The Shoes of Kings by David Lanvert

Two mall employees become friends, but one harbours a surprising secret. 

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My friend Jake sold men's shoes at the Florsheim shop. Talk about the lowest rung of retail. I was a few spots higher, working at a designer jeans store in the same mall. At least girls came into my place. Malls, back in the 70s, were like small towns. Everyone's aware of the pecking order. We always had the lonely Fotomat kiosk guy in the parking lot to make fun of.

I met him one day when I needed change; we'd taken in a lot of big bills, and he was the only guy around who would help me out. I asked the girls at Baskin-Robbins and the former cheerleaders peddling cheese logs at Swiss Colony. They all gave me the stink eye. Jake welcomed the interruption and said he was happy to help. Single-brand stores like his didn't have a lot of traffic. He was a few years older than me and had the pale, wan look of a mall veteran.

It's seductive, working in a mall. You start thinking it's a cool part-time job, but you pick up on the status thing, the small-town vibe, and it hits you - it has everything you need, indoors. At a point near the end of a twelve-hour shift during the holidays, or when you've worked ten days in a row, you realize it's a lifestyle. My father came in once when I was working, checked everything out, and said, "It beats digging a ditch." Dad was like a car in need of repair. You park it in the yard to get it out of the way. It's only temporary; you'll fix it and get it back on the road. But then it's still there a week later and the next month. The tires go flat, weeds grow around it, and squirrels nest in the back seat. You get used to walking around it. Life was too much for him. The color drained out of him to the point where he was almost transparent, and one day, he was gone. My mom freaked. Maybe it ran in our family, a genetic predisposition to hopelessness. She'd had me on antidepressants since, although I wasn't what you would call medication-compliant. I was more self-directed in that department.

Jake took his job seriously. After work, we'd smoke pot in the parking lot, and he'd go on nonstop about the virtues of his best product, the Florsheim Imperial, with its handsewn moccasin construction, full calfskin lining, and leather stacked heel. According to him, they were the ultimate in men's footwear, the shoes of kings and captains of industry. Only bona fide studs wore Florsheim Imperials. But the profit was in wooden shoe trees, and he bragged about selling a pair with every purchase.

Regardless of the topic, he would get all worked up, pounding the dash and coughing through the smoke, ashes from the joint landing on his good work clothes, leaving tiny holes in his polyester slacks. He was big, what my mom would call husky, and sat with the driver's seat all the way forward; his legs splayed out with his knees almost on the dash, the steering wheel inches from his chest. He told me the last owner was short, and the seat was stuck. I'd recline until I was staring at the yellowing headliner and let his footwear arguments wash over me as I counted all the little perforations in the vinyl. I offered my thoughts on the impact of Saturday Night Fever on men's fashion and how all designer jeans owed their existence to Levi Strauss. We both hated the leisure suit, although I didn't mention that my mom and I once gave one to my dad as a birthday present.

We also discussed Jimmy Carter, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and whether I should drop out of college. The political science phase I was going through wouldn't last, and nothing else in school seemed to stick. I'd already had three majors; summer was ending, and the semester was starting soon. The future required decisions, and I wasn't sure I was up for it. Jake offered suggestions in the tight-lipped, clipped cadence of someone trying not to exhale. For a shoe salesman, he was pretty bright.

The mall cops hassled us about smoking pot in the parking lot, so we found a spot off a dead-end street overlooking the mall. Jake would pull up and park facing downhill because his piece-of-shit Pinto often refused to start, and he wanted gravity on his side. One afternoon, we were leaning on the trunk, passing the blunt, and he said he wanted to share something personal. Off came his shirt, and with a couple of loping strides, he was flying, wings unfurling from his back, the whole of him soaring upward like smoke. I thought, this dope is fantastic. But it occurred to me, maybe it's not the weed. I stood, head back, and stared unblinking, eyes watering, slack-jawed, both hands gripping the trunk lid behind me. Straight overhead, with the sun behind him, he glowed like a firefly at dusk. Figure eights, barrel rolls, loops, the guy had talent.

Eventually, he landed, trailing a vapor of pot and cologne, his wings folding back with a muted snap like sheets on a clothesline. I had several questions for him. You can imagine. But all I managed was, "I thought you were going to tell me you were gay." The cops - the real cops - pulled up, so we got in his car and rolled back to the mall with the calm paranoia you have when stoned.

We talked about it later. I lost it and told him it was pretty chickenshit of him to fly off without any warning. It was a wonder I didn't end up in some hospital, tied to a bed with fleece-lined leather cuffs around my wrists and ankles, pumped full of Thorazine. He said he was sorry. Yes, he was an angel; no, it wasn't all you'd been taught, with harps and celestial singing. No, he hadn't been sent to help me, although he looked away when he said it and started searching his pockets for a lighter. I didn't believe him. Why me? What's so special about me? As soon as I thought it, his voice was in my head, "Why not you?"

Jake left the mall a few weeks later. He told me over an Orange Julius he'd been promoted to assistant manager, but the position was downtown. The current store was too small to have a management hierarchy. (I thought it was too small once you had a customer in there, but I kept quiet.) He said he'd still be around and glanced upward to ensure I took the hint.

We both gave up smoking pot. I quit because once you've experienced the supernatural, having an angel as a best friend, what's the point of getting high? Jake quit because I quit, or so I thought, but then again, he had more responsibility now. He even bought a new battery for his car. Downtown parking was complicated enough without him having to look for someone to give him a jump.

I decided to major in history. Jake told me all we needed to know was in the past - there were no new problems, only new names for the same old shit. I should trust him on this. He'd been there. I believed him, given his immortality and all. And, so far, I think he's right. I may even go further with it; who knows? My advisor has already brought up graduate school. I don't plan much, but I heard Rhode's Scholars get to study in England. Imagine that.

I bought a pair of Florsheims from him on his last day, but not the Imperials. They were too much shoe for me. He put them aside and said they'd be there when I was ready. He gave me the employee discount and threw in a pair of shoe trees.


  1. What I absolutely loved about this story were the fantastic and plentiful details like: “ his wings folding back with a muted snap like sheets on a clothesline” All the stores mentioned I remember! I remember m@ll world and pot world! Very well done!

  2. I very much like the voice of this story - the casual, down-to-earth tone and narrator, especially in the everyday environment of a shopping mall, worked brilliantly to really make the revelation that Jake is an angel such a great surprise.

  3. An entertaining read with quite a surprise. I’m going to go out on a wing and say the sky’s the limit for the MC.
    - David Henson

  4. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 12, 2024 at 8:34 AM

    I loved the casual voice of the narrator in this story. I worked in a mall in Fort Worth Texas as a teenager, so I know the culture. Jake knew they would part, go in different directions. The shoe trees were the perfect gift. Support for the shoes that would carry the narrator into the future. Well done!

  5. I remember shoe stores, but not angels, at least one flying ones. Flying nun, yes.

    Mr. Mirth, Doug Hawley.

  6. Jake clearly loved to get *high* - both figuratively AND literally! ;->

  7. I thought this was really a good story. A couple of lines stood out in particular: " I quit because once you've experienced the supernatural, having an angel as a best friend, what's the point of getting high?" was one. It's a line that is deceptively straight forward, but lends itself to deeper reflection. Also, being more-or-less contemporary with the protagonist, I completely recognize the world of mid-70s shopping malls he describes. You did a great job making it come alive,

  8. Really enjoyed the setting. More attuned to '80s mall culture myself, more boozing in the lot than smoking, but I definitely recognized this world (even if it brought up repressed memories of a brief time working in the mall food court, argh!). Definitely didn't see the wings coming! Fun story!

  9. Wow! I really didn't see that coming. Very nice story. I have so many mixed feelings about malls. They did their best to kill off downtown retail spaces, but then they became the culture. Now that they are disappearing, we have internet shopping. Not the same.

    Also, I loved the line about having an angel as a best friend.

    Very nice work!