A few weeks after Richard’s wife died, he offered me a pair of her shoes. He pulled a box out of a crumpled Macy’s bag and handed it to me.
"Her feet swelled up when she was sick, so she never wore them," he said. "I bought them for her, but they wouldn’t fit. What size do you wear?"
Sitting down on the sofa in my apartment manager’s apartment, I lifted the lid, only to find shoes that I knew immediately I would never wear. They were my grandmother’s shoes—practical canoes for walking and living, with a medium-brown tone and modest metal decoration at the toe—and completely off limits for at least another 35 years in my mind. The shoes were marked size eight.
"I’m usually size seven," I said, instead of the seven-and-a-half that is the truth. Richard didn’t seem to have heard and motioned for me to try them on. He watched me slip into Helen’s shoes and stand. They were on the big side, but functional. I thought about just taking them—that was the decent thing to do. That’s what he wanted.
I’d run into Richard on my way out the door that morning, and he’d given me a ride to the metro station. It was cold, and he was pretty much insisting. I hadn’t really talked to him since the day a few weeks back, when we crossed paths at the mailboxes and I asked him how things were going.
"Fine," he’d answered, then paused. "My wife died." I’d had no idea and didn’t know what to say.
In the car, his eyes started to fill with just a few blocks to go.
"You can say what you want, but I do miss her," he told me. "We have a queen-size bed, and I still sleep on my side. I don’t want to take her space."
I wish I’d accepted the shoes that day. After declining them, I was next offered several of Helen’s suit jackets from the closet, and there was no way I could feign a need for those.
"I bet Macy’s would take the shoes back, since they’re brand new," I said. He explained he’d tried that too late, and such a return was no longer an option because the shoes had been on clearance.
As I prepared to go, Richard picked up a bright conference brochure and handed it to me. He’d just seen the much-loved/despised Joel Olsteen, friend of Richard’s pastor at Faith Church St. Louis, speak the other day. It was just great, he said. I nodded, again not knowing what to say. He struggled to tell me something, but couldn’t quite get it out.
"I go every week," Richard said. "If you ever want to come … I’m not bothering you, I’m just, like I say, I go ever week . The kids come running up to me after. They call me the candy man."
Richard reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of wrapped strawberry candies, the kind with the chewy middle. They're one of my favorites, I told him, and I took one.
"Take more," he said.
I declined again, popping the first in my mouth, and shifted toward the door.
"Thanks, Richard. I’ll see you around. You take care."
The next weekend, Richard buzzed. When I opened my door, he held out a whole bag of the candies, and I gladly accepted it.
I live in a different apartment building now. So I don’t see Richard often, though occasionally I spy him sitting out on the stoop a half-block down as I pass by the old street on my walk home from work. We wave.