Written by Jeff Fleischer
If she’d had the good fortune to be born three hundred years earlier, Sally O’Brien would have inherited a lucrative profession. Back then, the landed gentry types were willing to pay good money for the skills of an excellent cobbler, and a working tradesman would know the value of repairing a good piece of hand-stitched leather or a sturdy sole rather than replacing a pair of shoes. Not that there wouldn’t have been downsides to living three hundred years earlier. She wouldn’t have been as tall, or lived as long, or been as well-educated. She probably wouldn’t have been able to inherit and run the family cobbler shop either.
Instead, Sally O’Brien had the good fortune to be born near the end of the twentieth century. She’d come of age in a world where she was healthy, and educated, and fully empowered to cobble together a living, as her father had always put it. There were worse ways to make money than stitching and sewing while listening to old folk records or chatting with the customers.
Seamus O’Brien was universally, and rightfully, seen as a good man. Despite losing his beloved wife the very day he gained a daughter, he raised Sally as well as any father could, single or otherwise. Money was tight, but Seamus had inherited both his name and the cobbler shop from his father, bought and paid for, and his wife’s union pension provided just enough to pay for basic needs. The same way Seamus’s life insurance would later keep Sally afloat, as the cobbler shop alone didn’t provide much of a living. The trade seemed to bring in less money every year, but the O’Brien family had always taken significant pride in the work. Including Sally, who’d never had any questions about what she would do for a living. Her father didn’t pressure her in any kind of overbearing sense. It was just that the O’Brien family had always taken a great interest in talking about its profession and making it sound grand, a tradition going back at least three centuries and across an ocean. Seamus had taught Sally all about footwear from an early age, so she could spot a particular style or material with ease, and explain the differences in the same way some of her classmates could identify classic cars or recite sports statistics.
Her father also coached her in what he called “shoemaking lore,” a phrase he always said with a wry smile that showed he didn’t actually take these things seriously, but found them a fun way to bond with his daughter.
Sally, for her part, wanted to take over the cobbler shop years before she was old enough to understand the reality of work or bills. In kindergarten, she eschewed playing house, instead insisting her classmates play store, with her imaginary store always dedicated to fixing the other kids’ footwear. At home, one of her most prized possessions was the pile of discarded shoes or mismates her father brought back from work, which helped her learn her future craft through enthusiastic play.
Out of all the fairy tales her father read her, Sally’s favorite — by a fair margin — was the story of the shoemaker and the elves. She requested it so often that Seamus developed different ways of telling it, sometimes reading directly from a book, sometimes reciting it from memory, other times improvising new characters and situations only loosely connected to the story. Even as a little girl, Sally found the story reminded her of her father — a kindly old shoemaker barely getting by until the intervention of magical forces. It always put her in a good mood before falling asleep.
That was all a long time ago.
With her father gone, her schooling finished, and her home life quiet but content, Sally O’Brien spent six days a week running the cobbler shop. Business was reliably slow, so she’d never had to take on any employees, and her college business classes gave her the training to handle all the books and taxes by herself. Never one for television, she used her quiet periods at work to practice a range of hobbies and develop new skills. Sometimes, the results were impressive. Sally took great pride in the needlepoint she’d made for the store wall, featuring a likeness of her father at his workbench, facing the viewer, while a small group of elves busied themselves with fixing shoes on the floor under the bench. Not all of Sally’s artistic endeavors worked that well. Her numerous failed attempts at papier-mâché were crammed in a side closet, where she hoped nobody would see them, and her attempt at crocheting a sweater from scratch turned into an irregularly shaped blanket when the sleeves proved unwieldy.
One of the perks of owning a cobbler shop was the lack of foot traffic. Nobody ever came by just to browse or waste the proprietor’s time with idle questions. Sally had a few regulars who’d come in on a predictable schedule, and she knew all of them like old friends. Most had been her father’s customers, with a few exceptions. Their requests were never too difficult or time-consuming, and the meager repair costs covered most of Sally’s living expenses.
There were also certain times of year when things would get genuinely busy, and she knew that meant a full workload and overtime. Thankfully, she knew when to expect them. Just before the holidays, she’d get a rush, thanks to the cross section of people well-off enough to attend office parties or New Year’s balls, but not so well-off that they could justify buying new shoes for those sorts of events. Wedding season in June had a similar effect. When the more working class of the district’s two high schools — also Sally’s alma mater — had its homecoming, its Sadie Hawkins dance, or its prom, she got a steady stream of daughters wanting subtle adjustments to their mothers’ hand-me-down pumps and sons wanting their dads’ extra work shoes widened or taken in.
The homecoming season in October was usually the busiest — for whatever reason, more kids seemed to need hand-me-down shoes in the fall; Sally speculated it was probably because they used the same ones for prom. Because her cobbler shop had been around for so long and her reputation was so good, she didn’t have to advertise. She did buy an ad in every yearbook, but mostly out of nostalgia for when she was the one selling them.
Even the homecoming rush wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle. For a week or two she’d just work her usual morning shift, have a salad or sandwich from the deli next door rather than meet a friend for lunch, work the afternoon without a break, and wrap up at a little past her normal closing time. Sometimes she’d end up working late into the night, with a pot of spearmint tea to give her a little caffeine boost, and her grandfather’s old records to keep her awake and give her the background noise she needed. Keeping alive her father’s love of all things cobbler related, her default song to hum or whistle since childhood was an old folk standard called “Peg and Awl,” and she’d sing it to herself all night as she stitched.
“In the days of eighteen and one, peg and awl… In the days of eighteen and one, peggin’ shoes was all I done… Hand me down my pegs, my pegs, my pegs and my awl…”
Even the busiest homecoming week of her lifetime, however, couldn’t prepare her for the workload Sally faced one week in November. Late that Monday morning, she was tidying up around the shop, putting together her list of errands for the week. Until, unannounced and unexpected, she got a visit from Mr. Fredericks, the theater director from the wealthier high school. A first-time customer.
For an upcoming production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, the director explained, he would have a cast of more than one hundred students. Mostly extras, but they were still in need of period shoes to match their period costumes. Lots of period shoes, he emphasized. His son had picked them up from rummage sales and estate sales, and most of the shoes were in need of serious repair. That kind of workload would have been daunting on its own terms. To make matters worse, the director was giving Sally only five days’ notice to prepare and repair nearly one hundred pairs of shoes, as the full dress rehearsal was that Saturday afternoon. Mr. Fredericks had brought the entire project with him in three enormous laundry bags, which his teenage son dragged individually from the back of a new sports car.
For a moment, Sally considered turning down a cobbling request for the first time in her life. She knew accepting the job would mean a lot of joint pain, and not a lot of sleep each night, and seeing the three enormous bags spread out on the counter made the challenge seem more concrete. While she could definitely use the money, her straits weren’t so dire that she had to take it. The director’s manner also gave Sally the sense that her shop was only a choice of last resort after some tonier establishment had balked at the timetable.
On the other hand, she knew her father had never turned down a client, living by the axiom that a little more work in boom times made the lean times a little easier to manage, and the school’s budget meant the lump-sum offer was more than generous. Along with that philosophy, Sally had inherited Seamus’s pride of work, and couldn’t resist a chance to show the other side of the proverbial tracks that there was something to be said for old-fashioned craftsmanship.
Plus, she liked knowing that the fancier school needed the help of one of its social lessers to put on a show.
She took the job, promising Mr. Fredericks that the feet of everyone in his production, from the lovely spinster librarian to the youngest member of the makeshift marching band, would look their best on stage. Never having expected otherwise, the director wrote a check for the deposit and promised to return first thing Saturday morning to collect the shoes before that night’s practice performance.
* * *
Understanding the enormity of her workload, Sally wasted little time getting started. She put a kettle of tap water on the little hot plate she kept in the back office, and prepared her work while it boiled. Her first task was simply to dump out the contents of the three bags and figure out what she had to work with.
The director had given her exactly one hundred and ninety-eight shoes, but they had been stuffed into the bags in no particular order, so just sorting them used up what remained of Sally’s morning. By the time she’d determined the sizes, matched up the pairs, and gotten a general sense of their condition, it was nearly one and she’d already finished a full pot of tea. She had ninety-seven pairs to work with, and was also left with two right shoes and two lefts that had nothing in common in terms of size, color, or style. Sally set that quartet aside, knowing she could explain that two pairs of parents might have to pay out of pocket.
Having nearly one hundred pairs of shoes to work on gave her a laugh, as she unconsciously sang her father’s verbal talisman. “They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl… Makes one hundred pairs to my one, peg and awl…”
The song always reminded her of the ballad of John Henry, and not just because her father often played a folk compilation record where Pete Seeger sang renditions of the two classics a few tunes apart. She’d inherited both the worn vinyl record and the habit of playing it through the scratchy speakers of the store’s stereo — which was precisely what she did while she got down to work on the Music Man project.
The first pair she attacked, a set of men’s black dress shoes, suffered from the kind of problems that typically faced old soles. The right shoe had become worn and uneven underneath, so she smoothed down the rubber with a small knife and scuffed it a little to help bond it to the new sole, which she applied with a strong adhesive. While its mate dried, she repeated the process on the left shoe. That one had two eyelets on the left side that had broken open, but Sally managed to mend those easily, taking small bits of leather from her supply cabinet and sewing them into functional bridges. While the soles dried, she polished the uppers until she could see her reflection, then placed the set on the table at the far end of the room and prepared for the next round.
The shoes Sally had just repaired were now sturdy and clean, as good as new in every respect. That was the only way she knew how to work. The downside of working that way was the shoes had also taken more than an hour to complete, and she had another ninety-six pairs stacked on the table beside her workbench.
By the end of what would be a typical workday, Sally had finished repairing another five pairs, which would have been a solid pace under typical circumstances. Considering how long it had taken just to organize the project, she could honestly say she’d done a good day’s work for one person, but she was very aware that the job was too much for one person. Not that there was much she could do about it at that point. She’d never had the spare money or a workload big enough to justify taking on extra staff, and the only extra hands her father ever employed belonged to the teenage version of Sally.
Besides, while this project could easily give Sally an excuse to hire an apprentice, it didn’t give her enough time to train one.
This was the first time that time really felt like a problem. She called to cancel the haircut appointment she’d made for that night, started brewing a new pot of tea, locked the front door, and turned around the little sign that indicated her shop had been open for business.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of her workday. By the time Sally had just enough energy to call it a night and drive her station wagon eight blocks to sleep in her own bed, she had finished eleven pairs on the day. Anyone walking by the closed shop after hours would have noticed that all the lights were still on and an earnest-looking young woman was diligently working inside. But if anyone did, they didn’t interrupt her.
* * *
Sally opened the shop at the usual time Tuesday morning, greeted by the daunting table of shoes left to repair. Working later than normal the night before had left her a little sleepy, but she got to work right away.
Luckily, the day’s events made things as easy as possible for her. Even though she resisted the temptation to close early, nobody came by all day, except for the mailman delivering a couple of catalogs. She enjoyed her work when she could get in a rhythm, and working to the old folk songs gave her one. Since nobody came by, she let herself sing along as she sewed and polished and mended.
Working at a steady clip and staying past business hours again, Sally repaired more shoes than she ever had in a day, completing twenty-four repairs. An impressive pace. Just not impressive enough.
Still, even with getting a late start Monday, she’d finished more than one third of the work in two days, with three days to go. It had just taken her until a little past midnight, and made her tired enough that she thought she was hearing strange noises around the shop. Knowing the scampering and the little squeaks might have just been figments of her sleep-deprived imagination, she put out a few of her father’s old humane mousetraps before leaving, just in case. She walked home too, figuring she shouldn’t risk driving while overtired.
That overtired feeling started to catch up with her on Wednesday.
Sally began the day on the right track, finishing a pair of tap shoes and two sets of women’s character shoes in very little time. Around midday, however, at some point she fell asleep while listening appropriately, to Woody Guthrie singing “Hobo’s Lullaby.” She sprang alert again only when the bells above the front door jangled to announce the postman’s afternoon entrance.
That accidental nap was all it took to get far behind schedule again.
Further complicating the situation, a few of the pairs she had to repair were tough cases. One sole was in such bad shape that the epoxy she applied wouldn’t hold, and she accidentally tore the leather while trying to fix it — creating a time-consuming patch job in the process. One long men’s shoe had been oddly, and incorrectly, built up in the heel in a way its mate had not. Sally figured it had to have been a fix for a prior owner with one leg shorter than the other, but managed to undo the other cobbler’s work and make the two shoes perfectly even. That also took longer than expected. By dinnertime, she’d already called to cancel her plans for Friday night. Saturday too, sensing she’d need the sleep.
When Sally quit for the evening, she had finished forty-two out of ninety-seven pairs of shoes. Even to get to that number, she’d been forced to take a few shortcuts. Nothing dangerous or unprofessional. It was just that a few of the shoes were left with scuff marks because there was no time to polish them, and a handful of the repairs used leather or laces that didn’t quite match the shoe. These imperfections were small enough that the musical’s audience was never going to notice them from afar, but Sally’s perfectionism meant she couldn’t help but feel badly about it. Late enough at night, alone in the closed and silent office, she turned around a few photographs of her father, thanks to a palpable sense that he’d never have counted such subpar work as complete. Sally promised herself she’d fix those shoes if, by some miracle, she could find some extra time.
The needlepoint version of Seamus still smiled at her, the stitched likeness of his kind eyes making her wonder about the source of her sudden paranoia. She grinned at the portrait she’d sewn, and closed the shop. As she whistled her father’s favorite ballad, she found its last line got stuck in her head.
“Makes one hundred pairs to my one… peggin’ shoes it ain’t no fun… throw away my pegs, my pegs, and my awl…”
* * *
Driving to work early on Thursday morning, Sally O’Brien did the math. Two workdays to go. Fifty-five pairs of shoes left to fix. If she stayed up late, switched from tea to coffee, powered through…
“You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring, ring, ring… You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring.”
Maybe that was the best way to think about this week. Not just as a mission to get through, but as a way to make a noble stand for her old-fashioned craft in a world of mass-produced sweatshop footwear and disposable materials. She needed something to energize her, and that idea seemed as good a boost as the rare cappuccino she downed before starting work.
When the doorbell jangled around noon and briefly interrupted her work, it wasn’t the postman who’d stopped by. For the first time since Monday morning, Sally had a customer.
She looked up to see a little girl straight out of central casting, wearing a tiara and a blue ballet outfit that made her look like a pixie, visibly trying to hold back tears. Next to her was a long-haired older woman who thoroughly reminded Sally of her own late grandmother. She was sturdy, but friendly, and holding a pair of broken tap shoes.
Intellectually, Sally knew she shouldn’t be taking on any more work when just getting through her existing workload was nearly impossible. Still, once she heard the full story — that the girl’s first dance recital was that night, that the first two shops they went to said it couldn’t be done that day, that there wasn’t enough money to buy another pair — Sally knew she was going to fix the girl’s shoes, and fix them right, even though doing so threatened to derail her day.
The heel on the right shoe had obviously cracked from landing hard at a strange angle, and the heel plate was in bad shape. As long as she was replacing one plate, Sally went ahead and replaced the one on the left shoe too, and smoothed out the wear and tear on both shoes. The little girl stared consistently, rapt at each movement of Sally’s hand. Sally felt an automatic affection for the child, who seemed to have the same curiosity, and the same love of ballet, that she’d had at about the same age.
The shoemaker consciously kept a smile on her face the entire time, wanting to make sure the girl knew her favorite shoes were going to be fine and that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Each of the many times the child asked, “Now what are you doing?” Sally patiently explained her actions and let her new favorite customer help out. She enjoyed getting a break from the stress of solitary work at a fast pace, even as she realized her pace would have to get faster as soon as the girl left.
When the relieved grandmother opened her purse to pay, Sally explained that it wasn’t necessary. “Happy to do it,” she said, explaining that she had enjoyed having something to work on other than her huge project. “You can pay me for the next one.”
The customer’s reaction surprised her. Rather than insist on paying or ask if she was certain, the old woman put away her money and launched into a long story about how Seamus had helped her out of a similar jam years earlier. “I haven’t forgotten his kindness or his work,” she said, looking at the needlepoint of the late cobbler. “I’m happy to see he passed those same qualities on to you. It’s important that we all pass along our best qualities. When you’re in need of help, I’m sure you will find it.” Then, louder, “Yes, I’m sure you will find whatever help you need.”
Sally thanked the old woman for her kind words. The little girl hugged her around the waist, and Sally wished her luck on the recital, catching herself before she suggested breaking a leg.
Once the two of them had gone, the smile left Sally’s face as she got back to the task at hand. By the time her hands and eyes felt too heavy to work anymore, she’d completed fourteen pairs on the day. Once again, a good day by normal standards, but still not enough to meet her deadline.
Rather than go home, she put a series of chairs together to form a bed, and used an old jacket she kept around for weather emergencies as a blanket. She put the sleep timer on the stereo, and was asleep well before the music stopped.
“Before I’d let that steam drill beat me down… I’d die with a hammer in my hand, hand, hand…”
As she listened to “John Henry” without the distraction of work, she had to remind herself that though the steel driver did beat the machine, his victory was even more pyrrhic than Pyrrhus’s.
* * *
Thanks to her exhaustion, Sally slept through her alarm on Friday morning, meaning she had no time to run home and shower. For the first time since her father’s funeral, she shut the store on a workday and kept the lights off in the front room, in the hope that nobody walking by would question her decision.
Sally hadn’t slept well either. She kept hearing rats or mice moving around inside the walls, but the traps hadn’t caught any. She didn’t remember getting up in the middle of the night, but she’d somehow misplaced a couple of pairs of shoes and turned the photos of her father back to their regular positions.
Since cutting back on caffeine after a college career full of all-nighters, Sally made it a point never to drink coffee on consecutive days. That rule went out the window for the first time in a few years.
Forty-one pairs to go.
Sally had already realized that meeting the director’s deadline was no longer realistic. All she could do was finish as many pairs as she could and hope that Mr. Fredericks would understand. She’d seen the play before. As long as the leads were all costumed appropriately, she felt confident that nobody would notice if a few townspeople in the chorus didn’t have the right footwear. And maybe some of the girls’ dresses would cover their feet…
At first, feeling the deadline pressure was a big help, and Sally worked quickly. She fixed a pair of boots, one of which had a long and jagged cut through most of the upper. She resoled a pair of shoes for a boy with little feet. She had a dozen pairs done by the time the mail came, and was in high spirits, singing along with her folk records and snacking on cashews. By the time the sky outside was pitch black, she was up to seventeen pairs. By the time she’d gotten sick of the record she’d been playing all day, she was at twenty…
The next thing Sally knew, sunbeams were coming through the front window of the shop.
Rubbing her eyes, she realized that she’d fallen asleep at her workbench. She wasn’t sure when it had happened. She just knew that — unless her wall clock had also stopped working in the middle of the night — Mr. Fredericks would be coming by in about thirty minutes, she had at least twenty pairs unfinished, and she looked and smelled like someone who hadn’t bathed since Wednesday morning.
The last problem was the only one of the three she could do much about in half an hour. She ran into the bathroom and gave herself a quick wash, getting her hair as clean as was possible with only the sink and a bar of soap. With one of the old shirts she kept around as a rag, and the jacket she’d slept under Thursday night, she completed an outfit presentable enough for a Saturday morning and for a client who would know she’d had to work overtime to get the job done.
Except, she reminded herself, the job wasn’t done.
As she washed and dressed, Sally raced through explanations in her head, and even practiced a few out loud. “I finished what I could.” “I can finish the rest of it next week, if you can go without them for the dress rehearsals.” “Don’t any of the cast members have shoes at home that they can use?” “It wasn’t a realistic deadline in the first place.” She ran through more than a dozen ideas, none of which seemed guaranteed to satisfy the director.
When she returned to the main room, Sally noticed something that stopped both her feet and her mind in their tracks.
All of the shoes were arranged on the table where she’d been storing the finished ones. And the term “finished ones” now applied to all of them. She counted them twice, just to be sure. Every pair of shoes had been neatly placed in an orderly formation. Even the few shoes that arrived without mates had been repaired. The ones she’d misplaced earlier were there, and even the shoes she’d rushed earlier now looked as if she’d done her best work on them.
She had no idea how it had happened.
When Mr. Fredericks arrived at nine, as scheduled, he had to knock on the still-locked door. It took a few attempts to get Sally’s attention, even though he could see her inside, closely examining a boot in her hand.
The musical director smiled as he looked over Sally’s handiwork, and peppered her with unexpected compliments. He admitted he thought the task would prove too difficult, and that he was beyond pleased by her success. Along with a check for the agreed-upon amount, he gave her one hundred dollars in cash as a tip. She decided to put it toward a new set of speakers.
Mr. Fredericks collected his purchase, this time making several trips to his car in order to gently place the shoes in rows in the backseat. As he drove away, Sally tidied up the shop and tried to figure out how she’d managed to finish all that work without remembering it.
She racked her brain all day. Two customers with simple orders came by during the afternoon, and Sally even got to step out for her first normal lunch hour in a week.
When she closed the shop at five to go home and sleep, she did notice that none of the traps were still there, but she also couldn’t hear the mice anymore.
* * *
Around lunch the following Monday, the old woman and the ballerina stopped by again to bring Sally a plate of shortbread cookies. “Since you wouldn’t take money, we had to offer you something,” the grandmother explained. “I’m sure you’ll like them.” The little girl wore the same pixie-like blue outfit and, at Sally’s request, performed a short tap number in the shoes the cobbler had repaired. “I’m sorry again about taking you from your work the other day,” the old woman said. “Did it all get sorted?”
“It all got done on time,” Sally said, choosing her words carefully. She was never one to lie.
“I knew you would make it work,” the old woman said. Then, louder, “I knew it would all work out for you.” The little girl was busy rummaging through Sally’s supplies when the grandmother told her it was time to go.
Sally saw the two of them around the neighborhood several times in the next few weeks, with the little girl always dressed the same and the older woman always keeping a close watch on her. They waved to Sally every time they saw her, but they didn’t bring any more shoes in for repair.
The cobbler shop started to fare better after the musical premiered. Mr. Fredericks made sure the school used Sally for all future plays, though she insisted on much longer timetables for those projects. Enough of the parents were similarly impressed, and Sally got busier around prom and homecoming. She also got more foot traffic every weekend — nothing unmanageable, but enough that she could justify hiring two students from her old high school for a few hours a week. She found she enjoyed passing on her techniques — just like Seamus had done with her — as well as the stories and songs the two of them had shared.
Every so often, a school parent in the fashion or film industry would offer her some work, and then suggest she join their company on a permanent basis. The money was always better, and the work more stable, but Sally O’Brien always demurred. After all, she preferred to work with hand-me-downs.
featured in our spring 2018 issue