‘Shoes whose shine needed vigilance’


Rue en Banlieue, Henri Rousseau, 1898

From The Threepenny Review:

Men then were more alike than they are now. In their alikeness, which the time required, they had a conscientious, replicable beauty—boy cleanliness, haircuts that showed their ears, white shirts, black ties. Fresh handkerchiefs. Shoes whose shine needed vigilance. In winter, imposing overcoats that made them seem like soldiers in the army of seriousness and made it hard to tell them apart, especially from a distance, so that if a child saw her father far down the winter sidewalk she would have trouble knowing for sure it was her father and she would stand in her oversized rubber boots, using one mitten as a gas mask to diffuse the freezing air, until it was him or it wasn’t. This was long ago, during the war known as Cold. The early-morning unison of the fathers’ departure would have shamed a flight of blackbirds; under the vaults and domes of the Capitol, behind locked doors, at the fathers’ gray steel desks, at the ends of their pencils, the war was going well, it was going badly, it was a matter of interpretation, it was work. The daylight absence of the men, the fathers, imbued the suburb with the suspense of desertion. Every blade of grass in every lawn was waiting. Every wife was waiting, every dog with pricked-up ears and metal tags tinking on its collar was waiting, and each blade of grass, each wife, each dog and child, whatever else they did, held still. Whatever else it was for, the suburb was for holding still. Look: black circles have been cut from the lawns and into these circles have been inserted slim upward-striving trees. Against the possibility of their flying away to unite with other trees they are tethered to the earth with wires.

The explaining voice pauses; the pause is not a lull, not neutral, but active and soliciting; the voice belongs to the movie you are watching, and watching is what has been asked of you so far, but you learn from the pause that watching no longer suffices and some other engagement is required, but what that might be, you can’t say, there isn’t time. Over the Hiroshima of the black-and-white classroom movie, the bomb floats from the belly whose riveted steel plates have a homemade frankenstein crudity: how strange to see how the plane is made; that clouds float by; how serenely, with what destined aplomb, the bomb peels away into the long arc of descent. In its scrolling slowness it’s left behind in air; it’s smaller and smaller and farther and farther behind; it could almost be forgotten about. Below, between parting clouds, a plain, the city-feeling of a grid, a clutteration of tiny roofs, infinite holding still.

Saturday you might see your dad in a t-shirt, your brother might be asked if he’d like to throw a ball around, and from a corner of the lawn you might sit and watch, wild with the wrongness of being a girl, wild with stoppered grace. Saturdays your dad was his own man, he said. Whose was he when he wasn’t his own? Opposing the soft amused handsomeness of his face his glasses had an architectural authority, the naked lenses dominated by the heavy black plastic bridge and earpieces. His hair memorized its side part. On a high closet shelf lived the hats forsaken when Kennedy took his oath of office bareheaded, trusting in his rashness and eloquence, in how young he was and how that was suddenly what was needed, and how it seemed to mean he could face things without the old inhibition and correctness, with, instead, shameless resourcefulness, undeluded cunning; and how fear relented with the bareheadedness of JFK; how fear was no equal for wind rifling the dark hair of a handsome man.

Deprived of my mother’s attention my father would narrow his eyes lonesomely and try to set something on fire, some dogma or other, till she faced him to argue. His voter registration was discreetly partyless to insure his survival from administration to administration, but he was a Democrat. Wounded by her Republican convictions, offensive not only in themselves but as the emblem of some ultimate elusiveness in his wife, he persisted in the belief that she could be harangued into converting.

“Little X”, Elizabeth Tallent, The Threepenny Review