On Monday we received in the mail a birthday card envelope with a pinkie toe inside. No return address. The toe had been preserved the way some people around here save the paws of rabbits they’ve shot or trapped. I think they dip them in formaldehyde or coat them with Borax.
“It’s revolting,” said my wife, Ellen.
The toe sat on our kitchen table. Where it had been severed the skin was as wrinkly as an old peach. The nail, trimmed delicately down to the cuticle, curved in a perfect half-moon arc.
“There must be some mistake,” I said. “I’ll talk to the mail woman tomorrow.”
Ellen frowned. She tucked in her white button-up shirt and grabbed a clean apron. “Don’t bother. Just pitch it.”
She opened the garage door. “Jake,” she said. “Move your bike.”
We lived in a small town near Winterset, Iowa, the birthplace of John Wayne. Some of that hyper-masculinity was bound to wear off. The men around here hunted, trapped, fished, drank Jack Daniels and Bud Heavy, and fought at a bar called the Wagon Wheel Tavern. A large percentage worked at Benson’s Sheet Metal, the grain bin, or the meat packing plant two towns over. They wore Carhartt jackets and steel-toe boots, even to church. Since I taught a 5/4 load at Heritage Community College, I drove a Honda Rebel year round, even during winter when ice covered the frame like a blanket. It kept me just miserable enough to feel manly.
I poked the pinkie toe with an unsharpened pencil. “They probably can’t sew it back on, can they?”
“You don’t understand how bodies work,” said Ellen, and she pitched me my keys.
Monday afternoons I held office hours before back-to-back sections of Comp I. It was a month into the fall semester, with oaks and maples outside my second-story office window displaying leaves in traffic light patterns: go, slow, stop. Greg Weisman came into my office and asked if I’d seen the new adjunct. He moved his hands downward, as if describing an imaginary vase.
“She’s a butterface,” he told me. “Great body, not so great face.”
“Why are you such a dick, Weisman?”
“Because I can be, Vandy. It’s easy.”
I gave him a sour look. I knew what he was going on about. Weisman was a two-time divorcee with what he called summer kids—some are here, some are there. Currently he lived with a woman he swore he’d never marry. He had a beer gut and liked to bow hunt white-tailed deer in the winter. He hung a ten-point buck’s head in the office shared by all the part-time teachers. I guess he was what you’d call a good-ol’-boy.
“Can you blame me for wanting to live vicariously through you?” asked Weisman. “Look at me. I’m a slob.” He lowered his voice. “Rumor is she’s single, ready to mingle.”
HCC had an enrollment of just over a thousand students, roughly ten percent of Heritage’s population. The next closest community college was in Des Moines, so we pulled in students from several neighboring towns. Weisman taught basic auto repair and a welding certification class and was always lounging around campus. A few years back he’d been accused of looking up the skirts of female students as they ascended the main lobby stairs, but nothing could be proven. When things died down I asked him if he’d actually done it. He raised his eyebrows, on the precipice of saying something, but then thought better of it.
He sat in the chair by my bookshelf, grabbing a collection of Hemingway’s short stories. He rifled through the pages like it was a flip book.
“Men Without Women. Ain’t that the truth?”
I grunted in lieu of a verbal response.
“Jake Van-volt-en-burg,” he said, each syllable of my last name like a steak he had to chew through. “Vandy, you could have any woman in town. Why stay with Ellen? Is it for the kids? Don’t make that mistake. You still get to see your kids on the weekends. Or not. Either way. I know she’s not putting out. Or is she?”
“That’s really none of your business,” I said.
Weisman was no more or less crude than the other men in Heritage.
I tolerated it. You have to pick your battles.
Besides, I had it coming. This time last year I was carrying on an affair with a biology adjunct by the name of Lisa Cope. She had dark black hair and an overbite that made her seem eager to please. After my wife found out, Lisa moved back to Des Moines, but things in the Vanvoltenburg house didn’t settle down immediately. I apologized profusely, vowing to never let it happen again, but once was one time too many for Ellen. She ignored my penitent gestures and made it clear that she was only sticking around for our seventeen-year-old son, Michael. Thus, as Emily Dickinson wrote, my life stood like a loaded gun. I was just waiting for the hammer to drop.
“So this new adjunct,” Weisman started in.
I stopped him there. My wife reminded me of my mistake almost daily, but I couldn’t stand hearing it when I came to school. Mostly only Weisman gave me shit, but it was incessant, almost like he understood that everyone else, the other faculty members, were willing to forgive and forget.
So I told him about the pinkie toe.
“Awesome,” he said. Then his brow furrowed. “How do you know it’s a pinkie? Could be one of the other ones.”
I shrugged. “Seems pretty obvious.”
“Male or female?”
“How can you tell?”
“Did it have nail polish?”
“No,” I said, “but it’d been treated. Like, taxidermied. So if it did have nail polish, it’d probably have worn off in the process.”
“Dammit,” said Weisman, a lightbulb illuminating above his head. He lowered his voice again. “It was a drug deal gone bad. See, I’ve heard about this. Someone renegs on their meth payment and the dealer takes a toe as collateral. Then when they don’t pay up, dealer mails the toe to their house. It’s like, an omen.”
“Certainly foreboding,” I said, thinking Weisman had seen too much Breaking Bad. “So what happens next?”
“People find a way to pay or the dealer works his way down the line. This little piggy came home, man.”
I waved a hand. “Bullshit.”
“No, it’s true. I had this kid in basic auto who was missing the small toe from each foot. He’d ripped off two different drug dealers.”
Although the hey-day of meth usage in Iowa had passed, what with farmers locking up their anhydrous and all, people still found ways to make the stuff. Several of my students over the years had missed class due to court-mandated Narcotics Anonymous meetings. I couldn’t imagine wanting something so badly I’d have my toe sawed off for it.
“We don’t smoke meth,” I said. “Or snort it, or whatever. The most excitement at our house is Pizza Fridays. Obviously there’s been a postal mix up.”
“You can smoke it, snort it, or,” and he pantomimed shooting up, “do it internally.”
“Intravenously,” I corrected.
He flipped me off. Then he said, “How old’s your son?”
“Seventeen. He’s a senior.”
Weisman leaned across the desk and rested his sausage-fingered hands on my shoulders. It was one in the afternoon and his breath smelled like beer. “Oh, Vandy. I’m sorry to hear that.”
I sat at the kitchen table, the pinkie toe still laid out before me. Ellen got home first, having finished her shift at Goldschmidt’s Cafe. She worked for less than minimum wage but got a shitload of tips from senior citizens, especially on dollar pie day. She was saving up for a trip to Italy. I was no longer invited.
“Put that thing away,” she said.
“It’s about Michael’s size, don’t you think?”
She untucked her shirt and shook out her pony tail. Since the day I met her at Heritage High, she’d always had gorgeous hair, thick as a haybale, the color of a freshly-minted penny.
“What are you implying?”
“Michael told me he wasn’t going to play basketball this year,” I said. It was coming together like puzzle pieces. I could see the bigger picture at last: Michael, anxious about leaving for college next fall, experimenting with cigarettes, pot, and now, meth. He didn’t have a job, so he probably ate into his college savings until…
“He was tired of riding the pine,” said Ellen.
“That’s a funny term,” I said.
She pulled keys out of her pocket and slid the ring over a wall hook. “I go to all the games. I hear the chatter.”
An accusation. It sounded harsh, but what was the point of me going? I couldn’t stomp-stomp-clap for Michael since he didn’t even play, and it made me uncomfortable when I eyed Greg Weisman two rows down, leering while teenaged cheerleaders assembled into an awkward pyramid. Okay, maybe not Weisman, but someone like him. On some level, they’re all the same. We’re all the same, us men. During basketball season, I stayed home and worked on my book: an academic, philosophical manuscript I tentatively called The Burden of Masculinity. It was a horrible, horrible book that I dared not show anyone.
“He’s up late at night,” I said.
She gave me a puzzled look.
“I’ve been doing some research,” I explained. “Mood disturbances, memory loss, insomnia. It’s all online.”
“You just described basically every teenager,” she said.
I chewed my lower lip. Michael came through the garage door, which Ellen had left open. It was a fine fall afternoon, the sun still warming up the air. Michael wore a My Chemical Romance t-shirt, cargo shorts, and his birthday-present Nike’s that set me back a hundred bucks. He was a handsome kid. A smaller frame than mine, but I guess he got my jawline, or cheekbones, or whatever facial bone structure is desirable. I’d always been ambivalent about my good looks, a trait that Michael also inherited, thank God.
“Take off your shoes,” I ordered.
“Tranquilo,” he said. He was taking Spanish class and often practiced on us. He wriggled out of his Nike’s.
“Socks, too,” I said.
“Just do it.” The Nike motto escaped my lips before I could stop it. Michael smirked.
Ellen folded her arms. “At least tell him what you’re accusing him of. That’s the law, you know.”
“I have jurisdiction here,” I said. “Executive power.”
Michael unrolled his socks into snowball shapes. He juggled them.
“See?” said Ellen. She turned to run up the stairs, but tripped. Her face turned red. She’d moved into the spare room just after the affair. I still slept in our king-sized bed downstairs. Ellen scowled at me and continued her ascent.
The sock balls fell to the floor. “Hey,” said Michael, pointing at the pinkie toe on the table. “Que paso?”
Weisman waited for me outside my office door. It was a chilly Tuesday morning, leaves outside falling slowly. My hair felt staticky from the motorcycle helmet. I pressed a stack of papers to my side as I unlocked my office.
“That your book? How’s it coming along?”
“I’m teaching 5/4, so I only write in the spring.” A lie, but I didn’t really feel like talking about my manuscript then, or ever. I wondered why Weisman cared about my book, but realized it was only a polite preamble to what he really wanted to talk about. Even Weisman was capable of basic human decency.
“So this pinkie toe,” he said. “It was your son’s, right?”
“No,” I said, and we took our usual seats.
I shoved the stack of papers in the bottom desk drawer. I considered most academic writing to be self-congratulatory in nature, but the fifth (and most recent) chapter of The Burden of Masculinity was a masturbatory endeavor on par with Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo. Nietzsche’s book, which I had to slug through in grad school, had chapters titled “Why I Am So Wise” and “Why I Write Such Good Books.”
“So where’d the toe come from?” asked Weisman.
“I don’t know. Could be a fake.” Then I remembered I’d shoved it into my cardigan pocket.
“Want to see it?”
His face shone like a kid on Christmas morning.
“Settle down, Farmer Brown,” I said, rolling my eyes. I shook the pinkie toe out of the birthday card envelope, plopping it on my desk in between a rubber-band-wrapped pencil bouquet and student writing exercises. It was pinker than I remembered, perhaps due to HCC’s fluorescent lighting.
Weisman whistled a low note. “Looks real to me. You oughta take that to the police, Vandy.”
“There’s no evidence that a crime’s been committed,” I pointed out.
He looked at me with disdain. There’s not much worse you can get than earning the disdain of Greg Weisman.
“Maybe I’ll go down to the station in between classes,” I said.
A deputy named Pepper led me into an interrogation room. It looked nothing like the movies. In fact, it was better lit than my office. I sat on an unpadded folding chair and rested my hands on the table between us. Pepper was bald, shaved to the scalp, but he was young—late-twenties or so—and thus his baldness was not yet associated with a lack of virility.
“So, how do you know it’s a pinkie toe?”
“That’s everyone’s first question,” I said.
“You’ve shown this toe to a lot of people?”
“Just my wife and a colleague. Well, my son, too. I thought maybe it was his toe, but he has all ten digits. I checked.”
“You don’t need to check,” said Pepper. “Someone’s missing toes, they’ll be clumsier than usual.”
“I never thought being bipedal was much of an evolutionary advantage,” I admitted.
Pepper narrowed his gaze at me but didn’t respond. I kept talking, mostly to fill the silence.
“Can you check for DNA? Even though it’s been treated and whatnot?”
“This isn’t CSI: Heritage,” said Pepper, scoffing. “Has anyone in your family ever been arrested?”
“The Vanvoltenburgs?” I thought for a minute. “My wife got a speeding ticket once, but it got thrown out. Officer didn’t make the court date.”
“We get pretty busy around here,” said Pepper. He ran a hand across his bald scalp, which glistened under the ceiling light. “Even if someone’s been arrested, we don’t draw blood. Just fingerprints.”
I frowned and said, “Then why’d you ask?”
“Establishing a pattern,” he told me, glancing at the door. “Criminal behavior.”
What a smug asshole, I thought. “Should I turn the toe in, at least?”
“Probably just a practical joke,” he said, shrugging. He held my gaze. “You know, a joke? Ha ha?”
I canceled my evening Intro to Poetry class via cell phone. The front desk attendant asked if I was sick.
“A family emergency,” I said.
“Will you be available for your Wednesday classes?”
“Yes, of course,” I snapped. Some teachers had taken advantage of HCC’s lax cancelation policy in the past, and now we all paid for the sins of a few. I guess that’s the way the world works.
Thankfully no one was home yet. I went straight to Michael’s upstairs bedroom. When I opened the door the stale smell of potato chip bags and candy wrappers hit me. I went through his dresser drawers, his nightstand, his closet, and the space between his mattress and bedframe. All the usual suspects. I came up with three Maxim magazines, pretty tame stuff. PG-13. I supposed he hid them only to have something to conceal. Every kid needs a secret. Unfortunately his room looked nothing like a drug den. No paraphernalia, not even a lava lamp or an incense tray or a Legalize It poster. No Hunter S. Thompson lying on the nightstand.
As I stepped out into the hallway, a thought occurred. It was quite troubling, and since I’d already gone so far down this path, I opened the door to the spare room, where my wife had taken up residence for the better part of the past year.
Her room was tidy, with vacuum cleaner scrapes still evident on the carpet. She’d mounted a 20” flat screen on the wall above her dresser. I was impressed with her craftsmanship; the most minuscule maintenance tasks perplexed me (I took my Honda Rebel into the shop for everything, even oil changes).
As I checked out her shoe closet, I thought: how well does anyone know anyone else? I tried to recall the last time I’d seen her bare feet. She never was one for sandals or flip-flops, even during humid Iowa summers. I couldn’t even imagine what her toes might look like. I thought perhaps she had nice feet, as these things go, but suddenly I became aware that I had no idea about even that one little detail. How much else had I taken for granted?
A lot, possibly. Had she been using drugs? Certainly she had opportunity, being so reclusive and whatnot. I tried unsuccessfully to shake the thought from my head. I needed evidence to prove otherwise. After all, if you get a pinkie toe mailed to you, wedged into a birthday card envelope, no return address, there must be a reason why.
I opened her sock and underwear drawer. Out popped things I no longer saw: thongs, booty shorts, negligees, silk panties with lacy waistbands, a collage of turquoise, pink, purple, red, and a black-and-white polka-dotted pair of see-throughs that once upon a time was my favorite.
A year ago, someone noticed my Honda Rebel parked outside the Hawkeye Hotel. They also noticed Lisa Cope’s Chevy Malibu. In our small Midwestern town, that was enough circumstantial evidence for a conviction. When Ellen confronted me, I told her that it just happened. I didn’t know why. She said that was a lousy excuse, and I agreed. As I stood in front of her lingerie drawer reminiscing, a figure appeared in the bedroom doorway.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. My heart did a drum solo in my chest. She was dressed in her waitress garb: a white shirt, untucked, and dark slacks. Her feet were concealed by dress socks.
“What are you doing, Jake?”
The truth was better than any fiction I could concoct. “Looking for signs of drug use.”
She didn’t respond. “I’m going to take a shower,” she said, and marched down the hall. The bathroom door slammed. In a minute the shower handles squeaked and falling water made saltshaker noises.
My heart returned to its normal pace. I stuffed her lingerie back into the top drawer and slid it closed. I glanced at her wall clock. It was late. It was getting dark outside.
I knocked on the bathroom door. “Where’s Michael?”
“Free movie night,” she called out. “It’s on the calendar.”
My hand paused on the door handle. It felt like an important decision. What did T.S. Eliot write about disturbing the universe? Do I dare? In grad school I mocked that line for its hyperbolic grandeur. But I get it: there are moments in our lives when the smallest decision affects the largest change.
“Go away,” she said as I entered the bathroom.
The mirror was already fogging over. Her silhouette was just visible behind the floral-print shower curtain. It really did look like an hourglass. I thought the image sexist, but appropriate. Time, crumbling away like sand.
When I remained, she said, “You don’t have permission to go through my things. Trust is earned, not given.”
“So this is the rest of our lives,” I said, scowling. “I’ve apologized a billion times.”
“Do you really, truly want to be forgiven?” she said.
The words made me wince. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Then ask,” she said.
Steam roiled off the top of the shower. The shampoo bottle blew a raspberry. Her feet pitter-pattered as she turned around behind the curtain. I hesitated, and the moment passed. Anything I said would’ve been awkward, and more than that, untrue. I knew it and she did, too.
“I was waiting for you to leave me,” she said. “After what happened, everywhere I went, people looked at me. Whispered about me. In the grocery store, in Wal-Mart, at Michael’s basketball games. You were a real piece of shit.”
She didn’t sugarcoat it. I leaned against the sink, which was damp with condensation. Ellen kept talking.
“But I thought, if he’s a real man, he’ll stay and work things out. Find a way to make things better. I was lost, Jake. I checked out for a year. A year! Why didn’t you leave me?”
“Because I love you,” I blurted out.
Water gurgled down the drain as Ellen turned off the shower. I heard her wring out her hair. Her fingertips appeared at the edge of the curtain, but she didn’t draw it back.
I could reach out and open the curtain, I thought. I was much stronger than her. She couldn’t stop me even if she wanted to. I could have easily ripped back the curtain and confronted her. But I stood there, motionless. The shower drain finished sucking down the water.
“I love you, too,” she said. “I still do.”
Her voice was muffled behind the curtain. She waited for me to leave.
Later, she came into my darkened bedroom. She hadn’t been in there since the affair. Her hair was still wet. It raked across my naked chest in thick cords. She guided my fingers to the emptiness where her pinkie toe used to be. It tickled when I touched her scar, she said. The nerve endings were still there, she explained, but they were all confused. I understood perfectly.