One of the biggest mysteries of our time to me is not how our universe came into existence or when it will end, but the fact that you always see single shoes on the street, never pairs.
Like every morning I got up around 6 am and donned my jogging outfit to start my work day with a 5 miles jog in the neighborhood. This is nothing I particular cherish but a familiar routine and necessity like brushing my teeth or taking a shower that I acquired when I was still on active duty as a cop and top physical condition was one of my job requirements. At the present, several years later, my brain capabilities are more sought-after – or at least this is what I try to convince myself of every day. I’m too old and too slow to chase suspicious bodies through the dark of the night.
I called for Freddy who retired into our home after 10 years serving as a police dog at the airport. But whereas I have my challenges to adjust into a new lifestyle of a desk career that my superiors desire for me, Freddy enjoys being spoiled and pampered. We even got him a lady friend from the nearby animal shelter to keep each other company for one of those rare occasions when they were to be alone. On my call, Freddy opened one lid, yawned and grunted and turned his back to me as if to say “Try later, buddy.” Two old dogs , two different attitudes.
When I opened the front door I could smell and feel that the long, relentless hot Texas summer was about to give way to my favorite season – fall. The lawn wasn’t dry as bones anymore but moist with dew. White mist was hovering just above water level of the little creek in the park on the other side of our house. The air was cool and crisp, and I took a deep breath as I started to jog down the street.
As I started to run a little bit faster to get my mind into the state of graceful half-heartedness that would enable me to deal with my workload, a car was approaching behind me, and its headlight illuminated something with reflectors on the street as the car passed by. It was getting closer to sunrise now and in the twilight I could see a shoe lying on the street. A red, cute toddler shoe with reflectors at the sides and the back.
You see old mattresses, worn out furniture, lost boats, exploded tires and even all sorts of shoes – sneakers, sandals, wellingtons, boots – and so much more on the shoulders of a highway or the interstate. And one of the biggest mysteries of our time to me is not how our universe came into existence or when it will end, but the fact that you always see single shoes on the street, never pairs. And as much as I find single shoes on the highway disturbing, I find a red, cute toddler shoe in the middle of the street not far away of our home even more unnerving.
Following an intuition I bent down and picked up the shoe. I still had the shoe in my hand twenty minutes later when I was sitting on our patio, sipping a cup of coffee and admiring the rising sun. Tony, my husband, came from behind and gave me an affectionate bear hug. He looked at the shoe in my hand and smiled.
“Don’t you think it might be a bit too late to start a family now?” he chuckled.
I shook my head and scowled at him – any possible humor of the situation had escaped me. He adjusted immediately and leaned forward to have a look at the shoe.
“So, what’s up with this shoe?”
I shrugged and felt an uneasiness settling in my stomach like lead.
“I don’t know – something with this shoe just doesn’t feel right.”
I sighed. “Sorry, it’s either my hormones or the lack of them, or a chimera, or just nothing. I need to find out.”
He nodded understandingly.
I got up to get Freddy’s long leash. Freddy was sitting in the kitchen, talking to his lady friend and grooming his privates at the same time. When I called him “Freddy, we have work to do,” he jumped up and sprinted towards the front door. With some inner amusement I thought we weren’t so different after all – two old dogs who were yearning to do something useful.
Outside, I crouched down and showed him the shoe.
“Here, Freddy, see this shoe? Take a good whiff. You need to help me to find the owner of this shoe. Yes, this is my good boy. When you help me to find the owner, you’ll get a huge nylabone.”
I swear he was grinning at me when I mentioned the nylabone as if to say “Don’t kid yourself – we are in this for the adventure and nothing else.”
I took him to the spot up the road where I had found the shoe on the street and showed him the shoe again. Immediately he got very exited – with this tail wagging he sniffed around the spot, drawing wider circles until he started to drag me into one direction further up the road. More early commuters were passing by now, some of them upset and honking at us, others who lived here a bit longer more tolerant and used to the fact that in our neighborhood we simply ignore the sidewalks.
I let Freddy have the lead and tried to ignore the growing feeling of uneasiness in my stomach when we came to an abrupt halt in front of a door. Freddy’s tail was wagging like crazy, but this was not the friendly wag reserved for fellow dogs and privileged humans. This wag was assertive and in a way aggressive, and if his upstanding fur on his neck and his low growl didn’t already tell me, his wag signaled that he had found what we were looking for.
I remembered this house. It was just several yards down our street – Maria and Carlos Alavarez had moved into this house and our neighborhood a few years ago. They owned a small dry cleaning business a few blocks away in a dying shopping center. Although the big grocery store had closed, the little shops around were struggling and fighting and not willing to give up. A tailor, a Chinese takeout, a Supercut, a kid’s dentist, the obligatory nail salon, some other little obscure stores and the Alvarez’ business were huddling around the large, empty and abandoned store that looked like a decaying tooth. Times were tough and without the big crowds coming for grocery shopping and staying at the little shops for the convenience, small business owners like the Alavarez’ had a hard time to survive.
Apparently Carlos had difficulties to cope with the situation and the disappointment that his business wasn’t soaring as he hoped for. He wasn’t unknown to our police department. There had been some occasions where our force was called to their house because of reported domestic violence, not to mention tickets for driving while drunk and without insurance.
Maria was the soul of their little business – she worked the front store, collecting and sorting the incoming garments and fabrics and retrieving the freshly cleaned items effortless. Behind the counter she had set up a small working area with a sewing machine where she would sit and do small alterations. She always had – until recently – a smile on her lips and knew each of her customers by name, no matter if they came weekly or very rarely like me. From the short conversation I had with her when I dropped off some items, I knew that the Alvarez had three children – Juan, 8 eight years old, Angelina, 6 and Isabel, 3. Their children were their pride and the apples of their eyes. Every dime they earned was set aside for the college education, and they dreamed of seeing each of them pursuing a successful career and living the American Dream.
It was short after 7 when I rang their doorbell and knocked on the door, Freddy on short leash just beside me and still grumbling. Two cars were parked in front of the house – a fairly new blue sedan and a dark green truck that had seen better days. The front yard was well maintained. Nobody was coming to open the door but I could see some movement behind the closed blinds. I knocked again, louder and more assertive.
Finally the door was opened reluctantly and just wide enough that I could see Maria.
I was searching for words. Maria’s face was tear-stained and swollen, and the left side of her face was bruised. She didn’t look at me.
“Errr… I found this toddler shoe on the street this morning. Freddy,” and I gestured at him, “is a retired police dog and he thinks this shoe belongs to one of your children.”
I showed her the shoe and her face lit up just a little bit.
“Oh yes, thank you so much. Isabel will be so happy to get her shoe back.”
I frowned and was waiting for an explanation, but none was given. She took the shoe and was about to close the door when I just put a foot in the gap to prevent her from doing so.
“Maria, is everything okay?”
All my senses told me that nothing was okay. Maria’s body was blocking the entrance, and I couldn’t see past her. But what disturbed me the most was that I couldn’t hear anything. No children squealing or shouting at each other, no friendly sibling contest going on, no “Mama, where are my jeans?” or “Maria, where is my shirt?” – just a spooky silence where I could only hear Maria’s and my breathing and Freddy’s grumbling.
She finally looked at me and put her fingers to her lips to silent me.
She mouthed “help” and then she added hastily, way too loud “Thank you again, Mrs. Carter, for finding Isabel’s shoe. And yes, our store will open at 8 – as usual.” She slammed the door shut in my face.
Flummoxed I looked at the door and made my turn to leave, dragging a protesting and growling beagle behind me.
“No, Freddy,” I whispered under my breath, “This isn’t our league anymore. I need to call for help.”
I rushed the few yards towards the intersection to turn out of sight of the Alvarez house and dialed 911.
While I was still feeding the dispatcher with details, the ear-piercing noise of gun shots shattered the idyllic peace and silence of our sleepy neighborhood. Four in rapid succession, silence – and then the final shot.