Something happened to me one summer, four years ago. I was walking up the sidewalk not far from my house, when I saw a shoe lying by the side of the road. I paused, half-circled, stooped closer. It was, as I would later be able to describe it, a wedge sandal with a cork heel, with black canvas straps, and merona printed on the inner sole, size 8½. So what? Even around here, stray shoes appear all the time. I mean, people just throw trash out the car window, abandon pets, no one knows why.
It was a period in my life when I was briefly happy. Not happy exactly. Content, maybe. I no longer desired. It was as if something within me had been settled and becalmed me: a newborn son, a stoic woman who had taken my name when we married (she would later give it back). We lived in a little college town that called itself “the village beautiful” on its welcome sign.
The sandal, like a dial tone, spoke to me of something else. I stood there for a couple minutes, as before a difficult section of text. I snapped two pictures, from different angles, then resumed walking uphill toward my destination—the rare books library at the private college that owns over half of this town, established in the eighteenth century by a wealthy slaveholder who gained fame as a vicious colonel in the French and Indian Wars. They were exhibiting some first folios by Shakespeare. My son was in daycare, and I had a couple hours to spare.
The folios were there. I stood before them. They were preserved in glass, of course, as holy relics are; but after the encounter with the forsaken shoe, they inspired no feeling in me. I felt numb to them. They didn’t rip of the sublime.
In an effort to lean in, to whet something awake, I asked the student at the reference desk if she knew what their provenance was. She picked up a phone, and in a minute, there appeared a man holding a thick black binder containing information related to my question. I leafed through, noting how they were purchased by G. C. Morrison from James Toovey in 1877, who gifted it to his father George L. Harrison of Philadelphia, upon whose death in 1885 it passed to his widow, upon whose death it passed through various holdings (Rosenbach, Chaffers) before turning up in a sale at Anderson’s in November 1915 where it was bought by the James F. Drake Company, from whom it was purchased by . . .
But the whole time I was thinking about something else. How it symbolized—what? The astonishment of something molted, the skin abandoned and broken. Some things, they just make you feel the rough rupture of discovery, the danger of non-meaning, like a huge big black snake coiled around a pale human body in a painting by Poussin. Did it come off the foot of someone running downhill too drunk or distressed or endangered to turn back? Was it jettisoned on purpose, from a car window, as an act of emancipation or disgust? There was something about the sandal’s flagrant haecceity, the way it burned like a roadside flare, that made me feel like Mike Hammer in a film noir, that first scene with the woman running down the middle of a darkened road, barefoot on the white line, breathing heavily, the panting almost sexual, she is wearing a tan trench coat, having just escaped from a mental institution.
The library had some other holdings on display too—a 1663 Eliot Indian Bible used for converting Indians, some colorful Audubon plates, an original copy of the Declaration of Independence hanging vertically behind glass. I walked around to the back—Mike Hammer in a dream—and noticed some handwriting on the back side. Not words, but a math problem: someone in 1776 had used the back of this broadside to tally five numbers, the way we might use the back of an envelope. I went through the mental motions, to see if this person had carried the ones and zeros correctly, and for those few moments, walked the same steps that the dead man had made. There is no such thing as a private language! The ink was so old that it had burned through the parchment, letting the light of the present tense stream in.
The incontinence of time, the arc of dust. I cried at my own wedding because I knew our vows were weak training against the explosions or just long, dull erosions to come.
Back outside in the summer air, the summer frost heaves passed beneath my feet. I thought of Robert Walser, his little essay on walking, seeing everything afresh, the teeming world, the sap running, the beautiful phenomena, or his essay about Kleist walking around Thun, the mountainous Swiss village—“Bells are ringing. The people are leaving the hilltop church.” In those days, Walser wrote most of his stories in a micro-script so tiny it was assumed illegible for years, until two scholars with a magnifying lens revealed that the script, which looked like termite tracks, was actually Kurrent, a form of handwriting, medieval in origin, used by German speakers until the mid-twentieth century. Why am I describing Walser? Because I thought of him as I was walking on the sidewalk. Because Sontag describes Walser’s writing as a free fall of innocuous observations not governed by plot, in which “the important is redeemed as a species of the unimportant.” For instance, he ends the story “Autumn (II)” with the sentence, “In the city where I reside, a van Gogh exhibition is currently on view,” apropos of nothing. We don’t know what the broken white line means until much later. That’s why dream journalists write. That’s why journalists dream.
Sappho, I think about her too. She went into exile in Sicily. No one knows why. We long after her, as she longed after us. Fragment #12 is my favorite. It suggests there was once a thought so embodied it made contact with the ground, the way a child’s sole is intimate with dirt, grass, sand, heat, if only we could return to our senses, to the primal scene of the crime, the barefoot wedding. If only we could go back and ask the woman what she was fleeing when she ran into the road wearing nothing but a trench coat. But all she told us was her name was Christina.
“Brackets are exciting,” writes Anne Carson, explaining her prolific use of them in her translations of Sappho. They mark where the sidewalk ends, inaugurating “a free space of imaginal adventure.” They let readers feel the same erotic throb a scholar gets when encountering a flake of death-defying papyrus with two words on it, all else potholed by time. Pothos is the word Socrates uses to describe this condition—of desiring most strongly that which is absent. Every sidewalk is a via negativa, approaching the apophatic face of love. Just like in fragment #31, the one Longinus singled out and saved in his “On the Sublime,”
I too remember the sound of horses under skin, that November night when we conceived a child, our clamor an invocation or a summons, a fucking or a lovemaking, a rain dance, or my heartbeat was a door being pounded on, from within the penetralia, opening a tiny crevice, the narrowest of admissions, from which all new things come. Not long afterward, we began expecting, apprehensively, a child or its death. Children, they are born into worlds that are freakishly, violently specific: a two-bedroom cape on the banks of the village beautiful, with two people bending over you, continually lifting you and setting you down, people who look and smell a particular way, people who fight with each other, because they live on top of each other, because they feel scourged with resentment, one person calling the other’s name out, so sharply, so unwanted, from the other room, though no one in the village can hear it.
I could end the essay here, but in reality I kept walking.
I stopped at the white church, the vintage one of New England clapboard, not to pray, but because in the basement there was a room, smelling of mildew, its walls painted deep red. Every Wednesday for a year I’d been bringing my son here for a babies and toddlers music class. The day before, Sandy, the energetic red-haired teacher, had cut the lights at the end of class and in the musky darkness strummed her guitar softly, singing “All the Pretty Horses” while the parents lay on the floor with their children. Contentment: the glassy feeling a lake gets before a storm. Lying on our backs, I noticed the holes in the tiles of the drop ceiling, the little pattern they made, a rhythm of dots and dashes, dits and dahs, a signal of presences and absences. It was a Thursday morning, instead of a Wednesday and
I’d like us to come back to the shoe.
Right, it was an “Earline Quarter Strap Sandal,” with a three-inch wedge heel and an adjustable elastic strap with a non-marking sole, $44.95 plus shipping. I’m not avoiding anything. I’m wheeling all around it. There is a ditch around which one can only play by jumping.
In case it helps, I was carrying one book with me, Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. Do you read poetry? I remember because I took a picture of the book—an accidental one, the image unfocused and askew; all you can see of the cover photograph is a single foot, that of a boy in a refugee camp, dangling above the ankles of a woman. It was the only picture taken of him and his mother during their yearlong stay in a refugee camp in Vietnam, he told me a year later, at a dinner after the reading. In the photo you can barely make out, just below his dangling foot, a single sandal beneath the bench where they’re sitting, capsized. Sunlight is lightly powdering the dark Formica of the coffee shop counter where I was having a latte: in the upper half of the accidental picture, you can see two people sitting at a table outside in the sun; it is a lovely summer day in New England.
The name of the coffee shop was Tunnel City if that helps. And there was a van Gogh exhibition at the local museum that summer. I steeped myself in it completely. All summer, van Gogh, and all the old white people crowding in, and bringing my child, whom everyone adored, and the guards telling me how smart I was to be introducing him to art at such a young age. To what? I was just escaping our house. I cannot remember a single one of those beautiful paintings, save Wheat Field with Crows, and a few stray facts, like how van Gogh would walk through the flea markets of Paris looking for old shoes. After selecting a pair he would put them on, and trudge them back and forth through the mud. Then he would set up his easel. He always painted them in pairs—his belief in companionship, endurance, old age. When he cut off his ear, he presented it, a single thing wrapped in newspaper, to a woman in the local brothel, requesting that she guard it for him.
The last thing that the barefoot woman says to Mike Hammer, before they crash into the ditch, is “Remember me.”
The other shoe, the first one’s mate—I found it on my way back from the coffee shop. It was disappointing, like a bad choice a writer makes; it nearly ruins the whole piece. It was sitting on a low brick wall outside one of the buildings on campus. It had been placed there, so that someone could reclaim it. A naïve gesture, the stuff of fairy tales. No one was ever going to return for it, my god.
A couple weeks after our fifth anniversary, my wife suffered a nervous breakdown and was driven to the hospital where she stayed for ten days. Something snapped in her. Like one of those glow sticks, releasing a wave of pent up chemicals, which phosphoresced, making her more alive, more vivid and voluble than ever before. At the hospital the next day, I brought her an angora blanket, some comfy slippers, and the two of hearts playing card that I had found on the sidewalk a few weeks before. I had seen it facing down. I had said to myself, two of hearts, stooping toward it, I bet it’s the two of hearts. Our marriage was in great peril. We couldn’t be in each other’s presence. She would experience physical pain, electric shocks, whenever I walked through the door. The day after she came home from the hospital, I found the two of hearts in the recycling bin.
According to Strabo, the Greek geographer, her original name was Rhodopis. One day she was bathing in the sunlit river when, out of nowhere, an eagle swooped down to the bank and flew off with one of her sandals in its beak, all the way to Memphis, where it dropped the sandal in the lap of the Egyptian King, who was so inflamed by the sandal’s mystery that he dispatched a hundred servants in all eight directions, with instructions to locate its owner. The servants setting out on foot. That’s where the story should stop.