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“Baby Shoes”: Anatomy of A Six-Word Story

May 2, 2022

Photo by Alexander Shustov on Unsplash

by Rachael Ann Siciliano

Legend has it that over lunch with fellow writers, Hemingway boasted he could write a story with six words. His friends scoffed. Hemingway took their bets, then scribbled on his napkin:

“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

The stunned writers paid up.

Though this never happened (writers revised “Baby Shoes” for decades before falsely attributing it to Hemingway), “Baby shoes” resonates. Why?

 

Residue, not synopsis

“Baby Shoes” could have summarized the tragedy. “Umbilical cut. Baby silent. Parents wail.” Or “Baby opens eyes, closes them forever.” But, like headlines, synopses shield the reader from emotional engagement: we glean information, but we don’t care.

Instead of summarizing the moment of loss, the story paints loss’s painful residue: surrounded by relics of their dead baby, inconsolable parents struggle to carry on. If we’ve been there, we know. If we haven’t, we fear one day we will. We care.

 

Personal catastrophe, not global apocalypse

In sci-fi six-word stories, writers mimic the residue of “Baby Shoes” with post-apocalyptic scenes of few humans, many robots, and innocent children asking about the “before time.”

But in “Baby Shoes,” only the parents’ lives have halted. Newspapers still print and classifieds still run: the world churns on and so, somehow, must the bereaved.

 

Every word, carefully chosen

The story might have opened with “For free” or “Please take,” I suppose. But by posting their ad in the local paper, the parents expose their unimaginable private pain to the humiliation of a public transaction.

What about “baby”?

“For sale: infant shoes. Never worn.”

“For sale: child’s shoes. Never worn.”

“Infant” is too clinical; “child” breaks our hearts; but “baby” breaks it more. A family may have many children, but only one baby—“the baby.”

And “shoes”?

“For sale: baby clothes. Never worn.”

“For sale: baby toys. Never used.”

“Clothes” and “toys” are unambiguously plural and could imply the entire wardrobe and toy chest of an orphanage. The children of these stories didn’t die. They just needed Marie Kondo.

“Shoes” is also plural, but I always hear it as a single pair of shoes. In fact, if you were contemporary with Hemingway, you might only buy that one precious pair you plan to bronze into an heirloom after the baby’s first steps.

And the final sentence?

“For sale: baby shoes. Worn once.”

“For sale: baby shoes. Gently worn.”

“For sale: baby shoes. Never used.”

“Worn once”? Maybe the shoes didn’t fit? “Gently worn”? Maybe the kid outgrew them? “Never used,” gets us there. But the specificity of  “Never worn” offers a skosh more poignancy.

“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

The writers lifted “for sale” and “never worn” from classifieds, and only had to come up with “baby shoes.” But these are exactly the right words.

 

Even the punctuation resonates

Many editors cast “Baby shoes” in this three period, Mother Goose-like cadence:

“For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

In this version, the rhythmic simplicity contrasts with the story’s unnamed tragedy. Though for me the staccato beats regularly—too like a living heart, not the dead and broken ones of the story.

The New Yorker’s more elegant colon and period slow the story down.

“For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

The colon gives us a breath, as if the writer were collecting their courage. But the first period marks a clear beat. A sob? You can almost hear the mother’s voice crack as she writes the last line.

 

Evocation not narration

In the story one or two parents lose a baby, but the contours of that loss are left to the reader’s imagination. I see an expecting mother ogling expensive shoes in an uptown shop window; I see the same woman, months later, clutching doll-like shoes to her heavy bosom; I see a despondent father at a newspaper office fumbling his coat pockets for the handwritten ad while an impatient copy-editor’s pencil taps; I see a cold-hearted business man sucking in air as he reads the morbid advert; and years later I watch an old woman in a sun-filled attic unwrap the unsold and preserved shoes of a baby she buried long ago.

A parade of images conjured.

 

Gut punch, not punchline

To emulate the plot twist of “Baby Shoes,” many writers offer jokes, puns, or puzzles.

But what drives “Baby Shoes” isn’t logos, it’s pathos. When we realize a classified is doing the work of an obituary, we catch a barely tolerable glimpse of unnamable suffering. At first, we think the “never worn” shoes are more valuable for being pristine. And then it hits us: the baby who was supposed to wear, tear, and scuff them has gone to its grave, pristine.

 

The Mamas not the “Papa”

Hemingway may not have written “Baby Shoes,” but “Baby Shoes” came from real people. Quote investigator lists several classifieds that carry its resonance.

1906: “For sale, baby carriage; never been used. Apply at this office.”

1910: “Baby’s hand made trousseau and baby’s bed for sale. Never been used.”

1921: “Baby carriage for sale, never used.”

Like a pre-internet #meToo movement of infant mortality, were mothers co-opting classifieds for their collective grief? It took many people many decades to perfect “Baby Shoes”—journalists who picked up these threads, editors who whittled it down, and playwrights who mapped it to Hemingway. But “Baby Shoes” resonates, because the wails of grieving mothers pierce through the polish.

___________________________

Rachael Ann Siciliano earned a Ph.D. in French Literature from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1998. After spending years as a User Experience Researcher unearthing other people’s stories, she is finally learning how to tell her own. She lives on Oahu with her blue fish, Max.

Photo by Alexander Shustov on Unsplash

 

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