She was young. She was slender. She was waiting tables at a little joint. The kind of cafe you’ve seen a hundred times before in every small town backwater from here to forever.
They served bathwater coffee. Shingle toast. Hamburgers fatty enough to cause aortic embolisms.
The waitress wore red shoes. Ballet flats. They were scuffed and faded leather. She always wore red shoes because they were her trademark. Ever since girlhood.
Growing up poor does something to a kid. Growing up during a Great Depression rewires the human brain. Whenever this girl had extra money, she bought shoes. And they were always flagrant red.
She was not yet 16. But she was like all the children in her generation, mature years before her time. She was tall and elegant. A young Katherine Hepburn comes to mind. Maybe Bacall. Her dark hair was pulled back so that her long neck showed. She looked like a queen among mortals. When she walked, every eye followed her.
There were several workmen sitting in a booth. They were bad customers. They made her life miserable. They complained about their orders. They sent their food back to the kitchen multiple times.
She did her best to serve them with charm and grace, but she kept making mistakes. The restaurant owner was called. He took the cost of their meals out of her pay. He gave the girl a scolding in front of everyone.
And that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the disgruntled men in the booth tipped her one penny.
She cried until her makeup ran. One penny was worse than getting spit at.
But this is life. You couldn’t stop working just because you got your feelings hurt. The workday must go on. This was a Great Depression. Money didn’t grow in the backyard. There were no such things as cigarette trees or big rock candy mountains.
One of her customers that day was a navy man. He was wearing his service whites. Dixie Cup hat. He was carrying a heavy duffel sack. He looked sunburned and tired. He was on leave.
She waited on him. The man said he’d seen what happened earlier. He had seen how difficult the other customers had behaved. She started crying all over again, despite her phony smile.
“Don’t worry about me, sir. I’ll be okay.”
The navy man spoke something to her in a foreign tongue. It sounded like Italian. Or maybe Spanish. Or something like that. It sounded to the girl as though he were speaking an old proverb. Or an ancient blessing, maybe.
His bright eyes were glazed with emotion. And his lower lip was quivering. “Don’t let them get to you, kid,” he said. “People can be so mean.”
She thanked him and went about her work.
That same evening, the young woman went home to her apartment. She was married. Her husband was a guy in the Air Corps. He looked good in his uniform, and she thought he had a cute chin. She had gotten pregnant six minutes and four seconds after her wedding vows
They had a good life. They lived in a little garage apartment on a shaded street. She had a maple tree. A tomato garden.
At sundown, there was a knock at her door. It was the same navy man. Same service whites. Same sailor’s cap.
He had a cardboard box under his arm, all done up in brown paper and string.
“They told me you lived here,” he said.
He gave the box to her. Inside was a pair of new, red shoes. Ballet flats. Patent leather. Shined to a mirror gloss. There were four more boxes just like it. All shoes. Stacked like cinder blocks on the porch.
“What’re these for?” the young woman asked.
“To make up for that penny,” he said.
Fifty years later, I would hear this story along with my cousins, who all sat cross-legged on the carpet of an old mobile home. We listened to an old storyteller at work. Then, one of us interrupted and said, “Did that story really happen, Granny!?”
Katherine Hepburn just smiled and tapped the ash on her Winston. “The Navy is a marvelous organization,” said the woman in the red shoes.
Happy 247th anniversary to the United States Navy.