ALMOST EVERY DAY, Ruth Davis and I walk home from school together. We walk very slowly because we like to talk to each other and we don’t get much chance in school or after school either. We are very much alike. We are both twelve years old and we are freshmen in high school and we never study—well, not very much, because we learn faster than the rest of the class. We laugh about the same things and we are curious about the same things. We even wear our hair in the same style—thick braids halfway down our backs. We are not alike in one respect. She is white and I am black.
Yesterday when we reached the building that houses my father’s drugstore, we sat down on the front steps—long wooden steps that go all the way across the front of the building. Ruth said, “I wish I lived here,” and patted the steps though they are very splintery.
Aunt Sophronia must have heard our voices, because she came to the door and said, “I left my shoes at the shoemaker’s this morning. Please go and get them for me,” and she handed me a little cardboard ticket with a number on it.
“You want to come with me, Ruth?”
“I’ve got to go home. I’m sure my aunt will have things for me to do. Just like your aunt.” She smiled at Aunt Sophronia. I walked partway home with Ruth and then turned back and went up Petticoat Lane toward the shoemaker’s shop. Mr. Bemish, the shoemaker, is a little white man with gray hair. He has a glass eye. This eye is not the same color as his own eye. It is a deeper gray. If I stand too close to him, I get a squeamish feeling because one eye moves in its socket and the other eye does not.
Mr. Bemish and I are friends. I am always taking shoes to his shop to be repaired. We do not own a horse and buggy and so we walk a great deal. In fact, there is a family rule that we must walk any distance under three miles. As a result, our shoes are in constant need of repair, the soles and heels have to be replaced, and we always seem to be in need of shoelaces. Quite often I snag the uppers on the bull briars in the woods and then the tears have to be stitched.
When I went to get Aunt Sophronia’s shoes, Mr. Bemish was sitting near the window. It is a big window and he has a very nice view of the street. He had on his leather apron and his eyeglasses. His glasses are small and they have steel rims. He was sewing a shoe and he had a long length of waxed linen thread in his needle. He waxes the thread himself.
I handed him the ticket and he got up from his workbench to get the shoes. I saw that he had separated them from the other shoes. These are Aunt Sophronia’s store shoes. They had been polished so that they shone like patent leather. They lay alone, near the front of the table where he keeps the shoes he has repaired. He leaned toward me and I moved away from him. I did not like being so close to his glass eye.
“The lady who brought these shoes in. Who is she?”
I looked at him and raised one eyebrow. It has taken me two months of constant practice in front of a mirror to master the art of lifting one eyebrow.
Mr. Bemish said, “What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you hear what I said? Who was that lady who brought these shoes in?”
Excerpted from “Miss Muriel,” the title story in Miss Muriel and Other Stories.
ANN PETRY (1908–1997) was a reporter, pharmacist, social worker, and community activist. She illuminated the range of black and white experience in her novels, short stories, and other writing. Her book The Street was the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies. Her novels The Narrows and Country Place are also available from Northwestern University Press.
This edition published in 2017 by Northwestern University Press with a new by foreword by Jamilah Lemieux. Copyright © 1945, 1947, 1958, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1971 by Ann Petry. Foreword copyright © 2017 by Jamilah Lemieux. Published 2017 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.
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