Please Remove Your Shoes at the Door

I was utterly happy with my height…with my life…until the summer of my 18th year, in 1987. In that year, you may remember, music still sounded somewhat like music, and shoulder pads were the prosthetic of choice, and the destruction of the environment was only the concern of a rarely-fucked minority of jobless sour-grapes crackpots. Now, everyone’s worried. But that’s another story. The summer of 1987 was the summer that my mother, trying to be helpful, made the devastating remark that changed everything.

“Now you listen to me,” she said, standing in the middle of our kitchen with her hands on her wide hips…her hips were the wide base of a very tall A-frame of Scandinavian design…“you’re going to meet plenty of bloody nice girls who would be proud to have you for a boyfriend, do you hear?” Bloody…that was her word.

She was shaking with anger as she said this, and it caused me to reflect that she was taking the news of Gilda Fontaine’s decision to dump me by leaving a message on the family answering machine more seriously than I was. Those were the days when answering machines were still a relatively new feature in the well-equipped household and the outgoing messages that answering machine owners recorded on their machines in order to greet new callers could be ornate and well-rehearsed presentations. Our machine boasted a salutation in four-part harmony. It was composed and arranged by my father; a crafty ditty that stretched our last name (Smoot) into five distinct syllables, and had all four of us enunciating the terminal “t” with a clarity that bordered on being hostile. My father was the music teacher/ phys ed instructor for King of Prussia Junior High, and he probably felt pressured into coming up with something technical like that, considering his position in the community.

I remember the tune as clearly as any song by The Beatles, and sang it under my breath at Dad’s funeral the year I hit thirty, not long ago. He was a little man too, but seemed to burn up the fuel of his allotted years with the physical greed of a giant. We bought him a full sized coffin, out of respect, but I’ve always been a little disturbed by the idea of Dad rattling around in that lonely box like a little gray lozenge in an otherwise empty tin of cough drops. A little man should have a little coffin: there should be no shame in that. But I digress.

So Gilda Fontaine called that Saturday morning in 1987 and waited impatiently through our barber shop quartet of an answering machine greeting, and with cold-blooded precision delivered herself of the announcement that the plans we’d made for that evening, or any day or evening thereafter, for that matter, were off and no hard feelings ciao. I should have heard that message alone: I really wouldn’t have cared that much. I wouldn’t have made much of it. Maybe I might have kicked something but so what.

She wrapped the kiss-off up with a very reasonable sounding “I just thought you should know,” and I remember being grudgingly impressed that she’d made her little speech without faltering. She was that kind of girl, the kind of girl who could leave a message like that on an answering machine without stuttering, in 1987, when everyone else was still afraid of them, and knowing that my whole family would probably hear it, but I guess she wasn’t born with the name Gilda Fontaine for nothing.

Some people are better than their names (like my college buddy Bubba Rukeyser), and others never seem to grow into theirs, but Gilda Fontaine lived up to her labeling like something from an exclusive shop (with its own brass nameplate) that the average person isn’t allowed into; that the average person doesn’t even know exists. Mother and I alone heard Gilda’s valedictory message. Father was busy with concrete and fence posts in the back yard, and Shel was somewhere near Haverford learning to drive. Mother’s finger was still on the “play” button as I left the living room to go into the kitchen to get some apple juice and hide my shame. She followed me straight in there and erupted with the pep talk that ruined my life.

“Now you listen to me, you’re going to meet plenty of bloody nice girls who would be proud to have you for a boyfriend, do you hear?”

It never would have occurred to my ego that Gilda Fontaine’s rejection of me was anything more personal than an act of God until my mother’s rage about it showed me the truth: Gilda Fontaine was dumping me because of me, and not because of some faulty wiring in her brain…she was dumping me because I wasn’t good enough. And the only thing about me that I could isolate as noticeably different from everyone else to a degree that it could be considered some kind of defect was my height. Before that, it’s funny to say this, but I thought of myself as a perfect jewel of a young man…pretty as a girl, but well built, and sensitive as a pampered prince from ancient Persia. A musician, a poet, a wasp-waisted boy: that’s what I saw in the mirror when I checked, which was often. A gymnast, a joke-teller, a mystic, a gentleman.

I knew I was tiny, but my size back then made me feel special, and well-crafted…transistorized. And back then I had the whisperable litany of The List: Alexander the Great, Al Pacino, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Paul Williams, Friedrich Nietzsche, Tom Cruise, Ringo Starr, David Cassidy, Michael J. Fox, Roman Polanski, Francois Truffaut, Michael Dukakis, Rudolf Valentino, Napoleon Bonaparte, Dustin Hoffman, Toulouse Lautrec, Christopher Isherwood, Gary Coleman and Jesus H. Christ.

Well, seeing the compassionate outrage on my mother’s face in the kitchen that afternoon put a stop to those perfection fantasies; I might as well have been her hare-lipped birth control accident, chained to a pole in the cellar. I suddenly saw through my mother’s own eyes that I was fucked up and runty and I’d never be a leading man in the movie of my own existence. I was doomed to be a side-kick to some tall lummox at best, just like in all of those old cartoons where the smart little mouse tells the big dumb one what to do, but it’s always the big dumb one who has to save the little smart one from the cat when they sneak out in the kitchen for cheese accompanied by xylophone music.

The main point: my new knowledge changed me over-night. I became strategic rather than generous, and competitive as opposed to Aquarian. I divided the world into the complacent tall and the aggrieved short, and gave myself the rank of general in the secret war against tallness that I vowed to prosecute. But first there was the matter of acquiring a proper uniform. The footwear, at least.

One hour and ten minutes by car from our Elm-lined grove of a street was a shoemaker’s shop that I found after searching diligently all summer, poring over the Yellow Pages like a monk caressing an illuminated text. I found this beautiful old cobbler’s place…the smell as one crossed the shop’s threshold was the olfactory equivalent of rubies.

I got there minutes before closing time, but the proprietor of the shop knew my story in one half of a glance, and so he mercifully fitted me for a special pair of shoes which then came by special delivery the day before I had to pack my things and handshake my family goodbye for a private college set on the vertiginous flatness of the heartland. The proprietor of the shoe shop was a chocolate brown old African-American guy with the euphonious moniker of Elvinius Belkins, and his shop was called “The Shoe Fits,” and Elvinius, for three hundred dollars (a lot of money back then), gave me about twenty percent of my self-esteem back, plus a two year guarantee on the heels. They fit like new feet.

Now what would make more sense for a profoundly not-tall man-boy like myself, a man-boy who could just about achieve the low end of an average height with the benefit of teetering custom-made platform shoes? To pursue romances with the tiniest and most vertically suitable beauties available, or to measure himself against the quixotic challenge of scaling the lankiest amazons on the horizon? It’s a question, as always, of what might have made more sense, versus what really happened.

The administration of Fate is a concise business, I find. It tends to get right to the point (whether you know it or not). My first night at college I saw her: Mary Ford was that blonde redwood walking into my dormitory building as I looked down from the window in the second floor lounge, and because I was looking straight down upon the pale crown of her head, and the smooth topology of her breasts and shoulders, I couldn’t quite grasp her enormity, except by the shadow she cast in the glare of the floodlight mounted above the dorm entrance, which appeared to be five miles long.

It was evening, I had finished unpacking my things and I was thinking about meeting people, hanging out in the lounge down the hall from my single. I had opted for a single rather than a double because I wanted privacy (to strap into and out of my special shoes unmonitored, for one thing), but it hit me that the concept of privacy is separated from the condition of loneliness by the hairline fracture of self-satisfaction. And I wasn’t satisfied with myself. I wanted to meet people.

Mary Ford was walking into the building with another girl, a black-haired girl, and though they were neck-and-neck in the race into the building with their armloads of books and potato chip bags and whatever, Mary’s shadow was nearly twice as long as the black-haired girl’s…their shadows laid out were an umbral mother and child. “That’s my girl,” I said, out loud, as I watched her loom below.

It didn’t slow me down a bit when I discovered, looking up at her a little later that evening, that she had the heavy jawline and protuberant brow of a man, and hands that way too. Her new friend, that black haired girl, who was exactly my height when we were both in heels, was an exquisite Persian beauty. Her face and body were a study in delicates, and subtles, and rares. Her hands were sand-colored flowers. Her eyes were amber. But still, I wanted the big one. I wanted to be inside that particular Statue of Liberty.

“Farrah,” said titanic Mary Ford, with her surprisingly squeaky voice, “this is Albert…what was your, er-”

“Smoot.”

“Smoot. Albert Smoot! Smoot?” She nodded interrogatively, got my permission, and went on, “Albert Smoot. Farrah…what-”

“Dizadji.” Farrah looked directly at me while saying it. Then she clasped her hands behind her back and looked up at the giant who seemed to be finding us both so adorable and got up on tip-toe and said “Dee-zah-JEE.” Her voice was smoke and rosewater. “Dee-zah-JEE.”

She smiled, on the verge of repeating it, when Mary said “Right!” and clapped her big hands with pleasure, a young Ford discovering some of the acrid spices of the ethnic names to be found in the World beyond her high-wasp enclave in Connecticut.

Mary, daughter of Missy and Robert, sister to Hester, Paul and Ronald, granddaughter of Robert and Susan and Winston and Hester, niece of Robert jr., Ronald, Paul, William, Bob and Susan…

There was a gathering of people in the second floor dorm lounge. The lights were low. Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians were on the stereo. There was a keg of beer at the other side of the room, hoisted up on the aluminum counter beside the sink, and bags and bags of ice had been emptied into the sink, and stacks of plastic cups towered over two big yellow bowls of stale chips. There was no real food that I could gallantly offer to cross the room and fetch for either of them, and we all already had cups of beer to fondle as props, and the music was too loud for me to say much of anything to anyone but Farrah, whose ears were damnably close to being perfectly aligned with the axis of my mouth. Mary soon enough got tired of bending over to keep tabs on our conversation, and drifted towards the only other equally tall person in the room, a hyper-thyroid case named Wolper.

“Tell me something about your friend Mary,” I said to Farrah, with the innocent rudeness natural to my age and class, “do you think she likes me?”

“Why not,” she should have said, “You’re the perfect size for a pet,” but her manners forbid it. She said, instead, “Why shouldn’t she?”

“That’s what I was thinking,” I nodded. “Because I really like her,” I gulped my beer, “a lot.”

“She wants to be an actress,” offered Farrah, “So if I were you I’d try out for something in the Drama Department.”

What I ended up getting was the lead role in a Theatre-of-the-Absurd type play called ‘Oedipus Christ,’ a never-produced text unearthed by H. Frawley Caine, the school’s controversial (and soon thereafter ‘let go’) Drama Teacher. I played the Baby Jesus to Mary Ford’s portrayal of my character’s famous mother and there were plenty…too many…opportunities for closeness between us. By the end of the six weeks of rehearsal, I had mistaken Mary’s amateur professionalism for love. I confused the one for the other like a pitifully foolish mosquito, mistaking an onion for an elbow. So when she invited me to her door room “for a quiet little get-together,” on the night before the play’s premier, I misinterpreted her intentions with self-immolating raptures of stupidity.

“Knock knock!” I called through Mary’s dorm room door, coyly, at the appointed hour. Imagine the look on my face when Wolper opened it and bade me enter, the ominous prongs of undergrad cocktail chatter meshing behind him. I made to push by Wolper but he instructed me to remove my shoes and place them in a long row of conspicuously normal-looking footwear, on the mat in the vestibule, first.

But what’s the point of trying to mislead you? This is merely my attempt at a little creative empathy. I’m not short at all; the truth is, I’m rather lanky… it’s just that I haven’t reached the point “within myself” from which I can address my actual defects directly.

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