Shoes for the dead

A short story by Andrew Miller

Illustration by Christopher CozierIllustration by Christopher CozierIllustration by Christopher Cozier

He works with quiet and arrogant indifference, the kind you grow to survive a career looked down upon by everyone; that cold exterior which allows a prostitute not to cry anymore when, in an aisle in the supermarket, she passes the man she did beastly things for the night before. The man is pushing a trolley beside his wife, the one who would shiver at his raw, animal needs — the one whom he loves so much he pays another woman to exorcise his demons through.

The prostitute is doing something human now — buying milk and lettuce, and not even looking for a hello, or a profession of friendship; anything but those eyes, so cold and lifeless which look straight past her. She’s learnt to stop crying now, to look at him also with quiet and arrogant indifference — the same kind which Philip has as he applies the final touch of make-up on a corpse, pushes it back in a freezer and goes out to the front desk because the wind chimes by the door (their music so hefted with death that they never sound exactly like other chimes) have just announced the arrival of a customer.

“May I help you?” asks the mortician, with the distinguished subservience of a butler.

The woman doesn’t answer at once. There is something in servitude which lulls a master and prolongs commands. She is nearing 50, and the roots of her shoulder-length hair are natural and grey, which makes Philip guess correctly that she is debating the too-bright red and the too-straight chemicals and is approaching a style which reflects her age.

The woman takes off her shades with a slight flick of the head, which makes her hair ripple. Putting the shades in her handbag, she speaks at last with a smile.

“Yes. How you doing? I’ve come to pay a bill and I hear there’s some other things I might have to get for the body.”

There is no grief in her voice. She speaks with the efficiency of one who has expected death and had spared two weeks’ vacation for when it happened. Her accent is layered with all the places she’s been and lived till it’s no accent at all, and Philip can barely distinguish the Jamaican that lies beneath it.

“What’s the name?” asks the undertaker. He reaches below the counter for his thick hardcovered book of records. He doesn’t look as he reaches, flaunting that sort of reckless efficiency that knows that everything is where it should be.

“James Morrison,” she says, and after a while adds, “he was really old.” But Philip knows that already from her voice without grief.

With an action that is almost a flourish, had it been less formal, less staccato, Philip puts his glasses on his nose and opens the book, turns the pages slowly and then, upon reaching the last page of entries, runs his thumb down until he finds the name — Morrison, James. He could have done it quicker, but there is dignity in a slowness that doesn’t waste anybody’s time anyway.

“And he’ll be here until Saturday?”

“Yes. It’s a morning funeral.”

“And we shall do the work on Mr Morrison. Make-up, clothes . . . ”

“Yes, yes. Of course,” she laughs.

“And a hearse will come for him.”

“Yes.”

“Alright,” he drawls, taking up his calculator. That should be . . . ,” punching in the digits, “yes, $1,900.”

The woman’s heart grows cold around the edges for a second, and then she remembers that prices are different in Jamaica, and after she makes the conversion to US currency in her head, she realizes it is quite cheap. She laughs to herself and stores the experience, the way we collect anecdotes to tell our friends. She giggles and Philip is unsure what she finds funny. She counts out the cash from her wallet and gives it to him.

“You’ll need to get me the things by Thursday. Powder, his suit and . . .” He pauses and inspects her for the first time consciously. Her clothes and her manner suggest she is educated, he decides at last. Not one to value superstition over plain and common decency.

“And shoes,” he finally adds.

He is pleased that she nods readily to this and smiles, taking his hand, shaking it and looking into his face. “Thank you so much, sir. You don’t know how much you’ve made this whole thing easier for us all.”

He’s sure it isn’t that much, because of her voice.

Though she has looked into his face, she won’t remember it. There is something too congruous between Philip’s appearance and his profession: a stereotype with his lankiness, his straight posture, his hairline receded to the middle of his head, then stopped sharply like a razor. The rest of his hair, neat and thin and low and grey. His appearance is so expected that it cannot imprint itself upon someone’s mind — like Ms Kansas and Ms New York and Ms Delaware from last year’s beauty contest.

 

When the woman reaches the family house, where everyone is staying, she has two anecdotes to share about her trip to the morgue. She waits till she is settled into shorts and a T-shirt, and she has taken off her makeup, and she has put on a shelf all the layers of accents from all the places she’s been and lived, the layers which stifle the Jamaican accent below.

When she sits around the table of curried chicken and potato and yam and boiled green bananas, she tells them first of the $1,900 and how her heart got cold around the edges. And they all laugh dutifully.

Then, she adds, “But tap! Den you nuh hear di real story yet!”

And she tells them about the mortician who told her to buy powder, and a suit — she pauses before the punch line to make sure everyone is listening, and to deliver it with sufficient drama, “And shoes!!”

“But Seeya!” One of her sisters exclaims, before clapping her hands and laughing.

“Yes, mi dear,” continues the woman. “Shoes! Mi just smile and nod and walk out. I buy di powder and I buy di suit. And is blue, cause you know how Dada did like blue suit. But kill mi dead if me go buy him a pair of shoes!”

“Dat’s right!” declares another sister. “Nobody naw look pon him foot in di coffin.”

And then she adds the more important reason. “And Dada walk around enough when him did alive, mi nuh want him walk nuh more now dat him dead!”

With another burst of laughter, and another round of affirmations, the family agrees that the woman with the layers of accents and the shoulder-length hair with nappy grey roots is wise not to buy shoes.

 

Philip hears the door chimes on Wednesday morning, the ones that don’t sound like other chimes because something about these mourn, like the hollow wailing of pipes. The man at the door has a package — a final wooden house about the size of a grown man. The undertaker signs for it, and on it is a simple note: The things are inside. There is no name attached to this message, and in his heart Philip curses the arrogance of a customer who thinks she is the only one who is to send him a coffin and things.

But he only curses inside, so his dignity remains intact until the delivery man and his underclass staff of haulers are gone. Only then does a small amount of the dignity erode. Philip knows this is from the woman with the too-straight, too-red hair. He lifts open the lid of the mahogany box and sees a smart blue suit, folded neatly with a white shirt and a blue tie. And on top he sees a bottle of baby powder . . . not the kind he likes, because he prefers a brand only sold in a pharmacy below Half Way Tree that softens death, instead of making it so harsh and ghostly like all the other brands. But he doesn’t care about the powder, because he’s reasoned long ago that death isn’t supposed to be soft. He takes out the suit and throws it in a chair, and throws the powder there too. There is nothing else in the coffin. He gropes around the crevices of the white satin, but gives up soon, because that is no place shoes could hide. And he curses now, inside, but it shows in his flared nostrils, in his stern eyes, it shows.

He tries to convince himself that this is nothing to get angry over — the indecency, the wanton superstition of the woman and her family. He has seen it once too often, and there were people who asked him to do worse. Some families not only refused to buy shoes, but insisted that he put pins in the dead one’s feet to prevent them from walking again. It happened often enough for his quiet and arrogant indifference not to fall to pieces when he heard it.

The people asked him with no shame in their voices, no awkwardness in their eyes. They asked him for the service as if it were a natural thing, and he should be schooled in the practice. And after so many years Philip has never been able to bring himself to pierce the dead. He lets the woman a half-mile down the road do it, and pays her a small sum. The woman who lives in a house between large warehouses, which seems to draw all the shadows to it; a house with flags mounted all around. But when she leaves the house in her red turban she seems to take the shadows with her. She was happy to pierce feet (and dolls) with pins.

And Philip couldn’t watch after the first time, because she dipped the pins in olive oil sprinkled with black ashes before she stuck them in, and she hummed so low and loud that it rattled the old man. But the woman with the nappy grey roots hasn’t asked Philip to pin her Dada down — she just hasn’t brought shoes — and the old undertaker decides the gross indecency is nothing to get angry over.

He walks over to his safe. It is behind a not-done-too-well print of the Mona Lisa in the front of his establishment (he prefers establishment to shop, because there is something wrong in the notion of selling for the dead). The safe is unnecessary. There is nothing of value to outsiders in it, other than money whose amount doesn’t warrant the effort of breaking in. But Philip values the contents: both the money and a letter for when he is gone. It’s not a will, just instructions for his burial arrangements, because he wants that to go well, having seen so many go wrong in his time.

In the letter, he says he only wants his body viewed for half an hour, because more than that and those who have sharp noses start to smell death, and then decay. After half an hour the coffin is to be locked forever, and the pastor’s words are to be short but powerful like poetry, so he only wants Rev. E. V. Grant from Westmoreland to do it, even though he doesn’t know the man personally, but he’s seen him do funerals, and he is good.

In the letter, he asks his wife to wear black lace over her head, because that looks so proper and respectable on a weeping widow. But most importantly, in the letter, he says he wants a black suit, a bow tie, and his hat; and he wants shoes. Black English leather — the kind you can shine so bright it glares; the kind with a line of pin-size holes that run around the whole shoe and meet at the front in a heart shape. That is what he wants most of all, and no expense is to be spared. None.

Philip locks the safe after he has retrieved $200, and he walks out the store not checking anything, that kind of reckless efficiency that knows everything is where it should be. He only puts up the misleading Be back in 15 minutes sign, and pulls the door closed. He hums a song he’s learnt to hum to the tune of the door chimes. He thinks they’re the liveliest thing in his store, the only thing that doesn’t have death lingering on it.

He walks down the avenue, passing other houses and warehouses that throw their oppressive shadows on a flagged house that perches between them. He passes women who, in the early evening, wear loose jeans and buttoned-up shirts, and do human things . . . but the fall of night will give them colours, so bright, and clothes, so tight. And he looks past them and through them with cold lifeless eyes of no recognition, and they do the same, because they’ve learnt not to cry.

He walks until he comes to a woman who sells shoes and slippers that he can get for $200 or less. He realises he didn’t check the size of Morrison James’ foot, but then he hardly does these days because he’s a good estimator. So he asks for a good sturdy pair of English loafers in size eleven.

The woman searches.

“We only got ten an’ a half sir,” she says, pushing the shoes to him, hoping to still make a sale.

“A guess that will have to do.” He accepts, handing her the $200, and then waiting expectantly until she reluctantly gives him $20 change.

 

The funeral for Morrison, James, came and went peacefully. Peaceful, because no one opened the lower lid of the casket and brought him a complaint about the shoes; not like the time in ’68 when a pall-bearer with arms weak from alcohol, which was supposed to be a balm for his grief, let go of his burden, and the casket tilted and stood vertical, and the lids flew open and the dead body came out, and people weren’t as scared because the dead body seemed to be standing for a few seconds as they were because he was standing in shoes.

The family had cussed Philip bitterly for the whole affair, and demanded a refund, using him as a scapegoat for the whole disaster, as if it was the shoes that caused the grieving son to get drunk and drop the coffin.

But the woman who is approaching a style more reflective of her age never came back to his establishment. He figures she has picked up her layers of accents off the shelf and gone back to that land far away from Jamaica where she lives.

Philip settles down in the armchair in the back room of the parlour to have his lunch. He reaches over to a table close by and pours himself a cup of lukewarm tea. Then a sound. He stops fixing his tea. There are footsteps in the front of the parlour. Odd, because the chimes by the door have not announced anyone’s arrival, and then not so odd to Philip by now. He continues to pour his tea and then stir it. The footsteps don’t plod. They are quick and hesitant to the floor, the way a man walks in shoes a half size too small. Philip smiles, pleased with his generosity. It is common decency, he thinks to himself. Every man deserves shoes.

The quick, hesitant steps of English loafers a half size too small enter his parlour, and blend well with the clip-clops of boots, and the squeesh-squeaks of slippers, and the tap-taps of church shoes. The sounds are not the kind which death can linger on; they are the sound of death itself. Philip sips his tea, reflecting on many things at once. But foremost he reasons, there is always good company in his parlour, and he thinks too again, with renewed conviction, and finally whispers it aloud: “Every man deserves shoes.”

 

Andrew Miller won the second prize, Fiction, in the Annual Observer Arts Magazine Awards.