My big brother Tom wore snakeskin shitkickers. Not just the uppers, but the whole boot, except the sole and heel, was shimmering reptile.
Whenever he bought a new pair he’d want me to run my hands along the scaly material.
“Genuine snakeskin. Feel that, kid,” he said to me once when we were watching television. He swung his leg up so that his cowboy boot rested on my lap.
I cringed into the couch, but brushed the tips of my fingers along the pointy toe.
“How can you appreciate that material? You’re hardly touching it.”
“Snakes give me the creeps,” I admitted. “Grab ahold. Right there at the instep.”
I held my breath and grasped his boot with both hands. “Look out!” my brother yelled, jerking his foot in the air. “It’s alive.”
I shrieked, jumped. While my brother laughed and laughed, I left the room to call my best friend Cindy.
Talking to Cindy comprised the most important portion of my day. A half-hour after we walked home from school we would phone each other with updates. If my brother was home when the phone rang he would give me the “challenge eye,” a slight rise of his eyebrows and a sideways glance, and then race me to the phone. I tried my hardest to beat him because his responses to Cindy were stupid and humiliating. “You’ll have to call back.
Diane’s busy walking around naked and complaining that there’s a crack in her butt.” Despite his telephone manner, Cindy phoned even more frequently when Tom was home.
My brother worked the rigs. Three weeks in, three weeks out. When he was away I had the phone to myself. I had my Mom to myself. We would have small feminine meals. Open-faced sandwiches and instant Spring Vegetable soup. Or canned pineapple rings on cottage cheese. Sometimes Cindy would stay for supper. She complained about her horrible younger siblings and the atrocities committed at mealtime at her house. My Mom smiled at Cindy’s complaints.
“You have no idea how bad it is,” Cindy wailed, “Never sophisticated like this. Our kitchen is like a food fair.”
“Things will change, honey,” Mom assured her. “Not in my lifetime,” Cindy mumbled.
“Things will change” was also my mother’s response to any angst I was feeling about school or friends. Like Cindy, I found it an unhelpful comment. Left to our- selves, both Cindy and I mimicked my Mom’s smile and nod and patted each other on the head saying, “Things will change,” and then giggled a list of affectionate names. “Sweetest pie, honeypot, garlic breath, bum face, fart head.”
Mom cooked. I did the dishes. We slept in side-by-side rooms upstairs. We left the house at the same time in the morning—she to her editing job, me to school. We arrived home at about the same time. We folded laundry together. By the end of three weeks we were bored and snippy with each other. Our talk began to revolve around Tom’s expected arrival. My Mom recited meaty meals, perhaps a rump roast or sloppy joes, that she planned to cook for dinner. I suggested errands that Tom and I could do for my Mom—because I loved to be in his little red car.
By the time Tom arrived, even a walk down the front steps to his Toyota seemed exciting. In the summer he might fire his car keys at me. “Think fast, kid.” I never had to think so fast that I couldn’t catch the keys. In the winter, the smooth sole of his cowboy boots caused him to slip, yelp, run a few steps, but never crash. Any season, if I was in the passenger seat Tom would pull his Toyota into my empty school parking lot and demonstrate donuts and brake stands. I loved the rush of spinning in circles or careening past the teachers’ parking blocks.
If we drove by my friends, especially Cindy, Tom would recline his seat and drive with his shitkickers, his long skinny legs pretzelled between his head and the steering wheel. The radio would be cranked, 1140 CKXL blasting top ten hits from the car to the sidewalk.
“I wish I could come with you and your brother sometime,” Cindy pleaded.
“We just go for groceries.”
“I could sit in the back seat. I could meet you at your house—like you wouldn’t have to come and pick me up or anything.”
“I don’t know. You wouldn’t tell your mother?” “I swear to God.”
“I don’t know. The back seat’s pretty small.”
Before my brother left for each rotation, my Mom delivered her familiar lecture. She never bugged him about finishing school, but she had plenty of safety advice. Usually she began when she came through the door, as though she had been withholding her words all day at work.
“Get yourself a truck,” Mom said, hanging her purse on the back of a kitchen chair. “A sturdy North American truck. I’ll help you pay for it. You can’t keep driving that matchbox to the drill sites.” She put her hands on her hips and stood in front of Tom. “Get yourself a hard hat. And wear it. Get yourself out of there if they’re not following procedures. If they’re letting you wear those cow- poke boots, they’re not following procedures.”
Tom kept nodding and saying, “Yep, yep, yep.” He rolled his eyes at me. Mom poked two fingers into his chest.
“Listen up. This is important.”
Tom fell on the floor, writhing, feigning a mortal wound at the site of the two-finger poke. Mom slid her hands into her pantsuit pockets and dropped her shoulders. I stepped on Tom’s stomach on my way to the cupboard for a chocolate dipped Wagon Wheel.
My brother didn’t phone ahead when he finished a rotation. He just drove home and walked into the house. His boots clicked across the slate at our front door.
“That’ll be your brother,” my Mom would say, patting the enamel sailboat that hung at her neck. My brother had given her that sailboat, which looked more like an umbrella to me, when he was a little boy. None of us had ever been sailing.
“Tom, you take those cowboy boots off,” she’d shout from the kitchen, then, listening to the uninterrupted click of heels on the slate, she’d hustle to the front door. “Now!”
“Can’t,” he’d say, as he stepped off the slate and headed up the carpeted stairs that led to his room. “Can’t get them off.”
I half believed him. I knew he must take them off to sleep and shower. But, in my twelve years, I couldn’t recall him without cowboy boots.
“Hogwash,” my Mom would say. “They’re scratching the slate. I paid a fortune for that slate.”
“Got to buy them tight,” he’d say, “otherwise they’ll get sloppy.”
When my Mom got to the stairs she gave him the two- finger poke.
“You’re not in some boondock trailer,” she’d say. “I’m sure not,” he’d say.
“You’re sure not,” she’d say, putting her arms around his waist and hugging him so tight her face squashed against his chest.
Tom was usually home for more than three weeks during spring thaw because the ground became too soft for the heavy vehicles used in drilling. When he came home the snow would be melting from our yard, revealing the underlying dog shit. We didn’t have a pet, but our neighbour’s dog favoured our yard. Shortly after Tom arrived home he would start the lawn work. I spectated while he lined the point of his boot up, took two steps back, then, arms out, hopped forward, punting a lump of dog shit all the way to the curb or into the hedge.
“Use a shovel,” Mom would laugh. “Diane, get him a shovel.”
Occasionally Tom kicked a shit onto our neighbour’s roof.
“Whoopsy,” he would say loudly.
A few days before my thirteenth birthday, we heard the front door swing open and the familiar click of boots across the slate. My Mom and I had been making cheese popcorn—and I had talked her into watching a horror movie on TV. Cindy had to babysit her siblings, otherwise I would have asked her to sleep over and watch the movie with us.
“Just putting my bag away.” Tom embraced my Mom with his free hand, rested his chin on her head for a few moments. He winked at me.
I wished I was wearing my birthday present—a red smock top. I had already seen it, in fact I had picked it out at Fairweather’s, but Mom had wrapped it up—to be opened only on my official birthday in a few days.
Everyone wore smock tops at school. Even though Mom complained that they looked like maternity blouses, she bought me one.
I said “hi.” I felt pleased that Cindy was at her own house. “Think fast.” The Toyota keys sailed towards my head.
My birthday fell during spring breakup and, at least for the few years since he had quit school to work, I could count on my brother for an extravagant gift. For my eleventh birthday he gave me a portable tape recorder and a couple of cassettes, including the Stampeders. Even better, for my twelfth birthday he gave me an electric vanity mirror and a bag of Bonne Bell cosmetics. Now Cindy and I could see ourselves, made-up, in movie star lights, singing the Stampeders’ “Devil You.” I suspected that Cindy imagined herself singing to my brother.
Once when Cindy stayed for dinner my brother leaned back in his chair and plopped his booted foot on his place mat.
“Look at that boot, Cindy,” he said. “That heel’s not just glued on. It’s nailed up and down.”
Cindy blushed, then giggled.
“For Pete’s sake,” I said after dinner, when Cindy and I were sharing a cigarette behind the utility box in the alley, “he’s my brother.”
Cindy, much more bold in Tom’s absence, said, “He’s a hunk. A hunka hunka. And I love those boots.”
“His boots are gross.”
Cindy rounded her lips and tapped her cheek so that a series of tiny smoke rings pumped out of her mouth.
“He’s not a cowboy, Cindy. The only time he’s ever ridden a horse he was scared to death. He should be wearing hiking boots or Adidas like everyone else.”
The night before my thirteenth birthday, I heard my brother’s footsteps, unusually light and quick, as he ran upstairs to his bedroom. I pulled back my covers, peeked into the hall. I saw Tom crouch to adjust a white bow on a stuffed pink mouse. The mouse was huge, bigger than my brother’s torso. Flat plastic eyes and two plush yellow teeth made it appear mechanical, or maniacal, anything but cute. More remarkable than the mouse, however, were two shimmering spots at the end of my brother’s jeans. His bare feet. They were short and round, with plump little toes, and a whiteness, an incredible whiteness that made them look phosphorescent against the dark carpet.
I could not remember ever seeing my brother’s bare feet. I must have assumed that they looked like his shit-kickers. Long, with crinkled leathery skin covering bent-up bones. But Tom’s toes were smooth and square. With skin like Cindy’s baby sister’s.
Not noticing me, my brother picked up the mouse then took the stairs down, three or four at a time. I snuck back into my bed and held my arms over my tensing stomach. I was almost thirteen. I had a pack of Craven “M” menthol cigarettes in my closet. Cindy and I were seriously considering buying a bag of weed from a kid in grade nine. I was going to a bonfire party on the weekend.
A stuffed mouse. What was my brother thinking?
The next morning, my birthday, I stayed in my room well past breakfast time. I listened to the voices of my Mom and Tom in the kitchen. The scratch of a chair. I heard my Mom turn on the radio on the kitchen counter. Eventually I pulled a sweatshirt over my pajamas and followed the smell of beef breakfast strips to the kitchen.
There, on the centre of the table, beside my wrapped smock top, was the big stuffed mouse. Even before I entered the kitchen my Mom caught my eye. She smiled encouragingly at the mouse and then at me. “Happy birthday, Sweetheart.”
My brother was at the kitchen table.
“How ’bout this, kid?” He grabbed the fuzzy front feet and two-stepped the mouse towards me.
“Wow. That’s great,” I said, flipping the mouse’s ears inside out. “Thanks.”
“I’m heading out to the mall to pick up a few things. Come for a ride?” my brother asked. He tossed the car keys at me.
“C’mon, kid. You start the car.” The keys smacked on the table.
“You go along,” Mom said to Tom. “I’ll shower first,” Tom said.
Tom left the kitchen and my Mom brought a glass of orange juice to the table. She sat beside me. “You did a good job.” She put her arm around me. “So did Tom. Everybody’s different. It’s hard to know what sort of gift a person would want.”
I worked at swallowing my sip of juice.
“There, there,” she stroked my head until I sobbed,
“I’m thirteen. Not a baby,” and turned my head into her shoulder to cry.
“Things will change, Sweet pea.”
Tom returned to the kitchen after his shower. I was dry-eyed and eating cereal. His wet hair dripped on his white Levis shirt.
“You wearing your pajamas or the new maternity shirt?” Tom asked, wiping a trickle of water from his neck.
“Don’t call it that,” Mom said. “It’s a smock top. And don’t call her kid.”
“Can I still start your car?” I asked, setting down my spoon.
Tom dropped the keys out of his hand, caught them with the toe of his cowboy boot and kicked them towards me.
“Think fast. Maybe we’ll have to drive by your school.”
“What for?” Mom asked as I snatched the keys and ran into the bathroom to change into my smock top.
Not long after my birthday, after my brother had returned to work, I was in the bathtub soaking in Strawberry Fields Bath Foam. With the help of many bobby pins, and my vanity mirror, I had pulled my shag haircut on top of my head. The bathroom window was wide open to vent my cigarette smoke. Having just mastered French inhaling, I admired my skill in the reflection on the faucet. Take a drag, extend the lower lip, inhale through the nose. A stream of smoke entered each nostril. I couldn’t wait to show Cindy.
When the doorbell rang I extinguished my cigarette in the bath water. Sitting absolutely still in the pink-tinged bubbles, I listened to Mom crossing the slate to answer the door. I heard men’s voices, unusual at our house, especially at night, especially with Tom back at the rig. I couldn’t distinguish their words but I could tell there were two men talking to my Mom. I hopped out of the tub, flushed the cigarette butt down the toilet and wrapped a towel around myself. Checking the mirror, I decided my hair looked rather sophisticated so I left it pinned on top of my head. I thoroughly brushed my teeth to cover my cigarette breath.
My Mom was alone, standing in the kitchen with her arms crossed, her hands grasping her forearms.
“Your brother’s been killed, Sweetie,” she said.
“Who killed him?” I asked, tightening the towel around my body.
“An accident at the rig.”
“So no one really killed him.” I yanked at the towel to keep it from sliding down my narrow chest.
“The body will be here tomorrow.” Mom filled the kettle with water.
“Tom’s body. Not the body. Tom’s body.” I knew I was being unfair but couldn’t stop.
Mom plugged in the kettle and rubbed the sailboat on her neck.
“I’ll have to plan a funeral.”
“Tom’s funeral,” I said, shaking my fists and letting the towel slide off my body. “Not a funeral.”
Mom looked vacantly at me, asked, “Tea?”
The next day Cindy flopped on our couch, still wiping away tears. She pulled the box of Kleenex onto her stomach.
“Oh my God, this is so awful. At least you have the stuffed mouse.”
“I’m going to pitch it.”
“Oh no, Diane, my God, you can’t do that.”
“That’s what I’m going to do.”
“Don’t throw it out. It means too much. I’ll take it.”
“Be my guest.”
“Fine. I will.”
Sniffling and snuffling, Cindy manoeuvred the giant mouse out our front door and carried it home to her bedroom, where she impaled it on her bedpost.
My Mom wrote a short obituary for the newspaper and included a goofy looking picture of my brother in grade ten. When the obituary appeared in the newspaper, she read it carefully. Finding no errors, she scrunched the newspaper into two balls and took them to the gym bag at the front door. The gym bag, delivered by the funeral home, contained the clothes Tom had been wearing when the pipe slipped. Mom unzipped the bag and pulled out my brother’s snakeskin shitkickers. She sat on the bottom step of the stairway, stuffing the newspaper deep into the boots.
“To keep the shape,” she said, as she carried the boots up to Tom’s bedroom. Hours passed before I heard Mom close Tom’s closet and walk down the hall to her own room.
In the many years that have passed since my big brother’s death, I have never missed that stuffed mouse. And last month, when I cleaned out my Mom’s house, I did not hesitate before dropping Tom’s flaking cowboy boots into the garbage. My son, who was supposed to be helping me pack things up, retrieved the boots and tried them on. He clomped around the house for almost an hour before declaring that the boots stank like pizza farts. Watching him kick off the boots, I was reminded of my brother’s feet on the eve of my thirteenth birthday.
Some things don’t change. The tenderness of those feet is forever startling.
Barb Howard lives in Bragg Creek. Her novel, Whipstock, was nominated for Best First Novel at the 2002 Alberta Book Awards. She is the winner of the AlbertaViews 2002 Short Story Competition.