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by Peter McMillan

Married, two kids, a dog, and two jobs—Ben was an ordinary guy. In a crowd you could scan past him five or six times and not notice that he was standing right there in front of you. Around the neighborhood he was usually recognized by who he was with—Spots, Ben Junior, or one of the girls.

A nondescript man, an everyman, but a nobody. Got it. Next?

The writing still wasn’t paying, but it would, he said. The other job, selling shoes, was 'research,' he said. It stretched the household income, but more important was that it got him out of the house. His wife and teenage daughter, who’d read all of his recent work, finally suggested it.

OK. The nondescript man is a writer who can’t write.

Only a few weeks into the new job and Ben had filled several pocket-sized notebooks from the dollar store with bits of writer’s material. Shoe sizes, foot odors, missing/extra toes, corns, bunions were of interest in the early pages. By page 11, Ben had moved on to capturing the subtle shades of customer behavior between the polite and the ill-mannered, the modest and the showy, the parsimonious and the spendthrift, and the carefree and the morose. Moods and attitudes and demeanor Ben cross-referenced with the shoes customers bought.

This nondescript man and failed writer sets out into the world to find something to write about. Next.

But that wasn't the extent of Ben's research. You see, Ben liked to wear new shoes. And he had nearly half of an entire store to choose from. Every day, every lunch hour, he would slip into a pair of new unworn shoes he'd had his eyes on that morning. For twenty minutes—his best estimate of a mile—he would walk, climb steps, maybe run after a bus, and jump over spilled garbage on the sidewalk, always taking a different route.

This nondescript man and failed writer—now a student of shoe store personalities and their footwear preferences—is quirky. What’s next?

On returning to the shop, Ben cleaned and sanitized each pair of shoes, because his ‘footprint’ was supposed to be figurative and abstract and uncontaminated but equally because he was fussy about cleanliness.

OK, very quirky, but not quirky and disgusting is what we’re supposed to think?

Studying customers as they tried on shoes that he'd worn, he liked to imagine what it would be like to walk in his shoes. On his daily walks he wondered how the new owner of his shoes would carry himself. Would he walk with a precise, measured and decisive step? Would he walk tentatively, weaving left and right, stopping occasionally to look around him? Would he swagger with arrogance and bad taste, projecting an exaggerated image of himself?

Now we get why this nondescript man is a failed writer. And his failure as a writer spills over into this off-stage compulsion to control real people in the real world. Clever. Next.

Though tempted, Ben never interfered by suggesting the possibilities that lay ahead. After all, he said (to himself), people have to make their own choices. Nevertheless, Ben took pleasure in considering his influence.

“People are characters, and characters are people, so give them their freedom.”

Every customer was important to Ben, and they were flattered that he remembered them. He had a gift for recalling faces and names and stories, and his customers marveled at his incredible memory. Of course, Ben didn’t share from his notes or his lunch hour walks.

The nondescript writer creates descriptive characters and conceals from them their reason for being in his head. We got that already. Next.

After the manager retired, Ben rose quickly through the ranks. Although it was never his ambition—which remained to become a successful writer—he accepted the offer to manage the shoe store.

So, the nondescript writer morphs into a nondescript shopkeeper, trading characters for customers, plots for business, art for reality? Tragedy. Anything more?

One day Ben noticed that one of his employees was wearing store shoes when she went out for lunch.

The creative urge forsaken but resurgent? That it?

It was more entertaining when Ben was a cross-dresser, wasn’t it?

Yeah, but it lacked authenticity. This one at least sounds like you…us.