There are many ideas out there about the measure of a man, but mine is the only one I know of that involves shoes. Sure, there is a lot to know about him by his demeanor, the use of his wealth, or how he treats those less fortunate. But the shoes tell a subtle story, for he is aware he will be evaluated by those other measures, and it does not occur to him he may be judged by his shoes; they are a more true glimpse of him than his reputation or handshake. The shoes will give you as intimate a clue to his person as if his wife had let something slip after too many cocktails.
So of course I pay a lot of attention to shoes, and I most often walk with my head bowed low, scanning the soles (and thus, the souls) I pass on the sidewalk. Working, as I do, on the Accounting block of the Business District, most of the shoes I see are polished black leather with hard heels. There are the occasional Mary Janes housing thick-stockinged feet, and on lucky days maybe even a pair of red stilettos. But for the most part, the feet I see tell a sterile story -- the men I pass are a well-bred herd; quotas and deadlines mark the tempo of their lives. My shoes are leather too but old, brown, scuffed. The laces are loose and have been replaced a few times; inside you'll find a perfect impression of each foot and the cracks are filled in white with talcum powder. Make of that what you will.
While other accountants work through lunch or only make it down to the corner stand for a hotdog, I always take my paper sack 4 blocks south and 2 blocks east, to the St. Madeline Cemetery. Most folks would think it inappropriate or eerie to have a picnic in a cemetery, but (as you may have guessed from my shoe-watching hobby) I don't like people much and the cemetery is a divinely private sanctuary where I can finally lift my head without fear of meeting eyes. You may be surprised to learn that in the 6 years I've been coming here for lunch, I've only seen 2 funerals. You see, people don't schedule funerals for 12-noon; they prefer early mornings or late evenings. They might argue they appreciate the symbolism of a burial under watch of a setting or rising sun, but I think it's because they don't like to see death too clearly, in the full wash of midday. They don't want to see the detailing on the coffin, the bugs in the flower wreath, the brushstrokes in the deceased's make-up. They don't want to see each other's faces -- neither the depth of real pain nor the shallow cast of boredom. No, noon is too bright for these people, so they keep to either side of it and I usually get the grounds to myself.
Today, though, as I walk through the wrought iron gates, there is a line of cars parked in the turn-around and a clot of black-clad figures huddled on the hilltop. My Spot is on the other side of the rise, so I pull my hat down and my eyes with it before heading toward them. As I pass, the somber voice of the priest reads a supposedly comforting passage, and his small audience is silent but for scattered sniffles. The shoes are all black, black, black...but then amusingly punctuated by a single pair of small white ones. They are matched with white socks folded over, ruffles at the ends. This little girl is the only soul here (besides me, perhaps) with fidgety feet and I can't quite keep my chuckle to myself as I leave them behind me.
Once over the hill, I can raise my head and it's great to again be walking down into mossy headstones and shady understory. I begin to whistle as I wind between the graves, headed for My Spot behind the weeping angel, but the whistle trails off as I round a corner and see a young woman sitting on My Bench. She wears a long summer dress, even in this October chill. She’s smiling as she reads a book in her lap.
As you can imagine, I'm not usually much of a bench-sharer, but I've only got a 35-minute lunch and as a creature of strict habit, I'm paralyzed at the thought of having to find myself another spot. Holding my sack lunch before me like a barrier, I walk to the bench and clear my throat with impatience. She turns a page and looks up at me pleasantly. I am struck by her eyes, one green and one blue, like alien suns in the galaxy of freckles across her nose. She is much younger than I had assumed. I'm preparing a speech about how this is My Spot and might she like to read somewhere else, but before I can say anything she slides over and pats the vacant space, asking me to sit.
That smile is awfully lovely.
After tucking my briefcase beneath the bench, I reluctantly sit, still holding my lunch before me, and offer a polite thank you. She tosses me a jovial wink, and usually this would make me uncomfortable, but somehow I find it charming and imagine that she's telling me she gets it, that we're the same kind of people: shoe-watching people and spot-having people. She turns back to her book and I take out my tuna sandwich, heaving a heavy sigh with the first bite.
Now is finally my time to look around, to crack my neck and rub my shoulders. Though green just last week, the towering old oaks that line the pathway have suddenly caught fire as autumn leans in. A breeze sets them rustling and a few amber leaves drop here and there like sparks from the fireplace. My eyes are drawn to the hem of her dress, flapping a bit against her legs, and I'm surprised to notice she's barefoot. Her dress is printed with small rosebuds, and buttons march all the way up the front. I find myself thinking of how satisfyingly tedious it would be to undo them one by one, and the thought startles me in its boldness. Have I mentioned I have no fondness for people? But I stare at those buttons for a long time, the only sound around us the rustling leaves and turning pages (which are the same sound, really, if you think about it). I should say something to her, something smart, but I'm no good at conversation and all the smart things I know are about taxes.
I turn instead to the headstones before us, retracing the carved words and dates I already know so well. The smallest one reads, "Emily Rose Portman, 1910 -- 1929“ and below that a quote by Henry David Thoreau:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I have not lived.”
I have spent many an afternoon contemplating this quote, and I now find myself sinking into those old familiar thoughts. Quite unintentionally, I say out loud, "I wonder what it feels like to die." Immediately embarrassed, I stuff my mouth with another bite of tuna and hope she has not heard me. She looks up from her book and stares out into the burning trees. The silence lasts so long I'm sure my comment has gone unnoticed. But then, in a dry voice, she says, "Falling...it feels like falling."
I look at her then, as the wind picks up again. She has strawberry blonde hair done up loosely and the wisps around her face have blown free. She looks lost and it is all I can do to keep from tucking those stray strands behind her ear. Instead I busy myself with finishing my lunch and noisily crumpling my paper bag. I have never met someone I so strongly cared to look upon and I am fighting an inner battle between wanting to touch her, and needing to leave at once to keep from doing so. I mumble, "Have a nice afternoon," and stand. "And you," she says as I walk away.
After taking the corner, I realize I've left my briefcase beneath the bench. My heart speeds at the opportunity for a last glance at her -- a foreign reaction, to be sure -- but when the bench comes into view again, it is empty.
Well, not quite. Her book is sitting there. It is a thick, aging tome with a dark blue canvas hardcover. The title reads, The Early Works of Thoreau.
With fearful anticipation, I lift the cover.
Handwritten on the title page: E. R . Portman
A shiver runs through me, though the wind has died down. Looking around to make sure I am indeed alone, I tuck the volume into my briefcase and hurry down the path beneath the oaks, staring, of course, at my shoes and pondering what it would feel like to run barefoot through short-clipped grass, beneath which lie forgotten souls.