Ethel Rohan


Hardship


her son complained that everyone at school would laugh at the secondhand shoes she’d bought for him at Oxfam. The sun gawked in the kitchen window, as if also sizing up the black hand-me-downs. Ireland’s summer, the bitch, always saved her best for September and the children’s return to school. Her son wouldn’t stop whining, said the shoes were nipping at his toes.

She peeled and halved a potato and pushed the slippery pieces inside the tops of the leather shoes. “Wait a few hours, that’ll sort them.”

Her son protested, as though she’d placed shit inside the shoes.

At least her husband liked his Oxfam shoes, their polished tan similar to the sleek coat of a squirrel. He wore the shoes on his hands, turning them, admiring.

As he winked, his pink mouth opened and she pictured looking into a dog. “You always had a great eye, and for the men too.”

She wanted to feel impressed that he could turn Oxfam shoes into a compliment about himself, but she didn’t. Typical that he wouldn’t see the size twelves as the trod of their increasing money troubles. When she was ten, she was awarded a gold medal in the school annual Olympics for winning a race on her hands. With this recession, her life had started to feel like she was always standing on one hand and with the other tied behind her back. The shoes needed to be heeled, but shouldn’t cost more than a few Euro. Their lives tempered now by the most they could make money stretch. She saved every penny, dividing the coins into a jar for the dull and a jar for the shiny.

At dinner, her son demanded to know why she wasn’t also walking around in Oxfam shoes. She didn’t need more shoes, but had bought herself a used dress: white, to the knee, and patterned with tiny red poppies.

Her husband chuckled. “You hardly needed another dress.”

Her contempt lunged from her face. He looked away.

“Everyone at school is going to laugh,” her son said again.

“No one needs to know they’re seconds,” her husband said.

She slapped her fork against the edge of the table. “Tell them where you got your bloody shoes and stop being such a baby. Who the hell is going to care about you and your stupid shoes?”

The blood rushed to her son’s face and his knife and fork trembled inside his little fists.

Not since childhood and that time she’d slapped the family cat had she felt so ugly inside.

“Let’s play a game, shall we?” her husband said, his voice shaky.

She forced a smile. “Yes, let’s play.”

“Let’s imagine who owned our shoes before us?” her husband used that same coaxing voice from last night, when the boy needed to take throat medicine.

“Great idea,” she said, feigning enthusiasm.

“I’ve the shoes of a Bishop,” her husband said. “A big, broad man with a ruby ring on his hand, the jewel so large and shiny it’s blinding!”

He smiled at his son. “Your turn.”

The boy opened his mouth, beginning his story, and she saw a flash of their future together, all teeth and red raw.



Ethel Rohan is the author of Hard to Say (PANK, 2011) and Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Books, 2010), the latter named a 2010 Notable Story Collection by The Story Prize. Her work has or will appear in World Literature Today, Tin House Online, The Irish Times, Post Road Magazine, The Rumpus, The Chattahoochee Review, Potomac Review and Southeast Review Online, among many others. She earned her MFA in fiction from Mills College, California. Raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan now lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters.

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