Christian Wallace was raised in West Texas. He moved to Galway in 2011 to pursue an MA in Writing. During his time in Ireland, Wallace hosted an alternative-country show on Flirt FM and could often be found in The Crane Bar listening to tunes or playing his own songs. An electrician by trade, Wallace returned to Texas to work and plan his next adventure with his dog, Loretta. His poetry has appeared in Persona, Words Work, andWingbeats.
By Christian Wallace
I found them in New Mexico. They were in a Western store that was the pride of an otherwise unimportant smudge on the map. I was on my back to Texas, and dusk was settling on the horizon. I pulled into the parking lot where a single truck hitched to a horse trailer remained. A tiny Mexican woman squinted at me through a pair of thick glasses as I came into the shop. The whole place smelled of leather. Saddles, belts, perfectly formed Stetsons and boxes of boots filled the place. A couple of cowboys were milling about—one trying on a camouflage jacket, the other stuffing his fingers into a new pair of work gloves.
My old boots were tired. The rubber bottoms of both heels had worn away into the wood. To be honest, there hadn’t been anything particularly special about them, even when they were brand new. They were made of rough-out leather, no stitching up the sides, a basic buckskin color, not even a brand on them. My grandfather had given them to me two years earlier. He bought them for himself in the Seventies, but they never fit right—too narrow for his own feet. He couldn’t remember where he got them. They had only been worn a few times when I first pulled them on the summer I left for college. A couple years and a lot of miles later, a strip of duct tape was the only thing keeping the left heel attached to the boot.
Coming into this store to find a new pair felt like betrayal. Those boots had been good to me. They had seen summer days so hot that the street tar stuck to the soles. They knew the ice-slicked trails of the Grand Canyon, the ground frozen until we reached the banks of the Colorado River. They were on my feet the first time I set foot in Europe, the heels clicking on cobblestone. They kept the sand out when I drug an old canoe out of the Rio Grande into Mexico. They fit well into stirrups, stained by the sweat of horses and my own. The concrete slabs of unfinished houses were no strangers to these boots; they didn’t mind the sawdust or discarded nails. They weren’t afraid to work.
I looked around the store. There were so many boots to choose from: square-toed, roper heel, steel-toed, cowboy heel. There were boots in just about any color from olive to hot pink. Traditional cowhide was well represented, but there was also rattlesnake, ostrich, alligator, eel, and buffalo leather. I picked up a new, polished boot and turned it over in my hands. The stitching on the shaft formed a cartoon-like cow skull. It was so clean. I couldn’t imagine these boots taking well to any amount of skuffing or red dirt. I looked at a few more pairs with the same thought.
Most of my buddies have a pair of going-out boots; I’ve never bothered. There was something elegant about the simplicity of my own boots. They were tough and worn, but, without the duct tape, they still looked nice. The smooth soles had tapped, stomped, and slid across many a dance floor. They had had whole conversations with squeaking wooden floorboards in various honky-tonks and juke joints. They had kept the rhythm while my own hand fell up and down a set of six strings. Once while playing a songwriter circle in Luckenbach, a white-haired cowboy had commented on them. “You don’t see rough-out leather boots like that much anymore,” he said across the campfire. “Boots today just aren’t made to last like those things are.”
The search was starting to feel hopeless. I began to think maybe I should just invest in another roll of duct tape. A soft voice tinged with a Mexican accent came from behind.
“You looking for new boots?” The woman I’d seen earlier was straightening boxes on the shelf.
“Yes ma’am, this is about the end of the road for these,” I said, pointing to my feet.
“Oh, you must really love them!” She laughed at the duct tape. “What size you wear?”
I told her my size and explained that I was looking for something suitable for the dancehall and the construction site, a heel for walking, a good set of shanks, made of durable leather, and nothing stitched too fancy. She thought for a moment. We zigzagged through aisles of boxed-up boots until we came to the corner of the store. She pulled out a box from the bottom shelf.
The boots were darker than mine. The shanks stretched high from the wooden heel. The sole was made of thick, hard leather. These didn’t have the polished shine like the others, but there was an intricate, traditional design stitched in turquoise and gold along the shanks.
“These are Tony Llamas,” the woman told me. “Made of goat skin in El Paso.” She explained that goat skin is harder to skuff, retains a nice color, and doesn’t stink so bad when it gets wet. I admitted that I was taken back by them. “Well, try them on,” she urged.
I slipped the old boots off and set them next to me. My foot made its way slowly into the shanks of the new boot. The fit was perfect. Without me saying a word, the woman smiled and said, “I’ll ring them up for you,” as she headed for the counter.
I stared at the new boots for a moment. It was like looking down at someone else’s feet. I wiggled my toes, and took a few steps around the store. The leather was already soft; they wouldn’t require much breaking in. I studied the old pair abandoned on the floor. They were haggard, the strip of duct tape was fraying, a few scrapes cut deep into the sides—still, the shanks hadn’t even started to sag.
I left the store with a box in my hand, the new boots inside it. I climbed into my truck. “One more trip home,” I thought, as my old boots found their way to the pedals.