A Tale of Two Sneakers
A soul in her soles.
She sat on a park bench, despondent; a vision in tulle layers and black and white sneakers.
I had qualms about sitting beside a child who was a stranger to me but who could resist the lure of her outfit and the possibility of a mid-morning chat.
“Hello,” I greeted with a positive lilt.
She slid further down the bench, head lowered, no eye contact.
I tried again. “Lovely outfit. Can you tell me why you are dressed for ballet with sneakers on your feet?”
Her head came up, just a little. “I don’t talk to strangers.”
“Wise,” I agreed, searching the green-treed landscape.
Children were playing in sandboxes, swings and slides. Parents were paying half attention, one eye on a child, one eye on a digital screen. Many, ‘Look at me, mum’, demands floated unheeded on the hazy summer air.
There appeared to be no half-attention being bestowed on Sneaker Girl.
“Where’s your mum?” Straight to it, that’s me.
The girl squinted, head on one side, trying to decide.
She shrugged. “Don’t have one.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Dad?” I enquired, as gently as I could.
“High on coke, he threw me out.” She sniffed, reaching for the bottom of her tulle skirt. Before I could come to the rescue with a clean tissue, she wiped her nose unsatisfactorily with the flimsy, non-absorbent fabric. Her efforts resulted in a sticky trail spread across her top lip.
“Here.” I offered a soft, white, three-ply tissue.
She took my offering and spoke roughly, “I’m not falling for any story about a lost dog, you know.” She cleaned up her lip and tossed the tissue back at me. My face must have registered disdain.
“I haven’t got no pockets and there’s no bin,” she stated bluntly.
Lifting the tissue by a corner, I dropped it into a ziplock bag. “I don’t have a lost dog or any dog for that matter.” I addressed her concern.
“Thought all old ladies had a dog or a cat. You should probably get a cat, then you wouldn’t have to bother kids in the park.”
Touché. The girl was smart!
“Never enjoyed being thought of as an old cat lady,” I ventured. “Thinking about it, I prefer dogs.”
The child allowed a smile to touch the corners of her mouth. “Me too. Never held a cat whose breath didn’t stink.”
“That’s just the food cats are fed,” I remarked. “I don’t think cats naturally have bad breath.”
Sneaker girl nodded, deep in thought.
“I wear ’em because my mother gave ’em to me before she died.” Half a glance from a lowered head.
The sudden turn in the conversation surprised me. “Your sneakers?”
“Yep. When they finally fit me, Mum said I could have them because she was too sick to go anywhere that sneakers would take her.”
“Nice of her,” I answered. “Did your mum have an illness?”
“Cancer.” More sniffles. This time I offered my compact pack of tissues, setting it beside her.
“I’m not gonna cry.” She pushed the pack back across the bench.
“I might,” I thought, reclaiming the tissues.
“She gave me her fancy dancing dress, too.” She picked at the corners of her colourful outfit.
“Ahh, your ballet outfit. Do you like to dance?”
The girl made a small derisive sound and gave me a full, baleful glare. “I don’t do ballet! That’s for sissies. I do hip-hop.”
I knew of hip-hop. “Really? Hip-hop in a tulle skirt? Isn’t that rather inappropriate?”
Another snort as the girl suddenly leapt from her seat and hoisted her skirts to reveal pink, figure-fitting bike pants.
“Ahh,” I replied. “Wouldn’t shorts or jeans be less awkward?”
The girl responded by sulking and plopping down beside me. “I love this dress. I never take it off. Except to go to bed, of course. Same with my sneakers.”
I nodded. “I suppose all that colour adds to your dancing.”
The sulk broke into a grin. “Yep, that’s why people like watching me.”
“What’s your name?” I risked the question.
She hesitated, but only for a moment. “Anna.”
“That’s pretty. My middle name is Anna. Isn’t that a coincidence?”
A cloud of suspicion settled on Anna’s features. “You’re just trying to suck me in by saying we have the same name.”
“You’re too smart for me to fool,” I agreed.
Anna jumped to her feet, twirled in front of me, suddenly executing a neat backflip. Layers of colourful tulle fluffed, rose and fell, fleetingly revealing Anna’s bright pink bike shorts. She landed squarely on her bequeathed sneakers, facing me front-on, hands on hips, legs akimbo.
“Wanna see some more?” she asked, suddenly animated.
Dance, it seemed, was how she dealt with her dark world. Her mother’s special gifts of dress and sneakers lent the girl a physical vibrancy that remained hidden until it was time to perform.
I nodded, thrilled to be her impromptu audience.
Anna surprised me by launching straight into a routine that was both dazzling and perfectly executed. She moved with an agility I could only dream of; posturing, flipping, spinning- an amazing mixture of dance and acrobatics. She made hip-hop beautiful and appealing.
I looked up to see a small group of children and parents gathering, cell phones stored except for those who were videoing Anna’s every lithe movement. When she had finished with a flip, twirl and a final dramatic posture made with hands and thumbs, her audience cheered and whistled, calling for an encore. She politely declined and flopped back to sit beside me on the bench as the crowd drifted back to cell phones and the park.
I grinned at Anna. “You dance amazingly well. I would call it a mixture of hip-hop and jazz. So athletic and beautiful.”
“Call it what you like, I don’t care.” She looked me full in the eyes. “Thanks, though, I guess.” She went back to gazing at her feet.
I detected a small movement of her lips. “Are you praying?” I asked, in amazement.
She looked up suddenly, a slight flush of colour highlighting her cheeks. “Not exactly.”
I stayed silent, hoping she would continue in her own good time. The silence seemed interminable.
Finally. “I always thank my mum after I dance. I reckon my sneakers have her soul in their soles.” She hunched her shoulders as if in pre-emptive defence.
I said nothing. My heart was threatening to break with a resounding crack.
“She was a wonderful dancer,” continued Anna softly. “I think I move better now since I got her sneakers.”
“Ahh, soul transference,” I muttered, trying to sound knowledgeable.
Anna drew in a sharp breath and resumed her gaze into my eyes. “Really? Is there such a thing?”
“Didn’t you just say so?” I countered. “We manifest what we believe, so why couldn’t your mother be dancing with you?”
“I like that idea. She loved to dance, pulling me around the kitchen when I was a little kid. I miss her.” The girl seemed to need the tissue pack again, so I started to fish around in my handbag. Good grief! How could something that big get lost so quickly?
“It’s okay. I’m not snivelling.” She stopped me mid-search by placing a hand on my wrist.
I looked at her in surprise. “I thought you weren’t going to fall for my tricks,” I simply stated.
“That’s just it. There isn’t a trick at all, is there?” She was looking at me hard, eyes attempting to read my mind.
I shook my head, afraid to speak.
“I know you, don’t I?” she whispered, fear at the edge of her question.
My answer was an almost imperceptible nod of the head. “Please don’t flee, please don’t flee,” I prayed to no one in particular. Without breaking eye contact, I fiddled with one hand, trying to locate something in my handbag abyss. Slowly, my arthritic fingers closed on an object. I drew it carefully from the tote, vaguely wondering why I still hadn’t located the tissue packet.
With a move that felt seamless, I passed the object to Anna.
“Should this mean something to me?” she asked, staring sadly at the photo. Seconds passed. “Oh, hang on a minute…” She stabbed a finger at the picture. “This is you when you were younger and oh…”
“Yes, Anna,” I interjected quickly, “the younger lady is your mum …”
Her eyes suddenly widened in alarm as she sprang from the bench.
“Please don’t run,” I beseeched her, knowing that I could never hope to catch her.
“What’s this all about? I don’t like surprises. What’s going on?”
I was upfront and honest. “Your mum was my daughter. Your father kept us apart because he knew I didn’t like or trust him.”
Anna held her breath, trying to decide- stand and listen or run away from whatever horrors were about to befall her.
“Why didn’t you come sooner?” she whispered.
“I didn’t know where your mother was, and I certainly didn’t know she had a daughter,” I whispered back. Where were those bloody tissues? I half-heartedly continued my futile bag search.
“And now?” Anna plopped down beside me on the bench and reached under layers of tulle. She passed me my packet of tissues, warmed by her body.
“I want you to come and live with me. I can tell you all about your mother and her dancing, and we can find a place for you to go to school.”
“What about my father?” she whispered, with fear darkening her eyes.
“He was arrested for possession this morning- not long after you left the house and let the police know where to find him,” I replied.
“Does he know?” she asked, fear heightening.
“No,” I was quick to reassure her. “The police called Child Services, and we set out to find you.”
“We?” she was surprised.
I pointed to a young woman sitting on the next park bench. She had a briefcase resting on her lap and was looking in our direction with a tentative smile directed our way.
“I won’t go into it all now.” I placed a hand on Anna’s slim wrist. “But when I found out about your mum dying, the authorities told me about you. The Court and Child Services are working on guardianship, if you want, that is.”
“Can we get a dog?” she whispered.
“Can I still do hip-hop?” She jiggled on the bench, a subconscious dance, trying to break free.
“You can dance, you can study dance, you can be whatever you want to be,” I promised. “Just as long as you make one promise to me.”
Anna jumped up and tried to pull me to my feet. “What?” she asked with excitement.
“You take your mother with you whenever you perform.” I smiled at my granddaughter.
“I think she takes me with her. Not the other way around.” Anna suddenly twirled, back-flipped and struck a typical street hip-hop pose. “Wassup?” she grinned.
“I’m about to take us home, that’s wassup,” I laughed. “That dress of yours needs a damn good clean.”