The bald-headed man came to the thrift shop every few weeks, always wearing a black-and-gold Iowa sweatshirt, faded jeans, and well-worn running shoes. On each visit, he bought two pairs of shoes. First, he would try on some size 9s and walk back and forth the length of the aisle several times until he found the right fit. Next, he would pick a second pair from the children’s shelf after carefully examining each shoe, from sole to laces, toe to heel.
He paid cash.
One day he arrived just as my shift ended. I waited by the bus stop on the corner until he came out with a plastic bag in hand. He turned right and walked north, so I headed the same direction on the other side of the street, lagging behind a little in the hope that he wouldn’t notice me.
Five blocks along, he turned right again and headed toward the pedestrian bridge over the parkway. Above the westbound lane on the far side of the road, he stood facing the traffic, watching vehicle after vehicle speed by below him. He reached into the bag as the traffic thinned, pulled out a child’s shoe, and pushed it through a gap in the chainlink barrier that arched over the bridge.
The shoe landed on the shoulder of the parkway, inches from the outside lane. He stood there and watched several cars and a bus pass below him, then descended the ramp on the far side of the bridge and walked away.
The Duke lies still and dead on the edge of the road, his pink flamingo finery fluttering in the breeze. The Jester rolls to a stop in the loose, dusty gravel of the shoulder, then pedals away to the east. A string of purple beads glitters in the sun.
If everyone spoke softly on the bus, or if no one spoke at all, we would miss some fine chances to learn about dialogue, and character, and life.
We would miss the sad, first-person story told to someone on the other end of the phone call or in the seat across the aisle and a couple of rows back…
…a tale about the speaker’s idiot lawyer who wanted him to take a shit deal that would have him locked up a mere thirty days instead of a year when he shoulda got probation…
…about his girlfriend’s asshole parole officer who wanted to send her back to prison just because she wouldn’t fuck him any more…
…about the ex who always whined about child support being late when that bitch was lucky to get anything at all, ever, as hard as it was to get a good job let alone keep one when the bosses were always on your ass for being late.
I mean what the fuck. Fuckem all. Shit.
I pulled the fucking cord so why didn’t this asshole stop? What, is he a fucking idiot?
The loud ones can teach a writer who listens. Listen.
So Des Moines started getting cool a few short years after the Smiths moved to the starkly less cool Cedar Rapids? Sheer coincidence.
For what it’s worth, I thought my home town was always pretty cool, if not as slick as those snooty Twin Cities we supposedly looked up to back in the day.
Politico’s new story of how Des Moines went from “totally dysfunctional” to cool is an interesting read anyway. I haven’t thought about scooping the loop in years and had no idea that it was considered “a menace to society,” as columnist Rekha Basu says in the story.
I thought the menace was Roosevelt H.S. guys wanting to beat me up at the bus stop, or the guy on an inner-city street corner who wanted to kill me and a friend on our way to Dowling one morning. (We talked him out of it and walked away.)
Des Moines was also cool enough that it inspired me to write what has been called “a compelling, gut-wrenching thriller,” which takes place on those formerly mean, now-cool streets.
In one of my favorite parts of the story, Detective Red Shaw meets another key character in a sculpture park that wasn’t even there when we last lived in Des Moines.
Another takes place where caucus-covering reporters used to stay, and I suppose some still do:
“The Savery Hotel had been the Harrises’ favorite hangout since the days when its bar was crowded with reporters from across the country who were covering the Iowa caucuses. The newer Coda and BOS were OK, but Maura missed the old atmosphere.”
Sometimes I miss it a little, too, and it’s fun to visit family and friends in Iowa when we get the chance. Even Cedar Rapids is getting pretty cool, a trend that actually started before the Smiths went west.