March 28, 2024 Short Story

Magic Slippers

Magic Slippers Artwork by DALL·E
He climbed the steps of a multicolored storybook Victorian house and shuddered. David Benson was worried about how this chapter would turn out. He nearly gagged when he read the large pink sign requesting him to “PLEASE” remove his shoes. The letter “L” was a big black smiling boot. He was instructed to step into his size-choice of slippers, offered in little cellophane bags. The therapist’s entry smelled thickly of lavender, and David sat on a little antique stool as he yanked on each slipper. Who am I--Cinderella? He felt humiliated and silly, but then David thought of his children and remembered why he was there—even if it turned out to be a crock. This better be good, Dr. Ledbetter. And save all your psychobabble for somebody else.

For four weeks, David’s wife Sally had been seeing a family therapist--Dr. Marcel Ledbetter--about her marriage. Sally hadn’t told David until she finally dropped her news on him between a stack of unmarked high school English compositions:

“I’m trying to save us, David. All of us,” Sally said.

David had heard the words from his teary wife, but at he didn’t respond at first and could only sit and stare beyond his desk at a picture on the wall of his study: a photo of two men, back when David was a newly appointed head of the English department. In the framed black and white photograph, he was shaking hands with the late Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton, who had come to speak at his school. For David, it was a big deal. Things had been going great—but that was then.

“Dr. Ledbetter wants to see you, David, positioning a business card on top of freshman Esther Cobb’s Julius Ceasar essay. “Here are your appointment details. Are you listening—this is important!”

“Do the kids know about all this?”

“Don’t you think they’ve noticed things, David? No, the kids don’t know, but Dr. Ledbetter says he will want to want to see them, too.

Dave stared at the card in his hand and the graphic in the corner: a big smiley face rising like the morning sun.


David found a door with Ledbetter’s nameplate and stepped inside. He was a few minutes late, and he looked around the room and saw what Dr. Ledbetter was going for. Everything was comfortable —as if coziness was supposed to rub off or sink-in somehow. David was anything but comfortable, and a wave of fear hit him: Will our family be wiped out? Would it become extinct?

Suddenly, a giant appeared and startled him. Dr. Ledbetter was a huge man with a bushy black mustache and horn-rimmed glasses. His burgundy vest was obviously too small and would never be buttoned around his gelatinous gut. The therapist’s hands were enormous, and David was almost afraid to respond when Dr. Ledbetter’s right hand swept towards him as if it were fielding a ground ball. Dr. Ledbetter’s big paw squeezed David’s hand so hard that it collapsed in pain.

“So good of you to meet with me, Mr. Benson. I feel like I know you already.”

“Yeah,” David mumbled nervously. I’ll bet.

“Sally tells me you’re an English teacher at Lincoln South, is that right?”

David noticed heavy scribblings on a notepad Dr. Ledbetter was holding in his left hand.

“Well, that fact is not covered—obviously--by rules of confidentiality,” David remarked.

David watched Dr. Ledbetter who wasn’t sure if David was joking or not.

“Anyway, have a seat, David. Okay if I call you David?”

“Sure. And, uh, thank you for helping my wife, Doctor.”  

David didn't know if Doctor Ledbetter was helping her or not, or if the therapist’s kind of help would mean the end to their marriage. David wasn’t sure what details Sally had unveiled to this big stranger, but he wanted to show Dr. Ledbetter that he was not a monster.

“Well--and I tell this to all my clients--we all need help from time to time.” Dr. Ledbetter’s clenched his jaw while his smile and lips vanished in the forest of his mustache. He looked serious and held that pose as he studied David.

David stared back: I suppose you want me to react to your profound statement. Well, I’m not biting. I mean, what do you want me to say?

David was startled when Dr. Ledbetter slapped his bulging fingers on his desk in unison and said: “Okay, David. You’re an English teacher. You like words. I’ve got a pack of cards here, and we’re going to play a little game.”

Oh god no.

Dr. Ledbetter reached for a paperback-sized deck of cards and flipped open the packet. He removed the deck and fanned out the cards. Printed boldly on each card was an adjective or a phrase describing a personal attribute: afraid, trustworthy, hard-to-please, independent, and so on. On the other side of each card was the stark black and white symbol of Yin-and-Yang,

“David, I’d like you to simply read through these—take your time—and find the words and phrases that can apply to you more-or-less and some which do not. Then, I’d like you to sort the cards into three little piles.”

I know exactly what all of this is a pile of, David thought.

“It's very simple really, David. One stack should comprise words that you think aptly describe you. Another, definitely not--and the middle pile should contain “can't-decide” characteristics. Do you understand?”

“Well, I do, Dr. Ledbetter, but might it expedite things if you just ask me some questions?”

“Ah, do I detect that you have put on your teacher’s hat, David?”

Ledbetter smiled. The marriage counsellor had met such resistance before. “Just humor me, David?  This is, uh, kind of like my classroom.”

“Okay. Whatever.”

David was aware that he was being a jerk, but he thought it might have been close to the picture Sally had painted of him. Calm down, man--the sooner I play this little game of shrink-poker, the sooner I can take off these silly magic slippers, say good-bye to Romper Room, and go home.

David had already resolved to talk to Sally; he concluded that she had made her point. He admitted to himself that he had been disengaged lately. He wanted to get this over with, but he would play along. David read through the word cards steadily and decided to sort his little stacks honestly. He was eager to leave, but he was also curious to see where Ledbetter was headed. When David was finished, Dr. Ledbetter inspected each of the cards, sometimes stopping to scratch something down on his yellow pad. He suddenly looked up at Dave.

“Do you love your wife, David?” Dr. Ledbetter asked.

“Isn’t that the reason I showed up here?”

“You tell me,” he said.

“Yes. I love Sally. We built a family together.”

Built--like a construction job,” said Dr. Ledbetter.

“You know what I mean.” David said. “We created a family. Had challenges like everybody, but it has been good. It has been great for the most part. I was always right there for Sally and the kids. They were always first.” Am I being defensive? Did I choose too many goody-two-shoes cards? Maybe I’m coming off as arrogant.

Without looking at David, Dr. Ledbetter’s mouth flopped open as he reviewed David’s cards and selected some for a fourth pile. Without looking up from the cards on his desk, Dr. Ledbetter began:

“’Has been’, ‘was’, ‘were,’” Dr. Ledbetter said. “Interesting.”

“Doctor, you’re playing around with my words.”

“Sorry, David. They’re your words.”

“Well, okay. So, I guess you’re assuming things used to be different.”

“Different?” Dr. Ledbetter had stopped the card game to watch David closely.

“Between Sally and me. You know--different.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know--like maybe we used to relate more, enjoy each other more. I’m sure Sally covered all this with you.” Doctor Ledbetter didn’t respond. David continued: “Joked more and laughed more. Like, when the kids were young—there was so much laughter. I suppose we don’t do a lot of that anymore. I mean, we sure used to have more fun. Together.”

“Oh? Can you give me an example?” Dr. Ledbetter leaned forward, his double-chin resting on a beefy hand.

“Sure, there are lots of examples.” Uh, oh. I got nothing—relax, man…I need to think.

David’s eyes caromed around the room until they stopped at a framed photo of Dr. Ledbetter posing with a chubby woman and one large boy, obviously Ledbetter’s wife and son. There was a common Ledbetter resemblance. Except for the mustache, Dr. Ledbetter’s son could be a stand-in for his dad at Madam Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Shiny and not completely formed, Ledbetter’s boy was a chicken wing or two thinner than Dad. The whole family beamed wide, engaging smiles, sparkling with sincerity. There was nothing forced or fake about this family because the eyes said it all: So what if we’re a little pudgy. We love each other and we’re happy together. Seeing the joy in Ledbetter’s photo, David was suddenly desolate and needy. Deep down, David knew the truth about his faltering marriage and why he was at Dr. Ledbetter’s office. David wanted to bury his head in Mrs. Ledbetter’s ample bosom and be soothed. Then David remembered something:

“I threw up on my grandmother. And we laughed--Sally and me—we laughed about it together. We laughed for weeks. It’s still very funny when I think about it,” David said.

“You threw up on your—well, what did your grandmother think? Wasn’t she upset with you or embarrassed?” Dr. Ledbetter was grinning and wanted to hear more.

“Was Granny upset? Not really. She was dead. Lying in her casket.”

David started to get wistful as he recalled the event:

“My grandmother was ninety-seven and had lived this wonderful long life. She raised a bunch of kids and became a widow and all that. She outlasted both my parents and Sally’s and spent her last couple of years in some nursing home downstate near my sister. The night before her service, Sally and I stayed up late with a bottle of bourbon after the long drive. Our children stayed with a neighbor, so it was just the two of us up late for hours in a local motel--in our pajamas like kids, downing shots of booze. Well, me more than Sally. We just got silly that night, toasting my grandmother and remembering little stories about the old girl when she was mobile and able to visit us or vice versa.  

“Doctor, I don’t know how she did it, but my grandmother always--I mean always--managed to find the good in people. She always found some way to forgive people when they fell short. God, what a gem she was! Anyway, Doctor, I got wasted--and it caught up with me the next morning when I was supposed to deliver Gran’s eulogy. The next morning—wow, what a buzz I had!

“So, picture this. I step forward from my seat in the first row of Saint-somebody-or-other church. Suddenly, this churning nausea rises without warning. My legs become rubber and I pitch forward towards my grandmother’s open casket. I reach out to steady myself, the wave breaks, and I spew all over my precious Grandmother and her lovely linen gown. My poor grandmother is covered with--well, me. Then I hear Sally explode with laughter, and that kind of breaks the ice and permits others to join in with giggles. Somebody helps me back up, but by then I am doubled over with laughter. No way can I recover enough to eulogize my grandmother. But it's okay because friends of my grandmother and even a couple of nurses from her facility talk about Gran, and they celebrate her in a dozen tales I’d never heard about. I’m in tears but still laughing, and I look over at Sally and she’s just giving me this wonderful smile. A glorious smile. I can see it now.

“The funeral people finally had to give us the old wind-up. ‘Have to say, it was a great funeral--and how I loved Sally that weekend. She was just so, well, so much with me that weekend. You know? It was really something.” David looked up at Doctor Ledbetter, but he was in a blur because David’s eyes were soaked with tears.

“That’s an outstanding story, David.” He handed me a tissue before he continued. “I would imagine a lot of wives would not find your performance that day so funny. Many would not be so understanding.”

David knew Dr. Ledbetter was right.

“So, David, do you think you and Sally could get it all back? What do you think? It might take some time, some work. But do you think you both could learn to be as forgiving as your grandmother and get that something back?”

“Do you think we could, Doctor?”

“You're answering a question with a question, but I will tell you that lots of couples I know find ways to get it back.”

Dr. Ledbetter’s eyes led David’s back to the framed photo of his family. “We did.”

“Really? You mean you guys had--”

“--Yes, David, our marriage needed some help, too. I’ll tell you something. Usually, couples do better with all this when they learn that marital problems show up when the relationship is only bruised, but not dead. Sometimes, the marriage is just hurting--like an injured bird. Most times, my advice is the same: Be gentle. Do the healing things—you will know what they are. And it will fly again. Sorry if it all sounds too simple.”

In Dr. Ledbetter’s colorful little office, now a tone softer in the late afternoon, David began to feel in his heart that things would be OK. There was a little more back-and-forth between the two men and then an invitation to return. Dr. Ledbetter told David he could keep the slippers, and David smiled at that when he stood to leave.

This guy is all right, David thought. “They pay you for this?” David asked jokingly when he stood to leave.

“No, you do,” Dr. Ledbetter said with a laugh.