Walking does not come naturally to me.
Many years ago I was that kid with the weird clothes. My attire was completely out of tune with that of my peers, owing to the fact that my mother refused to buy clothes from clothing stores. “A fancy logo got nothin’ to do with keeping your butt covered,” she’d tell me. But it has a lot to do with me getting my butt kicked, I thought. I wasn’t asking for much. I would have settled for jeans that didn’t feature a yarn and studs depiction of that weeping Indian from the “Keep America Beautiful” TV campaign. But try telling my mother that retirement home craft fairs were not bastions of haute couture.
I had no say in matters of wardrobe. I could only wait for my clothing to deteriorate and hope the replacement would be less of a fist magnet. Needless to say that I helped this process along where I could, scraping along the school’s cinderblock halls, or packing my pockets full of rocks until the seams were strained to the breaking point. But despite the cardiovascular benefits of hauling around ten extra pounds every day, my behavior was viewed as eccentric, and it won me no friends.
Neither was I safe in my own home. Money was tight, and we were living with my step-grandparents at the time, a cynical couple with whom I’d developed an adversarial relationship. My grandfather in particular was a balloon-bellied orangutan-like man with arms like the proverbial ten foot pole. One of his most cherished pastimes was cuffing me across the back of the head whenever I passed by his recliner on the way to my room. Regardless of my pace or bearing, his hand always seemed to land its mark. He could be in a gin stupor and fully reclined, and still catch me upside the head as I tried to sneak by.
Where apparel was concerned, shoes became a particularly touchy subject. With my mother perusing church flea markets every weekend there was simply no predicting what would end up on my feet–half the time I was lucky if I got a matching pair. For my birthday I got obligatory new shoes, logo-free as expected, which turned out to be moccasin / saddle-shoe hybrids with a “stars and stripes” bicentennial theme. They were straight out of a playground bully’s wet dream.
I had finally reached the breaking point. “You’re trying to get me killed!” I yelled at my mother, then extended the retractable wheels from my right “Pop-Wheels” shoe and skated to my room, pausing only for the grandfatherly punch to the base of my skull. For more than a month I glowered, refusing to try on the new shoes, during which time my toes cultivated a broad variety of blisters as they sought escape from their increasingly crowded confines. But when I finally did forfeit I learned that good things sometimes come in hideous packages: I found that my new shoes were as silent as slippers.
No, they were better than that: their sonic footprint was virtually nil. Indeed, they were the silent shoes of every kid’s fantasy. Children hold few other things with as much reverence as silent shoes: secret pockets, found money, and snow days, to name several. But none of them conjured such whimsical thoughts as silent shoes. Wearing them was like suddenly gaining a new super power. Indeed, once I stopped packing my pockets with gravel, my gait became a fearsome thing: lizard-quick, but silent as butterflies.
I wish I could say that I gave in to my darkest whims, that I took advantage of the situation. It’s a romantic notion to think of myself becoming so proficient at sneaking up behind my adversaries that they had to slink around with their backs to the walls like Vice cops on a bust. But in fact I realized the greatest benefit at home, where, thanks to my newfound ability to evade detection, I could now slip by my step-grandfather unharmed.
It was all too good to last however. I enjoyed my silent shoes for about three months, from the end of school through the last days of summer break. But my mom wanted me to start the school year off right, so she did the worst thing imaginable: she bought me corduroys. I was beside myself. I mean why get a kid silent shoes if you’re going to then saddle him with the loudest pants on the planet? And just when things start to get good? For the child with silent shoes, cords were like kryptonite to Superman. In addition to producing a sound not unlike a walrus war cry, these pants generated enough static electricity to melt a Tesla coil, a fact that annoyed my step-grandfather for the extra jolt he had to endure when spanking my skull.
Stealth alone had improved my quality of life to such a degree that I wasn’t about to let it go so easily. Committing an unfortunate miscalculation in judgment that I’ve regretted every day since, I began to walk with my legs farther and farther apart to keep the material from announcing my presence. That this was an act of futility didn’t prevent me from lumbering from side to side as if I were playing hopscotch. My days as a graceful walker came to an abrupt end, and the first days of school after the break found me darting down the halls like a little carnival-clothed crab.
I haven’t been able to walk naturally since then. Because I was made self-aware of such a basic thing as ambulation, the method of it became a matter of conscious decision. It wasn’t allowed to develop automatically. Do insects face such mechanical quandaries? Do they ever think, “if I beat my wings a bit more quickly might I hum at a more pleasing pitch?”