Shoe-ins: The winners of the C-VILLE/WriterHouse short story contest

Photo: File Photo Photo: File Photo

From the dozens of entries in the C-VILLE Weekly/WriterHouse short story contest, two rose above the rest. BettyJoyce Nash won the general category with her tale of a random encounter on a public bus that begins with irritation but transforms into a deeper personal connection. “I admire the ambition of all that is going on there—these two unlikely people meeting and bonding over having once met a famous person,” writes the contest judge Jill McCorkle, an acclaimed author whose novels and short story collections have been named New York Times notable books. “I love all of the attention about shoes as well as the various conversations among those on the bus.”

In the youth category, recent high school graduate Anna Hennigan captured the contest’s top prize for the second year in a row with a story of two teens, high on a roof, which is published online at c-ville.com.

“I couldn’t believe it had been written by a teen,” says WriterHouse Executive Director Sibley Johns. “When she takes you to the top of a steep roof, you feel at least as dizzy, if not dizzier, than her characters who are really supposed to be up there.” 

The winners receive a year membership to WriterHouse and a $500 prize courtesy of contest sponsor Keller Williams Realty.

“In Transit”

At the fare box, the man stumbles, planting his size thirteen on Iris’ toe.

The foot’s drunk; its owner is, too, this one who always smells of solvent. His filthy sneaker crushes her vintage Ferragamo. She won’t be wearing these anymore.

“My bad, ma’am,” he bellows, and waves her ahead.  “Long day on my ladder. You ever paint a ceiling?”

She pops in her pass, snatches it, and scans the interior. She’d give her firstborn, if she could, for a seat today, her final commute via the No. 7. But no.

She stands, facing front, beside a thin girl towing a toddler. The bus lurches into traffic on U.S. 29.

“Name’s Michael. Michael Angelo,” he says.

She ignores his facetious introduction. Mr. Angelo appears perfectly able-bodied, yet slips past her into a handicapped seat behind the driver. He stuffs his bulging grocery bag under the seat, still clutching his bagged bottle.

Her bones vibrate inside writhing muscles. Her stacked heels hit the rubber floor mats, beating a message to this inconsiderate tradesman.

The painter swigs. The bus sways. The beer spills, intensifying his smell.     

“Holy Jesus. Women can’t drive buses. You want I should get behind the wheel?” He winks at Iris and jerks his head toward the driver. “I got experience.”

The girl’s saying,  “I’m out here trying to be somebody, and here I’m having to drag his child around.”

“Men,” Iris agrees, loudly. “I know. But this young one is a handsome little fellow.” The girl frowns and continues her one-sided conversation. With whom? Oh. That thing, sprouting from her ear. How does that work?

Iris stares back at the seated painter and dirties her look, but the man’s unfazed by her evilest eye. She slips her wrist through a handhold, composes her face, and works the crowd with her lipsticked smile.

Everyone else looks like she guesses she must look, minus the magenta grin. Empty faces. Full feet. It’s soulless work anymore, trying to retail a smile.

Except this one, the drunk. He grins.

She’s got a good mind to demand his seat. Instead, she shifts from foot to foot while he squeezes the neck of his thirty-six ounce beer, hidden, he assumes, inside the sack. A lethal-looking scraper bounces atop his work clothes, stuffed into a paper bag.

Her own ebony leather tote, bought on clearance years ago at Bonwit with her employee discount, dangles from her elbow.

Mr. Michael Angelo inflates his chest. “Some things only a man can do well,” he preaches, swiveling first toward the driver and then Iris.

His torso stirs the thick air. “Upper body strength. Men have maybe 50 percent more? Something like that.”

His stench flattens common bus odors, stewing in the heat: fries, baby spit-up, body odors, sweet and sour. Beer. Iris shakes her head. Alcohol soothes the muscles of the mind and body. Relaxes one’s reality grip—certainly did her ex’s!—and the likes of this one here who fails to offer ladies like Iris bus seats.

But how that cold, lively liquid might fizz on her tongue! She licks her lips. She’s parched. He sees her staring. She glances down, spits on her finger, and crouches among the shoes—sneakers, work boots, and that most flimsy of footwear, flip-flops—and rubs the blue mark.

Somebody’s walls on her priceless, vintage shoe, also acquired through employee discount. She straightens.

The bus judders her aching calves. She squeezes and releases the muscles. Repeats. Back home in her efficiency—if she ever makes it—she’ll shave these legs and cream them with Bengay from toe to thigh.

These muscles support her for eight hours as she strides to and from the supply room, toeing piles of empty boxes aside, re-shelving them at day’s end. These feet leverage her through the harangue of her baby manager as he calculates the day’s sales on his mobile device. She’d restrained her right foot today from planting itself into his backside.

Maybe next week, when she picks up her last pay stub.

No. She will not degrade her shoes even though he had only today notified her that her services are no longer necessary.

“I’m sorry!” The manager had practically shouted. “I had to downsize.” Like he was shoe shopping.

When she punched out today for the last time, she flapped her card in his face.

These feet! These legs! They deserve to be pampered. The shoes, too. Later, she’ll work the stain with a cloth, rub the leather, still soft as baby’s skin. But now the shoes never will glow the way they did three decades ago.

In the trade, they call this pliable material “kid.” Kid gloves. Kid shoes. From baby goats. Now, when she says “kid” at work, the manager, who is the age her son would be, if she admitted to having a son, which she doesn’t, not anymore, stares and opens his mouth, from which words erupt, like methane flaring from a landfill, “What the ****?”

“Or, do you think it’s the driving experience?” The painter’s asking Iris. When she doesn’t answer, he asks the back of the driver’s neatly-coiffed head. No one responds. “Used to be I drove a cab. Long time ago. In New York. Back then, I had a heavy foot. Very heavy.”

“Experience,” Iris snaps. The man’s still got a lead foot. Her shoe testifies to that. So do his bunion-split sneakers.

No one listens to her foot philosophy at the store, an establishment by the name of Shoe Madness, wedged in among storefronts. Madness. It changes hands so often that next week it will probably operate under the name Shoe-Shock! Or worse.

“New York!” Iris says now. “You’re not the only person who got out of this hill town. I worked in New York, too.” Iris earned her Ph.D. in feet from the old Bonwit Teller on Madison Avenue. But does anyone care? This was in the old days when feet were screened and massaged. Put up on the measuring plate to ensure perfect fit. “Have a seat, dear,” she always said, perching on the edge of the fitting-stool. “How are the children?” she asked. Or grandchildren, boyfriends, lovers, mothers, fathers. Even a novice could close a sale, one with an eye for faces, an ear for names, and, of course, a feel for feet, and their personalities. Most of her employees, young and anxious to move on in life, had failed to cultivate this skill.  But Iris could have been a podiatrist or even an orthopedic surgeon. She had a touch. Her fingertips could detect the origins of a bone spur years before it materialized on any X-ray. “You might ask your doctor to take a look,” she’d said occasionally to her customers.

Once a foot had hit the stool’s rubber ramp, and she’d clamped it inside the steel device, she beckoned shoe-runners to bring out the boxes. In those days, she could summon shoe-runners. Not today.

Today, she runs shoes. Make that past tense.

Iris leans into Michael Angelo’s  face. “I managed Footwear at Bonwit Teller.  I once sold shoes to Jackie O.” She emphasizes the Oh!

He draws back. He nods, but still fails to offer his seat. Wretched, paint-flecked, common laborer. And Iris, wrecked after ten hours standing, counting the loathsome bus ride from her apartment and the walk from stop-to-store.

“I had the lead foot. And, in that crazy place? Cab drivers can die!” he shouts, over the bus’s exhales.

“Shh!” The bus driver hisses.

“You know what I’m talking about.” He says this first to Iris, then to the back of the driver’s head, then to the at-large bus population. “She knows.” He jerks his thumb at the driver.

Now the bus throbs in place, grounded on Best Buy’s asphalt.

Suddenly, he jumps up and into the aisle. “You know Sean Connery?” He calls to his congregation, eyes sweeping the bus, front to back. “Double O Seven?” Back to Iris.

“The movie star?”

Iris steals his seat. “Who doesn’t?” She might not need the foul-smelling Bengay.

“Sir needs to sit down or hang on,” the bus driver says. “And cap that bottle!”       

“Double O Seven,” Iris says, settling in his lingering, rank odor, her legs jangling with muscular joy. “Goldfinger.” She smiles politely. Even the talking-to-no-one girl, says, “Mmmhmmm.”

Goldfinger! All the rest.” He gives everyone a lopsided show of teeth, which sparkle and thereby compensate for their crooked arrangement.

An ugly shoe made of fine kid.    

“Bond. James Bond. Sean Connery the man himself!” The painter shakes his wild-haired head. Paint flecks rain down. Iris shakes her hair, where loose chips had fallen. She brushes them from her indigo skirt, $12.99 at Bonwit Teller, quarter century ago.

Horns and brakes squeal. The bus rattles into motion and pulls onto Angus Road.

“He,” Michael Angelo calls, “is a very big man, Mr. Sean Connery.” He weaves among the standing passengers. From the back, he hollers, “You would not know, just looking at him on the screen.”

When he returns to the front, he pauses before Iris.

“Black loafers,” she says, staring into his eyes, walnuts inside shriveled sockets ringed with gray. Jeremiah’s pupils shimmered, black pools, last time she saw her man-child up close.

What keeps Mr. Angelo awake?

“Bond wore dark loafers when Goldfinger tried to slice him in two with that whatsit. That leather looked like chocolate,” Iris says. “I couldn’t take my eyes off them.”

“Never got a look at his shoes. Had a sharp face, though. Clean.” Mr. Angelo massages his stubbled chin and inspects his big sneakers.

“Sir, find a seat or hold on,” the bus driver pleads. She brakes and slouches at her big wheel, clutching it like a pillow.

Outside, carnival colors—blue, red, yellow—strobe the street and people mill around. The lights play inside the bus, brightening the drab interior.

“Something big’s going on!” The painter sings out, and grabs the strap from the overhead rod. He swings around, swigs, and peers through the windows. “Police cornered some gang leader, I bet. Dude got his hands in the air. Looks scared.”

“Those new Double O Sevens? They wear running shoes. Nike. Adidas,” Iris says, staring, her heart trying to flee her chest. “Please believe me when I tell you, Jackie O? Her smile could disarm even a gunman.”

“Jackie O and Double O Seven—they had a lot in common.” Is Mr. Angelo trembling? In a loud whisper, he says, “I was sixteen when her husband got shot. Still giving me goose flesh.”

The day Jackie O came in, she was through with husbands the way Iris had been for years. Jackie wore those sunglasses, that scarf. Store activity halted. No swishing tissue, no thudding boxes. Iris says to the painter, “She floated across the carpet. Shushes lapped into every department. Shhhhhh. Those slim slacks. Turtleneck sweater. And then she blew straight into footwear where she picked me.” Obviously, she sensed Iris’ skill and appreciated her style. With her commission that day, Iris bought the Ferragamos.

“Mr. Connery, too,” the painter says, wide-eyed. “He chooses my cab. The biggest one. I been driving for Checker and at that time they have the biggest cabs. He is a very big man. He says to me, in that accent he’s got, he says, ‘Driiivuh,’ and gets me so rattled I pass his address. He lived in a high rise across from Central Park. ‘Driiivuh,’ he says to me again, ‘You missed the address.’ Real nice, real nice about it. Tip? Huge tip. Tip as big as he is. Fifty dollars. Back then, big dough.

“He’s real people. Very big man.” The painter ducks down, looks through Iris’ window.

She crosses her leg, licks a finger, and strokes the mark on her shoe. Did Jackie ever wear those platform shoes? Jackie O told Iris she’d get a kick out of wearing them.

Iris tells the painter. “She said, ‘I will get a kick out of wearing these shoes.’”

The driver straightens and points at Mr. Angelo, who’d let go his strap.

“This bus is going nowhere,” he grumbles.

“Same place it always goes,” says the driver, glumly.

“Here.” Iris makes herself smaller.

He sits, swigs, and leans across Iris and plasters his blue-freckled nose to the window. “I know that guy.” His brow furrows. “Paint with him, time-to-time; met him in stir.”

Iris shrinks and stiffens. “Stir?”

“Jail.”

He drums his fingers on the glass, then faces forward. He looks down. “My bad.” He rummages in his bag.

“Oh, no.” She pushes her feet under the seat. “Thank you. NO.”

“I insist.”

He pulls out coveralls. “Hold these.” He drops them into her lap. Paint chips fall everywhere. Now, three scrapers, one as wide as the bag; its handle bears blue palm marks. That blade could slash, like the Goldfinger’s whatsit, in miniature. Another hooks, sharply, at one end. “To get corners.” He holds it high before handing it to Iris.

She cringes.

“Ceilings. My specialty. But, Lord, the paint splatters my face all day. Looking up kills my neck. Wonder did the real Michelangelo’s neck suffer.” He puffs his chest. “But everybody’s loving my sky-blue ceilings.”

Next, turpentine.

She slides her feet farther under the bench. “I’ll clean them myself. I, I bought these when I had means.” Youth. Hope. Money for rehab.

“Naw. Don’t mind, not a bit. They’ll look like new! Give me your shoe?”

She hesitates. She’s loaded with his supplies and can’t reach her own feet. She lifts the spoiled Ferragamo a few inches from the floor; he bends and works it loose. He settles the shoe in his lap.

“A work of art.”

The bus driver sighs. The skinny mother tells someone—who is it? the child’s father?—she’s got to go. Iris sweats, her shoe in the hands of this, this laborer with blue freckles who’s been in stir. She reaches for her precious kid. “I’ve changed my mind, but thank you very much.”         

“No, no… Miss?”

“Iris.”

“Shoe was perfect till my big foot marked it. I got this.”

She’s done with the shoes. Where will she wear them now, to the market where she buys her lottery tickets?

He extracts a spotless cloth, flashes it before her eyes, magician-like. He unscrews the turpentine lid, pours a drop, and hands the can to Iris, who can hardly breathe for the spirits. She caps it, but too late. Woozy from fumes, she stares at his hands. They hold a diaper, old and soft. He wraps a finger along the edge, the place she’d fold twice, to secure the pin-hold.

His pushes his left fist inside the toe, and uses his right finger to swab the kid.

Iris holds her breath. The spot darkens, spreads. She says nothing.

Mr. Angelo also embraces silence. For once.

She tightens the turpentine lid, and puts the can away with his tools. She rests her shin on her opposite knee, keeping her skirt discreetly over the shin while he works the shoe onto her bloated foot. He refolds the diaper.

They settle back and watch the spot.

“Let’s see does it come out,” he says.

The girl switches her little boy, asleep now, to her other arm. Even she’s staring at the shoe.

Iris gazes at the boy. Suddenly stricken, she blurts, “I’m so sorry. Please, you and your . . . ”

“Ma’am, I’m not disabled,” the girl says. “You keep your seat.”

“I’m not either,” Iris says.

“Me neither.” Mr. Angelo and Iris step into the aisle. The girl smiles and takes the seat, arranging the boy in the crook of her arm. The mom has stopped talking to no one and closes her eyes, too.

“There,” Iris says.

“They’re getting the fellow, thank the Lord,” the driver says. “Not far off schedule.”

“I better be checking on my friend,” Mr. Angelo says, “find out does he need any help.”

Iris nods. She saw Jackie O after, on the news, composed, graceful, and shocked.

The bus lumbers onto 29 South. Mr. Michael Angelo steps to the exit door, balancing his gear, his bottle. “My stop’s coming up. I’ll be more careful next time.” His eyes are on her feet. “Spot’s still there.”

“Oh. These old things?” She no longer cares; she’ll no longer guard the shoes.

“See you,” Iris calls as he steps into the stairwell, “if you visit your friend. Sunday, visiting day?”

He raises an eyebrow, nods.

“I’ve got someone there, too,” she says, composed and graceful. She’d stopped going. Was it  because she couldn’t bear the orange plastic scuffs he wore, the shoes with no backs, no heels, no support?

The bus stops, the door wheezes open, and Michael exits. Now the crowded bus seems terribly quiet. Iris taps her toe, humming the Goldfinger theme in the silence. She smiles as she regards the spot still sullying her shoe.

How well the fine leather had served her. But she won’t miss them, not in her new life. She’ll need fresh, sturdy shoes.

Inspired by life

Photo: Courtesy of BettyJoyce Nash

General Category winner BettyJoyce Nash began her writing career elbows-deep in clay.

An English major-turned-functional clay artist, Nash spent years shaping raw material into coherent objects. When she decided to enroll in the Medill School of Journalism, she found many similarities between her two crafts. Even now, when she works as an established fiction writer, freelancer and instructor with a string of creative writing prize shortlists and artists’ residencies under her belt, Nash follows this thread of craft.

In both writing and her work with clay, she says, she asks herself questions like, “‘What’s the most important narrative? What is this person really trying to tell me?’ You look through and watch for which lines jump out, and you think about the characters and who the audience is.”

When shaping a lump of clay, she says, “You have to make it legible. There’s the fun of picking out the words just like the fun of touching the clay. Once you have something built, you think, ‘This might work. It’s a little shapely.’ You just work on it here and there. And it’s never really done.”

In her winning story, “In Transit,” Nash visits these themes of construction through selfhood, building who we are and what we stand for from the ground up (semi-literally). It’s a natural space for a writer who spent so many years reporting the facts—before expanding her vision beyond them.

“It took me a long time [to start making everything up] after working on borrowed authority for so many years,” she says. “That’s the beauty of [creative writing], though. Eventually I thought I would tell a deeper truth rather than be limited by what was and what I could report.”

For example, “In Transit” was inspired in part by Nash’s many bus rides around Richmond, where she used to live. “Some of the supporting characters were on the bus, but Iris came from somewhere else,” she says.

That’s fiction for you—challenging as a lump of clay. “In the beginning you’re just telling yourself a story,” she says. “When you get the actual story, you begin shaping.”

Elizabeth Derby