My mother said no one could wear shoes inside the house.
This wasn’t her only quirk after they put her away and she returned, but it was one of the strangest. The sight of our bare feet made her scream with rage. Socks were okay, but that could change.
We weren’t used to her new ways.
“Do something,” my brother, the least brave amongst us, begged our father.
“Don’t antagonize her,” my father said.
When she was away we lived easily. We’d kick off our shoes and line them all up on the stairs. My brother would put his hands in my shoes and walked them, step by step, up the stairs. I’d sing a marching song.
The order of those shoes, so straight on the stairs, was a comfort: my brother’s strong school brogues, my father’s steel tipped shoes and my Velcro sneakers, bunny slippers, or the orange flip flops with the big plastic flowers that made me feel more special than I was. I liked that we sprang them free from the closet.
I had the most shoes. Mom pointed to my metallic flats, and called them “foot coffins.” I burst into tears.
“It’s to be expected,” Dad said, wiping my tears with his handkerchief. “It’s not really about the shoes.”
“Send her back,” I said.
“Shut it, already,” said Dad.
On her second night home, my mother shook me in the middle of the night. Her face was soft and smiling, in the blue light that came through my bedroom window. She linked her thin arm in mine and led me down the stairs.
“I missed you,” she whispered. I let myself lean into her, falling for her comforting smell of soap and cigarettes.
She pointed to a pair of shoes I’d left on the bottom step.
“Put those away!” she brayed, pointing to my shoes. Her body shook.
I’d been duped.
My father, asleep on the couch, woke at the sound of her scream. He ran to the telephone. My mother saw my bare feet on the carpet and stared, hollow-eyed.
She slumped on the bottom step, her anger gone like the flip of a switch.
My brother came out of his bedroom and hovered, behind my mother, on the stairs.
My mother lit a cigarette. Shook her head back and forth, apparently disagreeing with a conversation she was having with the voices in her head. Her feet, stuffed into my metallic flats, danced in place on the floor. I wanted to rip my shoes off her feet.
“Consider this,” she said, drawing on her cigarette, holding us in her thrall.
I dug my toes into the carpet. Like my life depended on it.
published 16 February 2011