The Other’s Shoe

Joseph Guderian

     Once again, the old woman glanced right and down at the bag on the car floor as she slowly drove to the hospital.  Inside the white, opaque plastic was a man’s well-worn, right shoe, size 11, toe facing forward, sole flat on the floor and positioned, without intent, as it might be if a passenger seated next to her were wearing it.
     Again, she thought about how fussy he was, and wondered if she should have hunted down the shoeshine box in the basement, applied some polish to cover the scuffs and thereby headed off his anticipated displeasure.  Let him fuss, she had decided at home.  Her sister was to visit this morning and she didn’t want to be late, didn’t want her sister to arrive before her.  Now, she wondered again if she should have polished the shoe.
     The woman was a nervous driver, who usually kept her eyes fixed on the road.  But she had made this drive so often, first as a volunteer at the hospital for six years, then when her husband was hospitalized for back surgery, a broken arm from a fall while fishing, and now the latest problem.  She wasn’t the least bit worried about taking her eyes off the road; she felt she could do the 15-minute drive in her sleep.  Once, she knew the names of many of the people working in the hospital and they knew her, but that was before it became part of a regional medical conglomerate with the attendant changes and expansions.  As she rounded a corner, the Sunday morning summer sun reflected brightly off the bag, demanding another look.  So she looked at the bag, knowing exactly where the next turn would be.
     His eyes were open, staring at the light blue wall of the room, wondering if it was a dream that he’d had after breakfast or just a vivid remembrance of a time 60 years ago.
     The old man knew how his mind could move from lucidity to confusion and back again in the course of a day.  Because of this, he would often spend time in introspection, sorting out the realities from his fantasies.  So he lay there now reviewing the details his mind had produced earlier, dream or not, of that morning on the porch, of the day his brother said goodbye to the family and the house that was their childhood home.  His brother had enlisted in the army early in the war, well before he expected to be drafted.  The recruiter had promised that there was a good possibility he would be assigned to an engineering unit following training because of his three semesters at Stevens.  He told the family he would first go to Fort Dix, and after that he had no idea where he would be sent, but promised to keep his mother informed.  As he picked up the canvas grip he had used for carrying his basketball gear in high school, the brother dashed off into a light rain for the bus that would take him to the recruiting station.  He didn’t look back to see the tears welling in his mother’s eyes.
     Suddenly, the rain had become snow in the old man’s mind, and the images had come not from his memory, but from scenes he’d seen in dozens of war movies and newsreel clips.  He had heard shells bursting. The place was France, near Bastogne.  He knew that because his brother had told him where it happened.  But the dark river, the pontoon bridge, the French farm houses all were a production of his imagination.  He had watched as his brother directed the construction of a temporary bridge for armored vehicles to cross the river.  Then he had seen the bright flash like a bolt of lightning, heard the awful screeching sound in the night sky, and the deafening blast.  He watched his brother go down, a slow motion collapse into the snow, seemingly lasting minutes.  What also seemed like Technicolor blood, not real blood, oozed slowly from what remained of his brother’s leg onto the white covered earth in the old man’s vision. He almost screamed: help! at the scene he was witnessing.  Finally, he watched with relief as a medic rushed to the side of the unconscious soldier, did what he could to stop the bleeding, then called for a stretcher.
     While the old man was revisiting the horror, he heard a woman’s voice.  It was the nurse interrupting his thoughts.   “It’s time for your shot,” she said, and then Alfredo will help you into your chair for your wife’s visit.   Did your son come last night?  Did you enjoy your breakfast?”
     he old man was sitting upright in the chair, a light blanket covering his lower body, when his wife entered the room.  She asked how well he ate that morning, and while listening to his answer, placed the plastic bag on the floor of the locker near the entrance to the room. She informed him she had brought the shoe for his therapy and that he should let them know about it when he started rehabilitation.  Why had she brought only one shoe, not the pair, he asked, and had she disposed of the other shoe in some way?
     “Don’t throw away the other shoe,” he ordered.  Annoyed, she pointed out that the therapist told her to bring only the right shoe, that she hadn’t thrown away the other one, and maybe he would like her to have it bronzed and hang it from the rearview mirror of the Taurus. Upset with herself for the comment, the woman fell into silence.  While they sat facing each other, she noticed how fleshy her husband had become.  His face seemed fuller and rounder than before.  His bared arms looked soft and had lost most of their thick black hair.  Propped up the way he was, he looked to her like a baby, an innocent, helpless baby sitting in a high chair.  Will I be caring for a baby again, she wondered? But she soon remembered that she had been doing exactly that for the past year.  During that time, she had helped him move from bed to chair to bathroom, helped him bathe, cleaned up his messes, and listened to his occasional laments.  Did someone bring you communion this morning, she asked?  With a grimace, he replied that someone, a woman, had.  He didn’t like to receive communion from anyone but a priest.
     The man asked if she had heard from his brother.  Had she telephoned him?  Don’t you think he should know what’s happened, he wanted to know?  She quickly reminded him that his brother was failing badly, that he was on dialysis three days a week, had numerous health problems, and he shouldn’t expect his brother to call.  She also reminded him that his brother’s wife had gone quite senile, so there’s no point in calling her either.  We should just leave them alone; they have enough problems, she told him.  But the old man was not satisfied with her answer.
     The woman’s younger sister arrived and made a cheerful entrance into the room.   As she knew he would, the old woman’s husband brightened up.  He was a different man when he had company. He perks up like an old coffeepot, was the way she often put it.  The sister lived in a different town, and explained that she wouldn’t be staying long; she had Sunday dinner to prepare.   Almost immediately after the sister was seated, the old man asked if she wanted to see his leg.  Not waiting for an answer, he swept the blanket aside with a flourish as if he were unveiling an empty birdcage where a canary had once roosted.  His face was filled with the pride and pleasure of the magician who had just completed an amazing disappearing act for his audience of one.  Then he continued his performance, telling the woman:  I’m wriggling my toes now, but you can’t see them moving. The women was embarrassed at his antics and her sister was startled that he would be such a show-off about his tragedy.  Both were relieved when his lunch arrived.  His wife helped him eat, more aptly pick at and taste, the mostly cold food.  He took a little juice, chewed some cold ham, and sipped some milk.  He complained of the soreness of his tongue, so she gave him a medicated sponge-on-a-stick, provided by the nurse, which was supposed to help heal a mouth irritated by instruments and medicines.   After he had finished eating the two women went to the cafeteria for coffee and a snack.
     “You have to start taking better care of yourself, the sister said.  It isn’t necessary that you be with him every waking minute.  That’s why they have people here in the hospital,” she continued, “let it go and get some rest yourself. “
     The old woman heard her but did not respond; her sister had been telling her that for years and the message never really registered.  In fact, it lost a little more force with each telling.  The coffees and muffins in front of them were getting cold, so they began to drink and eat in silence.  He keeps asking for his brother, the woman finally said. He asks every day, more than once, and you know the situation his brother is in, just about hanging on and his wife has just about lost it. They’ve been in assisted living for two years.  His organs are failing and they have to watch her so she doesn’t wander away.  I have no intention of calling them, but he won’t let me alone about it, she complained. Besides, she said, almost to herself, nobody in that family ever liked one another.  There were no tears shed when his sister died, and when they were together, his brother always put him down.  I just wish he’d stop going on about it as if they were all so dear to each other.
     Alfredo had helped the old man get back into his bed, then turned on the TV without the sound before leaving the room.  The man stared at the muted screen.  It showed three seated men talking, looking serious, their lips moving inaudibly.  As he stared at the TV, he heard a deep voice gradually synchronizing with the moving lips of the man in the middle . . .
     . . . thank you for joining us this Sunday.  Welcome our guests, on my left, chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and on my right faculty head of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.  Thank you for being here, gentlemen,  as the host  I would like to start by asking you if you think the right medical decision was made in this case.  Not completely. Since one amputated leg pleased the patient so much, it might have been better to remove both legs. I agree, said the man on the right, and instead of an artificial leg, he could get around a lot quicker on one of those little dolly carts.  Good for the upper body strength development too.  Why do you suppose he has such a need to walk, asked the man in the middle? He’s an octogenarian after all.  And his overall health isn’t good. The man on the right answered.  It’s all about his brother.  His brother lost a leg in the war.  Took classes at Arthur Murray’s and got to be a good dancer. The man on the right added, it’s not unusual for a strong sympathetic emotion to form with a close relative over dancing.  I know of a case where . . .
     The old man closed his eyes and the imaginary voices from the TV  screen stopped. He was ready to sleep.  He would often fall asleep watching TV.   It’s part of growing old, he had decided.  When he was a young man he watched news programs and sports, especially football. He loved the Monday night games and watched until the last play, no matter what the score.  Yet he always answered the alarm for work early in the morning.  Before TV, he loved radio.  During the war when most men his age were in the service, he listened to the war news.  He remembered the strong, deep voices of Gabriel Heater and Edward R. Murrow reporting on the war.  Why hadn’t they taken him in the army after his brother enlisted?  He couldn’t remember.  Was it because of his poor eyesight?  As long as he could remember, he wore thick eyeglasses with a lot of correction.  Was it because of his work?  He was an engineer with RCA in essential defense work building communications systems.  Was it because he was providing financial support for his parents?  Where was Pop then?  Maybe it was because of all three reasons, he concluded, satisfying him for the moment as he drifted off into a peaceful sleep.
     The war ended early for his brother.  After he was wounded, he was sent to a hospital in England for several months, then back to the states where he was in and out of the VA hospital for many more months of therapy with a prosthetic.  He returned to college, graduated with honors, and began a successful consulting engineering career.  Everyone who knew him thought of him as a hero, even if he wore only the Purple Heart.  He was a hero because of his grit after the war, not heroics during it. He was the neighborhood guy who succeeded in life despite a major  handicap.  How often he must have been held up as an example to area  kids growing up.  The old man admired his brother for his sacrifice and achievement.
     His wife sat alone, watching him sleep.  She had returned to the room without her sister who had decided to leave for home.  She remembered the relief she felt when the doctor decided it was best to amputate his leg, to end the uncertainty.  She had been treating the ulcers on his legs with salve for nearly six months.  The doctor first had discussed a bypass in his leg to restore circulation, later about removing his toes.  Now it seemed like a correct decision had been made and it was over.  She and her husband could get on with life.  She didn’t want to think about what was yet to come just yet.  She was glad when the nurse walked into the room; there were things she wanted to discuss, especially how to check his blood sugar and administer the insulin.
The sky outside the window had darkened, and she was unhappy she hadn’t  noticed that her husband’s eyes had opened.  He was staring at the ceiling.  She said she hoped her conversation with the nurse hadn’t disturbed him and asked if he would like her to raise his bed so he would be in a sitting position.  Then she switched on the light in the room while telling him how much it looked like rain.
     You know my brother’s not going to live much longer, the old man began.  I have to talk to him before he dies.  The woman cringed with the prospect of arranging such a conversation, but her husband went on.  I’m wondering what they do with artificial legs when someone dies.  Those things are expensive, and he was lucky to get it from the VA.  He got three or four artificial legs from them over the years.  All the fittings, the pain, and the infections, Christ, he went through a lot! They wouldn’t bury it with him, would they? The question was addressed to no one in particular.  Suddenly, a flash of lightning lit up the room, and a clap of thunder brought a wave of rain that rattled the window.
     The old woman stood to get a better view of what was happening outside, hoping her movement would also interrupt her husband enough so he would change the subject.  I know the doctors will talk to me about getting an artificial leg, he continued, ignoring her movement and the rage of the rainstorm.  I don’t want their leg.  I’ll talk to my brother.  We’re just about the same height and weight.  I know he’ll leave his leg to me.  It’s a family legacy, the old man said with a laugh.  He sacrificed a lot for that leg.  He wouldn’t want to see it all thrown away.  When I walk with his leg it would be a way of  remembering him.   I want my brother’s artificial leg, he said louder. Then almost sobbing, he shouted, I WANT MY BROTHER’S LEG! Then almost in a whisper he said, I want to walk again with my brother’s leg.  The man turned his head toward the window.  Finally he became aware of the sudden change in what had been a bright, summer day.  He had finished and felt relief.
      The woman sat in silence, wondering if the thunder and lightning had mysteriously swept the morbid desire she had just heard into the room.  How would she deal with this if it continues?  The nurse had mentioned there was a staff psychologist she could talk to if she felt the need.  She was determined that she would keep him off the telephone to his brother.  After several minutes, the old man turned to her and asked if she had brought an umbrella.  Thank God it’s passed and he’s normal again, she thought before replying.  The rain has just about stopped; I won’t need one.  You’re a good woman, he said, looking at her.  You’re a good woman, he said lovingly.  The hospital had begun to distribute the evening meal.

Fiction Archives

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