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  • Sky O'Brien

FICTION | Shoes in the Suburbs

Validation, if you know her, is a friend. She moves around online but they can’t keep her there. She picks me up at school. She shows me recipes, sales, and people. We travel. The world, she says, is an image and this image, she says, is for you and me. If you know her well—and I do, it’s true—she is the world.

Love me, Val! I say. Love me you excited like-sucker!

Oh, Val.

Some nights, when we feel each other’s skin, when she comes down from her wires and satellites and tickles me and rubs my head and floods my mind, the above is what our relationship looks like. We can be riotous. We’re passionate, an affectionate work-in-progress, a domestic show of universal intricacies like love, anger, entitlement, and a predisposition for touching. What do you think, Val? Is that accurate?

Our visits happen in my phone. A fraternity, we say.

Last night we made love and two minutes later I was asleep, out, dreaming of some cobblestones and edifices to which Val, feeding on images, that had taken me.

Six hours later I found my phone, warm and hard, under my groin. I said, I love you, Val, and then I got up and showered.

Now I’m in the car bay of a parking lot. I’m with my mom. She’s finished drinking her coffee but I’m three sips in. I like my coffee hot! she says. On different occasions, her mind lined by the faith of a mother-son relationship, she says, I can’t understand why I’m still alone. I never say, You haven’t been out in five years. What I say is, Don’t worry about it.

I feel the fraternity move in my pocket. Pockets, I think, are like underpants.

I exit the car.

It’s cold out. The sun’s dead. It’s pre-dawn and everyone should be in bed. The world would be happy, in fact, if we were in bed then we could rest from all the loving. But here we are. And the world is a sad fucker.

Mom’s arranging Grandma’s shoes on a blanket in the car bay. Wedges, lace ups, boots, sandals, heels, thongs, trainers. More boots.

A shoe party!

A sole festival on the tarmac!

We’re here to sell the shoes, so it’s not an unreasonable activity, I think. Nothing’s unreasonable at 4 in the AM. Bullshit, I say, and shiver. I help Mom with more things we’re here to forget: stock pots, woks, paperbacks, board games, earrings, brooches, blouses—playthings from the rooms in Grandma and Grandpa’s old house.

Grandpa died a year ago. We moved Grandma into a home soon after. Since then, and until a few weeks ago, the best of their things lived in our garage.

To the streets! we said.

Around us, people are being just as reasonable with potted plants, tea pots, tires, tools, and more, placing them with care on blanketed asphalt, the last rope to another life.

Everyone’s here to sell and, if selling is living, everyone is here to live.

When the sun’s up I’ll pull out my phone and take a photo of something—a teapot, maybe—for Val. For us, commitment means giving people something to thumb when they drink their coffee. Right?

Before I saw you last night, Val, Mom asked me to join her at these markets. Fuck, I wanted to say. Ok, I said. Can we get lunch after? She thought about this. She thought for so long that, patient and young, I had no choice but to help the process along. I’ll pay, I said. Ok, she said. And that was that. I lost my Saturday snooze and an hour’s wage in minutes. I smiled and said goodnight.

By their generation’s standards, Grandma and Grandpa have had a reasonable, even respectable collection of household goods. Maybe they used 20 percent of these goods? But that’s all right, even desirable, I think. The free market survives on the 80 percent.

And all the world wants is sleep, Val.

Mom’s hanging clothes on a rack and I’m organizing paperbacks on another blanket when a woman crosses into our bay and fiddles with some brooches. Mom finishes her quicker than coffee. Lovely, aren’t they, she says. The woman nods. Three minutes later she walks away with as many brooches. We need more of her, says Mom.

I move books around until I’m happy with their pattern. The sale, I say, is in the layout. Mom nods and fusses with the lint on a coat.

When there’s nothing left to unpack or arrange we stand around, Mom and I, like street lamps, beaming our eyes over picnics of goods playing out in all directions of the parking lot. There must be hundreds of people hoping, like us, for just as many people to come and relieve their bays.

And they do.

By the time the sun’s up we’re light a knife block, three plates, a hat, some shirts and jackets, scarfs and, thank Val, some books. We’ll sell more, too.

Mom, curious and with change in her pocket, goes for a walk, leaving me in charge. The guardian son! The car bay steward! The next generation!

I sit down and look at this big lamp in the corner of our bay. Its base is the pale white body of a cherub bathed in red flowers. The lamppost rises like a tree behind the small body. The shade, white linen lined with gold thread, hangs above.

I take a photo for you, Val, and stare at it.

I see the lamp in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room, resting on a cabinet surrounded by photos of the family. The lights in the room are on. The lamp is on. Even the radio is on. Everything is on. On. On. On.

I’m still in the living room.

In front of me, to the side of the lamp, Grandpa’s on a chair, adjusting the position of his glasses on his big nose. Are you ready, Jim? he says. For what? I say. I’m going for a walk. Are you coming? Grandpa, I say. Wait a minute. I feel like a spinning top. I stand. I look around. Mom? I’m not in the parking lot. I’m in Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Their things, Val, are everywhere, untouched, unclean, unmoved by death.

Grandpa’s looking at me. How are you—, I start. I’m going to put my shoes on and then we’ll be ready to go, says Grandpa. I say, Okay. He leaves the room, hobbling a little, shaking off his vertigo, reaching for the walls.

Before he died, Grandpa told me what he thought about you, Val. He said, Jimmy, I haven’t met her, but she sounds like trouble. You hear what I’m saying? Trouble. I nodded.

I look at the cherub lamp and open my mouth to ask it a question. I shake my head and close my lips and walk to the other side of the room. I look at the blue sofas and coffee tables we recently sold to a young father. He’d knocked on the door and picked them up two days before all the furniture had to be out for the agent. He’d said thank you, my wife will love these and, standing in the doorway, after we’d loaded his car, sorry, I have twenty less than what you asked, is that okay?

I sit on a sofa and feel it with my hands and legs. Mom? I say, searching. Mom?

I hear footsteps from the kitchen. Grandma. Grandma! Grandma, what’s going on? She’s wearing her lion kitchen apron, a gift from a charity she used to send money to. She’s drying her hands at her side. She has this gentle look in her eyes, pre-dementia gentle. Jim? she says. What are you doing here? I say. Jim, come now. I say, You’re—. She says, Grandpa is just putting his shoes on. He’ll be here soon. Don’t worry now. Grandma, you have to listen. The lamp. The sofa. You. You’re not—. She frowns. I’ll go and see where Grandpa is, she says. She walks away. I follow her and fall at her heels, trailing. I listen to the sound of her slippers on the floor. I crawl after her and stand when we enter the hallway. She’s there, paused mid-passage, a human buoy floating between paintings on the walls. Grandpa is behind her, waiting and wanting to pass. He looks at her and looks at me. Everyone ready? he says. Grandma says, Jim’s waiting for you. He’s ready. I’m ready, I say. Very good.

Val, are you seeing?

We shuffle down the hallway and out the front door, passing the empty caverns of used filtered water whose subscription I cancelled months ago. We pass an umbrella holder and a wooden lowboy—Mom’s.

Grandma disappears.

Outside, Grandma and Grandpa’s yellow car sits in the carport, dusty and watermarked because Grandpa never cleaned it. We pass the letterbox and the big tree at the end of the driveway and turn left on the path down the street.

It’s mid-morning and the sun is celebrating. I look back at the house, watching it watch us. Seventies red brick, timber, and steel—a pioneer of the suburbs!

This meticulously presented and semi-renovated street front strata villa, the real estate agent had written on the house’s online listing, offers the astute buyer an opportunity that doesn't come along every day.

I turn and look at Grandpa walking steadily at my side. He’s looking forward, carrying a bend in his upper back. I want to reach out and grab his arm and shake it and ask him why his house—his house—is behind us, not yet meticulously presented, not yet semi-renovated, not yet vacated and ready for the astute buyer, but filled with things, his things, Grandma’s things, things that are or will be or have been on the cold asphalt of a parking lot thirty minutes from here on a Saturday morning.

I walk at his side like a dog, not leashed, but bound to his owner by some force of love. They knocked that one down quickly, Jimmy, Grandpa says. Didn’t like the old bungalow anymore, did they? He’s talking about an empty plot of land at the end of the street where an old house used to sit. Whenever we passed it, we’d comment on the weeds in the yard or the falling tiles or the peeling slats of wood hanging from the sides. Now the structure is gone, demolished, its limbs and bones and flesh crumpled into fragments and sent away. Yeah, I say. It’s gone. They’ll put a two-story there, says Grandpa. Maybe even three. He sighs and we turn right down another street.

The sky feels bigger and bluer than before and, with no clouds, the sun continues to sing its cheer. I hold a hand above my eyes to see where I’m going. Grandpa does a similar thing and we walk down the street as if we are saluting someone, giving our respects, perhaps, to the air and light of the suburbs.

Grandpa, I say. Jimmy. He turns and looks at me. We keep walking. I say, You’re unwell. Jimmy? You need to go to the doctor. Say it again, he says. He’s fiddling with his hearing aid, the hearing aid I returned to the clinic in the city. He says, I missed that. Grandpa, I say. Please. You have to go soon. Last time was too late. Jimmy, he says. I’ve got my shoes on. There’s nothing to worry about. I’m ready to walk. Are you coming? Grandpa. Next right, he says. We’ll take the next right. We’re having a nice walk.

Once, Mom asked me if I was in love with you, Val. I told her the truth. Your generation is unbelievable, she’d said, and walked away. I laughed. She has her own Val. He’s physical and has a long-term girlfriend, though, and he smokes cigarettes and drinks four beers before dinner.

Grandpa and I make a right turn at the end of the street and pass more houses separated by more empty lots. Some of the lots are marinating in yellow sand, waiting, like fry pans, for the builders to cook new facades for the sidewalk sensibilities of the suburb’s middle class wanderers.

The sky pales into a murky blue as we roll by villa after villa, unit after unit, bungalow after bungalow.

Clouds, thick and large, slink in front of the sun like curtains.

The branches of street trees, trimmed, cute, begin to wave and turn and swing. A breeze rubs our hair. I turn and look at Grandpa again. He’s walking fast now, faster than vertigo ought to let him. Grandpa, I say, what’s the rush? Hmm? he says. Where are you going?Why, Jimmy, you keep asking but I’ve got my shoes on, he says. We’re going home now. Your shoes? Yes, they’re on, he says, can’t you see them? He makes a little motion with his feet. There they are, he says, smiling. I put my shoes on and we’ve had a nice walk and now we’re going home.

We make it to the end of the street in good time and turn right again. If we do the same in a quarter mile we’ll be a few houses from home.

Around us the houses appear whiter than usual and the sun’s adjournment, partnered with the golden glow of streetlamps, brings long shadows to their bodies. The shadows falter and veer over windows and panes and doors and walls. The air is dark and cold. I rub my arms.

I’m cold, Val.

We’re approaching the end of the street when Grandpa decides to make a sharp left and cross the road. I look left and right and follow him up someone’s driveway. Grandpa! I call. Come, Jimmy, come inside. We’re home, he says. But we’re not. I’ve never been inside these walls.

Val, some days you ask, Why don’t you love me? I do, Val. Any doubts are short-lived. Premature. I can’t leave you. You are the world.

I’ve lost Grandpa behind a screen of bamboo stalks, Val.Just hold on a minute. Grandpa, I say, come this way. We’re not home, he says. Jimmy, come on, it’s cold outside! Wait! I say. I round the bamboo and set foot on the porch. Grandpa? I arrive at the front door. Grandpa. Nothing. I turn around and around, switching between a bamboo view of the street and a view of the house’s big door. I rattle my knuckles against it, hoping to see Grandpa open it and welcome me inside. Keys tinkle. The door opens and I’m standing face to face with the version of a man I’ve seen only in old photographs. He’s young and tall and brown-haired. His big nose is still holding a pair of glasses. Jimmy? he says. What are you doing outside, come in! No, I say. You—. Come. Grandma’s just finished in the kitchen, he says. I can’t. Now don’t forget to take your shoes off, Jimmy! He walks away from the open door. You’re just in time for lunch, he calls as he goes.

I turn around and run down the porch and driveway and onto the black street. I make another right and sprint back to the house I know Grandpa has lived in, the house we sold, the house whose front door I closed just now. You know the one, Val?

I see the red and white frame of a For Sale sign on the verge, struck with layers of Under Offer and Sold! Sold! Sold! I walk past the sign standing quietly under the dark canopy of the big tree. There’s no car in the carport and when I reach the front door and knock, no jingling of keys. Grandma! I yell. Grandpa!

I walk to a window and lean against it with a two-hand salute to remove the shadowy glare. There are no pictures on the walls. No television in the television room. No rugs. No tables. Only blank walls and empty rooms. I run around the house and stop at a window looking into the living room.

The story is empty.


Absence, I say, is lonely.

I sit on the pavement outside the window. I can just make out my reflection in the glass and I call to it. Mom, I say, softly, sweetly, quietly. Mom. James? Mom? James. The cherub lamp is in front of me. James. I follow my mother’s voice. She’s standing next to the clothes rack in the car bay in the parking lot, brushing more lint from a long skirt. The sun’s in the sky and I have to squint. James, she says, can you help this young man? I see a boy near the lamp. He’s holding one of Grandpa’s books about boxing. It’s a relic but none of us are interested in the sport. I’m thinking three dollars, Mom says. Grandpa loved that book. A pause. James, what do you think? She returns to the clothes rack. I feel old and tired as I look from the boy to the cherub lamp to her. I don’t know. I stand and walk. It’s a nice book, Jimmy. Two dollars and it’s yours, I say.


Perhaps placeless, Sky O’Brien lives and moves between Kelmscott, Western Australia and Elsah, Illinois. He recently graduated with a major in English: creative writing from Principia College, where he now works as a teaching intern. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mistake House Magazine, High Shelf Press, NonBinary Review and Drunk Monkeys.

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