Dust flecks flew violently through the dark, twirling and intermingling with the ash in the turbulent air. Through an opening in the heavy curtains, one was able to peer out at the vague figures that danced in oblivious synchronization with the fire that blazed insistently in the hearth. The shapes were one as they undulated together, individual bodies barely distinguishable from the view of the second story window. Or perhaps I’m just going blind, the old man thought to himself. He closed his eyes, trying to discern the rhythm that blared out from the speakers at street level. Was that really music?
If he could hear the voices of the others floating over from the kitchen, it did not register even slightly on his drawn and pale face.
“He’s lost weight.”
“He’s so thin.”
“Have you been feeding him enough?”
“Yes! I have!”
“You need to feed him more, Mom.”
“But if he overeats then he gets diarrhea, and then that causes problems, and your brother has to come over to help…”
“You don’t get diarrhea from overeating.”
“It’s what the doctor said.”
On and on went the argument, but Henry merely sat in his favorite leather armchair, staring wistfully – or perhaps, longingly – at the festivities that continued outside. A loud CRACK! echoed up the block, and the crowd cheered, creating their own explosion in response.
“Goodness, that noise hurts my ears!” a shrill voice exclaimed from the kitchen.
Henry chuckled. “Oh, Mary Alice,” he muttered. Sixty years later, after three children and even more grandchildren, she was still that girl with the bright red pumps.
Some things never change. Big brass bands grew out of style, the life ruled by jazz faded into the background, the young ones started to wear jeans instead of trousers, but the girl with the red shoes was still there. She was hidden, the added years concealing much of her true nature, but always she managed to make an appearance. Unleashed, she was fearless, and held the masses at her fingertips with ease. That dynamic force that burned inside of her melted all who came near, and she played with them, toyed with them, molded them into new shapes as she pleased. Wars were won, lives were lost, the world faced crisis after crisis, and yet the girl with the red shoes danced on.
The firecrackers began to crack, and with each blast the crowd ooh-ed and ah-ed appropriately. Busy feet ceased movement, innocent hands found each other in the brilliant darkness, and all faces turned upward to watch the sky as it lit up, enflamed with national glory. Henry’s eyes grew moist as he remembered the close calls and narrow clips experienced on the battlefield in past years, and sighed, grateful to be there in that one moment to experience once again the fervor with which America comes together to express its pride.
“Goodness, that noise hurts my ears!” Through all the chaos of the night, that sweet voice still managed to work its way over to where Henry stood, tugging on his ear insistently. He turned to look for its source right as a small energetic ball of curly brown hair and white polka dots on blue fabric barreled into him.
“Sorry,” it said, turning its large brown eyes toward his face, laughter bubbling out from its full crimson lips. “I tripped. Happens all the time when I’m on the streets in these shoes.”
“I suppose darkness doesn’t help much,” Henry replied, and was rewarded with a blindingly bright buck-toothed smile. Another loud BOOM set the sky afire, and the little creature jumped, giggling nervously.
“Shh,” said Henry, putting his arm around her comfortingly. She twitched anxiously as the next firework erupted in the starry night, but Henry, who had grown accustomed to such noises, stayed standing just where he was and tried as best as he could to soothe the soft being cowering next to him.
“It reminds me of gunshots,” she whispered.
“Me too,” he replied. Her face turned upward to look at him, her mouth displaying a large O of realization and shock.
“How can you bear it?” she asked quietly.
Henry wasn’t sure if she was asking about the guns or the fireworks, but answered anyway as truthfully as he could. “I just don’t listen.”
“Mr. Mitchell? Henry? You just don’t listen, do you?”
“What?” Henry asked, bewildered.
Maria sighed. “Dinner’s ready, Mr. Mitchell.”
“Come on Henry,” his wife called from the next room irritably. “Everybody’s waiting for you!”
“Mom, you don’t have to get so worked up about it,” someone nearby said softly.
“Well,” she sighed loudly. “It just takes so long to get him to the table, and then he has to fuss with the pillows and with his apron, since he hates using a napkin because of the mess he makes – “
“Mom.” Emily’s voice was quiet, but her tone was firm. “Calm down. It’s all right.”
“I just don’t want to upset you three,” she said, switching character. “I mean, you’ve come all this way to see us, the least he could do is eat dinner with everyone.”
“We’re all fine with it,” Emily responded, firmness now bordering on irritation. “We’re not going anywhere. Let him take his time.”
There was silence in the other room, but Maria’s eyes stayed on Henry, choosing to concentrate on him instead of focusing on the agitation that flowed throughout the house from Mrs. Mitchell, who sat with her lips pursed and one eyebrow cocked tensely as she stared down at her plate.
“Come on Mr. Mitchell,” Maria said, placing her hand on Henry’s shoulder.
“You again?” he asked happily. “Haven’t they sent you back to your country yet?”
She grinned. “They might, but only if you go and eat pancakes with the rest of your family.”
It was of no use. Henry stared out at the flashing lights of the street, either distracted or determined not to move.
“Mr. Mitchell?” No response. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“I think I’d like to eat out here.”
“Henry!” the shrill voice exclaimed from the dining room. “Your family is here!”
“Please, Mr. Mitchell?” Maria begged.
“No,” replied Henry. “No, I really think I’d like to eat out here.”
“He never leaves that chair,” Mrs. Mitchell muttered to her daughter’s family. “He just can’t stand being anywhere else, he says. He’s just too comfortable there.”
“Then let him eat out there,” Emily said, exasperated. “It’s fine. We’ll get other chances to see him while we’re here.”
And thus a steaming plate of fresh pancakes was brought out to Henry, placed conveniently on a small table meant for TV dinners. Maria put the maple syrup and a jar of peanut butter next to his plate emphatically. “You’re welcome.”
“Thank you,” he said. He opened the jar of peanut butter slowly and, his straight, stiff fingers holding the knife awkwardly and uncertainly, began to spread a hefty serving onto his pancakes.
“Peanut butter on your pancakes?” asked Mary Alice. She shook her head of large brown curls. “I’ve never met anyone else who does that.”
“It runs in my family,” Henry said through a peanut-butter-maple-syrup-pancake stuffed mouth. “My father did it, and so did his mother. It’s in our genes.”
“And I suppose your children will do it as well?”
Henry looked up from his plate and stared into the large brown eyes, which held his gaze nervously.
“Yes,” he replied. “I suppose they would.”
Trumpets blasted out from the phonograph, and Mary Alice squealed delightedly. “I love this song!”
“You should go dance.” Henry nodded at a man standing across the room. “I think there’s someone here interested in a number with you.”
Brown eyes looked at him uncertainly. “Are you sure?”
Henry laughed. “You know I have two left feet. Go have fun.” And he sat, watching her twirl across the diner in the arms of a tall stranger, knowing that all eyes in the room were glued to her red pumps and proud that out of all those pairs of eyes, she had chosen his to stare into every night.
She drove him home that night, despite his protests that he wasn’t even the slightest bit intoxi… intoxica… how do you say that word? Of course, he was almost asleep by the time they reached his apartment building, and he rested his head against the back of his seat, taking slow, deep breaths through his mouth.
“We’re here,” Mary Alice said brightly, poking him in the shoulder.
Henry rolled his head to the side, peering at her through heavy lids. “Mary Alice,” he breathed.
“I think we have something here.”
“And what do we have here?” Maria’s voice cut through the silence, startling Henry awake. “You tired, Mr. Mitchell?”
“Do you know why she wore red shoes?” Henry said after a long moment.
“Who?” Maria asked.
“Red was her favorite color, that’s what she told people,” Henry continued. He leaned in close to Maria, as if whispering something secret. “But the real reason was that her mother was Catholic.” He chuckled. “I like that kind of feistiness in a woman.”
Maria shook her head, grinning. “She sounds like quite the rebel, Mr. Mitchell. Now let’s get you off to bed.”
“All right,” Henry replied, standing up slowly. She began to lead him off to his bedroom, but he stopped her.
“Not yet, not yet. Let me do something.” And he shuffled off to the kitchen.
“What about a nursing home?”
“He’s fine when Maria’s here to help.”
“But Maria isn’t always here.”
“You’d be less tired.”
“Mary Alice?” Henry said.
“Yes?” replied his wife, turning to look at him. “Yes Henry, what is it?”
“I just wanted to wish you goodnight,” he said. “And to ask you to say those favorite words of mine.”
“What words?” Mary Alice glanced over at Emily, puzzled.
“I just wanted to hear you say ‘I love you.’”
Something unfathomable crept across Mary Alice’s face, and her expression softened helplessly. “I love you, Henry.”
“And I love you.” He shuffled out of the room. “Goodnight, all.”
The music didn’t die until the early hours of the morning, but Henry slept soundly through the fireworks and festivities. Unable to sleep, Emily and her mother sat at the dining room table, licking spoonfuls of peanut butter straight from the jar and asking what, what could they do now.