by Kristine Fielding
When l was a little girl, I had a pair of red shoes. They were my favorite shoes. They had a strap and clicked when I walked down the sidewalk with my father. I felt like a princess in those shoes.
We lived in a big city then. I was too little to remember which one it was, We lived in a brown apartment building next to another brown apartment building with all the other brown buildings on the street. I was not allowed to play outside unless my mother or father was with me. I could, however, sit on the building’s front steps if I promised not to go out on the sidewalk or the street. The stairs were on the left side of the building’s front. So it was possible to stand at the bottom of the stairs, look around the corner, and spy down the alley.
I was an only child then. Neither my brother, Bill, nor my sister, Susan, had joined our family. And we had not yet moved to Ohio. I was five then, and we moved when I was six.
For some reason, I didn’t go to school that day. I spent the day cooped-up with my mother, who swept the kitchen floor, made beds, and stirred things with big spoons.
Then the kids came home from school. I heard them laughing and yelling. Our living room window faced the street, and I knelt on the couch, leaning against the back, and watched them come home. My best friend, Molly, lived in the brown building next to ours. She came home, wearing her yellow ribbons. I heard apartment doors slamming, opening, and slamming again. The boys came home, changed, and went back outside. I don’t know what the girldid. They didn’t go back outside.
I turned around and sat on the couch. I stared at my red shoes on my feet. The reflection of my face blurred and stretched on them. My mother had bought me black shoes the week before, but I still wore my red ones. I liked them best.
It was a special treat if Mama let me sit outside on the steps by myself. She must have seen my sad brown eyes longing after the door. She let me go outside after I promised I would not set foot on the sidewalk or the street.
I clicked down the two flights of stairs, proud to be a big girl. I opened the door to the real world and sat myself on the top step. Two boys, Ted and Kevin, were playing marbles on the sidewalk in front of the alley. They were both hunkered down. I didn’t know much about the game, except that it took precision and swearing.
Ted’s family lived next door to mine. They had spaghetti every Wednesday, and his father worked at a bank. His sister, Missy, was a year older than me. She had black hair. Ted had yellow hair and large orange freckles spread over his face, like strawberry jam seeds on an open-faced sandwich. He was missing one of his front teeth.
Kevin had brown hair. He had all of his teeth but one eye was a darker blue than the other. He was bigger than most kids and no one knew what his father did. His father came and went. His mother sewed dresses for rich ladies with purple hair.
Kevin and Ted were older than me. They were allowed to say dirty words if no one heard them.
Ted aimed his marble, “Do you believe in God?” he asked.
“No,” Kevin said. There were shadows under his eyes, and the sunlight did not reflect off his hair.
Ted flicked his finger. It knocked Kevin’s green marble out of the circle. “Well, who do you think made the Earth and people and stuff?”
I shifted myself on the steps. My bum itched. I could feel the straps on my red shoes press against the tops of my feet. My toes were curled tightly at the ends of my shoes.
Kevin picked at the scab on his elbow, “I mean, I don’t think God cares anymore. I think He’s gone golfing. He doesn’t care anymore.”
Kevin surveyed the marble game. I heard that he was the expert on the block when it came to playing marbles.
“I heard your mother tell you that your father went golfing and that was three months ago. Do you think he’s golfing with God?” Ted heckled.
Kevin looked up with meanness on his face, “Shut-up,” he spat, and he reached across the circle and pushed Ted in the face. Ted fell from his haunches onto his rear. He stopped laughing. l held still.
Ted looked at Kevin for a moment. He was deciding if he should hit Kevin back or let it go. Kevin looked fifteen pounds heavier than Ted, and he was three inches taller. So, Ted said, “I’m thirsty. Maybe we can find some change in the alley and go buy us some sodas.”
Kevin thought a moment, then he agreed. They gathered up their marbles and put them in leather pouches. I stood up and jumped down each stair with both feet. I wasn’t interested in finding money; I just wanted to watch.
The boys walked into the alley between Molly’s building and mine. Both brown buildings were hot in the summers and cold in the winters. My father banged on the heater with a monkey wrench in the winter. I didn’t know if that made the heater work or if it just made him feel better.
They both hung their heads and slowly searched the ground, pushing at soup cans with their feet. Someone had eaten a lot of soup, a lot of tomato soup. I hated tomato soup. A window on the second floor of my building was open. Mrs, Edgars rattled her pans and her husband swore. He always swore. If my mother heard me talk like Mr. Edgars, l got my mouth washed out with soap, and when my father came home, he would take off his belt.
“Ah, I don’t see nothing. This was a stupid idea. I’m going home.” Kevin’s voice had that long, hard sound, like a distant train whistle.
“Yeah,” Ted agreed.
“Wait! Ted, c’mere!” Kevin cried.
Kevin was bent behind the garbage can. From where l was standing, at the bottom of the stairs. I could see his blue-jeaned backside. Ted slowly shuffled over to Kevin, “Ah, they’re just a bunch of baby cats. What do I want with cats?”
I caught my breath. Kittens!
“No, stupid.They’re not just baby cats. Where’s their mother? She’s gone and left them!” Kevin said.
“Yeah! So?” Ted tried to sound tough.
These babies are gonna get eaten by some dog or rat. They’re helpless.” Kevin picked up a stick and poked at them to prove his point. “Their eyes don’t even open.”
“What are we gonna do? Take ’em home to our mothers?” Ted grunted at his joke.
Kevin dropped the stick and picked up a rock. “They won’t even know,”
There was a quiet moment of fading conscience. My eyes stretched big and traffic stopped.
Ted slowly nodded, “Yeah,” and he picked up a rock.
Kevin threw his rock. I saw the muscles in his arm flex. I don’t remember the sound, but I remember the hard pressure of my hands pushed against my ears. Ted threw his rock, then they both stood there for a minute. They weren’t picking up more rocks, so I let my ears go. Maybe they would leave the kittens alone.
“I think Tommy Hatcher stole my orange marble, the one I got from Fletch. Fletch said he saw Tommy shooting it at school,” Ted said. They both stared at a spot behind the garbage can.
“Fletch is a fibber,” Kevin said, toneless. He was focused on something else. “Fletch said he didn’t have a marble with one of those twisty-spiral things in it. He said his were all clear-colored. The next day, he had a green one with one of them twisty things. I hate those kind, They remind me of a flat worm in amber.”
“I like the ones with sparkles,” Ted offered.
Kevin bent down and scratched the ground for another rock. He flung it before l could cover my ears.There was a squeal, like Molly’s vioIin.
Kevin hurled two more rocks before Ted looked for a stone. My hands pressed so hard against my ears my arms hurt. An earthquake shook my head. I opened my mouth. I couldn’t breathe for a moment, then l began to scream.
Ted immediately jerked his head over at me. Kevin stomped behind the garbage can. I saw both of their heads snap upwards, toward Mrs. Edgars’s window. A pan flew out of it, and they sprinted out of the alley. I screamed more, and my legs felt wet. My red shoes were soggy. My mother burst from the building like she was flaming. Her legs raced down the steps like pages flipping in a book. She grabbed me under one arm and hauled me inside. She took the stairs two at a time. In our kitchen, she turned the faucet on and shoved my head under it.
Later, I sat on a kitchen chair, still hiccupping. l had on a clean dress, the one with pink flowers, and my hair was wet and combed back. My mother stirred soup on the stove. The kitchen light glared off my black shoes. I wiggled my toes in them. My mother placed a plate of bread and butter in front of me. I picked up a slice and licked the butter off.