School clothes shopping is a yearly tradition for many American children. Every August, exhausted parents hit the mall with about a quarter of their paychecks while kids choose apparel that won’t get them kicked, punched, spit at, or given wedgies. Optimal gear elicits pangs of envy from the kids who frequently do get kicked, punched, spit at, or given wedgies. The third grade is particularly rough, as I recall.
It was the year Grandma bought my gym shoes.
“I have a picture of the shoes I want,” I announced, flipping through the catalog to locate the same black Converse All-Stars worn by my cousin Debbie.
Debbie was three years older than me. She had a cassette tape collection. The summer before, she and my other cousin Jenny told me the meanings of all the bad words they knew. I told my sister one of them and got my mouth washed out with soap.
“Mmmhmm,” Grandma nodded, barely glancing in my direction. She crushed out her Winston and picked up a bright pink tube of lipstick.
Grandma lived in a house with powder-blue asbestos siding that featured its own special smoking room. It was in that room that I cornered her, insistent upon getting the shoes that would assist in my leap to third grade stardom and mega-popularity. I held up the catalog once again, pointing to the black Converse footwear with the Chuck Taylor signature that I had circled three times with a pen.
She scanned the page.
“Okay. Go play,” she said.
I grinned and ran off, encouraged by the fact that my request was approved quickly.
Two weeks later my shoes arrived.
I was just getting off the bus when I saw the enormous blue Ford parked in the driveway. It was all I could do not to turn around and sneer at Jason Carlson who had been poking me in the head with a permanent marker. I had black dots on my scalp. They would wash off but my cool teenager shoes would last forever.
“I hope they’re the right size,” said Grandma as she handed them over. “You kids’ feet grow so fast.”
The box looked funny.
I flipped open the top and peered inside.
The brightness of hot pink and teal canvas stung my eyes. “Fast Feet,” it said on the outside of each shoe. There was no white circle and no blue star.
Grandma poured herself a glass of brandy.
“They had them at Kmart,” she said. “Now you’re all set.”
I was all set – to die of embarrassment.
I was all set to run across the gym floor and not be able to stop because the soles of my shoes were hard white plastic. They also made terrible skidding, shrieking sounds. I don’t know how many times I ran into the wall doing relays. I was picked last for every game, and I can’t even talk about dodge ball.
I still have the scar. On my soul.
“Thank you,” I whispered, clutching the box to my chest, as if there was an animal inside trying to escape.
I slipped silently back to my bedroom and closed the door.