Another from The Calling, this excerpt first appeared in Portland Review
It is Andrew’s first day back at school in two full weeks. During Social Studies class, while Mrs. Combs talks about the different kinds of government—absolute monarchy, dictatorship, democracy, communism—Andrew daydreams. He can’t stop thinking about the stupid girl shoes on his feet.
Fuzzy blue on the sides, shiny blue on top, he hates the shoes. He hates his mom for making him wear them to school. He thinks that if somebody calls him a queer like Mr. Cox—who Ronny Stewart said lets other men put their dicks in his butt—Andrew will bust his head; he thinks he’ll get away with it too, this time, because of what happened to James.
Then the Lord impresses a verse of Scripture on his heart, one he’d memorized for AWANA last year while trying to get his Timothy Award: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. What he wants more than anything in the world is to have those blue shoes off his feet and baseball cleats on.
He remembers how Jesus said in Matthew 17:20 that if he has faith the size of a mustard seed he can say to a mountain, Remove from here to yonder place; and it shall remove and nothing shall be impossible to you.
Then the Lord puts a hymn they sing in church into his head—it is a miracle happening, he knows it—and he can see and hear in his mind his dad out beside the pulpit, waving his arms all weird like he’s cursive writing on the air, his voice bellowing it out: Nothing is impossible, when you put your trust in God…Listen to the voice of God to thee, is there anything to hard for me?
Andrew has more than a mustard seed’s worth of faith. He is all faith; that’s how he knows Jesus will do it. Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead, Jesus rose himself from the dead. Andrew doesn’t want a mountain moved. All he wants is his old blue girl shoes to turn into baseball cleats on his feet. Easy for Jesus to do.
Mrs. Combs is now talking about the Magna Carta, which took absolute power away from the king and gave it to regular people. All the kids are tired from just eating lunch. They’re slouched and still, except for Georgie Porgie Shamblin who is against the back wall twirling his hair. There is a pipe behind his head with insulation on it wrapped and hard like a long cast, only yellow not white; Georgie Porgie is digging at it with his pencil and flakes of stuff glisten like fairy dust in the air beside his ear.
“Forty-one of the men aboard signed the Mayflower Compact,” Mrs. Combs says. She says, “A compact is an agreement, or a contract.”
Tall windows go along the whole wall of the classroom. The kindergartners are out on the playground in the bright sunshine. The kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Dye, has on a miniskirt and wobbles silently among the kids on her high heels.
Andrew closes his eyes and starts praying his effectual fervent prayer: Dear heavenly Father, he prays, I come to you today in the name of our savior Jesus Christ, to claim your promise that if I have faith, and ask, You will do what I ask. He prays, Father God, please turn these girl shoes into baseball cleats, and I will not forget to give You the glory for it. In Jesus name, amen.
The day before, after Sunday school and morning worship, Andrew had watched out the front window as Harry Taylor walked across the church parking lot after the rain stopped and knocked on his door.
Andrew opened it and Harry said, “I was thinking we could trade shoes for a while.” He looked down as he talked. He smelled like dog crotch. There was a dirty sweat ring around his neck.
Andrew could see how Harry would be nice to him. Harry’s dad had recently died, except he’d killed himself in jail and was burning in hell now. Andrew’s brother James had been saved, and was in heaven with Jesus. Still, Andrew could see how Harry would be nice.
All the other boys in the neighborhood were being nice to him too since James drowned; Andrew hadn’t been picked on or got in a single fight since that day. It was one more thing, like the sudden absence of James, that made Andrew believe something had shifted in the fundamental order of the universe.
The neighborhood boys, from Harry across the parking lot, to the ones in the row of houses along the riverbank to the bridge—Jimmy Gillenwater, Ronny Stewart, the Jacksons—were dirty, mean boys, on the welfare. They were stupid too, retards, impossible to talk sense to. They were like the Gillenwaters’ pit bull that one time held Andrew at bay across the wide puddle in the dirt road. Andrew kept saying, “Go home, Harley. Go home,” trying to sound mean, but the dog barked at him and stood there smiling with his tongue out, his eyes staring blank like a shark’s, like he didn’t know one damn thing in the world but how to bite somebody.
The Jackson boys always had their heads shaved bald so kids said they had lice. They had Frankenstein foreheads and confused eyes, and if you tackled them or punched them in a fight they didn’t even feel it. Larry Jackson was in Andrew’s class; his brother Robbie was in James’s. Those two boys played outside in the cold without coats on and their arms would be all red and chapped looking but they didn’t even know they were cold. Harry Taylor wasn’t any better: Andrew once saw him wipe out on his bike. The whole side of his leg and his arm were scraped and bleeding. And he just stood there grinning, saying, “Shit,” and “Fuck,” and “It don’t hurt.”
So there stood Harry, ready to trade his baseball cleats for Andrew’s Keds for a while. Andrew wanted those cleats; he’d been asking his mom for baseball cleats for months—he had begged; he’d even cried one night at the dinner table—but she said no. Harry’s cleats were black plastic with a white stripe on them. The left one had a split on the toe that, when Harry stepped down, opened like a puppet mouth and showed his dirty sock.
Andrew said to him, “You want to trade for real? You’re not messing around?”
“For a while, yeah. I mean it,” Harry said. He kicked them off and stood there in his mud-stained socks. He nodded earnestly. There was a scar above his left eyebrow; his eyes were pretty if you looked at them—handsome, not pretty; girls were pretty, boys handsome.
“Okay,” Andrew said. He sat on the front porch beside Harry and put on the cleats while Harry put on his Keds and pulled the laces so tight Andrew thought he might break them or cut off the circulation to his toes.
“We’re going to play Indian ball,” Harry said. “Or a real game if we get enough people.”
“I’ll play,” Andrew said.
So Andrew spent the entire afternoon in the clearing playing ball in the cleats. He hit the ball solid, he stole bases and slid like Pete Rose, he ran down impossible pop flies. Once he heaved the ball from center field all the way overtop of bald-headed Larry Jackson on second to Ronnie Stewart at home plate with only one hop. He lost himself in baseball.
Then his mom called him in to get ready for evening church. He ran in and said, “Can I wear these cleats to night church?”
She frowned at them.
“Please,” he whined. His church shoes were shiny blue and had a squared-off toe and fat heels; kids at church teased him, called them girl shoes.
She sighed and shook her head and left the kitchen, but did not say no, which meant if he didn’t mention it again, just did it, she couldn’t give him a switching—he’d asked; she couldn’t say he didn’t ask. He wolfed down his peanut butter bread and tapped drumbeats on the linoleum kitchen floor with the cleats. If he rolled his feet heel-to-toe he could sound like a bunch of running horses.
The next morning was Andrew’s first day back at school after James drowned. It had taken the men dragging the river four days to find him in a bunch of brush piled against the bridge piling, because the snow melt had the water so high. The funeral had been on the next Saturday, and Andrew had stayed out for a week after that, eating food people brought and watching television. Now he had to go back. It felt like the first day of school all over again, like he’d been gone for a whole summer.
He climbed from the top bunk and stepped down onto James’s bunk, then jumped to the floor. He put on his school clothes and then sat on the floor beside the baseball cleats. He pulled them on and carefully tied the frayed laces. His other brother Ricky was still asleep in his bed; his mouth was open and flat on the mattress like a dog hit on the blacktop. Andrew could smell the number one—Ricky still peed his bed.
Andrew’s mom and Miriam were in the kitchen and didn’t even glance up as he strode in proudly with his cleats clicking across the linoleum.
“You’re up early, Drew,” Miriam said. She had on her denim school culottes and her powder blue Pinewood Bible Camp sweatshirt. She was at the counter packing their lunches. Three bags were lined in front of her, hers, Andrew’s and little Ricky’s.
His mom said, “You can sleep a little longer.” She was still in her nightgown that was thin as a slip. Usually she was up and dressed, with her hair all done and makeup on, even though she never had anywhere to go all day.
“Ricky did number one in his bed again.”
His mom didn’t say anything. She put two pieces of bread in the toaster and stood staring at it. Andrew sat at his place and waited. He swung his leg and clinked his cleat against the aluminum table leg.
The toast popped up. His mom buttered them by rubbing the butter stick right on the bread. She put it them on a white plastic plate with flowers on it and set them in front of Andrew with a jar of grape jelly. She pulled open the drawer and got a spoon and set it by the jelly jar.
He jellied his toast—the jelly was purpler than usual and glistened like slime in the kitchen light. His mom put a cup of milk, a sippy cup with the top off, in front of him and went into the bathroom and shut the door.
There was a hard knock at the front door.
“Get that,” Miriam said.
He said, “Why can’t you?”
“I’m making your lunch.”
He walked to the front door and opened it. It was just getting light outside. Harry Taylor stood at the door, a pink strip of sky above the mountain behind his head. He had on his Keep On Trucking t-shirt with the walking man’s big foot coming forward like it was going to step right off the shirt. The neck was all stretched out already. He had on Andrew’s Keds; they were muddy and wet.
“We have to trade shoes back,” he said.
Andrew said, “It’s just been one day. How ‘bout after school.”
Harry shook his head. “My mom said.” He smelled like dog crotch.
“But you got mine all wet.”
Harry smiled. “Creek last night. Almost caught a duck with my bare hands.” He held out his hands like he was holding a duck. He had a retard smile.
“I’m not trading back till mine are dry,” Andrew said.
“My mom said,” Harry nearly yelled.
“What’s the problem here,” Andrew’s mom said from behind him.
Harry said, “My mom said we had to trade shoes back and Andrew won’t do it.”
His mom looked at the cleats on his feet, then at the muddy Keds. She said, “Andrew, trade Harry back his shoes.”
With the heel of opposite feet Harry pushed his heels out of the Keds, one then the other. He stood flat-footed in his muddy socks. The smell of river mud rose from them and mixed with Harry’s own stink.
“But mom,” Andrew whined. “He got mine all wet and muddy.”
“Obedience,” she said.
He kicked off the cleats and flipped them out onto the porch. Harry picked them up and sat on the steps and put them on.
“You can wear your church shoes to school today.”
“No.” Andrew started crying. “I’ll wear them wet.”
“One day won’t kill you, young man,” she said. He could tell by her tone that the discussion was over. She said, “March up this minute and put on your church shoes.”
As Andrew walked down the hallway of Clay Elementary, even the other sixth graders moved aside and watched him pass, like they were in some kind of spell because it was his first day back, and James wasn’t with him. Some of them glanced down at his blue shoes.
Amber, his dad’s associate pastor’s oldest daughter, was against the wall. She had a fat round face with lots of freckles, and her hair cut short, which made her face look even fatter. She and Andrew hated each other. She’d been around a lot the past two weeks and things with her had gotten back to normal pretty fast.
She smirked at him. He clenched his fists.
Cindy Rogers said, “Hi Andrew.” She reached out to touch his arm, and then pulled her hand back. She was tall and pretty and her mom curled her dark hair every morning and made her walk funny to practice for beauty contests. Kids said she smeared dog poop on her face because she thought it made her skin pretty. That’s why nobody would touch her or they would catch Cindy germs and have to tag them off on somebody else before everybody called shots.
When he saw her reach out, Andrew stepped back and put his hands on his shoulders and said, “Shots.”
“Very mature,” she said. She turned around and walked her funny swaying walk into the classroom. She had to turn sideways to get by Jimmy Gillenwater and Larry Jackson, who were standing talking to Georgie Porgie Shamblin. Georgie had a habit of twisting the hair above his left ear so much that he had a bald spot there. He got out of music class to see the school counselor.
As Cindy passed by Larry, she said, “Move, Frankenstein.”
He called her a bitch but moved and let her pass. Then he turned and looked at Andrew. Ronnie turned his head and looked at Andrew too.
Andrew felt his church shoes heavy on his feet, like those wooden shoes Dutch people wore. He ached to be out of them. He longed to have on baseball cleats.
Amber walked over to Larry and Ronnie—she didn’t even like those retards—and she said, “Andrew is wearing his girl shoes.”
Andrew shouted, “Shut up, pie head.”
She yelled back, “Girl shoes.”
Mr. Cox stepped out of the sixth grade classroom holding a stapler and said, “What’s the problem out here?” He had on parachute pants, all slick with zippers on them, and shoes he called turtles that had Velcro straps instead of laces. His dark hair was cut up over his ears but long in back and he had a big mustache. Ronnie Stewart called those shiny pants Mr. Cox’s queer pants. Ronnie knew about sex. He had, folded up in his shoe, real pictures he’d stolen out of his dad’s magazines. Andrew had seen them in the bathroom.
Mr. Cox said, “Get to your classrooms. Where’s Mrs. Combs?”
“Not here,” Larry said.
“Late,” another kid said.
Mr. Cox shook his head. “Go on,” he said. “Get in there and find your desks, or I’m going to start writing referrals.” When his gaze fell on Andrew, his expression went blank for an instant, then he walked over—with all the kids watching, and Andrew in his girl shoes—and put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder.
He said, “I’m sorry about James, Andrew. I really am.”
Andrew said, “If somebody else calls my shoes queer shoes, I’m going to bust their head open. I don’t care if it is a girl.”
Mr. Cox squeezed his shoulder and then patted. He said, “Go on. Get to class.”
Andrew sat through the morning hating his shoes. He watched Larry Jackson pick a slimy booger and take nearly all of math class, concentrating like someone playing Operation, to wipe it into Cindy Rogers’s curls without her or Mrs. Combs noticing. In Language Arts he doodled on his worksheet; he couldn’t concentrate, the shoes were all he could think about. He pretended to play his recorder in music. They had to sit in chairs around the reading rug for music. He pulled his shoes under the chair so he couldn’t see them. He went to lunch with his fists ready to punch anybody who as much as snickered at them.
Now he is back in the classroom, the Lord has just put the Bible verses in his head and he has just said his effectual fervent prayer for the miracle God has promised him.
He feels a change around his feet and rises close enough to the surface of his daydream to be aware of the classroom around him, but he doesn’t come out of it. He knows the transformation is happening, the miracle he’s asked for. Ronnie Stewart looks at Andrew’s shoes for a long time, and then looks up at Andrew. His face looks surprised. Andrew knows it is happening. He sneers at Ronnie. Ronnie slouches down more and puts his face in his open hand and yawns.
Mrs. Combs says, “So it was the rule of law, not the whims—whatever he decided to do simply because he wanted to and he was king—of some all-powerful King over in England.” Mrs. Combs sits on the edge of her desk in front of the class. She has big fat boobs, and presses the open blue Civics book against them while she talks. “The rule of law is what is important to remember,” she says. On the front of the book there is a big star painted like an American flag.
Andrew dives back into his daydream, sees himself hitting home runs at the little league field beside the junior high. He jogs around the bases in his new cleats and everybody’s mom and dad stand in the bleacher and clap for him. He sees himself at shortstop, diving and snagging line drives because the cleats on his feet have been made by God and give him extra-special traction.
After the game people will gather around him to ask how he did it and he will say I give the glory to God. He does all good things for his children, gives them fish not snakes. Get saved, he will say, get saved all of you.
His spirit soars. He believes with his whole heart, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God has done what he, in all good faith according to God’s promise, has asked. They are brand new, and leather, not like Harry’s cheap old plastic ones.
Mrs. Combs snaps her book closed and stands. Everyone starts sitting up and closing their books and leaning over to shove them into their desks. Mrs. Combs says, “Line up at the door for recess.”
It is time. Andrew closes his Civics book and leans over. He looks at his shoes.
Andrew’s heart jumps up into his throat and he gasps; he feels like he’s falling off a cliff.
Blue shoes. Girl shoes.
Everybody is lining up at the door. Desk legs scrape on the floor, paper rattles in desks. Sneakers squeak. Larry goes to the closet and gets the kickball. Mrs. Combs turns off the light. The wall of windows goes blinding bright, shines on Andrew like a mute accusing stare.
God hates him. God will not answer his prayer.
Andrew pushes himself up from the desk. He stands beside it with his arms hanging. He looks at the blue shoes. They look black in the dark room. Anger rises inside his chest. God has all the power in the world and could do this one little thing for Andrew and won’t.
Andrew’s eyes adjust as he pushes down the urge to cry. Fuck them. Fuck them all to hell. He’ll show them queer girl shoes. Square toes are perfect for kickball. He’ll boot it over the fence into the street. Better yet, he’ll knock the ball down the bank into the river and end the game for good.
He looks out the windows. The playground is empty in bright sunlight. The swings hang still. A jean jacket is balled up beside the monkey bars.