men sit on deck chairs, poles in the water. She hears laughter, a beer can popping open. One man is older and grayer; the younger of the two is her mark.
The river bottom rises as she approaches, but she stays in the water till she’s a few yards away. They don’t notice her at all till she emerges suddenly, plump and dripping.
“Hello boys,” she says, smiling. “How’s the fishing?” The older of the two eyes her and clams up.
“Fair to middling,” the younger man says amiably. Closer up, she sees his skin is cracked and leathery. He has long blondish-grey hair tied back in a ponytail.
“Is it better at night?”
He squints at her. “Well, yeah. Got me some nice smallmouth bass last night.”
“I saw you fishing last night,” she says. “Swam right by your boat.”
“And when I got back to the beach, my sandals were gone. You know anything about that?” She stares into his face. “I can’t afford to replace them.”
“Those were yours?” His face, hollow eyed and gaunt, is a study in contrition. “I thought they were abandoned. I gave them to my brother.”
He takes off his sandals and offers them to her. “I don’t want you to go barefoot, ma’am,” he says.
They are grimy flip-flops, several sizes too large for Martha. “I already have a pair of flip-flops,” she says. “Keep yours. I want my new sandals back.”
He gets up and jumps into his kayak.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“To get your sandals from my brother. He’s fishing upstream somewhere.” She looks at the other man, who shrugs and turns away.
“I’d appreciate it,” she says, “but I’m not going to wait here for you. Could you take them to the refreshment stand? My name is Martha. They know me.”
“I’ll do that, Martha,” he says and starts paddling upstream.
“What’s your name?” she calls after him, but he doesn’t reply, and when she turns around, the other man has disappeared into the brush.
The sandals never show at the refreshment stand.
Now she notices similar sandals for sale everywhere in town, used or cheap knock-offs. She buys another pair for half the price she paid for the stolen ones.
She next encounters the fisherman-thief in the post office several weeks later. He’s unlocking a mailbox and she waits behind him.
It’s fall and the river is no longer dammed, so she can’t swim, but he can still fish.
“How’s the fishing business?” she asks.
He turns and doesn’t seem to recognize her.
She’s already constructing the next story with which to regale her friends. Men never see older women, she’ll say. Or maybe he didn’t recognize me with my clothes on.
“And the sandal business?” she continues.
He claps a hand to his forehead. “Oh my God, the lady with the sandals.”
“Without the sandals.”
“I’m so sorry about that. My brother gave them to the Salvation Army.”
“That very day?”
“He felt they shouldn’t go to waste.”
She follows him outside.
“Why not tell me the truth? Nothing can be done about it now.”
His face breaks up into different colored planes. He sputters and coughs, and Martha is alarmed.
“Are you alright?” She touches the sleeve of his jacket and he shrinks back.
“I needed the money,” he says.
She learns his name is Jim Flanders and he’s looking for work. He collects veteran’s benefits, but not much.
She needs someone to clean the yard and roof. There might be other work, she tells him, if he’s reliable.
“Guess I owe you something for the sandals,” he says, not looking at her.
“Fine, you can work that off in three hours. Then I’ll pay you, $12 an hour.”
“Three hours?” he whistles.
“They were new. They cost $60, in fact.”
“You left them on the beach,” he accuses. “Like cast-offs.”
She takes a deep breath. “Alright, I’m at fault, too. Two hours to make up for the loss, which you’ve admitted was your doing.”
“Okay,” he agrees, reluctantly.
In the rainy season, Whitman hangs out at the library or nurses one cup of java all day at the Café Bazaar. Martha treats him to a croissant and a bran muffin for herself. Whitman knows all the river people. She asks what he knows about Jim. Where does he live? How long has he been in town?
Jim and the other man showed up perhaps a year ago. He doesn’t have a brother, so far as Whitman knows. They live in one of the derelict cottages on the riverbank downstream that flood some winters. Last year was dry, but this year they might not be so fortunate. Whitman lived there once himself. Now he's got Section Eight housing and a room in the Stumptown Motel.
“You don’t want to bring a river rat into your home,” he advises.
“If he’s a rat, why didn’t he flat out deny he took the sandals?”
“I don’t know,” he admits.
“Besides, you’ve been in my home, and I’m none the worse for it.”
Whitman laughs deep in his throat. “Are you sculpting a homeless series, Martha?”
After Jim sweeps moldy leaves off the roof and eaves, cleans out the yard, and brings in wood and kindling, Martha invites him to warm up at the wood stove and serves him coffee and a slice of cake. He removes his cap and looks around the cabin in wonder. She’s used to that. All the available space is crowded with ceramic demons and angels, lions and winged horses, male and female nudes, portrait busts, fantastic fish. Why not a fisherman, she thinks.
“You know Whitman? That’s him over there,” she points to a bust on the dining table, atop which perches a wreath of dry bay laurel. “I’ll give it to the library if it doesn’t sell.”
“Boy, you’re good.”
“I was sculpting before you were a gleam in your father’s eye,” she says.
“This how you make your living?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes the summer people are collecting. Otherwise I get by on social security and teaching.”
She offers him a job posing for the weekly workshop.
“You have an intriguing face, Jim, all angles and shadows. It could be a portrait bust or full nude. More money if you take your clothes off.”
His eyebrows go up, and he hesitates.
“Who’s gonna be there?”
She explains. Four or five students, men and women. He will have to stay very still for up to ten minutes at a time. She will also need his permission to take photos, so that the work can continue if he’s not available.
“You’d be sculpting me, too?” he asks, almost shyly.
“Oh yes. The classes pay the rent, but sculpting is my life.”
“That’s cool,” he says. “I’ll take my clothes off.”
After he leaves, she wonders if she’s made a mistake. He’s a drifter, probably spends all his money on dope. He could steal something else, she supposes. But she doesn’t think he will. It would be too obvious, plus he seems to admire her now.
He reminds her of someone she’s not thought about in years, a man also much younger than she was and doomed in the way Jim might be. It’s that doom she sees in his face.
She can’t remember exactly what happened to Nelson. They didn’t correspond much after she moved out west. He was plagued by demons, not so very different from hers. They’d had a wonderful affair in a high class institution, a lunatic asylum, really, with sweeping green lawns and a pond where they swam in the moonlight and made love. But romance and sex had provided only a brief respite. It was making art that saved her life. Nelson wrote her a few disconsolate and disconnected love letters, and then nothing. If not for the sketches she’d made and kept, she might not remember what he looked like, those haunted eyes and ravaged face, the narrow chest.
Aside from Jim dozing during the final pose, the first session goes well. The class votes on which pose they like best. He is seated on the dais, leaning on one arm, one leg flexed as if he were about to jump up. Her students are pleased. They’ve all heard the story about the “dude who stole her new shoes,” but they don’t let him know they know.
Martha strokes and shapes the wet clay with fingers and small scalpels. His body unclothed has a hungry look to it. She knows she’s obsessing a little over the sunken chest and eye sockets. When she was younger, she would have been foolish enough to take a man like this to her bed. Now, on the downhill track to eighty with arthritic hips and knees that flare up badly in winter, she figures she’s better off bantering with Whitman over a cup of coffee.
Jim seems fascinated by the work taking shape, each sculpture different from the other, yet all clearly representing him.
“This is about the best job I ever had,” he declares. “You think I could get more work?”
“You could join the model’s guild,” Martha says. “But there’s no one else up here hiring. You’d have to row downstream pretty far, like to San Francisco.”
Tanya Ng is Martha’s most promising acolyte. She’s doing a portrait bust. Though still rough at the end of the first session, it's a good likeness. The lips are curved in a subtle smile.
“Hey, I wasn't smiling.” Jim frowns at the piece, during a break.
“It's the ghost of a smile,” Tanya says. “I saw it for like a flash.”
A smile flits across his face, there and gone.
Martha watches them uneasily. She hadn't seen that aspect of Jim till now. Perhaps, she worries, her version of Jim is going to be just like all the other damned souls in her gallery, the limbs strained, the face gaunt and tormented, another reflection of her own odyssey into darkness. What about the voyage back? What about recovery and sanity? That has never been half so interesting to her.
Of course, Tanya has a different perspective. She has had a radically different life. She is almost too beautiful with those delicate and pronounced cheek bones and swanlike neck, a skinny Asian angel with tattoos.
Jim maintains his pose but his eyes keep shifting over to where Tanya is working. With her life before her, Martha thinks, and there's a bitter taste in her mouth.
Martha is too restless to work on the piece between sessions, especially with Jim around the house. He's busy stacking her wood for the winter, but he seems absent-minded or stoned, or both. Coming down the stairs that lead from the road where the cord of wood was dumped to the area under the deck where he's stacking it, he misses the last tread and the logs he's carrying clatter to the ground. Martha rushes over to help him up. Aside from a scrape on one arm, he's unscathed.
“You have marvelous reflexes,” she tells him.
“Tuck and roll,” he says. “Always a life saver.”
“Let's get a disinfectant on that arm right away.”
“No, no, don't you fuss. I'll finish the job.”
She stares at him. “You'll do no such thing. I won't have that arm infected, and I'm the boss.”
She washes the wound with soap and hot water in the bathroom sink. It's a lean, sinewy forearm, below the faded tattoo on his biceps. Her touch is gentle, but lingers perhaps a beat too long. He pulls his arm away and applies the salve himself.
“What do you really want from me?” he asks.
She is briefly stung, but collects herself. He towers over her. He could strangle her, she thinks. But he looks more anxious than irate.
Finally she says, “I'll settle for a job well done. I don't mean only your job.” She backs out of the room. “I'll be working in my studio if you need anything.”
“I won't need anything,” he says. “I'll get your wood in and I'll go.”
In her studio Martha removes the towels from her sculpture of Jim and, in a fury, tears it all apart. Then she puts it back together again. She doesn't even stop for dinner. The real Jim leaves without saying goodbye, and she works into the night. The new version will be Jim redeemed, no longer tormented, but radiant, angelic, the man he or Nelson could have been.
At the next session, Jim seems more restless. His eyes twitch and he breaks his pose to scratch his head or, absently, his balls. Afterward he walks around Martha’s sculpture, studying it closely.
“Wow,” he says.
“It's who you really are,” she says.
“It's fantastic,” Tanya says. “I think it'll be your best yet.”
“You don't want to know who I really am,” Jim mutters.
The night before the third session, he phones Martha to tell her he won’t be coming back. It sounds like he’s calling from a tavern.
“Why not?” She can’t keep the irritation out of her voice.
“It’s the Vietnamese chick. I don’t like how she’s looking at me.”
“What? I know you like her. I'm old, but I'm not blind.”
“I was in Nam, see, and I just can’t deal with it.”
“I’m sorry, about that,” she says. “Only I don't think Vietnam is the problem.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
He hangs up abruptly.
Dispirited, she goes into the studio and stares at all the covered pieces for a while. They look like ghosts. She takes the damp towel off her work and cups the chest with both hands. Unexpectedly, she feels a bittersweet longing for something lost, which is also like a ghost, faint rather than sharp. She shuts her eyes to savor it for a moment or two. Then she covers the sculpture.
It won’t be the same without a model. They’ll have to work from photos.
The last time she sees Jim he looks half-drowned.
They’ve both come into the Café Bazaar out of a storm. He’s eying the day-old baked goods and Whitman in his usual corner is regarding them both with great interest. She limps over to the counter.
“You alright, Jim?”
She would like to tell him she’s been to hell and back, herself, but instead says, “Everyone missed you at the workshop.”
Whitman is suddenly behind them, towering over her, one hand on her shoulder.
“I’d like to know what you did with Martha’s sandals,” he says.
“I already told her.” Jim raises his voice as if, being old, they must be deaf.
He pushes past them and hurries out of the café.
The river swells with muddy water. The creek below her cottage rises almost to the porch. Rain beats on the roof. But there is plenty of wood for the fire and the larder is full. She stays indoors.
Whitman shows up late one afternoon, cloaked head to toe in rain gear, his beard damp and scraggly. He doesn’t have a phone or a car. A neighbor up the hill gave him a lift from town. She’ll have to drive him back to the Stumptown, she realizes, or put him up on the sofa for the night, but she is glad for the distraction.
“Just want to make sure you’re still breathing,” he says.
“I’ve been nursing my bones.”
They hover by the wood stove sipping hot coffee and gossiping. He reports the homeless have all decamped. “Gone south for the winter.”
Martha says nothing. She gets up and pokes at the charred wood with the fire iron. He’s squinting at her, as if perplexed. “You made another beautiful sculpture, didn’t you, Martha?”
He begins to recite “I Sing the Body Electric.” His melodic baritone and the cadence of the verse always sooth her, but when he gets to “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?” she cuts him off.
“Do stop, Walt. The man is a lost soul.”
They look out the window at the sculpture of Jim. After firing the clay, she put the piece in the yard with its face to the creek. Sometimes she imagines it sliding into the water in the next storm and washing out to sea. But there it stays, mud-splattered and stubborn as dirt, its shoulder blades like crumpled wings.