We’re All in This Sandbox Together
“I can’t find my shoe,” Matthew screamed in his high-pitched voice. Everyone else filed indoors after recess, our light jackets unzipped in October sunshine.
Two years older than me, but only one grade ahead because he’d somehow failed kindergarten, Matthew slouched and sported a brush cut. Even when he wasn’t speaking, his mouth gaped open. He had no friends and smelled like freshly dug potatoes. He lived in the trailer park at Morgan’s Point, with his parents and a seventeen-year-old sister who was expecting her first child by Christmas.
Frantic and sweating, he repeated, “I can’t find my shoe,” as if nothing in the world could be more important.
Mr. Kipling covered yard duty that afternoon. The Grade 4 teacher was young and well-liked, and played guitar at St. Elizabeth’s School Christmas assemblies. “How could anyone lose his shoe in a sandbox?” he asked, his tone philosophical.
Matthew turned, expecting help, but Mr. Kipling strolled past.
The sandbox sat outside our Grade 2 classroom. Mrs. Beshara was about to start the day’s final lesson when she noticed Matthew, still digging. “What’s he screaming about?”
We couldn’t hear him through the glass, but we knew. “He lost his shoe.”
She stared and pressed her lips together, suppressing a smile. More to herself than anyone, she said, “What kind of fool would bury his shoe in the sandbox?”
Matthew never boarded the school bus home. For all I know, he stayed overnight in the sand.
We found him the next morning, still sweating, screaming, digging. The square wooden frame wasn’t much larger than my parents’ double-bed. Matthew must have shifted each tiny granule a dozen times.
“What kind of idiot buries his shoe in the sandbox?” asked Klaus Voogler, the tallest kid in school and the biggest bully. “Guess your parents never noticed you were missing last night.”
When Matthew didn’t respond, Klaus lost interest and joined his friends on the soccer field.
“You’re gonna dig all the way to China,” Judy said. We’d seen it happen in cartoons.
Another voice added, “Won’t be long before you’ll have a nephew to help dig.”
Everyone laughed each time someone asked the question, “What kind of idiot would bury his shoe in a sandbox?”
But when I asked, the kindergarten teacher appeared from nowhere. “Franklin, that’s not a Christian thing to say.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Ranchod.”
“Don’t say sorry to me, I’m not the one suffering. Get in there and help him.”
I had no choice. Mrs. Ranchod taught me to read, count, and use a Kleenex instead of picking my nose. I pleaded to be spared the humiliation, but she cupped her hands and mimed scooping water from a sink.
“Dig,” she commanded.
I put my hands together and scooped sand. The first cold and damp load produced nothing. On the second, I touched something rubbery. I brushed the sand and uncovered a blue and silver running shoe. I shook the dirt and showed Matthew. “Is this it?”
Several students clapped. Matthew reached out–but his hand fell. “That’s not it! My shoe is gray and has a hole in the toe.”
A soccer ball whizzed past my head and bounced off the school wall. Klaus’ best friend, Rosario Seville, chased it, then drop-kicked it back onto the field.
“Hey, that’s my shoe,” Rosario said.
He snatched the sweaty thing from me and sat on the edge of the sandbox. A clean white sport sock sheathed his preferred kicking foot.
“It fits,” Matthew announced as Rosario’s foot slid inside.
“Of course, it does. It’s my shoe.”
“You’ve been playing soccer minus one shoe?” I asked, but Rosario left without answering.
“Matthew still needs his,” Mrs. Ranchod said. “Keep digging.”
Judy Dorenkamp giggled behind me. Last Valentine’s Day, she cut hearts from red construction paper and gave them to everyone in class, except me. I dug up a silver-buckled, black shoe, and Judy’s laughter ceased.
“Actually, that’s mine,” she confessed. Judy’s tiny, right toes were visible, in outline, beneath black tights.
I wiped sweat from my forehead. Sharp grains of sand were wedged beneath each fingernail. “You came to school wearing one shoe?”
Judy denied it. She demanded I set her leather-scented footwear on the grass. She placed a hand on her friend Beverly’s shoulder for balance, then eased her foot inside before fastening the buckle.
As the girls skipped away, I scanned the yard. Every foot wore a shoe, yet I found nine more buried in the sand: one bright white Adidas belonged to Klaus; Mr. Kipling claimed a brown loafer; even Mrs. Beshara collected her shiny black pump.
Each time I held up another piece of footwear, Matthew shook his head and someone else came forward.
As the first bell sounded, I unearthed a worn, filthy gray running shoe with a hole in the toe.
“This has to be it!” I said. I’d had enough of Matthew, of digging, and of stocking-footed people.
Matthew took the sneaker, but no amount of grunting made it fit. “This isn’t it. I’m missing my left. This is a right.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. “It matches your other one. Who else could it belong to?”
Matthew looked at my feet. “Maybe it’s yours.”
I lowered my eyes and noticed, for the first time, that the toes on my right foot were bare. And dirty. And cold.