<%@ Language=VBScript %> Keepgoing.org - Spring 2001 - What Fools These Mortals Be
The Farm

What Fools These Mortals Be

By Blythe Smith

What Fools These Mortals Be He appeared to her in the window of her neighborhood's sad little shoe-repair shop.

Like a refugee from another century, the shop squatted resolutely on a busy street corner, always empty of customers despite the constant foot traffic. As she walked by, peering in at the overgrown houseplants jammed against the plate-glass front window and the dusty piles of shoes presumably waiting for rebuilt heels or new soles, Rebecca wondered: who has their shoes repaired anymore? I mean, they're $15 at Payless, I'm sure it costs more than they're worth to have them fixed. Why bother? To Rebecca, with her thrift-store coat with the fake-fur collar and a backpack held together with safety pins and duct tape, the fact that there were actually people who paid more than $15 for a pair of shoes was not immediately apparent.

And then she saw him. Standing so close to the window that his breath should have fogged the glass, his eyes locked on to hers. Her ability to break eye contact, to be immediately engrossed in absolutely anything besides some creepy guy who just insists on staring at you on the el, or the bus, or on a thousand thousand sidewalks, that ability that all city girls innately possess – that ability for the first time failed her. She could not stop looking at him. She could not stop seeing his eyes. She could not refuse to have compassion for someone who looked like he could feel better if only he could lie down for a minute, could forget for a minute, could just stop thinking for one goddamn minute, I mean why is that so hard sometimes? When your thoughts chase themselves around your head, fears and sorrows and regrets leap-frogging each other for attention. And you think a drink can help but it's temporary. But everything's goddamn temporary. Isn't it? So drink 'em up, set 'em up, throw 'em back again.

Rebecca couldn't tell if these were his laments or hers. They felt as familiar as your skin at the end of a long, bad day, but until that moment she'd been enjoying the morning and the softly falling snow and had no reason to feel sad. Besides, she didn't let herself get sad in that particular way anymore. Or if she did, she certainly didn't use a drink to make it go away. Not anymore. And she felt dizzy, and a bus pulled up to the corner. Was it her route? She turned her head to check, she turned back again. He was gone.

He wasn't there anymore and it was her bus and she got on it with all the other folks shuffling their way through another day. It was just like any other day, she thought, just like any other day on the bus with the strangers and the strange strangers and the strange, dangerous strangers. And me, she thought. Don't forget me.

So she went to work and she came back home and she fed the cat and washed her dishes after she ate, alone. She brushed her teeth and checked the deadbolt and went to bed, alone. An ordinary day, she thought. Except I just can't shake that feeling. You know that feeling you get when you see somebody who broke your heart a long time ago and they say hey but won't stop to catch up. And you don't care, or you shouldn't care, why do you fucking care? Your heart has healed like everyone's does and you haven't even thought about that jerk for years and were actually glad he was gone once you could see again through the heartache and the red wine. Right?

But you do care. And you want to know why he doesn't. I mean ok, love doesn't last forever, I won't even try to deny it but can't you stop a minute just to see what's new? Doesn't the fact that you broke me so long ago make me even just a little bit interesting?

It doesn't though. She admitted to herself, as she fell asleep, that the people she herself had broken long ago weren't very interesting to her, either. I mean, we all hate to admit it, but sadness is really so very ordinary. That's why everyone understands it, that's why you can forget it, sooner or later. And while she fell asleep she tried to remember the face of the man in the window, or the color of his eyes, or his clothes. She thought about how funny it was that she couldn't remember a thing about him. Why had he upset her so?

She slept and she dreamt of him, that solemn, sad man. In her dream he was sitting on a low, revolving stool, the shoe repairman's stool, she supposed. In his hands was a monstrously large book. She tried to read it over his shoulder but the language was foreign to her, and anyway, it's hard to read in dreams. But she did make out her own name on the page.

He turned on his stool to face her, reached up and took her hand. The impossibly big book perched precariously on his knees. She knew she'd seen his face before. "Don't try to remember," he said. "No one can. Will you hold this for me?" He stood and passed the huge book insistently into her arms. It was so heavy, Rebecca immediately took his vacated seat on the stool.

A mistake. The man took her shoulders firmly in both hands and gave her a twirl so that she and the book went madly round in circles, the stiff joints of the old stool squeaking in protest. The book flew out of her hands and landed hard on the floor. She watched as a spider emerged from the crack between the open pages and crawled away to make a new home for itself in one of the broken shoes. She loved spiders.

"I know you do," said the man. "Do you remember me?" But when Rebecca looked up he was not the man anymore, the shop was not the shop anymore, in the manner of dreams the scene had been recast while she watched the spider go. Now she was on a playground, now she was sitting on the merry-go-round, sitting with Jerold Ng, who she hadn't thought of in years. "I haven't thought of you in years," said her now five-year-old self.

"I know," said the man, who reappeared again, standing beside Jerold. "You've forgotten." He sighed and gave the merry-go-round a gentle push, sending little Jerold and Rebecca lazily spinning. "I do so love to make you forget."

Now adult Rebecca was standing beside the man, watching little Jerold and her own little self spin. Her child self put out her foot and suddenly stopped the merry-go-round's revolutions. Jerold lurched forward, his shy smile smashing into the bars. He winced but said nothing, only standing up as if to go.

"Give me your hat!" said little Rebecca. "Give me your hat, Jerold Ng!" Jerold took his much-worn Cubs cap off his head and clutched it fiercely to his chest. His feet kicked nervously at the playground dirt.

"Jerold Ng, you give me that dirty, smelly hat right now!" demanded little Rebecca. "Do you know what the other kids say? Do you, Jerold? They say you smell bad. They say you don't wash and you smell bad and you smell like pee!" Little Rebecca laughed; just saying that naughty, forbidden word made her feel big, like a real big kid. Nobody was going to pick on her. "So give me your smelly hat, Jerold, so I can wash it for you so you won't smell anymore!" Little Rebecca seized Jerold's precious hat and made off with it, pushing Jerold down into the dirt as she ran off.

Said the man, "Do you remember, Rebecca? At four years old, you and Jerold made mud castles in your back yard and played doctor together. You rooted for the Cubs sitting on that ratty orange couch in his parents' rumpus room, drinking Kool-Aid out of his favorite Cubs cup with a bendy straw. You went to a game together once, you went to beautiful Wrigley Field and his older brother let you have a sip of his beer and the foam made you sneeze. Somebody hit a home run and the Cubs almost won and the two of you sang 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' and pretended to be Harry Caray all the way back home, even though his parents begged you to stop. It was just about the best day in your whole damn life, Rebecca. Remember?"

She did remember. She couldn't believe she'd ever forgot.

"Do you remember when kindergarten came? The other five-year-olds didn't like Jerold, didn't like the way he smelled from all the garlic and onions and peppers his momma fed him. They were mean and you were scared, so you were mean too. Do you remember now?"

"I'm sorry," said Rebecca. "I'm sorry. I was too young to know any better."

"It wasn't that," said the man, "and it wasn't really your fault. Or it was, but all mortals are like that, at one time or another. Most people aren't born good. It takes time to remember how."

He walked away and not knowing why, Rebecca followed him. She forgot what he'd just said. Forgot that he had said mortals, forgot that that meant he wasn't one. Forgot and walked with him away from Jerold Ng crying in the dirt, forgotten too in another moment. Forgotten again.

They walked silently down a green, grassy hill, Rebecca's hand in his. "I'm dreaming, aren't I?" she said. The man did not turn his head or answer, and they kept walking. "But I still want to know your name," she said. "Even if I'm dreaming, I want to know your name."

"I've told you before," he said. "I'd tell you again, but you can't remember my name."

"I can," she said. "Please."

He smiled, a tender smile. "Ask me again later, sweetheart." Rebecca saw a stream ahead of them at the base of the hill, and couldn't remember what it was she had wanted to know.

They came to the banks of the stream and put their feet into the cool, green water. She didn't remember being barefoot, or taking off her shoes, but the water was pleasant and soothing and she watched little orange fish dart near her dangling toes. She liked fish.

"I know," he said. "All your fish had such great names, too. Poseidon. Pisces. Quench. Firewater. Firewater was the best, I think, with that big black dot over one of his eyes and the gold and orange and white patches all over him. He always made me think of kabuki puppets, and Halloween."

"Firewater," said Rebecca. "I haven't thought of him in years."

"I know," said the man. "It's too bad, really, that you never could change the damn water in their tank without killing them somehow. I mean, I know learning not to quit is important, but at least as far as the fish were concerned, it was probably good that you gave the whole thing up in fifth grade. Poor Firewater. A watery grave was his indeed, flushed down the bowl." The man kicked his feet a bit in the stream, and the orange fish scattered and then slowly returned, steered by the swish of luminous tails.

"But you're not a man, you know," said Rebecca. She thought it was a fact, although it sounded more like a question when it finally came out of her mouth. "I mean, you're not, right? Hey, what's your name again?"

He smiled. "It's true," he said. "And I'd tell you my name if it wouldn't evaporate from your memory faster than the color of my eyes. Which you can't remember again." She couldn't.

"I'm in charge of forgetting," he continued. "Forgotten things have to go somewhere. Everyone keeps their memories, but who worries about their 'forgets'? I keep them for you. I keep them for everyone."

Rebecca smiled at him. She had lost her train of thought. What had she asked him? Never mind. He was handsome in his strange, sad way and the sun was shining and the fish were swimming and it seemed like a good time for a kiss. She kissed him, she kissed him more, then forgot about kissing and noticed again that the fish around her toes were a really, really great shade of orange. Hadn't she had a shade of nail polish that color once? In middle school or something?

"You did," he said. "You were so beautiful in middle school. You haven't forgotten that because you never knew it then. But you were beautiful in your baggy clothes and your brave orange nail polish. You were beautiful without friends and without confidence and without much that you'd want to remember. I could visit you without fear because you wouldn't mind forgetting those days, the hallways a gauntlet of jeering. Who'd want to remember that?"

"Do you ever think about, like, when you remember somebody who you haven't remembered in a long, long time?" asked Rebecca. "And you wonder if, like, maybe that'll be the last time you ever remember them? I mean, I was just thinking about this kid Jerold Ng who I played with when I was a real little girl. And maybe I'll never remember him again, you know? I wonder why we stopped being friends, anyway. He loved baseball."

"I remember," said the man who was not a man. "When you got older sometimes you did things to try to forget why you were sad, you tried to swallow your heartbreak with your whiskey and I wanted so badly to visit you and help you and I couldn't, and now you know that it doesn't work that way. Nobody really drowns their sorrows, though sometimes they drown themselves trying. Sorrow can't be drowned. It floats.* And I love you so much," he said.

"I know," she replied. For a moment she remembered. They kissed again and his hair smelled like rain on the grass when you're three years old, and his lips were as soft as Momma's lap. The kisses went by fast and she pulled away. And forgot.

He tossed a pebble into the slowly moving stream, and they were both silent as they watched each circular ripple expand until the water was still again. The world was so quiet. Rebecca remembered the words to a song from her childhood and hummed softly to herself, wiggling her toes to make the fish dance.

"We have to go soon," he said.

"I know. Hey, I don't believe in God, you know? I mean, not even the real one, the big one, let alone some crazy made-up god of forgetting. I mean, I've read lots of books about Greek mythology and the Norse pantheon and Druids and Incas and even that comic book about the Dreaming Guy and I've never, ever heard of you."

"Of course not, love," he said. "No one remembers me. And now I see you less and less. You remember so much now, so many things I thought you'd never learn. But of course you did. Everyone does. I guess I forget that myself, sometimes. So talk to me while you're still here. Tell me about those books you read, about Aphrodite and Zeus and Paris dying of love for Helen of Troy."

"I forget," she said. "Kiss me, kiss me damn it, I'm waking up."

And he did. And she did. And the room was the hazy purple of early winter mornings and the cat was on the bed, snuggled against her hip.

She nuzzled it and said, "I had a dream, kitty. I had a dream about a man, and a boy, and a little stream. And he kissed me… someone kissed me. I can't remember how it went anymore. Oh well." She sighed and rolled back over to sleep once again, without dreaming. Without kissing. Without remembering.

The next morning while walking to the bus stop, Rebecca broke the heel of one of her new patent-leather pumps. Standing lopsided in front of that funny little shoe-repair place, she wondered how much it would cost to have it glued back on. She new it wasn't worth it but she loved those shoes. She wanted to wear them on her date Saturday night with Brian, that friend of a friend, and she knew she wouldn't have time to get a new pair before then. Those shoes made her feel sexy and confident, and she wanted to feel like that because this guy might turn out to be alright. I mean, who knows?

A bell tinkled when she pushed open the store's door. The man working quietly behind the counter looked up at the sound. "Wow," said Rebecca, looking around her at the shoes stacked on every available surface. "I can't believe there's this many people waiting for their shoes to be fixed." The man's face reminded her of someone, she couldn't remember who.

"Oh, I've already fixed them all," the man replied, smiling his sad smile. "Lots of people bring their shoes in here. But hardly anyone remembers to come and pick them up."

* Thanks to Voice of the Beehive and the song "Sorrow Floats" for inspiration. In yet another band's words, "Let's hope those guys are cool and don't take us to court."

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Copyright©2001 by Blythe Smith.

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