On a recent Monday night, one running shoe vanished quietly from the deck of the home I was renting in North Carolina. On Tuesday morning the other went missing. They were old shoes, and very smelly, but still. My wife had banned the foul footwear from the house. Who'd want them?
Because we were vacationing only minutes from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I wondered if a bear might be the thief. After all, my shoes did smell something like a dead opossum — a feast for a hungry black bear putting on fat for winter.
I found no sign of bear in the yard — no tracks or scat or scratch marks on the trees. What I saw was a black dog in a yard down the mountain. When she spotted me, she barked with joy and came galloping, the cutest chocolate Labrador retriever I had ever met.
"Did you steal my shoes?" I asked.
She wagged her tail and licked my hands. I was smitten.
Oh, well. They were old shoes and I'm an old runner with bad knees, hips, ankles and feet. I should give up running and stick to my cycling. Still, a man has his pride. To stop running after so many years is to admit mortality. And to have your running shoes stolen with such impunity is an insult.
A few shoeless days passed. One morning, down the mountain, a pickup truck proceeded up a steep road in the rain. Driver stopped, opened the door, leaned out, grabbed something from the weeds, parked in a driveway, climbed out and left something on a wall.
I slammed down my coffee, marched down the mountain and hiked up the driveway. A familiar-looking chocolate Lab sprinted happily from the porch to greet me. After embracing I reclaimed my shoes and knocked on the door.
"Sorry about that," said the owner, stepping onto the porch with a sheepish grin. "Hershey is really a wonderful dog. She just has some unusual habits."
"It's okay," I said. "It's kind of funny."
Then I turned to Hershey, a vivacious teenager who wagged her tail so rapidly it became invisible.
"You're beautiful, but please don't steal my shoes again."
Back at the rental, I arranged my shoes on the deck railing. High enough, I was sure, to vex even a klepto chocolate Lab.
Come morning, one shoe was missing.
That afternoon, Hershey paid another visit.
Defeated, I hugged her and handed over the remaining shoe. She sped off with her odoriferous treasure.
Now that I am home, I like to think of her cavorting in the mountains, throwing my shoes high in the air, catching them like an all-star centerfielder, and, of course, rolling around on them as if they were a dead opossum or something unspeakably rotten.
I envy Hershey her spunk and her energy, but most of all her youthful ability to run without pain.
I guess I'm a full-time cyclist now. Anyway, I haven't bought a new pair of running shoes.
Jeff Klinkenberg, Times staff writer