The Florsheim Shoes
Raymondo was a man so feared by all in the village that if he asked for your daughter, you would not refuse for fear of the consequences. You would mourn the loss of your daughter, as if it were her funeral, and would blame yourself for your ineptitude at hiding her beauty. Everyone in the village knew that Raymondo’s unfulfilled sexual appetite was enough to poison their ducks, slaughter their pigs, and turn their small fertile rice fields barren. You would send your daughter up, perfumed, and packaged like a virginal whore to Raymondo until he smeared the red lipstick from her face and agreed to your family’s wish to be left alone to live in peace. This was life in the little barrio of Flores, in the province of Pangasinan, three hours north of Manila in the interior green cavity of the island of Luzon.
The fertile land in Flores once had the ability to grow bananas, however, the soil was transformed to dust after the eruption of Pinatubo and so now only jicama grew. The rice fields are coming back and so is the landscape, once green, then covered with grey, now blossoming green again. The rebirth of the land also had the unfortunate effect of stimulating the once dormant greed of the men in the village. One such man was Raymondo, who most had prayed would die buried in the ash of Pinatubo.
In another barrio, outside the town of San Manuel, lived a wife of a Navy man. In her house, Raymondo had seen treasures he knew no pesos could buy. In her house, he saw in her large glass cabinet, tall and erect, a shrine of forbidden fruit. The Navy wife had locked up behind the glass, old spice cologne, a stack of button down collared Van Heusen shirts, a very fine porcelain doll, and one pair of polished brown leather tasseled shoes that she set on top of a box that read FLORSHEIM. Raymondo had never seen any shoe like it. The stitches were so fine that they curved in a perfect arc around the tips and on the top. Only a master craftsman could make stitches so fine. The tassels were made of thin strips of fine leather, held in a bronze clasp. The shoes were so stunning that everything else Raymondo owned seemed old and ragged, and made not by master craftsmen, but by ignorant Igorot men in the hills above Baguio. In comparison, Raymondo’s shoes seemed to be stitched together in an uneven and barbaric manner by the old men who could no longer see.
Raymondo wanted those Florsheim shoes.
His infatuation with the shoes began with the woman’s mistake of having a large baby christening last month for her youngest child. The celebration grew so large that people in other villages came and a record one cow, 4 pigs, and 20 chickens were slaughtered for the event. However, Raymondo had one of the cooks steal the meat of one pig, therefore the party failed to exceed Raymondo’s own son’s wedding, where one cow, 3 pigs, and 25 chickens were slaughtered, guaranteeing that his son’s wedding would remain the grandest.
Raymondo was so determined to get those shoes, he dispatched three of his henchmen, who he thought despite their advanced ages, still had the capacity to successfully steal a pair of shoes. The men summoned to this simple task were the 58-year-old twins, Joe and Jun. Raymondo had purchased their 5-hectare farm at a generous price when it was covered with ash and the men near starvation with only 5 kilos of rice left to eat. When Raymondo invited them to his home and called them his “Comadres” over a meal of grilled goat and gin, they suspected there were hidden contingencies in the deal.
The two men left for San Manuel one late afternoon. When they got closer, they began asking for assistance from the people.
“Do you know where the wife of the Navy man lives?” they asked any person they passed. They realized they were getting closer to the center of San Manuel when the people they met became increasingly colorfully dressed. They saw young girls, dressed in their Spanish lace and curls, walking arm and arm together down the dusty roads, giggling and tossing their fragrances of flowers in the air. The old twins caught their scent and it brought back memories of their youth and their town fiestas, dressed in their starched barong tagalogs, waiting to watch the prettiest girls dance in their town square. However, the brothers never danced there, as this was reserved for the mayor and other dignitaries, but this didn’t stop the townspeople from coming out to watch and admire. The men continued on until they were in the center of town, surrounded by the aromatic smells of fried foods sold from carts lining the sides of the town plaza. The urgency of their mission was soothed by the distant view of the setting sun in the horizon behind the flickering skeleton of an old ferris wheel.
Anita’s mother always said, “When a baby smiles in his sleep, he is speaking to his guardian angel.” Joselito lifted the right corner of his mouth and then the left one. His eyeballs then moved quickly underneath the flesh of his lids and he laughed a hidden laughter. Anita felt contentment as she watched the half smiles on her baby Joselito’s face. Anita knew that his guardian angel had taken infant Joselito to the Fiesta.
It was the last day of the Town Fiesta when all the people of San Manuel and its surrounding barrios came to watch pretty girls parade through the town square in a flowery display of colorful fabrics and Spanish laces with hopes to be chosen as the next Miss San Manuel or one of her princesses. It was the day when the farmers replaced their dirty dungarees for clean pressed shirts and sat together smoking hand rolled cigars the size and color to match their sun baked fingers. It was the day the old women without aprons danced outside the low stucco walls of the square drunk from the spiked coconut and pineapple punch. It was the day the poor can watch the rich dance in the town square and dream that they someday can dance there too. Anita did not need to be at the Fiesta as she could see the Fiesta dance through the eyelids of her child.
Everyone had gone into town for the Fiesta leaving her at home in the barrio of Isabela with her newborn baby boy. A mother could not leave her house with her newborn for the first thirty days after giving birth as this was believed to have a negative affect on the baby and the mother’s health. So Anita stayed home, having food and groceries delivered to her daily by her younger sisters and mother. Anita was a good and thrifty wife, surviving on earnings from the sale of eggs from her ducks, as duck eggs were a delicacy. She was confident that her younger sisters could sell enough of these cooked eggs at the Fiesta to expand her operation into the neighboring towns.
Anita stood up from the hammock downstairs, where she had rocked Joselito to sleep. She cradled him in her arms and went upstairs to her bedroom. As she passed into her room she closed the door of the glass cabinet which was left ajar and which contained all possessions most important to her. She displayed many items from her husband, a Navy man, who would bring her gifts whenever he came home. Among these were a porcelain doll with white skin, pink cheeks, black hair, and a shiny satin red dress, a still full bottle of Chanel 5 perfume, an American made brown leather purse, photos in frames, a carved mahogany box filled with her husband’s un-cashed payroll checks, and a pair of brown leather tasseled Florsheim shoes. Next to the shoes sat a small tin of shoe polish that she was instructed by her husband to use on the shoes once a month.
She had just put the baby down into the bassinet when she heard a hard knock on the front door. Anita stood still and puzzled at hearing sound. A list of names and faces paged through her mind as she tried to guess who that could be. Not her Aunts and Uncles. They were dressed very well tonight because they bought their opportunity to dance in the town square with 2 kabans of rice and 6 cans of corned beef for the Mayor and Father Cecil. Not her brother Rogelio. His daughter, Rosalyn, was a contestant in the pageant and although Rosalyn was not the prettiest, Rogelio believed that he had sold the most raffle tickets and so had given his daughter a good chance at winning. Not her mother and father. They loved watching the yearly spectacle with all its boundless energy amid the warm smells of delicacies sold by vendors. The fried banana-Qs on a stick were her father’s favorite. The Fiesta was like watching fireflies dancing among a table of fragrant ripe fruit. It was exciting and delicious at the same time. Who would miss all of that and come to her door?
Anita heard the hard knocking again and she felt uneasy as she could not think of who that could be.
“Manang, Manang,” she heard someone yell from outside, “This is Boyong.”
She rushed downstairs to open the door and saw her cousin dressed in his constabulary uniform, breathing hard and looking like a caged animal ready to run.
“Boyong, you frightened me knocking so loud,” she said. “What is the matter?”
“You must leave now!” he said between breaths, as he quickly passed Anita and walked up the stairs to her bedroom.
“What? Why?” asked Anita as she followed him up the stairs, unable to digest this scene that presented itself to her.
She had just enjoyed visions of the Fiesta and fireflies and ripe mangos and now her cousin in his constabulary uniform was running through her house panting like an animal. She suddenly felt frightened too. Her cousin entered her bedroom and opened the dresser drawers and began to throw hers and the baby’s clothes onto the bed.
“They are after you,” said Boyong. “They are coming to rob you.”
“What? Why?” asked Anita, not believing what she just heard. “I think you are mistaken. Who would want to rob me? I have no enemies here.”
“Uncle Cesar saw two strangers in town looking for you. They were drinking gin at the Fiesta and they said they were looking for the woman married to the Navy man,” said Boyong.
Anita thought of Joselito’s smiles and thought his guardian angel would not allow any danger to be near him.
“Uncle Cesar lied when he told them he did not know you,” said Boyong, “but the men asked other men drunk with gin and now they know where you live and they are coming for you. Uncle Cesar sent me to get you.”
“Why are they coming for me? What do they want?” asked Anita, who now felt her neck tighten and the blood rushing to her temples. Her pulse throbbed in her head. After he emptied two drawers, Boyong then went to the cabinet and emptied its contents into the same pile on the bed. The doll, the Chanel 5 perfume, the photos.
“Those shoes!” he exclaimed pointing to the Florsheim shoes at the bottom shelf of the cabinet.
“They said that crook Raymondo saw some fancy shoes you have and he wants them. That man kills men like he kills chickens.” Boyong then grabbed the wooden box and threw it onto the pile. The box opened in flight and pieces of paper littered the bed covering the pile of clothes.
“What are those?” he asked.
“They are my husband’s payroll checks,” answered Anita. “I haven’t cashed them yet. I wanted to save them.”
“My God Manang Anita, what are you doing here in the barrio? You should be in the city with a big house and a maid and not here raising ducks and selling rice at the market.”
Anita heard the disgust in Boyong’s voice and she felt insulted as she wasn’t accustomed to someone younger telling her what to do. Anita could not see Boyong’s face as his back was turned to her, but she could see that he shook his head pitifully and Anita hated pity from anyone.
“I think you are lying to me Boyong,” Anita said, “I don’t think I am being robbed, I think you want me to leave here so you can take my house.”
Boyong said nothing and turned around to face her. He knew she did not mean what she said and that those words came from fear and panic.
“Raymondo is a friend of my husband’s. He would not send someone to rob me.”
“You may have been spared Raymondo’s greed up until now, but no longer. Don’t you see? You have too many things. You are the crab crawling out of the pot and Raymondo is the one to grab you back down. He is not your husband’s friend and it is no longer safe for you here. If you don’t believe me, then go around the rooms and close the shutters, tell me if you feel safe here tonight.”
Anita felt hot and dizzy as she walked from room to room in the dark closing the window shutters. Her loose clothes tightened around her chest. The wind outside blew humid gusts and she could see the malungai tree through the windows as it draped its feathery leaves to the east in a rhythmic wave as if waving goodbye to her. The moonlight also danced on the palms of the coconut trees and they fanned a farewell in unison. This foreboding of the surrounding trees made Anita uneasy and she imagined a figure sitting on a branch of the old malungai tree looking at her with legs dangling down to the ground. This imagery spooked her and she quickened her pace to each room making sure each shutter was closed tight.
Anita quickly returned to her bedroom and followed Boyong throughout the room. She felt the temples in her head tighten. She clung to Boyong for support but he was not steady and was moving about so quickly. She then thought of her baby and ran to the bassinet to grab him from his sleep.
Boyong wrapped the bed sheet over the pile and tied the ends of the sheet into a knot at the top and left the room quickly carrying the bundle down the stairs. Anita clutched her baby. She placed her left hand on the cabinet and steadied herself as she tried to strengthen her weakened legs. A shiny bronze clasp caught the corner of her eye. Boyong had left the shoes in the cabinet. With her right arm holding the baby, she freed her left arm and grabbed the shoes by the tassels as she rushed downstairs. As she ran out the door of the house, the malungai tree waved again a goodbye with what now looked like a headless figure in the tree, sitting on the largest bottom branch. As she scurried past the rows of bamboo that lined the side of their lot, the moonlight made the branches of the bamboo look like taut snakes. She thought she heard them hiss at her as she passed by. Suddenly, a twig fell from above and landed just in front of Anita’s path. She gasped, grabbed Joselito tight in both arms, dropping the Florsheim shoes to the ground. She rushed after her cousin who threw the bundle into the back of his jeep. Anita climbed into the seat next to him and looked back at the house to see the figures as they came down from the branches to stand and watch as the jeep drove away.