Whenever I see a shoe lying off to the side of the road, I think of my grandpa.
He was terrified of them.
During the school year when I was a kid and my parents were working, Grandpa would be the one to drive me in. We lived a few miles outside of town in a farming community and would have to go down long stretches of road with open fields on either side. I liked to point out the horses and cows that grazed in them and Grandpa would respond in the distracted murmur adults use when trying to make it seem like they were paying attention.
One day, though, I saw a small child’s shoe lying on the dirt shoulder.
“How do you think shoes end up on the street, Grandpa?” I asked. “And how come it’s only ever one? You never see a pair, you know?”
It was just an idle thought that I’d given voice to, the kind of thing that popped into a ten year old’s head and then was gone just as quickly. I’m sure that would have been the case, anyway, had I not turned to look at my grandfather. He was clutching the steering wheel in white knuckled fists and his lips had become thin and tight over his clenched teeth. He’d become tense, stiff, and he was staring straight ahead with strange intensity.
The car was accelerating. The engine’s purr was quickly growing into a roar as he pressed his foot down on the pedal. I don’t think he was even aware he was doing it.
“Grandpa,” I said, this time with more conviction.
I reached out and tugged on the sleeve of his flannel shirt. My touch brought him out of whatever state he’d just been in and we slowed down again. He’d gone pale and small beads of sweat had broken out across his forehead just beneath his white hairline. He glanced at me, and I’ll never forget the flash of fear I saw in his glassy eyes: it wasn’t an expression I’d ever seen from him before. It passed quickly with a blink and he replaced it with a small smile.
“You ok?” I asked uncertainly.
“Yeah,” he said with his usual gruffness, “fine. Just having one of my senior moments.”
That was what he always said when he didn’t want me to worry about him, but I wasn’t quite buying it just then. Something had scared him real bad, even if he didn’t want to admit it. Grandpa wasn’t the kind of man you could push, though, it just made him dig his heels in deeper. I let it drop and turned back to my window, curious over why an old shoe at the side of the road had been so upsetting for him.
I tried asking my parents about it later, but they just traded one of their Looks, the kind that meant they knew something that they didn’t want me to know, and changed the subject. They refused to go back to it.
It was many years before I found out what had upset Grandpa so deeply.
He was still living in his old farm house then, although he had caretakers coming by regularly. I’d just graduated high school and was trying to spend at least one day a week visiting with him before I left or college. Mostly it was just sitting in front of his boxy TV or out on the porch, but it wasn’t bad.
As I was pulling up to his driveway for a visit towards the middle of summer, I noticed a discarded flip flop sitting in the street not too far from his driveway. It reminded me of the shoe I’d seen as a kid and Grandpa’s reaction to it. Old curiosity surfaced again and, after we had our usual bout of greeting and small talk, I sat across from him on the living room couch.
“Hey, Grandpa, you remember when I was little and you’d drive me to school?”
“Yup,” he said from his easy chair.
“I was just thinking about the time we were on our way to school and I saw something that kind of upset you.”
He shifted in his seat with an old man grunt of acknowledgement after I hesitated.
“There was a shoe on the side of the road,” I said, watching him carefully. “I mentioned it and you kind of…freaked out a little?”
He folded his hands over his stomach, took them apart, and then folded them again.
“Wasn’t the shoe,” he said after a long silence.
“Ok?” I tried not to push too hard in case he shut down.
Grandpa eyed me from beneath bushy brows and smacked his lips a few times as he always did when he was considering something. “No, it wasn’t the shoe. It’s never the shoe. It’s the memory.”
My grandfather had lived in the same place his whole life. The same town, the same house. He worked at the same garage for forty years and was married to the same woman for fifty. He knew the place. It was a safe, secure little bubble away from the rest of the world, even with the big highway that was put through it when he was still a young man.
It never bothered Grandpa much, it took a lot to ruffle his feathers, but it did bring with it an increase in traffic.
“Used to get lots of folks coming into the shop with busted radiators or flats,” he said, “lots of trucks, too. Mostly those guys just stopped for a piss break and a chat since the last stop was a good bit away, but sometimes they’d need us to tune something up for them.”
It wasn’t unusual for them to have someone come limping in right at close, begging them to fix whatever was wrong. Grandpa made them pay extra for it, but he always stayed. He hated the thought of anyone being left stranded.
An issue with someone’s exhaust had kept him quite late one winter night and, by the time he shut the shop up, it was already well passed dark. Streets in a small town don’t stay very crowded once the sun goes down and, as he pulled out to head home, his was the only car in sight.
Back then, there weren’t any strip malls or convenience stores, not even any houses, really, out on the old back roads. It was just a lot of trees lining the way. Grandpa was speeding a bit, he admitted: he was eager to get home to his pregnant wife and some supper. He almost didn’t see the semi that was stopped in the middle of the road ahead of him.
“Slammed on my brakes, damn near locked the whole thing up. Came skidding up behind this jackass, no lights on, nothing, just sitting there with his big rig’s engine running out in the middle of nowhere. Only saw the thing when my headlights hit him.”
The truck’s cab door was open and, as Grandpa screeched to a halt, a man came bounding out of the woods along the side of the road. It was too dark to get a good look at him and he was only in the glow of Grandpa’s headlights for a moment while he hauled himself back in. There’d been something in his hand. Grandpa was ready to dismiss him, thinking he’d just had to take a leak and hadn’t expected anyone to come driving along, but then something came sailing out of the cab window as the truck lurched away.
“It was a boot,” Grandpa said quietly. “Landed right in front of my car. You ever just see something and you know in your gut it isn’t right? That’s what happened when I saw that boot.”
I imagine a lot of other people might have just pulled around it and gone on their way, but Grandpa pulled over to the side of the road and got out. He approached the boot, lying on its side on the pavement, and nudged it towards the beam of his headlight. It was a woman’s, with little pink designs up the side, and a splash of wet red across the toe.
With a cold sinking feeling, Grandpa got back in his car and turned it slowly, so that the front of his car pointed towards the woods that he’d seen the driver come running out of.
It took him a few minutes to work up the nerve to start walking towards the trees. Every step was heavier than the last.
“Felt silly at the time, or, at least, I wanted to. I was still trying to convince myself that I wasn’t going to find anything and that I was just getting worked up over some guy’s litter. If there hadn’t been that…that stain on the boot, maybe I would have been able to just keep going.”
But Grandpa followed his gut, and it led him off the road and down a slight embankment into the woods. Even with his headlights shining, it was murky and his progress was slow. Right up until he found her.
She had been left at the foot of a tree, lying discarded the same as her boot. She was young, wearing jean shorts and a midriff revealing shirt, and she’d had blonde hair. Now, it was dyed a dripping red from a gaping wound that had driven so deep into her skull it looked like the trucker had been trying to split her head in two.
One of her feet was bare.
There was no life left in her when Grandpa came across her. He didn’t need to get very close to see that. The way her eyes, half hooded and dull, stared passed him would have been telling enough, even without the obvious cause of death.
“I ran out to my car and sped all the way back to the shop, where I called the cops. I had to wait for them and then lead them out to her. It was easy: her boot was still in the road where the trucker dropped it.”
Grandpa stayed while the officers secured the scene to begin an investigation that would only ever lead to dead ends. He stayed until the ambulance arrived and they loaded the poor girl’s body into the back of it. He stayed until she’d been driven off to the county morgue and she was as “safe” again as she would ever be.
He stayed because he hated the thought of anyone being left stranded.
And he was haunted by it for the rest of his days.