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The Sole of the Operation

story by Abbey Tanner

Grasping the toe of a leather work boot with her left hand, Jill Suiter uses a set of steel pliers to clamp down on the worn rubber sole. She clenches her jaw and pulls back the rubber, freeing the sole from the rest of its shoe. The scent of leather and shoe polish fill Boaz Shoe Repair, cluttered with boots, heels and waxes — tools of an old trade.

Although she has worked in maintenance for years, some would say Jill doesn't belong, playing a role that has been filled by men for hundreds of years. On a day in October, faced with the absence of David Jones Sr., her only co-worker, Jill picked up the pair of boots to completely replace the sole. Usually, that's his job, but not because she doesn't know how to do it.

"The previous owner told me this was man's work," Jill says. "I proved him wrong."

It's a small operation, and Jill is at the heart of it. She has worked at the shop for a little more than a year and takes on whatever task needs doing. She relishes quiet Mondays, when the shop is closed and she can work without interruption. She wears worn jeans and an old T-shirt, with her blonde hair tied back. Her work shoes are a pair of white sneakers, with stains from the polish she uses.

The shop in Paducah is a 45-minute drive from her house in Mayfield. She takes the long way home, letting work fall away. By the time she arrives, she's ready to shift her focus to the stash of baby clothes and toys she has collected for her oldest daughter, Lizzie, 22, who is eight months pregnant. Jill and Lizzie gush over tiny baby shoes and blue blankets. It's a far-cry from the reaction Lizzie expected when she told her mom about the baby, who she'll call Isaiah — a name her mom picked out. Jill will be at her daughter's side when he's born.

"We weren't gonna buy anything before we knew the gender," Lizzie says. "But she was too excited, so she bought outfits and a diaper bag."

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Jill and her friend, Geni Lankford, of Mayfield, work on local business signs during their free time. Because David was out of work the day before, Jill is balancing more repairs than usual.

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Jill confirms a shoe repair order for Josh Ott, a customer from across the Ohio River in Metropolis, Illinois. Ott works on a ship on the river. He says he goes through a pair of boots a year because of the amount of walking his job demands. "I'll take care of you," Suiter says.

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Jill and David take a break in the middle of a busy work day. Geni came to help with the extra shoe repair orders that are backed up because of David's recent absence.

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Jill takes on several responsibilities at work. After the shop was sent the wrong order of shoe polish from one of their suppliers, Jill calls the company to ask how they will fix the mistake.

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Jills says her favorite part of her job is the old ladies who come to have their high heels fixed. "They crack me up," she says.

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Her favorite time of day is after closing when she can work in the shop without interruptions. Sometimes, Jill will stay late into the night working on projects.

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"I've always been a tomboy," Jill says. "I wanted to go hunting with my dad, but that's not what girls did. You would take your son hunting, not your daughter."

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On her breaks, Jill visits her friends who work at the cafe next to Boaz Shoe Repair.

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Jill admits there are some challenges to being a single mother. "It's hard, I'm about to teach my son how to drive and that worries me," she says.