Six weeks after the mosque opened on the corner of Sixth and Broadway, shoes began disappearing from cubbyholes in the outer hall. Stepping through the elaborately carved wooden door in dark nylon socks, each man whose footwear had vanished assumed he’d forgotten where his shoes had been deposited.
“I thought I put mine here,” one man said, pointing straight ahead of his nose. “But I guess not.”
The men searched above and below the places they’d grown accustomed to leaving their footwear in the old suburban mosque. It did no good.
“My shoes are gone,” a handsome young guy with a winning smile said. He smiled as he said this.
“So are mine,” echoed an old man standing to his left, his gray hair partially hidden under a snug cap.
It was puzzling, of course, but the imam, a thirtyish American named Robert Fowler who in college had converted to Islam, tried to reassure the men and come up with an explanation.
“Probably a prank some kids are playing,” the imam said. “Let’s have tea downstairs and you can call home and ask your wife to bring another pair.”
Each week for the next several, shoes continued to vanish from cubbyholes in the outer hall. The imam tried to pretend this had nothing whatsoever to do with the protests two years before, when news of the mosque construction went public. He wanted to believe that his outreach to the community had succeeded, as it seemed at the time. He certainly understood there were people for whom no words would change their minds. But he hadn’t expected any harm to come to the mosque or the congregation.
Some people wondered why a quiet and shy man like Robert Fowler had chosen to become an imam. When he spoke, even using a microphone, the men sometimes had to lean forward to hear him. The truth was, Imam Fowler hated conflict. During the period when the city was reviewing the mosque’s construction permit and protests ensued, Fowler lay awake nights, listening to his wife’s steady breathing, sleep eluding him until just before dawn. Some days his stomach ached and he had trouble getting food down.
Not surprisingly, the continuing disappearance of the shoes upset him. And though he tried to assure himself it wasn’t a big deal, Fowler had to conclude that some type of response was needed.
And then some of the women’s shoes went missing.
“You’re kidding me,” Chief Ann Hastings, head of the city’s police force said to Fowler after he explained the mosque’s latest problem. “Shoes?”
“Yes, Chief. Shoes. It’s gotten so bad we’re losing members. People can’t afford to keep replacing their shoes.”
“Shoes,” the police chief said, as if verbalizing the stolen items might solve the mystery of their vanishing. “Well, this is a strange one, isn’t it?”
“I don’t want to think the worst but I suppose we should,” the imam said, in a very soft voice. “We must consider that this might be some anti-Islamic activity.”
The chief shook her head and then nodded.
The next afternoon, in time for the evening news, a press conference was scheduled. Chief Hastings, her bright blond bob shiny under the TV crews’ lights, stood at the podium. Behind her, forming a half-moon, stood the city’s religious leaders, including the imam, dressed in their particular spiritual garb.
“We will not tolerate any anti-Muslim acts,” Chief Hastings said. “If we find whoever is responsible and the evidence suggests, we will prosecute these actions to the fullest extent of the law as hate crimes.”
One by one, each of the religious leaders – all but two of whom were men – stepped up to the microphone, deplored the shoe vandalism and expressed solidarity with their Muslim brothers. That night, the 6:00 o’clock news began with a reporter saying, “The latest of what might be a series of anti-Muslim actions. Shoes are being taken from the controversial new mosque downtown.”
Mary Wilson did not have a TV, so she missed the reports on the mosque. She had also found herself, strangely enough, without a home. This was not the first time. Mary Wilson had slipped up. She hadn’t meant to, of course. As Mary claimed to her counselor, “I was tryin’ real hard.”
Mary’d started drinking again and found it impossible to stop. She had been binge drinking off and on since the afternoon she turned away for one minute too long. That one minute still haunted her. What could she have been thinking? Whatever thought lasted that long?
She could still hear the tires making that awful screeching sound. No amount of drinking made that stop.
As soon as she heard it, she whipped her head around. Then she started to run.
“My baby,” she screamed, trying to reach the eight-year old boy who was the world and the stars and planets in the galaxy to Mary.
On a warm June afternoon, several pair of women’s flats, high heels and sandals vanished. That same week, a young Nigerian who’d been studying engineering in London was arrested for attempting to bomb a New Jersey Army recruiting station. The young man’s name was Mohammad.
“Just when things seemed to be getting better for us,” an older man who worked in high tech said that Friday afternoon to the imam. “They will blame us, of course.”
Once again, the imam held a press conference and condemned the latest act. For the umpteenth time, he repeated that Islam was a religion of peace and that true Muslims did not condone violence.
Brushing her teeth that morning in Macy’s gleaming white-tiled ladies room downstairs in Housewares, Mary silently vowed to get back into rehab. This time she’d stick to it. No more feeling sorry for herself.
He weighs fifty-four pounds. That’s the crazy thing Mary kept screaming, as she wailed over the body and the screeching ambulance siren got closer. The car, on the other hand, weighed several tons. Her baby, as Mary still called Eldon, even though she let him walk to school with his cousin Jarrell, had been flung into the air like a baseball. His blood was bright red and pooled around him. There was no warm breath coming from his nose, even after Mary pumped his heart and breathed in and out of his mouth.
She was still pumping when the ambulance arrived.
His name, she told the policeman, was Eldon Flowers. Sure, he had a daddy but Mary did not know where that man might have gone.
Imam Fowler walked down Third Avenue toward Burnside. He glanced from side to side. Nearly every available doorway was filled with bodies in nylon sleeping bags or sitting and panhandling next to crude cardboard signs.
He was on his way to the monthly meeting of RCOH, the Religious Council on the Homeless. The young imam was thinking how useless these meetings had become, with several hours of talk but no concrete steps taken to address the problem. In the two years he’d been on the council, the disheveled throngs on the sidewalk had multiplied. It wouldn’t look right if he dropped out, he understood, especially with this latest attempted bombing. But it might do more good to meet with members of his mosque and see what they could accomplish.
Fowler happened to glance down about half a block before reaching the Mission. The shoes – men’s soft brown leather loafers, women’s black patent leather heels and a few pair of blue and white Nikes -- caught his eye.
The imam lifted his left wrist and checked the time. He had at least ten minutes to spare.
He took his time studying each and every pair, carefully arranged on the wrinkled off-white sheet. He thought about the men and women who came to pray at the mosque – the men’s pressed shirts, the dark, clean socks and the women’s scarves. For a brief moment, he could smell the strong black tea brewing downstairs in the basement and see women filling the white porcelain cups.
The imam raised his eyes and considered the woman sitting behind all those shoes, her shoulders curled, her head dropped. Of course, he couldn’t help himself, so he took his gaze across her side-folded legs, to get a better look.
Mary had set the shoes out neatly, with a small space separating each of the pairs. As she did whenever a potential customer stopped, she kept her gaze lowered while the imam looked.
Hoping to stop the water that had started to run from the corners of his eyes, Imam Fowler coughed, then silently prayed. His mind resisted the familiar words that had long been such a comfort. Instead, the imam found himself turning again and again to gaze at those feet – naked and dirty – lying peacefully next to a sidewalk filled with shoes.
“Excuse me,” Fowler said.
The woman raised her eyes. They were large and dark, in a thin tan face the imam felt certain had once been pretty.
“I was wondering,” he said, attempting to control the quivering in his voice. “How much do you want for the whole lot?”
©2012 by Patty Somlo