national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

One White Shoe

Erin Butler  • 
Brown University

Coins in the slot. Coins, pooled in a little pile at the bottom of the fare box because, somehow, the bus still only takes quarters. If you want to get somewhere, you had better have a roll of quarters. Coins in the slot will get you wherever you need to go.

Natalie never put coins in the slot. She always got where she needed to go.

She played at it, in the beginning, the first few times. Her fingernails were cut so that they all lined up neatly with one another. So she queued them up on the silver edge of her change purse and then fished two fingers in for a coin. She would fish and dig and pull one up between her two fingernails, and finally, the driver would wave her off and tell her, “Go right on ahead, miss.” And she would. She would go right on ahead.

Natalie was not a girl of means. This was not the same thing as not being a mean girl. She was a hand-me-downs girl, from friends instead of sisters. Yet she was impeccable. She was the house you had just cleaned and the comfort you got from looking at its cleanliness. Your mother asks you not to track mud in on the floor. Natalie was not a muddy girl.

She paid no quarters and got on the bus. There is a strange feeling some people get from walking on a moving bus, mostly because they usually walk in the opposite direction. And so the feeling is of walking back in time, away from time, anti-travel. For most of these people, it is a waste of time and they want their quarters back. For Natalie, it was double-dipping.

The bus was set up so that two long benches of seats at the front faced each other across a center aisle, and behind the benches were little rows of seat-pairs. The construction was such that you could choose the number of people you looked at. Natalie chose everyone. She sat at the front of the benches.

The problem was that there was no one else on the bus. It was late at night, later than buses should be running. And so she was the only one.

The bus was well-lit, but when she thought it, the lights flickered, then went out. She couldn’t even read. She couldn’t even count the quarters she still had. But across the aisle, she could see a beautiful woman reflected in the window. She frowned at her, and the woman frowned back. Four thin red lines, bright now, grazed her cheek.

“Where’re you headed, miss?” the bus driver asked. He caught her eye in the rearview mirror. Buses are different late at night when you’re the only one. Buses are different when you want to talk to no one, when in your mind it is you and a vinyl seat forever and only. It is the surest time somebody will talk to you.

“Fourth and Greene,” Natalie said. The driver nodded. He had another question on his lips, but she widened her eyes and her pupils dilated, war-ready. For a moment, she was wild, no longer a woman; nor was she a man, nor any kind of human; she was a beast there on the seat, out of her element, inhabiting a world too small to contain her. The driver swallowed the question. It went down wrong. He coughed.

The rest of the ride was silent. They pulled up to the stop at Fourth and Greene, and she said nothing and stepped out. The smallest traces of sun were playing along the horizon, warning of the day to come. Well, she warned the sky. She warned it right back. And as she climbed the stairs to her apartment, she almost let her mind slip, just for a second.


Every day, he is back at home with her. He is in her home. His feet are on her floor and he is looking at her walls and his hands have touched her doorknobs, and who knows if those hands carry influenza? He can see her bed from where he stands, which is in part because her apartment is so small and in part because he has put himself there.

She looks at his widow’s peak and the way it bobbles up and down a little when he is thinking. What she wants is to pluck out each hair, one by one, and then to climb in through the mess of axons and neurons to get to the center of his thoughts. Because what she really wants are the thoughts to be her. She hopes the thoughts are her, alright.

When he kisses her, he kisses the way he laughs: recklessly, and with his whole mouth. He gets her with the laugh and with the kisses. She is gone, in a Mama Cass choked-on-a-ham-sandwich kind of way, in that she is never coming back. And when she is gone, her fall will become myth, and her whole self legend, while in her mind, she is wondering why she’s had to go in the first place.

And so the legend is helpless when he dominates her, helpless as she thinks, why me why this why now, helpless when he pulls off her sock, of all things, and cuts deep into her foot for a layer of skin so that he can take with him a piece of herself.