A Biomythography - Note 5
by Secret Hippie
My mother put her arms through the sleeves of her brown jacket. She was wearing navy blue slacks that gave the impression, from a distance, of being blue jeans, and she patted the pockets of them. She nodded to me, ready to leave.
"I told you last night, Bob," she said to my father. "We need to go and get fitted for another pair of special shoes."
"Oh, Ann, they're so expensive." He was right.
"The doctor said he should have them." With this, she glanced at me. The special shoes were mine.
I didn't want to have weird shoes. My mother called them 'special' to make them seem more acceptable. By the time I was eight, though, I'd caught on. The other kids in our neighborhood got to run around in Keds. My mother forced me to wear leather dress shoes from Thom McCann. They made it harder to stomp through the creek, play baseball, kickball, maulball, bike, and roller skate, but I did all of those things regardless. Sometimes she made me swap my custom shoes for cheap sneakers so that the special ones could be saved some wear and tear and so they would dry out before school.
"How can he wear down the heels so fast?" my father asked. He picked up my leather shoes from the carpet next to the front door. He glanced from me, in my JC Penny sneakers, to the custom-made soles in his hand. I had broken off part of a heel this time.
"He's a child." For my mother, that was explanation enough. "Anyway, the doctor said."
There wasn't much argument with the pronouncements of a doctor. My mother hussled me toward the car and I grabbed a comic for the drive. By the time we got to the shoe store, I had finished it twice. I'd totally forgotten about hating shoes. I looked forward to getting something, anything new.
The Thom McCann sign shone brightly on us, written in a neo-cursive script. There was something elegant about it. Inside the store, we met a smell that was partly leather and partly dust, probably from the stacks of shoe boxes piled high in the back, each with moderately-priced leather shoes, desiccants, and crepe paper inserts.
"Welcome, Missus Gallagher!" called one of the salesmen with a huge smile. He strode forward and spun toward me. "And young Mister Gallagher, of course."
He led us down the aisles of shoes set out on display. Some of the best looking models rested on endcaps, like art pieces, high enough to attract the attention of customers. Many of those were ladies' boots but I saw fancy men's office shoes, too, some in two-tone leather.
"Thank you for calling ahead," said the salesman. "I'm already set for the fitting."
"One of his legs is a little shorter than the other, do I remember right?" He led us to three adult chairs and a child's seat. He waved me toward the smallest one. In front of my spot, there sat a metal slide-rule type of device for foot measurement and, beyond it, a portable x-ray machine. "We fit the shoes with a high right sole to even out his stride."
My toes wiggled. I kicked off my shoes and stared at the x-ray machine. It took the best pictures. In them, I could see all the bones in my feet.
"Has he grown?" asked the salesman.
"Oh yes, he was nearly at the end of this pair anyway."
"Fine, fine." He laughed as I hopped back out of my chair to stand in front of the x-ray camera. "We'll take an exact measurement, then. I see you're eager to get going, Mister Gallagher!"
He had never taken precautions before. This time, he told my mother to stand back. That was something he didn't care to do himself, though, as he positioned my feet. He smelled like my father's Old Spice cologne. Next to me, he crouched and took a set of four pictures. He removed his hand from my ankle at the last possible instant.
The front door jangled. I heard another man huff, angrily. Apparently, the manager had walked in.
"I want to see you, John," he told the salesman.
"Sure, Mitchell." He nodded to my mother. "I'll just be a moment."
John the salesman was gone for a while. We heard the rise and fall of voices in the back room, that miniature warehouse stacked with shoe boxes, machines, and paper. My mother told me to go to the car for something to read. Then I sat and kicked my heels for a while in an adult chair as I re-read about Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, and Superman. There are only so many times you can look through the same comic, though, so I was impatient for my foot-bone photographs and my shoes.
"Thanks for your patience, folks!" the salesman exclaimed on his return. He bowed his head and put the x-ray prints of my feet into my mother's hand.
"Is there a problem?" my mother asked.
"Well, my manager told me I won't be able to take x-ray photos next time." He sounded a bit offended. The chain store had changed its policy. It was going to interfere with his favorite sales technique. "Apparently, we're getting rid of the camera. I guess that explains why it took me so long to find it in the back."
"Why is that?" my mother asked.
"No idea, really."
"You're getting rid of it?" I had been reaching for the photographs in my mother's hand but now there was an even better prospect. "Can I take it home?"
The salesman blinked. He looked down at me with a serious expression. He was considering it. The manager strode up next to him, eyes wide. He waved his arms.
"Just the shoes, John," he hissed.
"Sure. Do you mind if I put the heel back on the kid's old pair?" The salesman looked at his manager, then at my mother.
"Can you do that yourself?" my mother asked.
"Sure. I'm good at it. We have some extra heel slabs cut to the right size."
"I didn't realize you knew how," said the manager. He took a deep breath. He seemed to be calming down.
"Five minutes," said the salesman.
That's how, thanks to the intervention of a shoe store manager in the fall of 1971, I missed my chance to take home my own x-ray machine. I got to walk out with an extra pair of shoes, however, even though they were only my old ones re-fitted to the right height.
Thinking back on it, I've noticed some historical revisionism about the era of 'radiation is good.' That was a bigger, longer cultural movement than people seem to know. In online sources, you can read about radium watches stopping production in the 1930s but you can also buy vintage military radium watches from World War II, so that stoppage date can't be true. Plus I owned a lesser-radiation watch that was apparently painted with some allowable, less-radioactive radium. In my rock collection, I got to keep a sample of uranium and that was no big deal.
Until 1971, whenever I bought shoes, I got x-rays done of my feet. It didn't happen only in Thom McCann but in Sears and other stores, every single one of them that sold shoes, until this final stop, and all as a sales gimmick.