Today I’ve decided to clear out the Everything Closet, mostly because I want to look at the black jazz shoes. Not only look at them. I want to know how it feels to hold them. When I open the door from the hallway, something dank, close to mildew but also like cold ash, floats toward me. Under the smell and teetering on the lowest shelf are the black jazz shoes, woman’s size 5 ½. Soft worn leather, with the imprint of five toes pressed into the tip of both the right and left shoe. And just where my sister’s right big toe would have pressed the hardest, the tiniest of holes, as if a mouse had taken a nibble there.
I hold the right shoe in the palm of my hand. It is the size of a baby bird, like the chick we’d found under the redwood tree when I was six and my sister was nine. When we discovered the bird, she was chirping in a wobbly way and listing to one side in the dirt. We decided to keep her for ourselves. We put tissue blankets in a shoe box for her bed and fed her with an eyedropper. We huddled over the shoebox and watched her chest rise and fall. I wanted to hold her against my neck and tuck my chin over her downy wings. Our mother said not to pick her up; she might carry diseases. I laid my head next to the shoebox and breathed in the must of her feathers.
My sister and I had a tea party for the baby bird, under the canopy of the redwood tree. We brought out our miniature wild animal menagerie, our Squishy Family and set them up around the matchbox table. Purple squirrel, red eagle, green fox, none longer than my big toe, which was prickling slightly under my folded knees. The Squishies drank tepid tea and plotted escape from a cruel father, the orange bear.
What do you feed a baby bird? We decided to soften breadcrumbs in the Squishies’ tea water. We thought we could save her, but she didn’t last long. When I ran to her in the morning, her feathers lay limp against her tissue nest. At first, I thought she looked relaxed, like she was taking a good nap. Then I cried a little, and we gave her a proper funeral, with all the Squishies lined up in attendance, except the orange bear, who was not invited.
Years later, when she was in college and I was in high school, my sister and I took acid together. We lay in the high, brittle grass of early fall, pointing at cloud shapes above our heads. One was a dragon breathing wisps of fire, one a witch with a pointy hat and broomstick. The clouds blazed white, and a blackish sheen gathered at their edges. We traded secrets: that boy Marc had pushed me off the cliff a couple months ago; her lover at college was a woman named Victoria. Finally, as the sun set, we climbed back on her motorbike to head home through the Berkeley hills. As she revved the engine, I asked her if she was still hallucinating; I wasn’t sure it was safe for her to drive us, the motorcycle felt like a kind of nakedness in the twilight. But she was certain that she could see straight. She stayed close to the white divider line, taking the curves smooth and slow.
The shoulder on Grizzly Peak is narrow, and I could see the toppling precipice over the edge of the road. She took a turn that wasn’t there, I shouted at her from behind, my arms wrapped around her waist: what was she doing running us off the road? But she stayed calm, shaking her head no, the curls cascading from her head and tickling my nose. I shook her arms to alert her to the right way. But she took the turn, leaning her tiny weight into the center divider, and just then I knew that she was seeing true, and my way was wrong, my way was off the side of the road and down the cliffside. I turned my head to watch the cliff over my shoulder before it disappeared. She saved my life that day.
Now, as I hold the shoe snug in my hand, I cover the hole at the toe with my thumb. I want the shoe to look new again. It nestles between the meaty underbelly of my thumb and the base of my pinky. It’s hot against my fingers like a cup of tea.
I’m trying to picture the shoes she wore the last time I saw her. There was a bon voyage party for her that evening, and we each wore one of those short, glittery dresses that were in vogue in the early ’90s. So I figure she must have been wearing boots. Knee high boots, dark brown with a heel that showed off her well-muscled legs. The jazz shoes wouldn’t have worked.