My first room in Lisbon was next to the community bathroom. The walls were very thin, and I could hear everything. I tried to cover my ears with my pillow, but my pillow was just a little larger than my face and it didn’t quite reach. One person after the next would go in and out. It was as though someone had rolled my bed up to a bathroom stall at a baseball game. I said something and got moved to the building next door. It was much better over there, but there was no a/c in the building, and it was July. I had two choices at night. Either take off all my clothes and spritz myself with water so I could sleep, or open the window and let a little breeze flow through. The problem with opening the window was I was right on the Rua da Palma, and the traffic was non-stop, and the trolleys would go by with a loud snake-like hissing, and there were drunks shouting all night in Portuguese or Spanish or French or some strange African tongue. The good thing was there were very few people on my floor, and the community bathroom was all the way at the end of it. It was late morning and I was walking down there to take a shower when I heard a woman moaning. “Yes, Oh, ooo, yes! Just like that, yeah..” I hesitated for a moment. It was coming out of a room with a pair of pink shoes parked neatly outside of it. I looked down at the shoes, and continued on, the moaning following me, playing about my ears.
When I came back later, the shoes were gone. And I never saw them again. And I never saw the woman who owned them. It was the Story of the Pink Shoes and it meant… something.
Two weeks later, I was in the Black Forest, in a little mountain town called Bad Wildbad. I had the cheapest hotel in all of Southwest Germany, and it was run by Christians. The first thing you saw when you walked in the place was the propaganda, the fliers, the booklets, the Bibles, the John Calvin poster. On the nightstand in my room, there was a thing that looked like an ice cube with a long wire standing
out of it and what looked like a roach clip on the end of the wire. Attached to the roach clip was a little red business card that said in German,
“I love you!”
“I love you!”
“I love you!” — God
The owner of the hotel had thinning gray hair, a bird-like face and broad shoulders. He was about six-feet tall, and when he’d talk to you he’d keep closing his eyes, sometimes for ten or twenty seconds, and rock back and forth on the balls of his feet. His wife was the maid and cook and factotum of the place. She was about sixty, with cropped gray hair and little myopic eyes. She usually wore a blue t-shirt and a scarf of towel-like material, a long denim dress, and plain black rubber-soled shoes.
Her story was her shoes.
They were born for one thing only. To be worn on the feet of a public servant. I have worn the same kind before. Black so no stains show. Shoes drained of light and hope. Shoes of murk. Shoes that were self-actualized in public restrooms, in laundry rooms, in oily garages, in diners with a little slime or egg yolk languishing on the shoestrings. If you saw these shoes parked outside someone’s bedroom, you probably wouldn’t hear moaning coming out of it. You would hear nothing, or maybe, if it didn’t take too much energy, you’d hear an argument, and the shoes would sit outside the door looking tired and miserable.
In the two weeks I stayed at this hotel, I only heard one small fit of rage. I didn’t know what it was about and I didn’t wait to find out. I was walking through the lobby and heard the old lady shouting at her bird-faced husband. The next time we saw each other we all pretended it never happened. But it made me wonder about her husband. It seemed like he was working her to death. Was the hotel struggling? He used to sit up at night in his office with all the lights out except the light of his computer. Was he trying to save on the electric bill? And why did he keep his eyes closed when he talked to you?
“Ich liebe dich!”
“Ich liebe dich!”
“Ich liebe dich!” — Gott
I never did figure out the answers to my questions, but whatever they were, I felt sad for the old lady. I felt sad about her tired, woebegone shoes.
I think when the day finally comes
and some great earthquake slices the earth apart.
And the sea boils.
And the ravens fall out of the sky.
And the sky rains blood and ash and bone.
And the bridges and buildings and all the landmarks crumble.
And humanity crumbles.
And all of Earth’s history gets wiped clean.
There will be one thing left: a pair of shoes like hers.
And they will explain everything.