Fiction

The Shoe Emporium

BY

Illustration by Mügluck


Illustration by Mügluck

Do you feel that? Steve asks. The customer, a leggy junior high school teacher, has just taken up running.

Steve rubs small circles on the inside of his own knee.

Right there, he says. He doesn’t break eye contact. The customer has large grey eyes and a habit of hyper-rapid blinking that suggests permanent incredulity. But her weak, caving chin gives Steve hope.

The customer reaches down to touch the inside of her knee, unconsciously mirroring him. Rubbing little circles. She blinks.

I guess so, she says.

Then she says, Yes.

Steve nods. Slow, small nods, like a translator with an invisible earbud hearing foreign things of life-altering importance and simultaneously transforming them into colloquial, sales-savvy koans about bones and joints and mortality.

His nodding effects a reluctant intimacy, as if many a customer could not get this kind of attention out of Steve, the kind she’s getting right now, nobody could, under normal circumstances, but look, lady, you are golden, I can see right inside you, the things you want, you are some kind of charismatic junior high school teacher and the eyes on you, and I get it, you want to run and it hurts. You are hurting.

She is nodding right back.

Yes, she says. I feel it.

When you’re running, Steve says. A pain, right here, this muscle?

Now he’s stroking the inside of his thigh.

Yes, that’s absolutely where it hurts, she says. He doesn’t break eye contact because that’s how good he is at selling shoes, but he intuits that behind him another customer he’s also agreed to help is on tiptoes stretching for a buttery suede hiking boot with fringes, reaching for it, reaching. And he feels the eyes of his manager, Cathy, riveted on him.

You’re right, Aiden, yes, the junior high school teacher says to Steve, and she blinks. His name tag says Aiden. She’s caressing her own thigh.

See this right here, he asks. He’s holding the foot measurer.

The new heat-sensing foot measurer came with the spring shipment and Steve was the first to embrace the technology.

The old metal foot measurer has sliding parts that cup the ball of the foot and the top of the toes. The measurements are in the grooves that run down the side, like the foot measurers of yore. The new device introduces the first innovation to the original design since 1927, when it was first invented; the metal has been fitted with a magic footprint-shaped inlay.

Can I get you to take off your boot, Steve asks. He is careful with tone. He speaks atonally. Okay, yes. He has a husky hue, a tamped-down friskiness this side of overtly sexual that is spontaneous, comes over him unbidden with the promise of a naked foot.

I’m not wearing any socks, she says. Does she blush? Steve drops to one knee in front of her, a signature move the other two salespeople, including Cathy, the manager, occasionally adopt, following his lead.

Illustration by Mügluck

Steve pulls a scrunched little ball of nylon out of his back pocket and, without another word, tugs the zipper on junior high school teacher’s black suede ankle boot, gripping the heel and toe and, gently rocking, breaking the sweat-suction seal of smelly leather: black glitter nail polish, toes like unearthed baby potatoes, a bitsy little corn on the side of the big toe, yellowed, hardened but porous, full of character.

He slips the sockette over the toes, slithering it up to the heel, letting it snap into place.

What do you teach? he asks.

Ukulele, she says. Blinking hard.

He places the foot measurer in front of her on the floor.

Do you want me to, she says. The Shoe Emporium is packed right now and there’s a lot of noise and distraction but Steve is built. He has a worked physique: balls of tough flesh bugle all down his arms as he moves, ropes of muscles ripple over his back, the curving waist. His face is clefts and crags, a boxy, unbeautiful lean-to of a forehead, shovel chin. He has eyes that came to Newfoundland four hundred years ago, straight from Waterford, Ireland.

Those eyes are a particular blue: Jell-O vodka shooters at bachelorette parties in 1992 were that colour blue. Mr. Freezes. Blowtorch blue. Iceland’s blue lagoon.

I’ll just ask you to scootchie your foot back against that heel holder, he says. She steps onto it. He adjusts the sliding metal cup so it snugs the ball of her foot and then slides the other movable metal part so it touches her toes.

Does that feel good? he asks.

Tickles, she says.

Does it, he says. But he’s doctorish, scientific. His pinkie nevertheless brushes her instep. Her foot curls in on itself, but she does not haul it away.

Okay, step off, he says. He hoists the foot measurer so one end of it rests on his hip. The plastic foot-shaped inlay holds a skim of surging liquid as alive as the primordial plasma from which life first sprang.

It captures the imprint of heat from the sole. Cathy had once pressed it against her heart and showed the print to the other salesperson on the floor, Marty, whose name tag actually says Marty. There had been a beautiful flare in the plasma, a boiling cherry with a penumbra of aqua surging out all over the place and a black star with a chartreuse aureole off to the left that may or may not have been an imprint of her nipple through the rough nylon lace of her bra and the polyester blouse. The image seemed to Cathy an exact and nuanced impression of her emotional state because of Marty, her other co-worker, besides Steve, both of whom answered to her and basically had to do what she said, both of whom nevertheless made fifty cents an hour more than her, even though they all got hired at the same time and they didn’t have to vacuum after closing, or do the scheduling, and both of whom had seen the impression of her nipple, but only one of whom (Marty) had thrown her so far off course from anything she had previously known about love, or lust, or that heady combo, last weekend in the too-small storage room full of boxes of shoes and boots, floor to ceiling, behind the cash.

The chartreuse flare of her nipple in the heat-sensing footprint had bruised up black pretty quick and disappeared.

Illustration by Mügluck

Steve had seen it, though, and the impression of Cathy’s nipple in the foot-measuring heat-sensing pad, made in a moment of collegial goofing around (very rare because she’s usually so angry, working two jobs and going to school, not making as much as them, and also hell-bent on winning the trip to Toronto and the tickets to the Broadway musical Kinky Boots , the reward for the highest commission sales this fiscal year throughout all the Shoe Emporium franchises across Canada), was sexy as fuck. It made Steve’s mouth water. He got hot, flushed. He got hard.

He might be in love.

But after what happened in the storage room last weekend, he is somehow both addled and deliberate.

Steve points out, with the tip of a pen he’s drawn out of his breast pocket, an indigo flare at the instep of the junior high school ukulele instructor’s foot.

That’s what I’m talking about, he says. He taps the pen against the plastic inlay.

Oh my god, she says.

Pronation, he says. You’ve got a problem. Can you see that?

I definitely see something, Aiden, she says.

Right there, Steve/Aiden says. That’s causing a misalignment that is travelling from your knee all the way up your thigh, all the way up, basically, to your core.

And as he says this, he steps backwards two, three steps, and reaches behind him, still holding the eyes of the ukulele teacher, who is abashed by the imprint of her own foot which is aflame with furtive bitterness, bushfires and comets. He sweeps down the buttery suede hiking boot for the other customer, tossing it to her.

Marty has an elbow stretched over the top of the Saucony display unit, a hand holding up his head, fingers spread through his gold buzz cut and he’s taking in Steve’s charisma.

Marty’s eyes are russet brown, that feral, ferric sun-struck rust of turning leaves just before frost, his eyelashes orange, his mouth tender. So many freckles they join together in golden tan patches on his neck, his left wrist. A single opal earring in a gold setting surrounded by diamonds in his right ear.

Cathy had kissed Marty’s closed eyelids in the storage room last week. His eyelids are the only parts of Marty that don’t have freckles, as far as Cathy could tell.

One, then the other, the eyeballs jittering under her lips like the eyeballs of someone in the midst of a flying dream, someone taking in swathes of city, warp speed, black roofs, green roofs, a few pools, little toy ATVs ringed around garage doors, then the prickled carpet of treetops at the outskirts, wrinkled mountains on the left, tinfoil lakes on the right. Eyeballs flicking back and forth so fast under her lips.

Because what was that?

That was the storage closet of the Shoe Emporium at the Avalon Mall at four o’clock on Saturday afternoon, a week ago to the hour, basically, where there was not really enough room for two people, at the beginning of the Buy One Get the Second Pair Half-Price Blow-Out Sale that was still in progress and during which Cathy fell in love with a gay guy, Marty, who is totally gay, who says on the spectrum, if there is a spectrum, he’s way over here: and he cups one elbow and holds his hand up straight like a blade and then lets it swing down flat against the Saucony display unit to show he is at the very end of the spectrum that basically isn’t interested in women at all.

Cathy, you’re going to have to take my word for it, he says. Marty, who does, though, admit to a preference for straight men, and has lots of secret love affairs with straight guys with girlfriends and can’t explain to himself or anyone else, including Cathy, what happened in the storage closet, the why of it, if he’s so gay, like he says, totally gay, nor has he given it much thought, because it just happened is all, and besides he is suffering because his grandmother died three weeks before, on the same day, a Saturday, and the same hour, maybe, that the thing happened in the storage closet last weekend.

His grandmother used to press his shirts for him and return them in a neat stack with a sheaf of white tissue paper folded around each shirt. She made lemon roll dusted with icing sugar every Sunday and the smell of it when he walked in all through the house. She was professor emerita of marine biology at Memorial University specializing in the reproductive cycles of sea cucumbers.

She had died in a sauna tent that Marty ordered for her over the web, at her request, because she’d heard it would be good for her arthritis.

He’d been over when the sauna tent was delivered and they’d unpacked it together and rolled it out on the Persian carpet. He’d consulted the instruction pamphlet and poured several litres of water in through the nozzle and twisted the cap, untied the twist-ties that bundled all the electric cords, plugged that sucker in, and watched the folded rubberized tent unpook and lift and sigh until it was bloated with steam while they had tea and ate lemon roll dusted with icing sugar. There was a little stool in the tent, and you just got in it was what you were supposed to do, the zipper tab inside and you zipped it to the neck so your head stuck out, just your head, your arms and everything else inside. You sat on the plastic stool that came with it. Marty had assembled it, screwing the four short fat legs into the seat and the plastic backrest, before he went to work. Because he’d had to go to work.

She’d agreed to wait until he got back in the evening before trying out the sauna tent but she had also given him the pair of opal earrings, like she knew. She put them in his hand and closed his fingers around them, and she patted his loose fist and then grabbed it tight with both her hands, rocked his fist up and down three times before letting go and he didn’t want them. He told her that. But she got very serious and said, If anything happens to me.

Nothing will happen to you, he’d said.

If anything happens to me will you take care of the cockapoos? And he said it was all nonsense, but she made him promise. She had basically raised him.

Marty has been watching Steve, who had passive-aggressively forgotten his own name tag and Cathy was all, Where’s your name tag. You’re on the floor; you wear the name tag.

And: This is something you can consult in the memo I sent out last week.

She’d dug around under the counter where there were a bunch of defunct name tags in a Tupperware container and she drew her hand back out fast because a name-tag pin drove deep into the tip of her index finger. Cathy flick-flicked her hand, really hard, back and forth over her shoulder and the tag, bright red with embossed white letters, flew across the counter and hit Steve in the face, the corner of it, just below his left eye.

Cathy stuck her finger in her mouth and was sucking it and then the look on her, seeing this thing hitting Steve just below the eye. She hates Steve’s guts but she would certainly never maim the guy on purpose or try to take out his eye.

Oh my god, Steve, I’m sorry, she says. At first Steve just stands still with his eyes shut and his lips pressed tight, his cheeks getting red. Then he bends down and picks up the tag and fixes it to his shirt pocket.

You get the feeling Cathy is really going to be sorry when Steve gets a chance to make her sorry, which, you get the feeling, he is well equipped to do.

For the time being, though, Steve obviously plans to sell the shit out of shoes all day long, drawing the most commission ever out of the Shoe Emporium in order to win the two tickets to Toronto to see the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, and right now, Cathy and Steve are both streaks ahead of the rest of the staff, in all the franchises across the country, in terms of winning that prize.

Steve has no desire to go to Toronto or to see a musical about shoes, if that’s what it is, but he solemnly believes that if you find yourself, ever, in the middle of the ocean in a dory with a helicopter hovering over you, and if you are dressed as Santa Claus in the middle of July, and the dory is loaded with cod, two days after the food fishery has shut down, and if you have a bottle of rum in one hand and you’re yelling fuck you at the top of your lungs and waving the rum bottle over your head and if the RCMP are waiting for you on the wharf and half the community is cheering because you staged a one-man protest is basically what it was but you get arrested anyway, cuffed even, and then if you find that Solcor have come out and said they must manage expectations around chartered flights from now on, so if you wanted, say, to continue working six weeks on, two weeks off, as you’ve been doing for the last twenty-two years in Fort Mac, if that’s what you wanted to do, then you’d have to start booking commercial flights, which would mean landing in St. John’s in the dark and driving three fucking hours back to Marystown and eventually hitting a moose, only a fender-bender, popped the dent with a toilet plunger, but the bawling of the animal, pitched so low and baleful, the anguish of it nearly startling the fuck out of him, and so Steve solemnly believes that, if that’s what’s happening to you, if you find yourself in that situation, you might as well sell the shit out of some shoes.

Steve is serving two women at the same time, and tilts his chin up at a third woman. With the tilt of his shovel chin, Steve is saying: I’m coming for you, girlfriend, hang tight, love of God.

Cathy is stuck with a mother and three sugar-blitzed youngsters, the youngest of whom is headed for a full-on implosion because she wants shoes with blinking lights in the heels, which are not one of the brands of shoes where you buy one get the second pair half-price and because she (the little girl) has a lollipop slimy with saliva, the size of her face and because some children are born with a willpower so fully formed and flinty they are ungovernable after the first gasp of oxygen and ever on.

But what can you do for me? In terms of price? This is the mother, nervy, a knee jiggling, arms crossed tight over her chest, a nicotine patch on her neck.

Cathy does not care to explore the possibilities of a reduced price on the shoes that flash with each step. All she cares about at the moment is Marty and possibly getting back into the storage closet with Marty because of what happened last weekend, even though Marty is gay and grief-stricken.

Marty, in the meantime, is still dreamily looking on as Steve comes out of the storage closet with five boxes of shoes held in place with his shovel chin, handing them out to four women now. And Marty is not doing anything else, except holding up the Saucony display unit, practically draped all over it, because his grandmother has died and because he has been doing MDMA for three nights in a row and last night, at a house party, he’d taken a handful of prescription pills from a big glass salad bowl next to the front door that everybody at the party had contributed to, and he hasn’t really slept very well since he found her.

It’s actually making him physically weak, this grief, and he got home from the gay dance bar that everybody went to after the house party and put on his work clothes without ever going to bed and then stepped outside into the below-zero frost and fat tumbling snowflakes and slanting light, dropped his skateboard with a clatter onto the asphalt and stepped on, and rumbled downhill in the middle of Thorburn Road, cars swerving around him all the way to the Avalon Mall.

So he’s draped that way, over the display unit, unable to do anything at all, because she raised him, his grandmother, and he understands with a one-time, ultra-sensitive, drug-enhanced clairvoyance that nobody will ever love him like that again, not with that depth and intelligence and appreciation for who he is in the very marrow of his bones no matter how much he fucks up or triumphs, loves him the same amount, with the same intensity no matter what because she knows him. Knew him.

Cathy is on her knees before the youngest child, who is probably seven, pasty and shrill with desire for the shoes with red lights in the soles, shoes that are unforgivably expensive and built to fall apart in less than a month. Cathy has altered her tone, a child-friendly falsetto, airy and uncertain. She closes her eyes tight and turns her shiny red fake fingernails toward her own face and rakes down the air between the tips of her fingernails and her face, several times, the nails floating down over her face without actually touching it, showing the child how one can calm oneself down if one needs to: come on, try this with me.

And here she flings her fingers to the side, the way you might flick water off your hands after doing the dishes—and with her eyes still closed, she tells the little girl: the whole mall is alive with negative ions, but we’ve just basically brushed them away.

Steve is full of admiration. She’s theatrical; she brings a theatrical touch to selling shoes. If all three kids get new shoes, she’ll be ahead in sales and they’re fifteen minutes to shift change.

All the grief Marty feels for his grandmother, he realizes, has been turned into a hard opal of love/lust for Steve/Aiden. And he’s draped over the Saucony display unit not willing to sell anything but his heart.

Because: Shoes? Is this what he’s doing? Selling shoes? Under this kind of lighting, which washes him out, basically, coming to a mall, three times a week?

He’d let himself in with his key and called out to her and stood listening and he could hear an inhale-exhale that was reptilian, like rubbery scales, sliding and unsliding, and even as he approached the living room with its white corduroy curving sectional couch with the round glass table between, and the bevelled glass in the windows throwing rainbows and the crystals, too, throwing little rainbows everywhere, and the gold-trimmed china plates, lined up on the white marble fireplace with the big hearth and the cold lemon roll on the side table on a silver tray with a white paper doily under it and the silver pie server with the pearlized handle, as he approached the door, he both knew and didn’t know what the hellish hissing could be.

And at first he thought: just asleep. Her head drooping forward and a line of drool still attached to the lower lip, the sauna bag inflating, deflating, like it was breathing for her.

The zipper on the sauna bag was pulled up on the inside, and it had gotten stuck in a fold of the rubberized fabric that had bunched in the head of the zipper.

The heat: she had been as good as poached alive. Of course he picked up the pearlized pie server with a serrated edge and hacked through the plastic and tried CPR and called 911 on his cell, but she had been dead, the doctor estimated, two hours or more before his arrival.

The moose on its side, Steve/Aiden thought, foreleg bent in the wrong direction and the bone sticking out, trying to lift its head, the sloppy, swinging eye, humanly begging, wielding its dying like a cudgel, begging limply for mercy.

Begging you to pick up a Jesus boulder off the side of the road and bash its skull but you get back in the car and reverse away from the rising sun and swerve around the animal with its panting ribs and terrible eye. You find yourself at forty-two years old, poster boy for what happens if you don’t finish high school, and go instead after the big bucks in Alberta all swagger and look at me. House taking up every square inch of a building lot and the ATVs and flat screens and barbeque big as a Cadillac, all in hock to the bank.

The legs on you like the bloody water, standing on the side of the highway with that dying animal, and then driving into the inky dark. The fine from the Santa Claus fishing, and the commercial flights, and then it’s fuck Solcor, the move into St. John’s, the one-room apartment, the job at the Shoe Emporium at the age of forty-fucking-two with the manager who is twenty-four, hot as a barbeque coal, the lip gloss and the languid flick/curl, flick/curl of a strand of her long, shiny hair around a finger and then holding it out, the split ends, lost in that inspection for a solid thirty seconds, and the lava boil of chartreuse and turquoise and molten copper that is her nipple in the heat-sensing pad, while the mall breathes and coils around all three of them.

You’re standing there with somebody else’s name tag, and, yes, you’ll bloody well win the fucking trip to Toronto just to see she doesn’t get it and then give it to her, just to spite her. To see if she’ll take it.

Go on, girl, have it. Have the trip. I insist.

You don’t get the right shoe, Steve/Aiden says, you could be misaligned for a long time and the joints grind together, become dust inside there. Dust to dust. You may have to quit running.

I just started, says the junior high school ukulele teacher. Incredulous blinking. The woman with the suede hiking boot waving it in the air, saying she needs a six-and-a-half.

I don’t ever say quit to a customer, says Steve. His ancient blue eyes and how easy for Marty to imagine him in the dory waving the bottle over his head, the white cotton-batting beard, the red velveteen hat with fur trim, water all aglint and the black rubber boots sunk to the knees in writhing silver bodies and fish stink, raging in the chuffling air, whipped up by the helicopter that dips and zooms, and drunk, yes, loaded, yes, but lamenting the loss of something big.

Anybody tells you to quit running that’s a different story than I’m going to tell, Steve/Aiden tells the customer. In the end, you make the decision. But I have something for you.

He’s speaking with his back to her. He has put the foot measurer down on the bench beside her. The colours fading, the gelled pad a cold, murky blue, opaque and mute.

Steve/Aiden whirls around to face her. He’s holding a Saucony runner by the toe and heel, balancing it on the tips of his fingers. It’s the most expensive runner they have, and pushes him well over Cathy’s commission balance.

I want you to try this, he says.

But I can’t afford that.

I’m not saying buy it, Steve says. He sounds affronted.

That’s more than double my budget, she says.

I just want you to put it on. I want you to feel what that’s like on your foot.

And here’s what Cathy thinks: The last fifteen minutes of a shift, there is a lulling of everything. A lulling of all that you are because you don’t have time to notice anything but the roar of whatever it is in the ceiling, mall air-conditioning, maybe? Or the noise of the glass elevator near the food court, rising, descending, the torpid stomping of a beast full of sinew and cables, huffing the sugary, charred food-court breath of fat and fries. And this amorphous monster, coming, always coming for them, to drag them under, is maybe the mall itself, the exoskeleton of a serpent, swishing its weltering tail of withdrawal and spend, the thrashing of swipe, insert, tap, charging through the ether, all bling and brand, pleather, sequins, sex, and here at the Shoe Emporium, a lot of garish neon, spiked heels, leopard print, and Can I help you.

This is the sort of situation that arises: You can fall in love with your co-worker without deciding to even though he’s so not straight. All of what you believe to be your “self” does an about-face and stands at attention, salutes all of what you believe your co-worker’s “self” to be.

The mother says, No, not today, sweetie. And the child opens her mouth as wide as it will go, clutching a single shoe so the heel lights up her chin, bright red, the hollow cave of her open mouth, glowing red, and her eye sockets sunken and red, her very irises, red, on/off, on/off, while the mother tries to wrestle the shoe from her.

And your co-worker with his sunrise hair, beefy buttocks and biceps, the winding rose-bush tattoo tucking under the sleeve of his employee-issue the Shoe Emporium T-shirt, still high from whatever all-nighter and foxy-eyed whose grandmother was the leading expert in cold-water sea cucumbers, no joke, at the Marine Institute and who (Marty) is not even bi but straight-up gay for gosh sakes, like definitely that end of the spectrum, according to him. Sea cucumbers.

I mean, this is involuntary, but what gets unleashed is a pressure hose of, whoa, love. You turn evangelical, the lingo/babble of gel sole versus extra-foam sole and soles with lights and now the first blasting howl welters out of the child’s open mouth.

The wham-splat, a hose in your chest, is spraying this pillar of, my god, love all over your unsuspecting gay not-even-slightly-interested-in-girls co-worker. And who is more surprised than you?

So there she was last week, Cathy, in the storage closet where she had wedged a heel against the second-lowest shelf, her back jammed against the shoeboxes stacked from floor to ceiling, these shoeboxes wedged in one against the other, like the stones in an archway, one shoebox (inside which happened to be slingback, kitten-heeled, patent-leather shoes with velvet bows and clasps of rhinestones) kept jutting out, like jut, jut-jut, once Marty had penetrated her, first tearing a hole in the leg of her nude nylons because let’s face it, this is happening, this is really happening, and how wet she is, how slippery, how yes, yes, but silent, because she’s the manager, and after all some sense of the professionalism, please.

The hole in her nylons that Marty has torn has a creep, it creeps, widening in an oval big as the palm of her hand, peeling back or unravelling, a gazillion filaments, small and laddering down the leg, invisibly giving, breaking, no, not breaking exactly, more evaporating and it is her desire, a spreading, licking, a hole in the nylons because even though she comes to work put together because what are these stockings but a petroleum product made as thin as a lick of light, tickling, so that her skin pudges through, like dough rising or anything that rises, and then the keystone shoebox is knocked maybe half an inch with each—let’s take a moment to acknowledge the paradox—very gentle, controlled but forceful, holy thrust/bang, tinged with maybe a little love for her, however ephemeral, so that the tightly jammed shoebox, maybe twelve shoeboxes above her head, juts itself out of the tightly packed wall of shoeboxes that rises from floor to ceiling all the way down the very narrow storage closet, and keeps jutting farther and farther with each lovemaking rock of Marty’s hips and buttock contraction and the tilt of his head, bent as if in prayer, but also, pouf, blowing a mouthful of her hair away from his lips because, he stops just for a sec, because a hair, one of her hairs, seems to have gotten into his mouth and they’re both caught up in the micro-work of what is it? A hair? Phwah-phwah, he’s trying to get it off his tongue, and there he has it, have you got it? Pinched between finger and thumb and saliva shine, he rubs it away, and the engorging freckled dong deep inside, now, slow at first but deliberately slow, sea cucumber slow, in the deep cold is what they have down there, holes in the bottom of the ocean where everything is eyeless, groping but sentient, and phosphorescent and just as if they were not in the mall, as if the blow-out sale were not in progress, as if you couldn’t buy one, get the second pair half-price, as if Steve would not be in here any second to get a load of shoes, slowly and at the same time, warp speed, she is kissing his white eyelids.

Marty, like some kind of expert, knowing exactly what to grind against, attentive to the tenderness of dumb lips, inner cling and grab and slippery ripple, and the shelving unit digging into her spine but never mind, let Steve barge in, and the shoebox with the patent-leather slingbacks shoots out another whole inch here, two inches, another half inch, and the tempo picks up because she’s coming, which doesn’t always happen, let me tell you, the shoebox above their heads topples free and a seam opens then, a seam in the wall of tightly packed boxes opens up, a gaping, jiggling crevasse, unzippering, so that they begin to topple, each box losing its lid as it falls, spitting puffs of white tissue paper—pwah—and a New Balance running shoe, a stiletto, and a hiking boot toppling down while Cathy digs her nails into Marty, who she knows, or intuits, well, how could you miss it, is gay, really, and they are, yes, having sex in the storage closet, and she is having, yes, a second orgasm, and because she has it, seems to be falling in love with him, which can happen in the hepped-up exhaustion of working two jobs and going to school full-time especially with the added but uncompensated responsibility of the title manager which will look good on a resume, but fuck them, whoever they are, fuck them.

And the truth is, it is Cathy’s experience that orgasms are hard to come by, multiple , come on, who has that, really, a myth, right? And two and one so fast on top of the other that the pleasure-ripples of the first one bash right into the pleasure-ripples of the second and what’s this, my god, a third fucking orgasm, pounding home the second that’s still riding on the back of the first, so who cares if he’s gay. What is gay? What is anything?

In the midst of which: Steve. Just as Marty slumps against her, Steve steps into the storage closet, boxes tumbling, shoes birthed from tissue cocoons, a corner of a cardboard lid hitting the top of her head, hurting, actually, a surprising amount, before wafting to the floor, and Steve blocking the door of the storage closet, standing there, unable to understand what he’s seeing, and therefore not moving out of the way.

What was this?

And it’s completely different from sea cucumbers, which are, if you put your hand in the aquarium that is fed by the actual sea and pick one up, leathery with the mouth at one end surrounded by tentacles, but clammy and cold.

He’d paid with his grandmother’s credit card and it arrived and though he said don’t try it until I’m there, after he left she got in and put the thing on bust though he’d asked her to wait for him to visit and whatever happened, some kind of stroke they said, and when he went over, because he went over every day to walk the cockapoos, Minke and Killer, she was in that bloated bag with steam hissing like a goddamn dragon and her head tilted and the eyeglasses askew and Nanny, Nanny, because he loved her more than anything and wanted to please her and everything he did was for her, and he hacked through the bag and holy shit it was hot and the zipper, crying and pulling at the vinyl around the neck and CPR and the dogs licking her face, but you know he just had to accept, leaning back on his heels, wringing his hands.

And here he is at work, trembling against the Saucony display unit because what was he supposed to do, not go to work? He had nowhere to go, and he just followed her into the storage room, he did, and turned her around and leaned her against the shoeboxes and he had kissed the very full lips of his twenty-four-year-old co-worker/manager who he out-and-out told he wasn’t into women kissing him and stuff. And then, full-on fucking, like nobody’s business.

And Steve standing there had a religious visitation: the inlay heat-sensing impression of her nipple and the Kinky Boots tickets, roaring at the helicopter overhead waving the sunstruck amber bottle and the fish, boxes tumbling.

There she is on her knees getting the crying child to run her own fingers over the thick living pelt of negative ions that coats them all and to shoo it away. Shoo. Shoe.

Fuck it, Steve/Aiden says to the junior high ukulele teacher he is about to ring in and thereby secure the record of highest commission in the Shoe Emporium for the 2016–17 fiscal year.

Don’t buy those running shoes, he says.

Excuse me? she says. And he leaves her at the counter and approaches the mother of the prostrate seven-year-old who wants the shoes with the red lights in the sole, who is still screaming and now down on her stomach hammering her fists and kicking out, and whose mother is grabbing her by one elbow trying to lift/drag her out of the mall.

I’ll buy her the goddamn shoes, Steve/Aiden says.

What?

Fucking right I will, he says. Right out of my paycheque.

But you realize I win then, Cathy says. The trip to Toronto and the tickets to the musical.

The child, still trembling, has gone still. She stands, straightening what she can of her snowsuit, and retrieves the giant lollipop, abandoned on the vinyl bench in the centre of the store. It’s dyed red and white, and the colours spiral toward the centre of the saucer-sized candy like op art.

It looks like a storm or an evil eye and it’s gleaming with saliva and has been licked all over.

Cathy: You’d do that?

I’d do that. You’re the goddamn manager, says Steve. You deserve it.

Cathy is still on her knees and the little girl approaches. She touches the lollipop down then, against Cathy’s hair, like a sceptre, anointing her.

This appeared in the July/August 2016 issue.

Lisa Moore published Flannery, a novel for young adults, in May.

Mügluck is an award-winning illustrator who lives in Montreal. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and Air France Magazine.

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