By Stuart Dybek
Sometimes, among the daily requiems, there would be a mass for a soul we knew, like Mr. Tovar, the shoemaker, who’d died suddenly in his sleep. I remembered him with his mouth full of nails as he hammered heels amidst the whir of pulleys in a little shop on 23rd that smelled of leather.
I’d gone there two days before he died, with a pair of cowboy boots to waterproof for winter, and he’d asked for help threading a needle. A headache was making him dizzy, unable to focus.
“Don’t tell no one, hombre,” he said, his voice dropping below the racket of the belts and gears and pulleys of a machine that could sew through leather. “Keep it our secret.”
My mother had given me money to pay up front, but he refused to charge for the boots. I didn’t need a ticket, he said, he’d remember. Come back in a couple days and they’ll be ready. I didn’t tell my mother, or return the money. That was part of our secret, too, although secret or not, I knew keeping the money was a sin.
After he died, the shop remained locked. Winter was coming, and on my way home from school sometimes I’d stop before the shoemaker’s window and stare in. I could see my boots, even taller than the women’s spiked heels, standing without a ticket on a shelf, over all the ticketed pairs of shoes waiting there. In the unlit shop, the shoes all looked unpolished, which meant that they were unrepaired. Mr. Tovar always polished the shoes before returning them.
“He was a good man,” my mother said as we walked home together after his requiem mass. “I know God blessed him with a merciful way to go, but I can’t stop thinking how it must have been for poor Mrs. Tovar to wake beside a corpse, who just that night before had been her loving husband.”
My mother had never revealed a private thought like that to me before, and even as a kid, I could understand how her sympathy for Mrs. Tovar’s loss collided with that terrible vision of waking beside his dead body, and I knew that it was better that I didn’t tell her then or ever that I couldn’t stop trying to imagine what, at the moment of his death, the shoemaker was dreaming.