“The Pink Slippers,” by Patti M. Walsh, will be published in “Footprints,” the Florida Writers Association’s collection book, in October 2021.
Surprised that my neighbor had hailed me by name on such a cold evening, I pivoted toward his raspy voice, then hesitated. Mindful of the thin layer of ice beneath my feet, I checked my footing before completing the turn. Much to my amusement, my boots had etched a tight circle of chubby exclamation points when I reacted to his call. I giggled at the footprints despite the chill that seeped through thin soles. I raised my head in a grin.
“Hi, Gus.” Addressing him by name was odd. I knew nothing about my elderly neighbor, except that he wasn’t prone to chatting, especially on dank nights. Although we had introduced ourselves when I moved in last year, we never spoke, settling instead for spartan smiles and wanton waves.
“Got a minute?”
“Sure.” Although I dreaded another frigid minute outside, I nonetheless obliged the old man’s unusual bidding and carefully stepped toward his porch, incising a few more exclamation points along the way. Illuminated by a pale light, Gus appeared cheerful, though significantly older and more frail than I remembered. Picking up a plastic bag, he unfolded his rangy frame and bounced a package to his chest with a Parkinsonian tremor.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I have something for you.” His voice faltered, belying an otherwise perky demeanor.
“For me?” Thinking the offer more than a bit odd, I reacted with raised eyebrows and forced smile.
“Yes. These were Josie’s.”
Josie? I’d lived here for nearly a year and had never heard the name Josie. Was she a wife, or perhaps a daughter?
“She was the love of my life,” he responded with a gentle smile to my unasked question. “Died two years ago. Cancer. I could never bring myself to get rid of her things, but now it’s time. I’m moving to assisted living. Goodwill came earlier today for everything else, but… I couldn’t part with these.” He cast his eyes downward for a few long seconds and then directed a steady gaze at me. “They’re slippers. The last gift I gave her. She told me the morning she died that she’d always wanted pink slippers. Imagine that. After fifty-six years of marriage, I never knew. She wore them only once. I’d like to give them to someone special. You.”
“Me?” I added to that question a chubby exclamation point.
“I’m sorry.” Gus’s voice now matched the tremble in his hands. “Perhaps this is too presumptuous, but you remind me of her. When she was young.” He glanced down at my feet. “She even wore high-heeled boots. I often think how much she would have liked you.”
Realizing how difficult this must have been for Gus, I composed myself quickly.
“I’d be honored,” I managed to utter as I ascended his porch. He handed me a light package. A dead woman’s slippers. How creepy. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you.” His emphasis was warm, unlike the icy swirl of wind that gusted from the nearby beach. He tugged a cap snuggly around his bald head. “It’s a bit nippy, so I must go inside.” We bid each other a good night. How sad, I thought as I retraced my footprints home.
Dropping the package inside the door, I wiggled out of my coat and went about my evening routine. I fired up the wood stove, put on PJs, and ate leftovers while watching the news. Although I liked my little blue bungalow across from a spit of the Gulf, it was drafty when the wind picked up. So before snuggling in with a good book, I made a cup of tea and stoked the fire. In the midst of wrapping myself in an afghan, I spotted the parcel. Curious, I retrieved it and carried it back to the sofa.
Tissue paper cradled two pale pink slippers that still had tags on them. Scrunching the paper into a ball and dropping it mindlessly to the floor, I scrutinized the curious hand-me-down. I’d never had pink slippers. Mules, I corrected myself as I admired their plush and backless profile. I slid one foot and then the other into them.
“Thanks, Gus,” I shrugged and plunged my feet into a softness that filled an emptiness in my soul, one I didn’t know existed until that moment. “Thanks, Josie.” With my feet comfy and cradled, I burrowed into my leather sofa for a quiet evening and a good read. But I never got beyond the first few pages.
A deep sleep of flowered meadows and puffy skies overcame me. The world was new, as if I were a baby. A soft woman—perhaps a mother—enveloped me with laughter and lavender. Braids flying, I gathered flowers and jumped ropes. When I awoke at dawn, the fire had died out and my book was on the floor. Strange, I thought, I had never fallen asleep on my sofa. And awakened so refreshed. With vivid memories of sun-filled dreams, I got ready for work and didn’t give my fanciful night another thought. Until I got home.
When I rounded the corner, I noticed that Gus was gone; his house was dark. I couldn’t thank him for his gift, this time sincerely. A vague sense of regret dissipated as I went about my evening. Skipping the pretense of reading, I donned pajamas and Josie’s mules. Fluffy and springy, they were like marshmallow clouds, I thought, as I wrapped myself in the afghan, and fell asleep.
Against those marshmallow clouds and with aging hands, the same soft woman braided my long hair, then twisted and curled it through schoolgirl angst, college confidence, and budding womanhood. She lovingly ceded the brush to a tall man with a sparkling smile. Caressing my tresses, he brushed and brushed them. All night. Until my scalp tingled. He then massaged it with strong fingers. Like the residue of spilled honey, the stimulation clung to my own short-bobbed head all day.
I rushed home. Cuddled anew in pink slippers and afghan, the man of my dreams materialized. Elegant. Extravagant. Kiss. Snowflakes. Bliss. Sunny mists. Marriage gifts. Soft woman old. Soft woman gone. Child unborn. Anguish borne. Acceptance found. Silky gowns. Plumes of herons and feathers of down. Satin shoes. High-heeled boots. Passion erotic. Travels exotic. Secluded sands and seas of foam. Salty air. Cozy home. Speeding years. Fading years. Graying hair. Then no hair. Never a care.
“Thanks, Gus,” I said in the morning as I traded slippers for boots.
“Hi, Josie,” I said in the evening, trading boots for slippers and fanciful repose.
But long before dawn, I awoke distraught. My head ached, pain consumed my innards. I wasn’t sick, yet something was wrong. Very wrong. The dreams had turned. The fire had died. I got up and stirred the embers to life. I brewed chamomile tea. But nothing would soothe me.
Sinking back into the sofa, my eyelids shuttered me into the nightmare of a dark room. No, I told the gentle man who no longer smiled. He cried. I cried. Not tonight, Gus. No meds tonight. No meds this morning, no meds tonight, I moaned over and over. Then the room got brighter. Pink. Slippers. Tonight, Gus. I’ll take my meds tonight. All my meds tonight. All tonight. I smiled at my pink-cloud feet. He kissed my hands. Consent. Morphine. Bliss.
I bolted awake and stared at the slippers—intimate footprints of a woman I had never known. Footprints that flashed before her dying eyes. Footprints that were her birthright and now my legacy.
“Josie,” I whispered. Crisscrossing my arms, I wrapped my hands around my shoulders, I hugged the woman as if she were my own self. “Josie, Josie, Josie.” I removed the slippers and cradled them in the tissue paper that lingered still against the sofa. Yearning for my own pink slippers when my life would flash before me, I pressed Gus’s gift to my heart. Closing my eyes, I watched chubby footprints merge with soft pink ones on one path. I opened my eyes and nodded.
Barefooted, I walked across the room and knelt before the fire. I opened the stove door, placed the package inside, and quickly latched it. “Rest in peace, Josie. Rest in peace, Gus.” Rising, I blessed myself, something I had only seen, nothing I had ever done, wondering if I did it right. “Rest in peace, Cathie.”
As I climbed into my own bed for the first time in nearly a week, I wondered if the smoke from the chimney turned white like when a pope is elected.