William Glanley, whose Grandfather started the shoe store before the war, lived alone in a small gray cottage in the town of Bidley. The walk to the store, past quaint clapboard houses much larger than his own, took 17 minutes, unless, of course, he paused to talk to babies in strollers or study the bark on his favorite trees.
Now 71, he'd thought about retiring, closing up shop, but what would he do? Watering plants and reading catalogues didn't take up much time, and well, the store had been his life, leaving little time for hobbies. Jane had only been gone two years, and his daughter, on the other side of the country, wasn't exactly inviting him for an extended stay. Besides, the walk to the store, the different routes he would take were a routine that he enjoyed. Morning sounds pleased him, his little town waking up, birds singing, cars heading out, children calling to one another in the schoolyard.
Shoes on Main was a small store nestled between Sally's Coffee Roost and a space that had more businesses over time than he could keep track of. Some spaces are like that; cursed or haunted, whatever the explanation, nothing stuck. There was that perfume boutique run by that kookie lady from Michigan and that record store (who bought records anymore?) run by Mrs. Landerson's hippie son, and that one-chair hair salon owned by Ms. Jansen until she left to care for her elderly parents back East.
William never modernized the store. If you didn't look at the electronic cash register in the front, you'd think it was 1968. Green wallpaper, two rows of seven plain grey chairs back to back, samples of shoes on the wall, and a dingy basement filled with boxes and boxes. He didn't believe in self-service, like the big box stores, where customers could try on shoe after shoe after shoe, leaving a trail of clutter behind like a tornado had swept through the aisles. Employees spent more time cleaning up than they did helping people. That wasn't the Glanley way.
Esther was William's only employee. She had been a childhood neighbor, the little sister of his best friend, who had never left Bidley, not even once. Agoraphobia was what her brother Dave said she had. No matter. William always liked her. Maybe even more than liked her. She was shy and sweet and pretty in what they called a plain sort of way. Living alone after her parents died, along with two cats and two dogs, she played violin in the nearby community college orchestra and was happy in her own private way.
Selling shoes was a friendly intimacy for William. Not in a fetishistic sort of way, of course, just a personal way. People liked their shoes, cared about their shoes, cared about their children's shoes and their spouses' shoes. Sometimes he and Esther would be side by side, kneeling on the floor, helping their respective customers. He liked that too.
"How about we go for a drive on Sunday?" William one day said to Esther. "Oh no, I can't do that," said Esther. "It makes me too nervous to go far from home. I might have a panic attack, and it would ruin your day". So William told her the story of his friend Hayden. "You see, when Hayden was in the army, one of the requirements was parachuting. Hayden loved that about the army, but he was really frightened when it came time to do it. Of course, they don't just push you out of a plane. They take classes for a long time and learn to pack and re-pack the parachute so that they're prepared for any contingency. Anyway, eventually, the big day came. But Hayden was still nervous. "Why am I so nervous? I'm really well prepared!" he asked the instructor. The instructor smiled and said, "Because you still have to jump out of an airplane!"
This made Esther realize that maybe waiting for that perfect day to go somewhere new (and she certainly had dreams of that!) was never going to come. There would be no Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, to make things safe.
So Esther and William made a plan. Every Sunday, they would go for a drive, just a tiny bit further each week. On that first Sunday, Esther was white-knuckled most of the time, hunched over her lap, and trembling. "I'm ready to go home," she said after ten minutes. So William turned right around, and Esther's nerves slowly settled as streets became more and more familiar. Finally, at her home, they sat in the driveway for a half-hour, with Esther taking deep breaths and wiping beads of sweat off of her face. "Are you sure you still want to do this?" William finally said. "Yes," said Esther. So bit by bit, week by week, off they went, and Esther grew more and more comfortable until finally, she started to think about the tree-lined roads and the sunny hillsides, and not so much about how far away she was from home.
Shoes on Main was lucky. Chain stores were not nearby, so a local Mom and Pop kind of store could continue to thrive. It wasn't the kind of town where people ordered six pairs online and returned five. He also liked that everyone was a regular. Shoes wore out, got old, got too small, just like his customers. He loved watching the babies grow to toddlers, and the teens needing athletic shoes, even the older ladies looking for something practical when their ankles could no longer withstand heels.
It was late summer when Mrs. Eagleton came into the store. William had fitted not only her and her husband over the years but her Grandchildren as well. "William," she said, "I just don't know what it is, but my feet have hurt all summer." He wasn't a podiatrist, of course, but William knew shoes and feet. "Take off your shoes and socks and walk around the store," William said. So she did. And in one minute flat, he knew what was wrong. "Esther," he said, "Please run downstairs and get the Andersville Shoes, size 7". So she did and knowing his store, William heard every creak of the stairs and knew which aisle in the basement and which row of shelves she was going to. "Here you go," said Esther. They weren't bad looking, for 'old person' shoes, practical certainly, and when William lifted out the left shoe, Mrs. Eagleton said, "I like them. Very practical. As long as my feet stop hurting, I'll be happy. Anyway, I'm way past the point where I'm trying to make a fashion statement with my shoes." "We're in business" said William, but then he realized there was only one shoe in the box. "Damn," he muttered to himself. "Esther, there's only one shoe in this box. Would you mind going downstairs again and see if you can find the other shoe or maybe a different box?". "Sure thing," Esther said, ever dedicated to shoes and the store and making people happy, as William was.
William heard the slip and fall almost immediately. He dropped Mrs. Eagleton's foot, which he'd still been holding for some reason, jumped up, ran to the stairwell, looked down, and there was sweet Esther, twisted at the bottom and moaning.
Rescue arrived almost immediately after Mrs. Eagleton called, and for 30 minutes, there were six of them huddled around Esther. Finally, they got her on a large wooded board, and as they came upstairs and walked past William, he caught her frightened eyes just for a second.
Esther's neighbor Louise gave him the key to her house so he could take her cats and dogs. He'd had a dog back when Jessica was growing up, but he died just before she went off to college. So many losses at the same, he couldn't bear to grow a new attachment. He'd never liked cats, but it didn't seem right to break up her little family. Probably they were all attached, thought William.
It was six months before Esther was out of rehab. She'd had a compound fracture of her tibia, which required three surgeries. Recovery would be slow, but with time, a full recovery was expected. About a week before her discharge, as William sat with her, Esther worried aloud about how she'd manage at her home caring for her animals. "What if I trip walking Sally and Siggy," her two rescue dogs. "Why don't you move into my house for a while until you're more fully recovered," said William. I have Jessica's old room, and the animals are already here. So she did.
It didn't take long for them to settle into a flow together. After all, they were used to one another from the store. William had never liked cats, but one day, Louie, who had stayed in the basement the whole time Esther was in rehab, snuggled up next to William's knee and he kind of liked it.
Now you wouldn't think an impromptu arrangement such as this would work out, but it did. Sure, William had missed Jane, but living with her hadn't been so easy. High school sweethearts don't often stay that way for life. Jane never took an interest in the store, and she seemed to burn out from teaching sooner than most. So by 60, she was kind of bitter and bored. Jessica hadn't been the easiest child, though she was plenty smart. Now, a vice-president of a company in Los Angeles, she didn't call often and came home to visit even less. She was never a Mama's girl, that's for sure, which is what Jane always hoped for. Like so many middle-aged couples, William and Jane just kind of drifted into their separate orbits, a quiet, distant space between them, like people on different benches in a park. Often, she would pressure him to retire so they could travel, maybe to Europe, with the local Senior Center group. But the image of older people, wearing little name tags around their necks, like nursery school children, getting on and off tour buses, well, that just wasn't for him. No, William didn't want that. He liked the simplicity of walking to the store every day. The familiarity of everything he passed, the different routes, the neighbors taking out their garbage, neighbors whose names he didn't even know. He liked the quietness of the store, and the smell of the shoes, and the unassuming presence of Esther. Funny, they didn't even talk a lot, he and Esther. In a sense, they didn't have to. The routine, the place, the smells, the familiar customers, the oak tree in front of the store…..that was seemingly enough for each of them.
So Esther moved into Jessica's old bedroom, now a small guest room where William kept a desk and a computer, and brought some simple things like photographs and porcelain animals, making herself a temporary home. They walked to the store together each morning...allowing more time because Esther's pace was slower, especially now...and William would point out his favorite trees. As for Esther, well, she had a fondness for clouds, loved how they were spread and shaped and formed so uniquely, every second of the day, like a new world every time she glanced to the sky.
They were both simple eaters...nothing fancy, nothing gourmet really...but together, slightly new ingredients would come into each other's diet, which gave them both a simple delight.
In the evenings after work, after dinner, they would mostly go their separate ways, reading in different rooms, occasionally watching a show together, and on the rare occasion, a game of scrabble, which William was more fond of than Esther. Maybe playing was a way for her to say Thank You.
Their Sunday outings continued, and slowly, very slowly really, Esther's comfort level with a wider and wider radius grew. "I didn't know there were apple orchards out this way!" said Esther one afternoon. And on another cumulus-filled Sunday, "I didn't know there were horse farms out this way!" The delight in these new discoveries was like little happy lightning strikes, and William would smile to himself, eyes on the road ahead, each time she talked like this.
The everyday flow of the store didn't change much with Esther's infirmity. William was trim and in good shape. Up and down the stairs and kneeling in front of customers wasn't a problem. Esther became more of the salesperson in the store, chatting with customers, talking about fashion and comfort, and how to blend the two. Sometimes people came into the store, ostensibly to browse, but really because William and Esther were just such pleasant people to be around. A break from the cold, an outing from their homes, curiosity about the latest styles...all of these were good enough excuses to pop into Shoes on Main.
And so life found a rhythm, and somehow William found himself enjoying the Sunday outings more and more. It was as if he'd been the one with agoraphobia. He supposed he'd simply just gotten used to his ways, his rhythms, his habits. Maybe it was because Jane's company hadn't really been so pleasant. Maybe he'd just become old, set in his way, as people like to say. Either way, he was unexpectedly surprised by this subtle shift in his lifestyle. Funny how we, unknowingly, become what we do, he thought.
Months went by, another September (the lyric of Kurt Weil's September Song flashed through his mind when he turned the calendar--Oh, it's a long, long while, from May to December, But the days grow short When you reach September). A full year had passed since Esther's fall, and she was walking better and better. "I feel normal," she announced one Sunday, suddenly, as if it weren't just the clouds above that were rearranging anew.
That same September, over breakfast one morning, Esther said, "I was thinking we might go on a trip. " "Really?" said William. "Well, I'm just thinking about it." Gradually, over the coming months, William would notice travel brochures and the living room computer left open to scenes of foreign countries. He didn't say a word. He would leave it to her to ponder, to dream, to imagine such possibilities.
In March, Esther suddenly said, "I'm ready." By then, William had forgotten the whole thing. "Ready for what?" "To travel... Let's go on a trip, William"...Yes, a real trip, on an airplane". He was thrilled.
So off they went to England for three weeks. And they walked and walked and walked. London, the countryside, Stonehenge, the seaside. On the plane ride home, they talked about their next trip and the next. They were gleeful, like little children.
Right around that time, Jessica called William and told him she'd like to visit. She hadn't been home since Jane's funeral. William detected a certain something in her voice but didn't say anything. There would be time to talk. Two weeks later, William picked her up at the airport. She looked stressed and older. William told her about Esther on the ride home, which did not elicit a response beyond "I'm glad you have a friend, Dad." For her part, she told William the corporate world was getting to her, and her boyfriend of a year was leaving her. William hadn't known about the boyfriend...someone in her company. They'd been together a year; then, without warning, he'd told her it was over, just like that.
Jessica stayed for two weeks, hanging out a little at the store but mostly roaming around town on her own. She and William talked more than they had for years, a pleasant surprise for both of them. Nothing too deep, but a kind of renewed bonding nonetheless.
Gradually, William started finding that he enjoyed the weekends more than the workdays. Esther was a big part of that, of course...something he felt but didn't necessarily say aloud. It was just there, this unexpected warmth and comfort. And the travel bug had certainly caught his attention. Some new decision was brewing in his mind, like an old-fashioned coffee percolator.
Six months later, he called Jessica and told her he was thinking about retiring and selling the store. Jessica was quiet. But a week later, she called him. "Dad, what would you think if I moved back and took over the store? I'm kind of through with Los Angeles, the corporate rat-race, the congestion."
Esther was shocked when William relayed the new developments. Shocked and thrilled. "I'll sell my house, she said, and we can travel; we can do whatever we want."
Which is precisely what they did.
It was another September when Joe the postman made his afternoon delivery at Shoes on Main. Amidst the junk and the bills was a handmade photo postcard of William and Esther in front of the Eiffel Tower. They were shoulder to shoulder and had the smile of people who had discovered a secret passageway. Jessica smiled too, tacked the postcard on the wall behind the counter, and ran downstairs for a pair of children's size four sneakers. Of course, they fit.