My first sight of a Caribbean beach was everything I’d hoped for — and quite a bit more besides. Eighty-or-so miles south of the Yucatán tourist mecca Cancún, en route to a village on Ascension Bay, I parked on the ocean side of the road, stepped up over a dune, and there it was: the desolate, palm-tree-lined beach of travel ads, post cards and dreams. It was white-sanded, breezy, endless, and beautifully bereft of both mosquitoes and human beings. This was the everything I’d hoped for. Then came the quite-a-bit-more-besides: The beach was festooned with a broad, multicolored band of garbage, as endless as the sands themselves.

I was shocked for a moment. Maybe a moment and a half. I’d seen no beach, Atlantic, Indian or Pacific, that compared quantity-of-trash-wise. But one of the strange blessings of travel is helplessness. I feel duty-bound, when I’m at home in Montana, to pull several garbage cans full of human dreck from the creek behind my house each summer. I had no way to begin to deal with the Caribbean’s gargantuan problem. The only beach walk I was going to get would include the garbage. So I walked.

It was the right decision.

The air was silky, the sand soft, the ocean emerald, and the garbage turned out to be classy stuff, some of it: Remy Martin cognac bottles, unbroken 4-foot tube lights, mahogany paneling and rigging from wrecked yachts, usable skeins of plastic rope, usable-looking hypodermic needles. Within a mile I’d become so acclimatized that I quit combing the wet sand for its frustratingly rare seashells and began to comb the trash line for its astoundingly findable shoes.

That’s right: All along the beautiful green Caribbean lie thousands of ocean-washed, unmatched shoes — authentic little relics of lost human habitation. I began composing the appropriate brochures: “Come Walk Among the Sacred Shoes of the Yucatán.” Then I began trying some on. I found a left blue thong to match a right Taiwanese penny-loafer, and slapped along the beach in those for a ways. I found a red-sequined left high heel and a fake-leather right work boot that would fit a schizophrenic version of my wife. Locating even vaguely related pairs turned out to be as impossible as finding identical snowflakes back in Montana: The Caribbean is a remarkably thorough shoe-shuffler.

I conducted a test: How many unmatched drift shoes in 100 random yards of Yucatecan beach? I stepped off the yardage, turned back around and started picking up every shoe. The test results: After just 60 yards, having picked up 23, I began to drop four or five shoes every time I stooped for another — till I came to my senses and shouted, “I hate tests!” But what a collection I had! And there really is something appealing about drift shoes. The philosophically poignant speed of disintegration. The way the raw forces of nature rip right into these slick factory products, reminding us that even factory products come from the same few earthly elements as the mortal rest of us. It was pleasing, too, to see that no matter how obnoxiously gaudy a shoe’s original color, the salt sea and blazing UV soon forced it in a tastefully pastel direction.

There was also the whole Missing Foot thing. Abandoned drift shoes are as suggestive of departed life as the abandoned shells of conches, or the abandoned temples of Mayans. Take that red-sequined high heel, for instance. Who had inhabited it? What was her belief system? What was she up to now? How was her other sequined shoe getting along? How whacked, and by what, had she been the night she and the shoe were separated? Was the separation violent? Did it drown her as it drowned the shoe? Did she just topple off the yacht, holler “Oops!” and get scooped up in time for a nightcap?

The Yucatecan tide line is an unread library of such mysteries.

I began, on a whim, to collect expensive, name-brand corporate athletic shoes. In a 10-minute jog I gleaned a baker’s dozen. I then began arranging them, well above the high-tide mark, into a theatrical still life. Grouping solitary male athletic shoes suggestively close to female shoes, I created a kind of shoey singles club. I gave my guests palm fronds for beach umbrellas, coconuts and coral chunks for lounge chairs. I built them a bar out of a shattered yacht cabinet, and stocked the bar with drift wine and liquor bottles. I served genuine fumes from champagne bottles in genuine UV-crazed plastic champagne glasses. I stocked my club’s smoking section with genuine cigarette butts and crab-shell ashtrays.

I never got crass with my layout — didn’t pile boy and girl shoes on top of each other, for example, or insert boy laces in girl eyes. This was strictly a class joint. By the time I’d finished, though, you could have cut the sexual tension with a knife! The famous-name shoes all lounged on the beach there, looking like they’d long since used up the sunscreen, but who gave a good goddamn! They looked as if they’d forgotten their homes and jobs and families, had been partying hard for days, and were just waiting again for nightfall so that certain pent-up Nikes could crawl over to supple Reeboks, rough-hewn Converses over to scantily clad Adidas, to throw wide their tongues and gas, “The hell with company loyalty! I’ve been watching you all day against the emerald sea! You’re gorgeous! I want you!”

Of course, vacations end and the wet blanket of corporate-think smothers these Caribbean flames. But one can imagine —if one jets straight down out of a dark Montana winter and stays out in direct sunlight as long as I did — a Yucatecan shore best left unnamed, where lovely, abandoned female athletic shoes swim, under cover of night, up onto the sand. Dragging their contoured soles up past the tide line, they dig grave-size holes, lay hundreds of little eggs, bury them and slip sadly back into the ocean. Heartbreak.

But a few mornings later, what a sight! An army of adorable half-breeds! Wee Condidas and Adiverses, stalwart Nikboks and Reekees, tiny tongues flipping earnestly as they wiggle their way down to the surf and paddle off into the safety of sheltering seas.

David James Duncan is the author of the novel The Brothers K and River Teeth: Stories and Writings.

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