When Elmer told me I could find what I was looking for at Willey’s, I didn’t believe him. Not that I thought Elmer was lying, but that he just didn’t understand how difficult it is for me.
“Well, when I think on it,” Elmer was saying, “WILLEY’S is likely the place for you. You know, WILLEY’S, over in Ellsworth.”
Elmer was saying it like the name was written all in capital letters.
“They’re out behind the Roy Rogers, right where you turn on to Route One Eleven. Yep, try out over there at WILLEY’S. They’ll have what you want.”
He went on, his cheeks getting redder by the moment. Elmer’s baby–smooth face lies about his age, but the few white hairs that have stayed on his head set you straight. When he talks, Elmer’s light blue eyes smile at you like there’s something he knows that you don’t and he’s waiting around until you stumble all over it.
Elmer’s his real name, but when we met, he said to call him Pete.
“Everyone else does, so you might as well too.”
Pete’s the caretaker, which means he comes over to cut the grass surrounding the cottage we’re staying in, oil the squeaky hinge on the screen door that opens onto the lake, and inform me about the goings on in the area.
Even so, I just didn’t trust what I was hearing. How could I possibly find anything worthwhile at a place called Willey’s. Sounds more like a used car dealer than anything else. But I didn’t want to argue with him, so I just nodded my head every so often.
“Okay, Pete, I’ll give Willey’s a try,” I said. Then I thanked him too many times, knowing I’d already found names of three other places in the phone book. Once Willey’s didn’t pan out, one or the other hopefully would have what I was looking for.
The Skinny About Shoes
And what I was looking for was shoes. Walking shoes, to be exact, or sneakers, as I called them when I was a kid.
Now before you say I’m making too much of a big deal about all of this, the real deal here is my big feet. You see, I’m blessed, or maybe I should say “cursed”, by owning very long and narrow ones, and finding shoes to fit is like trying to get Pete to tell me his real age. Now he might, but then again, he might not, and even if he did, I couldn’t be sure that he really did mean it. See what I mean?
But the truth of it is, when I walk into a shoe store I don’t even bother inquiring about color or style. No, I just go right up to the cash register, find a clerk who looks least likely to snicker, and ask: Does he have anything in my size, 11B?
More often than not, the answer is “nope”, or “just a pair of cordovan wing tips”, or “yes, a black tie shoe.” As far as sneakers go –– forget it. And when I go to a sports store it’s almost always the same thing. I’m simply two widths narrower than the average human male, and my feet mostly swim around in the average male’s walking shoe.
Now mind you, I thought I had planned everything very carefully. Why, a week before we left our home back in the city, I dragged myself to the mall for shoes. It took five tries before I found something suitable, and was so relieved once I did that I ordered a dozen white cotton socks from the young salesman to celebrate.
So I arrived at the lake house ready to go informal, but when the moment came to fasten my new purchase to my feet, they seemed somehow different from when I’d encountered them at Sports–a–rama.
The shoes, of course, not the feet.
For one thing, they were quite a sight. They sported green and white racing stripes backed up by carved rear triangular wedges sitting atop a liquid–filled shock absorber super–pumped for a smoother ride. Each looked like a miniature hi–tech factory. Holding one in my hand reminded me of the plastic paper weights sporting fanciful snow scenes I used to get from my Uncle Seymour, the salesman, every time he visited another city.
And like Life, my walking shoes did not come with a set of instructions. But I went ahead and put them on. In fact, I went ahead and lived with them for two weeks, but the result was less than positive.
The shoes had somehow shrunk, and their lack of length was cramping my style. With squeezed toes up front and reddened heels in back, my feet were held hostage in the grasp of locomotion engineering.
So after two torturous weeks, I was reaching out to Pete, hoping for deliverance, but all he could offer was a place that couldn’t even spell its name right.
Well, standing around shilly–shallying was no longer an option, so it was off to Ellsworth in search of Willey’s.
On to Willey’s
The trip seemed to take no time at all –– clock time just dissolved in the day’s beaming sunshine. As the air streamed past my hair, everything slowed down, like I was traveling through some liquid locale. The fields and farms and white wood frames blurred by. A bold blue sky salted with towering white clouds parted before me like a drunken doorman welcoming me to Ellsworth.
I snaked through that tiny town, with its brick Victorians overlooking empty barber shops and locked up luncheonettes. Drove up the hill past the once–upon–a–time Grand Theater and slapped a right on to One Eleven. Looking for Pete’s version of Brigadoon.
And back behind Uncle Roy’s, like an afterthought, was a big neon announcing my destination: WILLEY’S. There was a parking lot to store my car, which had plenty of company. Maybe scores of other hard–to–fits had also made a pilgrimage to this land of sartorial opportunity. Or maybe this was where the kids went to hang out on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
I pushed open one side of the glass double doors, labeled “Enter” in case I had a momentary lapse of will, and found myself gazing at a cornucopia of clothing. It was hard to focus –– everywhere I turned there was merchandise. But no shoes to be seen.
“Oh yeah, old Elmer’s missed his mark on this one,” I muttered to the Levis.
But, I’d come all this way, so I sauntered up to the closest counter and inquired on the likelihood of any sneakers residing in the immediate vicinity. The young woman with Farrah Fawcett hair just snapped her gum and pointed her finger down at my feet, like she was reminding me about what was peeking out from under the bottoms of my jeans. But then I realized she was only directing me downstairs, to the site of WILLEY’S footwear fantasia.
Shoes Glorious Shoes
I hit the stairs, rounded the corner and was blinded by the light reflecting off row after row of tennis whites, walking whites, running whites, basketball whites. I mean WILLEY’S had it all: every letter of the alphabet from A to E and numbers in both single and double digits. We’re talking shoe sizes for days. And tasteful. I mean no gawky reds and greens. No electronic pinks or blues. Just nice and sedate white whites with a whiff of color so you can still locate them in case of a blizzard.
They had my number. Boy did they ever. I spent the next hour trying on one model after another just to have the experience of choice.
And best of all, these were low tech models, without hooks, medallions, or velcro. Just plain old lace–ups, the kind that you finish off with a bow knot and tug to make the loops equal.
We’re talking shoes for the people. Shoes you can take home to your mother. Shoes that won’t embarrass you if you meet the second grade teacher you had a crush on. Shoes you can take out for a blind date. Shoes for every day and night time too. Shoes that make you proud to have feet. Here in the middle of no–name Ellsworth, WILLEY’S shoes rule!
Well, of course I found just the right ones and I was so happy I bought another dozen white cotton socks just to round out the deal.
When Farrah asked if I wanted to bag ’em or wear ’em I realized the girl was on to something. Wear ’em I did, and told her to can my old ones.
In Praise of Chocolate
I sauntered out of WILLEY’S like a present day Hester Prynne glowing in the warm sunlight. A wayward sinner returning to the flock, I was redeemed, and to celebrate my newfound salvation, I decided to go have a chocolate malted.
Now, I’ve had many a malted in my day, and through the process of trial and error I’ve come to prefer the delicate subtlety of chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, and double malt. Its kind of a sugar and chocolate orgasm.
But now–a–days this pleasure was reserved for special occasions –– like world peace, or winning the lottery –– given how my present girth embraces every calorie as a returning prodigal. When those little calorie dudes slide down that craven gullet like kids out on a Sunday with dad, I mean they’re home to stay. So I usually figure to try and keep this kind of temptation out of arms’ reach.
But today, what with the wonder of WILLEY’S and all, I deemed this occasion special indeed, and strode off in search of a suitable establishment.
Maybelline’s Sweete Shoppe
I found it on Main Street. Where else? The hand painted sign invited me to Maybelline’s Sweete Shoppe. Inside was a fair–haired boy behind the counter, with white apron and punked-out hair. He was day dreaming, as it were, since the place was empty, except for him. I wasted no time, and told him why I was there.
“Would you like it thick or thin?” he responded.
Now here was a new one on me. “Which is which?”
“Thick gets you four scoops and thin gets you two. Course thick costs extra.”
“Well, tell you what, how about thick, with two scoops of chocolate and two of coffee.” I was starting to have a very good feeling about this Ellsworth place.
While the guy at the counter was plunging his long skinny arms into the frozen tubs of ice cream, I decided to look around. The counter held red vinyl topped stools, and along the opposite wall was three booths. In back was an empty candy counter, its’ glass shelves looking back at me like a sad puppy. The afternoon sun glared through the big picture windows in front, falling on a big expanse of floor that hadn’t seen much activity of late. And the wood paneled walls were ringed with posters of scenes painted by Norman Rockwell.
One that caught my eye was called “After the Prom.” There was a soda jerk behind the counter at an ice cream parlor leaning over to smell the corsage worn by a teen–age girl in her prom dress. Seated on the stool next to her was her date, a young man without much chin, looking shyly at the counterman. The young woman wore a smile almost as big as her corsage.
Underneath the poster was a newspaper clipping with a photograph. Above the clipping was the masthead from the Ellsworth American. The photograph was of a middle aged woman with glasses, sporting a big smile on her face. She looked like she was happy to have her photograph taken, but other than that I couldn’t tell much about her. But when I read the newspaper story that went with her picture, it all came into focus.
A Chocolate Malted From Bygone Days
It seems the woman and the girl who posed for “After the Prom” were the same person. Two years ago (the clipping was kind of yellowed) the woman had stopped in this very place to get a chocolate malted. It didn’t say if she got one that was thick or thin. But it did say that she had got to talking with Maybelline Williams, owner of Maybelline’s Sweete Shoppe, about the poster and had told her that she had posed for Mr. Norman Rockwell about 28 years ago when he painted it.
She said she still remembered posing for the painting, and all, and even though she now lived near Chicago, she still came back East to visit her sister, who didn’t actually live in Ellsworth, but had a house not too far away. It also said the woman was given the dress that she posed in and $50.00. It didn’t say if the woman really knew the boy who posed as her date, or the counterman she was smiling at, or if they were even there when Norman Rockwell had her pose as if she had just come from her high school prom and decided to top off the evening with a chocolate malted with chocolate ice cream and double malt.
Good-bye Norman, Hello Now
“That’ll be $2.75,” a voice told me. I turned to see my malt and the boy waiting for me. No one else was there, just him, me and the malt.
“This is the last one.” He told me.
“What do you mean?”
“I go back home tomorrow. Back to Minnesota. So you’re my last customer.” I saw he was already undoing the apron. It didn’t look very dirty.
“So I’m the last one?”
“Yeah, you’re it. This is the last time I’m gonna have to look at ice cream for a long time. Tomorrow I’m getting out of this boring town. I can’t wait.”
“Well, good luck.” I reached into my pocket to get my money, noticed my shiny white sneakers, found a twenty and laid it on the counter.
He put his apron on the counter next to the twenty. He looked at the bill, then looked at me.
“Do you have anything smaller? I sorry, but I don’t have change for a twenty.”
I poked around without any luck. “Nope,” I said, “this is all I’ve got.”
I looked at the malted, standing there so perky on the countertop next to the twenty and the apron.
His skinny hand came into view, picked up the malted and gave it to me. It felt cool and moist in my hand.
“Hey, don’t sweat it. You’re the last one, and I’m out of here.”
“Hey, thanks a lot,” I said.
We walked out the door together.