Ben crashed through the back door and slammed the snowshoes onto the kitchen counter. “Check it out. Free snowshoes.”
“Free?” Ula asked. “From where? The free snowshoe store?”
“Beside the highway,” Ben said, opening the fridge, grabbing a beer and flicking its tab in one motion. “Just in a pile there. Swear to God. Pretty sweet.”
He tipped the can, sucking like a hungry calf, foam rolling past his lips and down his cheeks. He wore a dark blue zippered hoodie. Ula wore a red one. They were married fifteen years. Both had frizzy hair. They wore matching dirty dungarees. Hers had ketchup spills and his had motor oil. Someone seeing them together would say they were two halves of the same truck stop sandwich.
“Aren’t you the guy that hates snow?” Ula asked.
“Don’t matter. Don’t have to like snow to like snowshoes.”
“Do you like them?”
“I like free. Pure profit.”
Living with Ben was like watching someone in the buffet line of life. See something, try it. A little of this, a little of that. Never more than a bite or two. Six months in mechanic school, a month learning to be a nurse’s aid, wannabe apprentice carpenter until the tow truck outfit called him back. Third car he hauled, it rolled off the back. Ended up worse than when it started. Ben talked the guy who owned the car into taking him on as a fry cook. Until he sent a dozen people to the hospital with month old meatloaf. “I put tons of gravy on it,” he offered by way of defense.
The only enterprise that stuck? Running a weekend flea market booth.
“You think maybe somebody forgot them?” Ula asked.
“I don’t think it. I know it. How else they gonna be there?”
“And maybe they might realize it somewhere down the road? And come back, lookin’ for their snowshoes?”
“Maybe. Good thing I saw them first.”
“What if they were yours and you forgot them?” she said. Thinking somebody had to teach her moron some manners.
“Thing is, I didn’t forget them. I found them. Finder’s keepers.”
In the cosmic parallel of time and events, while Ben was still on the road, about two miles south of where he found the snowshoes, the original owner of the snowshoes pulled into his own garage. Larry unloaded his dog, looked in the back of his car and realized that he had just driven thirty miles without his snowshoes.
Stupid stupid stupid.
What an idiot he was. What a fucking idiot. What the fuck had he been thinking?
He walked into the house and called to Dawna.
“I can’t believe I just did the most stupid thing in my life.”
“What did you do, leave your snowshoes at the trailhead?” she asked, greeting him at the kitchen door.
Was she clairvoyant? How did she know he was an idiot because he had forgotten his snowshoes? It could have been any number of things. He could have forgotten the dog, for Pete’s sake. Or left his glasses and wallet on top of the car. He had gotten really good at that, since he turned 60. He got better with every passing year.
“Maybe whoever found them was on a pilgrimage.”
“To where? Phoenix?”
“OK, maybe not. Maybe think of it as a donation?” Dawna said. “Become charitable instead of a victim.”
“What if I didn’t want to donate them?”
“We’ve talked about downsizing. This could be your start.”
He looked at her. She always thought the best of him. Right now, she thought he was more of an idiot than even he thought he was.
“I guess you’re going to have to drive back and get them,” she said.
Figuring out what he had to do before he did. At least he and Dawna still agreed on something.
“Of course,” he said. “Here’s the dog.”
Earlier that afternoon, on a whim, Larry had grabbed the snowshoes and Mooch and headed uphill from the Tucson desert for a quick stroll on the snow of the Catalinas. There was just one car idling in the lot. He noticed broken glass all over the pavement a few feet from the car. Prior to the two of them being there, somebody had broken into somebody else’s car, gone now to the auto glass shop.
All its windows intact, the idling car drove off. Larry put on his snowshoes. He grabbed the dog’s leash and they headed up the trail. The snow was solid. The days had been warm, the nights freezing, perfect for a glacial base. Whoop-ee. After about a quarter mile, he thought the snowshoes were pointless. Haystack Calhoun could walk on this snow. He stashed the snowshoes under a tree, to get on his way back.
Mooch was probably more tired when they reached the car. He had bounced off every Ponderosa in the woods, run laps around Larry, got his tongue hanging.
He set his snowshoes on the ground near the hatchback, stepped around the side, fumbled for his keys. Mooch jumped in.
Larry was hot so he unzipped his snow pants. Tossed them over his seat and into the back. Flipped his jacket in front. Settled in, wishing he had brought the beer cooler.
He pulled a slow U-turn, and slipped onto the highway.
Totally forgot the snowshoes. On the drive home, Larry basked in his mild fatigue.
He marveled at the spring clouds. He scanned the forested hills, remarking on the ugliness of the clearcuts, and the texture of the forests still standing. He thought about calling his wife, but refrained. Not safe.
Not long after reaching home and realizing how fucking stupid he was, while he was again driving back uphill, Larry thought how he had just given his wife justification to keep an even closer eye on his behavior. She enjoyed their life, but in quieter moments, she realized their best days were two decades behind.
Back when bed was their natural habitat.
Back when they were either pursuing exhaustion, or recovering from it.
More frequently now, Dawna would remind Larry that he needed to remember to remember to remind her to remind him that he was getting old and forgetting things that he used to remember when he could remember not forgetting things.
“Really?” he would say, giving her the look that said she didn’t really need to remind him.
She would pause in those moments. Then firmly say, “Really.”
And go back to ladling stroganoff into plastic clamshells for the church shut-ins.
Driving back uphill, Larry reminded himself to lift his foot off the gas. He knew he was speeding, trying to reunite himself with the snowshoes before darkness. It was a dangerous stretch of road. Sheriff’s deputies patrolled it aggressively.
If the snowshoes weren’t where he left them, what then? He thought about the hoops through which he could jump to find them. He didn’t think about the return on investment of time in such a likely idle pursuit. He might get them back at the benefit of, say, three dollars an hour.
He talked to himself. What else are you going to do? You’re retired. The cactus garden is still dormant. Yes, you are an idiot. Yes, you left your snowshoes in the road. Yes, you would love to hear from … whomever picked them up. For now, what you have is more time than sense.
That line of thought seemed prematurely defeatist. He had a few miles to go. They might be there. The highway wasn’t that busy. And people were generally honest. And even if the snowshoes weren’t there, maybe whoever picked them up had hopes of finding their owner and creating a happy reunion like you see in news photos of kids running into the arms of their dads just back from a military deployment.
Except in his reunion photo, the dad would be Larry and the kids would be the snowshoes.
Ben didn’t think like that. Ben fed on fallout. Like a turkey vulture. Amazing, how much stuff he found along the highway. When Ben spied the snowshoes near the road, he had just delivered a pound of weed to a cabin rented by four snowboarders on the back side of the mountain. He would get a hundred bucks for his delivery. The real money sat by the road. “Free” things that other people just dumped, like furniture and toilets and camper shells. Stacks of plastic milk crates. Things also that fell off vehicles, like skis and shoes and gloves and tires on rims and hubcaps, dozens of hubcaps. And snowshoes. Anything he might add to his flea market inventory. He was amazed how many people would buy a single glove.
Larry knew nothing of Ben or how he turned a buck. As he approached the trailhead, his mood sank. No sign of the snowshoes. He got out and walked around, looking in the snow, behind trees, down in a ditch. Nope. Nobody had even bothered to make him work for his reunion. Nobody had shown up, seen some lost snowshoes, thought it would be a good prank to hide them behind some trees a hundred yards away. Then continue on. Let the poor fool who left them figure it all out.
No such luck. They were gone.
After he got home, Larry called the sheriff’s office to report some missing snowshoes.
“What do they look like?” the kindly desk clerk asked.
“Snowshoes,” Larry said. “Shoes. Made out of metal. Bigger than normal shoes, so they don’t sink into snow. So you can walk in them on snow.”
“Why would I want to do that?” the desk clerk asked.
“To … get somewhere?”
“And where might that be? We don’t live in Alaska. We have highways.”
“My wife and I, we walk out into the woods. Then back.”
“So you see my point?” the clerk said.
Probably gets $25 an hour, Larry thought. Just to fuck with people like me.
“You said missing? Did you lose them? Or were they stolen? Somebody pull a gun on you and heist them?”
He gave the 9-1-1 lady his number, in case anyone phoned in a find.
“I hope they don’t melt,” she said.
“Snow. Shoes. Shoes made of snow. Get it?”
He hung up. Realizing it was all on him, he used his computer to create flyers with a photo of the snowshoes from the web site where he bought them. Wrote a headline that said “Missing.” He described them, and said they had been left by the side of the highway but weren’t there when he came back to get them. Like it was the plan from the start, and someone had messed it up. He hung the flyers on telephone poles, right alongside the “missing cat” and “missing javalina” posters. And the flyers announcing yard sales with itemized lists of junk that people were trying to unload on unsuspecting materialists.
Then he called the newspaper, for one of their free “lost & found” ads.
In the week after, nobody called. Or e-mailed. Or even sent him a message through Flipbook. Larry didn’t give up. He went on social media and posted news of his stupidity. People were kind. They wrote back and said he definitely was stupid.
One of his friends, Ron, said he had gotten a shared post from a guy named Ben, one of his friends, boasting of having “found some great snowshoes along the highway. Looked brand new. Score!”
Larry sent Ben a message. Said he had lost a pair of snowshoes. Wondered if Ben might be able to show him what he found.
Ben read the message and thought no way in hell am I giving the guy my snowshoes. Ben thought about his great good fortune, to find something for which he could imagine only one good use — as a flea market sale item. All these years (he was 36) and he had never even thought about snowshoeing. He just couldn’t figure out why someone who had a TV and a fridge full of PBR would want to drive all the way up in the mountains to walk around on tennis rackets. Made no sense.
Larry didn’t hear back from Ben or anyone else. So he got Ben’s number from Ron and gave him a call. To his surprise, Ben answered.
“Not interested,” Ben said, slurping on a PBR.
“Not selling anything,” Larry said. “Friend of Ron’s. He had to leave town. Wanted me to drop something off. He’s going to Cabo to drink margaritas and eat tacos.”
“What is it?”
Now Larry was in a pickle.
“Hell if I know,” Larry said. “It’s wrapped. In brown paper.”
There was silence on the line. Ben was thinking it might be something he could sell. Finally, Ben told Larry he could drop off whatever it was.
Larry drove over. Ben lived in a duplex. Out front, a classic Challenger, dipped in primer.
When Ben came to the door, Larry said he was there to see the snowshoes.
“What kinda shakedown is this?” Ben asked. “I thought you said you were delivering something from Ron. Now you want to see my snowshoes?”
“I am delivering something. Me. You posted that you found some snowshoes. I lost some. I thought maybe they were mine.”
“How would I know if they were yours?”
“I could look at them?”
“Do they have your name on them?”
“No, they have the name of the company that made them.”
“I don’t think that’s them,” he said.
“Can I see? I would recognize them.”
“If your name isn’t on them, how would you know they were yours?”
“If I had lost my kid in the woods, I would know him if I saw him. Or her. I would say, ‘Sam, it’s you! I missed you so much!’ That would be it.”
“Snowshoes are different,” Ben said. “They don’t have names.”
“These are brand fucking new. Only had them a week. I get the sense you don’t want to help me? Like you’re afraid you have my snowshoes and don’t want me to get them back. Right?”
“Look, people lose snowshoes all the time. Yours aren’t mine.”
Larry had considered how this exchange might go. A bit of a chess match, one probing, the other dodging, back and forth.
“Where did you find yours?” Larry asked.
“Up near the Coffee Creek Snow-Trail System. Along the Catalina Highway.”
Ben immediately realized his mistake. For one of the few times in his life, he had been spontaneously honest. He should have made up another place, other than the one where he actually found the snowshoes. What a dumbshit he was.
Dumbshit, dumbshit, dumbshit.
He didn’t admit it out loud, though, in case Ula was listening. If she heard him cop to one of his scams, she could use it to remind him what a dumbshit he was.
“Wow, that is amazing,” Larry said. “That’s right where I lost mine. How many others from that location could there be. Right? I’d love to see them.”
Ben stood there, behind his screen door, looking like the king in checkmate.
“I’m sorry you lost your snowshoes. I really am. But I don’t see what that has to do with me. I don’t even like to snowshoe. Why would I care about finding some snowshoes? It’s not gonna snow, I can tell you that. This is Ari-fucking-zona. It was a fluke thing. I’ll probably give them to Goodwill.”
“Or me. You could give them to their rightful owner.”
“Possession is nine-tenths–”
“Of the law,” Larry said. “I know. But a good guy like you, I’m sure you’d love to help a brother out by erasing the results of a really stupid failure to load his gear.”
That stopped Ben. Nobody recently had given him credit for being anything but a jerk. How could he crap on that?
“Show him the snowshoes,” a woman’s voice called from inside. “Maybe they belong to someone else, and you can keep them.”
Ben looked behind him at the voice. Then back to Larry, pissed. He shuffled around behind the screen door, scruffy beard, smelling of pot. He had never worn snowshoes in his life, on the snow or to the grocery store or in the gym where he typically shadowed women in tight see-through yoga pants.
“Give me your name and phone number,” Ben finally said, defeat all over his face. “They’re in storage. I’ll call you when I dig them out.”
So Larry did. What else was he going to do? Pull a gun on the guy and pistol whip him until he gave back what likely was clearly, possibly, potentially Larry’s misplaced snowshoes, leaning against a wall in the hallway off the dumpy living room of Ben’s really fine duplex?
On the way home, Larry pondered his choice of words. Had his snowshoes been stolen? Recovered? Abandoned? Neglected? Donated? Rescued? Salvaged? Repurposed? Kidnapped?
Larry thought they were being ransomed.
While Larry was imagining what sort of conniving bullshit Ben was up to so he could avoid giving back what Larry had spent $62 on, Ben got in his car and drove downtown to the Last Season Sports store. The store sold old outdoor gear. Stuff that still worked, but people had given up on.
To Ben, this was a matter of principle. Ben went through the winter gear zone until he found a bin full of snowshoes. Most were in pretty good shape. Why people got rid of them, he could only guess. Maybe their owners had children and needed space for four-wheel-drive folding dual compartment baby strollers. With WiFi. Or maybe they didn’t realize they could just leave them by the side of a highway for somebody like Ben to come along and heist.
Ben found a decent pair and bought them. Thirty bucks. They were red. Nice snowshoe color. Then he showed the clerk the snowshoes he had found by the highway. The guy offered him twenty bucks. Ben took it, and went home. He dumped his new used snowshoes on the same counter he had dumped Larry’s.
“Nice,” Ula said. “A week ago, no snowshoes. Now we got two pair.”
“I traded in the pair I found,” Ben said. “That friend of Ron’s? Trouble. I got to show him something.”
Ben called Larry.
“I found them,” he said. “My wife had buried them behind some stuff.”
“Asshole,” Ula yelled from the back of the house. “Tell him the truth.”
Larry heard every word, just like Ula wanted. “What was that?” Larry asked. “You call me an asshole?”
“Nothing. Just the kids arguing.”
“Boy, don’t they?”
“What … don’t they?”
“Argue. Kids. Can I come over?”
They met at the screen door. Ben opened it and showed Larry the pair of used and recently purchased snowshoes. Decent, Larry thought, but not mine. Still, social media doesn’t lie.
“You are a-MAZE-ing,” Larry exclaimed. “I can’t believe you found my snowshoes.”
“Somebody with nice snowshoes like that, leaving them by the highway like I did, it’s almost impossible to think you’re going to get them back.”
Ben looked at Larry for a long time, not quite sure what to make of his comment.
“Don’t mention it,” Ben said, starting to close the door.
“Uh, aren’t you going to give them to me?”
“They’re not yours, and you know it.”
“You calling me a liar?”
“No, but I know these aren’t yours.”
“And how is that?”
“I just know, motherfucker,” Ben said. “Be more careful next time.”
He slammed the door. Larry could hear voices behind it.
“I honestly cannot believe you sometimes.”
Loud. Ula again. The kind of woman who spent her whole life slouching around with a cigarette smoldering in her fingers, reminding her husband what an idiot he was. What a liar. Thief. Cretin. Mental loser.
Woman a lot like his own wife, Larry thought, if only for her love of zippered hoodies. Nothing more. Not the cigarette part. Not the insult part. She knew what she had signed up for and had no regrets.
Larry was staring at the slammed door, thinking about his own wife. A woman who imagined better things. She would jump up and start buzzing around, and before long, the house was festooned with flowers in small vases, with votive candles flickering to the side.
Or she would imagine them getting hungry, and before long, aromas came from the kitchen, and then food.
Or she would look at the sheets and see dander accumulating, and spores settling, and mushrooms sprouting where she would like to sleep, and she would remove the sheets and replace them with sheets much farther from such an imagined future.
Just like she had imagined him going back and finding his snowshoes, or not finding them, but either way, finding an answer so he could imagine what next.
Ula? Larry figured she was having too much fun acting miserable to ever leave. It was the role of a lifetime. Emmy script. She liked her situation. Feeling superior, knowing she was, knowing Ben knew she was. Riding that horse. She needed Ben to be a numbskull, so she could remind him. She knew he needed reminding, and she was the one to do it.
Go to Cabo? Eat tacos? Drink margies on the beach? Not a fucking chance. Not when she could be here with Ben. Waiting and watching for him to fuck up.
Larry heard more garble. Larry thought he heard Ben yelling.
“… what I got you?”
Then more back and forth. Larry couldn’t understand a thing.
He turned and walked away. All he knew was they had his snowshoes. And each other. He would stop by the second-hand outdoor gear store on his way home, to see if they had any decent used snowshoes. He wasn’t hopeful.
On the backside of a long journalism career, STUART WATSON now devotes his energies exclusively to poetry, essay and short fiction. His work reflects a love of human diversity, and a twisted view of reality. Watson loves writing that pushes narrative technique, everything from Raymond Carver to the Barthelmes (Donald and Frederick), Flannery O’Connor to Joy Williams, Charles Bukowski to William Kotzwinkle, Barry Hannah to Eudora Welty. He doesn’t try to emulate them, but admits that, like all the voices in the world, they certainly must infect his writing. Watson’s writing daily decorated miles of newsprint, and has appeared most recently in The Maine Review, Two Hawks Quarterly and Wanderlust Journal.