The shoe is a kind of body. It has an anatomy. Throat, tongue. Vamp, a feather line, shank, heel, welt. The welt has a flesh side into which the sewing goes. A last is the model made for every shoe, every size, like a wooden foot. A puppet foot. At night, I’d run beside the city of shoes, the city where I was born. I wore my first pair of running shoes, bought by my grandmother. Before that I had shin splints, a burning that lifted only when I ran again, in my tennis shoes, so thin I could feel the sidewalk on my soles, tiny pebbles. At school I limped from class to class.
But in my running shoes, in my first year of college, I ran until I ran out of breath. Years before, Rocky had run a few miles away, in 1950s Brockton, in black boots. Black leather training shoes made on a Muson Military Last. They look like war boots. Size 10.5. Heavy, double leather soles. He ran 750 miles in those shoes. Eight-inch blucher pattern with a straight tip: a high shoe with laces over the tongue, modeled after a half boot. To the shins. Open throat. The Rock from Brockton.
I’d leave at midnight to run, a girl in my dorm warning me once against it, saying, “Someone has to be a mother.” I wanted quiet, darkness. I’d run past a factory and look up at the dark windows, feel the charge of someone looking out or bent over a table at a task, someone gone. The dust of their being there. Like when they dig up the ground and find city after city, one layer on top of another. Time right in front of me, inside the brick and the air, the soul of the world.
The day my son was born was the same day that Rocky began his professional career as a boxer. Thirty-four years later. I’m not saying my life’s tied to his, not saying my son’s life is tied. But we intersect like a body, something stitched together. Once, Rocky almost drove over my father’s foot with his car, coming to a halt at the drugstore in Brockton. My father, a child then, jumped back. Rocky said something: “Hey, kid.” He died in a plane crash in Iowa. He was retired, hosting a weekly boxing show. Going home to his wife for his forty-sixth birthday party. But he’s buried near me now, Forest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—a ride slightly south on the map.
A shoe is mapped. The bottom has an inner sole, a filling like granulated cork. A welt’s narrow strip of leather sewn to the rib. A sandal has a runner. The sole (leather, pure rubber, resin rubber, or plastic) and heel (nailed or stuck, Cuban, Louis, or wedge), heel lifts, top piece (the walking surface of a heel), toe puff: a reproduction of the toe of the last. And stiffener, shank (metal or wood to reinforce the waist), sock (inserted into the completed shoe with the maker’s name), and eyelets. Hobnail shoes had a short nail hammered into the sole for durability. Sometimes, the nails were placed in a pattern, sometimes the nails spelled words to be left in the ground as a shoe print. A message you could leave behind.
I was seventeen when I went to Bridgewater State College, after spending almost my whole life on other coasts. But I’d lived the first year of my life in the town next door, Whitman. When I was born, I came home to the apartment, steep second story, gray. A salesman had come to the door and sold my mom a stroller that converted into a high chair, and a carriage, and a child’s Formica and chrome table. All in one. She said that when I rode in it, I was the Queen of the Neighborhood. There was a tiny bathroom with no bath. A galvanized tub in the bedroom. On a map, Bridgewater and Whitman are connected by seams with the city next door, Brockton. I was born in Brockton, and my son is buried there. Sewn together.
In 1900, there were ninety shoe factories in Brockton. The Charles A. Eaton Company was in operation then, a shoe factory on Centre Street. It’s just been converted into lofts. I want to get in. But there’s no parking, the building right on the street. I get a machine when I call the sales office. I’d stroll around it, but it’s not a strolling kind of place, few pedestrians. No stores. The Boston Phoenix called the city of my birth a violence-prone, run-down hole. There’s a plaza I drive through, lost, a white square. Plazas remind me of the women in Argentina who held placards with photos of their missing children, abducted, disappeared under the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Now in that Buenos Aires plaza, there is a white shawl painted on the ground.
Centre Street takes me to Cary, where I’m hoping to find Calvary, my son’s cemetery with its name spelled out in white stones on a hill. But I’ve turned too soon, into St. Patrick’s, where only two men walk, two children. One man says, “No one’s been buried here for fifty years.” I feel like I’ve woken in the future. Driving down Centre Street again, lost, I stop at a pink and brown Dunkin’ Donuts, but the cashier doesn’t know Cary Street, doesn’t live here. I’ve never been able to find my way. Drinking coffee in the parking lot, a circle of air around me, no other cars. It feels like an abandoned land. There’s a blue cross on a building to my right, a hospital, Brockton Hospital. Where I was born. When I first saw the world outside, I saw this: Centre Street.
There’s no parking visible to me at Brockton Hospital, nothing for visitors that I can see. I can go in if I have an Emergency. So I park on the side of the road out and turn my head to look at the blue cross. I wonder if the street was this bleak back then. I wonder what it was like being born. My nose flattened from the tight fit getting out. A bow taped to my head. My eyes are squinched as if I’m trying to see through fog or everything’s too bright. In the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, a man in his early twenties had smiled at me in a sparkling way and sort of skipped, but I felt unprotected on the tar, drinking from my cup, no commerce, no shoppers or walkers around. I was afraid he’d rob or murder me, afraid I’d die where I was born. So I didn’t smile.
Cars keep coming from behind me at the hospital, so I drive back to Centre, onto Cary, and then I’m really lost, unable to remember any landmarks except the blue cross, the donuts. The drivers around me move with certainty, speed. I park illegally at a fire station, ask the man behind bars for directions. He sends me back to Cary, over Centre. “It’s way down,” he says. This is the first time I’ve come to my son’s grave alone, found the cemetery alone. It’s a lot of stones, but I know his is near the back, then to the right. There’s a white tree that makes me think of a teenage tree, a young tree, near him. There’s the gray stone. When I’d driven in, I’d asked a woman by a grave, “Is there anywhere to buy flowers?” She tilted her head, as if I’d asked something hard. I liked her anyway, her visiting someone the same day as me. “Abington. There’s a Wal-Mart in Abington.” Another city somewhere unknown.
I went without flowers. But I know him. He wants me. I could be a flower. I remember the first time I realized that. It was just recently, but long after he’d died. I’d felt so incompetent, unskilled and poor and selfish. I hadn’t known then that no matter what, I was the one he wanted, the one he knew—his mother. I’d had no idea. I’d given him away, to relatives in Brockton. My child in my arms and then, my arms empty. I sit at his grave, his body under the grass in my hands. I talk to him like the day he was born. In the rocking chair, before the nurses knew he’d be adopted, after they’d made the beautiful mistake of giving him to me. I can still feel the weight of him. His calm in my arms.
When he died from leukemia, I would think about breast-feeding. That if I’d breast-fed him, he’d have had the natural protection it gives. That it would have given him protection against this city where he died. Ninety shoe factories. What did that do to the water quality in Brockton? A city of shoes for two hundred years. In 2006, in Boston, the Commonwealth filed a complaint against Brockton for pollutants in the public water, fined the poor city. There’s now going to be an $86 million sewage-treatment upgrade. But I’m not thinking phosphorus, chlorine, fecal coliform, ammonia—I’m thinking carcinogens, lethal environmental hazards. I’m thinking of the leukemia that came from the ground in Woburn, from tanneries, the making of shoe leather. All the Woburn kids who died from leukemia. At a book fair in Florida, I met the man who wrote about them, but he looked tired and was promoting his new book about a lost painting. There didn’t seem to be any room in the room for me to talk about my son and leukemia and shoes.
I don’t know what was in the water when my son was born, lived here, and died. I don’t know if my decision to give him away killed him. If I’m a kind of murderer. Before he was born, I thought, I’ll get a new bathing suit later, I’ll get in shape. I looked forward to that. Then I was bleeding in the shower at the hospital—a shower room at night, the nurses at their stations near small circles of yellow light, my uterus not contracting though I kneaded it with my knuckles. I could hardly stand, naked, blood everywhere. This is how my great-grandmother died, childbirth, in Rockland—another town next door to Brockton. Her name so close to mine, Nelly. Afterward, her children were strewn apart. My grandmother became a kind of slave, forever lost and childlike, giving her own children away, as I did mine. When I handed my son over, he cried the whole way out. I heard him in the garage, like a shoebox attached to the house. I heard him in the car. I hadn’t known my arms would feel stripped down the insides, where our bodies had touched on the outside.
Once I met a woman from another country who came to Florida: Ana. Years before, her brother had died, disappeared on a cruise ship here. She rode a bus to Miami with her video camera. When she returned to my town, she played images of ships in port, a nightclub with people passing by. She was looking for her brother. I overheard her friend say that Ana had gone to say goodbye. I’d never met her brother, but in the face of a boy walking by the camera, the red square of light, I saw the absence of him. I saw how much the evidence meant. The solidity of things, the air where he’d walked.
I need to know the parts of the body to make a shoe, how it’s sewn together. The elementary shoe has three basic parts: the vamp, quarters, and topline. All shoes fall into seven basic types: moccasin, sandal, mule, clog, boot, pump, and oxford. But the fashion wears me down—the silk damask, the French pump. What did the poor wear, the working class? The dead? Coffined in their dress shoes? Who wears rosettes? Men’s embroidered velvet shoes? I need the basics. What did my son wear? Did you save a lock of his hair? Is there a baby book of first things? I can’t ask my relatives these questions. I take three photos of an abandoned shoe factory on Church Street in Rockland. Beautiful red brick, hundreds of small windows laid out like cards, broken where something was thrown. The windows in the factory could be a calendar with a square for each day, the size of a postage stamp already cut, so all you have to do is lift it up to see inside. You could walk right in. I can’t hold anything tangible: the blue sleepers I bought him, a rattle, a toy, any thing he touched, except me. When I look in the mirror I see him in my face. But I’m not here to say goodbye. I did that once. I’m here to say hello. I’m here for evidence. The first shoe that was just a braid of grass. Leaves people wore on their feet. The shoes that are magical in stories and supposed to bring luck.
Kelle Groom is nonfiction editor of AGNI and has been part of the editorial team since 2022. She is the author of the forthcoming memoir-in-essays How to Live (Tupelo Press, 2023); the memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl (Simon & Schuster, 2011), a Barnes & Noble Discover selection and New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice; and four poetry collections, including Spill (Anhinga Press, 2017) and Five Kingdoms (Anhinga, 2010). Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Poetry. She is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada University, Lake Tahoe, and is director of communications and foundation relations at Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. (updated 4/2022)