She picks up the strings, laced through her brown leather shoes that no longer look as new as they once did — now that a crease is beginning to form on the shinny leather right under her toes.
“Now it’s tricky here – hang onto the bow you’ve made, while sliding the other end underneath, and wrap it around.”
Her fingers fumble as she tries to do exactly what he says. “I can do this… just let me try it one more time,” she says. She wraps the strings to make another bow.
“Tomorrow, at kindergarten, I’m going to tell everyone that I can tie my shoes…”
“No.” He says. “You’ll say, you’re learning to tie your shoes. Nobody ties their shoes on the first try – you have to practice.” That’s the last thing he needs right now. Pressure. She’ll never leave him alone tonight if she thinks she’s supposed to get it down perfectly tonight.
Once again, the shoestrings tumble to the floor, and there is no tight, neatly knotted bow on the top of her shoe.
“Well, when I rode my bike without training wheels the first time, I did it right the first time…. didn’t even have to practice.”
He realizes that she is blissfully unaware of this gray area – this time between the black of not knowing something, and the white, actually knowing how to do something.
“This is different,” he says. “Besides, you shouldn’t wish for things to come… these things take time. “And you shouldn’t go around bragging about what you can do – because if you mess up, they’ll laugh at you.”
She knew what he meant. There were a lot of things she couldn’t do very well; things everyone else could do so effortlessly. How many times had she tried to draw pretty pictures, and then ended up coloring a muddy mess of scribble? Zoe and Cara always looked at her pictures, then each other, and then smiled – but not at her. “How come smiles are mean sometimes?” Before he can answer she says, “No matter how slow I color, I still can’t stay in the lines.”
“Well, then, you need to keep trying,” he says.
“There… you’ve almost got it. Now, keep practicing that.”
“How many times…?”
He doesn’t answer her because his eyes are now looking at the TV.
Because of the CBS News special report that follows, Mayberry RFD will not be presented tonight, but will return next week at it’s regularly scheduled time over most of these stations.
Her Mom and Dad have joined them in the living room. Their eyes are transfixed to the screen; their mouths are already positioned in that partially opened state, ready to pounce out the word shhh, quickly, if necessary. As always, they “cannot miss a word…”
But no one had to tell her to stay quiet. The words, “Special Report” heard often here lately, always lead to something bad; an uneasy tension, tears. The worst part is the aftermath; the heavy cold silence that offers no clues.
Shinny blue capsules, huge ones in a huge jar. They look just like the Contact capsules Mom gave her for a cold, only bigger. The same ones her brother pulled apart one time, sending thousands of tiny bright colored balls rolling across the floor. He thought he was just supposed to take one, from the inside. A man pulls the two ends of the capsules apart, and then struggles to fish out a white scrolled piece of paper. He unrolls it, and reads a date; someone else repeats it, and they put the paper on a big board. Are they birthdays? “Hey, that’s Valentine’s Day!…February…”
“They never tell me what all this means,” she says to herself silently. She works with her strings, silently counting the number of times she tries. She wants a number, as if one single magic number of practices could move her from gray and put her in the white where she would all at once just “know” how to tie her shoes. The magic number that would push her over the edge; to the place where Zoe and Cara wouldn’t do that weird mean smile, and would, instead, invite her over to play dolls.
The big board is filling up with dates, and the announcer just keeps repeating them over and over again in monotone. Boring. Yet, Ronny and her father and mother are completely mesmerized. Captivated by this scene.
She looks up when she hears the sound of Christmas music, and Santa swooshes down across the snow on a sled, that is really an electric razor. Ronny looks away from the TV and says, “You’re doing good.” As much as he does want to make this easier for her, he is holding back, he realizes. Not teaching Jamie to tie her shoes is like an insurance policy; if she can’t tie her shoes, then God will bring him back home; he’ll have something to come home for.
The last number she heard before her father whisks her off to the bath is 111. As she walks past her mom, she sees that her eyes are welling up with tears. Again. Dad appears resigned, maybe a bit relieved.
“One-eleven,” her mother says, her eyes wide and terrified.
“Yup,” says Ronny, “one-eleven. That’s me.”
“Overseas,” her mother whispered. “I can’t believe it.”
She emerges from the bathroom, wearing her fluffy pink robe, smelling of her mom’s powder, Channel. She knows it’s safe to talk, as the TV is now airing the music for Gunsmoke. “Uncle Ronny, when will I ever learn to tie my shoes?”
“Not until you’ve practice this 111 times… he said… “111 times.”
“That will take forever!” she groaned.
Her dad tucks her into bed, and there, the image of those numbers up on the big board fill her head every time she closes her eyes. In her dreams, there are men wearing fatigue army clothes, the ones they wear when they’re hiding in the jungle. They are all over the streets where she lives, in her tiny town, and hiding in her Grandma’s woods out in the country. On their heads, they wear the hard-hat army helmets, like the ones Gomer Pyle wears. She couldn’t tell who the bad guys were; she found that when she followed someone to a safe place, they would turn out to be the bad guys.
The next morning, her Dad wakes her up, and she dresses for school. She grabs her shoes from the floor in front of her bed, the not-quite-new-anymore ones, and puts them on.
She walks out from her bedroom and finds Uncle Ronny on the sofa. He’s awake, but still hiding, under the covers. “Today, I’m telling everyone at school that I can tie my shoes.”
He rubs his eyes and gently says, without sitting up, “You’re learning… remember, you’re just learning.”
“No, I’m not,” she grinned. “Look, I just did it.”
She knows now that for the rest of his life he’ll be able to say, “I was the one who taught her to tie her shoes, and I did it in one day. It’ll be a feather in his cap forever, wherever he goes.” she thinks.