Adapted from “The Happy Man’s Shirt”
by Italo Calvino, in Italian Folktales
Little brother n I are crossing the Mojave in Dad’s corroded ’88 Mazda Javelin.
Why? Shea asked when I said we finally jus up n do it.
We always said we would.
We’ve never done anything we said we would says he.
Well this time we will.
There were as always the unspoken reasons. Shea’s on the edge of another emotional collapse. Take that plus I’m getting married in a month n all of a sudden it feels for both of us like we’ve got this one last chance to be brothers the way we used to be brothers.
So bout noon summer storm clouds come moseyin in from the north like the ghost of an ancient sea Shea won’t stop going on about n dunk the red desert floor in gloom.
All this was shallow seas in the Paleozoic Era says he in the passenger seat. Coral n sponge. There were real monsters here once upon a time.
Shea knows well things like Paleozoic n sponge.
Rain follows clouds n steam actual rises from the black highway. From the hood of the Javelin. Piping is the word I say for hot.
I say How much a your day you spend in the Paleozoic anyway?
Too much says he Too much n he laughs. He’s self-aware if nothin else which’s good or maybe bad depending.
Not a lotta laughs in the Paleozoic I say.
Not too much says he Not too much.
At twenty-six there are lines above Shea’s eyebrows n the sides of his mouth. Gone all bone thin n slouchy. Used to be Shea was strong. Defined. Hell of a wrestler n proud shouldered. Then eight years back Dad sat in this Javelin runnin a hose from the muffler n Mom found his body pasty in the front seat said Damn you Kyle I’m so sorry Baby. After that it was jus Mom n the boys like always I guess but now we were the three of us kicked into orbit round this black hole called Dad. Soon after I caught the sharp limp in Shea’s eyes that hasn’t gone away since.
Mom always says Shea got Dad’s jeans n all I got’s his shirt. Guess I’m the lucky of us two because Shea tells it like Dad’s jeans are doin all his walking for him. Walking Shea through the same places Dad walked in life from dropping out of college to checking into rehab. Shea even tried the whole carbon monoxide poison thing but turns out new cars don’t really do the trick. Not like the Javelin.
Shea says Some days it jus feels inevitable you know?
When the rain lifts n the rock returns to red we stop at one of those edge-of-extinction fuel stations where an attendant in a greasy onesie comes out n fills your car in exchange for information.
Where ya headed? says the attendant.
Utah I say n spit. I never spat on the ground like that til now I’m faced with this old-timey bag a tricks n his Make America Great Again cap.
You from there?
I shake my head no.
Shea is in the bathroom a real long time n the attendant says so. So like the spit I don’t know why I say He’s depressed. I’m hoping this trip’ll cheer him up. He likes looking at rock formations n I like climbing’m.
Hm. Tell you what I got a pair a shoes I took offa real happy man came through once cuz he said anybody wears em will be jus overjoyed as hell no matter how bad his life is turned.
So I spit again n think My Lord I’ll spit at anything!
Gotta be some good-lookin shoes I say.
No not really jus come offa happy man’s feet.
So what you gonna try to sell me these shoes? I say.
Nah sir no charge tall. They never worked for me no how. Guess I’m jus born pleasant natured. Don’t need no shoes.
So the attendant fetches the happy man’s shoes jus before Shea comes out n he drops em in my hands. Heavy as working boots with dry mud on the heels n worn soles. Kind a shoes you wear to stomp someone to death. Different colored laces though. Red for right n white for left. Saddle up says he. S’worth a try.
So once we’re off Shea says What’s the shoes for?
Put em on let’s see.
Shea gives me a face n folds the tongue back to see deep as the toes go like I mighta put a scorpion or else in there. All clear so he kicks off his moccasins n laces up.
They fit? Whaddya think?
Whaddya mean whaddo I think?
I mean whaddya thinking? Howdya feel?
N like a firecracker it happens. Those lines above his eyebrows disappear n something like a light pops on behind his skull. No more limp in his eyes.
How do I feel?
You feel happy.
I do? Why? Why do I feel so happy?
I think it’s the shoes.
The shoes? Shea looks past his knees n smiles. I do. I really do feel happy.
I explain what the gas station attendant told me about the shoes n all the while Shea looks from me to the shoes to me again.
So all weekend we tromp around like kings in the desert. Brothers again the way we used to be brothers. Bad times are far removed as the ancient sea. Dad’s memory buried deep as monster fossils. Jus Shea n me n old times now in the place of red rock n happy shoes.
Standing back straight n chest forward on Crawford Arch Shea says when we get home he’s gonna reenroll. He’s gonna be a geologist like he always wanted.
Inside or outside geologist? I say.
Outside for sure says he smiling back at the landscape.
Then nighttime sitting by the fire he says Imagine you find your old toy six shooter n jus holding it you feel back in the Wild West robbin banks n shootin deputies like kids do. Like it’s real. Like everything’s possible again. Nothing tethered.
Will you let me have a go already?
But Shea doesn’t take the shoes off for two days n two nights.
You have to take em off sometime I say.
I’ve got blisters says he.
Well I said they aren’t for hiking.
I don’t care.
Yeah but soon enough you’re gonna wear em through. You can see it happening already. Notice here along the sole?
Shea doesn’t say anything. Could be this is the first time it occurred to him or could be it’s been on his mind since the moment he laced up.
On the third day we’re climbing Angel’s Landing when the seam pops all along the sole of his right shoe so his socked foot actual sticks out the side like a wonky sandal n Shea looks jus so shocked n deflated the thought goes through my mind he’s gonna jump right here right now from fourteen-hundred feet up.
Miracle he gets back down in one piece with his shoe flopping about like that. Shea’s got that sharp limp in his eyes again but he’s silent until we reach the campsite n then he really loses it says Those shoes were my one shot at anything! I have nothing!
I’ve got some glue n some tape in the trunk I say so I try to make things right but when he puts em on again he waits a minute n says Nothing! Says Not a thing.
Then says nothing awhile.
Says It’s the same as always.
Says it’s a weight pressing down.
Says Like I’m buried under a mountain.
We’ll jus stitch em up when we get home I say though not so sure stitches’ll do the trick.
No says Shea. I want your shoes. You never gave me your shoes. You got everything you never gave me a thing.
I’d give you anything Shea. I haven’t got anything to give you.
So I give Shea my shoes n say Happy?
N the Javelin says Shea holding out his hand for the keys.
So of course there’s a squabble n that plus a tough drive home but long story short Shea gets the Javelin n I end up buying a used Prius which is like the opposite of poison.
Sometimes I worry it’s Dad’s jeans put Shea behind the wheel of the Javelin. But for now he swears he’s given up on poison. Says carbon monoxide takes a closed space like a garage n you can’t find any place more open than an empty sea. That’s where Shea’s gone back to. He knows my shoes won’t do him any good so he’s back to driving all about the Mojave n tearing out his hair trying to find the happy man those happy shoes came off. Says he plans to cut off his happy feet.
It’s a fury drives him now. Let’s jus hope it lasts longer than those shoes.
About the Author: Tyler Corbridge lives in Tuscaloosa. He is a husband, recent father, and former milkman. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Salt Hill Journal, Chicago Quarterly Review, Five Quarterly, Elsewhere Magazine, and The Orphanage, among others. He is currently a creative writing instructor and MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, though he sometimes wishes he were still driving his milk truck in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.