The dead guy 

His shoes tell the story

Seriously, I thought my days of stumbling across bodies on the side of the road were over. Not that my life has changed all that much lately, as if now it's at a point less agreeable for dead strangers to be dumped near me -- because my life has never been agreeable to that. I just thought I'd seen my share, that's all.

Each time, I was in my car and the dead people were just there, on the side of the road, within cigarette-butt-flicking distance. They themselves were not in cars -- though I suspect one of them may have been hit by one, hence causing her present state of deadness. But in any case, all of these corpses were just alone in the open air. I mean, aside from one or two well-meaning citizens or MARTA officers waiting for the police to arrive -- with no wrecked cars or bicycles nearby to explain their state, lying on narrow, crowded roads in passably nice Atlanta neighborhoods.

In the instant I came along, none of the corpses were to be avoided easily, and the first things I noticed were their shoes. I don't know why their shoes always strike me, maybe it's the thought of the dead person having gotten up that morning to put them on like any other morning, not knowing they wouldn't be the ones to remove them that night -- not knowing this would be the day they were due to die alone on the side of the road.

I think people who know they're gonna die put their shoes on differently every day. My mother, for example, knew her days were numbered, and she made sure that every morning her feet were covered in the kind of socks she liked, with a short cuff that was tight around the ankle and didn't have to be folded down.

My father, on the other hand, put his shoes on the day he died just like it was any other day. The shoes were chunky-heeled cream-colored loafers with buckles across the tops, I kid you not. He put them on and walked out the door to meet the day like he had a million more before him. I don't know why, but for me, the bigger tragedy is caught up in the not knowing.

"Mae, look at me," I say sweetly to my 3-year-old in the backseat as we approach the dead man, his feet splayed at odds to the curb. He's wearing complicated sneakers, the kind with laces and Velcro. I adjust the rear-view mirror to reflect my face in Mae's direction. "Look at me, honey." I repeat, because I don't want her to be looking at the side of the road. "Look at me and tell me a story."

I love Mae's stories. They have no beginning or end; they're just a farraginous montage of lovely little sentences. Her wishing-well wishes have the same quality. At Fellini's the other day, she'd taken the stack of pennies I gave her and recited one word each as she plunked them into the fountain. "Mommy." Plunk. "Daddy." Plunk. "Mandy." Plunk. "Miss Yvette." Plunk. "Madelaine." Plunk.

"Aren't you gonna to make a wish?" I asked.

"I'm wishing for my friends," she said

And on she went, reciting the names of the people she loves. "Cameron." Plunk. "Jacob." Plunk ...

I don't even know what that means and it makes me want to lie down and cry with pride. So imagine her stories. One night, driving long, she excitedly commanded, "Look at the moon!"

I couldn't find it at first, but she kept directing me: "Over there! Over there!"

Soon there it was, the glorious moon, parting the evening darkness like a tiny slit in a dim blanket pitched over the atmosphere.

"Do you see it? Do you see the moon?" Mae asked.

And yes, I saw the moon. What a sight -- a lovely crescent-shaped rip that let the light in through the night sky. "Good," Mae finished softly, "because I made it for you."

That, folks, is the day my daughter hung the moon.

"Look at me, honey," I tell Mae as we pass the dead man on the side of the road. "Tell me a story."

"OK," she says. I can see her face in the rear-view mirror, and she's looking at my reflection, thank God. "You feel that?" Mae asks, and yes, I feel something. It's a happy tapping on the back of my seat.

"What is that?" I ask in that hyper-excited way parents talk to their kids when they're trying to distract them from something.

"It's my feet! My feet! My feet!" Mae squeals, laughing. "My feet are singing!"

Her feet have been singing ever since her dad bought her a pair of gold plastic slippers at the thrift store months ago. She puts them on in the morning and they don't come off until she's asleep that night, when I creep in and take them off myself.

"My feet are singing!" Mae continues to laugh. "My feet are singing!" Tap, tap, tappity-tap-tap on the back of my seat. When we're past the dead man on the side of the road, Mae's feet continue to sing, and I have to adjust the rear-view mirror again, because now it's my face I don't want my daughter to see.


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