“Shoes” by L. Renée

L. Renée


Bluefield, West Virginia, 1961

First time I watch my sister set a fire
she’s twelve & I’se eight. Mama & Daddy leave
fa a card party, which mean Rosie & Billy
flee fa they secret flames, which mean
the middle kids—Harold & Velma & Lois—
ain’t too far behind em spyin. Foot knowledge can learn
ya faster than books. Dirt & rock & branch & bush
be as kindred as kin. Then, the house empty
of all our beloveds, and it’s just my sister
& me, my sister & her school saddle shoes,
which she did not love. They ain’t had no scuffs,
but brown specs caked em like dirty powdered sugar,
tintin white leather pee yella lye could neva
make clean. My sister say her shoes too ugly to be redeemed.
She say reee-deeemed like it cost five whole dollas,
slow & careful like Mama puttin milk & butter
& bacon & bread on account at the comp’ny store,
hopin Daddy tagged enuf coal cars,
haulin loads large enuf to break
even. Bein that she had reached fa that word & found
she could afford it, my sister tried to free herself
from three years of ugly ducklin livin, three years
of wearin the same shoes to school, since our folks
would not replace what they could repair.
She seized what she sized up as her only chance
to waste leftovers. First I thought she was kindlin
the stove’s coal & wood chips to warm up pintos
from last night’s supper, but when heat hovered
hot as a pissed spirit a horseshoed doorway couldn’t
keep away, when a hankerin fa new shoes flickered
in her peepers like a just-struck match, by the time I
noticed her knowin strike a-ha lightnin fast, it was
too late to redeem her. The stink of meltin skin
& rubber blew threw our kitchen. A groan
slid slow & careful like it was calculatin
a bill that ain’t add up: burner plate lid lifted,
lard slathered leather, the fiery tongue tested
and still clutched in her blistered
fingertips, my sister’s disbelievin.

from Rattle #78, Winter 2022
Rattle Poetry Prize Winner


L. Renée: “I am a collector of my family’s stories. Sometimes, we gather for oral history interviews and I am prepared with an audio recorder and a listening ear. Other times, we’re just having conversations around the dinner table or on the phone and somebody says, ‘Well don’t you remember when …’ and my hand reaches for a pen. On this occasion, my aunt was telling me and Mom about the time she tried to burn her school shoes on an old coal stove in West Virginia, where my granddaddy labored as a coal miner for 43 years before ultimately dying of black lung disease. After she shared this story, I kept hearing a little girl’s voice. She was a witness to my aunt’s attempted destruction of those shoes and I wrote down what she told me exactly the way I heard her tell it—dialect, diction, and all. This was a challenge—to honor this character’s authentic voice and allow her to tell her version of the narrative, but to take care that her voice was not misunderstood as caricature by readers. I spelled some words the way I heard them to celebrate the embedded music in her speech. Here, again, I tried to emphasize the multiple meanings of the tongue: the shoe’s tongue, the sister reaching toward an ‘expensive’ word like ‘redeemed’ (which comes with an implied cost), and the speaker’s own tongue in sharing this story. I am a believer in the power of storytelling and the ways in which Black folk have passed down knowledge, experience, and wisdom through the spoken word. When I write, I know I am not writing alone. I know all my ancestors, Black Appalachians who called dirt and mountains home, are with me.” (web)

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