I was eighteen years old the summer Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. I was between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and I worked as a sales clerk at Sherman’s Department Store in Olney, Illinois. Each afternoon around three o’clock, my manager sent me to the drug store across the street to buy him a pack of cigarettes (Kent Deluxe 100s) and an afternoon newspaper. I brought the cigarettes and the paper and his change back to him, and then I went on about the business of straightening stacks of sport shirts and trousers, whisking a feather duster over the display shoes, retrieving layaway parcels from storage at the back of the store, sweeping the floor, and from time to time, actually selling something to a customer. In this way, the days of that summer went by, and I tried to get over the shyness I felt every time I had to deal with a customer.
“Walk right up to them,” my co-worker Norm told me. He was a young man with a wife, and he worked hard at his job. “Look them in the eye,” he told me, “and say, ‘Welcome to Sherman’s. How can I help you?’”
I didn’t have the confidence that Norm had. I was just a kid from tiny Sumner, twelve miles to the east of Olney. I was on the verge of my adult life, but I still had years to go until I turned into the man I am now. I had no idea about the direction my life would take. I was just working to make a little spending money, and all the while Richard Nixon was facing impeachment for his role in the Watergate break-ins and their cover up.
I didn’t know my manager’s politics, but I had suspicions. Then came the afternoon of August 9. I walked into the drug store and picked up an Olney Daily Mail. The banner headline of bold black type read, NIXON RESIGNS. Keep in mind these were the days before instant news—no CNN or MSNBC or Fox News; no Internet with which to find breaking headlines. I felt certain that my manager didn’t know about Nixon’s resignation, and because he’d spent a good deal of time that summer telling me how much I didn’t know about salesmanship, I was pleased to know something he didn’t, and I was even more pleased to be the one to tell him.
When I got back to Sherman’s, I slapped that Daily Mail down on the counter behind which my manager was manning the cash register, and he saw the headline, and he picked up the newspaper and brought it closer to his face, and then he said, with great disapproval and disappointment in his voice, “The bastards finally got him. I hoped he’d hold on.”
Of course, Nixon couldn’t hold on once he had to turn over the oval office tape recordings that proved his guilt. The truth of his actions came out, and he chose to resign the office rather than face certain removal.
This was the biggest news story of my young life, and here’s what it taught me.
One day that summer, a childhood friend of mine and her mother came into the store. Her mother, I knew, had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She wanted a pair of shoes, she told me. A pair of comfortable shoes. “Sandals,” she said. “I want to feel the air on my toes.”
I picked out what I thought might be a comfy pair of sandals. A pair of red sandals with wedge heels and a few straps that crisscrossed the top of the foot.
“Oh, red,” she said when I showed them to her. She seemed so weary. “I’ve always liked red,” she said to her daughter.
“Would you like to try them?” I asked.
She would indeed.
I asked her size and excused myself so I could go to the stock room and find the appropriate pair. When I came back, shoebox in hand, I slid up my fitting stool, and sat facing her. I lifted her foot onto the slanted surface of the stool and untied her canvas Keds sneakers. What could be more comfortable than them, I thought. Then I lifted her foot, cupping her arch, and I slipped it down into the sandal and I buckled the strap. I did the same with the mate.
“How do those feel?” I asked, the way Norm had taught me.
She closed her eyes an instant. I wonder now if she might have been imagining all the places in the world she might walk.
“Heavenly,” she said. “They feel heavenly.”
“Would you like to try walking in them?”
“That won’t be necessary.” She turned her foot to each side, admiring the sandals. “I’m sure they’re perfect. Just perfect,” she said.
So I took them off her and put them back into the box. I helped her on with her sneakers, and I tied the laces into bows, and all the while, I was aware that her time among us was short, and she knew that. She knew she might have few opportunities to wear those sandals, might never wear them, but they were the color red—a bright, bright red—and she was glad for that. I got a little ache in my throat because she’d always been such a sweet lady, and she didn’t deserve what was happening to her.
Now, forty-five years later, I’ve thought a good deal about that day from August, 1974, when a dying woman showed me the importance of the singular life lived in the shadows of the political, the life that becomes resplendent, if, like a good writer, we’re watching closely enough. I’ve thought about those who are corrupt and those who aren’t, and how the lives of ordinary people go on in the background of the news headlines, and few people take notice. I’ve thought about how, despite the importance we give the stories of politicians, corrupt or not, the real stuff of our living is the turns and ticks of the heart. It’s a dying woman buying red sandals, and it’s a daughter and a shy shoe clerk—a boy who would never forget the feel of that woman’s foot in his hand—pretending she would wear them for years and years.