In 1970, we moved from the town of Moate in County Westmeath, Ireland to Oxnard, California. I was ten. After a few months in our new home, I realized that everything about us was different from our Southern California surroundings. Our speech, our hair, our clothes, and most noticeably, our mouths. My family looked like we had spent time with our heads lodged in a hornet’s nest, trying to kiss one of the devils. We each had tiny, pink lips that looked as if they could pop right off of our faces at any moment, and when we smiled, our small mouths housed rather large but strong choppers. My baby sister proved to have the strongest teeth, as we had to replace her mangled pacifier every couple of months. I spent a lot of time standing in front of a mirror, turned slightly, my hands shoved into the pockets of my jeans, and casually speaking to myself over my shoulder. I overpronounced each word that I spoke, and stretched my mouth to look big and American.
“Wanna play some ball?” I would say, pulling my lips tightly across my fencelike teeth. When I tried this approach at school, the other boys turned away in disgust. I decided to try finding another way to make myself look more American, and I thought that I would start at the bottom.
“My shoes…” I mumbled to my dad one day.
“Your what?” he said. The ever-present cigarette that dangled from his mouth looked like a piece of rubber when he spoke. “Your what?” he responded again and turned his ear towards me for emphasis.
“I’ve got to get the right shoes, Dad,” I said, earnestly.
He took the cigarette from his mouth and pinched it between his thumb and pointer finger, making a shield from the wind with his palm. His head dipped towards his shoulder to favor a clear view of my feet.
“What’s wrong with your shoes?” he asked as he kicked the back of my heel with the toe of his boot, making me lose my balance for a moment. “Why, those shoes are grand!” he said as he raised his eyebrows. I slowly looked down at the ground, and I swear my shoes were so ugly, it looked as if I were walking around with my feet crammed inside of two pieces of black peat bricks.
“I need sandals on my feet instead of these bloody coffins that you call shoes,”
He popped the cigarette back into his tiny mouth. His chin dropped towards his chest to look me in the face while his arms slowly folded in front of him. His words managed to break through the furious puffs of smoke that were coming from his cigarette like a steam engine.
“Do you be meanin’ the shoes where you pay for the holes to be already in them?” my dad asked, sarcastically.
“Sandals!” I roared at him.
The back of my head then stung from the swat of his quick, hard hand.
“I’m only half-drunk, and it’s not the same thing as being completely drunk, so I half hear what you are sayin’ and I’m gonna half think about it for about half a second,
now go and help your ma with the baby,” he said.
I stood there, looked him directly in the eye, and silently chanted in my head: sandals, sandals, sandals. When I felt that he had had enough, I slowly turned around and shamelessly stomped out of the room, making sure that he could hear my imprisoned feet from anywhere in the apartment. The racket that I had made scared the baby and made her cry. That in turn made my ma scream at me, making my dad miss the score made by Ireland in the football game over the radio, so I was sent to bed at 4 p.m. without any supper.
When I woke up the next day—starving, no doubt, I decided that after breakfast I would try and find a friend who wouldn’t mind a kid who wore shoes that were fashioned after mental institution garb. My mind ticked with determination. At breakfast, I stuffed my mouth with oatmeal while my parents drank their tea and silently read the paper. Nobody said a word. Only the baby made noises, which were not much use when it came to having a conversation with someone.
“Done!” I said as I dropped my spoon into my bowl. My hand hovered over the back of the chair, ready to use it as a springboard the moment that I got the signal that I was free.
My ma glanced at my empty bowl, then at me. “Don’t forget to go and brush your teeth, now,” she said and tilted her head towards the door.
“America, I love it!” I shouted as I quickly stood up, stuck out my skinny chest, and beat it.
“That will be just about enough, Yankee Doodle man,” my dad said. “Go and do what your ma told you to be doin’.”
I saluted my dad and marched down the hallway. Keeping time with each step that I took, I whispered to myself: find a friend, find a friend, find a friend. Today was the day that I would make it happen.
After I washed up and put my clothes on, I searched every room of the apartment for my shoes. I even checked the baby carriage thinking that my sister might have found my shoes a better chew than her pacifier. I stood in the middle of our front room, bare feet against the wood floor, hoping that my parents might notice that they had one shoeless child.
My ma entered with a loose grip on the baby, a blanket, and a large brown paper bag.
“We’re goin’ on a picnic,” she said with weariness as she hoisted everything up higher onto her hip.
“But I can’t find my shoes!” I said to her as I lifted one foot off of the ground to demonstrate my partial nakedness. Just then, a breeze swirled past my legs as my dad hurried by me to the front door.
“I lost your shoes in a poker game, now go and get in the car!” he said sarcastically, while the keys and coins in his pockets bounced against his striding legs.
We drove to the ocean in my dad’s van with the winged stallion on the side of it. My family walked down to the beach as if they were marching off to war. My dad in his work boots, my ma wearing shoes that certainly never graced the pages of a fashion magazine, the baby, barely finishing her steps in her white, scuffed walkers, and me, dancing over the hot sand, shoeless, like some kind of madman.
“Jesus, picnics are work,” I mumbled as I threw myself down in relief on top of the blanket. After we were settled, my ma handed me a box.
“Go on now, open it,” my dad said as the ash from his cigarette broke off and whirled into the breeze. My whole family sat down in front of me to watch. My ma tried to conceal her smile, and my dad’s green eyes twinkled in sober delight. I opened the box and pushed the tissue paper back to find a pair of sandals. They had braided, brown leather straps that fit over the tops of my feet, just past my toes, and then wrapped around my ankles with a silver buckle at each end.
“Those are sandals, son,” my dad informatively announced to me. I felt too embarrassed to admit his generosity, so I respectfully just dusted the sandals off, and hoped that my family would hear what my heart was saying deep inside of me: thank you, thank you, thank you. My baby sister reached out to touch the splendid sandals but, instead, was satisfied with scooping up a handful of sand, which she decided to eat.
My ma stood up, brushed the sand from the baby’s mouth, and motioned to me to put the sandals on. My feet felt strange and happy all at the same time as I marched in place, testing the sandals. My dad interrupted his drag from his cigarette and eagerly said to me, “Go on, now,” and with a stagy sweep of his hand, he made the whole beach my kingdom.
My feet awkwardly took me over the sand and down to the ocean. When I turned around, I could no longer see my family on the other side of the hill. I looked back out at the horizon and proudly wiggled my toes. It felt good to have the sunshine touching the tops of my feet. When I waved at some kids running by, tossing their American football, they didn’t wave back. My heart sank as I watched my possible mates disappear into the distance. Sadness tugged at my body as if a rope were pulling me downward. I stared at the ground and pondered my feet. A moment later, I had burst out of my slumped state, letting my new sandals carry me swiftly over the sand, hoping to catch up to my new friends.
Kim Kolarich is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her fiction was long-listed for the Fish International Short Story Prize, and has appeared in the Bridport Prize Anthology, FreeFall, Julien’s Journal, 3711 Atlantic, 34th Parallel, Karamu, Rollick Magazine, After Hours, and The Gap Tooth Madness.