The Shoe Tree Incident by Steve Carr
My story "The Shoe Tree Incident" in Serving House Journal, out now. http://www.servinghousejournal.com/Issue18/CarrIncident.aspx …
9:35 AM - 3 May 2018
The Shoe Tree Incident by Steve Carr
Ethan slept stretched out in the back seat, his bare feet sticking out the open window.
I was lost on a two-lane highway somewhere in Nevada. My map had been ripped from my hands by a gust of wind the day before at a desert road stop. It joined the tumbleweeds blowing across the barren landscape. There was nothing to do but watch as I passed signs along the road with names of places that meant nothing to me. Heat and dust filled the car with the aroma of scrub land: dry, grassy, earthy. The radio was on the fritz.
Before I could stop, a hare leapt onto the highway and froze just before I struck it. I pulled the car over along the side of the road.
“Why you stopping?” Ethan asked.
“I hit something,” I said.
I got out of the car and knelt down by the hare. It lay on its side. Its back legs were twitching. One glassy black eye stared up at me. I had never injured an animal before and the imminent death of the helpless creature overwhelmed me. I removed my shirt and wrapped the hare in it and carried it to the grass and gently laid it there. I hoped it would die before a coyote found it. I got back in the car.
“What was it?” Ethan asked.
“A hare,” I said.
“It will be.”
“Shit happens,” he said.
I drove on, the night air drying the sweat on my bare chest.
I’d lost track of the miles driven that day. I didn’t ask Ethan’s name when he got into the backseat until miles after I had picked him up. Like my car he was covered in dust. He had been standing barefoot in the dirt with his thumb out. He had no backpack. It was just him.
Within minutes of getting in the car he took his shoes and socks off and went to sleep. Exhaustion describes everything there. The occasional cottonwood tree was barren, dead from trying to thrive. I could feel my skin cells shedding from my body, committing cellular suicide out of sheer unending boredom. The few houses and barns that sat back from the road all looked the same mottled gray, painted that way by the weather. I had conversations with myself about the desolation of the landscape.
Sweat dripped from my underarms. Nothing felt alive out there. Another vehicle hadn’t passed me in an hour. People who lived in the houses stayed in them, out of sight, peeking from behind their curtains, I imagined. I blew air through my pursed lips to assure myself I was breathing and hadn’t died like everything else.
Sometimes Ethan shifted only his feet, a rare movement that momentarily disturbed my peripheral vision. He hadn’t cut his toenails in a long time. They were grossly filthy.
“Where you from?” I asked him at last.
“Las Vegas,” he said. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just tired of talking to myself,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. He shifted his feet and turned on his side facing the back of the seat.
I pulled off the highway and into a small town with only a few wood buildings along its main street. I parked at a curb near what looked like a small junk yard. Rusted appliances, old pipes, and broken furniture littered a fenced-in patch of dirt.
“I need to stretch my legs,” I said to Ethan.
“Me too,” he said, pulling his feet in and sitting up.
We walked only a little ways when we came upon a small pen outside a garage. Inside the pen, pygmy pigs were humping each other in a chain, one on top of the other in a line of five.
“It’s like a pig gang bang,” Ethan said.
I looked down at his feet and realized I had never seen feet so large.
An old man in dirty overalls came out of the garage. He smiled at us with a toothless grin.
“They’re for sale,” he said. “Only fifty dollars apiece.”
“I don’t have fifty dollars.” A lie, but not by much.
As he went back into the garage, I asked Ethan, “Why would he think I would want a pygmy pig?”
“Why does anybody want a pygmy pig?” he said.
Before getting back in the car, Ethan unzipped his jeans and pissed through the fence of the junk yard onto an old rusting refrigerator that was lying on its side. It had no door. I knew about the adage, that the size of a man’s penis could be determined by looking at the size of his feet. With Ethan it was true.
Back on the main road, old metal grain silos were rusting alongside rotting, tilting wooden sheds. It looked like land perfect for a twister. I wondered how those old structures managed to remain standing.
The sky was clear, deep blue, and looked as if it was painted there.
Ethan hadn’t said where he was going and I hadn’t asked.
On that road it felt like the only place to go to was its eventual end. Up ahead I saw another dead cottonwood. It too leaned like the sheds. The roots must have given up holding the tree firmly in place. Getting closer I saw it was dripping with hundreds if not thousands of shoes. As I pulled the car to the side of the road, Ethan awoke.
“Where are we?” he asked as he brought his feet into the car and sat up.
“There’s a tree with a lot of shoes hanging from it,” I said.
He leaned on the back of the front passenger seat and gazed through the windshield. “That’s cool.”
Close enough to smell, he reminded me of unwashed laundry.
“I wonder how it all started?” I said.
He opened the door and got out, carrying his shoes with him. I watched his naked feet stirring up small brown clouds. He tied the laces of his shoes together, then tossed them toward the lowest limb already crowded with gym shoes. He missed. He threw them again. They caught on the limb and swung there. As he turned to give me a thumbs up, I put my foot on the gas pedal and got back on the road and sped past him and the tree. In the rear view mirror I saw him kick the dirt.
Sitting by the window of a small diner in the next town I watched an eddy of dust whirl across the street. No matter how much water I drank the hamburger patty was still dry. I choked it down bite after bite. The waitress who served it to me was very plump but pretty. Her uniform was as pink as Pepto Bismol.
“Where you from?” she asked when she laid the check on the table.
“Seattle,” I said.
“We don’t get many out of towners in here,” she said.
“I’m sightseeing,” I lied.
“Did you see the shoe tree?” she asked.
“No,” I lied again.
“You should go see it. All the college students throw their shoes up in the branches. It’s the only tourist attraction around here,” she said. “It’s right down the road.” She pointed the direction of the tree. “You can’t miss it.”
After leaving the diner, I pulled away from the curb and did a U-turn and headed back toward the tree.
Ethan was nowhere to be seen.
I sat in the car and stared at his big shoes. It was almost dusk and it had gotten cooler. After thinking about it for a while, I pulled the car up beneath the lowest limb of the tree. I got out of the car and climbed onto the roof. Reaching up I was able to untie Ethan’s shoes and pull them down. Back in the car I took my shoes off and put his on. I finally found the highway I needed to be on and rode all the way to Tucson wearing Ethan’s big shoes.
Years later I read that the shoe tree had been cut down in the middle of the night. No one knows who did it. I keep Ethan’s shoes in the trunk of my car.
SHJ Issue 18 Spring 2018
ves in Richmond, Virginia, began his writing career as a military journalist. More than 160 of his short stories have been published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, and anthologies. Black Heart Magazine nominated his story “Death and Ice Cream” for a 2017 Pushcart Prize. In February 2018, Clarendon House Books published a collection of his short stories, Sand. His plays have been produced in several states, including Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio.