A Heel Ahead
Before Martha comes up with decorated clogs, chatter at the cooler is a necessary evil. The Team needs a boost to keep designing shoes. They get it by sipping chilled water while listening to Jim reenact the drunken scenes from his weekend. But the Chief doesn’t like it none.
The Chief is attempting to calculate thread consumption in the production of the Millennial Magenta Pop Sneakie, but as he hears Jim say, “Swear to Christ, I ain’t even notice her Adam’s apple ‘til I got my tongue down her throat,” he loses his grasp on the numbers—was it 21 meters to a three-quarter sole chain-stitched 4.0 centimeters per second? Instead, the Chief chooses another spreadsheet and refuses to look up till he has found a way to combine an alcantara vamp with a two-thread lock-stitch, but when Eric—who never guffaws at Jim’s jokes; he just blows air out his nose—blows air out his nose and Martha says, “Wouldn’t it be great if we made a stiletto for transgender women who wear a 14 and up?” the Chief sighs, lays down his pencil, and repeats to himself—he feels it deep within his gut—that goofing around never pays off.
The Chief is chief of the Team. The Team is Eric, Martha, and Jim. Stanley too, a little while longer, but Stanley will be gone soon. Stanley has drawn a shoe only a man can draw, and any day now, he’ll be living it up.
Eric is ashy like an overexposed polaroid; he walks with a limp and talks with a lisp, but no one cares, because Eric can look once at a shoe design and know if it will sell.
Jim is a chatterbox who—Martha found out once, but only once—even talks in his sleep.
Martha designs shoes, and she has a knack for designing shoes that get scrapped.
The first time Martha designs a shoe that gets scrapped is when she designs a flying shoe. ”It'll sell faster than jean jackets at a hoedown,” Eric lisps, bent over the layout.
“No one wants to prance about in light shoes,” Stanley says. He runs a manicured hand up his high fade and through his curled quiff, brings his index to his lips with a turn of his wrist, and stands there like an overbearing patron calming the rabble—hush now, children, hush.
“The essence of masculinity is to be rooted in the eternal and unfazed by the ephemeral,” Stanley croons. “This is achieved through a balance manifested in weighty footwear.”
Martha is about to say that her flying shoe will really be very, very comfortable when Stanley begins spreading his drawings over the table. Stanley has drawn a line of designs both red-blooded and vigorous. Stanley's shoe will have red leather flames on the side, a wide copper plated toe, spiked chainmail covering the heel, a varnished sheen that hurts the eyes of onlookers, and the loudest clack ever attributed to footwear. Stanley has drawn a manly shoe. Jim notes that the conflagration on the side resembles a bunch of dicks. Eric frowns and says it will be a moderate seller among middle-aged men.
The Chief has been crunching numbers for forty-five minutes. He now has a blood clot in one eye. He dithers when asked which shoe to greenlight, but since Eric declared Martha’s flying shoe a certain top-seller, the Chief decides both Martha and Stanley will present their shoes to the Board.
Martha wears her favorite sweater. An old birthday present from her aunt who knitted it full of giraffes that look like orange donkeys with broken necks. She rehearses her pitch outside the Boardroom. The air we breathe carry us through life; we sail on the same currents, and the air is the same to us all, no, it’s more like the air makes us equal—yes, to the air we’re all equal, she decides. Stanley comes out on a wave of laughter.
Martha does what she usually does when she is nervous: she rubs the tips of her synthetic leather brogues together and she chews her lower lip. And so, as she explains how funnels in the sole of her flying shoe will let the wearer walk on a cushion of air, her words come wrapped in squeaks and mumbles. The Board Members, distracted, shift in their chairs, scratch their comb-overs, and whisper amongst themselves.
But the Chairman comes to her rescue. He once felt her up in the hallway, pressed his erection against her buttocks and moaned something in her ear that sounded to Martha like the whirr of an overworked ceiling fan. They shared a brief moment of discrepant sentiment, one feeling entitled lust and the other mortified fear.
Now, as the Chairman and Martha lock eyes—the Chairman fueling his gaze with alpha charm by widening one eye and winking the other, a look Martha interprets as an involuntary tic—the Chairman asks: “You got the hots?”
“What? I’m—what?” Martha says, rubbing her shoes together like she’s trying to light a fire.
“’Cause since you want us to make air shoes, you must have a bad case of foot sweats you’re trying to cool,” the Chairman delivers.
The Boardroom erupts—tabletop slaps and heads thrown back in open-mouthed howls.
The Chairman prowls, one hand loosening his tie, the other gliding along the edge of the conference table, a lackadaisical stroll that leads him on a curve to Martha.
“You’re on to something, precious, I bet everyone from factory floor workers on their feet for forty hours to flatfooted feminists will want to float on air, but what I really want to know is: will those air shoes give you pneumonia?”
Martha takes a deep breath and reads a statement from her physician, Doctor Dave, who said, when Martha asked if cold feet could get you pneumonia, that being cold couldn't make you sick, but catching a virus could. So the Chairman claps, pirouettes, shakes two outstretched hands, and says he'll take the prototype flying shoes for a spin and walk on a breeze all weekend.
And the Chairman is as good as his word. Come Saturday, the Chairman laces up the flying shoes and takes a morning run in the rain. He plays 18 holes with his buddy, the Attorney. He has his flunkey spit-shine the flying shoes so he can stroll to a soiree where he foxtrots the bunions off an old Heiress whom he ends up pivoting, her dress lifting above her recently hip replaced hips, into a study. He lowers her onto a chaise lounge, lets her sip champagne out one flying shoe, and he has her poke her derriere in the air, so that he may snort two lines of blow off her butt cheeks. He then proceeds to pork the heebie-jeebies out that old Heiress—the flying shoes bringing quite the bounce to his pelvic thrust. He skips home through back alleys and dropkicks a bum who tries to rob him at knifepoint. He sleeps with his flying shoes on all through Sunday. And on Monday morning, he has gotten pneumonia.
So Martha’s flying shoe is scrapped. The Board has to settle for the next best thing, which is Stanley's shoe, the manly shoe. Stanley’s shoe is produced, and it is presented in stores on pedestals wrapped in twisting flames of red foam. It becomes a moderate seller among middle-aged men.
The second time Martha designs a shoe that gets scrapped is when she tries to knock the Chief out of his chair. The Board lets everyone know, except the Chief, that the Chief's job is up for grabs. Martha wants the job, and so does Stanley. Stanley has the manly shoe, and since her flying shoe was scrapped, Martha has nothing.
Martha meets the Team at the water cooler, but Martha doesn’t look much like Martha. She doesn’t wear a knitted sweater covered in odd-shaped animals; she doesn’t wear a pleated skirt that reveals not an inch of leg; her hair isn’t the usual short bob and bangs that veil her eyes, and her shoes—so she finally did rub those brogues to pieces, did she?—her shoes are six-inch, black suede stilettos and they take her, every step an assertive clack, right up to the water cooler. Before Eric has time to lisp a compliment on her bouffant updo, and before Jim starts telling the story of how he once downed a fifth of scotch and puked in the lap of a stripper who wore a skin-tight dress just like the grey-and-white striped one that clings to Martha’s hips and bosom, Martha says, “I need a shoe.”
Jim leans in close, points to the Chief—who ignores them all by hiding behind a fan of papers—and says, “You don’t want his spot. He can’t get any work done ‘cause we’re always here shootin’ the shit.”
“I do want his spot,” Martha says, “and to get it, I need a shoe. Not just any shoe, not just a good shoe, I need the best goddam shoe you can imagine slinking your stinky hooves into.”
Martha has pulled Jim close by his purple necktie. The Chief, hearing all this, responds the way he usually responds to the world around him—he tries to ignore it, and he slouches further down behind his papers. Eric limps over to the cooler to refill his paper cup. Stanley isn’t there.
“The best goddam shoes for my stank hooves would be wooden boxes, so they could be buried forever,” Jim says.
“You could start to wear a pair of Dutch klompen, stick your feet in a bed of tulips and get a job as a scarecrow. That yellow shirt and patchy beard, you’re halfway there already,” Martha says.
“Only stoop-necked doctors wear wooden clogs,” Jim says, “and chunky nurses, and buck-toothed dentists, and hippies knee-deep in their own organic fertilizer—I couldn’t do a hoe in clogs.”
“Really?” Martha says. She lets go of Jim’s tie, downs her water, flips the cup into the bin, and says, “Imagine a Swedish jente. She wears a deep blue skirt, a white wool scarf, and a look of longing so strong that even though she bites her lower lip she can’t conceal how thrilled she is to see you. She backs up slowly, sits down on a three-legged stool, rolls her skirt above her knees, pokes out both feet encased in yellow clogs decorated with red carnations, and she says: Come fuck me, Jim.”
“I—“, Jim envisions, “I could do a hoe in clogs, yes, yes, I could.”
“You could,” Martha says. “You could do a Romanian grandmother as she stands in her worn-down clogs, bent over to milk the family cow.”
“Well… what’s her clogs look like?” Jim says.
“They’re covered in cow shit, Jim,” Martha says, “but when they were new they were natural grained leather uppers embossed with heart prints fastened with gold-toned studs to soles of red-painted willow—they were beautiful, Jim, beautiful.”
And before Jim has time to say, Yes, yes, I could do her, Martha continues, “You could do an obese geisha so big on her rickety getas that her toes curl over the sides; you could do a barrel-assed Basque in albarcas who’d love to walk on your balls; you could do a toothless Lithuanian hooker in a pair of old sabots, no petals carved into them, completely unadorned, except for the varnish that wears off in streaks.”
“Stop,” Eric lisps. “You found your shoe.”
Martha looks up. Her eyes meet the Chief’s. He flutters a hand in her direction, says, “Clogs, yeah, yeah,” then ducks back behind his folder.
So Martha rehearses her pitch outside the Boardroom. We all have two feet, some small, some large, and we all get to the top using our feet—our feet makes us equal. This is the only shoe we need: one shoe for equal feet.
Stanley must be certain he has secured the Chief’s job, Martha thinks, because he isn’t here. And so, when the Boardroom doors open, they do not release a wave of laughter. Instead, the Chairman shuffles out and, not quite over his pneumonia, sneezes. As the Chairman empties himself into a handkerchief, Martha seizes the moment to enter the Boardroom before the Chairman can comment on her tight dress, her hairdo, the tock-tock-tock of the clogs she wears, or the trolley full of wooden shoes she drags with her. Martha empties the cart, positions five pairs of diverse clogs on the conference table and begins.
“John Lennon once sang: Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. We often find ourselves nose-deep in scheduling what we want to do, only to realize that what we really wanted has passed us by. Take a good look at your shoes,” Martha says.
The Board Members all eye their shoes. The Chairman pockets his hanky and stretches out his left leg, admiring his snakeskin loafer.
“You picked your shoes this morning with great care. You weighed a number of factors: suitability for the day’s activities, the level of comfort you desired, the amount of confidence you wanted to exude, and, especially, what others would think of you.
“I am just like you. I, too, picked my shoes this morning with much deliberation. But, the difference between you and I is that my shoes fit all occasions!”
There is some rummaging among the Board Members as they scoot forward in their chairs and adjust their glasses so they can see Martha’s clogs.
“This is the Bohemian Vintage Flower Ornamented Clog, carved out of a single piece of yellow poplar. Its rigid structure supports the arch of the foot; its thick sole has good shock absorption. It straightens the spine and improves posture; it exercises the calf muscles, and it alleviates Plantar Fasciitis. It is comfortable, durable, cheap to produce, and, gentlemen, it is beautiful!”
Martha sticks out one leg and waves her clog at the Board Members. A twisting mass of flowers covers the clog—golden solidago, blue anemones, pink streaked clematis, and bulbous peony—all on a base of purple and covered by a thin coat of radiating lacquer.
The Chairman sniffles. Coughs. And says, “Only a woman would design a shoe like that.”
Martha, unvexed, walks up to the clogs she placed on the conference table.
“Six variants on the same form, six versions for six types of people—yet, apart from the exterior coating, all six clogs are the same,” Martha says.
“The first clog, as you saw, gentlemen, is the one I’m wearing. The second clog is for the leftist: the Hand Painted Psychedelic Pattern Clog—or, as one of my colleagues calls it, the Hippie Chick Clog. It has a kaleidoscopic, pulsing motif that draws in those of egalitarian principles and those hoping to open their third eye.
“The third clog is for the republican: the Old Glory Clog. It sports an enduring design with the front painted in horizontal red and white stripes and the heel in blue overlaid with white stars.
“The fourth is for the girls: the Fluffy Puppy Patterned Cuddly Clog. A repeating design of cute dogs uses nine different shades of the color pink—such as taffy, flamingo, ballet slipper, and bubblegum. This clog is certain to make the tween demographic swoon.
“The fifth clog is for the boys: a disruptive coloration of blending blobs of olive green, mocha brown, dandelion yellow, and black makes the Battle Hardened Camo Clog the ideal equipment for play fighting in the back yard.
“And the sixth clog, gentlemen, is for you. You will notice that it is plain. It is carved out of a single piece of tulip poplar, and you can have it coated with any design you desire. Ever wanted to wear a shoe that bears the thin strokes of spiraling yellow seen in an impressionist painting? Maybe one covered in cubist, two-eyes-on the same side, Picasso-faces? How about a clog painted with the bobbing waterlilies of Monet?
“In our need for footwear, we are all equal, and this is the only shoe we need. The clog is the same to us all. In it, we can do everything—we can dance, run, golf, even. And we decorate the clog with our personalities!”
Martha stands, eyes wide and arms out, smiling. She has concluded her pitch with no vacillation. She has reached a sedated level of equanimity, and she can’t help but wonder if the clogs, ample and snug, were the foundation from which she could, finally, speak freely.
“I always wanted to wear crocodile. Can you paint them crocodile, you know, all jagged like the back of an alligator?” the Chairman asks.
“Any style. Everything is possible,” Martha replies.
“I always wanted metal shoes like a robot,” one Board Member says. “I want rainbow clogs!” goes another. “Can you paint them denim?“ “My clogs should look like whipped cream!” “Nipples! Nipples! Nothing but nipples!”
The clogs are a success. And they are a success for forty-five minutes. They are a success as the Chairman tries on the Old Glory Clog and strolls round the Boardroom feeling the substantial gravitas they impart on each of his steps. The clogs are a success as the Chairman dares a Board Member, with a liver spotted forehead that hangs over his eyes, to try on the Hippie Chick Clog so they can yell at each other about the legitimacy of clean coal and the need for further gun control. The clogs are a success as the Board Members take turns wearing them—one gets misty-eyed seeing his feet wrapped in pink, fluffy, cuddly puppies, and another, running in the Battle Hardened Camo Clog, points both indexes and goes, “Ra-ta-ta-ta-tah, you’re hit, Morton, you’re hit!” The clogs are a success, in fact, right up until the point where the Chairman slaps Martha’s ass.
“You did good, precious,” the Chairman says.
“Thank you,” Martha says. “And, sir, by the way—you should know that these clogs are also extremely well-suited for self-defense.”
“I imagine a bump on the head from one of these might send a fella reeling,” the Chairman replies, “but I wouldn’t rely too much on wood klomps to keep you safe—best you find a proper man for that.”
“Oh, I need no man for protection—what, you think you could take down a woman in clogs, Mr. Chairman?” Martha says, hands to hips.
The Chairman raises one eyebrow, and, perhaps because his feet are deeply rooted in the Old Glory Clog, or maybe because he is, after all, the Chairman, he says, “Just remember, precious, you brought this on yourself.”
Martha is still. Her hands are by her sides; she holds her head high. The Chairman advances. He jumps with outstretched arms, reaching for Martha’s waist. Martha pivots. She grabs the Chairman by the wrist, spins him round, knocks him off balance with her hips and executes a spinning hook kick that delivers her Bohemian Vintage Flower Ornamented Clog straight to the Chairman’s balls.
The Chairman presses his nose into the carpet. He mumbles something about Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, and his hernia.
So, Martha’s clog is scrapped.
The Board decides to give the Chief’s job to Stanley. But Stanley isn’t here. Stanley has been to numerous three-martini lunches with executives of a rival company, and he will soon be their Chief. Once in place, Stanley will work on a superior manly shoe (with an even louder clack), and he will introduce the idea of a shoe with funnels in the sole that let the wearer walk on a cushion of air. Stanley's new bosses will be worried that this floating shoe may give you pneumonia, but Stanley will assure them that while catching a virus can make you sick, being cold cannot.
Left with nothing but Martha’s clog, the Board decides to put it into production. As long as, the Chairman insists, they include a disclaimer that disavows all responsibility should the clog be used in the performing of martial arts.
The clog is, predictably so, a success. After all, Eric had said, when he examined the designs, “These’ll sell faster than hackie sacks at a douche bag rally.”
But the Board doesn’t give the Chief’s job to Martha. Instead, the Board decides to let the Chief remain the Chief, and because his desk is so close to such a small water cooler, the Board rewards the Chief, and his Team, with the 250-Gallon Glacial Cooling System for their work on the Clog.
So because Martha came up with decorated clogs, chatter at the world’s largest water cooler is, still, a necessary evil.
The Chief tries to determine whether the upper should be attached by a single-thread chain-stitched Goodyear welt, or turned out and over using a water resisting Veldtschoen construction, but when he hears Jim ramble about bringing a box full of booze to his Gramps at the old folk's home and how they got hammered and ended up double teaming Mrs. Marks, who'd been quite a piece of ass in her time or so Jim's Gramps had said, the Chief loses his train of thought. The Chief then looks at a problem of durability when using a single-thread Blake-stitching, but after he hears Martha comment that senior citizens are an untapped market for custom clogs—“We could make clogs that give off the musky smell of cigar smoke in a train carriage,”—and Eric goes, “They’ll be off the shelves faster than a toupee in a hurricane,” the Chief sighs, lays down his glasses, and repeats to himself—he feels it deep within his gut—that goofing around never pays off.