By Brenda Clem Black

San Angelo, Texas 1920s

            Growing good food is what my father did best. He didn’t own any land of his own, but he leased or sharecropped whatever he could get hold of and coaxed it into giving up bright red tomatoes or luscious ripe watermelons or the sweetest sweet corn. He made his own pay, so the money was a bit erratic and never enough for our large Irish family of nine – Mother and Father, two boys, and five of us girls whom Daddy called his Little Women from Mama’s favorite book. Well, make that six Little Women, including our petite mother.

            “Girls, Mr. Brockmeier is coming to pay for his load of watermelons tomorrow, so we’ll have a little money,” Mama announced as all nine McSpaddens clambered off the big farm truck onto the streets of San Angelo one Saturday morning. She turned to me, her nondescript daughter who had been born smack-dab in the middle. “Dorris, it’s your turn to get new shoes. You’ve come out the toes of those you’re wearing. We’re going to select them today and have the storekeeper save them back.”

            “Goody, goody, goody!” I blurted and clapped my hands. The brown clunkers with glued-on soles pinched my feet as we stood there.

“Here’s the plan.” Mama ferreted out my oldest sister from the gaggle of girls. “Helen, the storekeep will tell us how much her shoes will cost. Then on Monday morning, I will give you the money and at noon, when the school breaks for lunch, you find Dorris and the two of you will walk down to the store, pay for them and bring them home. Understand?”

Most of the merchants we traded with in San Angelo knew Daddy’s character and trusted us to charge stuff when he told them he had pay coming. But not the one that sold shoes. “No Money, No Merchandise,” his sign said.

“Can I pick them out myself?” I asked. These were my first new shoes. Hand-me-downs from my sisters or used ones selected from the church closet had served me well for my first eleven years.

“Helen and I will help you,” Mama said. “They have to be good, sturdy shoes that will last a while. We'll get them a size or two up, so they will still fit when your foot grows. You’ll just have to deal with it. We can't get new shoes for everybody every year.”

Our parade of Little Women beelined down the wooden sidewalk on our mission and reached a big block building, Bennett’s Mercantile. Among the small display of shoes in the window was a pair of bright red espadrilles with cloth ties. My mouth dropped open.

“I want those, Mama! They look like the ones in your trunk, the red ones with the ribbons!”

“Dorris honey, how can you be so impractical? Those won't last two months the way you run through mud puddles. Absolutely not. You need solid year-round shoes.”

I pressed my face against the glass. “But they're red. I love red. Can I just try them on, please? Pleeease, Mama?”

Helen shushed me and grabbed my hand. “Why do you think you’re so special, Dorris? You put a bow in your hair just to come into town. Humpf! You’re no better than the rest of us.”

“I’m gonna be a lady someday, a real lady, like Mama was in Birmingham, when she wore those fancy dresses she keeps in her trunk.” I jerked my hand away from Helen. “You just wait and see!”

Inside the store I sat on a small stool, saying nothing as Mama pushed black or brown oxfords onto my feet. I stood while she mashed the front of the shoe to find my big toe. On her command, I walked several steps away from her and returned, then repeated. Finally she settled on the right pair for me and informed the storekeeper of our plan.

“I won’t be here Monday but my wife will,” Mr. Bennett said, as he stored the sturdy shoes behind the counter.

“Mama, can I just try the red ones, please? I know I can't have them, but I just want to see them on my feet. Please? Like when you let us play dress-up with your pretty things from the trunk?” I begged, but stopped the tears about to tumble. Those would make her mad. Mama had a rigid No Tears Rule. She wanted us girls to be strong women.

“Oh, all right,” she finally relented. “Helen can help you put them on while I get a few groceries. But don’t get them dirty.”

Helen made perfect bows at the front of my ankles with the red ties. I spun around and around, so fast that the skirt of my feed-sack dress formed a little circle.  Then I walked on tip-toes, thrusting my chin into the air. Next I tried a few hand expressions worthy of the experience. I didn’t take off the red shoes until the very last ounce of Mama’s patience wore out.

I thought about those shoes all day Sunday as I fed and watered the chickens and gathered eggs. My next-oldest sister Bernice washed dishes after supper and it was my day to dry, but I didn’t chatter like a magpie as I normally did. I was thinking. Thinking.

Monday morning, Mama gave the exact amount of money to Helen.

“Why can't I carry the money? They're my shoes,” I asked.

“Because you're too little and too careless. You’ll lose it,” Helen said. She shook her finger in my face. “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know.”

“I know that, Helen,” I retorted.

“Okay, then. We’ll meet at lunch and walk to the store and pick up your shoes. Enough said.”

My lips puffed out in a big pout, but I knew the order of things.

My oldest brother Owen set the magneto, then turned the crank to start the old panel van that served as a school bus. The van belonged to the school but lived at our house. It looked like a big hearse. When Owen got it going, seven McSpaddens climbed in. Then he picked up kids from two other boisterous families, packing us in like sardines on the floor and two lengthwise bench seats.

I sat quietly all the way to school as the noisy van rollicked across the rolling west Texas knolls. Thinking. Thinking.

At mid-morning recess, I was done thinking. I told my teacher that my mama needed me to run to Bennett’s Mercantile and pick up a package.

Batting my eyes and flashing a skittish grin, I told the storekeeper's wife that my sister Helen would be coming on lunch break to give her the money for the red espadrilles I had placed on the counter.

“You’re one of John McSpadden’s Little Women, aren’t you?” she asked. “I think you must be most like Jo, the strong-willed one.”

I nodded and clasped my hands together tight to stop the strange shaking my body had taken up.

“These are pretty shoes. I love red myself,” Mrs. Bennett continued. “But what shall I do with the brown oxfords my husband saved back?”

 My shrugged shoulders seemed enough of an answer. She laughed as she tore off a wide sheet of butcher paper and began to wrap the shoes. “You’re going to be in trouble, young lady.”

“I know,” I mumbled.

With the crinkly bundle tucked stealthily under my arm, I ran behind the row of stores and found an empty stoop to sit on. Unwrapping the package, I handled the precious red shoes as if they were Cinderella’s glass slippers and carefully eased my feet into each one. Then, finally, I mustered two decent-looking bows from the fabric ribbons.

Leaving the old clunkers and butcher paper laying on the stoop, I skipped proudly down the dirt road to the school. Townspeople were looking at me, commenting on how much of a lady I had become, I could just tell. When I reached the schoolyard, Helen stood waiting, a big scowl across her face.

The store didn't take back worn shoes. Everybody knew that.

There was a spanking at the end of that day, which I had expected. It hurt less than the look of disappointment in my mother's eyes. I thought I detected a slight grin from Daddy, but I couldn't be sure.

 I circumnavigated mud puddles and avoided rain until the treasured red shoes fell tattered from my feet. With each step I pranced like a lady--as my mother had pranced in Birmingham--before Daddy, before seven children, before the West Texas sun.

I never regretted my first taste of power.