The Woman with the Broken Shoe ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Off Season literary anthology, published by Midwest Literary Magazine, summer 2011.)
Norrie Upchurch and his grandma were traveling by bus. After spending two days and nights at Aunt Ella Robinson’s house, during which Norrie slept on the second-story sleeping porch overlooking the back yard, they were moving on to visit Uncle Zachary, grandma’s younger brother, and his wife, on the farm they owned down in the southern part of the state. Grandma said she wanted to see as many of her relatives as she could because she wasn’t sure if she was going to live through another winter.
After standing in a slow-moving line and buying the tickets from a blond-haired woman with a face like a fish, grandma’s feet hurt and she was starting to get one of her headaches.
“Did you ever notice how some people take forever to do a simple thing like buy a bus ticket?” she said. “They fool around and can’t seem to make up their minds about where they’re going. They never even think about the people waiting behind them.”
“I’m hungry,” Norrie said.
“Well, we’ve got two and a half hours to wait for our bus.”
Grandma had to use the toilet before she did anything else. She didn’t want to take her suitcase into the toilet with her, so she told Norrie to stand and watch it outside the door to the ladies’ room so nobody would steal it.
“And don’t get distracted and forget you’re watching it,” she said. “Somebody will steal it so fast you won’t even know what happened. That’s what life in the big city is like.”
He set the suitcase on its side and pushed it up against the wall and sat on it like it was a little stool. He watched the feet of the people walking past for a while and when he got tired of doing that he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. He knew grandma would take a long time in the toilet. After she did her business she would wash her hands with hot water and lots of soap and, after she dried her hands, she would put on fresh lipstick, powder her nose and forehead and fluff up her hair. She believed in looking her best.
By the time grandma came out of the toilet, Norrie was tired of watching the people’s feet and he just wanted to get on the bus and start moving again without the tedium of having to wait. Two and a half hours seemed like an awfully long time.
She pulled him up off the suitcase by his wrist, not liking that he would treat it in that way. The suitcase wasn’t made of iron. She didn’t want her things all mashed.
The bus station was like a little city within the city. People everywhere were going in every direction, moving as if they were in a speeded-up movie. A woman’s voice on a loudspeaker announced arrivals and departures almost without ceasing in a nearly incomprehensible twang. There was a place to buy stamps and mail letters; places to get cigars, candy, flowers, souvenirs, newspapers and magazines, drugs; also a travel agent, a smoking lounge, two different restaurants, a cocktail lounge, a coffee shop, banks of telephones, travelers’ aid booth, first-aid station, toilets and lounges. Anything that anybody traveling by bus—or arriving by bus—could ever want—all under one roof.
Grandma steered Norrie over against the far wall, where there seemed to be the least concentration of people.
“Lord help me,” she said, as she sat down heavily on a bench near a window. “I’m getting too old for traveling around the country anymore.”
“I want to go look at the comic books,” Norrie said.
“All right, but don’t ask to buy anything. I’ve just got barely enough money as it is.”
“I’ve got my own money.”
“I’ll be right here. And don’t you get lost. If you get lost, I’m not going to bother to come looking for you.”
“Be sure and watch the suitcase so nobody steals it,” Norrie said.
He looked at the comic books for a long time and nobody paid any attention to him. He found at least eight on the rack that he wanted to add to his collection, but he ended up buying two, a Superboy and a My Greatest Adventure. When he went to pay for the comics, he asked the old midget who took his money to put them in a bag for him. Grandma would be curious about what he had bought; better that she didn’t know. She would ask him if he thought he should have saved that money toward a warm coat for winter or a college education. He would have to say no.
When Norrie went back to where he had left grandma, she was talking to a younger woman sitting on the bench beside her. He had never seen the woman before, but grandma was talking to her as if she knew her. Neither of them looked at him, so he sat down on the other side of grandma and began swinging his legs.
“Could you help me out with a couple dollars?” he heard the woman say.
Grandma opened her purse and took out some change and gave it to the woman. “This is all I can spare,” she said. “Me and my grandson are traveling on the cheap as it is.”
“Bless you,” the woman said, and she began to cry.
“You need to tell somebody you were robbed, though.”
“I will but first I have to get up my nerve.”
“Maybe they can find who did it and get your money back for you.”
“There’s all these people. Do you think I need to stand in line to say somebody stole my money?”
“Just go to that information desk over there, and they’ll tell you what you should do.”
“I just don’t know what my husband would say if he knew I lost my money.”
“It wasn’t your fault. Those things happen.”
“And if my money being stolen wasn’t bad enough, the heel on my shoe broke off.” She began crying again, louder than before.
“If I had an extra pair of shoes, I would give them to you,” grandma said.
“That’s all right,” the woman said. “I wouldn’t expect you to give a pair of shoes to a complete stranger. You’ve been too kind already.”
She stood up and walked away; her broken shoe made her body list tragically to the right as if the lower part of body was malformed.
“She should just take off her shoes and walk in her bare feet,” grandma said with a laugh.
“What was that all about?” Norrie asked. “Who was that woman?”
“She’s a panhandler,” grandma said. “There’s always lots of them in the city.”
“What’s a panhandler?”
“It’s somebody who concocts a sob story and goes around asking people for money.”
“It seems to have worked with you,” Norrie said.
“I gave her thirty-one cents. She provided a few minutes of entertainment and that’s how much I thought it was worth.”
“Now she’s over there asking somebody else for money.”
“She’ll shake as many people down as she can and then she’ll either get drunk and flop for the night or buy herself some narcotics. I think she’s already a little tooted.”
“Maybe she’s telling the truth,” Norrie said.
“Maybe, but I don’t think so.”
“When are we going to eat?”
Grandma took the little flask of whiskey out of her purse that she always carried for “medicinal” purposes. She wouldn’t have wanted anybody to think she was a drinker, but she believed her pills worked better when she swallowed them with some whiskey; nobody had ever been able to prove to her satisfaction that it wasn’t so.
When she dug down deeper into her enormous purse and wasn’t able to find her pills, she emptied the purse out onto the bench. She unearthed old hankies, folded-up newspaper articles that she forgot she was carrying, bobby pins, more than one unusable ink pen, an earring that she thought was lost forever, and other useless items, some of which she couldn’t remember owning.
“Maybe the pills are in the suitcase,” Norrie said.
“I never put my pills in the suitcase. I remember putting them in my purse at Aunt Ella’s last night after I took one so I wouldn’t leave them behind.”
“There’s a drugstore over there. Can’t you just go buy some more?”
“It doesn’t quite work that way, dear. You have to have a prescription.”
“Maybe that woman stole them.”
“That woman you were talking to when I came back. The woman with the busted shoe.”
She looked through the purse again, believing the pills might really be there but she just hadn’t seen them yet. When that didn’t work, she looked underneath everything in the suitcase, even though she was sure the pills weren’t there.
“I have an extra bottle at home,” grandma said. “I can just see them sitting on the shelf in the bathroom.”
“What happens if you don’t take them?”
“I don’t know. I might have an attack.”
“What kind of attack?”
“You didn’t hide them on me, did you? You’re not playing one of your little tricks on me, are you?”
“I wouldn’t do that,” Norrie said. “I might hide your glass eye or your rubber liver but not your pills.”
He was hoping to make her laugh but she didn’t seem to notice what he said or that he had said anything at all.
“Let’s go to the restaurant and maybe I’ll remember what I did with them,” grandma said.
By the time they made it into the restaurant and were seated in a padded, yellow vinyl booth all the way in the back, grandma was out of breath and pale. If she could see herself, Norrie thought, she would want to put on some more face powder. When the heavyset waitress in an eye patch and a yellow uniform came to take their order, Norrie ordered fish cakes with potatoes, the special of the day. He was disappointed that grandma wanted only coffee.
“I thought you were hungry, too,” he said.
“I don’t have any appetite,” she said. “I’ll have a taste of yours.”
After they had placed their order, grandma handed Norrie her purse and told him to look all through it and see if he could find the pills. He knew it was no use, but he did as she asked and when he was finished he handed the purse back across the table to her.
“This will be my last trip,” she said.
The waitress came with grandma’s coffee and went away again without saying anything.
“Do you think she’s pretty?” Norrie asked.
“She looks like a pirate with that eye patch,” grandma said.
“I wonder what happened to her eye.”
“Why don’t you ask her when she comes back? I’m sure it’s a fascinating story.”
Norrie was glad to see that grandma still seemed like her old self, saying funny things about people, but he could tell by looking at her that something was wrong. Her eyes seemed out of focus and her face was the color of old paper.
“Do you want me to call a doctor?” he asked.
“We’re hundreds of miles from home,” she said. “What doctor would that be?”
“Maybe he could give you some pills like the ones you lost.”
“I didn’t lose them. They’re just in hiding.”
By the time the waitress brought his food, Norrie didn’t feel like eating, either. He was too worried about grandma, too worried about what was going to happen. Grandma didn’t touch her coffee. When she took a drink of the ice water the waitress had brought, her hands were shaking.
He nibbled at his food, watching grandma the whole time. He thought he should keep talking to her to let her know he was still there and wasn’t going anywhere.
“Remember the time we were in the boat,” he said, “and it turned over? We thought we were going to drown but when we stood up the water was only two feet deep. And that time you dressed up as a witch on Halloween and won a prize at the church party for having a costume that was best suited to your own personality?”
“I think you were right,” grandma said without opening her eyes. “That woman, the one with the busted shoe, reached into my purse and took my pills when I opened it to give her the thirty-one cents. I don’t know how she did it, but people like that have their own evil ways.”
“And the time we got the Christmas tree all decorated and when you went to plug in the lights the tree fell over and broke the baby Jesus and one of the angels?”
“I just want to stay here for a little while. I’m so tired. I just want to know if…”
She leaned her head against the cushiony side of the booth and was still. Norrie thought she might be dead except that he could see her chest move as she breathed. He was hoping she would sleep for a few minutes and wake up and feel all right again, but he didn’t think it was going to be that easy. He wanted to see her open her eyes and slurp her coffee and reach across and pick up one of his fish cakes in her fingers and start to eat it, but he didn’t think that was going to happen. There was something bad wrong and she wasn’t going to be able to continue with their trip.
In a little while the waitress came and slapped the check down on the table and started to walk away. She noticed grandma with her head down, though, and turned to Norrie.
“Is she all right?” the waitress asked.
“No. She’s having one her spells.”
“Does she have them often?”
“I think she has them when she doesn’t take her medicine.”
The waitress put two fingers to the side of grandma’s neck, as if that would tell her what was wrong. “I think I’d better get the manager,” she said.
Soon the waitress returned with the manager, who looked like a college-age boy. He had red hair and his ears stuck out. He put his fingers against the underside of grandma’s wrist just under her thumb.
“What’s the matter with her?” he asked Norrie. “Is she unconscious? Does she have a heart condition?”
“I don’t know,” Norrie said.
“Get an ambulance,” he said to the waitress.
The manager took one last look at grandma and then he turned to Norrie and said, “I think you’d better come with me.”
“You can wait in the office for the ambulance to come. This is no place for a child.”
“I want to wait here with grandma.”
“Suit yourself,” he said and then he left Norrie and grandma alone.
“That waitress,” Norrie said to grandma, even though he was sure she couldn’t hear him, “the one with the eye patch, she’s calling somebody on the phone for help. They’ll know what to do. They’ll have some of the pills like the ones you can’t find.”
He saw the check on the corner of the table and remembered that it needed to be paid. Grandma would want him to take care of it.
He reached across for her purse and opened it. He knew she kept her wallet in a special zippered compartment inside the purse where she would always know where it was. He took the wallet out and counted out the money and arranged it carefully on top of the check, remembering to add a little extra for a tip for the waitress.
When he was putting the wallet back in its compartment, he realized there was something else in there, something that kept the wallet from going back into the compartment as easily as it should. Upon closer examination, he saw that it was grandma’s little bottle containing the pills she couldn’t do without.
He held the bottle up in his hand and rattled it, hoping she would open her eyes and know what it was. When that didn’t work, he took one of the pills out of the bottle and, holding the pill in his fingertips, moved around to the other side of the booth where grandma was. He put his hand on her shoulder and held the pill up in front of her face. He was hoping she would open her eyes and see the pill and smile and swallow the pill with some of the ice water that was still in the glass. He wanted it so much he could see it happening.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp