Sole Salvation

They were pretty shoes.

At least, that’s what people told me.

I rarely bother over clothes. My suits are off the rack and most of my shirts and ties come from discount stores.

To me, the shoes were a bargain — a practical purchase, but maybe my best buy ever. (For more shopping tales, check out “Shop Talk” on page 138.)

My previous pair of brown dress shoes looked like the Very Hungry Caterpillar had been so famished he’d turned to munching the soles. Salt marks wormed along the sides from a winter without rubbers.

So I shopped online, sorting by “percentage off” and looking for a good deal. When I found them, I was torn.

They were a little more than what I wanted to pay — just north of $100 — but more than half off the regular price.

They weren’t like anything I’d worn before, with raised blond stitching running along the split toe, accenting the curve along the sides and jutting up the back. They weren’t even my size.

But they were Cole Haan. And they were … well, pretty. So I bought them.

Initially, it looked like a mistake. The brown oxfords were about a half-size too big. And the first person to notice them asked if I’d stolen them from someone on the street.

But the more I wore them, the more I loved them. They were comfortable — they seemed to conform to my feet once I’d given them the chance.

When I had them polished (something I’d rarely done with other shoes), the shoe shiner took extra time to clean the stitching, working with a toothbrush to make it stand out against the brown leather.

About six months in, people started commenting about them — in good ways. It made me conscious of other people’s footwear: tassel loafers, cap-toe oxfords, monk-strap slip-ons, sandals and women’s heels. But no one else had my shoes.

For once, I felt like I had style, something that was uniquely mine — and I’d done it for half price.

Like any good tragedy, though, that’s how things turn: hubris. It’s my only explanation for what happened next.

One weekend, St. Vincent de Paul called looking for donations of old suits, dresses, shirts and shoes. So my wife and I went through our closets and drawers, pulling out things we no longer wore until half the bedroom was full of dress clothes, sweaters, skirts, tees, khakis and shoes.

On Monday, we set out the bag for St. Vincent de Paul and had three or four more for Goodwill. When I got home from work that evening, the bag was still on the stoop, but my wife had dropped off the rest. By Thursday, the St. Vincent de Paul bag was back upstairs in a closet, and I needed my brown shoes for work.

I couldn’t find them anywhere, which is strange because I usually just kick off my shoes right in the middle of the bedroom when I get home at night (right where someone could trip on them, I’ve been told).

I hadn’t worn them all week, I realized, alarmed, so I pulled open the donation bag in the closet, hoping they were still there. Nothing.

And I knew they were gone.

I asked my wife to check if Goodwill still had them. But my shoes weren’t out on the shelves, and the employees wouldn’t let her look through the donations.

That night, a nice new pair of brown shoes with an Italian name was waiting for me.

“Very nice,” I said, meaning, they aren’t my shoes.

By Saturday, I went to Goodwill myself.

At first, the woman at the counter wouldn’t let me in the back either. But when she saw the pain on my face, she gave in. “Come on, honey, and take a look.”

I dug into the shoes sitting neatly on racks and tossed in bins. “His wife gave away his favorite shoes,” the woman told the other workers sorting items in the back.

“Are you sure it was a mistake?” another woman chuckled. “You didn’t do anything wrong, did you?”

“No,” I said, reaching the bottom of the last bin. As I walked out, I forced a smile.

They were just shoes, after all. But it’s tough returning to ordinary.

It seems crazy, I know, but it’s hard to understand until you’ve walked in my shoes.

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