By Tom McTighe
Illustrated by Xtal Giarth
Come forth into the light of things
Let Nature be your Teacher
Despite having given up sports, for a few years Errol continued to wear running shoes. They were comfortable, and he loved to travel by foot, and they lasted a long time, and he hated to spend money unnecessarily. One day, however, he found himself in the shoe section of a resale shop, in front of the size elevens, brought to this place by an almost unconscious need for a change. He was about to leave when his eye fell on a pair of brown loafers that looked almost new. He quickly sat down and put them on. They felt good. Just right. These shoes had a purpose. They were literary shoes. A thought shook him: he was through with running. He wasn't a runner. He was a poet! He left his running shoes outside on the lid of a trashcan. They still had some wear left in them, so he thought he might be able to save someone a few dollars, if someone else was through with their old identity and wanted to give running a try.
Errol admired his new shoes as he walked home from the resale shop. They were a color of brown that inspired him. After a mile of reflective walking, he noticed that their wide, flat soles made them slightly more comfortable than his old running shoes, though they hindered his naturally fast stride. At his new, slightly slower pace, he found that his thoughts weren't bent so forcibly inward, and that he could see the world more clearly. Now people seemed to have more distinct features, and all around him the world bloomed with fresh details.
When he woke the next morning, he remembered his new shoes, and they filled him with confidence. On his walk to school his steps felt solid and sure. Throughout the morning he daydreamed about his new literary life. At lunch he found his friends at their usual table, laughing out loud. Donald, the star of the school's production of Our Town, had the floor. He had an expressive face that could pull a laugh out of a dying man, and he was on a roll. "Listen,” he continued over their laughter, “No, listen. I'm not joking! I'm not. They are strange people. You wouldn't believe it. They are odd, and they make me nervous--how could you feel comfortable around someone who puts on a smile like they're putting on a tie? For god's sakes! It's unnatural. And you!" He screeched incredulously, pointing an accusing finger at Phil, "you say you would like to sleep with one of these people? Are you sick? I'd rather go to bed with a corpse than sleep with an actor! Really, they're creepy, believe me--I know."
Errol’s friends were falling off their seats, choking on their lunches, but Errol checked his own laughter. Whenever he heard anyone talk so smoothly, it made him distrustful. Honest thoughts never flowed from his own mouth so easily. They emerged as little bits of speech, just half sentences, and only when they were all mostly out could he begin to summarize them. He felt that anyone who could speak so fluidly must have a kind of internal speech-writer who preprocessed their thoughts and reorganized them before they were spoken. He felt that as the phrasing of a thought was being straightened out there would be an irresistible temptation to polish its sentiments as well, which would, bottom line, distort the truth of what the person felt. Errol knew that he was probably the only one who had picked up on this.
After school, he saw Lokelani, the Hawaiian girl he knew from the track team, and glanced down--and there were the shoes saying Of course you can! He walked right up to the girl, and asked if she'd like to walk home, you know, with him. She was a grade younger, and he thought that she liked him, and all day he had felt like really doing something, and now he had his chance.
"Uh, Okay,” she said, but she seemed a little surprised. As his shoes goaded him on, he put his shoulders back and they headed across Ninth Street. It occurred to him that reality was what you made it, and that he could begin to make the world over as he thought it should be.
But by the time they had reached the far curb she had gently separated from him. "Oh hey, I forgot something. Um, see ya," she said, and she turned and re-crossed the street toward the school. Errol watched her go, only partly let down. Maybe the shoes hadn't given him an absolute free hand in reshaping his life, but in any event they had clearly helped him do something he never would have done on his own. He walked on toward downtown with a sense that more great things were in store.
On the way he passed through a residential neighborhood. There were dark shadows on bright green trees, and waxy, dark green leaves on the shrubs. A tree had fallen over from old age. An old woman said hello as he passed. A strip of tall grass divided two neighbors' manicured lawns. It was pleasant, but like a hospital's waiting room--it was too something--angular, somehow. There was a single-minded geometry to all the streets, the boulevards, the sidewalks, yards, and houses.
At the square in the center of downtown, he sat on a step next to a lone policeman, who silently observed. What did the cop look for when he scanned the clusters of families and the groups of high school and college kids, and the one knot of shirtless tattooed guys at the far end of the courtyard? What did he see?
Errol thought he might pass the time by eavesdropping, but no conversations were distinguishable from where he sat. In the center of the square a hushing waterfall poured out of a sculpture, and the square was suffused by the noise of traffic on three sides. People's voices were lifted away in the wind like abbreviated melodies. A boy and his grandmother passed by. The thin kid ran and jumped on a low wall, but his enthusiasm was only half-hearted. As a group of middle-aged, well-off men walked along talking, their hands made small, empty gestures in the air.
A line of junior high kids sat on a wall with their backs to him. One had bright orange hair, and another wore a backpack designed to look like a pair of folded wings. A woman, by herself. He remembered walking through Grant Park at night as a kid and feeling protective of the women who passed through it alone. The woman photographed the potted plants and wildflowers that had been set out around the waterfall sculpture. Errol thought the plants were nothing special, so why would she bother? Did she work for the paper? Or was she actually using her camera's built-in zoom lens to discretely photograph the people in the square? Errol half-hid his face with his hand as her lens crossed his line of vision.
Errol got up to go. The square had put him in a bad mood, and he thought about all the things that he didn't like about the world: over-simplifications, assumptions, reproductions, simulations--he looked around him: everything seemed inaccurate, dishonest, and cheap. Disgusted, his mind began to thrash about. Who had created this mess?
He walked quickly out of downtown, avoiding people’s eyes, and eventually came to his own neighborhood. His temper cooled, and his thoughts turned to his newt, and as the sun set, he thought of the ham that would be waiting for him at home. His street had a community garden on the corner, and as he walked by it he saw a man he'd never seen before working inside. The man was below average height, though not quite a dwarf, and had dark sideburns and big ears half-covered with a floppy hat. Leather suspenders held up his work pants, which were cut full to accommodate his huge rear end and thighs. He seemed steady on his legs, though they tapered dramatically toward his feet, where a hoe and a pan of seeds lay on the ground.
The man looked up at Errol and spoke to him. His voice had the quality of dark chocolate. "Hello neighbor. Come and get some flowers for your mother," he said. Errol was hungry, but the man had already stooped to assemble a bouquet, so Errol entered the garden and waited. It felt cooler there. As the man took several halting steps over to another patch of flowers, Errol couldn't help but think of a dog walking on its hind legs. "Dear me, dear me,” said the man, crouching before a lily that had drooped under the weight of its own bloom.
"I'll take that one,” offered Errol, trying to be gracious; but the man scowled over his shoulder, and then stooped, and in a heartbeat he had the flower upright again, gently tied to a stake. He cut a few of the best flowers, added some greens, and then looked thoughtful as he presented the bouquet to Errol.
Suddenly, Errol felt like he had found the solace he'd been searching for his whole life. There it was, right under his nose! He stared, wide-eyed, at the green things around him. They were not over-simplified approximations of beauty; they were alive, like he was! He strained to really see the details before him, awestruck by the complexity of the growing things, especially at their edges, at the ends of branches and in the petals of flowers; in new buds and in leaves and in the way they grew out in a hundred directions, and all toward the sun; and in the way the sun's light and the resulting shadows fell upon each one. He closed his eyes to smell it all, and he noticed the breeze against him--how genuine and inconsistent it was! After some time, Errol remembered his hunger and rose to leave. He turned around to thank the strange man for the bouquet, but he was nowhere to be seen, and so Errol put three dollars into the pan of seeds in a rush, and headed for home.
Down the middle of the street he went, watching the cracks that ran through the asphalt, and he became aware of the Nature that quietly moved in everything--this was the complex truth his mind had craved all these frustrated years. As he looked, he was released into a new reality, one that he felt he could more or less accept. He realized, with smiling shame, that all his life, all this time, he hadn't been too smart or too dumb or too anything--he just hadn't been paying enough attention. The thought filled him with a profound humility, and a gratitude that bordered on joy.