For sale: baby shoes, never worn— the beginning of the great big goddamned dirty lie.
I was born in the mountains—Anytown, Appalachia—the son of a seamstress and a coal miner. The Depression was on and things were tough. Though I was just a baby, I still remember.
Sometimes, I think memory is my curse.
The first night it happened, Ma showed up drunk at suppertime again, eyes crazed and fixed on the only thing left to sell in our cabin: my baby shoes. Pa had given up the bottle on account of the hard times, but Ma had taken a turn for the worse. This was before she started in on the Sterno; before the townsfolk had taken to calling her “Hellfire Martha.”
Pa rose from the table.
“Goddamnit, Henry, I brought that baby into this world—made them baby booties myself—and I’ll sell ‘em downriver just the same.”
“His footsie wootsie’ll get cold, Mama. Cain’t get much for a pair of used baby shoes, no how.”
“We’ll put an ad up in the papers,” Ma said. “Claim the goddamned shoes are brand new. Never worn. I’ll figure somethin’ out. Now you jess get the fuck outta my way.”
The advertisements for never-worn baby shoes touched some kind of nerve with the people. It was right curious to Ma and Pa, but they never much stopped to question it, what with all the money coming in. After the first ad went up, Ma got a big check and a letter in the mail, blessing her soul and insisting she keep the baby shoes. Ma went on a three-day binge with the money, damn near drank herself to death— Pa couldn’t help but join in. When the whiskey ran dry, they came back for my brother’s shoes. Then our cousins’ shoes. Then the neighbors’ babies’ shoes.
Word soon got out, and the baby shoes boom set in. Those parents who would not sell had their babies’ shoes stolen by those who had. Quiet as silk they crept into our rooms, breezing in and out like the windblown curtains.
Poet and writer folk were the most reliable sells. You could buy a pair of baby shoes from a Sears catalog for 35 cents, claim they’d never been worn in the classifieds of The New York Herald Tribune, and flip ‘em to a bleeding-heart playwright in uptown Manhattan for 5 bucks.
There were flowers, tear-stained condolences, expressions of admiration for optimized narrative compression. Ma and Pa couldn’t make heads or tails of what half the poet and writer folk were going on about. All they knew was that times were good.
“They kin talk all they want about suggestions of grief and weary resignation and all that kinda’ shit, long as they keep the fuckin’ fire goin’ in our bellies,” Ma and Pa would say. Once all of our feet were stripped, the town’s parents began crafting the baby shoes themselves.
Those ones really had never been worn, though not in any tragic sense.
The town’s livelihood clung to our naked soles.
As it started with the poets and writers, so it ended: rumor had it some smug writer in a New York City restaurant copied our ad out on a napkin to win himself a wager, impressed all the poet and writer folk real special. Soon the ad was being printed and re-printed across the world. Cut the legs out from under the market.
Toward the end, it was mostly young people buying the baby shoes, in ironic fashion.
People have often asked me why our parents did not sell our toys and our clothes, too. Why not For sale: rocking horse, never used, for instance, or For sale: Onesies, never worn (which would have made for even greater concision).
We were babies, stripped of shoes. We were mountain town toddlers with scraped feet. We were alive. Over time, the truth has been lost. But now, perhaps, the real story will live on, so that if ever they try it again—if they come once more for our shoes in the night— together, we will cry out.
We will kick.