The right words are necessary for an adequate description of a shoe. Because van Gogh was a painter, he did not have to worry about the right words. He painted the leather shoes, and you understood the squalor. There, in light that is the color of lye soap, the shoes stand empty and untied, the laces resembling petrified snakes, the creases resembling the ruts of those snakes, and the shadows, the dens in which the serpents hide, and though the painting is nothing more than these things, you know intimately the peasant man to whom these shoes belong. How he kicks off his right shoe before pulling off his left with his browned, work-scarred hands.
Done with his daily labors, he sits on the steps leading to his wooden porch. He unties his shoes, and then he removes them. His only daughter is too old to be waiting for him at the door, but she is not old enough to not sing while washing the dishes, the man silently enjoying her voice traveling softly from the kitchen, through the small living room, and out the front screen door to his large ears that his wife used to tease him about before she died. An abrupt death, abrupt like a candle flame put out by the thumb and pointer finger. That was over now though.
A priest gave the sermon, and his daughter gave the eulogy. She stepped on stage alone, and she spoke for the both of them, him knowing that he’d be unable to speak without stopping midsentence, folding his notes, and walking out of the room to cry privately. Quiet in his sobbing but vehement in his shaking. He did these things alone. Looking at the setting sun, the man knew better to dwell in memory.
Memory was dangerous to him because at times when he gave himself up to it, the past became the center of his present, and he experienced the present things, the rays of the setting sun, the hardness of the porch, the songs of his daughter, at a distance. As if he were being told about the sun, the porch, the songs, rather than experiencing them himself. The man had a trick for these moments of distance. To anchor himself in the here, the man focused intently on a now object, something in the present. He looked at the shoes, and he decided to use these as his anchor.
Peasant shoes. They are leather and black. From the welts at the tips to the heels, from the toe caps to the toplines, the shoes are leather and black. The vamps come before the throats of the shoes, and the throats come before the eyelets where the laces go. The laces are strewn this way and that, and because of the strewn laces, the shoes sag this way and that, as if they too are tired. The shoes are leather and black. They stand on the porch, and I don’t know how else to describe them.