Plastic Shoes to be prologue of novel in progress.
Bennett Kane died watching reruns of I Love Lucy the episode with Lucy and Ethel on the assembly line, popping chocolates, their cheeks puffed like chipmunks.
Miriam was standing in the kitchen when she heard her husband’s loud cackling cut off in the middle before it wound down to its usual soft sighing. She’d been drying a dessert plate, was about to place it in the cabinet, when it slipped from her hands and shattered over the freshly mopped tiles. As she lifted the last splinter, the need to pry took hold of her, ushering her frail body towards the den— a pine paneled room where Bennett lay stretched across a flowered sofa.
The cool gray glow of the picture tube illuminated the walls making the room unbearably bright. Miriam shielded her eyes. Even the chorus of dubbed- in laughter felt intrusive. She stared down at Bennett, and then reached for his spotted hand; it was still warm. Was there a pulse? She sat on the edge of the couch, resting her head on his sunken chest. She couldn’t tell if it was his or hers this fading beat, hollow as a child’s drum. There was no familiar rhythm to mimic, like the cadence she recalled from so many long, sleepless nights.
Her eyes caught a fresh water stain, forming a perfect sphere on the cocktail table. How many times had she told him to use a coaster? She dabbed the wet edges with a corner of her apron. A quick thirst parched her throat making it difficult to swallow. Lifting Bennett’s glass to her lips, she noticed the inch of chalky sludge settled at the bottom like a miniature snowdrift. She had nearly taken a sip. Hands trembling, she rushed to the kitchen and pulled on her yellow rubber gloves, then rinsed the glass with scalding water. Later, she would throw it in the garbage and leave the bag at the curb. But what if someone noticed her? Miriam never went out alone at night never tended to the trash. She reached for the phone and dialed 911. In a mechanical voice she gave the address of their condo complex. She requested no siren as if she were ordering salad without the dressing. Pressed against the stucco wall, she felt the nibs of the prickly plaster pushing through the fabric of her blouse. A reminder this was not a dream.
Like a flirtatious schoolgirl, hands clasped together in a pyramid, she peeked at Bennett. A trickle of saliva dripped down the corner of his mouth, and she stepped forward swabbed it with her finger that bore a slight indentation left by the wedding band she no longer wore.
Searching the room for a diversion, Miriam’s attention fell upon the array of antique frames arranged on the small upright piano. The largest one beckoned her and when she stood, she felt vacant, as though she might faint. The veins near her temples pulsated, and a distant ringing filled the caverns of her ears. She leaned on the piano coming face to face with an ornate silver frame that held a photograph taken when? She guessed in 1944. The image portrayed a handsome sailor and his bride: a striking young woman wearing shorts and a striped halter her auburn hair swept back in a black, netted snood. Miriam crawled her fingers over the photo, remembering how she had used rouge and powder to tint the original sepia image, hoping it would resemble one of those Navy pin-up posters she had seen in magazines. Bringing the frame closer, to the tip of her nose, she noticed how Bennett’s arms wrapped around her slim waist. But just a few months later, she would be plump and pregnant with Sara, their firstborn. Miriam sighed, remembering how she had kissed Bennett seconds before this picture was taken, and how his hand quickly wiped away the ruby stain of her lipstick.
“A 90 Day Wonder” was what the Navy called him and the others they had sent to Officer’s Candidate School at Cornell to earn the equivalency of a college education in only three months. Afterwards, he was stationed aboard a huge ship that docked in Miami, far from the dangers of combat. He spent most days in the ship’s kitchen performing menial tasks like peeling mountains of potatoes and mopping slippery floors. But on deep blue moonlit nights, Bennett had felt privileged standing alone on the crow’s nest, writing to Miriam gazing up at what he had learned to be Cassiopeia— the Queen of the sky.
After the war Bennett’s diligence prevailed. He had once dreamed of medical school, but now there was a family to support. Bennett worked for a fabric mill, became their number one salesman. But he never managed to make a great deal of money, not like Miriam’s father. During some of the couple’s early fights, Bennett’s face would flash like a stop-light when he unleashed months of stored anger: “Maybe I wouldn’t have to work like such a dog, if your father had asked me, just once, to join him!” He yelled bitterly when she complained about one of many road trips. Sometimes, he’d be gone for weeks leaving Miriam feeling so desolate she couldn’t eat or sleep. But, always, on the day of his return, she engaged in the ritual of primping in front of the bathroom mirror, while Sara sat mesmerized on her plastic potty. When Bennett walked through the door of their small split-level, Miriam flew into his arms her heart as buoyant as a red balloon.
She would always depend on Bennett at least until that fateful day that changed their lives. Two days after heart surgery, a blood clot became lodged in the part of the brain that allows thoughts to be transferred into words. In the morning he was reciting his favorite bawdy jokes; hours later, he couldn't say his name, or Miriam’s, or the children’s.
Like an untamed beast, Bennett became trapped in his own head able to communicate solely through gesture and inappropriate language. The cry of “BULLSHIT!” became his password into the world. He carried a small notebook that listed his medications and favorite foods. In the binder, he stored business cards that he handed to anyone who looked at him with trepidation. Printed in bold navy blue ink, the cards had his name, address, phone number followed by the words: I am a stroke victim. Please have patience with me. But that was nearly a decade ago, and now it was impossible for Miriam to remember himthe gentle and serious sailor in this photo.
Lately, it felt as though all his rage was directed towards her. Most of his fits occurred in restaurants. If a waitress was young and sensual, Bennett’s macho unwound like a snake being charmed from its basket. First his anxious eyes scanned the menu as he bought some time—faked reading. Eventually, Miriam would have to order for him. Then, he pounded his fist on the table muttering “god damn bitch,” loud enough for the other diners to hear. Miriam gulped down water, and scanned the room while curious faces turned away avoiding her searching eyessearching for anyone’s compassion.
Bennett grasped the tiniest threads of his masculinity, and still insisted on driving after passing his test at the local veteran’s hospital. And if Miriam drove, he’d make her quake from his back seat driving. Many times, his hand flung out to navigate the wheel. Until one night on the way to dinner, she swerved, stopped the car and began to sob.
Was she crying because she hated the feeling of hating him? Or was it something deeper, indelible, like mourning the loss of a lifethe life she had once hoped for? Bennett showed no remorse. He sat there sulking, then squinted at his watch. Miriam guessed he was thinking how now he’d have to wait on line.
Something caught her eye, peeking out, from under the couch. They were Bennett's favorite creme colored shoes, a plastic knock-off of a Docksider moccasin. She remembered him bringing back three pairs of these shoes boasting how each pair cost only $19.99. He had stood in front of her squealing with delight, trying hard to talk, holding up his fingers. And like a game of charades, Miriam played along laughing, but truly wanting to cry. She guessed $5, then $10; exhausted, she stopped at $20. For as long as she had known him, Bennett likened all great bargains to stealing.
Despite her plea, Miriam heard the shrill whine of a siren approaching their quiet community. Sirens had become such an ordinary sound— the Musak of southern Florida, a place Miriam called land of the living dead. Quickly, she struggled with the plastic moccasins, shoved them back on Bennett's pliant feet where they belonged. She smoothed her tousled hair and opened the door.
The paramedics pushed past her and headed straight for the couch, as if that’s where they’d expected to find him. They worked hard. Twisted colorful wires were attached to Bennett’s pale chest. A small apparatus hung from his slackened mouth. Someone asked questions and followed Miriam to the kitchen where prescription bottles lined up like dominoes. All except one tarnished silver thimble of pills, wrapped in tissues and tucked inside her apron pocket. This drug had been prescribed for her; sometimes it helped her sleep. On nights when he paced the bedroom yelling “why dammit why” she’d given one to Bennett. Maybe, two or three.
She chattered about the surgery, the stroke, the terrifying seizures, but not the foaming fits of temper. That was her business, not anybody else’s. Her hands shook, but nobody seemed to care or notice.
Bennett was pronounced dead after ten minutes. “ Sorry Ma’am” is what echoed in her ears. Just a well practiced “sorry ma’am.” There were no neighbors to callno one close enough to comfort her. Miriam had shied away from social amenities. She would never know when Bennett’s rage would erupt or what event might trigger it.
Sometimes, she admitted, she needed it as confirmation of his strength although it drank, mercilessly, from her own.
She knew she should call the children. They’d need to make arrangements to fly down in the morning. Their 4th of July would be spent under the brutality of a Miami sun. What was it her mother used to say? Yes, yes. We plan, and God laughs. But this was where their father wanted to be, living or dead. To Bennett, Florida had always been Mecca.
Miriam reached for the phone; it dropped, bouncing like a yo-yo from its cord. She needed to rest just for a few minutes. From her apron, she took the silver thimble of pills. Without liquid, she swallowed one, then two. She lost count, her hand and mouth robotive like Lucy and Ethel.
Exhausted and weak, she lay down on the sofa, her head resting on the place where Bennett sat and watched his shows night after night. Bennett, interested in the news desperately grasping information, struggling to interpret, or Bennett laughing, tears streaming at a slapstick sitcom.
Miriam turned towards the TV. It was still on; some show about wild animals Bennett's favorite. She smelled the musty oils of his skin, and caught the shiny impression left by his hair. It was then and only then she opened the door to her grief. A family of lions scurried from their den, and Miriam Kane began to weep, suddenly missing her husband.